The Hunt For Bin Laden: What Exactly Did Obama Do?

Consider the following scenario: U.S. intelligence gets a tip about the whereabouts of a senior Al Qaeda figure inside Pakistan. Plans are drawn up to fly into the airspace of an uneasy ally. Elite U.S. forces are readied. The administration is asked for the go-ahead.

In 2005, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reportedly called off such a mission, despite the fact that intelligence officials had “unusually high confidence” about the whereabouts of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s then-second-in-command. According to a 2007 New York Times report revealing the aborted raid, Rumsfeld was concerned about both the size of the operation — which grew to include several hundred military personnel and CIA operatives — and the potential reaction from the Pakistani government.

In 2011, President Obama was faced with a similar decision that obviously ended differently.The decision to send U.S. troops into covert combat is not made lightly, and Rumsfeld may well have made the right call in 2005. But the comparison perhaps serves to underscore just how difficult such a decision is to make, an idea at the center of an ongoing partisan squabble over whether President Obama is correct to take credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden. The debate, though, does raise an important question: To what extent did the president himself lay the groundwork for the al-Qaeda leader’s death?

The answer, national security experts told TPM, is complicated. Obama deserves credit for ultimately making a risky decision that turned out to be successful, they said, and he made several moves that helped the 10-year manhunt reach its conclusion. But, they caution, he also benefited from years of efforts in tracking down bin Laden before taking office, as well as an improved capacity for intelligence gathering and surveillance in the years leading up to the kill.

“There is much more continuity on a counter terrorist matter like this than is generally perceived on the outside,” Paul Pillar, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University and a former intelligence officer, told TPM. “It’s a matter of opportunities arising after a long amount of work.”

Ozzie Nelson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has worked with the Joint Special Operations Command and the National Counterterrorism Center’s (NCTC) Directorate of Strategic Operational Planning, said the Abbottabad mission was the result of “a natural progression, 10 years of painstakingly difficult detective work to uncover the evidence that gave President Obama the decision to launch the raid.”

According to Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Obama also benefited from a years-long build up of knowledge and technical capabilities. “The suite of capabilities that the U.S. government would need to find bin Laden had grown exponentially and improved exponentially” by the end of the Bush administration and beginning of Obama’s, Zenko told TPM. Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities “exploded” in the years leading up to the raid, he said.

Obama recently put out an ad touting his risky decision to order the raid, to which Mitt Romney and Republicans cried foul, accusing the president of politicizing national security. “Any thinking American” would have given that order, Romney argues, so Obama doesn’t deserve credit. Bush administration officials give their boss credit for planting the seeds for the eventual kill.

As has been widely reported, President Obama wrote a memo in June 2009 to CIA Director Leon Panetta asking that “in order to ensure that we have expended every effort, I direct you to provide me within 30 days a detailed operation plan for locating and bringing to justice Osama bin Laden.” The administration has, in accounts leaked anonymously to several reporters, further revealed that Obama led a series of meetings hashing out available intelligence before giving the order to proceed with the mission. Detainees at Guantanamo Bay provided important intel, according to reports. Obama’s decision to refocus on efforts to find bin Laden, after his predecessor’s focus on the Iraq war, has been used to draw a distinction between the two administrations’ approaches to the hunt.

“There’s no way, with that amount of focus that you had in Iraq, that you can focus on the Al Qaeda threat,” Nelson said. “Under Obama, what was important was the shift, the conclusion of Iraq, finalizing the draw down.”

Nelson said the expansion under Obama of anti-Al Qaeda operations into places like Yemen has also been important.

“It was important that Obama did the one-two punch,” he said, killing bin Laden and “expanding the operations into Yemen and other places globally.”

Zenko and Nelson said Obama’s 2009 memo was also important.

“I spend my life talking to people [at the] mid-tier Secretary of State level, and they constantly are looking for support for their positions,” Zenko said. “That sort of memo from the president doesn’t go to everybody else.”

(Though Pillar, the former intelligence officer, doubted that the people hunting bin Laden needed “someone to quote a presidential memo to know that it’s high priority.”)

Regardless of who deserves credit, however, it’s unlikely that Romney has much to gain by talking about it.

“I don’t really see a strong upside,” said John Sides, a political science professor at George Washington University. “Seems like to me this is a success story for the Obama administration so why would opponents of the Obama administration want to spend a lot of time talking about it? I don’t think voters are going to decide that his great successes were ruined when he put them into a campaign commercial.”

“I don’t think voters are reacting to these campaign tactics and subtle messaging,” he added. “This is just something people talk about on Twitter for two weeks and then forget about.”

As for the killing of bin Laden overall, Sides posited that it “helps inoculate Obama against attacks on his foreign policy, but I don’t think foreign policy is going to be a very important issue on voters’ minds. I think first and foremost it’s going to be the economy.”