Revisiting the bin Laden Raid: Was Capture Ever an Option?

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After last year’s bin Laden raid I wrote a few of posts about the operation’s original intent–namely, whether the objective had always been to kill the al-Qaeda leader, or whether capture had ever been a viable option. The White House gave unclear and shifting answers on this point, but nothing I’ve seen since last May suggests that anyone spent much time talking about a capture scenario. (Who cares, you might ask? Well, for one thing, interrogating bin Laden might have been hugely valuable. Trying him would have made a powerful statement about the rule of law. And the legalities of the killing have always been murky.) Graham’s Allison’s excellent new TIME cover story adding detail to the operation’s planning doesn’t address this point specifically, but one passage affirms my sense that it was always meant to be a hit: 

In a series of 40 intelligence reviews from August 2010 to April 2011, further questions were explored and competing hypotheses examined — in particular, the possibility that the suspect in Abbottabad was not bin Laden. This led to the creation of what some called the Bible: a three-inch binder listing every question about the operation, from assessing the risks of a leak at various stages to what to do with bin Laden’s body.

Another, more ambiguous data point, is the memo about Obama’s order to commence the operation written by then-CIA director Leon Panetta and obtained by TIME, which includes this line:

The direction is to go in and get bin Laden and if he is not there, to get out.

As’s Ben Shapiro notes, it’s not clear–perhaps intentionally so–whether “get” was supposed to mean “capture” or “kill”. Shapiro also argues, not unfairly, that the memo has the whiff of a CYA document to protect the White House–and/or Panetta I would add–in case the operation went awry.

All that said, Obama made the call, the operation was a huge operational, strategic and political success, and the White House probably doesn’t mind a little second-guessing on the margins, so long as people keep mentioning the fact that the 9/11 mastermind is dead. Which is why the Obama campaign has a new web video out taking more credit for the mission, and implying that Mitt Romney would have wimped out. Whatever nits people might pick, the bin Laden mission may be the highest card in the Obama campaign’s poker hand.

Update: BuzzFeed tracks down some 2008 remarks in which Obama himself made the case for taking bin Laden alive:

“What would be important would be for us to do it in a way that allows the entire world to understand the murderous acts that he’s engaged in and not to make him into a martyr, and to assure that the United States government is abiding by basic conventions that would strengthen our hand in the broader battle against terrorism,” Obama said as he unveiled his new national security team in June 2008.

As Jon Chait notes, Obama didn’t rule out killing bin Laden that day. He went on to say that, “If I’m president, and we have the opportunity to capture him, we may not be able to capture him alive.” From what we know about the Abbotabad raid, however, it sounds like it may indeed have been possible to capture bin Laden. Certainly, trying to capture him in a darkened and unfamiliar house in a semi-hostile country could have increased the risk to the SEAL team and even given bin Laden a chance to escape. But it’s far from clear that we were “not able to capture him alive.”