The death of Osama bin Laden is a transcendent moment for the country and a pivotal one for President Obama.
As the president said, it “marks the most significant event in our effort to defeat al-Qaeda.” The inability to capture bin Laden has been the hole at the heart of the American national security establishment for 10 years. More than 5,000 American soldiers have been killed pursuing terrorists and insurgents since the Twin Towers fell. Many thousands more have been injured. Untold numbers of civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan suffered death and displacement. The American government was reorganized to protect the homeland, and Americans saw loved ones march off to war and slogged through long airport security lines to avoid a replay of what happened that bright September morning.
The plot set in motion by this tall, itinerant Saudi, born in 1957, opened a chaotic and difficult century for the world’s superpower. The 20th century saw American armies victorious with tanks and planes and mired in the jungles of Vietnam. The wars of the 21st century, from the Khyber Pass to Baghdad, tested American ingenuity and leadership. Could America deliver victories in this terrain?
As long as bin Laden remained on the run, the answer was no.
The triumph of a pro-American government in Baghdad and an ostensible American ally in Kabul was all good, but as long as the man who started the wars of 9/11 was able to scurry from hiding place to hiding place without capture, it cast a pall over the entire enterprise.
After Historic Manhunt, Osama bin Laden Is Dead
More From National Journal:
•What Does it Really Mean for al-Qaida?
•Timeline: Osama bin Laden's Life and Death
•PICTURES: Newspapers Lead With bin Laden's Death
With bin Laden's death, the importance of little-known aspects of America's fighting capability—the paramilitary-like forces of the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command—may soon be as well-known as mainstays like the Army and the Marines. In the wars of the 21st century, on the eve of this long-awaited moment, the lesser-known legions in the American military are now under the spotlight.
The CIA had been caught off guard by 9/11 and caught up in the contretemps over faulty intelligence leading to the Iraq war. Its director, George Tenet, had famously said that the case for Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction was a "slam dunk."
Now the CIA stands much taller. Its intelligence helped pinpoint bin Laden, but so did its patience: The genesis of the operation began four years ago, based on a fragment of information received years earlier than that from detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Just as Leon Panetta readies to leave his tenure as director, Langley has cause for pride.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, now retired; his successor at the Joint Special Operations Command, Vice Adm. William McRaven; and Michael Flynn, McChrystal's intelligence chief, transformed the way the military uses and fuses intelligence. This is their kill, too.
Inside the Pentagon today, the "Three Musketeers," as they're affectionately known—CIA deputy director Mike Morell, Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Gen. James Cartwright, and Mike Vickers, the civilian who oversees special operations—drove through artificial bureaucratic firewalls to make sure that secretive entities could work with other.
Of course, we don't know yet what the practical impact of bin Laden's death will be. His continued existence remained a source of inspiration and recruitment for the loose network—the “al-Qaida"—that he commanded, even as he lost the ability to directly order and supervise terrorist attacks. The death will not end terrorism. It may even draw a ferocious response from those who are sympathetic to bin Laden. It will almost certainly complicate the already severely strained U.S. relationship with Pakistan even as President Obama went out of his way praise Pakistan for its cooperation in the effort—which was, to be sure, nil, because Pakistan had not been told about it beforehand—and to encourage its continued help.
Bin Laden’s death is an undeniable success for an intelligence community that missed the connections that might have prevented the attack. It coincides with the unofficial kickoff of the 2012 reelection cycle, where the incumbent, President Obama, has had his credentials as commander in chief repeatedly questioned by opponents and his citizenship mocked. Having scored the victory that remained beyond the grasp of George W. Bush—who graciously congratulated the president Sunday night—Obama's military bona fides will be harder to attack.
Whatever flaws the president’s national security policies have, and however infrequently Obama may have mentioned bin Laden, history will record that, when it came to getting bin Laden, Obama got the job done and Bush, whose entire presidency was tormented by bin Laden’s actions on 9/11, did not, despite Bush's claim that he would capture him "dead or alive."
The White House notified its Sunday press pool at 9:45 p.m. that the lid it placed on coverage was lifted, and that the president would address the nation at 10:30 p.m. Then White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer tweeted about it moments later.
The cell phones of intelligence and national security spokespeople went straight to voice mail, suggesting they were overloaded or that their bearers had been asked to shut them off, so as not to inadvertently tip anyone off.
Several senior intelligence officials, including the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, and the CIA director, Leon Panetta, were called to the White House early Sunday and have been out of contact with staff since then—a sign to them that something big was happening. Beginning around 9:45 p.m., White House officials and Panetta began to notify members of Congress, beginning with House Speaker John Boehner. Bush was also notified. He issued a statement shortly after Obama finished speaking. "The fight against terror goes on, but tonight America has sent an unmistakable message: no matter how long it takes, justice will be done," Bush wrote in the statement.
Since going into hiding, bin Laden has issued about 30 rambling messages to the U.S., some of which have taunted Obama personally. During a debate in the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama said killing bin Laden and crushing al-Qaida was the “biggest national security priority.” But in a CBS interview in January 2009, he walked back those comments, saying it would be enough to keep the terrorist organization “on the run.”
“If we have so tightened the noose that he's in a cave somewhere and can't even communicate with his operatives, then we will meet our goal of protecting America,” he said in the interview. On Sunday, he exceeded his own expectations.
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