Michael Lewis’s thoroughly reported article on President Obama pulls no punches about the purpose of the Navy SEALs’ Abbottabad raid. Lewis describes the covert assault as a “ridiculously audacious plan to assassinate Osama bin Laden in his house in Pakistan.” A few paragraphs later, he returns the topic:
Twenty-five minutes after he’d given the world his March Madness tournament picks Obama walked down to the Situation Room. He’d been there just the day before, to hold his first meeting to discuss how to kill Osama bin Laden.
Even though he does not report the fact directly, Lewis’s implication seems clear: From the very beginning, President Obama planned to send U.S. forces into Pakistan to cause Osama bin Laden’s death. That is, their mission was not to make an arrest or take a prisoner, but to end bin Laden’s life. The implication that bin Laden’s killing was premeditated puts Lewis squarely on the more hardboiled side of a messaging gulf that emerged between President Obama and his senior aides in the aftermath of the May 2011 mission.
As his article makes plain, Lewis spent a lot of time with Obama, so there is a reasonably good chance that Lewis’s choice of words reflects how Obama himself described the events.
On the day after Obama announced Osama bin Laden’s death, his Chief Counterterrorism Adviser John Brennan told reporters that the terrorist leader would have been captured alive if possible. However, Brennan said, bin Laden had “”engaged in a firefight with those that entered the area of the house he was in,” and consequently the SEAL team had found it necessary to kill him.
Brennan’s description of the circumstances was contradicted on the same day by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, who told reporters that Bin Laden had not been armed. Nevertheless, Carney insisted that “resistance does not require a firearm,” leaving the impression—as Brennan had—that Bin Laden’s death had been a consequence of his unarmed resistance, not an objective of the mission. An official narrative of the raid that Carney distributed to reporters also described the mission as a “capture operation.” Both Brennan’s and Carney’s accounts, however, were inconsistent with what President Obama had said about the raid.
They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.
Obama’s phrasing was subtle but unmistakeable: The SEALs killed the terrorist leader “after a firefight,” not during one. In his remarks at a dinner the following evening, Obama similarly praised, “an operation that resulted in the capture and death of Osama bin Laden.” The words “capture and death,” again, subtly undermined the contention of the President’s aides that bin Laden was killed while resisting the SEALs’ assault. Obama seemed to have been saying all along that the SEALs had killed Osama bin Laden deliberately. By describing the operation as a kill mission from the very start, Michael Lewis’s story lends credence to that interpretation.