By Russell Berman - 05/03/11 10:12 AM EDT
Senior Obama administration officials offered no public hint that they knew where Osama bin Laden was hiding months after the president said they were tipped off to his probable location.
In early March, Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said there was “no hard intelligence” on bin Laden’s whereabouts and that “for all we know he could be in Las Vegas next to Elvis, given the precision of what we have.” His remarks on Fox News came around the same time Obama was said to have nixed a plan to bomb the compound where officials believed he was hiding.
The statements, likely aimed at keeping the plot against bin Laden a secret, contributed to lingering questions about how high a priority the capture or killing of bin Laden was to an administration that occasionally downplayed his importance in the global war against terrorism.
“They’re not going to tip their hand,” said Rick Nelson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The question of bin Laden’s importance in the broader U.S. terrorism strategy could take on added significance as lawmakers use his death to push for a withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan later this year.
Obama said Sunday that shortly after taking office in 2009 he had instructed CIA Director Leon Panetta to make the killing or capture of bin Laden “the top priority of our war against al Qaeda, even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle and defeat his network.”
The president’s statement was the first time he acknowledged how critical he considered the elimination of bin Laden to be to the overall war on terror. Over the course of more than two years, Obama and senior national security officials had offered strikingly different assessments of bin Laden’s importance. Even though Obama firmly pledged during the 2008 campaign to “kill bin Laden,” he told CBS News shortly before taking office that taking him out was not essential.
“We have to so weaken his infrastructure so that whether he is technically alive or not, he is so pinned down that he cannot function,” Obama said on Jan. 14, 2009. “My preference, obviously, would be to capture or kill him. But if we have so tightened the noose that he is in a cave somewhere and can’t even communicate with his operatives, then we will meet our goal of protecting America.”
In a high-profile December 2009 speech announcing his escalation of the Afghanistan war, Obama mentioned bin Laden only once, in passing.
Days later, commanding U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal placed a higher priority on bin Laden’s capture in testimony to Congress, calling him an “iconic figure … whose survival emboldens al Qaeda.”
“It would not defeat al Qaeda to have him captured or killed, but I don’t think that we can finally defeat al Qaeda until he’s captured or killed,” McChrystal said.
The administration might have had its reasons for keeping bin Laden on the back-burner in the public’s mind, Nelson said.
“I think the administration downplayed his significance in order to take away his bully pulpit, so to speak,” he said.
Nelson said the goal would have been to counter bin Laden’s attempt to stay relevant through his release of occasional audio- and videotapes mocking and threatening the United States.
“It was serving as a conduit for him to recruit, to build the al Qaeda brand,” Nelson said. “What I think the Obama administration was trying to do was take that out of his hands, take that tool away from him while at the same time quietly keeping him a priority going forward and bringing him to justice.”
The concern now, he said, is allowing the public to believe that bin Laden’s death marks the end of the conflict with global terrorists. “Does killing bin Laden ensure the end of al Qaeda? Certainly not,” Nelson said.
Already, a few anti-war lawmakers have cited bin Laden’s death in pushing for a speedy drawdown of U.S. forces overseas.
“This is not the end of our fight against terrorists who wish us harm, but it does close a decade-long chapter in that fight,” a co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), said in a statement. “Hopefully we can begin now to look at how we bring our soldiers home from Afghanistan and Iraq.”
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) delivered the opposite message. “This makes our engagement in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan more important, not less,” he said at the Capitol.