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Who deserves credit for bin Laden's killing?


Osama bin Laden has only been dead for a few days, but attention is already turning to the fight over who deserves credit for taking down the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.

In announcing that bin Laden had been killed Sunday night, President Obama credited the "countless intelligence and counterterrorism professionals" who have worked in anonymity for nearly a decade to find bin Laden. He thanked the men who carried out the operation for their "professionalism, patriotism, and unparalleled courage."

But Mr. Obama also stressed his own role in the process.

"Shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, 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," he said.

He noted that he had been briefed about a possible lead, met repeatedly with his national security team and then "determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice."

Not thanked in Mr. Obama's speech: Former President George W. Bush.

President Bush, right, walks out with then President-elect Barack Obama, left, on the North Portico of the White House before sharing the Presidential limousine enroute to Capitol Hill for the inauguration of Mr. Obama in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009. AP

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the incoming chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said almost immediately after the address that Mr. Obama deserves credit for bin Laden's fall, hailing his "leadership in making the targeting of Osama Bin Laden our highest military and intelligence priority."

Even some Republicans agreed: New York Rep. Peter King said Mr. Obama deserves "tremendous credit," while many prominent potential GOP presidential candidates - including Mitch Daniels, Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney -- lauded the president(among others) for his role.  

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Yet others either withheld praise for Mr. Obama or made sure to give much of the presidential credit to George W. Bush. Consider the words of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who said, "I commend President Obama who has followed the vigilance of President Bush in bringing bin Laden to justice."

On March 13, 2002, President Bush gave a press conference in which he played down the importance of catching bin Laden. He said that "the idea of focusing on one person is -- really indicates to me people don't understand the scope of the mission." At one point he said, "I just don't spend that much time on him."

Asked if he believes "the threat that bin Laden posed won't truly be eliminated until he is found either dead or alive," Mr. Bush responded, "Well, as I say, we haven't heard much from him. And I wouldn't necessarily say he's at the center of any command structure. And, again, I don't know where he is. I'll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him." He added that "[t]error is bigger than one person."

In 2006, the CIA actually closed its unit dedicated to finding bin Laden, though agents said tracking him remained a high priority. 

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Osama bin Laden
This is an undated file photo of Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden, in Afghanistan, wanted by the United States government. Al Quds/AAR/Sipa

Asked about the credit the president should receive for the successful mission, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney stressed today that Mr. Obama "feels strongly this is not a partisan issue."

"I think the credit for the focus and the fight and obviously the intelligence gathering over the years is shared by both administrations," he said.

Carney added, however, that refocusing the CIA on bin Laden's capture was one of Mr. Obama's campaign promises -- and "one he followed up on." 

He said it was "understandable" if others doubted, after so many years, that bin Laden would be caught or needed to be caught. Yet, he said, "the commitment of members of both administrations should not be doubted."

Will Obama get a bin Laden boost?

Supporters of the Bush administration chafe at the suggestion that Mr. Bush was not dedicated to bringing bin Laden to justice. (Mr. Bush had once vowed to get him "dead or alive.") A former top intelligence officer told Politico that Mr. Bush regularly asked about bin Laden.

"I'd walk in there and he would just say, 'So where are we on bin Laden?'" said the official. "He was very focused on it - this was always a top priority."

Others, meanwhile, have suggested the lion's share of the credit belongs to Mr. Bush, not Mr. Obama, because the former authorized the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" on detainees, leading to the intelligence, first gleaned years ago, that brought down bin Laden. (It's not clear if this is true: The White House, some leaders in Congress and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have suggested that such techniques did not lead to bin Laden, but others have said the techniques, including waterboarding, led to the intelligence.) After it was announced that bin Laden was dead, Iowa Rep. Steve King tweeted, "Wonder what President Obama thinks of water boarding now?" Mr. Bush's backers have also pointed out that some of the intelligence leading to bin Laden appears to have come from the Guantanamo Bay prison facility, which Mr. Obama (thus far ineffectually) vowed to close.

Debate continues over role of waterboarding in gathering bin Laden intel

For Mr. Bush, who is now comfortably settled in Texas, the question of credit may not matter all that much. But for Mr. Obama and his fellow Democrats, the credit question is an important one. If Mr. Obama is seen as the man who brought down bin Laden, it blunts GOP criticism of the president as weak and indecisive on foreign policy. That may be part of the reason that Mr. Obama decided to spotlight his role in taking down bin Laden in his remarks Sunday night.

Peter Wehner, a former deputy assistant to Mr. Bush, wrote Tuesday that the killing of bin Laden stopped a damaging emerging narrative that Mr. Obama is "inept and feckless" on foreign policy. He also pointed to one of the most important decisions Mr. Obama made: Not to bomb the compound but rather to send in a Navy SEAL team to take bin Laden out. That decision, he suggested, will be central to how Mr. Obama's role is remembered.

"President Obama took a risky (but wise) gamble in opting for sending in Navy SEALs instead of bombing the bin Laden compound to smithereens," wrote Wehner. "The president's decision was rewarded. Bin Laden was killed; his body has been identified; a treasure trove of intelligence was reportedly found; and innocent lives were saved. Mr. Obama's role was not incidental in all this; it was his decision that made it come to pass. That won't be forgotten."

Special Report: The killing of Osama bin Laden

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