Articles on this Page
- 08/23/12--07:42: _The Bin Laden raid ...
- 08/23/12--09:53: _Seal's book recount...
- 08/27/12--12:24: _Pentagon reviewing ...
- 08/29/12--04:21: _Film about Bin Lade...
- 08/29/12--07:48: _Navy Seal account o...
- 08/29/12--11:58: _Correspondence and ...
- 08/30/12--19:34: _Pentagon threatens ...
- 08/31/12--13:19: _Pentagon considers ...
- 09/04/12--14:46: _Pentagon says Navy ...
- 09/07/12--08:09: _Democrats parade Os...
- 09/09/12--12:00: _Navy Seal author cr...
- 09/14/12--07:59: _The Navy Seal's Bin...
- 09/20/12--07:46: _Obama officials' sp...
- 09/27/12--06:10: _Osama bin Laden was...
- 10/04/12--13:08: _What the drones pro...
- 10/05/12--07:30: _Seal Team Six: Harv...
- 10/12/12--15:00: _The death of Osama ...
- 10/16/12--13:46: _Osama bin Laden dri...
- 10/24/12--10:33: _Bin Laden raid film...
- 11/02/12--01:00: _The Finish by Mark ...
- 08/23/12--09:53: Seal's book recounting Osama bin Laden raid surprises US military
- 08/29/12--07:48: Navy Seal account of Bin Laden raid contradicts White House claims
- 08/30/12--19:34: Pentagon threatens Seal over Osama bin Laden killing book
- 08/31/12--13:19: Pentagon considers legal action against Bin Laden raid author
- 09/04/12--14:46: Pentagon says Navy Seal's Bin Laden book reveals military secrets
- 09/27/12--06:10: Osama bin Laden was blind in one eye, says al-Qaida leader
- 10/12/12--15:00: The death of Osama bin Laden: how the US finally got its man
- 10/16/12--13:46: Osama bin Laden driver's conviction quashed by US appeals court
- 11/02/12--01:00: The Finish by Mark Bowden: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden – review
The White House punishes whistleblowers even as it permits flattering leaks. So which will it be for a Navy Seal's new book?
Earlier this year, the Obama administration responded to a lawsuit seeking videos and photographs of the Osama bin Laden raid by claiming (as usual) that it was all too secret to disclose. A federal court (as usual) acquiesced to those assertions and dismissed the suit, finding that "the release of the images and/or videos 'reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security.'" The administration made the same secrecy and national security claims to deny the requests of multiple news agencies for related materials about the Bin Laden raid.
Those materials would have resolved still lingering and serious questions about that raid – questions created by the administration's numerous inconsistencies and false claims, including whether it was a "kill-not-capture" mission from the start and whether Bin Laden resisted capture in any way. Despite the decree of the always-imperious Democratic Senator John Kerry that everyone wanting answers should just "shut up and move on", actual journalists continue to ask the right questions. Shortly after the raid, Mother Jones's Adam Weinstein, an Iraq war veteran, wrote:
"Now that Osama bin Laden rests in the briny deep, reporters and citizens alike are asking good questions about the operation that dumped him there. Was it a kill mission? What happened to everyone else in the compound? And what was up with that sea burial, anyway?
"Each of these questions fundamentally involves how Americans ought to act in combat, and as such, they deserve good answers – which haven't been fully articulated by the White House or the military."
Last August, in the same magazine, Mark Follman wrote a comprehensive article exploring many of these questions that began with this sentence:
"You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to be still scratching your head about the end of Osama bin Laden."
Noting that "there have been multiple divergent accounts of the Navy Seals' mission in Abbottabad, Pakistan, with the story seeming to be colored by politics, sensationalism, and outright fantasy," he detailed the multiple "glaring discrepancies" in the various leaked stories which, he correctly observes, have "big implications".
An event of this magnitude deserves clear transparency and disclosure, but the Obama administration's typically reflexive invocation of secrecy claims has prevented it. What makes that so much worse, though, is that at exactly the same time that it was telling a court that the mission is too secret to permit such disclosure, the White House launched a coordinated campaign of selective media leaking that had only one purpose: to glorify the president for political gain.
Thus the same administration that resisted judicial disclosure pursuant to transparency laws leaked bits and pieces about the mission (always favorable to the president) to their favorite media message-carriers; secretly met with and shoveled information to big Hollywood filmmakers planning a pre-election release of a film about the Bin Laden raid (now pushed back until December in the wake of the ensuing controversy, though the already-released film trailer – see below – will soon be inundating the nation); and then sat down with one of America's most obsequious, military-revering news anchors for an hour-long prime-time special that spoke of the raid with predictable awe but asked none of the hard questions about these lingering issues.
This is all just part-and-parcel of the administration's modus operandi when it comes to classified information. The same administration that has launched an unprecedented persecution campaign against whistleblowers (who disclose information about high-level deceit and wrongdoing) routinely leaks classified information for political gain. Only Bad Leaks (ones that expose government wrongdoing) are punished, while Good Leaks (making Obama look good) are overlooked if not officially sanctioned. Similarly, as the ACLU documented in a Guardian op-ed last June, the same administration that continuously blocks courts from reviewing the legality of their conduct by invoking secrecy claims compulsively leaks classified information to the media about those very same programs in order to depict the president as our "tough" and resolute protector.
Now comes news that one of the Navy Seals who participated in the Bin Laden raid will, using a pseudonym, publish a book setting forth his first-person account about what happened. In a stroke of excellent luck for Obama's re-election effort, the book – entitled No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama bin Laden – will be released on 11 September: providing the double political whammy of exploiting the emotions of that date and putting Obama's most celebrated national security coup front and center less than two months before the election. As the New York Times observes:
"[T]he book promises to be one of the biggest titles of the year, with the potential to rattle the presidential campaign in the final weeks before the November 6 election … the publisher is expecting a major bestseller, with a planned print run of 300,000 copies in hardcover."
The description provided by Penguin, the book's publisher, promises a "blow-by-blow narrative of the assault, beginning with the helicopter crash that could have ended [the author's] life straight through to the radio call confirming Bin Laden's death". Although Pentagon and White House officials deny any advance knowledge of the book, the Navy Seal author is hardly attempting to conceal his identity. According to the NYT account, he provides ample biographical information that should make the process of identifying him extremely easy, including discussions of "his childhood in Alaska", the fact that he "has completed 13 combat deployments since" the 9/11 attack, and that he "retired within the past year". The book also includes accounts of "his other previously unreported Seal missions".
Given that many of the details of the Bin Laden raid remain classified, this would appear to be a clear and obvious case of the unauthorized disclosure of classified information. The same is presumably true of any details he provides about "his other previously unreported Seal missions". Alternatively, if the raid has now been declassified, then what excuse remains for continuing to conceal the video and photographic evidence in the possession of the CIA that would reflect what actually happened?
As the administration continues to persecute numerous actual whistleblowers under espionage statutes (and to legally harass the journalists who published their leaks), will there be any attempt to criminally investigate the Navy Seal who wrote this very-helpful-to-Obama book? (As a side note, remember when Democrats – who now coordinate with Hollywood studios to produce pre-election hagiography of the commander-in-chief's kill orders – used to complain bitterly about how Bush/Rove Republicans would (spoken with purse-lipped disgust) exploit national security for political gain?)
Allowing the government to operate behind an impenetrable wall of secrecy is destructive in its own right. But all of that becomes substantially worse when the administration is permitted to play these sorts of games with its secrecy powers: overlooking or rewarding politically beneficial leaks while severely punishing leaks that provide an important public value by exposing high-level corruption. Manipulating presidential secrecy powers in this way is an odious instrument for propaganda: it ensures that all embarrassing or incriminating information remains suppressed, and the only thing the public learns – and the eager, grateful press amplifies – are the informational crumbs doled out by the White House in order to glorify the leader. That's the very definition of state propaganda.
Due for release on September 11, account written by retired special operations member has not been vetted by Pentagon
The Pentagon knew nothing about the book by one of its own until it saw the press release.
But the Obama administration quickly took notice of the promise, or threat, by a former US special operations soldier who was in the room when Osama Bin Laden was killed to "set the record straight" in a first-hand and unvetted account of the mission to get the al-Qaida leader to be published just weeks before the presidential election.
The publisher, a subsidiary of Penguin, has said little about the book, No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden, other than that the author is a former member of Navy Seal Team Six who "was one of the first men through the door on the third floor of the terrorist leader's hideout and was present at his death".
It promises a "blow-by-blow narrative of the assault" beginning with the helicopter crash that could have ended the author's life straight "through to the radio call confirming Bin Laden's death". Penguin said the account is "an essential piece of modern history".
But the book will land in the midst of an election in which Republicans, concerned that Bin Laden's death has neutralised attempts to paint Barack Obama as weak on national security, are accusing the president of overstating his role in the raid for political advantage.
No Easy Day is to be published under a pen name, Mark Owen. But Fox News said it has established the true identity of the author, naming him and saying he is a 36-year-old from Alaska who also took part in a Seal raid in 2009 that rescued the captain of an American merchant ship seized by Somali pirates. He retired from the military last year.
The book has been a closely held secret in the publishing world, and the announcement that it will be released on September 11, the 11th anniversary of the al-Qaida attacks on the US, caught the Pentagon and intelligence services off guard.
Tommy Vietor, a national security council spokesman said: "We learned about this book today from press reports. We haven't reviewed it and don't know what it says."
The US navy spokesman, rear admiral John Kirby, said that the former Seal had not sought authorisation to write the account. "The author did not seek Navy support/approval for this book. We have no record of any request from an author associated with that book company," he said.
The navy warned that the Seal could be open to prosecution if he reveals classified information. While other former Navy Seals have written books about the Bin Laden raid none was involved first hand. The publisher said that the book has been checked by lawyers and found to be "without risk to national security".
The author has said little about the book's contents other than that it is about the sacrifices made by members of special operations forces and that he hopes it will inspire young men to join the Navy Seals.
Whatever its tone, the account is likely to be caught up in attempts by a group of right wing former military and intelligence officers with ties to the Tea Party movement and Republican party to accuse Obama of claiming too much credit for hunting down Bin Laden. The group, the Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund, last week released a 22-minute video accusing the president of leaking intelligence and military secrets – including the role of a Pakistani doctor in finding the al-Qaida leader, details of virus attacks on Iran's nuclear programme and Obama's part in deciding a "kill list" of targets of drone strikes in Pakistan – for political gain.
Several former Central Intelligence Agency and US military officers appear in the video saying that Obama is wrongly claiming credit for Bin Laden's death although there is no evidence they have any special knowledge of the situation.
The chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey, accused the officers of exploiting their uniforms for political ends.
"If someone uses the uniform, whatever uniform, for partisan politics, I am disappointed because I think it does erode that bond of trust we have with the American people," he told Fox News.
The Obama campaign has dismissed the attacks as reminiscent of the Swift boat campaign to smear the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry. A group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, led a well funded and effective attack on Kerry's record of military service on board Swift boats in Vietnam.
Retired Seal who wrote book may face criminal charges after ignoring US military rule that requires pre-publication review
The Pentagon is reviewing a copy of a forthcoming firsthand account of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, checking for leaks of classified information.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said on Monday that defense department officials "received the manuscript and we are looking at it".
The book, No Easy Day, is scheduled for publication on 11 September, the anniversary of the 2001 attacks that bin Laden masterminded.
The author, a former US navy Seal who participated in the raid, did not submit the book until now for the pre-publication review that is required by the military secrecy agreements officials say he signed.
A special operations advocacy group, Special Operations-Opsec, is criticizing President Barack Obama over alleged leaks and the making of the raid the national security centerpiece of his re-election campaign. It has asked the US attorney general to block the book's release until the government can make sure it reveals no classified information.
In a letter released to the Associated Press, the group asked the justice department "to immediately seek … an injunction in federal court to prevent this book from being published and distributed" until it can be reviewed. Justice department spokesman Dean Boyd said the department is reviewing the letter.
Pentagon regulations stipulate that retired personnel, former employees and non-active duty members of the reserves "shall use the DOD security review process to ensure that information they submit for public release does not compromise national security".
The CIA and special operations command could also weigh in on the review, since the CIA ran last year's operation against bin Laden.
Pentagon officials say that if they determine the manuscript reveals classified information about the raid, the Pentagon would "defer to the department of justice".
If the book has classified information, the former Seal could face criminal charges.
The publisher says the author intends to give the "majority" of the proceeds to charity, but the justice department could still sue to collect any future book proceeds as well.
The publisher, Dutton, announced the book's pending release last week, saying that No Easy Day will "set the record straight" on the bin Laden operation.
The book has shot up to the top of the Amazon.com chart, reaching No 1 as of late Friday morning and remaining there Monday, displacing the million-selling erotic trilogy Fifty Shades of Gray.
White House wanted to back 'gutsy' portrayal of US president in new Kathryn Bigelow film Zero Dark Thirty, claims Judicial Watch
Newly released documents prove that Barack Obama's administration gave enthusiastic help to the Oscar-winning team behind a new film about the killing of Osama bin Laden, according to a rightwing US government watchdog.
Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal's new film Zero Dark Thirty centres on the US Navy Seal unit that raided Bin Laden's compound in northern Pakistan in May 2011 on the orders of the US president. The project drew flak from Republicans earlier this year after it emerged that Obama's administration shared information with the production team.
The latest missives were obtained by the Judicial Watch group under the US freedom of information act. "These new documents provide more backing to the serious charge that the Obama administration played fast and loose with national security information to help Hollywood filmmakers," said Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton. "No wonder we've had to fight one year of stonewalling from the administration. These new documents show there is no doubt that Obama['s] White House was intensely interested in this film that was set to portray President Obama as 'gutsy'."
To the casual observer, emails between CIA staff and Bigelow's team have a somewhat mundane quality to them, though they do suggest a certain fanboyesque enthusiasm for the Hollywood project. Screenwriter Boal's proposed floor plan for the Bin Laden compound is verified by the agency, which cheerfully confirms the height of the walls on the third floor.
"OK, I checked with our folks, and that floor plan matches with what we have. It looks legit to us," CIA spokesperson Marie Harf says in an email. In a separate exchange with a colleague, she notes that there are several films in the works about the Bin Laden killing and muses: "I know we don't pick favourites, but it makes sense to get behind a winning horse … Mark and Kathryn's movie is going to be the first and the biggest. It's got the most money behind it, and two Oscar winners on board."
Another CIA official hints in the correspondence that tickets for the premiere of Zero Dark Thirty would be warmly received. "I can't tell you how excited we all are about the project … PS – I want you to know how good I've been not mentioning the premiere tickets," writes then-director of public affairs George Little, signing off with a smiley face.
Contrary to Judicial Watch's assertions, an email from Benjamin Rhodes, US deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, appears to suggest the White House was learning about the CIA's and Pentagon's co-operation with the film-makers after the fact, and wanted to supervise.
"We are trying to have visibility into the [Bin Laden] projects and this is likely the most high profile one," wrote Rhodes to Doug Wilson, assistant secretary of defence for public affairs at the time, and other CIA and White House officials. "Would like to have whatever group is going around in here at the WH to get a sense of what they're doing / what co-operation they're seeking."
"Nothing in this press release is a surprise," said US government national security spokesman Tommy Vietor. "Having a conversation with a journalist, author or film-maker about what he or she is working on is possibly the most basic, mundane function of a press office, and millions of Americans, including many in government, are understandably proud of our nation's effort to kill Bin Laden."
Zero Dark Thirty is due out on 19 December, just after this year's US presidential election. The timing is designed to allay fears among Republican politicians that the movie might influence voters by portraying Obama in a flattering light.
Bigelow and Boal both won Oscars for their work on the Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker. In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Boal, a former freelance war journalist, denied there was any political motivation behind the film's release. "There's no political agenda in the film, he said. "Full stop. Period. A lot of people are going to be surprised when they see the film. For example, the president is not depicted in the movie. He's just not in the movie."
No Easy Day, to be published next week, raises questions over whether Osama bin Laden presented a clear threat to US forces
A first-hand account of the US Navy Seal raid that killed Osama bin Laden contradicts previous accounts by administration officials, raising questions over whether he presented a clear threat when he was first fired upon.
Bin Laden apparently was hit in the head when he looked out of his bedroom door into the top-floor hallway of his compound as Seals rushed up a narrow stairwell in his direction, according to a former Navy Seal writing under the pseudonym Mark Owen in No Easy Day. The book is to be published next week by Penguin's Dutton imprint.
The Seal says he was directly behind a "point man" going up the stairs. "Less than five steps" from the top of the stairs, he heard "suppressed" gunfire: "Bop. Bop." The point man had seen a "man peeking out of the door" on the right side of the hallway.
Owen writes that Bin Laden ducked back into his bedroom and the Seals followed, only to find the terrorist crumpled on the floor in a pool of blood with a hole visible on the right side of his head and two women wailing over his body.
He says the point man pulled the two women out of the way and shoved them into a corner, and he and the other Seals trained their guns' laser sites on Bin Laden's still-twitching body, shooting him several times until he lay motionless. The Seals later found two weapons stored by the doorway, untouched, the author said.
In the account related by administration officials after the raid in Pakistan, the Seals shot Bin Laden only after he ducked back into the bedroom because they assumed he might be reaching for a weapon.
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor would not comment on the apparent contradiction late Tuesday. But he said in an email: "As President Obama said on the night that justice was brought to Osama bin Laden, 'We give thanks for the men who carried out this operation, for they exemplify the professionalism, patriotism and unparalleled courage of those who serve our country.'"
No Easy Day was due out on 11 September, but Dutton announced the book would be available a week early on 4 September because of a surge of orders due to advance publicity that drove the book to the top of the Amazon and Barnes and Noble best-seller lists.
The Associated Press purchased a copy of the book Tuesday.
The account is sure to again raise questions as to whether the raid was intended to capture or simply to kill Bin Laden. Owen writes that during a pre-raid briefing, a lawyer from "either" the White House or department of defense told them that they were not on an assassination mission.
According to Owen, the lawyer said that if bin Laden was "naked with his hands up," they should not "engage" him. If bin Laden did not pose a threat, they should "detain him."
In another possibly uncomfortable revelation for US officials who say Bin Laden's body was treated with dignity before being given a full Muslim burial at sea, the author reveals that in the cramped helicopter flight out of the compound, one of the Seals called Walt – one of the pseudonyms the author used for his fellow Seals – was sitting on Bin Laden's chest as the body lay at the author's feet in the middle of the cabin.
This is common practice, as troops sometimes must sit on their own war dead in packed helicopters. Space was cramped because one helicopter had crashed in the initial assault, leaving little space for the roughly two dozen commandos in the two aircraft that remained. When the commandos reached the third aircraft, bin Laden's body was moved to it.
Owen also writes disparagingly that none of the Seals were fans of President Barack Obama and knew that his administration would take credit for ordering the May 2011 raid. One of the Seals said after the mission that they had just gotten Obama re-elected by carrying out the raid.
But he says they respected him as commander in chief and for giving the operation the go-ahead.
US officials fear the book may include classified information, as it did not undergo the formal review required by the Pentagon for works published by former or current Defense Department employees.
Officials from the Pentagon and the CIA, which commanded the mission, are examining the manuscript for possible disclosure of classified information and could take legal action against the author.
In a statement provided to the Associated Press, the author says he did "not disclose confidential or sensitive information that would compromise national security in any way."
Jihadists on al-Qaida websites have posted purported photos of the author, whose name has been disclosed by some media outlets, calling for his murder.
Mark Mazzetti's emails with the CIA expose the degradation of journalism that has lost the imperative to be a check to power
The rightwing transparency group, Judicial Watch, released Tuesday a new batch of documents showing how eagerly the Obama administration shoveled information to Hollywood film-makers about the Bin Laden raid. Obama officials did so to enable the production of a politically beneficial pre-election film about that "heroic" killing, even as administration lawyers insisted to federal courts and media outlets that no disclosure was permissible because the raid was classified.
Thanks to prior disclosures from Judicial Watch of documents it obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, this is old news. That's what the Obama administration chronically does: it manipulates secrecy powers to prevent accountability in a court of law, while leaking at will about the same programs in order to glorify the president.
But what is news in this disclosure are the newly released emails between Mark Mazzetti, the New York Times's national security and intelligence reporter, and CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf. The CIA had evidently heard that Maureen Dowd was planning to write a column on the CIA's role in pumping the film-makers with information about the Bin Laden raid in order to boost Obama's re-election chances, and was apparently worried about how Dowd's column would reflect on them. On 5 August 2011 (a Friday night), Harf wrote an email to Mazzetti with the subject line: "Any word??", suggesting, obviously, that she and Mazzetti had already discussed Dowd's impending column and she was expecting an update from the NYT reporter.
A mere two minutes after the CIA spokeswoman sent this Friday night inquiry, Mazzetti responded. He promised her that he was "going to see a version before it gets filed", and assured her that there was likely nothing to worry about:
"My sense is there a very brief mention at bottom of column about CIA ceremony, but that [screenwriter Mark] Boal also got high level access at Pentagon."
She then replied with this instruction to Mazzetti: "keep me posted", adding that she "really appreciate[d] it".
Moments later, Mazzetti forwarded the draft of Dowd's unpublished column to the CIA spokeswoman (it was published the following night online by the Times, and two days later in the print edition). At the top of that email, Mazzetti wrote: "this didn't come from me … and please delete after you read." He then proudly told her that his assurances turned out to be true:
"See, nothing to worry about."
This exchange, by itself, is remarkably revealing: of the standard role played by establishment journalists and the corruption that pervades it. Here we have a New York Times reporter who covers the CIA colluding with its spokesperson to plan for the fallout from the reporting by his own newspaper ("nothing to worry about"). Beyond this, that a New York Times journalist – ostensibly devoted to bringing transparency to government institutions – is pleading with the CIA spokesperson, of all people, to conceal his actions and to delete the evidence of collusion is so richly symbolic.
The relationship between the New York Times and the US government is, as usual, anything but adversarial. Indeed, these emails read like the interactions between a PR representative and his client as they plan in anticipation of a possible crisis.
Even more amazing is the reaction of the newspaper's managing editor, Dean Baquet, to these revelations, as reported by Politico's Dylan Byers:
"New York Times Managing Editor Dean Baquet called POLITICO to explain the situation, but provided little clarity, saying he could not go into detail on the issue because it was an intelligence matter.
"'I know the circumstances, and if you knew everything that's going on, you'd know it's much ado about nothing,' Baquet said. 'I can't go into in detail. But I'm confident after talking to Mark that it's much ado about nothing.'
"'The optics aren't what they look like,' he went on. 'I've talked to Mark, I know the circumstance, and given what I know, it's much ado about nothing.'"
There is so much to say about that passage.
First, try though I did, I'm unable to avoid noting that this statement from Baquet – "the optics aren't what they look like" – is one of the most hilariously incoherent utterances seen in some time. It's the type of meaningless, illiterate corporatese that comes spewing forth from bumbling executives defending the indefensible. I've read that sentence roughly a dozen times over the last 24 hours and each time, it provides me with greater amounts of dark amusement.
Second, look at how the New York Times mimics the CIA even in terms of how the newspaper's employees speak: Baquet "provided little clarity, saying he could not go into detail on the issue because it was an intelligence matter". In what conceivable way is Mazzetti's collusion with the CIA an "intelligence matter" that prevents the NYT's managing editor from explaining what happened here?
This is what the CIA reflexively does: insists that, even when it comes to allegations that they have engaged in serious wrongdoing, you (and even courts) cannot know what the agency is doing because it is an "intelligence matter". Now, here we have the managing editor of the Newspaper of Record reciting this same secrecy-loving phrase verbatim – as though the New York Times is some sort of an intelligence agency whose inner workings must be concealed for our own safety – all in order to avoid any sort of public disclosure about the wrongdoing in which it got caught engaging. One notices this frequently: media figures come to identify so closely with the government officials on whom they report that they start adopting not only their way of thinking, but even their lingo.
Third, note how Baquet proudly touts the fact that he knows facts to which you are not and will not be privvy:
"I know the circumstances, if you knew everything that's going on, you'd know it's much ado about nothing."
Isn't the function of a newspaper supposed to be to tell us "everything that's going on", not to boast that it knows the circumstances and you do not?
Baquet's claim that this was all "much ado about nothing" did not, apparently, sit well with at least some people at the New York Times, who seem not to appreciate it when their national security reporter secretly gives advanced copies of columns to the CIA spokesperson. Shortly after Baquet issued his ringing defense of Mazzetti's behavior, a spokesperson for the paper not only provided the details Baquet insisted could not be given, but also made clear that Mazzetti's conduct was inappropriate:
"Last August, Maureen Dowd asked Mark Mazzetti to help check a fact for her column. In the course of doing so, he sent the entire column to a CIA spokeswoman shortly before her deadline. He did this without the knowledge of Ms Dowd. This action was a mistake that is not consistent with New York Times standards."
It may be "inconsistent with the New York Times standards" for one of its reporters to secretly send advanced copy to the CIA and then ask that the agency delete all record that he did so: one certainly hopes it is. But it is not, unfortunately, inconsistent with the paper's behavior in general, when it comes to reporting on public officials. Serving as obedient lapdogs and message-carriers for political power, rather than adversarial watchdogs over power, is par for the course.
The most obvious example of this is the paper's complicity with propagating war-fueling falsehoods to justify the attack on Iraq – though, in that instance, it was hardly alone. Just last month, it was revealed that the NYT routinely gives veto power to Obama campaign officials over the quotes from those officials the paper is allowed to publish – a practice barred by other outlets (but not the NYT) both prior to that revelation and subsequent to it.
Worse, the paper frequently conceals vital information of public interest at the direction of the government, as it did when it learned of George Bush's illegal eavesdropping program in mid 2004 but concealed it for more than a year at the direction of the White House, until Bush was safely re-elected; as it did when it complied with government directives to conceal the CIA employment of Raymond Davis, captured by Pakistan, even as President Obama falsely described him as "our diplomat in Pakistan" and as the NYT reported the president's statement without noting that it was false; and as it did with its disclosure of numerous WikiLeaks releases, for which the paper, as former executive editor Bill Keller proudly boasted, took direction from the government regarding what should and should not be published.
And that's all independent of the chronic practice of the NYT to permit government officials to hide behind anonymity in order to disseminate government propaganda – or even to smear journalists as al-Qaida sympathizers for reporting critically on government actions – even when granting such anonymity violates its own publicly announced policies.
What all of this behavior from the NYT has in common is clear: it demonstrates the extent to which it institutionally collaborates with and serves the interests of the nation's most powerful factions, rather than act as an adversarial check on them. When he talks to the CIA spokesperson, Mazzetti sounds as if he's talking to a close colleague working together on a joint project.
It sounds that way because that's what it is.
One can, if one wishes, cynically justify Mazzetti's helpful co-operation with the CIA as nothing more than a common means which journalists use to curry favor with their sources. Leave aside the fact that the CIA spokesperson with whom Mazzetti is co-operating is hardly some valuable leaker deep within the bowels of the agency but, in theory, should be the supreme adversary of real journalists: her job is to shape public perception as favorably as possible to the CIA, even at the expense of the truth.
The more important objection is that the fact that a certain behavior is common does not negate its being corrupt. Indeed, as is true for government abuses generally, those in power rely on the willingness of citizens to be trained to view corrupt acts as so common that they become inured, numb, to its wrongfulness. Once a corrupt practice is sufficiently perceived as commonplace, then it is transformed in people's minds from something objectionable into something acceptable. Indeed, many people believe it demonstrates their worldly sophistication to express indifference toward bad behavior by powerful actors on the ground that it is so prevalent. This cynicism – oh, don't be naive: this is done all the time – is precisely what enables such destructive behavior to thrive unchallenged.
It is true that Mazzetti's emails with the CIA do not shock or surprise in the slightest. But that's the point. With some noble journalistic exceptions (at the NYT and elsewhere), these emails reflect the standard full-scale cooperation – a virtual merger – between our the government and the establishment media outlets that claim to act as "watchdogs" over them.
From "All the news that's fit to print" to "please delete after you read" and cannot "go into detail because it is an intelligence matter": that's the gap between the New York Times's marketed brand and its reality.
* * * * *
UPDATE: The Times' Public Editor weighed in on this matter today, noting his clear disapproval for what Mazzetti did:
"Whatever Mr. Mazzetti's motivation, it is a clear boundary violation to disclose a potentially sensitive article pre-publication under such circumstances. This goes well beyond the normal give-and-take that characterizes the handling of sources and suggests the absence of an arm's-length relationship between a reporter and those he is dealing with."
While Mazzetti himself expresses regret for his behavior -- "It was definitely a mistake to do. I have never done it before and I will never do it again" -- both he and Executive Editor Jill Abramson insist that he had no bad intent, but was simply trying to help out a colleague (Dowd) by having her claims fact-checked. Like Baquet, Abramson invokes secrecy to conceal the key facts: "I can't provide further detail on why the entire column was sent."
The question raised by these excuses is obvious: if Mazzetti were acting with such pure and benign motives, why did he ask the CIA to delete the email he sent? This appears to be a classic case of expressing sorrow not over what one did, but over having been caught.
On a different note, Politico's Byers, in response to my inquiry, advises me that Baquet did indeed say what Byers attributed to him -- "he could not go into detail on the issue because it was an intelligence matter" -- and that his exact quote was: it "has to with intel."
No Easy Day author is in breach of agreements not to reveal classified information, says letter that foreshadows legal action
The Pentagon is threatening legal action against a former US navy Seal who has written a firsthand account of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. In a letter addressed to Mark Owen, the writer's pseudonym, lawyers from the US defence headquarters say the book he is about to release violates agreements not to divulge classified information.
The Pentagon's top attorney also warns it is considering legal options against anyone "acting in concert" with the author to publish the book.
The letter identifies two separate non-disclosure agreements the Seal signed with the navy that legally committed him to never divulge official secrets. "You are in material breach and violation of the non-disclosure agreements you signed," said the letter by Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon's general counsel.
"The department of defence is considering pursuing against you, and all those acting in concert with you, all remedies legally available to us in light of this situation."
US officials had earlier said they were surprised by the book and that it had not been vetted by government agencies to ensure no secrets were revealed. The book has received widespread media coverage and the Pentagon letter notes that some copies have already been released, even ahead of the book's formal release next week.
"Further public dissemination of your book will aggravate your breach and violation of your agreements," the letter warns.
This week the author said in a statement via his publisher that the book was written "with respect for my fellow service members while adhering to my strict desire not to disclose confidential or sensitive information that would compromise national security in any way".
The Pentagon did not release copies of the nondisclosure agreements that it said the author had signed in 2007. A spokesman, Colonel Steve Warren, said they were being withheld because they included the author's real name and his signature.
Other special forces figures have privately expressed disappointment in recent days over the book and the publicity it has received.
An official al-Qaida website has posted a photograph and the real name of the former navy commando, calling him "the dog who murdered the martyr Sheikh Osama bin Laden".
Officials say former Navy Seal Matt Bissonnette is in violation of two non-disclosure agreements that he signed in 2007
The Pentagon is considering legal action against a former US Navy Seal whose book describes insider details of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Officials said on Friday that the US military had not made a final judgment on whether the book reveals any secrets, but Pentagon press secretary George Little said the author, Matt Bissonnette, was deemed to be in violation of two nondisclosure agreements that he signed in 2007 by failing to submit the book for an official security review.
Bissonnette's lawyer disputed this, saying he believes the decorated former Seal has "earned the right to tell his story."
In his book, Bissonnette wrote that the Seals spotted Bin Laden at the top of a darkened hallway at his home in Pakistan and shot him in the head, even though they could not tell whether he was armed. Administration officials have described the Seals as shooting him Bin Laden only after he ducked into a bedroom because they assumed he might be reaching for a weapon.
Little would not say what legal options the Pentagon is considering or when it might take action.
"I write to formally advise you of your material breach and violation of your agreements, and to inform you that the department is considering pursuing against you, and all those acting in concert with you, all remedies legally available to us in light of this situation," Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon's top lawyer, wrote in a letter faxed to the author Thursday through his publisher.
In response, Robert D Luskin of the law firm Patton Boggs wrote to Johnson on Friday to say that his firm is representing Bissonnette and asserting that his client is not in breach of his nondisclosure agreements.
Luskin, who represented White House aide Karl Rove in the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity in the Bush administration, said the author had "sought legal advice about his responsibilities before agreeing to publish his book, and scrupulously reviewed the work to ensure that it did not disclose any material that would breach his agreements or put his former comrades at risk. He remains confident that he has faithfully fulfilled his duty."
Little suggested that if Bissonnette were to stop the book's official release, scheduled for next week, that might be a remedy. Some advance copies have been circulating, and the Pentagon obtained one last week. It has since been reviewing it for any classified information and to determine what, if any, legal action should be taken, Little said.
"The onus is on the author," Little said, while declining to spell out what the author must do.
But the publisher was firm on Friday. "At this time, we see no reason to change our plans," said Dutton spokesperson Christine Ball.
It was highly unlikely that the government would try to halt publication of the book itself, considering the book is already in the public domain and media reports have summarized its contents.
The justice department could go after the profits of the book in a civil proceeding. Department spokesman Dean Boyd declined any comment on the book Friday.
Retired CIA agent Frank Snepp published a book about his CIA activities in South Vietnam without submitting it to the agency for prepublication review.
The government sued to collect all profits, and the court ruled in the government's favor. The government did not contend that Snepp's book contained any classified material.
In its 6-3 ruling in 1980, the supreme curt said: "Undisputed evidence in this case shows that a CIA agent's violation of his obligation to submit writings about the agency for prepublication review impairs the CIA's ability to perform its statutory duties."
If the Pentagon determines that the Bin Laden book does disclose secrets, that would open the possibility of bringing federal criminal charges against Bissonnette. The potential charges and penalties would depend largely on what type of secrets were disclosed.
Little declined to describe the Pentagon's assessment of the contents of the book, but he later said it had not reached "any final conclusions" about whether secrets were revealed.
The Pentagon's position was presented by Johnson in a letter transmitted to the author through his New York publisher, Penguin's Dutton imprint.
Johnson said Bissonnette's nondisclosure agreements obliged him to "never divulge" classified information.
"This commitment remains in force even after you left the active duty Navy," Johnson wrote. He said the author left active duty "on or about April 20, 2012," which was nearly one year after the May 2011 raid.
Unauthorised memoir on the raid that killed Osama bin Laden said to be a threat to military families after Pentagon review
The much-anticipated insider account of the Navy Seal raid that killed Osama bin Laden hit bookstores in the US on Tuesday, having already knocked this year's publishing leviathan Fifty Shades of Grey off its bestseller perch.
Sales of the unauthorised memoir, No Easy Day, went ahead despite a Pentagon threat of legal action against its author for alleged violation of non-disclosure agreements.
Before the Pentagon's warning last week, publisher Dutton brought the release date forward from 11 September, saying it was important to let the book speak for itself.
On Tuesday the Pentagon said that after reviewing the book, it believed that it contains classified information. Rear Admiral Sean Pybus, who heads the Naval Special Warfare Command, said it could also provide enemies of the US with insight into their operations.
He told his force in a letter quoted by the Associated Press that "hawking details about a Seal mission" and selling other details of Seal training and operations puts the force and their families at risk.
"For an elite force that should be humble and disciplined for life, we are certainly not appearing to be so," Pybus wrote in a letter to the 8,000 troops under his command. "We owe our chain of command much better than this."
At the Pentagon, press secretary George Little said an official review of the book determined that it reveals what he called "sensitive and classified" information, but he would not give details about which passages in the book were considered to be a violation of the non-disclosure agreements signed by Mark Bissonette, the real name of the Navy Seal who wrote the account under the pseudonym Mark Owen.
Fox News identified Bissonette, 36, as the author of the memoir after Penguin announced the book last month and his identity was confirmed by military sources.
In a letter addressed to "Mark Owen", Charles Johnson, the defence department general counsel, alleged the writer violated secrecy agreements and broke federal law. "In the judgment of the Department of Defense, you are in material breach and violation of the nondisclosure agreements you signed. Further public dissemination of your book will aggravate your breach and violation of your agreements," Johnson wrote.
Bissonnette's lawyer, Robert Luskin, disputed this, saying he believes the decorated former Seal has "earned the right to tell his story."
Luskin's letter in response said the author "sought legal advice about his responsibilities before agreeing to publish his book and scrupulously reviewed the work to ensure that it did not disclose any material that would breach his agreements or put his former comrades at risk".
The controversy does not appear to have hurt sales of the memoir. Presales of the book at Amazon overtook the record-breaking erotic trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey, while an initial print run of 200,000 has been increased to 575,000 copies, according to Publishers Weekly.
The book reveals details of the raid that differ form the official version of events and raises questions as to whether Bin Laden could have been taken alive .
According to the author, Bin Laden was shot not at point-blank range in a bedroom but from a distance in a hallway as he peered around his bedroom door. He was unarmed and it was later discovered that weapons around the bed were not loaded, which Bissonette cites as being a mark of dishonour. "There is no honor in sending people to die for something you won't even fight for yourself," he writes in the book.
Bissonnette said he was behind the "point man," or lead commando, as the Seals followed Bin Laden into the room. They discovered him on the floor at the foot of his bed with "blood and brains spilled out of the side of his skull", and two women wailing over "still twitching and convulsing" body.
The official version of events is that the lead commando missed and the Seals confronted Bin Laden in his bedroom in the May 2011 raid, killing him with one shot to the chest and another in the left eye.
Military officials have said that the Seals made split-second decisions, fearing that he could have been wearing a suicide vest, but critics have argued that despite being labelled a "kill or capture" mission, there was virtually no chance he would be brought back alive.
It's one thing for Democrats to fete Obama's tougher-than-thou national security credentials, but this ghoulish jingoism is warped
[Updated below - Update II]
One of the formative events shaping my views of the last decade's American political landscape was watching the 2004 Republican national convention. An expertly staged, supremely manipulative ritual of jingoism and leader-worship, I regarded it with an equal measure of awe and horror.
America's militarism was continuously exploited by speaker after speaker to glorify the commander-in-chief, George W Bush, as a brave and noble warrior for American Greatness. Each mention of war and killing prompted his delirious followers to erupt in the same boisterous crowd-chant: "USA, USA." Bush's opponent (and his supporters), by contrast, were vilified as soft-on-the-terrorists, troop-hating, America-despising weaklings who lacked the stomach to Keep Us Safe.
Typifying all of this was Dick Cheney's vice-presidential acceptance speech:
"As in other times, we are in a war we did not start, and have no choice but to win.
"Firm in our resolve, focused on our mission, and led by a superb commander-in-chief, we will prevail.
"The fanatics who killed some 3,000 of our fellow Americans may have thought they could attack us with impunity, because terrorists had done so previously.
"But if the killers of September 11 thought we had lost the will to defend our freedom, they did not know America, and they did not know George W Bush.
"From the beginning, the president made clear that the terrorists would be dealt with and that anyone who supports, protects or harbors them would be held to account.
"President Bush does not deal in empty threats and half measures. And his determination has sent a clear message …
"Even in this post 9/11 period, Senator Kerry doesn't appear to understand how the world has changed. He talks about leading a 'more sensitive war on terror' …
" … as though al-Qaida will be impressed with our softer side.
"He declared at the Democratic convention that he will forcefully defend America after we have been attacked. My fellow Americans, we have already been attacked …"
[AUDIENCE:] "USA. USA. USA."
[CHENEY:] "But as the President has made very clear, there is a difference between leading a coalition of many nations and submitting to the objections of a few.
"George W Bush will never seek a permission slip to defend the American people."
[AUDIENCE:] "USA. USA. USA."
It went on and on like that, speaker after speaker. The same chant erupted when Bush, in his acceptance speech, declared that ever since 9/11, "I wake up every morning thinking about how to better protect our country. I will never relent in defending America – whatever it takes." It erupted again when he added:
"In Saddam Hussein, we saw a threat. Members of both political parties, including my opponent and his running-mate, saw the threat, and voted to authorize the use of force."
I thought, or at least hoped, that such vulgar crowd celebrations of leader-reverence, jingoism and militarism would not soon be replicated. But on Thursday night, the final night of the Democratic party convention, it was.
It is hard to count how many times a Democratic party speaker stood up proudly to proclaim:
Osama. Bin. Laden. Is. Dead!
Almost every time Bin Laden's scalp was paraded around on its pike – all thanks to the warrior spirit and unflinching courage of our commander-in-chief – the crowd of progressives, liberals and party faithful erupted into a prolonged "USA. USA" chant.
Leading this orgy of chest-beating, we're-more-bellicose-than-you, nationalistic strutting was, ironically, the 2004 GOP's prime victim of it: Democratic Senator John Kerry. Kerry's speech exploited virtually every theme of patriotism and militarism that was used against him eight years ago, and he did so with great efficacy.
Like Obama advocates so often do, Kerry first trumpeted how faithful and loyal Obama is to the Israeli government, and held up the Israeli prime minister as the arbiter of truth and sufficient loyalty:
"'Barack Obama promised always to stand with Israel to tighten sanctions on Iran – and take nothing off the table.
"'Again and again, the other side has lied about where this president stands and what this president has done. But Prime Minister Netanyahu set the record straight – he said, our two countries have 'exactly the same policy' – 'our security cooperation is unprecedented.' When it comes to Israel, I'll take the word of Israel's prime minister over Mitt Romney any day."
Kerry, to the delight of the crowd, strongly insinuated that Romney harbors disrespect for the sacred American troops (that is: our brave men and women in uniform):
"And let me say – let me say something else – let me say something else, no nominee for president should ever fail in the midst of a war to pay tribute to our troops overseas in his acceptance speech.
"Mitt Romney – Mitt Romney was talking about America. They are on the front lines every day defending America and they deserve our thanks."
[AUDIENCE:] "USA! USA! USA!"
And, most pointedly of all, he milked the Bin Laden killing for everything it was worth, and then some:
"And after more than – after more than 10 years without justice for thousands of Americans murdered on 9/11, after Mitt Romney said it would be naive to go into Pakistan to pursue the terrorists, it took President Obama, against the advice of many, to give that order and finally rid this earth of Osama bin Laden.
"Ask Osama bin Laden is he is better-off now than he was four years ago."
Yeah: ask Osama bin Laden if he's better off – if you can find his corpse where our commander-in-chief dumped it: at the bottom of the ocean. USA! USA!
For the moment, leave aside one's views on the justness and legality of the Bin Laden killing. (For reasons adeptly set forth here by international law professor Kevin Jon Heller, I really don't understand how one can have a favorable opinion on that without actually knowing what happened, which may be the reason John Kerry is so insistent that nobody try to find out.) Whether or not one is still stimulated when thinking about that exciting raid, there is obvious meaning in how central it has become to the political identity of America and, especially, the self-esteem of the Democratic party.
It is a truly potent indicator that this grand achievement has become the greatest source of nationalistic pride. Americans once found national purpose – justification for their belief in their own exceptionalism – from inventing new life-improving technologies, or putting a man on the moon, or advancing the cause of equality, or vanquishing the mighty Nazi military machine, or enshrining unparalleled protections for core liberties in the constitution.
Now, many Americans find it in the heroic ability to hunt someone down who is in hiding, pummel his skull full of bullets even as he lay dying on the ground, and then dump his corpse into the ocean. That such actions are the new source of American pride, vindication of national greatness, was the claim made by President Obama when he first announced the killing:
"But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history."
If one wants to mount a political defense of all of this – that it is about time the Democrats gave the GOP a taste of its own medicine, that Kerry, in particular, has the right to exact vengeance, that anything is justified to win the election, etc – that's fine. I have no real quarrel with, or interest in, that perspective. In so many ways – political adeptness, party solidarity, effective exploitation of national security for political gain, media favorability, message discipline – the two parties have experienced a radical role reversal in the matter of a few short years, and it's understandable why one is happy about that if one's overarching political concern is Obama's re-election.
But the collective bloodlust on display over the last week, especially Thursday night, was nothing short of creepy. Even in those instances in which state killing is justified and necessary, it ought to be a sombre and regrettable affair (as many Democrats righteously argued when some attendees at a GOP debate cheered Texas Governor Rick Perry's touting of his execution record). Boastful, raucous, nationalistic crowd-chanting at every single mention of someone's corpse, even when that someone is Osama bin Laden, is warped.
But, more importantly, it's a depressing symbol of America's political culture. The premise seems to be that – aside from this specific corpse and the others the president has piled up – there is little else for ordinary Americans to celebrate now when it comes to the search for nationalistic achievement, purpose and greatness among their political leadership. That this dark premise appears valid is what is most disturbing of all.
UPDATE: As Gawker's pseudonymous writer Mobutu Sese Seko notes in an excellent review of the night's festivities, Joe Biden "laid it on especially thickly when it came to talking about whacking Osama bin Laden". Among other things, the vice president crowed that "Obama is our president because he always has the courage to make the tough decisions." Of the kill order: "He said, do it – and justice was done!" And then:
"And he also knew – he also knew the message we had to send around the world: if you attack innocent Americans, we will follow you to the end of the earth.
[AUDIENCE:] "USA! USA! USA! USA!"
He further suggests that it may not be "justice" that is achieved by "a double-tap to the brain of a sclerotic masturbating whitehair and his family, in the dead of night, by trained killers." Rather, he argues, "justice" likely entails – following the Allied and Israeli example of how Nazi war criminals were treated – a trial, with evidence of guilt shown to the world, and a deliberative punishment then meted out.
Again, though, regardless of one's views on that question, there is a world of difference between approving of the Bin Laden hit, on the one hand, and gathering together to chant nationalistic slogans and feel pulsating crowd-based power from it, on the other.
UPDATE II: I believe I just saw one of the best videos ever: Gawker's John Cook spent several days asking numerous Democratic luminaries at the convention about Obama's kill list and whether they would trust Mitt Romney to decide which Americans should be extra-judicially assassinated. Other than Bill Press, none reacted well, and it is really worth watching.
No Easy Day author – who may face discipline over publication – shares details of US military raid in 60 Minutes interview
A "wicked smart" female CIA agent who had been tracking Osama bin Laden for five years was central to the US's assassination of the terrorist leader, according to one of the Navy Seals who took part in the attack.
"Mark Owen" the pseudonymous author of No Easy Day, a controversial first-person account of the killing, said the agent, whom he referred to as "Jen", was convinced Bin Laden was hiding at the compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan, where he was found.
She travelled with the Seals to Afghanistan ahead of the raid and briefed them on what they were likely to find. "I can't give her enough credit. In my opinion she kind of teed up this whole thing," Owen told CBS's 60 Minutes in an interview to be broadcast Sunday.
Owen described Jen as "wicked smart, kind of feisty". She was 100% sure that bin Laden was hiding in the Abbotabad compound, according to Owen. President Barack Obama, defence secretary Leon Panetta and others have said they were only 70% sure Bin Laden would be found at the compound. Owen told 60 Minutes that all of her predictions proved to be exactly right.
In the interview Owen denied suggestions that the timing of his book had anything to do with November's election. Obama and other Democrats made numerous mentions of the assassination at last week's convention. But Owen said the book had always been planned for release around the anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks and had nothing to do with the election.
The Pentagon and the White House have declined to comment on the new account but have said they are weighing disciplinary or legal action against the author.
The account contradicts some elements of the official telling of Bin Laden's death. The US government accounts say Bin Laden was killed after he ducked back into his bedroom, raising fears he was reaching for a weapon.
According to Owen, Bin Laden was shot when he looked out of his bedroom door. When Seals entered his room he was on the floor, clearly badly injured. They then shot him again.
Owen says he was charged with taking the photographs to prove the Al Qaeda leader was dead. "I figured these were probably some of the most important photos I would take in my life, so make sure I do it right, get good angles and all this other stuff," he said. He said he had to clean Bin Laden's face, using a sheet off a bed, to make sure he was clearly recognizable. He said the photographs were "pretty gruesome".
During the programme, the Navy Seal's voice and face were disguised mask his identity.
Disclosures by American military personnel – either for profit or in partisan politicking – undermine a vital ethic of selfless service
Everyone holds an opinion, even those who are obligated by law or profession to remain neutral. It is human nature. It can foreseeably become difficult to sit by and listen as everyone around you who is free to gives their opinion, some misguided and others even profiting from it, while professional obligations require you to stay silent. Such is the burden, however, of being a professional in a position of importance to national security.
This conflict is not new, but the pressures and incentives for breaking the rules are growing. With TV pundit spots, big publishing advances, and organizations such as WikiLeaks providing opportunity and motivation, are western democracies even capable of keeping secrets anymore?
Matt Bissonnette, calling himself "Mark Owen", was a member of Navy Seal Team 6 and took part in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. He has written a book that extensively details the raid and has unleashed a controversy in doing so. Paired with this debate are the attacks of Opsec, a rightwing political action committee started by other former Navy Seals who are attacking President Obama and his administration for releasing generally similar information on the Bin Laden raid to the press.
Both Bissonnette and Opsec have been rebuked by senior military officials at the Pentagon such as special operations commander Admiral William McRaven and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The US government has not ruled out taking legal action.
When one swears an oath to serve the country as a member of the military or any national security-related agency, a different set of rules applies immediately. A measure of your personal freedom, freedom of speech, and political participation rights are curtailed. Inductees know this beforehand, are well-briefed upon induction, and periodically afterward. They sign non-disclosure statements to the effect, and laws prevent the disclosure of identified security information. You also know that some, much, or all of what you do will remain anonymous and unaccredited. Matt Bissonnette knew this when he wrote his autobiography.
All this is necessary for many reasons, foremost among them being to preserve the dedication to the nation such jobs require. You may be putting your life, or the lives of many others, at risk for the country, and be privy to sensitive information; you should be doing so because you feel a sense of duty, commitment, and patriotism. To allow public servants working in national security roles or members of the military to profit financially or to have an outsize influence on partisan political debate because of what they've done or what they know is detrimental to national security. Allowing this behavior would mean having soldiers and civil servants motivated by the opportunities of fame and fortune, leaving aside the selfless commitment and dedication to duty and country such roles do and ought to require.
This larger point is one many seem to miss. It is arguable that both the information in Bissonette's book and the information disclosed by the White House following the Bin Laden raid were not classified or going to get anyone killed. The difference is that the president has the obligation and duty to inform the public about such an important event, regardless of one's opinion of him personally: he is the commander-in-chief. But soldiers or civil servants profiting personally, or even for charity as Bissonnette claims he is doing, by giving their own personal accounts of the facts calls into question his selfless dedication to country and duty first. Allowing this to continue would attract the wrong sort of people with false motivations into military or government service.
This has become a problem of late for the United States. Television news channels and bookstore shelves are filled with pundits and commentators who are former CIA agents or soldiers. The gap in time between events and the release of bestsellers about them is getting ever smaller. Many of America's intelligence agencies have lax policies toward private-sector recruiters pulling their employees and some are even allowed to "moonlight" and offer their services privately while still employees of the agency. These policies have become a problem with intelligence agencies losing many of their top people to private firms after years of training and service. Disgruntled civil servants and soldiers have released secured government information in the media.
These events call into question the motivations, independence, and commitment to duty of the individuals who take part in them. Serving in the military or government should be about a life dedicated to protecting and serving the country, not serving one's self by securing a nice paycheck and nice retirement.
Many would push back against this by saying that those who occupy positions in the White House or Congress profit greatly from their service, or even the service of others, so why shouldn't people like Matt Bissonnette, who actually put their own lives on the line, be allowed to profit from it? Yet, presidents and congressmen and women should not profit personally from their jobs either – and their perceived abuse and misuse of their offices to do so is a reason why the majority of Americans have lost respect for these institutions and officials. Overwhelming majorities of Americans still hold a great deal of respect and esteem for the military and intelligence services because they are seen as representing selfless commitment to the country above self. They're not seen as corrupt, as other militaries and intelligence agencies around the world are. Allowing such behavior to continue may put this view in jeopardy.
Such events as the Abbottabad raid don't need to remain a secret forever, especially since the fact that the event occurred is public knowledge. It is important to our democracy, history, and society that the public learns what, how, and why events such as this happen. But there should be a space of several years in between.
Matt Bissonnette should be allowed to tell his story, but not while it is still such a present event. There are many possible consequences. Detailing such a raid may amount to providing "open-source" intelligence for our international opponents. Disclosing details of equipment, tactics, techniques, or procedures that may seem harmless and mundane on their own can be pieced together with other information. For Bissonnette to wait a couple years to tell his story would not have reduced its national historical significance – though it may have reduced his big-name television interviews or book sales.
There is a difference between Bissonnette's book and the disclosure of a crime or "whistleblowing". The reporting or disclosure of a felony or fraud, waste or abuse is quite different from writing a bestselling autobiographical book. Whistleblowers rarely profit from making what they know public: frequently, they lose their jobs, and often endure lawsuits or years of abuse afterwards. Their motivation is usually to correct a wrong. Rewards are offered to encourage them to come forward. Bissonnette was not reporting or disclosing some great crime and he stands to enjoy a great deal of positive attention and profit from his book, even if he donates most of the proceeds to a Navy Seal charity (as he has already attempted to do twice unsuccessfully).
It's hard to be too angry with Matt Bissonnette: he is a genuine hero who put his life on the line more than once and is deserving of the profit and attention he's received. It's pretty hard to keep a secret, especially when that secret is that you had a part in killing Osama bin Laden, one of those rare events which most Americans will recall where they were when it happened. Members of Seal Team 6, already famous before the raid, will probably never have to buy their own beers again.
But what Bissonnette and his defenders miss, and what the majority of his Seal colleagues understand, along with most other members of the military and intelligence community, is that the wider consequences to the national security of the country he risked his life many times to defend outweigh the right to fortune and fame for his bravery, even if it is well-deserved.
In order for the sterling reputation of the United States military and intelligence services to be preserved, and the trust placed in them by average Americans maintained, national security professionals cannot be allowed to profit from their acts, even if they go above and beyond duty or what is normally expected. Seeking fortune and fame, even if merited, cannot be allowed to cloud judgment when it comes to defending America. When it concerns our national security, we need those defending it to continue to put duty and country first. This extraordinary selflessness and dedication is what has kept us safe and strong throughout our history.
Matt Bissonnette has an extraordinary story to tell; he should be allowed to tell it. But he should have waited for it to pass from current affairs and into history first. That a small group of brave and dedicated men finally delivered justice for their country is a story not likely to be forgotten by Americans anytime soon.
In a familiar pattern, White House claims about what motivated the killing of the US ambassador in Libya are now contradicted
Almost immediately after President Obama announced the killing of Osama bin Laden, top government officials, including then-CIA Director Leon Panetta and top terrorism adviser John Brennan, made numerous false statements about what took place. That included the claim that Bin Laden was killed after he engaged in a "firefight", that he used his wife as a human shield to protect himself, and that he was living in luxury in a $1m mansion.
None of those claims, central to the story the White House told the world, turned out to be true. Bin Laden was unarmed and nobody in the house where Bin Laden was found ever fired a single shot (a courier in an adjacent guest house was the only one to shoot, at the very beginning of the operation). Bin Laden never used his wife or anyone else as a shield. And the house was dilapidated, showed little sign of luxury, and was worth one-quarter of what it was claimed. Numerous other claims made by the administration about the raid remain unanswered because of its steadfast insistence on secrecy and non-disclosure (except when it concerns Hollywood filmmakers).
Would it have mattered had the White House been truthful about the Bin Laden raid from the start? It would have undoubtedly made no difference for many people, who simply craved Osama bin Laden's death without regard to how it was done. But it certainly would have made a difference for at least some people around the world in terms of how they perceived of these actions and whether they approved – which is presumably why the White House was so eager to insist on these falsehoods and to ensure that the world's perception was shaped by them. (Please spare me the "fog of war" excuse: when the so-called "fog of war" causes the US government to make inaccurate claims that undermine its interests, rather than bolster them – as always happens – then that excuse will be plausible.)
There's obviously an enormous difference between killing someone in a firefight and shooting him in cold blood while he's unarmed. The morning after the Bin Laden killing was announced, I wrote that although I'd have preferred he be captured and tried, "if he in fact used force to resist capture, then the US military was entitled to use force against him, the way American police routinely do against suspects who use violence to resist capture." At least one legal scholar has changed his mind about the legality of the killing, in the wake of evidence that Bin Laden was killed while lying on the ground, unarmed and severely wounded.
But no matter. The White House's initial statements about what happened, false though they turned out to be, forever shaped perceptions of that event. Many people are unwilling to change their minds even in the wake of new evidence, while many others hear only of the initial claims made when news coverage is at its peak and never become aware of subsequent corrections. Combine that with the generalized "Look Forward, Not Backward" mentality popularized by President Obama – as embodied by John Kerry's "shut up and move on" decree to those asking questions about what really happened in the Bin Laden raid – and those initial White House falsehoods did the trick.
We now see exactly the same pattern emerging with the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya and the killing of the US ambassador. For a full week now, administration officials have categorically insisted that the prime, if not only, cause of the attack was spontaneous anger over the anti-Muhammad film, The Innocence of Muslims.
"'This is a fairly volatile situation, and it is in response not to US policy, not to, obviously, the administration, not to the American people. It is in response to a video – a film – that we have judged to be reprehensive and disgusting. That in no way justifies any violent reaction to it. But this is not a case of protests directed at the United States, writ large, or at US policy. This is in response to a video that is offensive and – to Muslims.'"
On Sunday, UN ambassador Susan Rice, when asked about the impetus for the attack, said that "this began as, it was a spontaneous – not a premeditated – response to what had transpired in Cairo," and added: "In Cairo, as you know, a few hours earlier, there was a violent protest that was undertaken in reaction to this very offensive video that was disseminated." In other interviews, she insisted that the Benghazi violence was a "spontaneous" reaction to the film.
Predictably, and by design, most media accounts from the day after the Benghazi attack repeated the White House line as though it were fact, just as they did for the Bin Laden killing. Said NPR on 12 September: "The US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed in an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi by protesters angry over a film that ridiculed Islam's Prophet Muhammad." The Daily Beast reported that the ambassador "died in a rocket attack on the embassy amid violent protests over a US-produced film deemed insulting to Islam." To date, numerous people believe – as though there were no dispute about it – that Muslims attacked the consulate and killed the US ambassador "because they were angry about a film".
As it turns out, this claim is almost certainly false. And now, a week later, even the US government is acknowledging that, as McClatchy reports this morning [my emphasis]:
"The Obama administration acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that last week's assault on the US consulate compound in Benghazi that left the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans dead was a 'terrorist attack' apparently launched by local Islamic militants and foreigners linked to al-Qaida's leadership or regional allies.
"'I would say they were killed in the course of a terrorist attack,' said Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
"It was the first time that a senior administration official had said the attack was not the result of a demonstration over an anti-Islam video that has been cited as the spark for protests in dozens of countries over the past week .'The picture that is emerging is one where a number of different individuals were involved,' Olsen said." [My emphasis]
Worse, it isn't as though there had been no evidence of more accurate information before Wednesday. To the contrary, most evidence from the start strongly suggested that the White House's claims – that this attack was motivated by anger over a film – were false. From McClatchy:
"The head of Libya's interim government, key US lawmakers and experts contend that the attack appeared long-planned, complex and well-coordinated, matching descriptions given to McClatchy last week by the consulate's landlord and a wounded security guard, who denied there was a protest at the time and said the attackers carried the banner of Ansar al-Shariah, an Islamist militia."
Indeed, Libya's president has spent the week publicly announcing that there is "no doubt" the attack was planned well in advance and had nothing to do with the video.
CBS News reported Thursday morning that there was no anti-video protest at all at the consulate. Witnesses insist, said CBS, "that there was never an anti-American protest outside of the consulate. Instead, they say, it came under planned attack." That, noted the network, "is in direct contradiction to the administration's account of the incident." The report concluded: "What's clear is that the public won't get a detailed account of what happened until after the election."
The Obama White House's interest in spreading this falsehood is multi-fold and obvious:
For one, the claim that this attack was just about anger over an anti-Muhammad video completely absolves the US government of any responsibility or even role in provoking the anti-American rage driving it. After all, if the violence that erupted in that region is driven only by anger over some independent film about Muhammad, then no rational person would blame the US government for it, and there could be no suggestion that its actions in the region – things like this, and this, and this, and this – had any role to play.
The White House capitalized on the strong desire to believe this falsehood: it's deeply satisfying to point over there at those Muslims and scorn their primitive religious violence, while ignoring the massive amounts of violence to which one's own country continuously subjects them. It's much more fun and self-affirming to scoff: "can you believe those Muslims are so primitive that they killed our ambassador over a film?" than it is to acknowledge: "our country and its allies have continually bombed, killed, invaded, and occupied their countries and supported their tyrants."
It is always more enjoyable to scorn the acts of the Other Side than it is to acknowledge the bad acts of one's own. That's the self-loving mindset that enables the New York Times to write an entire editorial today purporting to analyze Muslim rage without once mentioning the numerous acts of American violence aimed at them (much of which the Times editorial page supports). Falsely claiming that the Benghazi attacks were about this film perfectly flattered those jingoistic prejudices.
Then, there are the implications for the intervention in Libya, which Obama's defenders relentlessly tout as one of his great victories. But the fact that the Benghazi attack was likely premeditated and carried out by anti-American factions vindicates many of the criticisms of that intervention. Critics of the war in Libya warned that the US was siding with (and arming and empowering) violent extremists, including al-Qaida elements, that would eventually cause the US to claim it had to return to Libya to fight against them – just as its funding and arming of Saddam in Iraq and the mujahideen in Afghanistan subsequently justified new wars against those one-time allies.
War critics also argued that the intervention would bring massive instability and suffering to the people of Libya; today, the Washington Post reports that – just as the "president of Afghanistan" is really the mayor of Kabul and the "Iraqi government" long exercised sovereignty only in Baghdad's Green Zone – the central Libyan government exercises little authority outside of Tripoli. And intervention critics also warned that dropping bombs in a country and killing civilians, no matter how noble the intent supposedly is, would produce blowback in the form of those who would then want to attack the US.
When the White House succeeded in falsely blaming the consulate attacks on anger over this video, all of those facts were obscured. The truth, now that it is emerging, underscores how unstable, lawless and dangerous Libya has become – far from the grand success story war proponents like to tell. As McClatchy noted in Thursday's report:
"Libya remains plagued by armed groups nearly a year after the US-backed ouster of the late dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Yet the facility was primarily defended by local guards who may have been complicit …
"Since the fall of Gaddafi last year, Libya's security has been dependent on a group of armed militias, including Ansar al-Shariah, that represent a wide variety of political strains and interests and remain heavily armed with weapons looted from Gaddafi storehouses. Interior Ministry forces and the Supreme Security Committee have been accused of complicity in recent attacks by Islamic fundamentalists on mosques and shrines affiliated with the moderate Sufi strain of Islam."
Then, there are the garden-variety political harms to the White House from the truth about these attacks. If the killing of the ambassador were premeditated and unrelated to the film, then it vests credibility in the criticism that the consulate should have been much better-protected, particularly on 9/11. And in general, the last thing a president running for re-election wants is an appearance that he is unable to protect America's diplomats from a terrorist group his supporters love to claim that he has heroically vanquished.
The falsehood told by the White House – this was just a spontaneous attack prompted by this video that we could not have anticipated and had nothing to do with – fixed all of those problems. Critical attention was thus directed to Muslims (what kind of people kill an ambassador over a film?) and away from the White House and its policies.
The independent journalist IF Stone famously noted that the number one rule of good journalism, even of good citizenship, is to remember that "all governments lie." Yet, no matter how many times we see this axiom proven true, over and over, there is still a tendency, a desire, to believe that the US government's claims are truthful and reliable.
The Obama administration's claims about the Benghazi attack are but the latest in a long line of falsehoods it has spouted on crucial issues, all in order to serve its interests and advance its agenda. Perhaps it is time to subject those claims to intense skepticism and to demand evidence before believing they are true.
A former British army captain involved in co-ordinating drone attacks, James Jeffrey, has an outstanding op-ed in the Guardian explaining why drones are so odious and dangerous. I recommend it highly.
Relating to the free speech debate that has emerged over the last week, I have a question for those who insist that advocating or inciting violence is not and should not be included within the protections of free speech: should this statement have led to an arrest? Relatedly: many people believe it was illegal for Obama to fight a war in Libya after Congress voted against the war's authorization, and many (including Obama) believe it would be illegal for the president to bomb Iran without congressional approval. Should advocacy of those acts of illegal violence be illegal and lead to arrest?
The schedule of speaking events I'll be doing in late September and October has been slightly changed. All events are open to the public and event information is here.
Ayman al-Zawahiri has also revealed that his predecessor was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in his youth
Al-Qaida's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has revealed that his predecessor, Osama bin Laden, was blind in one eye and confirmed that in his youth he had been a member of the Saudi Arabian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In a video posted on a jihadi website, the third in a series entitled Days with the Imam, Zawahiri narrates stories about Bin Laden, who was killed by US navy commandos in May 2011 at his compound in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad.
Dressed in a white cloak and turban, Zawahiri revealed "for those who do not know" that the Saudi-born Bin Laden was left blind in the right eye after an unspecified accident in his youth.
According to al-Arabiya TV, Zawahiri confirmed that Bin Laden was a member of the Saudi branch of the Muslim Brotherhood before being ejected for insisting on waging jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the late 1980s.
Acquaintances of Bin Laden have described in the past how he was formally recruited into the brotherhood as an adolescent in Jeddah and thrown out over disagreements about Afghanistan.
But Zawahiri's testimony has special value because he was there at the time as a leader of the Egyptian jihad organisation, which became part of al-Qaida in 1988.
Zawahiri said Bin Laden had travelled to Pakistan to deliver cash to jihadis in Peshawar but had defied orders from the Brotherhood and joined the armed struggle.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the world's oldest Islamist movement, has eschewed violence in recent years and now counts itself as a democratic movement that is one of the big winners of the uprisings of the Arab spring. It dominates the political scene in Tunisia and Egypt and is highly influential from Libya to Syria.
Zawahiri is thought to be in hiding in Pakistan's tribal areas and apparently experiencing the difficulties of communication that have plagued what security experts call "al-Qaida central" in recent years.
The latest video appeared to be around two months old as he offered greetings to Muslims for the start of Ramadan, which ended on 20 August.
On 11 September, Zawahiri appeared in a video that was released on the anniversary of the 2001 attacks, declaring that the United States was at war with Islam and that American Muslims should prepare for a "holocaust".
Earlier Zawahiri issued a video confirming the death of his deputy, Abu Yahya al-Libi, who was killed in a US drone strike in June.
Sports star turned politician Imran Khan and civil rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith will highlight US drones' innocent victims
The British civil rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith and international cricketer turned politician Imran Khan will begin a peace march on 7 October into Pakistan's Waziristan region. Their aim is to highlight the plight of innocent people killed or injured by US drones.
Smith took the precautionary measure of writing to President Obama and his CIA director, David Petraeus, informing them about the march. In the letter, he requested that the president ensure the names of him and the other marchers would not be on the weekly kill list the president reviews, along with security officials, in the White House situation room. Smith wrote:
"Please remember that you and I are both lawyers from the same tradition, and it would be unseemly (as well as being both illegal and upsetting for my family) if you were to authorize my assassination."
Like the sealed corridors in which the top secret kill list nomination process occurs – an account of which was reportedly leaked by the Obama administration to the New York Times – Waziristan has, until now, remained in the shadows, a place about which very little is known or reported. It is hoped the march will help open the area to public scrutiny by taking media there to gather independent information.
Smith's letter also highlighted problems with the president's drone strategy, such as using the same intelligence that populated Guantánamo Bay. I think it's fair to assume intelligence-gathering has improved – one certainly hopes so, considering 88% of Guantánamo's 779 detainees were cleared for release. But of greater note is how Obama campaigned against President Bush by criticising his policy of imprisoning without trial – yet has chosen to kill individuals without trial.
There's no evidence those in Waziristan deemed America's enemies have either the will or ability to threaten America from thousands of miles away, Smith wrote. The region's threat extends, at most, to Pakistan, which should be allowed to resolve its own problems – as those such as Imran Khan argue that it is capable of doing. But on this point, I sympathise with Obama, since the Pakistan government has mastered the art of emitting mixed signals and behaves as an unreliable ally. Eyebrows that were raised over Osama bin Laden being found next to the Pakistan military academy in Abbottabad have yet to find reason to be lowered.
US concern over a nuclear-armed Pakistan is also understandable, and Smith's letter acknowledged that further radicalization of Waziristan is a threat to Pakistan and global security. But the US's chosen course of action undermines its objective, resulting in damage to its reputation, a failure to win hearts and minds – evidenced by research showing 97% of Pakistanis opposed to US action within their territory – and culminating in what Smith calls the "desperate failure of US policy". Wailing Iraqi mothers and maimed Afghan children whom I saw during operational tours with the British army vouch for that.
I share Smith's indignation at the Obama administration's suggestion that the "just war" theories of St Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine temper its use of drones. Smith highlights how the secretive machinations of the CIA do not constitute a clear declaration of war by a sovereign nation. Neither is drone use justified as a last resort – another principle of "just war" theory. But in applying such principles either to support or criticise drones, we risk formulating a surreal and counterproductive argument, which indeed characterises much of the debate.
Not surprisingly, Smith takes a dim view of how the administration "counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants", according to the New York Times report, "unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent." Stanley Kubrick's film Dr Strangelove doesn't come close to matching that logic for war room farce.
To ensure the marchers' safe passage into Waziristan, four groups were identified from whom assurances were needed. These included locals and tribal leaders, the Pakistan army, the Pakistan Taliban and finally the US. Currently, all but the US have provided their assurances. Smith said his greatest worry concerns a CIA-sponsored attack made to appear it was carried out by the Taliban.
Perhaps the march might also go some way to unmasking the Taliban. In Afghanistan, I never saw them. They remained heat signatures on computer screens, or the unseen origins of shots and mortars. I spurn the reductionism of the usual narrative presenting them all as lunatics hell-bent on anarchy, a lie that has been contradicted by the publication of Taliban poetry. We disrespect our enemies at our peril, primarily by missing the crucial fact we might negotiate with fellow sentient beings.
I believe President Obama is a sentient and intelligent man, and I give him credit for shouldering responsibility for the kill list's consequences and not delegating to others. But as I found when gazing at computer screens in Afghanistan, it's easy to succumb to tunnel vision and become captivated by drones' short-term solutions.
Most importantly, the march will bring attention to the forgotten people, 800,000 of them, who call Waziristan home, and have lived in fear for eight years since the US intervention began. We too easily forget how simple homesteads that don't look like much are the centre of inhabitants' universes, all too easily eradicated by drones' missiles – be it in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen or elsewhere, as their use spreads.
Smith ended his letter asking the president to confirm the CIA will not target the marchers, even as they apologise to those who have suffered. "Surely, I don't ask much: simply not to be killed," he wrote.
Dramatisation could be Barack Obama's secret weapon, airing two days before polling in the presidential election
Film producer Harvey Weinstein may prove to be the secret weapon of the Barack Obama re-election campaign thanks to a film about the killing of Osama Bin Laden that is set to air on US TV just 48 hours before polling day.
Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden is the first high-profile dramatisation of the attack on the al-Qaida leader's Pakistan hide-out. The incident, in May 2011, was widely regarded as a coup for the Obama administration, following former President Bush's failed seven-year attempt to catch Bin Laden "dead or alive".
Produced by the Weinstein Company, the film will be broadcast on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday 4 November. "While some of the characterisations have been dramatised for creative reasons, the core story is an accurate portrayal of an event that ended the longest manhunt in American history," the channel said in a statement.
A longtime fundraiser for the Democratic party, Weinstein backed Hillary Clinton's 2008 bid for the presidency but has since transferred his support to Obama. However, Howard T Owens, president of the National Geographic Channel, this week denied that the producer was using the channel to influence the November 6 election. "Harvey doesn't schedule out network," he said. Owens insisted that his channel was "not political ... we are [only] opportunistic from a programming perspective."
The screening of Seal Team Six also steals the march on rival production Zero Dark Thirty, directed by the Oscar-winning Kathryn Bigelow and similarly documenting the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The film opens in the US on 19 December.
The trail began with a single, false name and ended, years later, with Osama bin Laden's body sinking into the sea
Viewed backwards, from Osama bin Laden's hideout to the scraps of intelligence that led to it, the trail seems obvious. Tracing it from end to beginning obscures the level of difficulty: the years of frustration and patient effort, the technological innovation, the lives lost, the mistakes made, the money spent. The trail to Abbottabad represented a triumph of dot connecting. In this case, it began with a name. It was not even a real name, and the reference was to someone reported, falsely, to be dead.
The name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti was first mentioned to authorities in Mauritania by an al-Qaida operative, Mohamedou Ould Salahi. It was obviously a pseudonym. The name meant "the Father of Ahmed from Kuwait". It was just one name among thousands that were daily being entered into what would become the Terrorism Information Awareness database.
The same pseudonym, and person, would be fleshed out in more detail by three more detainees. A fourth, Abu Faraj al-Libi, al-Qaida's number three, who was captured in May 2005, said he had never heard of him. That was interesting. Five different detainees had been asked about him. Four said they knew of him. Three placed him close to Bin Laden, one named him as a "courier" (although one of those three said he was dead) and one, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, also a senior figure, said he had left al-Qaida. Here's what the analysts gathered: their two most important captives either minimised the importance of the Kuwaiti or denied his existence altogether. This might mean that Ahmed the Kuwaiti was very important indeed. Add the fact that the Kuwaiti had dropped off the map… just like Bin Laden. For the first time, the CIA teams began to consider that the Kuwaiti was with "the Sheikh" even now.
In 2007, the agency learned that the Kuwaiti's real name was Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed. He came from a large Pakistani family that had moved to Kuwait. He and his brothers had grown up speaking Pashto and Arabic. One of his brothers had been killed fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan. In June 2010, because of either some change in his cell phone or its service package, or some improvement in their own capability, the US was able to pinpoint Ahmed's phone's location when it was in use. This meant they could find the Kuwaiti, and watch him.
Ahmed and his family lived in a large compound in Abbottabad, with his brother Abrar and his family. They went by assumed names in the neighbourhood; Ibrahim called himself Arshad Khan and his brother went by the name Tariq Khan. Both had been born in Kuwait, but ethnically they were tall, fair-skinned, bearded Pakistani Pashtuns. They had never been wealthy, but their compound appeared extremely pricey. And in addition to the high walls, it seemed that the brothers observed extraordinarily strict security measures. Other than to attend the local religious school or to visit a doctor, none of their children left the compound. In telephone calls to other far-flung family members, always made from locations distant from the compound itself, they lied about where they were living.
The agency had been investigating the compound quietly, snapping pictures from above and spying on it with agents on the ground – who couldn't see inside, but who asked casual questions of those living nearby, always careful not to appear too curious. Who lives in that big place? I wonder what the people who live there do? That and telephone intercepts produced two discoveries that the agency considered greatly significant, and that persuaded CIA director Leon Panetta he ought to bring the discovery to the president.
The first was that living inside the compound on the upper two floors of the big house was a third family. No member of that family ever left the grounds. Its children did not even leave to attend school with the others. And there were signs that the brothers, who ostensibly owned the place, served this hidden family.
The second discovery was that Ibrahim Ahmed was apparently still working for al-Qaida. In a telephone conversation with an old friend that summer, Ahmed was peppered with the standard questions – "What are you doing now? What are you up to?" At first he didn't answer. But his friend was insistent, and he finally gave in, albeit cryptically. "I'm with the same ones as before," he said. His friend seemed to know immediately what that meant and, after uttering, "May Allah be with you", dropped the subject. That suggested that whomever Ahmed and his brother were minding in Abbottabad belonged to al-Qaida.
Panetta brought two of the agency's Bin Laden team leaders with him to the Oval Office. The lead analyst, who would become known as "John" (his middle name), had devoted himself to the hunt for most of the previous 10 years. The agency men walked the president and his deputy national security adviser, Thomas Donilon, through the reverse engineering that had helped them identify "Ahmed the Kuwaiti" and the suspicious nature of the compound itself. Panetta compared Abbottabad to a well-to-do northern Virginia suburb. The compound was eight times larger than any of the surrounding residences. Its walls were built unusually high, topped by 2ft of barbed wire. There was no way to see inside the house itself, from the ground or from above. The windows were made of reflective glass or had been coated to achieve the same effect.
Obama was familiar enough with Bin Laden's background to have long ago stopped picturing him crouched in a cave or living in some sparse mountaintop camp. But to find him in a sprawling compound in an affluent neighbourhood – they were all surprised by that. Still, the president wasn't especially hopeful. The connection to Bin Laden was tenuous at best. He encouraged Panetta to press on. He wanted the identity of the hidden family nailed down. He also wanted a "close hold" on the lead, meaning it was not to leave his office.
"Just emotionally," Obama told me, "I was not particularly optimistic about it. I mean, I think my general view was, OK, these guys are carrying out my orders to pursue every lead. Did I think at that stage that we had the goods? I think I was pretty guarded about not letting myself get overly excited about the prospects."
Only one member of the hidden family in Abbottabad could be seen regularly, a tall man in traditional Pashtun dress and prayer cap who took daily walks inside the compound walls. Overhead cameras were able to get images of him, but they were not very good. He appeared to be tall and thin. They called the man "the Pacer".
The CIA determined that the hidden family was large: three wives, a young man and 10 or more children, several of them teenagers or young adults. The number of wives and children corresponded with their theorising about who might surround Bin Laden on the run. He had always kept most of his family with him.
Obama was struck, as others were, by actually being able to see the mystery man.
"At this point, you're saying to yourself, this is all circumstantial, but it's hard to figure out what the explanation would be for that particular pattern," Obama said. "And so at that point I think there's a part of me that's thinking this might be for real." Still, the president was cautious. He instructed Panetta to figure out a way to nail it down. He said to continue keeping a tight lid on it. And he also instructed Panetta to start preparing options for action.
Planning for either an air or a ground assault on the compound proceeded through February 2011, ready for a meeting with Obama on 14 March. It was time to start making important decisions.
By early March, the agency had determined that the Abbottabad compound held a "high value target" and that it was most likely Osama bin Laden. "John", the team leader at the CIA, was close to convinced. He put his confidence level at 95%. Others were less certain. Some were as low as 40% or even 30%.
Ever since the agency's erroneous call, a decade earlier, that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction, the CIA had instituted an almost comically elaborate process for weighing certainty. Analysts up and down the chain were now asked not only for their opinion, but to assign it a confidence level. Michael Morell, deputy director of the CIA, had been personally involved in the finding about Saddam's supposed weapons of mass destruction, and had felt more certain about that than he felt about this.
"Mr President, if we had a human source who had told us directly that Bin Laden was living in that compound, I still wouldn't be above 60%." Morell said he had spent a lot of time on both questions – WMDs and Abbottabad. "And I'm telling you, the case for WMDs wasn't just stronger, it was much stronger," he said.
The president listened, but he had already pretty much made up his mind. "One of the things you learn as president is you're always dealing with probabilities," he told me. "No issue comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable... Because if people were absolutely certain, then it would have been decided by somebody else... In this situation, what you started getting was probabilities that disguised uncertainty as opposed to actually providing you with more useful information."
Obama had no trouble admitting it to himself. If he acted on this, he was going to be taking a gamble, pure and simple. A big gamble.
"This is 50-50," he said. "Look, guys, this is a flip of the coin. I can't base this decision on the notion that we have any greater certainty than that."
So, if he decided to act, what were his options? Obama was presented with two. The simplest, and the one that posed the least risk to US forces, was to reduce the compound to dust, along with everyone and everything in and around it. To do the job right, the air force had calculated that would mean raining as many as 30 or more precision bombs from a high-flying B-2, or launching a comparable number of missiles.
Obama asked how many people were living at the compound and was informed that there were four adult males, five women and nearly 20 children. He asked about the houses that were close to the compound. Those, too, would be completely destroyed, along with every resident man, woman and child. This really gave the president pause. America was not going to obliterate them on a 50-50 chance of also killing Osama bin Laden.
So the president scrapped that plan immediately. Then Vice Admiral William McRaven, commander of joint special operations command, explained the ground option for the first time. His team had not yet fleshed out the mission completely. One thing he could tell the president for sure was that if his team could be delivered to the compound, they could clear it and kill or capture Bin Laden with minimal loss of life.
Two weeks later, at the end of March, McRaven was back in the Situation Room with a full plan. The air force also came back with a plan for smaller bombs and smaller blast circles. They could hit the compound without harming people living in homes outside its walls, but the lesser assault meant they could not guarantee taking out anything underground. There would still be a lot of bodies, women and children included, and no way to tell if one of the dead was Bin Laden.
But there was another air option, one that appealed especially to Vice Chairman James Cartwright, one of Obama's favourite generals. Cartwright's new proposal for Abbottabad was to target the Pacer alone. Wait for the tall man to emerge for his daily exercise around the vegetable garden and shoot him down with a small missile fired from a drone.
It felt too good to be true. What if it worked and you dropped the Pacer in his tracks? How would you know that you had killed Osama bin Laden? And it was strictly a one-shot deal. If you missed, the Pacer and his entourage would vanish.
McRaven said that his team would be ready to conduct the raid by the first week of May, when the moon would vanish for a few days over Abbottabad. Obama told McRaven to start full dress rehearsals. He also told Cartwright to get ready to attempt the drone strike. He wanted both options kept alive until he made a decision.
Raiding the compound was the riskiest option. It posed a slew of hard questions that the air option did not. One of the most interesting was what to do if Bin Laden was not killed but captured. In the unlikely event that Bin Laden surrendered, Obama saw an opportunity to resurrect the idea of a criminal trial.
"We worked through the sort of legal and political issues that would have been involved, and Congress and the desire to send him to Guantánamo, and to not try him, and Article Three," the president told me. "I mean, we had worked through a whole bunch of those scenarios. But, frankly, my belief was if we had captured him, that I would be in a pretty strong position, politically, here, to argue that displaying due process and rule of law would be our best weapon against al-Qaida, in preventing him from appearing as a martyr."
Obama added, "I think it's important to emphasise, having made those plans, our expectation was that if, in fact, he was there, that he would go down fighting."
The final meeting was held in the Situation Room on the afternoon of Thursday 28 April. Popular accounts of this decisive session have portrayed Obama facing down a wall of opposition and doubt among his top advisers. In fact, there was overwhelming support for launching the raid.
One by one, the principals around the room were asked to choose one of the three options: the raid, the missile strike or doing nothing – and then to defend their choice. The only major dissenters were Joe Biden and defence secretary Robert Gates, and, by the next morning, Gates had changed his mind. Everyone else favoured sending in the Seals. At first it didn't seem like Hillary Clinton would. She had famously faulted Obama years earlier for asserting that he would take a shot in Pakistan unilaterally if there was a good chance of getting Bin Laden and now, as secretary of state, she would bear the brunt of the diplomatic fallout if he did. Suspense built as Clinton worked her way around to her surprising bottom line. They could not ignore a chance to get Osama bin Laden. It was too important to the country. It outweighed the risks.
The Thursday meeting ended early in the evening. "You'll have my decision in the morning," Obama said.
In truth, as the president told me, he had all but made up his mind when he left the Thursday meeting. He had been thinking about it for months. The advantages of the raid were obvious and, to his way of thinking, outweighed the risks. A missile might go astray and, unlike taking a shot from a drone, the raid offered certainty. If Bin Laden was there, they would know it and they would bring him out, dead or alive.
There was another compelling reason to send in the Seal team. If this had been Bin Laden's hideout for years, it might hold a trove of valuable information, perhaps the kind that would enable the US to further dismantle al-Qaida.
He reviewed the process over and over again in his mind Thursday night into Friday morning. His habit was to stay up much later than Michelle and his girls. They had turned in at 10 o'clock. He was up another three hours, pacing and thinking in the Treaty Room, the upstairs room that functions as the family's living room and also the president's private office.
"It was a matter of taking one last breath and just making sure, asking is there something that I haven't thought of?" Obama explained to me. "Is there something that we need to do?"
The questions stayed with him even as he tried to sleep that night. He believed that waiting longer would not accomplish anything, and might risk everything. They were not likely to get better intelligence, that had been clear.
On Friday morning, before he walked out to the South Lawn to board a helicopter on a trip to the southern states to view tornado damage, he called a meeting. "It's a go," Obama said. "We're going to do the raid. Prepare the directives."
McRaven's men were in Jalalabad, poised. The earliest they would go would be early the following evening, Saturday 30 April. Most of the 24 handpicked team were members of Red Squadron of Seal Team Six. Behind this initial force were the men and choppers and planes that McRaven hoped he would not need. There were three MH-47E Chinooks, big as tractor trailers, with flat rotors front and back. Also on alert were the fighters and combat-control aircraft that might be needed to fend off Pakistani fighters and ground-to-air defences.
There had been some conversation the evening before about the timing. The correspondents' dinner was the major black-tie social gala of the year in Washington: televised, and attended by celebrities from Hollywood and the sports world, and by all of the most prominent government leaders and journalists. The main attraction was always the president of the United States, who typically delivered a standup comedy routine poking fun at himself and the press. If Obama chose the raid, it would likely take place at the same time as the dinner. How would it look for the president to be making jokes at a podium while the men were risking their lives? And what if something went wrong and everyone had to suddenly leave the party? When someone floated the idea of asking McRaven to postpone the mission for a day, Clinton had heard enough.
"We are not going to let a White House correspondents' dinner drive an operational decision," she said.
That ended it. Obama told Donilon, "Tom, if it turns out that's when we decide to go, you'll just tell them I have a stomach ache and I have to bow out."
The question of what to do about the dinner became moot when McRaven's weather experts predicted fog in the Abbottabad area for Saturday night, so he decided to push the mission back one day. They would launch on Sunday night.
So in this tense moment, the most suspenseful of Obama's presidency, he and his staff dressed for a formal party. Obama lived up to his reputation for cool. If he was anxious about the next day's mission, he didn't show it, garnering laughs as he poked fun at the long-running dispute over his origins and his own sometimes messianic public image.
Great care was taken to preserve the appearance of normality on Sunday. President Obama left for his weekly golf outing at Andrews Air Force Base, but this time he would play only nine holes.
Arrival times at the White House for all the top staffers and cabinet members were staggered. The West Wing tours normally booked for Sunday had been cancelled. Obama's personal secretary had planned one for that day, intending to show around the cast members of the hit movie The Hangover, who had come to town for the previous night's gala, but was told there were no exceptions.
In the Situation Room and the complex of small meeting rooms around it, staffers worked on setting up the video conferencing. Panetta, who would officially command the mission from his conference room at the CIA HQ in Langley, would be up on the big screen, relaying the running commentary of McRaven, who would be at his post in Jalalabad. High over Abbottabad was an RQ-170 Sentinel, a stealthy drone with a high-powered lens, which would provide a live video feed of the assault.
Two stealth Black Hawks lifted off from the airfield at Jalalabad precisely at 11pm local time. They were blacked out and both carried a full, minutely calculated load. Each of the Seals was in full kit. They carried only light arms because the compound was not heavily defended.
About 10 minutes into the flight, the choppers rose above a series of rugged peaks and crossed into Pakistan. As soon as they did, the three big Chinooks lifted off from Jalalabad. One would set down just inside the border on the Afghan side; the other two would proceed to the staging area north of Abbottabad by a different route.
Up on the big screen in the White House Situation Room, Panetta read out occasional updates on the choppers' progress. One of Obama's aides said, "Mr President, this is going to take a while, you might not want to sit here and watch the whole thing unfold."
"No, I think I'm going to go ahead and watch," Obama said.
Approaching the compound from the north-west, the Black Hawks were now visible in the grainy overhead feed from the Sentinel. After that, things happened very fast.
Everyone watched with shock as the first chopper, instead of hovering over the compound as planned, to drop the Seal team from ropes and then move off, abruptly wheeled, clipping the compound wall with its tail and hitting the ground. This clearly wasn't good.
The Night Stalker pilot had tried to bring his Black Hawk to a hover, but the chopper wouldn't perform the manoeuvre. It began to skid uncontrollably. The pilot of the faltering Black Hawk moved with practised speed. The landing was hard, but upright, which was key.
No one watching the small screen in the White House could see exactly what had happened. They could see only that it was down inside the compound. They knew that was not the plan. Here in the first seconds of the mission, they had a Black Hawk down. Obama had been receiving mission updates secondhand, talking with Panetta via the video hook-up in the Situation Room, and letting others monitor the video feed and chat lines in the side room, but when the chopper went down, he abruptly got up and crossed the hall.
"I'll just take this chair here," he said, sliding into the corner. "I need to watch this."
Clinton followed and took one of the remaining chairs at the table. Other staffers began crowding into the small room to see what would happen next. Obama's face was etched with worry. A White House photographer snapped a picture of the now-crowded side room that would become famous.
When the first chopper went down, the second Black Hawk diverted from its planned course and landed outside the compound walls in a newly planted field. It seemed to the viewers that the entire assault plan had gone awry.
Then, abruptly, Seals began streaming out of both choppers, inside the compound and out. The assault was on. The team from the crashed chopper moved quickly along the inside wall of the compound, pausing only to blow open a metal door that led to the house. The team from the chopper outside the wall blasted in through another entrance. There were flashes of light on the screen. The men were moving on the house itself now, and then were inside.
Upstairs in that house, according to accounts given by Bin Laden's family, the household had been startled awake by a loud crash. Bin Laden instructed his wife, Amal, to leave the lights off. They would not have been able to turn them on anyway, because in advance of the assault CIA operatives had cut off electricity to the entire neighbourhood.
One group of Seals entered the garage area of the guest house. There was a single brief spray of gunfire as they approached, but it was wild and ineffective. It had most likely come from the courier Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed – Ahmed the Kuwaiti. The Seals returned fire, killing Ahmed and wounding his wife in the shoulder.
Another part of the team moved on the main house, clearing it methodically. Abrar Ahmed, the courier's brother, was in a first-floor bedroom with his wife, Bushra. Both were shot dead. They cleared the first floor room by room, encountering no further gunfire. They passed through two large storage rooms and a kitchen. No one knew the layout of the interior. When they encountered a locked metal door in the rear, sealing off a stairway to the upper floors, they slapped on a small C-4 charge, blew it off its hinges and moved up the stairs. Bin Laden's 23-year-old son, Khalid, a slender, bearded man wearing a white T-shirt, was shot dead at the top. There were wailing women and children on this floor, none of whom posed a threat. The team didn't know it yet, but there was only one adult male left in the compound, and he was in the third-floor bedroom.
Originally, half the assaulting Seals were to have come down through the balcony into the third floor, in which case Bin Laden would have been encountered immediately, at about the same time the Ahmed brothers were being shot downstairs. Instead, he had about 15 long minutes to wait in the darkness as the Seals methodically approached. The assaulters blew off the door barring the third floor and he would have heard men ascending, coming for him.
Three Seals came up those stairs, scanning different angles, searching while protecting each other. According to one of the Seals, the first man up spotted a tall, bearded, swarthy man in a prayer cap wearing traditional flowing Pakistani clothes, the knee-length shirt worn over pyjama-like bottoms. One or more of the Seals fired at him. The man retreated quickly into a bedroom and the Seals followed. In the bedroom they found two women leaning over a fatally wounded Bin Laden, who had been shot in the head. The first Seal violently moved the women out of the way and the other two stood over him and fired several more shots into his chest.
The engagement was over in seconds. Amal had been shot in the leg. Bin Laden had weapons on a shelf in his bedroom but had not picked them up. His identity was unmistakable, even with the grotesque hole through his right forehead.
McRaven heard "for God and country, pass Geronimo. Geronimo. Geronimo." The word "Geronimo" was part of a coded "mission execution checklist". It meant the critical milestone of the raid had been passed successfully, securing Bin Laden. McRaven conveyed the report immediately to Panetta, and it began to spread waves of excitement through the CIA and White House.
In the White House, in the corner of the small, crowded conference room, Obama heard "Geronimo ID'd". The president knew the ID was still tentative, so he didn't let himself fully believe it. But after McRaven had passed that along, it occurred to him that he had not asked specifically whether Bin Laden had been killed or captured. So he asked, "Find out whether it's Geronimo EKIA [Enemy Killed In Action]."
The answer came back, "Roger, Geronimo EKIA."
"Looks like we got him," said Obama, only half believing it.
The delay between these two reports would cause some confusion in later accounts, which suggested that the Seals had first found Bin Laden, chased him and then, a few minutes later, killed him. The finding and the shooting had happened in the time it took the three Seals to crash into his room. Eighteen minutes had elapsed since the choppers had arrived.
The video on the screen now showed Seals emerging from the house, herding the uninjured women and children to one corner of the compound, away from the downed chopper. Some of the men came out carrying a body bag – Bin Laden's body had been dragged feet-first down the stairs, leaving a bloody trail. The Seals eventually zipped it into a nylon bag. The assaulters moved deliberately, and Obama felt they were taking too long. Everyone was waiting for the Pakistani response at this point. The president just wanted them in the air.
Upstairs, Seals were hastily bagging Bin Laden's papers and computer, discs, flash drives, anything that might contain useful intelligence. Bin Laden's youngest wife, Amal, wounded, was helped down the stairs, and once outside started haranguing the Americans in Arabic. All four men who had lived in the compound, along with one woman, were dead. The surviving women and children were flex-cuffed. The women assumed they were going to be taken away. Questioned by an Arabic-speaking Seal, the women confirmed that they had killed "the Sheikh". One of the children confirmed that it was Osama bin Laden.
The Chinook summoned by McRaven now landed noisily outside the compound walls. Men were working on planting explosives on the downed Black Hawk and destroying its secret avionics with a hammer. A medic from the Chinook unzipped Bin Laden's body bag, took swabs of blood and inserted needles to extract bone marrow for DNA testing. Twenty more minutes elapsed before the body bag was carried out to the Black Hawk. One of the bone marrow samples was placed on the Chinook. The intelligence haul was likewise distributed between the two choppers.
Finally, the White House audience saw the downed Black Hawk explode with the set charges. The demolition team scurried to the Chinook and the choppers lifted off, leaving behind a huge blaze, a stunned collection of cuffed women and children, and four bodies. A photo purporting to be the bloody corpse of Khalid bin Laden would turn up on the internet in the coming days.
The choppers landed back in Jalalabad at 3am local time. None of the men who went on the raid had been hurt. They had lost a helicopter, but they had avoided Pakistan's defences completely. And they had killed Osama bin Laden.
The Seals were certain of it, but the White House and the world would demand more proof. The body bag was unzipped, and photographs were taken and transmitted immediately to Washington and Langley. The man had been dead for an hour and 40 minutes, and he had taken a shot to the head, so the face was swollen and distorted.
McRaven called CIA headquarters with a question for the Bin Laden team.
"How tall is this guy?" he asked.
He was told, "Between six-four and six-five."
The dead man was certainly tall, but no one had a tape measure, so one of the Seals who was exactly 6ft 4in lay down next to the body. It was roughly the same height.
Early on Sunday evening in Washington, Obama surveyed the first photos with other members of the team. When McRaven returned to his command centre, Obama asked him, "What do you think?"
"Without DNA I can't tell you I'm 100% sure," the admiral said. "But I'm pretty damned sure."
Still, the president was inclined to be cautious. It wasn't until 11.35pm that the president appeared on television, striding up the red carpet towards a podium, and began: "Good evening. Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida, and a terrorist who is responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children."
In the days after the raid, an album of photographs was delivered to the White House, a series of shots of the dead Bin Laden. There would be much discussion that week about whether these images should be made public, as proof of death, but the president had firmly decided that they would not.
After much discussion and advice, it had been decided that the best option would be burial at sea. That way, there would be no shrine for the martyr's misguided followers. So the body was washed, photographed from every conceivable angle and flown on a V-22 Osprey to the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, cruising in the North Arabian Sea. Procedures for a simple Muslim burial were performed on the carrier. The body was wrapped in a white shroud with weights to sink it.
The last sequence of colour photos in the death album were not grotesque. They were strangely moving. A navy photographer recorded the burial in full sunlight on Monday morning, 2 May. One frame shows the body wrapped in the weighted white shroud. The next shows it diagonal on a flat board, feet overboard. In the next frame the body is hitting the water with a small splash. In the next it is visible just below the surface, a ghostly torpedo descending. In the next shot there are only circular ripples on the blue surface. In the final frame the waters are calm.
The mortal remains of Osama bin Laden were gone for good.
• This is an edited extract from The Finish: The Killing Of Osama Bin Laden, by Mark Bowden, published next week by Atlantic Books at £20. To order a copy for £16, with free UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846.
Judges' ruling in Salim Hamdan case may have repercussions for others convicted under Military Commissions Act
A US appeals court has thrown out the conviction of Osama bin Laden's former driver who served a five-and-a-half-year prison sentence for material support for terrorism.
In a 3-0 ruling on Tuesday, the court said the offence was not a war crime under international law at the time Salim Ahmed Hamdan engaged in the activity for which he was convicted.
He was sentenced in 2008, given credit for time served, and is back home in Yemen, reportedly working as a taxi driver.
"If the government wanted to charge Hamdan with aiding and abetting terrorism or some other war crime that was sufficiently rooted in the international law of war at the time of Hamdan's conduct, it should have done so," wrote Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who with the other two appeal judges were appointed by Republican presidents.
The war crime for which Hamdan was convicted was specified in the Military Commissions Act 2006.
"The government suggests that at the time of Hamdan's conduct from 1996 to 2001, material support for terrorism violated the law of war referenced," in US law, said Kavanaugh, but "we conclude otherwise".
To date, the cases against seven prisoners under the military commission system in place at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba have involved material support for terrorism. Five of those charged pleaded guilty. Hamdan went to trial, as did Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, who helped al-Qaida produce propaganda and handled media relations for Bin Laden. Bahlul was convicted in November 2008 of multiple counts of conspiracy, solicitation to commit murder and providing material support for terrorism, and is serving a life sentence at Guantánamo.
"It is highly likely that the result of this decision on Hamdan will be to vacate the convictions of Bahlul," said Eric M Freedman, a professor of constitutional law at Hofstra University, Long Island. "Even the conspiracy and solicitation to commit murder counts are very probably headed toward reversal."
A US justice department spokesman, Dean Boyd, said his department is reviewing the Bahlul ruling.
In 2006, Hamdan's lawyers successfully challenged the system of military commissions set up by George W Bush. That resulted in congressional enactment of the Military Commissions Act under which Hamdan was tried.
A six-member military jury in 2008 cleared Hamdan of conspiracy while finding him guilty of material support for terrorism.
The Centre for Constitutional Rights praised Tuesday's ruling but said the decision did not go far enough. The CCR says Guantánamo detainees are civilians under the laws of war and must be charged under domestic laws or released, rather than being tried under a system of military commissions.
Raha Wala, a lawyer for Human Rights First, said the case has repercussions for "every other flawed military commissions case like it", adding: "It's a basic rule of law principle that a defendant can't be prosecuted for acts that were not criminal at the time they were committed."
American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Zachary Katznelson said the decision "strikes the biggest blow yet against the legitimacy of the Guantánamo military commissions, which have for years now been trying people for a supposed war crime that in fact is not a war crime at all".
Hamdan met Bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1996 and worked on his farm before being promoted to his driver.
His lawyers said he only kept the job for the $200-a-month salary. But prosecutors alleged he was a personal driver and bodyguard of the al-Qaida leader. They say he transported weapons for the Taliban and helped Bin Laden escape US retribution after the 9/11 attacks.
Hamdan was captured at a roadblock in Afghanistan in November 2001.
Movie about the Navy Seal raid is slated to air two nights before the election, prompting calls of unfair election influence
A film about the killing of Osama bin Laden, which will air two nights before the US presidential election, has been re-edited to feature more footage of Barack Obama, prompting accusations Hollywood is trying to swing the vote.
Harvey Weinstein, a studio head and prominent Democrat who has contributed to the president's campaign, tweaked the film Seal Team Six: the Raid on Osama bin Laden to broaden Obama's role.
The new version of the 90-minute feature, which will debut in primetime on 4 November on the National Geographic Channel, and be available the next day on Nextflix, uses additional news and documentary footage to show Obama in the build-up and aftermath of the May 2011 raid which killed the al-Qaida leader in Pakistan.
Weinstein and the director, John Stockwell, told the New York Times that the changes, instigated by Weinstein, were motivated not by politics but to imbue more realism.
The footage includes the president speaking at the annual White House correspondents' dinner a day before the raid, a lonely walk in which he appears deep in thought, and a triumphant declaration – "Justice has been done" – after the raid.
The extra footage was shot by Meghan O'Hara, a producer who collaborated with Michael Moore on the George Bush-bashing documentary Fahrenheit 9/11.
Conservatives were angry about the film and its timing even before the re-edit, calling the Weinstein Company and Voltage Pictures production a blatant attempt to influence voters.
News of the new, Obama-expanded version ratcheted up resentment on blogs and website talkboards on Wednesday.
"It's a propaganda film from start to finish," said one commenter. "I wonder if Obama is going to have a starring role and jump out of the helicopter," asked another. Several lamented what they called Hollywood's liberal bias.
"It is amazing [that] Hollywood actually believe what their big, fat hyper-inflated egos tell them – that we the people are stupid and they can do anything they want. Time to fire these 'entertainers' by not watching their movies or television shows."
It could, from a Republican perspective, have been even worse. An earlier version of the film included a scene in which Mitt Romney appeared to oppose the raid.
Howard T Owens, the chief executive of the National Geographic Channel, told the Times that his company demanded that scene be cut. "We wouldn't air this if it were propaganda."
The film's timing, he said, was to take advantage of the fall schedule of TV shows. Another motivation was desire to get in ahead of the Zero Dark Thirty, a bigger budget film about the raid directed by Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow.
"Other than being commercially opportunistic, we weren't considering the election," said Owens.
Zero Dark Thirty was originally slated to appear in cinemas before the election, but was pushed back to December amid complaints it could unfairly boost Obama. Republicans also accused the White House of sharing classified information with Bigelow and her writer-producer, Mark Boal.
Jason Burke on the extraordinary operation that led US forces to Bin Laden's hideout
Some time in April last year, Osama bin Laden started writing one of the long, winding letters that had become his chief means of communicating with the fragmented and battered organisation he had helped found 13 years before. Now in his mid 50s, he was not a particularly contented man. For the last several years he had been confined to a three-storey house on the outskirts of the Pakistani garrison city of Abbottabad. Not only was his home a long way from the frontlines of Afghanistan, where he had once lived the intense life of a "mujahid"; it was even further from his homeland of Saudi Arabia. Though three wives and around a dozen grandchildren and children lived with him – he delivered a paternal lecture on religious life, the world and household discipline every day – Bin Laden knew he was out of touch.
"I protest to God so much about my isolation and being alone," he had noted shortly before. "I worry people will tire of me and [my ideas] will become old and worn out to them. But I protest only to God."
Bin Laden was right about his own marginalisation. Chief among his concerns in the weeks before he died was the role of al-Qaida in the Arab uprisings which, through street protests and largely non-violent activism, had deposed secularist dictators in Egypt and Tunisia and looked set to up-end regimes across the region. In a few short weeks these spontaneous revolts had thus achieved a key aim of his own efforts over previous decades. He also worried about the evident failure of his overarching strategy which, by the use of spectacular violence against carefully picked targets, was supposed to mobilise tens of millions under al-Qaida's banner, but had not done so.
One thing he did not appear to be worried about, however, was being the subject of the biggest, most expensive and most advanced manhunt in the history of the world. "It is proven that the American technology and its modern systems cannot arrest a mujahid if he does not commit a security error that leads them to him," he wrote.
Even as Bin Laden was drafting these words, the US president was considering which of the various options presented by his top security officials would be the best way to kill "High Value Target Number One". In American military terminology, Bin Laden had been "found and fixed". All that remained was "the Finish", the title of this book. Barack Obama chose the most risky option – a raid by a team of helicopter-borne special forces. Shortly after midnight on 2 May 2011 an American Navy Seal fired a bullet that removed much of the left half of Bin Laden's skull, almost certainly killing him instantly.
The death of the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks is a fantastic story. It has goodies and baddies, a long, slow build to the climax, exotic locations and lots of hardware. It is no wonder that it has already spawned half a dozen books and a Hollywood film.
Mark Bowden comes to this story with impressive credentials. He is the author of Black Hawk Down, the much-admired account of a special forces mission that went badly wrong in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993. The book led to a film, but also set a standard for narrative description of combat that has rarely been rivalled since, despite Bowden's many imitators.
It is no surprise, then, that The Finish rattles along at a good pace. The narrative starts, slightly surprisingly, with the discovery of a large cache of documents in Iraq in 2007; runs through the story of the CIA operation that identified the courier, who eventually led the hunters to the Abbottabad hideout; describes the decision-making in the White House in detail; and finally takes us through the operation itself. It ends with Bin Laden's remains sliding off a plank, wrapped in a shroud, from a US aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean.
This story is one of the most heavily reported in recent history, and it is understandable that Bowden did not dig up much that was new. Bin Laden's letters, found in the raid, were released in full and immediately picked over by journalists. Though Bowden makes provocative points about the possible utility of torture in extracting the information that led to Bin Laden and thoughtfully discusses President Obama's own intellectual evolution on the question of military force, war and ordering effective assassinations, there is no scoop. The author quotes at length from his own interview with Obama, who reveals that he would have preferred Bin Laden taken alive than dead, but there's little else that we do not already know.
What Bowden does do, however, is to show how success in the raid last May was the culmination not just of a decade of often tedious data-crunching by the CIA and other analysts, but of a vast and ongoing effort within the American security establishment and government to develop a new range of capabilities. These included the software needed for the supercomputers that collated all the myriad fragments of information that led to the identification of the courier, the new drone technology that allowed continued surveillance of the Abbottabad compound and the skills of the men who stormed Bin Laden's home. Even if the US had successfully located al-Qaida's leader several years earlier, it would have been impossible to launch such a raid – the capacity to execute it simply did not exist. Bowden also stresses that, if in retrospect the trail that led to Abbottabad seems clear, the lead that finally turned out to be the right one was in fact indistinguishable from the tens of thousands of others that were being chased down. Even the litter picked up in recently vacated militant camps in Afghanistan in 2001 – notebooks, diaries, photos from wallets – was all poured into a vast human and electronic data-processing operation that eventually came up with the right combinations. When Obama sent in the Seals, the identification of the target was still only "50-50".
Back in 2001, I can remember standing on a wintry hillside in Afghanistan and watching B-52s futilely bombarding caves from which Bin Laden had fled days before. How the Americans finally got their man is an extraordinary tale and Bowden does it justice.