On Tuesday morning the Wall Street Journal carried a very unusual op-ed.
The author was a former Attorney General of the United States, Michael Mukasy, who had served on the federal bench for 18 years before taking on the top job in federal law enforcement. As a federal district court judge, Mukasey had presided over the trial of Omar Abdel Rahman, the “blind Sheik,” one of the original confederates of bin Laden, a vantage point from which the highly esteemed jurist became deeply acquainted with the intricacies of the jihadist network.
As AG, Mukasey took on a key leadership role in the war on terror, and he is widely respected across both sides of the political divide for his stewardship of that office.
Which is why his piece, titled “Obama and the bin Laden Bragging Rights,” was such a stunning and strong rebuke to the president and his political team. Mukasey is not a political figure, not a partisan figure, but a senor statesman, one of the “wise men.”
I interviewed the former AG on my radio show the afternoon after his piece was published, a little more than two hours before the president spoke to the American people from Afghanistan. The transcript of this interview is here, but there are some extraordinary parts to this conversation which should be highlighted, beginning with my question about the Journal essay:
HH: Why were you motivated to write this piece?
MM: Well, frankly, when I saw in the newspaper on Saturday that there was going to be this conscious attempt to exploit the bragging rights, and took a look at the statement that he had made at the time of the original announcement, and thought about the fact that he had compromised the intelligence value of that achievement by talking about seizing a trove of intelligence, and even disclosing that we had found out about the places where al Qaeda safe houses were located, there comes a point where really, it’s hard to restrain yourself. And I just sat down and I wrote it in something like a couple of hours. I was just, I was fairly upset.
That upset led the former AG to focus on one oft-overlooked aspect of the decision to authorize the mission to kill bin Laden –that the president had arranged to be able to distance himself from failure:
HH: Now you also mentioned something that not many people have noted, that is that then-CIA director, now Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was given a memorandum that says the timing, operational decision making and control are in Admiral McRaven’s 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. What do you make of the Panetta memo? What was its purpose?
MM: Well, that’s a responsibility avoidance mechanism. That says that unless you encounter only the precise matters described to the President, and notice they’re not set forth in the memo, all that’s set forth is essentially unless you encounter the precise conditions described to the President. And the fact is you can never, in any operation, anticipate what’s going to happen. Once you’re in there, things start to happen that you don’t anticipate. But it says that unless you go ahead only on that basis, you’ve got to come back and get permission. That’s a way of saying that well, I didn’t approve whatever danger was encountered later on that caused us to fail. It’s a way of shirking responsibility.
HH: Is it a CYA memo?
MM: You want a one word answer?
I asked Mukasey about his description of the president’s trip earlier in the interview as an “overreach”:
HH: [I]s it so transparent, and actually “overreaching,” first word you used in our conversation, that it may actually backfire on him, politically? Continued...