1. It took nearly three days to decide not to release the photographs. I think there was a case for not releasing the pictures, though on balance I think disclosure would have been best. But whichever way Obama went on this, the decision should have been made quickly, on Monday. By letting the world and his dog debate the issue for so long and then say no made the administration look indecisive and appear that it had something to hide. It will fuel the conspiracy theories. And the pictures will surely be leaked anyway.
2. To say that bin Laden was armed and hiding behind a wife being used as a human shield was an unforgivable embellishment. The way it was expressed by John Brennan was to mock bin Laden as being unmanly and cowardly. It turned out to be incorrect and gave fuel, again, to conspiracy theories as well as accusations of cover-ups and illegality. Of all the mistakes of the week, this was by far the biggest.
3. It was a kill mission and no one should have been afraid to admit that. Bin Laden was a dead man as soon as the SEAL Team landed. There’s nothing wrong with that but the Obama administration should have been honest about it rather than spinning tales about bin Laden having a gun, reaching for a gun (the latest) and resisting (without saying how he resisted).
4. Too much information was released, too quickly and a lot of it was wrong. When it made the administration look good, the information flowed freely. When the tide turned, Jay Carney, Obama’s spokesman, clammed up completely. I’m a journalist; I like it when people talk about things. But from the administration’s perspective, it would have been much better to have given a very sparse, accurate description of what happened without going into too much detail, especially about the intelligence that led to the compound (an account which is necessarily suspect).
5. Obama tried to claim too much credit. Don’t get me wrong, he was entitled to a lot of credit. but sometimes less is more and it’s better to let facts speak for themselves. We didn’t need official after official to say how “gutsy” Obama was. Far better to have heaped praise on the CIA and SEALs (which, to be fair, was done most of the time) and talked less about Obama’s decision-making. And a nod to President George W. Bush would have been classy – and good politics for Obama.
6. Proof of death was needed. The whole point of the SEAL operation, rather than a B2 bombing that levelled the compound, was to achieve certainty. The administration has DNA evidence, facial recognition evidence and photographic evidence. Some combination of that evidence should have been collated and released swiftly. It’s not enough to say, effectively, “Trust me, I’m Obama” – especially given all the misinformation that was put out.
7. The mission should have been a ‘capture’ one. Notwithstanding 3. above and the legitimacy of killing bin Laden, I think a capture of bin Laden was probably possible and, in the long term, would have been better – not least because of the intelligence that could have been gleaned from interrogating him and the couriers. My hunch is that Obama didn’t want him alive because there would have been uncomfortable issues to address like whether he should be tried, where he should be held (it would have been Guantanamo – obviously) and the techniques for questioning him.
8. Obama’s rhetoric lurched from jingoistic to moralistic. During the initial announcement, Obama said that by killing bin Laden “we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to”. If Bush had said that, he would have been mocked and laughed at, with some justification. But by today Obama was all preachy and holier than thou saying: “It is important for us 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. That’s not who we are. We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.”
9. Triggering a torture debate was an avoidable own goal. Following on from 3. by discussing the intelligence, the administration walked into the issue of whether enhanced interrogation techniques yielded important information. That was certainly something they could have done without. Politically, it gave something for Republicans to use against Obama.
10. The muddle over Pakistan. Everyone I talk to with knowledge of these things tells me that Pakistan had to have given the green light for the raid in some form. But the Pakistanis, for good reasons, would not want this made public. Rather than say it would not comment on whether Pakistan had harboured bin Laden or was playing a double game, the White House poured petrol on the flames by encouraging criticism of Pakistan. That might have been deserved, but in terms of managing the region it was impolitic. The Pakistanis are clearly riled and the contradictions between the US and Pakistani accounts, again, fuel the conspiracy theories.
All this has meant that this week’s media story has become one about Obama and the White House more than one about the SEALs, the CIA and what killing bin Laden means. That’s exactly the wrong way round.