David Mark, of Politico’s “Arena” asked whether George W. Bush should have accepted President Obama’s invitation to attend ceremonies at Ground Zero today. The question and possible answers should have been straightforward, but of course, some people chose to use the occasion for yet more Bush-bashing. My response can be found here. I trust that my impatience with some of the answers shines through.
The arguments continue to rage as to how much credit the Bush Administration should get for the process that led to bin Laden’s killing. I am sure that this observation will deeply upset those for whom hating George W. Bush is their raison d’être, but as Paul Miller notes, a considerable amount of credit should in fact go to the 43rd President and his team, as well as other predecessors of President Obama:
Covert action is authorized by a Presidential Finding. Findings are rare; more often, presidents sign Memoranda of Notification (MON) to further extend or modify an existing Finding. That is why to find the relevant finding behind the Abbottabad strike, we have to go all the way back to one signed in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan. The 1986 Finding describes the basic authorities for covert worldwide counterterrorism action by the military and intelligence community. The Finding was signed concurrently with the birth of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC), and finally started the slow gears of American bureaucracy churning against terrorists across the globe. Reagan was the first to make fighting terrorism official U.S. policy. (See Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars).
President Bill Clinton signed a number of MONs further extending counterterrorism authorities, several specifically targeted at al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, according to the 9/11 Commission Report and Ghost Wars. The military and intelligence community designed several operations to either kill or capture bin Laden several times in the late 90s. Clinton was the first to make fighting al-Qaida U.S. policy.
President George W. Bush dramatically expanded the counterterrorism authorities with an expansive MON signed shortly after 9/11 (detailed in Woodward’s Bush At War). The authorities enabled intelligence operatives and special operations forces to embed with the Afghan Northern Alliance and overthrow the Taliban in 2001 (see Gary Schroen’s First In and Gary Berntsen’s Jawbreaker). They also eventually gave birth to the rumored drone program (here is a fascinating website that attempts to track the rumored done strikes). But the drones are relevant for Abbottabad not because of their missiles, but because of their cameras and sensors; they’ve helped build up years and years of data about militants which analysts have been able to mine for the smallest detail, crucial in the hunt for bin Laden.
Perhaps most directly relevant for the road to Abbottabad, Bush made a few key changes to the counterterrorism programs in 2008. Frustrated by years of stalemate, he expanded the authorized target list, began to approve missions without prior Pakistani approval, and also authorized ground incursions into Pakistan to pursue al-Qaida. (see Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars, Chapter 1).Abbottabad was not the first widely-reported Navy SEAL incursion into Pakistan. Bush authorized a raid on the town of Angor Adda in September 2008 in pursuit of al-Qaida targets. The raid went poorly — it was undertaken during Ramadan, when civilians were awake and feasting at night-Pakistani officials lashed out, and ground incursions were halted. But the precedent was set.
As President Obama celebrates the signature national-security success of his tenure, he has a long list of people to thank. On the list: George W. Bush.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Bush waged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have forged a military so skilled that it carried out a complicated covert raid with only a minor complication. Public tolerance for military operations over the past decade has shifted to the degree that a mission carried out deep inside a sovereign country has raised little domestic protest.
And a detention and interrogation system that Obama once condemned as contrary to American values produced one early lead that, years later, brought U.S. forces to the high-walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and a fatal encounter with an unarmed Osama bin Laden.
But the bridge connecting the two administrations has also led Obama to the same contested legal terrain over how to fight against stateless enemies and whether values should be sacrificed in the pursuit of security.
“We in the Obama administration absolutely benefitted from an enormous body of work and effort that went into understanding al-Qaeda and pursuing bin Laden,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.
All of these are inconvenient truths for those who want to believe that the plan to kill Osama bin Laden sprang unadorned from the brow of Barack Obama. But they are truths nonetheless. President Obama certainly deserves a significant share of credit for the fact that Osama bin Laden no longer walks the Earth. But so do a number of his predecessors, including and most especially his most recent predecessor.