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Occasional Common Sense

Michael Mukasey’s Ridiculous Interpretation of Panetta’s Bin Laden Memo

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Michael Mukasey is a former Attorney General, appointed by George W. Bush after Alberto Gonzales resigned in disgrace. He’s also a severely conservative Republican, having among other things ruled as a federal judge that U.S. citizen Jose Padilla could be held indefinitely without trial as an enemy combatant; he also advised Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign. Appointed to the bench by Ronald Reagan, his conservative bona fides are excellent. As with any strident partisan, believing what he has to say about his opposition without question would be a mistake.

Mukasey’s made himself a leading Republican voice criticizing President Obama on the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.  Appearing on Sean Hannity’s “fair and balanced” Fox News program, Mukasey described as “highly lawyered” a memo written by Leon Panetta directing the Abbottabad operation to go forward.

Said Mukasey: “There was a memo from Leon Panetta that described the authority that was given to McRaven, and it was to proceed according to the risks–only according to the risks that had been outlined to the President, and if he encountered anything else he had to check back. And you better believe that if anything else had been encountered, and the mission had failed, then the blame would have fallen on McRaven.”

Pretty big claims. Here’s the full text of the memo:

April 29, 2011 / 10:35 AM. Memo for the record — Received phone call from Tom Donlon (sic) who stated that the President made a decision with regard to AC1. The decision is to proceed with the assault. The timing, operational decision making and control are in Admiral McCraven’s (sic) hands. The approval is provided on the risk profile presented to the President. Any additional risks are to be brought back to the President for his consideration. The direction is to go in and get bin Laden and if he is not there, to get out. Those instructions were conveyed to Admiral McCraven (sic) at approximately 10:45 AM.

First off, the “highly lawyered” comment. Here’s a link to the memo. It’s handwritten. Some might say scribbled. The notion that the memo was “highly lawyered” seems odd, since it was handwritten by Panetta. But–aha!–perhaps his crack staff provided him with a “highly lawyered” version that he could then copy by hand; this fits right in with the Republican narrative regarding Obama and teleprompters!  But what about Panetta failing to correctly spell the names of National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Admiral Bill McRaven?  Apparently Mukasey thinks that a memo that was “highly lawyered” would not include a review by anybody who would catch these errors.  Or–aha!–perhaps Obama and Panetta are such evil geniuses that they intentionally misspelled the names of two top presidential advisors  to make a “highly lawyered” memo look like a quickly handwritten note!  Mu-hu-ha-ha-ha-ha!

At this point, Mukasey appears to be just another partisan hack. A well-credentialed one, but a hack nonetheless.  And that appearance isn’t helped by the fact that his Hannity conversation followed by a week this story by Ben Shapiro on breitbart.com, which laid out the foundation for Hannity’s discussion. Shapiro has three criticisms.

  • “The memo puts all control in the hands of Admiral McRaven – the ‘timing, operational decision making and control’ are all up to McRaven. So the notion that Obama and his team were walking through every stage of the operation is incorrect. The hero here was McRaven, not Obama. And had the mission gone wrong, McRaven surely would have been thrown under the bus.”

Does Shapiro think it would have been wiser for Obama to be in direct command during the conduct of the operation?  Of course not. The delegation of authority to McRaven is clearly and plainly the tactical control of the operation.  I hate military-is-to-football analogies, but I’ve seen the argument that this is like a football team’s head coach assigning conduct of plays to the offensive coordinator, but this is wrong. It’s more like a coach assigning authority for executing the play to the quarterback.  The coach calls the play, but the “timing, operational decision making and control” are in the hands of the quarterback. Does the coach call for the snap of the ball?  Of course not.  The roles of the coach and the quarterback, as of the President and his top military officers, are well-defined.

As for McRaven being “the hero here,” I guaran-fricking-tee you that he would disagree, in exactly the same way Obama would.  The heroes are the men who put their lives at risk in Pakistan that night, and those who did so in other places on other nights.  And McRaven “surely would have been thrown under the bus”? This is the kind of statement you make when you have no facts to support you. “Oh sure, it worked, but if it hadn’t then you’d see how bad Obama is.”

There’s nothing at all controversial here.  To anybody who can objectively read plain text, that is.

  • “[T]he decision has been made based solely on the ‘risk profile presented to the President.’ If any other risks – no matter how minute – arose, they were ‘to be brought back to the President for his consideration.’ This is ludicrous. It is wiggle room. It was Obama’s way of carving out space for himself in case the mission went bad. If it did, he’d say that there were additional risks of which he hadn’t been informed; he’d been kept in the dark by his military leaders.”

Again, there’s nothing here. Shapiro finds it strange that Obama would plainly state that his approval was subject to change if circumstances changed. Imagine the quarterback approaching the line of scrimmage and seeing a defensive formation that would doom the coach’s play. The quarterback obviously should not run the play, but should call a timeout and consult the coach.

Rephrasing the memo, if the military learned that things were not as previously thought, and such new information changed the risks of the operation, Obama wanted to know. In what way is this a bad thing?  It may be a dramatically change from the previous administration. But 10 years later, does anybody think our President’s attributes shouldn’t include a voracious appetite for knowledge and a willingness to cancel operations if intelligence turns out to be wrong?

Shapiro sees this as an “out” whereby the President might shift blame. Readers of plain text will see it as a leader making a tough decision and wanting to be able to change that decision if circumstances change.

  • Finally, the memo is unclear on just what the mission is. Was it to capture Bin Laden or to kill him? The White House itself was unable to decide what the mission was in the hours after the Bin Laden kill, and actually switched its language. The memo shows why: McRaven was instructed to “get” Bin Laden, whatever that meant.

This is grasping at straws. Apparently Shapiro believes that, because Panetta’s handwritten memo doesn’t spell out the goals of the operation to Shapiro’s satisfaction, McRaven did not receive clear instructions. As if the memo is a transcript of conversations with McRaven. As if there wasn’t a huge amount of information being reviewed and discussed that wasn’t part of the memo.

As if it was possible for Panetta’s memo to have been drafted in a way where people like Shapiro and Mukasey wouldn’t claim nefarious subtexts.

The real point here is that nothing Obama can do would satisfy Republicans like Shapiro, Hannity, and Mukasey.  And they will continue to run a campaign of deception and deceit for the next six months.

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Written by David Clayton

May 8, 2012 at 1:11 pm

Posted in Debunkery, Punditry

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