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?
MM: Look, I can’t speak to who it’s going to work with. I know that people who are converts already will take it as his right. And people who are his opponents will automatically conclude that it’s something reprehensible. The question is about the people in the middle, and I think people in the middle have a sense of decency, and a sense of history, and can look back on leaders that we had, and understand that real leaders take less credit than they deserve, and more blame than they deserve. And this is not an example of that at all.
Ponder those words for a second. They are very, very tough, and they come from a man who is very serious about the war on terror. He is also uniquely positioned to speak to one other aspect of the mission to get bin Laden:
HH: Now in that room, the Situation Room, the famous photo appears alongside your Journal piece. Eric Holder isn’t there, the current Attorney General isn’t there. Did that surprise you when that photo first appeared?
MM: Yes, it did, and I commented to a number of people that his absence seemed to me to be remarkable.
MM: Because when an operation like that is carried out, one of the key elements has to do with the legality of it. Crossing a border…I mean, understand, I think it was justified, and I think that there should have been, and perhaps was, consultation with people of the Justice Department, and that the Attorney General would be taken into the President’s confidence sufficiently to have been in that room.
The conversation with Mukasey underscores the disquiet the president has engendered among many people with key past roles in the war on terror.
It summarizes the distaste for the credit-grabbing, self-absorbed posturing of the president.
And it calls attention to the two strangest aspects of the entire episode –the CYA memo and Eric Holder’s absence from the Situation Room.
The president has miscalculated, again.