Obama, Osama and a Love Struck Media

June 2, 2011 20:16

Obama’s big problem is still credibility. He lacks it among a large part of the population. While most agree that killing bin Laden was an important accomplishment, and could have been a turning point, both in the war and in his credibility as commander-in-chief, his handling of it has only increased the level of doubt and distrust of his administration.

By Roger Aronoff

The great achievement of the Barack Obama presidency occurred on May 1st, 2011, when a team of Navy SEALs took out the most wanted man in America, Osama bin Laden. It happened on Obama’s watch, and the mission succeeded, but how it was handled, and mishandled, by Obama and his team in the aftermath raises many disturbing questions. There is no question that America’s elite military forces performed brilliantly in pulling off this mission, and we salute them. Count me among those who are glad that he was killed, and not captured for trial and detention.

While bin Laden is well known for his role in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., some may not remember that, as former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy pointed out, he “had been under indictment by the Justice Department for 13 years when he finally met his demise yesterday. A federal grand jury in Manhattan had charged him with terrorism conspiracy in June 1998, after he had, yet again, declared war on the United States. He’d already been doing that for years. It was only a few weeks later, on Aug. 7, 1998, that his al-Qaeda cells in eastern Africa bombed the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam—the first 224 of what became the thousands of innocents the master terrorist would murder in the ensuing decade-plus.”

But from the outset, when the public was notified around 10 p.m. ET on Sunday, May 1, that the President would soon be coming out with a big announcement, the public relations aspect of the operation was handled so badly as to confirm the views held by a large segment of the population: President Obama is either incompetent and surrounded by incompetents, or he is manipulative, deceitful and usually calculating the potential political windfall he can garner from a situation. As tens of thousands of Americans poured out into the streets within the first hours and day following the dramatic Sunday night announcement of the death of bin Laden, the administration was spinning stories and timelines that were inconsistent, false, and contradictory. They brushed this off as “fog of war” mistakes that always happen in the aftermath of intense military operations, that in no way detract from the act itself.

But others saw it as a pattern of self-serving deceit that has been the hallmark of the Obama administration, such as how he has described his relationships with people like unrepentant terrorist and co-founder of the Weather Underground, William Ayers, and the anti-Semitic and anti-American preacher, Reverend Jeremiah Wright; or his gross exaggerations or lies on legislation and budgetary matters, such as the notion that ObamaCare will reduce the national deficit and lower health care costs.

The early reports on the night of Sunday, May 1st were that Osama bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan about a week earlier and it had taken that much time to confirm the DNA as bin Laden’s. Obama ended that story quickly in his address to the nation that night, when he said that the operation had just taken place that afternoon, which was the early morning hours of Monday in Pakistan, where the mission took place. Subsequent reporting said that the DNA was tested and confirmed to be that of Osama bin Laden, and he was buried at sea shortly thereafter.

Victor Davis Hanson, the noted historian and journalist wrote a piece for National Review Online called “The First-Person Presidency,” in which he carefully parsed President Obama’s speech from that night announcing the killing of bin Laden. He pulled out the parts in which Obama kept referring to himself: “Tonight, I can report..And so shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta…I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden…I met repeatedly with my national security team…I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action…Today, at my direction…I’ve made clear…Over the years, I’ve repeatedly made clear…Tonight, I called President Zardari . . . And my team has also spoken…These efforts weigh on me every time I, as Commander-in-Chief…Finally, let me say to the families…I know that it has, at times, frayed.”

You see, it was all about Obama. He’s the one running for re-election. And that was only the beginning of the bungled PR week for the White House. Considering how the media and the administration portrayed the events, it did at least create a medium-sized bump (and in some cases a significant bump) in Obama’s approval rating. In the most cited poll, the AP-GfK poll, Obama was shown to have a job-approval rating of 60% one week after the death of bin Laden. But what the stories about that didn’t point out, with a few exceptions like National Review and WorldNetDaily, was that the number of respondents to that poll who identified themselves as Democrats or leaning Democrat outnumbered the Republicans by 17%. This is fairly common in many agenda-driven polls designed to fool the public, rather than measure popular sentiment. But this imbalance was much greater than normal.

The killing of bin Laden was referred to ad nauseum as Obama’s “defining moment.” To many it was. The narrative that the White House was putting out, and its faithful media were parroting, was that this proved that he was no weak and indecisive leader, and that his courage, toughness and deliberate ways had resulted in the most prized capture-or-kill in the decade long War on Terror since 9/11. Obama was even characterized as a “cowboy,” the term that was used to define George W. Bush’s presidency, but in Bush’s case it was meant as a pejorative. In Obama’s case it was meant to convey that cool, strong archetypal American.

Yet strangely, the story put out by the Obama administration began falling apart. The contradictions and false statements were thoroughly documented in a 4,000-plus word article by James Rosen of Fox News that quoted nearly every announcement and briefing that first week by numerous government officials.

The narrative began the night of May 1st with reports that the killing of bin Laden happened a week earlier and the delay was about testing the DNA. Next were reports from intelligence briefers that “they were engaged in a firefight” that lasted “most of the 40 minutes” that the entire operation lasted. The firefight turned out to be no more than five minutes, and was originally said to have included bin Laden himself, but then it was stated that he wasn’t carrying a weapon. In fact no one in the house was involved in a firefight after the initial encounter that killed the first person the SEALs encountered.

According to Obama’s Assistant for Homeland Security and Counter-Terrorism John Brennan, who spoke publicly the next day, the Obama national security team was observing and had “real-time visibility into the progress of the operation,” Brennan said. “I’m not going to go into details about what type of visuals we had or what type of feeds that were there, but it was—it gave us the ability to actually track it on an ongoing basis.”

And what had they seen? According to Brennan, bin Laden “was engaged in a firefight with those that entered the area of the house,” and “was killed in that firefight.”

CIA Director Leon Panetta later announced a 20 – 25 minute blackout in the video, thus undermining Brennan’s claim of “real time visibility.” Obama later referred to what he called “the capture and killing” of bin Laden. Bin Laden’s wife was said to have been used as a human shield, but then no. The list goes on and on.

When White House spokesman, and former Time magazine reporter, Jay Carney was asked if these were “fog of war” discrepancies he replied: “[W]hat is true is that we provided a great deal of information with great haste in order to inform you and, through you, the American public about the operation and how it transpired…And obviously some of the information was—came in piece by piece and is being reviewed and updated and elaborated on.”

Nevertheless, the contradictory statements raised suspicions about the White House’s version of events since no independent version would likely emerge.

CBS’s “60 Minutes” to the Rescue

On the following Wednesday, Steve Kroft of CBS’s “60 Minutes” interviewed President Obama for the following Sunday’s show. There wasn’t one tough question asked of Obama. Calling them softballs is too kind. There was nothing about the contradictory and inconsistent versions of what happened. The whole interview was intended to build on the notion that the President had become a tough, yet thoughtful, commander in chief. Kroft obviously didn’t want to put President Obama on the spot. Perhaps CBS understood that if they wanted continued access to Obama and his top people, they had to toe the line, or be shut out as happened to the San Francisco Chronicle. The editor of the Chronicle said that it was threatened with loss of access for posting a video of protesters singing a song to Obama at a fundraiser in April.

But more likely it’s that CBS News supports Obama’s agenda and wants to help him get re-elected. It is reminiscent of the situation in 2004, just two months before the presidential election, when CBS’s “60 Minutes” attempted a political hit-job on President Bush to help John Kerry get elected. They produced a segment on President Bush’s National Guard service based on lies and forged documents, for which four producers lost their jobs.

Sharing the Credit

Back to bin Laden. The questions began almost immediately. Was this a vindication of President Bush’s methods of fighting the War on Terror? What led to this operation? How was bin Laden found?

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer weighed in: “The bin Laden operation is the perfect vindication of the war on terror. It was made possible precisely by the vast, warlike infrastructure that the Bush administration created post-9/11, a fierce regime of capture and interrogation, of dropped bombs and commando strikes. That regime, of course, followed the more conventional war that brought down the Taliban, scattered and decimated al-Qaeda and made bin Laden a fugitive.

“Without all of this,” Krauthammer continued, “the bin Laden operation could never have happened. Whence came the intelligence that led to Abbottabad? Many places, including from secret prisons in Romania and Poland; from terrorists seized and kidnapped, then subjected to interrogations, sometimes ‘harsh’ or ‘enhanced’; from Gitmo detainees; from a huge bureaucratic apparatus of surveillance and eavesdropping. In other words, from a Global War on Terror infrastructure that critics, including Barack Obama himself, deplored as a tragic detour from American rectitude.”

The Left would have none of that. They still considered Bush to be a war criminal, and regardless how many of Bush’s tactics and tools Obama has adopted as his own, this was Obama’s moment. They didn’t want to give any credence to the notion that waterboarding, which some consider to be torture, could have produced the tip that led to the courier, who led them to bin Laden.

Just as the Obama administration was denying that to be the case, Director Panetta went on NBC and said that “We had multiple series of sources that provided information with regards to this situation… clearly some of it came from detainees [and] they used these enhanced interrogation techniques against some of those detainees.” When asked by anchor Brian Williams if waterboarding was part of the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” Panetta replied, “that’s correct.”

The New York Times argued in an editorial that “torture did not play a role in capturing bin Laden.” They of course meant waterboarding.

An important point to remember on the issue of whether or not waterboarding is illegal is the fact that twice Congress attempted to make it illegal during Bush’s presidency. But when Obama came into office, and the Democrats had large majorities in the House and Senate, they didn’t even bring it up. The reason, apparently, was that if they did pass such a law, it would have made the point that before then, it wasn’t illegal.

Former Bush Officials Weigh In

Former Bush Attorney General Michael Mukasey offered his perspective in a Wall Street Journal article: “The harsh techniques themselves were used selectively against only a small number of hard-core prisoners who successfully resisted other forms of interrogation, and then only with the explicit authorization of the director of the CIA. Of the thousands of unlawful combatants captured by the U.S., fewer than 100 were detained and questioned in the CIA program. Of those, fewer than one-third were subjected to any of these techniques.”

Mukasey cited former CIA Director Michael Hayden as saying that as late as 2006, fully half of what the government knew about al Qaeda’s activities and structure was a result of those interrogations, and that the interrogation techniques were approved and deemed lawful after thorough analysis by the Justice Department.

Mukasey said that President Obama ran on the promise to do away with these techniques before he even knew what they were. “Days after taking office he directed that the CIA interrogation program be done away with entirely, and that interrogation be limited to the techniques set forth in the Army Field Manual, a document designed for use by even the least experienced troops. It’s available on the Internet and used by terrorists as a training manual for resisting interrogation.”

Mukasey was critical of the fact that “In April 2009, the administration made public the previously classified Justice Department memoranda analyzing the harsh techniques, thereby disclosing them to our enemies and assuring that they could never be used effectively again.” He was also troubled by the announcement of their intentions to replace the CIA interrogation program with one administered by the FBI. And he pointed to the December 2009 incident in which the “underwear bomber,” Omar Faruq Abdulmutallab, was caught on a plane over Detroit trying to detonate a bomb, and was then read his Miranda rights. He said it was later disclosed that the new program, with the FBI in charge, wasn’t yet being implemented.

“Yet the Justice Department, revealing its priorities,” wrote Mukasey, “had gotten around to reopening investigations into the conduct of a half-dozen CIA employees alleged to have used undue force against suspected terrorists. I say ‘reopening’ advisedly because those investigations had all been formally closed by the end of 2007, with detailed memoranda prepared by career Justice Department prosecutors explaining why no charges were warranted.” He said that Attorney General Eric Holder conceded that when he had ordered the investigations reopened in September 2009, he hadn’t read those memoranda. Mukasey concluded that “The investigations have now dragged on for years with prosecutors chasing allegations down rabbit holes, with the CIA along with the rest of the intelligence community left demoralized.”

This unnecessary attack on the CIA was only compounded by how recklessly the Obama administration revealed operational details of the mission to get bin Laden—details that could result in risks to future operations—and how eager they were to take credit for it for political gain.

Now, questions arise whether this is the time to declare victory in Afghanistan and speed up the withdrawal, and reduce our footprint throughout the world.

Obama’s big problem is still credibility. He lacks it among a large part of the population. While most agree that killing bin Laden was an important accomplishment, and could have been a turning point, both in the war and in his credibility as commander-in-chief, his handling of it has only increased the level of doubt and distrust of his administration.

Roger Aronoff is the Editor of Accuracy in Media. He can be contacted at roger.aronoff@aim.org.

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