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The raid that killed Osama bin Laden was one of the most scrutinized news events in modern memory. But the secretive nature of the mission and the hyper-politicized environment in which it occurred have made it difficult to separate facts from myth. Mark Bowden is one of the few journalists who was granted direct access to President Barack Obama to discuss the raid. Bowden joins us to share what he learned, and what it revealed about the leaders who carried out the mission.
- Mark Bowden author, "The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. The raid that killed Osama Bin Laden was so fit for a Hollywood screenplay that vaguely describing the details can make you sound like the narrator in a movie trailer.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIA high-stakes hunt for the world's most wanted terrorist. A tight-rope mission that tested the mettle of American's most elite soldiers. But the stories behind the raid recently reported by veteran journalist, Mark Bowden, ponder questions better suited for graduate studies than for popcorn action movies.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIQuestions about the rapidly changing nature of war, the future of intelligence and spy craft in the digital era and the philosophical evolution of a president, who's been asked to weigh matters of life and death from the moment he stepped into the oval office. Bowden is one of the few journalists who had direct access to Barack Obama and other members of his senior team after the raid.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe joins us now to share what he learned about the mission and what it revealed about the leaders who orchestrated it. Mark Bowden is a journalist and author, his most recent book is "The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden." He joins from studios at the University of Delaware. Mark Bowden, thank you for joining us.
MR. MARK BOWDENThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIThe raid that killed Bin Laden is now something of a paradox. On the one hand it's one of the most famous and best known, well, top-secret missions ever executed by American forces. And it's an event that's been shrouded in its own mythology since we learned about it in 2011. Why did you decide this was a story you wanted to report on and what did you feel you would be contributing by telling that story?
BOWDENWell, I thought and have thought for a long time that the kind of war that we'd been fighting for the last decade, this process of sort sketching out invisible networks and tracking down the people responsible for them is a new kind of warfare and that a story about how Osama Bin Laden was found and killed would be a useful way to illustrate basically how we've adapted to this new kind of war.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that you actually started the reporting for this when you were approached by a Hollywood producer to work on a screenplay. At what point did you decide you wanted to dive deeper and report out a book yourself?
BOWDENIt happened because I was fortunate enough to get some signals from the White House that they might be willing to give me access to the president and to his top advisors and really it was only after that, after I learned that, that the movie project that initially interested me fell apart. So I was left with this potential access but without a project.
BOWDENBooks actually suit me better, I mean, that's my primary occupation.
NNAMDIThey don't tend to fall apart as regularly as movie projects do.
BOWDENThat's right and it also gives you as a writer and as someone who has written a lot about the military and the way we fight, an opportunity to sort of satisfy my own curiosity about how this happened.
NNAMDIYou start your story with the 9/11 attacks themselves and how they impacted the individual players who ultimately orchestrated the 2011 raid. To what degree is this a story about process and politics and about how Washington changed during that decade as much as it is a story about Bin Laden himself?
BOWDENWell, I think it's both. You know, I do think and as I write in the book that the attacks on 9/11 posed a new kind of problem for the country and I think the nature of that fight, which is as I said was finding delineating these invisible networks and finding the people responsible for them, is one that's intelligence intensive and because of our modern age of telecommunications and super-computers, much of that process takes place at the top of the chain.
BOWDENDecisions are being made in the White House, for instance, and in the Pentagon and at Langley but in the past would've been made in bunkers or tents on a battlefield.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Mark Bowden, he is a journalist and author. His most recent book is "The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden." He joins us from studios at the University of Delaware. You can join the conversation by calling us at 800-433-8850. How has the hunt for Osama Bin Laden forced you to recalibrate your world view when it comes to what America should be doing to combat terrorism and what do you think our priorities should be now? 800-433-8850 or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIMark Bowden, how would you describe the president's world view in those moments after, well, 9/11 and what did you learn about how that world view evolved in the decade that you studied and reported on?
BOWDENWell, as I said a lot of the decisions are concentrated at the top and of course you don't get any higher in our form government than the presidency. Barack Obama back in 2001 I think had a fairly standard liberal-internationalist perspective on the world. Tended to ascribe something like the attacks on 9/11 to global disparities and income and education.
BOWDENYou know, he was interviewed shortly after the attacks and he talked about what was essentially a global campaign to get at the roots of the problem of anti-Americanism and Islamist extremism, things like education or foreign aid. You know, I don't think his first instinct was to regard those who had attacked the country as being implacable enemies who needed to be defeated.
NNAMDIDo you think at that point in his life he had any thoughts at all about actually being responsible for killing people identified as America's enemies?
BOWDENNo, no more than I would or you would or anyone else who doesn't have that responsibility and I think what you've seen in Barack Obama is someone who, as he has taken on greater and greater responsibility as he's been elected to higher and higher offices. Had to wrestle very directly in ways that none of us or few of us ever have to with the implications of being responsible for defending the country, for defending American citizens. And he has left behind a trail of speeches and writing that really interestingly map the evolution of his thinking.
NNAMDI800-433-8850, what do you think "The Killing of Osama Bin Laden" revealed about the character of the American officials who ordered the operation in general and the president in particular. 800-433-8850, Mark the last time we spoke we spent quite a bit of time talking about the evolution of threats in the digital era.
NNAMDISo much of your reporting on the raid seems to be about the evolution of intelligence and warfare in that time as well. at what point, if indeed there was an identifiable point from a technological standpoint, did our intelligence and our military communities turn the corner, if you will, that allowed them to hunt Bin Laden effectively and ultimately undertake that mission itself, in Pakistan?
BOWDENWell, there are a number of important turning points. In a broad sense our prosecution of insurgents in Iraq compelled the Joint Special Operations Command under General Stanley McChrystal to become very innovative infusing intelligence analysis and collection with the actions of special operators in the field.
BOWDENSpecifically in the hunt for Bin Laden, the turning point was finding the actual identity of the man who was known only by pseudonym, Ahmed "the Kuwaiti." Once we learned his actual identity then our capabilities for finding, listening, observing an individual came into play and that's what led us to Abbottabad.
NNAMDIYou note that one of the key learning environments for the military you just mentioned that came in Iraq that the collaborative forces commanded by Stanley McChrystal, were pivotal in how they combine the technological capacity from both the military intelligence communities and that those raids were essentially an intelligence bonanza.
NNAMDISo many people now look at Iraq as massive diversion from the hunt for Bin Laden. Do you find it ironic that it also may have provided the key training for a generation of military and intelligence officials that made Bin Laden's killing possible?
NNAMDII think it is ironic, you know, I think regardless of how you feel about the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent long war there's no doubt that it's a fact and, you know, one of the ways that our military and intelligence agencies evolve rapidly is in conflict.
BOWDENSo I'm not arguing, I don't think anyone would argue that developing this capability was worth going into Iraq, but the opposite is true. I mean, we only developed, I think, those capabilities to the extent that we have them because we needed them in the fight in Iraq.
NNAMDIWhat do you mean when you say that the new intelligence tool was everything?
BOWDENIt was the ability to transform just about any form of information into data and by that I mean transcripts of detainee interviews, visual surveillance from drones, satellite photographs, sensory data like measuring whether there are, you know, particles of bomb making materials around a particular house.
BOWDENThe ability of drones to monitor particular targets for days, weeks even years at a time and being able to couple all of that collection of data with super-computers and innovative software that helps you make connections you otherwise would not be able to make. That's what I mean by it.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones, here is Nick in Fairfax, Va. Nick, you're on the air, go ahead please.
NICKGentleman, it's good to get a chance to talk to you. Thank you for "Black Hawk Down" and "The Finish."
NICKMy question is, I have a lot of family members and a lot of friends that are involved in the intelligence analysis field and when you talked about the super-computers and the compilation of that data, I mean, I was able to keep up with it and that was kind of nice. But I'm curious to know, I know that we got a lot of information and were able to confirm a lot of information through coercive interrogation techniques. And what's your stance on that?
BOWDENWell, I've always, and I've written about this in the Atlantic back, I guess, in 2003, been in favor of a complete ban on any form of coercion. Because I think coercion, especially if you try to license it bleeds very rapidly into torture and that's in fact what happened during the Bush Administration.
BOWDENSo even though there are benefits to be gained by coercive methods I think the downside which we've seen in incidents like Abu Ghraib and others is greater than the upside. Having said that, you know, part of the trail that led to Abbottabad grew out of interrogations that were, that did employ rather infamously coercive methods.
NNAMDIIn, and Nick, thank you very much for your call, you mentioned that piece that you wrote in "The Atlantic" about a decade ago where you argued that most people viewed torture too simplistically, that there's a difference between coercion and torture and that the Bush Administration's approach essentially got it right. What is that difference and apparently you still feel the same way a decade later?
BOWDENWell, I do and in fact I wrote that piece, I should add, before the Bush Administration did precisely what I argued in that piece they should not do and that is to authorize measure of coercion. My point was that any form of coercive interrogation, any coercive method ought to be illegal and ought to be banned and for the simple reason that there's no way to contain it. But that it was under certain very rare circumstances I think defensible and my point was that in those circumstances if I as an interrogator choose to use coercive methods, I have to face up to the consequences of that. I have to realize that I've stepped over a line and that I could very well be prosecuted for what I've done. I think that's the only way to fairly limit the use of these methods. Having said that they do, in some instances, produce results.
NNAMDIWell, the movie that's going to be in a theater near us very soon was reviewed in the New York Times last week. And it says "The film's unflinching portrayal of the Central Intelligence Agency's beautiful interrogation of al-Qaida prisoners hues close to the official record offering a gruesome sampling of methods like the near drowning of water boarding." What concerns do you have, Mark Bowden, that the content of the film, particularly when it comes to torture, might ignite some of the same protests and unrest that we saw earlier this year in predominantly Muslim countries?
BOWDENWell, I suppose that's always the case and it's a further illustration of my point that the downside tends to outweigh any upside. But the truth is the truth and I think that, you know, the obligation not always of filmmakers but certainly of filmmakers who claim to be presenting a true story, is not dissimilar from, you know, my obligation as a journalist to try to tell you exactly what happened. And, you know, torture was part of this story. It's a shame and if in fact it does ignite protests around the world it will illustrate why it's a shame.
NNAMDIWell, Nick, I've exhausted my follow-ups, how about you?
NICKWell, I mean, I've always tried not to take a Machiavellian approach to this sort of thing, but I have to agree with the concept that if you decide to use coercive techniques that you will be held accountable if those don't yield, you know, effective results.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call, Nick. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Mark Bowden. He's a journalist and author. His latest books is "The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden." We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What was your immediate reaction when you learned that Osama Bin Laden was killed by American forces? How important to you personally was the Bin Laden manhunt in your emotional journey after the 9/11 attacks, 800-433-8850? You can send email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Mark Bowden, journalist and author. His most recent book is called "The Finish: the Killing of Osama Bin Laden." Mark Bowden joins us from studios at the University of Delaware. Mark Bowden, the other new tool at the center of the story is the drone. You seem to be particularly fascinated with the philosophical conundrum that drones present -- that they give the president the power to order someone to be killed with the pull of a trigger. How did you see, if at all, how that power weighs on President Obama?
BOWDENWell, he told me that he recognizes that it's something new and a potentially very dangerous tool in the hands of anyone. And although his administration hasn't done it yet, and I think they should, he said that they intend to codify their procedures and basically establish -- try to establish a clear set of precedence and process to guide the use of this tool in the future.
NNAMDIYou stopped short of using the word assassination in this book, both in describing drones and in describing the order to kill Bin Laden. Why?
BOWDENWell, I think, you know, assassination implies to me killing someone for political reasons to eliminate someone in order to make a political point or further a political point of view. And generally the word is used in association with killing leaders of countries. These kind of killings that we're talking about with drones are more in the context of warfare. And these are targets who we would consider to be legitimate. And so then the only question becomes one of how do you get at them? What is the most effective way and what is the way that involves the most discriminate use of force and the least number of non-competent casualties.
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned that because, as you said, the administration moved before the election to codify rules for the use of drones. What window did you get into President Obama's head about the legal challenges they're confronting?
BOWDENWell, I know from talking to him and talking to council at the CIA and the Justice Department that they are working on this and have been working on it. They're -- it's a touchy area because they have to protect tactics and methods in order to, you know, maintain the effectiveness of the tool. But at the same time it's a very troubling method of, you know, going after our enemies. And I think they realize -- at least they -- the president told me that it's important that they get these procedures down and make them public.
NNAMDIHere's Bill in Northern Virginia. Bill, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BILLGood afternoon, Kojo and Mr. Bowden. Mr. Bowden, I've read at least three of your books, your current one "Blackhawk Down." And I thought you did an outstanding job on "The Greatest Game Ever Told." (sic)
BOWDENWell, thank you.
BILLMy question on the current topic centers in two areas. What are your thoughts on where battlefield decisions are being made given current technology. And in some cases some senior commanders want to make decisions at the headquarters level or at the tactical centers rather than at the point of the battle. And the other one deals with cyber warfare, whether we as a nation are beginning to make strides in defending against states and rogue states and hackers on bringing down our military and civilian communication networks, our intelligence battle ax, our fire control system and especially our civilian power grid?
NNAMDIYou have asked two fairly detailed questions. I'll ask Mark Bowden to deal with them one at a time. And that is leaders not necessarily having to be on the battlefield to make important decisions because that really looks at a broader issue. But go ahead, please.
BOWDENYeah, I think, you know, that is a problem is commanders have the telecommunications links to, in some cases, actually be looking for the shoulder of the ground commander and the soldiers in the field. I think it boils down to a matter of judgment. You know, I've talked to special operators who are very annoyed by commanders who are giving them, you know, specific instructions on the ground. And I illustrated actually in my book "Blackhawk Down" how sometimes these -- this effort to command from a distance misses critical details about what's going on on the ground and can lead to real confusion and loss of life.
BOWDENSo it is, I think, something that ought to be, you know, discussed and taught at military academies and officer training. And capable officers ought to be able to know when it's best to let the guys on the ground make their own decisions.
NNAMDIAnd your other question -- Bill's other question was about cyber warfare. What are your views on it?
BOWDENWell, cyber warfare is, I think, the one area where we as a modern technological society are probably most vulnerable to a devastating attack. And I think that in the last four or five years we've definitely gotten better at devising those kinds of attacks and carrying them out ourselves. I don't see where we've gotten very much better at protecting ourselves from them.
BOWDENAnd there's a little bit of arrogance there. The idea that, you know, we have, you know, superior capability to utilize these computer networks to go after our enemies without a recognition that there are smart people everywhere in the world. And that we -- as we continue to tie vital infrastructure to the internet are making ourselves more and more vulnerable to a devastating attack.
NNAMDIBill, thank you very much for your call.
BILLAnd thank you.
NNAMDIYou too can call us at 800-433-8850. What do you make of the philosophical and moral challenges that America's drone program presents to our leaders? Are you comfortable with the powers that such technologies have enabled? Call us, 800-433-8850. Mark Bowden, you write that there was a plan drawn up for a drone strike on Bin Laden's compound. Why was the move ultimately made for sending in man forces?
BOWDENI think the biggest reason, Kojo, was the desire to be certain that the target was Bin Laden. It also preserved the possibility that if the target wasn't Bin Laden there was always a chance that those men could get in and get out without hurting anyone. If they'd fired the drone, they were most likely going to kill the target that they believed was Bin Laden but that they weren't sure was Bin Laden.
BOWDENEither that or they would miss and they would then, you know, lose the opportunity probably forever to target Bin Laden. So the ability to be able to tell both that it was Bin Laden and that they had gotten the person they went after was, I think, you know, the main reason President Obama decided to send in the SEALS.
NNAMDIMark, how has this reporting shaped your own thinking when it comes to the philosophical debate about whether the nature of terrorism demands the more intense counterinsurgency approach that we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan? Or whether our leaders would be wiser to pursue counterterrorism strategies that rely more on drone strikes and targeted missions?
BOWDENWell, I think that -- and President Obama has handled this really well, I believe, as he makes the point that, you know, we need to be working very closely with our allies and through other countries to pursue the threat of Islamist extremism. Having said that, you know, I think that the ability to find and target individuals, as troubling as that might sound, is the most effective tool that we've got to combat these organizations.
BOWDENThese are organizations that thrive on living and hiding, on having no fixed address. And the ability to find them and target them with great precision is a very powerful and effective tool. So I think, you know, we're going to see both efforts over coming years.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. How has the hunt for Osama Bin Laden forced you to recalibrate your world view when it comes to what America should be doing to combat terrorism? What do you think our priorities should be? We move on to Jesse in Springfield, Va. Jesse, your turn.
JESSEHi. I was wondering if the author got a sense of how President Obama's faith went into the decision making on drone strikes. And if he got a sense of just any other people making those calls, how they're faith played into their decision making. And how did he reconcile, you know, love thy enemy with the decisions he had to make?
NNAMDIThe intersection of faith and national security, Mark Bowden.
BOWDENWell, you know, I would say it would seem to me that there's less a question of faith where President Obama's concerned than a question of morality. You know, I think he's embraced drone strikes as a tool in parts out of necessity, but in part because it adheres more closely to the principles of lawful war than any other method at his disposal. And the three principles of lawful war are necessity, do we have to be at war with these people. The second principle is discrimination, making sure that we're targeting only those people who deserve to be targeted. And third is proportionality, which is that we don't use any more force than is necessary.
BOWDENYou know, I think that drones, as troubling as they are, are a great advancement in the latter two of those principles. Once you've made the decision to go to war, I mean, it seems to me that you are bound by a desire to make sure you're targeting the right people and making sure you're not using more force than is necessary. And drones enable those latter two goals to be met much more effectively than say dropping a 500 pound bomb, shooting a missile or invading with ground troops, all of which are, you know, notably more messy and more costly in human life.
NNAMDIJesse, thank you very much for your call. If you have questions about whether or not -- or opinions about whether or not you see drones being -- or the role of drones should play in the future of our antiterrorism policies, give us a call, 800-433-8850. We move on to Joan in Washington, D.C. Joan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOANHi. Thanks for taking the call. Actually, I have a response to both of the Osama Bin Laden and the drone question.
JOANI -- following -- you were asking what was our take when we heard that Osama had been killed. And my reaction was I -- from things I had heard and read that he had actually died in something like 2001 or 2 or something like that of kidney failure and that there have just been all kinds of kind of fake photographs and stand ins and so forth. And so I thought, well, if it was actually Osama Bin Laden and the rumors that I had heard were false, where -- you know, we knew that he had serious kidney problems.
JOANSo I was looking around in the list of the contents of the housing -- his housing and there was no -- there was no kidney dialysis machine or no kidney whatever related to it. And then knowing that they had -- or heard anyway that they had shot him in the face and then buried him immediately at sea, how did that -- I mean, that certainly helped anybody who wondered if it was actually he. And...
NNAMDIWell, you've raised several...
JOAN...so, you know, he's gone. He was gone, gone, gone. So, you know, I think that kind of fell into the whole conspiracy feeling that he died earlier and that the whole jest of getting to him was, you know, pressing. The second...
NNAMDIWell, I'm glad you raised the whole notion of the whole conspiracy feeling because that leaves the impression that the conspiracy feeling is extremely widespread. I have not checked into it but I don't know if Mark Bowden has.
BOWDENWell, I hear all the same things. And, you know, I'm in the enviable position as a journalist to explore and examine -- try to find the truth. One of the things you bring with you when you do that is your judgment. And when you're talking to hundreds of people who have been directly involved with trying to find Osama Bin Laden for the last ten years, when you talk to people who were directly involved in the mission to kill him, when you realize that they took DNA samples in order to verify that the person that they had just killed was Osama Bin Laden, you know, you either decide that all of these people in concert are lying to you in order to protect some sort of a conspiracy.
BOWDENOr in fact the more complex and detailed story that you're hearing and that everyone is earnestly telling you is far more likely the truth. So, you know, I tend to dismiss conspiracy theories unless they offer some evidence that really significantly disputes what I've discovered on my own.
NNAMDIJoan, thank you very much for your call. There are some other myths about the raid that you've tried very hard to poke holes into, one of which is the idea that President Obama called off the raid several times. Is this a matter of people trying to portray Obama's role in this as leading from behind? What did you learn about his leadership style?
BOWDENWell, he's very aggressive when it comes to al-Qaida, that's for sure. And he had been anything but timid in his prosecution of that terror organization. I think that the stories of him being reluctant to go on this mission or refusing to go, you know, are made up. They are, I think, founded in, you know, political opposition. There are people who don't like the president who have a very fixed perception of him. And so they embellish their stories.
BOWDENI've heard honestly -- as a reporter who's written about military affairs, I've heard countless stories of commanders or generals or presidents who were too timid to order this mission or that. It's kind of actually sort of a standard folktale that emerges around things like this. The truth is that, you know, President Obama acted aggressively with this information. And as soon as the commander of the mission Admiral McRaven outlined the SEAL mission and told them that the earliest they would be able to do it would be the end of April, beginning of May, President Obama ordered them to get into position. And they in fact undertook the raid at the first available opportunity.
NNAMDIYou've also tried to correct the record about what the dynamics were like on the ground of the raid itself, that there was not a lengthy fire fight. What did you learn about the execution of the raid and how does it square with the first person account that the SEAL who goes by the pen name Mark Owen wrote about in his book earlier this year?
BOWDENThey jibe, I would say, 98 percent. The only discrepancy in the account that I've reported, and learned, is the actual sequence of shots at the end of the mission that killed bin Laden himself. And, you know, the version that Mark Owen has written, he doesn't say so in so many words, but in a nutshell, what he concludes is that he and his fellow SEAL were the ones who killed Osama bin Laden.
BOWDENYou know, there are other slightly different versions of those final moments that have a different SEAL responsible for the death of bin Laden, and I think that's really the essence of the argument.
NNAMDIWell, we got an email from Beth in DC who writes, "Judging from the negative comments of a few of the Navy SEALS after the bin Laden killing, they seem to believe that they are running the entire show. That they gather the intelligence, make the decisions, and then order themselves into action. Is that accurate? Are more people involved than just these SEALS?"
BOWDENWell, as I describe in my book, I mean, this was a mission that took place over a decade, involved hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers, analysts, decision makers, and political leaders, and the SEALS are a very critical portion, obviously, of any undertaking like this. But as in any organization, I mean, you have your assortment of meatheads and highly opinionated folks, just as you have people who are more discriminating and more reflective.
BOWDENSo, you know, you would find the same assortment of folks in a locker room for a professional football team.
NNAMDIOnto Connie in Annandale, Va. Connie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CONNIEYes. The discussion you're having, and the author's responses concern me, because what we're all talking about is what is quote "legal in warfare," and to my knowledge, we're not at war. I don't think we've declared war. If we -- even if we have, which we haven't, the question I have is that when people, including the author, are involved, close up observing the issues of torture, drones, et cetera, they become part of a subculture that is not being observed by the larger citizenry.
CONNIESaul Alinsky, a long time ago, observed that people who are in a position of power over others will become more and more violating of those folks, and therefore, anyone in power who is not being observed by the larger society should be systematically removed and rotated out so that that culture does not become increasingly violent which then is justified to our larger society and we're put in the position of saying we're a part of this torture, these drones, and the larger society has not given that subculture the license.
NNAMDIConnie, are you saying that Mark Bowden and others in the media are not sufficiently either, A, removed from the military that they are covering or, B, critical enough of the military that they are covering so that in your view they become themselves a part of the military culture?
CONNIEYes, I am indeed.
NNAMDIMark Bowden, how would you respond to that?
BOWDENWell, I would suggest that your caller has probably not read my work, because I am not a part of the military. I've never served in it. I have no power over anyone, and I view my role precisely as the one she described, which is to try to find out exactly what's happening, to think analytically and critically about it, and to write analytically and critically about it.
BOWDENI have never written with great enthusiasm or a blanket support for any of these folks who are making these decisions, and I would argue that in my writings on torture, on the use of drones, on, in this case, the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, that I've spent as much time analyzing sort of the moral and legal implications of these things as anyone writing today.
NNAMDIConnie, thank you very much for your all. But the writer, Glenn Greenwald, wrote in November that even when covering the aftermath of the resignation of David Petraeus, ours news media were mournful and worshipful when they should have been providing more a -- well, watchdog duty the entire time. What do you think that episode revealed about the nature of the relationship between the military and the media, and where do you see yourself fitting into that picture?
BOWDENWell, I fit into it right in the middle because I spent months -- actually, more than a year researching and writing a profile of David Petraeus for Vanity Fair, and going back to, you know, to find his old high school classmates, his West Point classmates, people who went to Ranger school with him, people who served with him all through his career in the Army, his experiences in Iraq, his experiences as the CENTCOM commander.
BOWDENAnd quite honestly, it was very difficult to find anyone who had a substantive criticism of David Petraeus as a military leader. He was an extraordinary and exceptional military leader, and I've never read or seen any evidence to the contrary. The fact that he had an affair with a young woman who practically worshipped him speaks to, I think, a human failing that doesn't reflect at all on his accomplishments or his capabilities as a military leader. And, you know, if someone has evidence to the contrary, I will stand corrected.
NNAMDIMark Bowden. He's a journalist and author. His most recent book is "The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden." We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation with Mark Bowden, a conversation you can join by calling 800-433-8850, by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or by sending us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with journalist and author, Mark Bowden. His most recent book is called "The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden." We got an email from Dan in West Virginia who writes, "In his book 'Killing Pablo,' Mr. Bowden wrote about how the U.S. government and Columbian authorities went after Pablo Escobar's network. Could he describe how the hunt for bin Laden and his network were similar or was different to our efforts to capture or kill Pablo Escobar?"
BOWDENWell, it was very different in that Pablo Escobar was someone who had effectively either bribed or terrified everyone in the country of Columbia, to the point where he was hiding in plain sight practically in Medellin. The way that we found Pablo Escobar was by developing a very close working relationship with the Columbian National Police, and as it happens, I think, by informally enlisting a vigilante organization that called itself Los Pepes to gradually chip away at the network of support that protected Pablo Escobar, and ultimately isolated and killed him.
BOWDENIn the case of Osama bin Laden, this was not a figure, contrary to what people may think, who was beloved by anyone anywhere. He had followers scattered here and there throughout the Middle East and the Near East, but there was no place in that part of the world where, like Pablo Escobar, Osama bin Laden could go and live comfortably and count on the support of a large network of family and friends and associates.
BOWDENHe was a very isolated figure, and the challenge for, you know, was finding bin Laden. It wasn't so much to kill him. So the way that it was somewhat similar, even though the hunt for Pablo Escobar goes back 20 years, is that it involved very sophisticated tracking and electronic and visual surveillance. I think that those tools have increase exponentially in the past 20 years, and so the story becomes substantially different, but nevertheless in essence, you know, involves the use of those tools.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Saranas (sp?) who says he is a Muslim and that when he heard bin Laden was killed, he immediately called his parents back home in Iran and delivered the good news. He goes on to say, "The part that worries me the most is the legacy, if we can call it that, that he has left in the region." What is the U.S. doing to eliminate his followers and how are they being monitored?
BOWDENYou know, I think that, you know, we have this very active intelligence and military operation to identify, locate, and kill or capture the key individuals behind this. But the -- I think the biggest hope for killing Islamist extremism is among the Arab nations and Muslims themselves who, as we know, have never been, in any significant degree, supportive of this sort of violent extremism.
BOWDENI think as we see democratic reforms throughout that part of the world, you know, the opportunity for those countries themselves to isolate and eliminate this strain of radicalism will grow. To me that's the best hope for a long-term success.
NNAMDIHere is Craig in Annapolis, Md. Craig, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CRAIGThanks for taking my call, Kojo. (unintelligible)
NNAMDICraig, you're breaking up on us. I'm going to put you on hold and see if you can get in a more stable location when we come back to you. We'll move now to Bill in Washington DC. Bill, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BILLYou know, you asked earlier what people's reaction was to the killing of Osama bin Laden, and I have to tell you, I was appalled. I was amazed. Is there -- there's a kind of brutalization that's taking place in this society. We can talk about killing calmly as we're doing on your show. No one shudders. No one thinks it's bad. I'm a simple man. One of my rules is, I believe thou shalt not kill, and I wonder whatever happened to that idea.
BILLWe have moved the conversation to a place where all of this seems quite rational and normal. Why could Osama bin Laden not been captured? These SEALS were so skillful. Why was it necessary to kill him without any kind of trial?
NNAMDIMark Bowden? Mark Bowden?
BOWDENWell, the first part of Bill's comment has to do with the unfortunate necessity for war, and, you know, I think that if, you know, certainly in my lifetime, I'm 61 years old, I've seen and lived through a lot of conflict, and I've seen, you know, wars where many thousands of non-combatants were killed. So certainly the discussion of warfare and death is nothing new. It's a reality, and as a journalist, you know, my job is to report on the world as I find it, not as I might hope it would be.
BOWDENAs far as why bin Laden was not captured, President Obama told me that it would have been his preference that Obama -- rather, that Osama bin Laden by captured. But, in fact, when the SEALS first approached the house on that compound, they were fired upon. They fired back and killed the person shooting at them, but I think their first priority, as it ought to be for any soldiers put in a dangerous mission like this, is to get out of it alive and come back alive.
BOWDENSo having been fired upon once, I think that it was unlikely that they were going to wait to see if they were fired upon again. And it's very for us sitting comfortably, you know, away from that kind of action to say what they ought to do or ought not to do. But in those adrenaline-filled moments where there's a very strong likelihood that you're going to be fired upon, I don't question the judgment of those men to shoot first and ask questions later.
NNAMDIBill, thank you for your call. Here is William in Silver Spring, Md. William, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
WILLIAMYeah. I've got one question. Earlier when we were talking about the drones and the use of drones, I'm not sure if you're familiar with -- there's a Twitter user called dronestream that's actually tweeting every drone strike from 2002 through now. And this sort of dovetails with an article that I saw on Business Insider about something called the double tap, where the drones will actually attack a target, and then in very quick succession a second drone will come in, or even a third, killing the first responders, which, from what I understand, would actually be war crime.
WILLIAMAnd I was wondering how that squares with your position on the overall use of drones being a good thing.
NNAMDIWell, first and foremost, we have to find out whether, as far as Mark Bowden knows, that information is accurate.
BOWDENI do not believe it's accurate. I do think it's possible that in some instances, for instance if you were attacking a target in a site known to be, you know, densely populated with targetable individuals that you might try to maximize the number of people that you kill. I don't know of an instance of that happening. I do know that the effort, in fact, one of the great advantages of utilizing drones is the great precision with which you can target people.
BOWDENAnd the whole point is to avoid killing non-combatants if possible. In fact, you know, there's a wonderful website -- a really good website called Long War Journals, which thoroughly documents every drone attack with at least as much information has been made public. So that can be readily researched.
NNAMDIAnd if there was a deliberate attempt to attack first responders, William, yes, that would be a war crime. Thank you very much...
BOWDENIt would be.
NNAMDI...for your call, William. Mark Bowden, you have said that first and foremost you're a story teller. The people behind the new film "Zero Dark Thirty" have described it as a reported film on the bin Laden raid. How do you expect this film will contribute to our understanding of this mission given its place on the spectrum between art, entertainment and realism?
BOWDENWell, you know, I haven't seen it, so I can't say. I mean, we have filmmakers like Oliver Stone who deliberately distort the past, and who depart from the record in order to make political points. If this movie does that, then I think it's done a disservice. If they in fact have made, as they say, an effort to show exactly what happened, then I think that it could be a valuable contribution ...
NNAMDIWere you happy with how "Blackhawk Down" turned out in that respect?
BOWDENI was. I was very happy with it, both in regard to, you know, the specific events depicted in the film, but also in the overall spirit of the film.
NNAMDIMark Bowden. He is a journalist and author. His most recent book is called "The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden." He joined us from studios at the University of Delaware. Mark, thank you so much for talking with us.
BOWDENI enjoyed it, Kojo. Thank you.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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