Killing over capturing

KILLING OVER CAPTURING…. This week, former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen was critical of the Obama administration’s counter-terrorism efforts for an unusual reason. As Thiessen sees it, President Obama is doing too much to go after terrorists, and is taking out too many bad guys before they can be captured and tortured.

Thiessen was widely mocked, here and elsewhere, for suggesting the president has been too quick to kill terrorists. But today, the Washington Post has a fairly-long front-page piece lending credence to the Thiessen thesis.

When a window of opportunity opened to strike the leader of al-Qaeda in East Africa last September, U.S. Special Operations forces prepared several options. They could obliterate his vehicle with an airstrike as he drove through southern Somalia. Or they could fire from helicopters that could land at the scene to confirm the kill. Or they could try to take him alive.

The White House authorized the second option. On the morning of Sept. 14, helicopters flying from a U.S. ship off the Somali coast blew up a car carrying Saleh Ali Nabhan. While several hovered overhead, one set down long enough for troops to scoop up enough of the remains for DNA verification. Moments later, the helicopters were headed back to the ship.

The strike was considered a major success, according to senior administration and military officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the classified operation and other sensitive matters. But the opportunity to interrogate one of the most wanted U.S. terrorism targets was gone forever.

The analysis isn’t exactly persuasive. Indeed, the bulk of the piece seems to rest on complaints from Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), who has already proven himself to be hopelessly confused about even the basics of current events, coupled with the concerns of one “senior military official” and one “former intelligence official.”

More importantly, the piece buries the relevant details that bring the thesis into question. In the first three paragraphs, we learn that the president decided to take out an al Qaeda leader rather than try to capture him. Then, 21 paragraphs later, the piece reports that the president weighed the alternative, but given all the circumstances, made the right call.

The Somalia calculus, several officials said, included weighing the likelihood that U.S. troops on the ground for any amount of time in the militia-controlled south would be particularly vulnerable to attack. Looming large, they said, was the memory of the last time a U.S. combat helicopter was on the ground in lawless Somalia, the 1993 Black Hawk debacle that resulted in the deaths of 18 soldiers.

“There are certain upsides and certain downsides to certain paths,” the administration official said. “The safety and security of U.S. military personnel is always something the president keeps at the highest level of his calculus.”

In other words, for Obama, the risk to U.S. troops was too great, so he instead ordered an airstrike that killed a dangerous terrorist. This is, of course, what one would expect the president to do, and need not be the basis for an entirely new round of criticism.

Consider, for a moment, the alternative. Imagine if President Obama and his team decided that they preferred to take out fewer terrorist leaders and would instead send U.S. servicemen and women into extraordinarily dangerous situations in order to capture more bad guys.

I think any honest person knows exactly what we’d be hearing from the media and Republicans: the president is refusing to kill terrorists and he’s needlessly putting the troops in harm’s way.

Heads, the right wins. Tails, the president loses.