John Weisman has written the first full account of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. However, he did it as a novel, and it won’t take readers long to figure out why he chose that approach. A former journalist, Mr. Weisman uses fiction to protect the identities of the SEALs and their families; he also takes ill-concealed revenge on members of the administration, particularly certain White House staffers and National Security Council operatives, who did their best to scuttle the mission. The author uses open source material and non-attribution interviews with administration officials willing to talk.
By using fiction, the author forgoes the need to footnote his anonymous sources, and likely avoids some expensive personal lawsuits as well. The problem is that it is hard to tell where the truth ends and true fiction begins. However, it is obvious that he has used his contacts within the special operations community deftly to re-create the basic chronology of events and how they came about.
Special operations are a unique brand of military and paramilitary approach that requires detailed planning and meticulous preparation by military professionals who are in superb physical condition and have undergone rigorous psychological selection. The author celebrates those traits in the book. He also admires the tradecraft and courage of CIA covert agents who tracked bin Laden from a safe house and in the streets of Pakistan in extremely perilous circumstances in constant danger from the perfidious Pakistani intelligence organization, the ISI.
Mr. Weisman uses the fictional instrument to show that, off duty, SEALS and Rangers are real people rather than the psychotic cowboys that they are sometimes portrayed as in cheap “B” movies. Most have families, attend church regularly and never brag about what they do. However, they train hard in field exercises and shooting houses honing their skills, and spend enormous amounts of time away from their families without notice or explanation.
The book also sheds light on the seemingly bizarre case of a State Department contractor who killed two Pakistani thugs who were trying to rob him a few months prior to the operation. If there is truth in the author’s fictional account, the contractor was, in reality, a CIA agent who was assigned to operate openly to distract the ISI away from the bin Laden operation. The author alludes to the strong possibility that the ISI put the departed thugs up to the crime as a way of getting rid of this rogue American whose actions they couldn’t understand, but who seemed dangerous. The ruse apparently worked, but not before a hefty ransom for his release from a Pakistani prison was paid through a third party.
If there are heroes in the book aside from the military commandos and CIA operatives who hunted bin Laden down and eliminated him, they are the thinly disguised secretary of state and director of the CIA who convinced a skeptical president to authorize the operation. The author is obviously a conservative, but he gives credit to two veteran Democratic politicians-turned-courageous national security leaders.
No matter what one thinks of the sitting president, when the time came to make a really tough call, and when a wrong decision would have likely put him in the same sad position that Jimmy Carter found himself in three decades ago, the commander in chief made the right decision at grave risk to his political career. It took real moral courage; although he had a lot of prodding from his senior advisers and against the better judgment of close colleagues who wanted to take the safer course of doing nothing.
The book is a good and informative read; however, in some ways, I wish it hadn’t been written. Special operations are best conducted in the dark under conditions of surprise and deep uncertainty to the bad guys. They get hit hard once, and most end up too dead to apply lessons learned the next time. Unfortunately, our opponents and potential opponents can read. They will learn much about U.S. special operations from the book, and some will try to use that knowledge to counter our tactics in the future.
In Mr. Weisman’s defense, someone less capable would have eventually told the tale, and the telling might have been more embellished and given less credit to the soldiers and civil servant who ran our most dangerous opponent since World War II to ground. Bin Laden was plotting against us to the end.
• Gary Anderson, a retired Marine Corps colonel, is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and a fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.