Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Bobby Ghosh, deputy international editor for Time Magazine, talks about the raid on the compound in Pakistan that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden.
A decade ago, the assumption was that the U.S. military would hunt down and capture Osama bin Laden in the unforgiving mountains of Afghanistan. Therefore, news that the 9/11 mastermind has been killed during a covert, quick strike on a compound in Pakistan (in an urban area with a large Pakistani military presence, no less) has raised as many questions has it has cheers.
That bin Laden was in Pakistan was not news, however, and neither was the lack of cooperation from Pakistani intelligence. According to Bobby Ghosh, that's the reason this operation was undertaken by a joint CIA/Navy SEALs operation, rather than a large-scale military force.
The moment he moved across the border into Pakistan, this was no longer going to be a U.S. military operation...It became an intelligence operation; that meant working with the Pakistani ISI (Inter-services Intelligence), a partner we now know was not always reliable, was not always giving us information that was usable, or the right kind of information. Now we learn that he was a kilometer away from the Pakistani equivalent of West Point.
Ghosh said that the United States only made significant strides toward tracking down bin Laden in Pakistan once it stopped believing everything the ISI told them. "The notion that Osama bin Laden was hiding in that place without any attention beggars belief," he said.
Ghosh said that it was likely a Navy SEAL pulled the trigger on bin Laden, but doubted that the identity of the shooter would ever be released to the public. In some ways, the story reads like any other raid on a compound; the target just happened to be among the world's most hated men.
They went through several rooms in the house, and when they found him, despite all the legends that we heard over the years about his having a special bodyguard that would kill Osama bin Laden if there was any danger of capture, it turns out that was not true. And, clearly, if he had an exploding vest, he certainly didn't detonate it. They shot him in the head and killed him.
Brian Lehrer observed that bin Laden, who made a career out of encouraging people to become suicide bombers, never practiced what he preached.
The timing of bin Laden's death is just the least bit ironic, given it opens the door to conspiracy theories that mirror the one just laid to rest by President Obama. Before last week, some Americans were still waiting to "see the birth certificate." Now, some Americans are waiting to see a death certificate, questioning what evidence there is of bin Laden's demise. Reports that his body was buried at sea have not helped to allay suspicion.
But Ghosh said that the burial at sea makes a good deal of sense, considering the cargo.
Very few countries in the world would be willing to take the body and willing to be the burial site of Osama bin Laden, because that has consequences that are easy to imagine...I'm sure there are photographs, video, and DNA information that's already available. Within days, al Qaeda itself announce the death of Osama bin Laden and hopefully that will lay all this to rest.
That still leaves unanswered the question of why he was killed rather than captured and brought to trial.
Would it have been better for him to be taken alive? The risk is that it gives him a public platform, a world stage from which he can continue to spew the hateful nonsense that he did for so much of his life...But I doubt that was the reason. My suspicion is they killed him because he had a weapon in his hand and was probably likely to use it.
At long last, we can stop wondering where Osama bin Laden has been hiding. But in place of that concern is a new one: how could it have taken the U.S. intelligence apparatus so long to find someone hiding a stone's throw from a Pakistani military base and academy? What does it tell us about our information-gathering abilities in the Middle East, especially as we continue what's now a more nebulous war on terror? What does it tell us about Pakistan?
A lot of things we might not want to hear, said Ghosh.
I never bought the idea that he was permanently in a cave somewhere. My suspicion has always been that he was being sheltered in some comfort in an urban place. The U.S. has known for a long time that Pakistan is playing a double game, but the U.S. doesn't have many options. We play the cards we're dealt. The ISI has very different priorities from the U.S., and the tricky game the CIA had to play is to try and get little pieces of genuine information in middle of a lot of fake information.