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Myths And Facts About The Osama Bin Laden Raid


Again, last night, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden came up in the context of the presidential campaign. Both candidates agreed this time, the raid was the right decision. Still, both sides have cited the bin Laden raid to score political points over the past few months on the decision to launch the mission itself: what happened on the ground in Abbottabad and who did and did not talk to the news media afterwards. Mark Bowden wrote a recent piece that outlined six myths on the bin Laden raid for Foreign Policy magazine. His new book is titled "The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden." And he joins us now by smartphone from his office in Wilmington, Delaware. Nice to have you with us today. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

MARK BOWDEN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Mitt Romney and other Republicans have been critical of some decisions. Let's go back. This is a cut of tape from a speech that Mitt Romney made earlier this summer, back to the Veterans of Foreign Affairs in July, and he's talking about, well, leaks about the raid.


CONAN: To your knowledge, is that right?

BOWDEN: Well, I think something like that happened. There was definitely an outpouring of information in the first, like, 24 hours - and to the administration's defense, I mean, there was a clamoring for information. So a few of the, I think, members of the White House staff got a little overenthusiastic. I don't think any huge secrets were revealed, but some of the information was conflicting with the briefings that were coming back. So they were concerned that they were sending out misinformation. And at some point, I think probably secretary of - Gates - Secretary Gates probably just say, you know what, just stop talking.

CONAN: The misinformation you speak of is part of the - or at least one of the myths that you debunked in your piece in Foreign Policy magazine that there was in fact a big firelight at the site of bin Laden's compound there in Abbottabad.

BOWDEN: That's right. You know, and I think, Neal, that probably just resulted from the tension of the moment. You know, people in the White House watching the raid from a live feed overhead without any specific knowledge at that point about exactly what had happened inside the house. And so they made, I think, the incorrect assumption that there was a firefight. There was an exchange of fire initially, a burst of inaccurate fire. The SEALs fired back very accurately, killing the person who shot at them. And after that, there was no firefight. The only shots fired were, really, fired by the SEALs.

CONAN: So that was straight from John Brenan, who's a very senior official.

BOWDEN: That's right. You know, and I think, you know, he probably regrets some of the things that he said in the moment right after that, but none of it, I don't think, was terribly serious, but it did convey the impression that it was a lot more of a firelight than in fact it was.

CONAN: There's another political point that has tried to be scored over time, and that is the decision to make the raid go ahead, and this is the story as Vice President Joe Biden told it to the Democratic National Convention.


CONAN: And you heard Vice President Biden referring to Michelle Obama, who was sitting there in the hall in Charlotte, talking about her husband. And, Mark Bowden, well, rhetorical flourishes aside, is that accurate?


BOWDEN: Yeah, you know, sort of. It is, I think, ironic that that would, you know, be the vice president touting that when he was the only person in the room who advised the president not to launch a mission against Abbottabad. There was an impression conveyed that - by a number of people - that this is a really divided staff and that the president was getting, you know, split advice. And in fact, the truth is that everybody except for Biden was in favor of launching some - taking some kind of action and really only Secretary Gates and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Cartwright were in favor of launching a little missile from a drone.

And then later - actually the day - two days before the raid, Secretary Gates came back and changed his vote to be in favor of the raid. So it was a fairly overwhelming consensus around the president that sending the SEALs was the best option.

CONAN: Yet we read that it was a 50-50 chance that Obama - that Osama bin Laden was there. In fact, you used a quote on the jacket of your book, "The Finish," in which somebody is quoted as saying, you know, the evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a lot stronger than this.

BOWDEN: Yes, that was Deputy CIA Director Michael Morell, and he ought to know because he was largely responsible during the period when the Bush administration was making the case that there were these weapons in Iraq. You know, the percentage while they (technical difficulties) as to how likely it was bin Laden was there, everything from 95 percent, which is what the CIA analysts working on the case felt, to as low as 20 percent from some of the experts at the counterterrorism center who had red teamed the CIA's findings. So the president made up his mind, he told me, fairly early on that all of these assigned levels of certainty were just disguising uncertainty and that in his mind, he knew the case was basically 50-50, and if he was going to go, he was going go on that basis.

CONAN: And so that was the basis that he made his decision. But as you say, by the time they got around to making it, just about everybody was on board and on board with the idea it should be a mission of specially trained and rehearsed commandos rather than a drone strike.

BOWDEN: That's right, even though that was far and away the riskiest choice for the president because all of the ways that a mission like that - sending a small infantry force into another country, running the risk of - first of all, you know, getting killed or hurt in a firefight with people at the compound, then possibly alerting the Pakistani military and getting into a fight with our ally, Pakistan. The downside of sending in the SEALs was enormous, compared to the relatively little risk to Americans and to our diplomatic posture than it would have been to just fire a small missile. But if you fire a small missile, you might miss. If it was bin Laden, he'd disappear. If it - if you got him, you wouldn't know for sure. So there were a lot of good reasons to send in the SEALs, but it was also far and away the riskiest choice.

CONAN: Since your book went to print, we've seen the publication of an account of that mission by one of the SEAL team members. And in fact there's a little card that comes along with the first print editions of your book saying, we're going to update this later editions.

BOWDEN: Yeah, that's right. You know, I think I'm going to go back, Neal, to writing stories about things that happened 20 years ago.


BOWDEN: But, you know, the problem when you're writing a story that's still fairly new is that, you know, the information keeps coming out here and there. And that took me by surprise. I had tried to talk that particular SEAL into telling me his story, and he was too smart for me. He took a contract and wrote his own book. I suspect there will be more accounts of this, more other people involved will tell their stories. You know, my hope is that the story I've written is both accurate and a compelling version of events and one that, you know, people will find interesting to read, you know, 10 years from now or 20 years from now.

CONAN: There's also a forthcoming movie about the mission. And again, there was the allegation that the White House was leaking enthusiastically to put out its version of the raid and look good before the American public and get that movie out before Election Day.

BOWDEN: Well, if that was their goal, they failed because as I understand it, that film is not coming out until later this year. I - you know, my own experience, Neal - and, you know, believe me, I've been doing this a long time, you know, knocking on doors, trying to get people to talk to me - was that the White House was polite and even occasionally helpful, but that nobody was tripping over themselves to leak information to me, unfortunately. I would love it if that were the case. But they, you know, they did let me talk to the president. I did get a chance to talk to most of the principals over the course of about a year of banging on doors. They didn't help me at all with Pentagon and the CIA. So, you know, I don't know who these other folks are talking to, but this old reporter found it a pretty difficult story to get a hold off.

CONAN: One more myth you wrote about that President Obama called the raid off several times.

BOWDEN: Yeah, I don't know where that came from. It seems to have been (technical difficulties) planned out the mission and delivered the operation as he saw it unfolding to the president in mid-March and told him that the earliest - told the president that the earliest they would be in position to launch would be the end of April, the beginning of May. And that's exactly when they went. So they went the first available opportunity.

CONAN: Mark Bowden, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

BOWDEN: Sure, Neal. My pleasure.

CONAN: Mark Bowden is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair magazine and a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine. His piece, "Think Again: The Bin Laden Raid," ran on foreignpolicy.com. His new book is called "The Finish." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.