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Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Raid Went Perfect – The Administration’s Reporting is a Disaster

“The central dilemma in journalism is that you don't know what you don't know.” — Bob Woodward

The raid to kill Osama bin Laden went as planned — he is dead and there were no casualties among the 79 commandos and one dog that carried it out. On the other hand the manner in which the administration has handled the deamination of information to the American people has been a disaster. they have acted like the rank amateurs they are.

Two days ago I posted a report from an “administration insider” that claimed:

“At the conclusion of the mission, after it had been repeatedly confirmed a success, President Obama was once again briefed behind closed doors. The only ones who went in that room besides the president were Bill Daley. John Brennan, and a third individual whose identity remains unknown to me. When leaving this briefing, the president came out of it “…much more confident. Much more certain of himself.” He was also carrying papers in his hand that quite possibly was the address to the nation given later that evening on the Bin Laden mission. The president did not have those papers with him prior to that briefing. The president then returned to the war room, where by this time, Leon Panetta had personally arrived and was receiving congratulations from all who were present.”

As more and more information begins to dribble out I am gaining a greater confidence in the report of “insider”. He or she seems to have been giving us a true account of the events leading to and immediately after the raid on bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound.

One individual who had stood where press secretary Carney was, had faced the intense pressure he was receiving from the relentless press corps, and who empathized with him now – without excusing the Obama administration for its flawed handling of the public disclosure of the mission – was Dana Perino, the last White House press secretary under President George W. Bush.

“In a crisis or an unfolding news situation, first reports are almost always wrong,” she explained in an interview with Fox News, where she is a contributor:

“And you can understand when you get the tide of the media calls coming in and you want to provide information as quickly as possible. You want to be responsive and you want to frame the argument first. Sometimes though, if then you end up having to redefine that narrative, or correct things that you originally said, you end up sullying your original message. And I think that's what's happened to them.”

“I am perplexed how they got so much wrong,” she added. “I don't think it takes away from their achievement. I think that criticism will be relatively short-lived. However, for those people who might be critics of the administration, or have a little bit of distrust for the stories that are coming out of the White House, this will feed that. And it doesn't help build credibility.”

“I am perplexed how they got so much wrong,” she added. “I don't think it takes away from their achievement. I think that criticism will be relatively short-lived. However, for those people who might be critics of the administration, or have a little bit of distrust for the stories that are coming out of the White House, this will feed that. And it doesn't help build credibility.”

The Fox News story goes on:

“The true irony is: From the first moments, a good number of the details about bin Laden's killing, on points large and small, have been wrong.”

“President Obama was the first senior U.S. official to disclose the operation, formally, in his East Room address. It was from his lips that we first heard that a "firefight" had taken place during the raid on bin Laden's fortified compound in Abbottabad.”

“The president's lone sentence describing what happened – "After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body" – did not specify whether the 9/11 mastermind had actually participated in the firefight; but it seemed to imply that he had.”

“In a conference call with reporters convened by the White House less than twenty minutes after Obama finished speaking, a trio of “senior administration officials” took things a few steps further. Asked if bin Laden was "involved in firing [a weapon] himself or defending himself," one of the briefers replied: "He did resist the assault force. And he was killed in a firefight."

One good rule of thumb if you are arguing politics or practicing law is that if your argument requires you to prove that something never happens or somebody does nothing good or right, you have started off with two strikes against you. Never is a hard thing to prove and an easy one to disprove. In the real world, bad ideas work sometimes, bad people do good things sometimes, brilliant plans fail sometimes, and time and chance happen to us all. This is, in fact, why the wise conservative recognizes the wisdom of crowds and the benefit of tradition: things must be tried many times by many people to see what works most, and what works in one situation may not work in another. Thus, while we can fairly debate the respective amount of credit given to President Obama and his senior advisors for taking out Osama bin Laden, there is no useful cause served in arguing that the Administration should get no credit. Many national leaders far worse than Obama have done something right in office. After all didn’t Mussolini make the trains run on time and Hitler built nice Autobahns. In the long run, Obama’s political success will stand or fall on his record as a whole.

A related caution is that the early news reports of almost anything are liable to be wrong, especially in wartime. I took great pleasure in the report offered by Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan that Osama bin Laden had died using one of his wives as a shield, but we are still seeing questions raised by some anonymous sources over the accuracy of Brennan’s statements. Even if Brennan’s account holds up, it may not be the last thing reported by the media regarding bin Laden’s death that turns out not to be true.

The other disaster for the administration is how they are handling the issue of the photos.

President Obama, who aims to avoid offending the Arab Street by withholding the photo of a dead Osama bin Laden, seems to care little about offending the American Street.

Here's how Obama explains concealing the photo in question:

“It is important to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence or as a propaganda tool. We don't trot out this stuff as trophies. The fact of the matter is, this is somebody who was deserving of the justice that he received. We don't need to spike the football given the graphic nature of these photos it would create a national security risk.”

In the meantime, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) says we don't need to see the photos. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton concur. House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) has no opinion, one way or the other. There's leadership for you.

The meta-message here is that we who walk the American Street are children, to be lectured by our all-knowing parents, told that, "You kids don't need to see this. It's only for us adults. It's too gruesome, and it'll make the people who liked the dead man mad at us for what we've done to him." This is told to Americans who are deluged daily by Hollywood, TV News, and videogame images of graphic gruesomeness.

Follow that logic, and TV news outlets, at the insistence of the Bush administration, should have censored the photos and films of the Twin Towers falling down. Blackened out those small, horrific images of people jumping off the top of burning buildings. And secured a court injunction to prohibit the New York Times, always sensitive of the American Street, from distributing photos of mortally wounded US soldiers. No problems with those pictures – no danger of offending the Arab Street there.

Our President tells us that showing a photograph of OBL at room temperature with a serious head wound would represent a "national security risk" because it might make people who already hate us, hate us even more. How's that for an absurd non sequitur?

Looking back, it was a big risk to execute the Doolittle Raid on Japan a few months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. They were obviously already mad at us, and bombing Tokyo was certain to make them even madder. Risky business, that was.

Looking back at the end of World War II, we were wrong to march German civilians – who, of course, knew nothing about the extermination camps just outside their city limits – through the carnage and make them police up the shrunken cadavers. That was insensitive of us.

And what's with all that theatre when relatives of dead crime victims get to speak to the convicted murderer before the judge passes sentence, sometimes leading to an electrocution where family members can, if they choose, watch the face of justice happen?

Or how about those photos of the executed NAZIs convicted during the Nuremburg and Dachau War Crimes Trials? The world needed to see that justice had been meted out.

How many times have we seen President Kennedy’s head being blown off in the Zapurder Film?

But didn't the people of Romania, oppressed for 24 years by the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, deserve to see what Nicolae's face looked like after the justice brought to him by a firing squad on Christmas Day 1989? The Romanians were entitled to see that face of justice. Not that it would make up for all the pain he brought upon them. What they needed to see was that that particular pain was finally over.

And last, but not least the televised hanging of Sadam Hussein after a long public trial.

And that's what some among the ruling class, representing both major political parties inside the Beltway, just don't get. Mostly, because they don't live on the American Street. They seem to think that the Osama Phenomenon that is part of the War on Islamic terrorists – is it okay to call them that today? – was only experienced by two of the three branches of government. The third branch remaining inscrutably detached.

Releasing the photo isn't about the sophomorically ridiculous metaphor that the President used about spiking a football. (You suppose there were any fist bumps in the White House situation room? High fives? "Yes we did" chants?)

Apparently the Beltway people think, that we think, that war is a blood sport like politics. Most of the civilians among them have never seen war. Some on the American Street, who've seen soldiers and civilians with fatal head wounds, understand that anyone who likens an appropriate response to killing, even a very bad actor like bin Laden to spiking a football just doesn't fathom what it means to see the face of justice on a dead Osama bin Laden.

There's no promise for personal satisfaction in the withheld photo. No exaltation in the gruesome carnage. No voyeuristic delight in death. None of that represents any desire of the collective American Street.

Why the photo should be released has absolutely nothing to do, at its purist application, with trotting out trophies – whatever that means. For Obama and other Beltway luminaries to suggest that it does, says much about how little they know the people they profess to serve.

For over a decade, the American Street has been after bin Laden in search of justice, not for us individually, but for the nation, led by those who died on September 11, 2001, but also including all the other people murdered by his followers, including many from the Arab Street.

The search for bin Laden was a decade's long quest for justice led by men and women of the US military who volunteered to oppose the tyranny in the Middle East that he represented, leaving family and civilian careers behind to look for the face of justice. It's an even longer ordeal for the families of those who've died in the fight, or from the consequences of having invested their wounded souls in it. It's not over yet.

The president says it's a national security risk to release the photo. He's as dead wrong as bin Laden is dead. For the greater risk to national security is in not displaying, for all to see, the Look of Justice on the face of what was Osama bin Laden. Americans have earned the right to look at the Face of Justice.

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