The “blockbuster” allegation from Richard Miniter's new book, Leading From Behind, is that President Obama dithered and vacillated when it came to authorizing the mission that led to the May 2011 death of Osama bin Laden. As Miniter puts it on page 117, rather than acting decisively “it took the president almost two years to make a decision to act” after intelligence agencies identified “bin Laden's hideout in the first few months of the Obama administration.” There is, however, a fatal flaw in Miniter's allegation: he's off by a full year. To characterize Obama as having delayed action, Miniter describes intelligence activities that happened in 2010 as having occurred in 2009, leading him to repeatedly contradict his own timeline of events.
Media Matters previously pointed out the significant problems with Miniter's charge that Obama canceled three times the operation to kill Bin Laden -- specifically that on the dates Obama was alleged to have canceled the “mission,” there wasn't yet a “mission” to cancel. Miniter's allegations are being treated credulously by conservative media outlets: Miniter appeared on Fox & Friends this morning to promote the book, and his claims about the Bin Laden raid received a New York Post write-up.
According to reported accounts of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, in 2009 and 2010 the intelligence community ramped up its efforts to track down the terrorist leader, leading to a key moment in August 2010 when intelligence officers tracked Bin Laden's courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, entering Bin Laden's walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. As the New Yorker's deeply reported blow-by-blow of the hunt put it:
In August, 2010, Panetta returned to the White House with better news. C.I.A. analysts believed that they had pinpointed bin Laden's courier, a man in his early thirties named Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Kuwaiti drove a white S.U.V. whose spare-tire cover was emblazoned with an image of a white rhino. The C.I.A. began tracking the vehicle. One day, a satellite captured images of the S.U.V. pulling into a large concrete compound in Abbottabad.
For reasons that aren't clear, Miniter describes this moment as happening in 2009:
A single phone call gave al-Kuwaiti away in August 2009.14 It lasted less than a minute, but the spy satellites parked over Pakistan intercepted and recorded the call. It was logged into the National Security Agency's enormous databases. A keyword search alerted intelligence analysts. Soon America's electronic sleuths were tracking al-Kuwaiti through his mobile phone. A technical team mapped the locations of every phone al-Kuwaiti made a call to or received a call from. It showed red dots all over Afghanistan and Pakistan.
A covert ground team eventually spotted al-Kuwaiti himself in the Bilal Town section of Abbottabad, a prosperous enclave north of Pakistan's capital city of Islamabad. He liked to roam the busy streets of Abbottabad in a white sport-utility vehicle, with a distinctive red rhino emblazoned on its spare tire cover. It made him easy to follow.
Within weeks al-Kuwaiti was tracked repeatedly entering and exiting a mysterious walled compound. [Leading from Behind, pp 131-132]
The source Miniter cites in that first sentence, a MSNBC article on the hunt for the courier, quotes an anonymous intelligence official saying that in 2009 they identified areas in Pakistan where al-Kuwaiti operated, but also that they found the Abbottabad compound in 2010 -- not 2009, and certainly not “in the first few months of the Obama administration,” as Miniter claims.
Miniter even contradicts himself at various points, writing about intelligence officials acting on intelligence that, by his own inaccurate account, didn't exist yet. On Page 132 he writes that then-CIA chief Leon Panetta “weighed sending in a ground team to watch the Abbottabad compound from a nearby safehouse and, in April 2009, intense surveillance began,” even though by his own retelling the compound wasn't identified until four months later. He writes on page 134 that after the ground team obtained a voice recording of Bin Laden at the compound, “Panetta again met with Obama in June 2009. The pressure on Obama to act was becoming harder to ignore.” Once again, Miniter is describing a meeting about intelligence gathered at a site that, by his own words, the intelligence community didn't yet know about.
Following the proper chronology, in June 2009 Obama, according to the New Yorker, “drafted a memo instructing Panetta to create a 'detailed operation plan' for finding the Al Qaeda leader and to 'ensure that we have expended every effort.'” The CIA ground team started operations at the Abbotabad safe house after it was discovered in August 2010, per the Washington Post.
With his dates off by an entire year, Miniter constructs a narrative of the president delaying action on this intelligence for most of 2009 and all of 2010:
Throughout 2009 Obama demanded more and more certainty about U.S. intelligence concerning bin Laden. [White House senior adviser Valerie] Jarrett repeatedly reminded Obama and other executive-branch officials that the president had campaigned on the “intelligence failures” of the Bush years. There was no need, she said , to hand our political rivals a set of intelligence failures of our own. As CIA covert teams successfully parried concerns that proved bin Laden was indeed in the Abottabad [sic] compound, a new set a delaying tactics emerged, embedded in the debate over what should actually be done.
After a series of meetings with Panetta, Gates, Clinton, and senior military officials, in January 2010, Obama, at last, ordered Vice Adm. Bill McRaven to develop a range of military options. McRaven, a former Navy SEAL, ran the Joint Special Operations Command that oversaw all of America's special forces. [Leading from Behind, p. 136]
This is completely inaccurate. According to the New Yorker, Obama ordered Panetta “to begin exploring options for a military strike on the compound” in late 2010, and Panetta tasked McRaven with developing attack plans, which he began in January 2011. According to the White House, Valerie Jarrett “wasn't read into super-secret plans for the raid that took place in May of 2011.”