Bin Laden's dead, and Obama proves an adept keeper of secrets

By Jayson Jacoby May 06, 2011 12:40 pm

Say what you will about President Obama’s economic policies, but the man’s capacity for secrecy is absolutely Nixonian.

And I’m talking about real secrets here, not ludicrous claims involving Kenyan hospitals and doctored documents.

The clandestine affair that has burnished Obama’s reputation has to do with a death rather than a birth.

Specifically, it has to do with America’s pursuit of Osama bin Laden.


As everyone knows who isn’t living in one of those caves where bin Laden was supposed to be, a team of U.S. Navy SEALs successfully concluded that quest this week when they killed bin Laden during a raid on the Pakistan compound where the terrorist was staying.

When I first heard the news Sunday night I reacted as I suspect a lot of Americans did — with surprise.

The world has heard relatively little from bin Laden in the 9fi years since his al-Qaida killers attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001 — and even less about any legitimate chances we might have had to nab him.

He’d put out a recording every few years but the resulting publicity was fleeting; in that way bin Laden was sort of like a rock star who hasn’t made the charts in years and has nothing of consequence to say, but who still craves the limelight.

Bryan Adams, for instance.

Anyway, I had pretty much concluded that bin Laden’s epitaph, as it were, would be that ubiquitous video. You know the one I mean — if you hadn’t seen it before bin Laden’s death you’ve certainly seen it since.

In the clip he’s picking his way carefully through a boulder field with a staff in one hand, looking more like a shepherd with osteoporosis and macular degeneration than a mass murderer with the conscience of a great white shark.

But as it turns out, bin Laden wasn’t nearly as well-concealed as we — and probably he — believed him to be.

In reality, the president, through America’s intelligence apparatus, learned in August 2010 the location of the compound near Islamabad where bin Laden’s trusted al-Qaida courier lived.

Then, in late winter and early spring, as evidence accumulated that bin Laden might be living there, Obama convened five meetings of the National Security Council to plot an operation designed to capture or, if necessary, to kill him.

The bottom line, then, is that Obama had been homing in on the most-wanted man in the world for eight months, and planning in secrecy the kind of commando raid so beloved in Hollywood, yet by the time the country learned about any of this, bin Laden was already dead and his bullet-ridden corpse nourishing mollusks on some abyssal plain.

What, in the name of Wikileaks, is going on here?

How did Obama pull off this impressive feat of obfuscation?

I get that Julian Assange has been a trifle quiet of late, what with his own legal troubles, and his go-to guy, Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, stuck in Leavenworth besides.

Still and all, it strikes me as passing strange that not a single person with information about the hunt for bin Laden was willing to share it with Assange or one of his acolytes.

Or, for that matter, with an actual journalist rather than a serial regurgitator.

(Which is not the same thing as a cereal regurgitator, a role my daughter Olivia has played to perfection a few times.)

A surreptitious, American-sponsored assassination scheme is a lot sexier, as Internet leaks and front-page stories go, than whole reams of cables in which U.S. diplomats say snide things about foreign leaders.

(I prefer to get the latter from Monty Python or Saturday Night Live. The writing’s better.)

Having worked for 20 years now in a business which has an institutional, instinctive disdain for the keeping of secrets, I have a certain admiration for Wikileaks.

Yet I recognize too that the ability to reveal the machinations of our government is itself only a tool, and one not automatically imbued with moral righteousness. Like any tool this one, if wielded without a shred of sober contemplation, can turn into a blunt instrument, as stupid, and as dangerous, as a sledgehammer swung blindly but with great force.

To put it another way, I find it a vastly easier thing to defend the shattering of secrets which embarrass the government or expose its chicanery, than to celebrate the exposure of secrets which results in some innocent people dying.

To that extent I’m grateful that the wall of secrecy Obama erected around the bin Laden operation seems to have endured without a blemish.

Keeping this particular secret, of course, didn’t save a life. It ended one.

But then few people on Earth in the 21st century so richly earned their premature death as did bin Laden.

And though I can’t bring myself to celebrate a death — anyone’s death — as though it were a game-winning touchdown, it seems to me grimly appropriate that bin Laden’s end came about as it did.

In that instant he stood there, looking at the black muzzle of a gun held by an exquisitely trained American SEAL, bin Laden was as helpless as the men and women who sat at their desks in the World Trade Center or the Pentagon or a New York City fire station, or reclined in their airline seats, on that September morning.

Bin Laden was photographed often with a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, but he was a poser rather than a soldier.

SEALs don’t pose.

More to the point, they don’t miss.

There is, though, one key difference between the fates of bin Laden and of his victims.

The SEALs gave him a chance to surrender.

This is a gesture, I suspect, that requires far more humanity than bin Laden could ever siphon from whatever passed for his soul.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.