Making a mess of it: Obama, aides struggle with post-raid miscues
In retrospect, killing the world’s most dangerous man was easy. The hard part has been figuring out what to do next.
From the changing details of the raid and the controversy over the release of Osama bin Laden pictures to the use of the code name “Geronimo,” President Obama has faced a host of nagging questions from the left and the right in the days following what was widely hailed as the biggest victory of his presidency.
“The Obama people seem determined to snatch a propaganda defeat from the arms of victory,” said conservative radio talkshow host Rush Limbaugh on his May 5 program. “This is chaos.”
Most of the criticism has centered on the White House’s shifting versions of what happened during the May 1 raid. The first account the following day from counterterrorism chief John O. Brennan said that bin Laden engaged U.S. forces “in a firefight.” The next day, White House spokesman Jay Carney amended the story to say that bin Laden “resisted” but did not actually shoot at the Navy SEALs.
The “firefight” at the compound has since been degraded to shots fired at the start of the operation by bin Laden’s courier, according to administration officials cited by the New York Times.
The role of the women at the scene also has been subject to extensive editing. Mr. Brennan originally said one of bin Laden’s wives was killed when the terrorist leader tried to use her as a human shield. Since then, the White House has stated that the wife was only shot in the leg and not killed; that it’s not clear whether she was being used as a shield, and that another woman was in fact killed at the compound.
Mr. Carney has chalked up the discrepancies to the “fog of war” atmosphere that results when officials have only a few hours to figure out what happened during the confusion of a military raid conducted under cover of night thousands of miles away.
That hasn’t stopped the White House from becoming embroiled in a battle over whether to release the photos of bin Laden’s body. Public figures as disparate as former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin to liberal Harvard University professor Alan Dershowitz have called on the president to reverse his decision to keep the photos under wraps.
Administration officials have said that releasing the photos risks inflaming anti-American sentiment in the Middle East and jeopardizing national security. They also say that the photos are disturbing in that they show the terrorist leader with a gunshot wound to the forehead.
Critics counter that the photos are needed to help establish how bin Laden was killed, especially given the questions surrounding whether he was shot in the front or from the back.
“We need to have those photographs, not to prove that it’s him but to prove that the circumstances under which he was killed to allay any doubt about those circumstances,” said Mr. Dershowitz on CNNTV. “I think we will rue the day when we tried to suppress this information.”
Given the recent government leaks to websites such as WikiLeaks, he said, the photos are bound to find their way onto the Internet eventually.
“They will be leaked at some point by somebody, and it will be embarrassing to the U.S.,” said Mr. Dershowitz.
Republicans were divided on how to handle the sensitive photos. Some conservatives argue the photos should be released to send a message to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
“Show photo as warning to others seeking America’s destruction. No pussy-footing around, no politicking, no drama; it’s part of the mission,” said Mrs. Palin in a May 5 tweet.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said withholding the photos will “unnecessarily prolong” the debate over whether bin Laden is dead. But Rep. Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican who chairs the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, agreed with the president that the photos would only serve as a “trophy.”
There also was grumbling over the decision about “Geronimo,” the military code word assigned to bin Laden for the operation. Loretta Tuell, staff director and chief counsel for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, called it “inappropriate” to link the Apache leader Geronimo to the world’s deadliest terrorist, the Associated Press reported.
For all the kudos Mr. Obama has received for eliminating bin Laden, it hasn’t translated to a huge bounce in the polls. A Quinnipiac University poll of registered voters conducted after the raid and released May 5 showed the president’s approval rating at 52 percent, up 6 points from a survey conducted the previous week.
His disapproval rating also dropped 8 points to 40 percent. Other surveys showed his approval rating up anywhere from 9 to 11 points.
But voters are still unhappy with his performance on the economy. The same Quinnipiac poll showed 42 percent of registered voters favored his approach to the deficit, while 44 percent prefer the Republican plan. A week earlier, 42 percent supported the president and 46 percent supported the GOP.
“The killing of Osama bin Laden has helped President Barack Obama’s popularity but not massively,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “Voters have upped their opinion of the president’s handling of national security matters. But they have not changed their minds about his stewardship of the economy.”