Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Feel Good Book Of The Year

Manhunt by Peter L Bergen doesn't really have any scoops or offer us anything new about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, but it is still a compelling, thorough and fast paced read. Bergen knows what he is talking about and got access to the White House, the CIA and joint special forces command. As a CNN reporter Bergen met Bin Laden in the 90's and because of his close relationship with the Pakistanis he was the only western journalist who was allowed to visit Bin Laden's compound in Abbotabad before it was demolished.
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Bergen isn't in the business of apportioning blame for 9/11 and Bin Laden's escape at Tora Bora in December 2001, but I am. According to Bergen on August 6th 2001 President Bush was told by the CIA that Bin Laden was determined to strike the US. Bush's national security team led by Condoleeza Rice had previously been informed that Al Qaeda was desperate to hijack planes on US soil. After the August 6th briefing Bush did nothing. He issued no executive orders and did not raise the security level at US airports. Bush listened to the briefing and spent the rest of the day "clearing brush" at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. What was odd about this is that on a previously aired episode of The West Wing President Bartlett was faced with a similar threat and took an entire episode to decide what to do about it. Bush and Rice however didn't give this terrifying information a moments thought. 
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At Tora Bora the guilty men were General Tommy Franks and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld who refused to let commanders on the ground insert US Army Rangers or Marines to prevent Bin Laden slipping through the net. Rumsfeld was fixated on maintaining a small US footprint in Afghanistan and at the crucial Battle for Tora Bora where Bin Laden escaped there were actually more Western reporters in the region than US soldiers. Iraq was one of Rumsfeld's fatal obsessions and on the day Bin Laden escaped "Rummy" was having General Franks rework a Pentagon invasion plan. Bergen makes the point that the Iraq adventure was a severe drain on the resources of the CIA and the special forces and that by the time President Obama came to power the entire Bin Laden unit was only about two dozen operatives strong. Morale was low and leads were few. President Obama dramatically increased the CIA's Bin Laden unit and tripled the number of drone strikes on the Pakistani tribal areas that devastated the upper echelons of Al Qaeda from 2009 - 2011. 
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The rest of the story is well known. The CIA followed Bin Laden's courier to the compound in Abbotabad and after a few months trying to gather intelligence a raid was recommended to the President. Vice President Biden and Secretary of Defense Gates both thought the raid was a terrible idea but the majority of Obama's national security team felt it was the right call. Bergen did not interview the SEALs involved in the raid so his account of Operation Neptune's Spear has nothing substantially new to add to the stuff that's already out there. According to his youngest wife, Bin Laden spent much of his six years at Abbotabad watching old videos of himself, reading Noam Chomsky and writing maudlin poetry. His last words were "don't turn the light on." (The rather more successful German poet Goethe's last words were "more light, more light...") 
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I listened to Manhunt as a Random House audiobook and although I enjoyed it I have to say that I think it was a mistake for the narrator to try to impersonate Presidents Bush and Obama and his Pakistani, Afghan and Arabic accents were unintentionally hilarious (they sounded like Peter Sellars in the Goon Show). I also wonder if Bergen hasn't gotten too close to his sources in Pakistan. He completely lets the Pakistanis off the hook and insists that no one in Pakistan knew that Bin Laden was in their country which seems prima facie unlikely. That aside, Manhunt is a pretty good audiobook and it has a nice happy ending with the vain, solipsistic, deluded mass murderer cowering in his room for fifteen minutes and then getting shot in the eye.