But after a glorious covert mission, secrecy may be considered dispensable—and classified details of the mission may be disclosed in the interests of political security.
On a moonless evening one year ago, 23 Navy SEALs in two Black Hawk helicopters set off from Afghanistan for a compound in the small Pakistan city of Abbottabad, on the raid that culminated with a bullet to Osama bin Laden’s chest and another to his brow. It was a triumph for Obama and for U.S. clandestine forces—a triumph that in the eyes of White House officials was begging to be publicly recounted. Three months later, the New Yorker ran a spellbinding, rhapsodical play-by-play of the raid.
"Getting Bin Laden" was written by freelancer Nicholas Schmidle. Schmidle was working on a different piece for the New Yorker when bin Laden was killed; then he proposed postponing that article and writing a reconstruction of the raid. New Yorker editor David Remnick approved. “It doesn’t take a very intelligent editor to know that’s the story we had to do,” Remnick later told the Washington Post.
But it takes a sharp editor to know that a 32-year-old freelancer will get the access necessary to do the reconstructing. Why would senior administration officials and special operations sources trust Schmidle with the story? It couldn't hurt that the deputy commander for U.S. Cyber Command, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Robert E. Schmidle Jr., was the freelancer's father. (Cyber Command initiates and defends against international online spying.) And, indeed, Schmidle secured interviews with administration, defense, and intelligence officials, some who allowed him to use their names and some who didn't. He got the widespread cooperation that could only be granted with White House approval.
As pure storytelling, "Getting Bin Laden" was masterful, suffused in vivid detail. When the Black Hawks neared Abbottabad, their interiors “rustled alive with the metallic cough of rounds being chambered.” Readers learned what one SEAL had in his pockets (a laminated map of the compound, and descriptions of its presumed residents). Before the mission, the SEALs had settled on "Geronimo" as the code word to signify that bin Laden had been found. Schmidle related how the SEAL who shot the Al Qaeda leader then said into his radio, "For God and country—Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo”—and then, after a pause, "Geronimo E.K.I.A." (enemy killed in action).
The details were so precise that a reader could be forgiven for assuming that Schmidle had talked to some of the SEALs themselves—an assumption that NPR's Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep made. Interviewing Schmidle on August 1, the morning the story was published, Inskeep told listeners, “For security reasons we still don't know the names of those Navy SEALs, but many of them spoke with reporter Nicholas Schmidle.” Schmidle didn't dissuade him. But as a correction on NPR's website noted two days later, Schmidle didn’t speak with “many” of the SEALs—in fact, he didn’t speak with any of them. “Schmidle used information from others who had debriefed the SEALs; he did not speak with them himself,” the NPR correction said. Schmidle didn't mention this in his story; he revealed it in an interview with the Washington Post on August 2.
So Schmidle was largely at the mercy of the debriefers for his play-by-play. Even with his extraordinary access to key officials, the story posed an unusual reporting challenge: What do you do when many of your sources of information are masters of disinformation? Schmidle betrayed little concern about this in his story, or about his sources' bias. He didn't bog down his tale with many "according tos," instead often reporting what his sources told him as fact. It's a story that seems generally accurate, and also at times too good to be true.
One of the Black Hawks crash-landed in the compound. No one was hurt, and Schmidle put the mishap in a positive light: “The twelve SEALs inside helo one recovered their bearings and calmly relayed on the radio that they were proceeding with the raid. They had conducted so many operations over the past nine years that few things caught them off guard.”
The SEALS streamed out of the helicopter and blew up two metal gates with explosives to gain entrance to a courtyard. Three SEALs then saw bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, outside a guesthouse. Kuwaiti dashed inside, and when he returned with a weapon, the SEALs opened fire and killed him, Schmidle wrote.
The other nine SEALs entered an inner courtyard, where they came upon Kuwaiti’s 33-year-old brother, who, according to Schmidle, was armed with an AK-47. The SEALs shot him dead, and also killed his unarmed wife, who was next to him.
A drone's video feed had allowed defense, intelligence, and administration officials gathered in the White House to monitor what happened outside the main house in the compound. What happened inside the house “is not precisely clear,” Schmidle allowed. The SEALs didn’t know the house’s floor plan, “and they were further jostled by the awareness that they were possibly minutes away from ending the costliest manhunt in American history; as a result, some of their recollections—on which this account is based—may be imprecise and, thus, subject to dispute.”
This is Schmidle bending over backward to explain contradictions from his sources, rather than acknowledging them for what they were—some sources sprucing up parts of the raid for public consumption, and others not.
The SEALs encountered bin Laden’s 23-year-old son Khalid on the stairs. He fired down on the SEALs with an AK-47, Schmidle wrote. Schmidle added parenthetically that a counterterrorism official “claims that Khalid was unarmed, though still a threat worth taking seriously”—a claim Schmidle seemed to dismiss, reporting that “At least two of the SEALs shot back and killed Khalid.”
Three SEALs rushed past Khalid’s body up the stairs. They found bin Laden in a bedroom on the third floor. One SEAL shot bin Laden in the chest, and, as bin Laden fell backward, shot him again above his left eye. Then he issued his "For God and country—Geronimo" radio report. “Hearing this at the White House,” Schmidle wrote, “Obama pursed his lips, and said solemnly, to no one in particular, ‘We got him.’”
Did any of the officials monitoring the raid at the White House blow off steam at this point? Did anyone say, "Good riddance, motherfucker," or something of that ilk? That'll have to wait for the movie. In "Getting Bin Laden," Vice President Joe Biden, fingering a rosary, turned to Joint Chiefs chairman Mike Mullen and said, "We should all go to Mass tonight."
Schmidle reported that computer files recovered by the SEALs in a second-floor room showed that bin Laden had been plotting to assassinate Obama and David Petraeus, then commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and had also been planning a September 11 anniversary attack, and attacks on American trains. The SEALs found a digital archive of pornography as well, Schmidle said. "“We find it on all these guys, whether they’re in Somalia, Iraq, or Afghanistan,” a special-operations officer told him.
The special-ops officer also told Schmidle that the raid had set a precedent for more unilateral raids in the future. "Folks now realize we can weather it," he said. Obama's counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, added, “The confidence we have in the capabilities of the U.S. military is, without a doubt, even stronger after this operation.”
Schmidle knitted the tale of the raid with the story of the political machinations leading to it, highlighting Obama's leadership throughout. He reminded readers of Obama's pledge during the 2008 presidential campaign: “We will kill bin Laden.” Four months after Obama became president, CIA director Leon Panetta briefed him on the agency’s attempts to track the Al Qaeda leader. “Obama was unimpressed,” Schmidle wrote. The president instructed Panetta to create a detailed plan to find bin Laden. When Panetta brought Obama better news in August 2010—CIA analysts thought they might have located bin Laden in the compound in Abbottabad—“Obama, though excited, was not yet prepared to order military action.” But by late 2010 he ordered Panetta to explore options for a military strike on the compound.
In March of last year, Obama was presented with three options: raid the compound, bomb it, or wait for further intelligence on whether bin Laden was really in the compound. The president’s military advisers were divided. Obama directed special ops to begin practicing for the raid. In late April, with his advisers mixed on the advisability of the raid, Obama authorized the mission. “Godspeed to you and your forces,” Obama told Vice Admiral Bill McRaven, the SEAL in charge of the Joint Special Operations Command. “Please pass on to them my personal thanks for their service and the message that I personally will be following this mission very closely.”
At the last minute, on Obama's instigation, two backup Chinook helicopters were deployed in Pakistani airspace; the president “said he wanted to feel assured that the Americans could ‘fight their way out of Pakistan,’” Schmidle wrote. This proved crucial after the crash-landing of the Black Hawk: one of the Chinooks was needed to evacuate some of the SEALs.
"Getting Bin Laden" has worked out well for both its subjects and its reporter. Our covert agents and president could hardly have looked better if they'd written the story themselves. Whether this is merited is hard to know, given who was in control of the story offered to Schmidle. Now, at the one-year anniversary of the raid, Obama's campaign is emphasizing the image of the resolute and decisive leader that "Getting Bin Laden" was prominent in advancing. The campaign is using this image to contrast Obama with Mitt Romney—who, the campaign suggests in a film, wouldn't have even ordered the raid.
Meantime the son of the deputy commander for U.S. Cyber Command has been named a finalist for a National Magazine Award in the reporting category. Winners will be announced tomorrow.