Center for Strategic Communication

In an undated photograph, Osama bin Laden watches a video of himself in the Abbottabad compound he would ultimately die in. Photo: U.S. government

There was more evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction than there was that a mysterious, tall man the CIA spotted pacing around a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was Osama bin Laden. In a brand new book about the raid that ultimately killed al-Qaida’s leader, Michael Morrell, the CIA’s former second in command, explains, “the case for WMD wasn’t just stronger — it was much stronger.” Gulp.

That anecdote, and other details author Mark Bowden unearths for his new book The Finish, published today, shows just how closely the raid came to never happening at all. It seems like the easiest of calls in hindsight, but several national-security veterans inside the Obama administration had misgivings about the raid. They argued that it would be preferable to bomb the compound, thereby sparing SEALs the danger of fighting inside the compound, or believed a drone strike could limit the U.S. liability if the intel was wrong. The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright, contended that what sounds a lot to Bowden like a Raytheon’s Small Tactical Munition — an unproven, 13-pound bomb capable of being launched from a drone — could be a magic bullet. Bowden’s accounts bolster another recent book about the raid, Peter Bergen’s Manhunt.

The special operations forces conducting the mission also labored under a shadow: the failures of their predecessors in 1980 to rescue Iranian hostages, and in the “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia. The only reason anyone ever refers to the bloody 1993 battle with the forces of a Mogadishu warlord is because of Bowden, whose definitive book of that title (later a movie) has become an iconic military tome. It also gives Bowden the perspective to see how the Joint Special Operations Command reconfigured itself into a powerful intelligence apparatus able to quickly exploit new information while conducting Abbottabad-style raids in Afghanistan at a furious clip.

But there’s a darker side to the raid that gets less attention. Bin Laden was unarmed when killed, leading some to question whether he could have been taken alive. Torture played at least some role in developing the intelligence leading to bin Laden. And the CIA helped collect DNA intelligence in the city from a doctor conducting vaccinations, which has had negative ramifications for public health in Pakistan. Bin Laden might be dead and Bowden’s book might be published, but the circumstances of the Abbottabad raid are likely to be debated for years — making it a perfect opportunity for Danger Room to ask Bowden about The Finish.

Danger Room: Was there a good argument for simply not raiding the Abbottabad compound?

Mark Bowden: Not a very good one. This was the argument [Vice President Joe] Biden made. His feeling was the risk of things going wrong was so great, the downside potential was so big, that it warranted delaying until they could be more certain, at the very least, that bin Laden was actually living there. The downside of that: As planning for this raid continued, more and more people were brought into the loop. By they time they launched it, in May [2011], there were probably hundreds of people who knew. I think Obama was correct in assessing that the secret would not hold. And then they would have let this opportunity slip through their fingers.

I do think it’s important to note that one of the reasons why Obama decided to launch SEALs was that there was always the potential that they could raid the compound and discover bin Laden wasn’t there at all. If all went well, they could have gone in there and got out and left without hurting anybody. If they did it smoothly enough, then other than people in the neighborhood wondering what the hell happened, they could get in and out without causing any problems.

The Finish author Mark Bowden. Photo: Pascal Pietch

Danger Room: As opposed to hitting the compound with a missile or one fired from a drone, which was a leading alternative?

Bowden: Yeah, which would have probably killed at least one person, and maybe more. What if you find out, oops, it was a sheikh from Saudi Arabia living with his wife and kids there and you just killed him. It startled me, to be honest, that some people who assessed the likelihood of it being bin Laden there as less than 50 percent nevertheless advocated launching a missile.

Danger Room: What was the main alternative? I was surprised to read that Cartwright wanted to fire a Small Tactical Munition at the compound.

Bowden: It’s probably still considered a secret. No one talked to me about the specifics of this weapon at all. I tried to make clear in the book that I surmised what they were talking about was this Raytheon guided missile you can find online. It pretty much fits the description of what the alternative was. What they would say to me was that it was a missile that would target an individual.

Danger Room: If the alternatives to the raid were so weak, were you surprised that people like Robert Gates, who had decades of experience with intelligence, initially opposed it?

Bowden: I’m not surprised they did. Gates was actually in the Situation Room back in 1980 when the Iran rescue mission went all to hell. He remembers the loss of life, the crisis that created within the American government, the devastating blow that was to the Carter presidency. So he understood, I think, more than most people, how real the downside was to attempting this. And I completely understand why, given the risks we ran in launching this mission, it might have been better to take a shot from a drone, and eliminate 90 to 95 percent of the risks. It was a sensible argument. As it happened, he changed his mind the next morning.

Danger Room: What surprised you the most about the differences in Special Operations capabilities between 1993 and 2011?

‘Torture was definitely part of the process.’

Bowden: The men themselves have literally been on thousands of raids at this point. The tactics have been honed to a degree that has never been true before. Also, the technology, the ability to deliver a small force rapidly almost anywhere in the world, has just been dramatically improved. Whatever one thinks about the wisdom of invading Iraq or for that matter Afghanistan, one of the things that’s come out of this decade of war is a much, much improved Special Operations capability.

There’s also this this remarkable fusion, which General [Stanley] McChrystal should get credit for, of bringing intelligence analysis, computers, software, in the field with special operators. They have honed the cooperation to the point where they’re able to get inside information on the enemy, they’re able to move more rapidly than the enemy, sometimes even before the enemy’s aware he’s been targeted.

Danger Room: Were you able to determine if bin Laden was actually armed when he was killed? Could the SEALs have taken him alive?

Bowden: If they had been more determined to take him alive, I think they could have. He did have weapons, but he had every opportunity to shoot if he wanted to. He was upstairs in that third-floor room for 15 minutes while they were methodically moving through the house. If he intended to fight back, he had every opportunity to.

Also, they were fired upon initially in what was described to me as ineffectual fire. And they killed the person who’d been shooting at them. After that there were no shots fired at the SEALs. Even though your adrenaline is pumping, and you have to be very alert to the possibility you’re going to be fired upon again, 15 minutes had gone by and that’s a very long time. There was no one firing a shot at you. I think if it had been more of a priority for the team than it was, they could have taken him alive.

Danger Room: Was it a priority for the Obama administration?

Bowden: Obama has said that’s what he would have preferred. He said he felt that might have given him the political capital to put bin Laden on trial in a civilian court. But I don’t think that desire was aggressively conveyed to the assault force. I want to emphasize that I’m speculating here, but my sense of it is there would be a reluctance on the part of this administration in particular to tell the SEALs risking their lives that they should take greater risk in trying to ensure that they bring bin Laden back alive. The instructions were more like, “Well, we would love to have him, that’s our first choice, but you do what you have to do to come back safely.” For teams of men who are used to raiding houses nightly, and getting shot at all the time, you shoot and ask questions later.

Danger Room: What role did torture play in developing the evidence that led the U.S. to bin Laden?

Bowden: It was definitely part of the process. There was never a simple moment you could point to and say, they used some coercive tactic on someone and they coughed up a key piece of information. That’s not how it happened. Essentially, the location of “Hamid the Kuwaiti,” the courier who them led to bin Laden, emerged from a number of different interrogations over years. In some instances, people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was tortured if you consider waterboarding torture, gave them false information. But that false information was telling. It contradicted what others had told them in a very telling way. What is clear is that a number of the key interviews in the process were conducted using coercive interrogations.

I don’t think you can say that you wouldn’t have gotten same results without torture. I don’t think there’s enough evidence to say that. But what is certain is that these key interviews were coercive.

‘You are going to run up against serious moral complications.’

Danger Room: Another controversial aspect of the raid is the use of the Pakistani doctor in getting DNA samples, since his exposure has had negative consequences for public health in Pakistan. How crucial was his role?

Bowden: I don’t think Dr. Afridi provided any useful intelligence. But it was nevertheless a reasonable attempt to try to determine the identity of people within the compound. You don’t want to launch an attack on a compound without knowing there are legitimate targets in it. To some extent, you’re trying to do the right thing by trying to make sure you go after the right people. In the case of Afridi, it’s often said he was running a fake inoculation clinic. In fact, he was running a real inoculation clinic, and it actually inoculated a lot of kids. But he took CIA money and he was aware it was CIA money and their only goal was to lure the bin Laden children out to be inoculated and deliver the needles with DNA on them. But that never happened. It was a ruse that failed. I think extent to which it’s had serious ramifications for public health in Pakistan is very unfortunate. I don’t know whether it’s justified or not. As it happens, it didn’t have any effect on the outcome.

Danger Room: Given the torture, the public health blowback and the prospect of unnecessarily killing bin Laden, should we adopt a more morally complex view of the bin Laden raid than the unalloyed good most Americans consider it?

Bowden: It’s a good question. I view it as a good outcome. I think bin Laden was a very legitimate target for the United States and I’m glad they got him. The methods by which he was found was part of the whole last ten years of warfare. The capabilities of that SEAL team were honed after hundreds and hundreds of raids in Iraq. Was it a good idea to invade Iraq just so we could develop this capability? Probably not. Nevertheless, we did invade Iraq and we do have this capability.

War is messy. I think whenever you are at war, you are going to run up against serious moral complications, moral questions without clear answers.