In the latest episode of the battle between Donald Trump and the American security establishment, retired Admiral William H. McRaven, the officer in charge of the military operation that captured and killed Osama bin Laden, aggressively challenged Trumpty-Dumpty to take away his security clearance. But while we should applaud the Admiral for his guts to tell Trump off, we should also remember that McRaven was central to one of the most unfortunate moments of the Obama presidency: the killing, instead of capture, of Osama bin Laden.
In an open letter published in the Washington Post, Admiral McRaven condemned Donald Trump for revoking former Central Intelligence Director John Brennan’s security clearance. McRaven essentially threw the gauntlet down to Trump in a bold “double-dare-you” statement: “I would consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearance as well, so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency,” he said.
McRaven was not the only public letter denouncing Trump’s latest outrage against both freedom of speech and our security agencies. A joint letter from six former CIA directors, five former deputy directors and a former director of national intelligence called Trump’s action “ill-considered and unprecedented.” They said it “has nothing to do with who should and should not hold security clearances — and everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech.”
More than one commentator has called it a “Spartacus,” moment, referencing the scene in the Howard Fast novel and the Stanley Kubrick film when a vast army of men stand up and claim to be Spartacus, the leader of the slave rebellion whom the Romans want to put to death. Contemplating McRaven’s history, however, made me think of another fiction, A Tale of Two Cities, because it was a “far, far better thing that” McRaven did this week than he has ever done before.
“Operation Neptune Spear,” the 2011 secret maneuver to storm the Pakistani mountain compound where the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks was hiding, could have been McRaven’s and President Obama’s finest moment, a “teachable moment” moment as Obama used to say, in which the United States showed the world what “due process” and “the rule of law” were all about. We capture the monster and give him a fair trial. But instead, McRaven’s men killed bin Laden while technically usurping Pakistan’s sovereignty, which lost America the high ground in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Islamic world. We didn’t show a better way, but the same way as Al Qaida: violence.
At the time, the news media superficially investigated the key question at hand: Was the primary objective to capture bin Laden or to kill him outright? In the days following the raid, then White House anti-terrorism advisor Brennan and CIA Director Leon Panetta both essentially said that the mission was open to capturing Osama alive if he proved not to be a threat. But, as Wikipedia tells it, an unnamed U.S. national security official told Reuters “’this was a kill operation’ making clear there was no desire to try to capture bin Laden alive in Pakistan.” Another source reported that officials told the Navy SEALS who were being trained to carry out the mission, “We think we found Osama bin Laden, and your job is to kill him.”
Now I’m not condemning Admiral McRaven or his brave crew. They were just following orders. I blame the Obama Administration for not putting a greater emphasis on taking Osama alive, in stressing the importance of showing the world how a real democracy with a fair legal system operates. I understand that many at the time were concerned that a trial of Osama would result in unrest throughout the Muslim world. Maybe so and maybe no, no one knows for sure. But it certainly would have shown solidarity with the overwhelming number of Muslims throughout the world who are peaceful and anti-terrorist.
Seven years later, the news media seems to be accepting the death of Osama as an unalloyed good. In describing the distinguished career of Admiral McRaven, it seems as if virtually every broadcast reporter or commentator mentions that he “led the team that killed Osama bin Laden” with swelling pride. I must have heard at least eight or nine news anchors or pundits use those same exact words, “led the team that killed Osama bin Laden,” and all delivered them with the same confidence that all the viewers are in 100% agreement that killing Osama was an absolute positive, and not a missed opportunity. It’s true that in all cases the mainstream media wanted to build McRaven’s credentials to enhance the credibility of his words and to set the stage for this latest episode in the continuing reality series, “Donald Trump against the truth.” But beyond the effort to present the admirable admiral in a good light I believe stands an open-armed acceptance by both the mass media and most political and civic leaders that we had the right and the need to wreak vengeance on an evil menace. Once again, we have put the barbaric desire to quench our bloodthirstiness above the assertion of the rule of law.
So while my hat is sincerely off to McRaven, I want to remind everyone that his true heroism has come this week in opposing the lunatic autocrat, and not seven years ago in ending the life of the angry terrorist.