There’s just one problem with those Bin Laden conspiracy theories

Mark Bowden writes: Without a shred of evidence, without contradicting a word that I wrote, Jonathan Mahler in The New York Times Magazine this week suggests that the “irresistible story” that I told about the killing of Osama bin Laden in my 2012 book, The Finish (excerpted in Vanity Fair), might well have been a fabrication—“another example of American mythmaking.” He presents an alternative version of the story written by Seymour Hersh as, effectively, a rival account, one that raises serious doubts about mine, which is all but dubbed “the official version.” It’s not meant kindly.

Mahler’s think piece about the iffiness of reporting and the hazards of trying to shape history into a narrative is a great gift to conspiratorial thinkers everywhere. It’s not often that the most distinguished journalistic institution in America wades so fully into the crackpot world of Internet theorizing, where all information, no matter its source, is weightless and equal. Mahler is careful not to side with either Hersh or me, but allows that “Hersh’s version doesn’t require us to believe in the possibility of a government-wide conspiracy.”

In fact, that’s exactly what it does. [Continue reading…]


What do we really know about Osama bin Laden’s death?

Jonathan Mahler writes: It’s hard to overstate the degree to which the killing of Osama bin Laden transformed American politics. From a purely practical standpoint, it enabled Obama to recast himself as a bold leader, as opposed to an overly cautious one, in advance of his 2012 re-election campaign. This had an undeniable impact on the outcome of that election. (‘‘Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive,’’ Joe Biden was fond of boasting on the campaign trail.) Strategically, the death of bin Laden allowed Obama to declare victory over Al Qaeda, giving him the cover he needed to begin phasing U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. And it almost single-handedly redeemed the C.I.A., turning a decade-long failure of intelligence into one of the greatest triumphs in the history of the agency.

But bin Laden’s death had an even greater effect on the American psyche. Symbolically, it brought a badly wanted moment of moral clarity, of unambiguous American valor, to a murky war defined by ethical compromise and even at times by collective shame. It completed the historical arc of the 9/11 attacks. The ghastly image of collapsing towers that had been fixed in our collective minds for years was dislodged by one of Obama and his senior advisers huddled tensely around a table in the White House Situation Room, watching closely as justice was finally brought to the perpetrator.

The first dramatic reconstruction of the raid itself — “Getting bin Laden: What Happened That Night in Abbottabad” — was written by a freelancer named Nicholas Schmidle and published in The New Yorker just three months after the operation. The son of a Marine general, Schmidle spent a couple of years in Pakistan and has written on counterterrorism for many publications, including this magazine. His New Yorker story was a cinematic account of military daring, sweeping but also granular in its detail, from the ‘‘metallic cough of rounds being chambered’’ inside the two Black Hawks as the SEALs approached the compound, to the mud that ‘‘sucked at their boots’’ when they hit the ground. One of the SEALs who shot bin Laden, Matt Bissonnette, added a more personal dimension to the story a year later in a best-selling book, ‘‘No Easy Day.’’ [Mark] Bowden [in his book, “The Finish”] focused on Washington, taking readers inside the White House as the president navigated what would become a defining moment of his presidency. And then there was ‘‘Zero Dark Thirty,’’ which chronicled the often barbaric C.I.A. interrogations that the agency said helped lead the United States to bin Laden’s compound.

The official narrative of the hunt for and killing of bin Laden at first seemed like a clear portrait, but in effect it was more like a composite sketch from multiple perspectives: the Pentagon, the White House and the C.I.A. And when you studied that sketch a little more closely, not everything looked quite right. Almost immediately, the administration had to correct some of the most significant details of the raid. Bin Laden had not been ‘‘engaged in a firefight,’’ as the deputy national-security adviser, John Brennan, initially told reporters; he’d been unarmed. Nor had he used one of his wives as a human shield. The president and his senior advisers hadn’t been watching a ‘‘live feed’’ of the raid in the Situation Room; the operation had not been captured on helmet-cams. But there were also some more unsettling questions about how the whole story had been constructed. Schmidle acknowledged after his article was published that he had never actually spoken with any of the 23 SEALs. Some details of Bissonnette’s account of the raid contradicted those of another ex-SEAL, Robert O’Neill, who claimed in Esquire and on Fox News to have fired the fatal bullet. Public officials with security clearances told reporters that the torture scenes that were so realistically depicted in ‘‘Zero Dark Thirty’’ had not in fact played any role in helping us find bin Laden.

Then there was the sheer improbability of the story, which asked us to believe that Obama sent 23 SEALs on a seemingly suicidal mission, invading Pakistani air space without air or ground cover, fast-roping into a compound that, if it even contained bin Laden, by all rights should have been heavily guarded. And according to the official line, all of this was done without any sort of cooperation or even assurances from the Pakistani military or intelligence service. How likely was that? Abbottabad is basically a garrison town; the conspicuously large bin Laden compound — three stories, encircled by an 18-foot-high concrete wall topped with barbed wire — was less than two miles from Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point. And what about the local police? Were they really unaware that an enormous American helicopter had crash-landed in their neighborhood? And why were we learning so much about a covert raid by a secret special-operations unit in the first place?

American history is filled with war stories that subsequently unraveled. Consider the Bush administration’s false claims about Saddam Hussein’s supposed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Or the imagined attack on a U.S. vessel in the Gulf of Tonkin. During the Bay of Pigs, the government inflated the number of fighters it dispatched to Cuba in hopes of encouraging local citizens to rise up and join them. When the operation failed, the government quickly deflated the number, claiming that it hadn’t been an invasion at all but rather a modest attempt to deliver supplies to local guerrillas. More recently, the Army reported that the ex-N.F.L. safety Pat Tillman was killed by enemy fire, rather than acknowledging that he was accidentally shot in the head by a machine-gunner from his own unit.

These false stories couldn’t have reached the public without the help of the media. Reporters don’t just find facts; they look for narratives. And an appealing narrative can exert a powerful gravitational pull that winds up bending facts in its direction. [Continue reading…]


Corruption is legal in America

Paul Blumenthal writes: The issue of big money in politics is receiving increased attention as the country barrels toward a presidential election cycle where all spending records are expected to be smashed. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have spoken out on tackling the problem, as have a handful of Republican candidates.

What is this problem, exactly? Represent.Us, a group that supports campaign finance reforms and is advocating for them at the city, municipal and state levels, presents an answer in a new video.

Pulling from a study by political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, the video explains how legislative actions taken by politicians in Washington do not reflect the priorities of the broader population, but instead are moved by the opinions of the wealthy elite.

These elite have the means to influence government through lobbyists, campaign donations and public relations campaigns. And studies by the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics have shown that wealthy elites dominate political spending. A study released Thursday by these two groups found the percentage of donations made by the .01 percent rose to nearly 30 percent in the 2014 elections, up from 25 percent in 2012. [Continue reading…]


How Obama has failed his own supporters

In “An open letter to the President from a bereaved sister,” Abby Okrent writes:

Dear Mr. President,

My younger brother was an early believer in you. He worked for your Senate campaign. At the age of 25, he ran the GOTV campaign in North Carolina, delivering an improbable victory for you in a Southern state that helped give you your first term. This year, slightly less bright-eyed but nonetheless a believer, he was working on your campaign again when he died suddenly, a brilliant, energetic 29 year old, dead in his tracks. You know this. You called my parents. Your campaign, to my greatest appreciation and respect, brought grief counselors for his coworkers, dedicated a corner of the office and much of your fundraising efforts to him, and bussed his coworkers to join the hundreds of others at his funeral.

You may not know that after his sudden passing, many of his friends quit their jobs, moved, changed their lives to continue working on your campaign in his memory. One of these friends ran your GOTV effort in Ohio, delivering a close swing state that resulted in the race being called for you early. My mom and I joined these efforts in Ohio, door-knocking until right before the polls closed, pounding the pavement in Alex’s memory and in hopes of your next presidency. Despite my disappointment in some of your stances, I proudly kept my Ohio for Obama sticker on my jacket.

Until yesterday. Mr. President, when the bombs began raining on Gaza again and you reiterated Israel’s “right to defend itself”, I took that sticker off my jacket. Later, you called Prime Minister Netanyahu and asked him to “use restraint,” as though he were a glutton at a feast, rather than an elected official of a powerful military nation, using your own country’s weaponry to engage in a one-sided assault. Mr. President, you are the most powerful man in the world. You do not need to politely request anything of Mr. Netanyahu; you can stop him by ending U.S. military aid to Israel until Israel complies with international and U.S. law. Mr. Netanyahu and his right-wing allies in the U.S. actively campaigned against your re-election, assuming that Governor Romney would be better positioned to give them carte blanche to violate Palestinian human rights and start regional wars. It is not to them that you now need to prove your allegiance, but to we the people who knocked doors for you, who made phone calls for you, who died getting you this 4 years more of opportunity. [Continue reading…]


Video — Tavis Smiley & Cornel West: Why calling Obama ‘progressive’ ignores his record


Israelis eat humble pie

CNN: Israel is signaling a major change in tone toward U.S. President Barack Obama now that he has won reelection.

In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Thursday, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon, gave what could only be described as a ringing endorsement of the Obama administration’s handling of Iran’s nuclear program. It has been a very contentious issue between the two allies, with the U.S. fearing Israel might unilaterally strike Iran’s nuclear sites and drag the U.S. into an regional war.

But Ayalon told Amanpour that despite past differences with the Obama administration over Iran, “I think today we can safely say that we are very much on the same page and will continue to follow the lead of the U.S.”

Over the course of his first term in office, Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have had a fraught relationship. They have disagreed on major issues, ranging from the Iranian nuclear program to a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu’s relationship with Obama’s challenger, Mitt Romney, dates back to the 1970s, when they worked at the same company in the United States – Netanyahu’s preference for a President Romney had been an open secret.

Ayalon admitted “there was a special kinship between Mr. Romney and Mr. Netanyahu,” but said Israel cannot afford to be meddling in U.S. politics.

Still, many Israelis are worried about payback against their leader for backing the wrong horse in the U.S. presidential sweepstakes. On Thursday, the leading Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth even carried the headline “Bibi gambled. We’ll pay.”

But Ayalon expressed no doubts that the relationship would get back on track. “I have full confidence knowing not only the president’s commitment, but also his team” he said. “In a way I see an advantage by the continuity of the administration being very seasoned, knowing very well the Iran file and portfolio, to continue and make sure Iran won’t become nuclear.”


After Obama’s re-election, liberals need to drop the blind devotion

Gary Younge writes: As a community organiser in Chicago’s south side, Barack Obama once managed to secure an event with the city’s first and only black mayor, Harold Washington. He primed the women he was working with to press the mayor to attend their forthcoming rally to improve conditions in the run-down area.

But instead they fawned and got their picture taken with him. Afterwards he asked if they had extracted a promise about the rally. “What rally?” said one. Obama stormed off in frustration. “Here we are with a chance to show the mayor that we’re real players in the city,” he told a colleague. “A group he needs to take seriously. So what do we do? We act like a bunch of starstruck children.”

As a community organiser Obama was well aware that it was only by making demands on the powerful that the powerless could further their interests. As president he must be delighted to realise that all too few of his progressive supporters have grasped that reality.

The last week has felt very familiar. Just like four years ago, black people in Chicago have been swapping knowing smiles, liberals are watching Fox News to gloat and Democrats have been revelling in the charisma, eloquence and intelligence of their candidate. Their affection for him is rooted in politics but their assessment of him owes more to psychoanalysis. At the celebrations in Chicago on Tuesday most believed he would be more radical in the second term. Ask them what that expectation is based on and they shrug. Ask them what they will do to make sure he meets it and they shrug again. If the devotion is not blind then, at the very best, it is not clear-sighted. [Continue reading…]


Romney’s concession song


Democracy and data-mining

Time magazine reports: In late spring, the backroom number crunchers who powered Barack Obama’s campaign to victory noticed that George Clooney had an almost gravitational tug on West Coast females ages 40 to 49. The women were far and away the single demographic group most likely to hand over cash, for a chance to dine in Hollywood with Clooney — and Obama.

So as they did with all the other data collected, stored and analyzed in the two-year drive for re-election, Obama’s top campaign aides decided to put this insight to use. They sought out an East Coast celebrity who had similar appeal among the same demographic, aiming to replicate the millions of dollars produced by the Clooney contest. “We were blessed with an overflowing menu of options, but we chose Sarah Jessica Parker,” explains a senior campaign adviser. And so the next Dinner with Barack contest was born: a chance to eat at Parker’s West Village brownstone.

For the general public, there was no way to know that the idea for the Parker contest had come from a data-mining discovery about some supporters: affection for contests, small dinners and celebrity. But from the beginning, campaign manager Jim Messina had promised a totally different, metric-driven kind of campaign in which politics was the goal but political instincts might not be the means. “We are going to measure every single thing in this campaign,” he said after taking the job. He hired an analytics department five times as large as that of the 2008 operation, with an official “chief scientist” for the Chicago headquarters named Rayid Ghani, who in a previous life crunched huge data sets to, among other things, maximize the efficiency of supermarket sales promotions. [Continue reading…]

Although this article claims to pull back the curtain on the Obama campaign’s data-mining operation, what’s revealed is actually less informative than what appeared in a Mother Jones report by Tim Murphy who dug up the information himself rather than having it spoon fed by campaign officials.

Murphy described his findings on Democracy Now! last month:


Olmert: Netanyahu interfered in U.S. elections for Sheldon Adelson

Haaretz reports: Following U.S. President Barack Obama’s victory in the American presidential elections, on Wednesday former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of blatantly interfering in favor of Republican nominee Mitt Romney, adding that he did so in the name of Netanyahu and Romney-backer Sheldon Adelson.

“This represents a significant breach of the basic rules governing ties between nations, made worse by the fact that these are allies like Israel and the United States,” Olmert said during a meeting with the heads of New York’s Jewish community.

Olmert, who’s weighing whether or not to make a return to politics and run in the upcoming elections opposite Netanyahu, was asked by one of those attending the meeting whether or not the Israeli public was disturbed by the fact that the premier intervened in the U.S. presidential campaign.

“The prime minister has a right to prefer one candidate over another,” Olmert said, adding, however, that it was “better, obviously, if he kept it to himself. What took place this time was a breaking of all the rules, when our prime minister intervened in the U.S. elections in the name of an American billionaire with a clear interest in the vote.”

During the U.S. presidential elections, Adelson donated over $100 million to Romney’s campaign, announcing that it was his goal to take Obama out of the White House. “The very same billionaire used Israel’s prime minister to advance a nominee of his own for president,” Olmert told Jewish leaders in New York. [Continue reading…]


Taliban’s message to Obama: Focus on solving your own people’s problems

AFP reports: Taliban insurgents told re-elected President Barack Obama Wednesday to admit that the United States has lost the war in Afghanistan and pull its troops out now.

“Obama must by now know that they have lost the war in Afghanistan,” spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement posted on the Islamists’ website.

“So, without further lying and delays, they should leave our sacred land and focus on their own country instead.”

Accusing Americans of committing war crimes, he added: “The American administration should stop acting like police in the world and focus on solving their own people’s problems, and don’t make the world hate Americans even more.”


ACLU calls on Obama to shut down Guantánamo and ground drones

Carol Rosenberg reports: The American Civil Liberties Union chief congratulated President Barack Obama, and in the same breath early Wednesday called on him to make good on his first-term promise to shut down the prison camps at Guantánamo.

“We urge President Obama to dismantle a national security state where warrantless surveillance, extra-judicial killings of American citizens by drones and other attacks on our personal freedoms have been deemed acceptable,” ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said in a pre-dawn statement.

Obama ordered his administration on his second day in office in January 2009 to empty the detention center within a year. He’s been able to cut the population to 166 but has been repeatedly was thwarted by Congress in his goal of closing the controversial camps by moving some of the captives to U.S. soil.

Romero’s remarks came hours after the detention center disclosed that two cellblocks of cooperative captives were “watching the elections on TV in Camp 6,” the main prison building at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba, where the Pentagon confines more than 100 of the 166 captives.

Four years ago, word of Obama’s victory spread through the 240 or so prisoners on election night and detainees taunted their guards with chants of “Obama, Obama, Obama” because his campaign promise of closure was widely known.

Tuesday night, the captives were more subdued, said Army Capt. Jennifer Palmeri, a Guantánamo detention center spokeswoman.

“They are watching quietly — no chanting,” Palmeri reported by email.

Nobody cheered exactly when Obama was declared a winner, said Palmeri. But there were smiles and “the overall mood was of happiness.” [Continue reading…]


As usual, foreign policy didn’t matter in this election

Uri Friedman writes: Yes, this year’s presidential election may have featured a fair amount of talk about America’s defense spending, China’s trade practices, Iran’s nuclear program, and the Obama administration’s response to the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. But when you crunch the numbers, the truth is that foreign policy didn’t matter much in ushering Barack Obama to reelection in 2012.

When George W. Bush defeated John Kerry in the first U.S. presidential election since 9/11, exit polls showed that terrorism, moral values, and the economy were the most decisive issues in the campaign, with roughly one-fifth of voters citing each as their top concern in the race (the war in Iraq was not far behind). It’s particularly difficult to defeat an incumbent “when the country’s perceived to be in some level of a war,” a Kerry strategist mused after Election Day.

In retrospect, the 2004 election was an outlier in recent political history — a contest that revolved around foreign rather than domestic policy. This year’s race, by contrast, was no such exception. A CNN exit poll on Tuesday found that 60 percent of voters cited the economy as the most important issue on their minds, compared with 4 percent who mentioned foreign policy. A Fox News exit poll arrived at a similar finding, with 59 percent of respondents selecting the economy, 18 percent choosing health care, 15 percent referencing the federal budget deficit, and just 5 percent citing foreign policy.

Sure, we vote on intangibles and personal qualities, not just issues. And sure, those who mentioned foreign policy as their top issue in the Fox poll voted for Obama by a 56-33 margin — suggesting that the Democrats ultimately retained their rare foreign-policy advantage even though Mitt Romney managed to chip away at Obama’s edge on international affairs in the campaign’s final weeks. But as a pivotal campaign issue, foreign policy barely registered. [Continue reading…]


‘Not a very good morning for Netanyahu’

Reuters reports: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces an even more awkward time with Washington and re-energized critics at home who accused him on Wednesday of backing the loser in the U.S. presidential election.

With Iran topping his conservative agenda, Netanyahu will have to contend with a strengthened second-term Democratic president after four years of frosty dealings with Barack Obama and a rift over how to curb Tehran’s nuclear program.

Facing his own re-election battle in January, polls give Netanyahu little chance of losing but perceptions that he has mishandled Israel’s main ally have been seized on by opponents.

“I will continue to work with President Obama to ensure the interests that are vital for the security of Israel’s citizens,” Netanyahu said in a short, congratulatory statement hailing what he called strong strategic relations with Washington.

But in remarks underscoring a rift with the United States over possible Israeli military action against Iran, Netanyahu said in an interview broadcast on Israel’s Channel 2 this week: “If there is no other way to stop Iran, Israel is ready to act.”

Relations between Netanyahu and Obama hit a new low two months ago after the Israeli leader said nations which failed to set “red lines” for Iran – which denies seeking atomic arms – did not have the “moral right” to stop Israel from attacking.

Such comments, along with financial backing for Republican candidate Mitt Romney from a U.S. casino magnate who is also one of Netanyahu’s biggest supporters, were seized upon by critics as evidence the Israeli leader was trying to undermine Obama.

Netanyahu denied he was interfering in U.S. politics.

But former Israeli ambassador to Washington, Sallai Meridor, suggested that Obama would not easily forget that Netanyahu had created a perception that Israel wanted Romney to defeat him.

Obama is “very strategic, very disciplined”, Meridor said during a panel discussion on the U.S. election at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

“But I don’t think we can just assume that what happened between them over past four years will have just evaporated,” he said. “When people fight for their political life and have the perception that their partner is trying to undermine their chances, it’s not going to disappear.”

One of the Israeli prime minister’s own leading coalition allies, Eli Yishai of the religious Shas party, said simply: “It’s not a very good morning for Netanyahu.” [Continue reading…]


Is Obama ready to become America’s first black president?

Howard Fineman writes: President Barack Obama did not just win reelection tonight. His victory signaled the irreversible triumph of a new, 21st-century America: multiracial, multi-ethnic, global in outlook and moving beyond centuries of racial, sexual, marital and religious tradition.

Obama, the mixed-race son of Hawaii by way of Kansas, Indonesia, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, won reelection in good part because he not only embodied but spoke to that New America, as did the Democratic Party he leads. His victorious coalition spoke for and about him: a good share of the white vote (about 45 percent in Ohio, for example); 70 percent or so of the Latino vote across the country, according to experts; 96 percent of the African-American vote; and large proportions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

The Republican Party, by contrast, has been reduced to a rump parliament of Caucasian traditionalism: white, married, church-going — to oversimplify only slightly. “It’s a catastrophe,” said GOP strategist Steve Schmidt. “This is, this will have to be, the last time that the Republican Party tries to win this way.”

The GOP chose as its standard-bearer Mitt Romney, whose own Mormon Church until recent decades discriminated officially against blacks. His campaign made little serious effort to reach out to Hispanics voters, and Romney hurt himself by taking far-right positions on immigration during the GOP primaries. He made no effort whatsoever in the black community.

Obama reached out not only racially and ethnically, but in terms of lifestyle. Analysts made fun of, and Republicans derided, his campaign’s focus on discrete demographic and social slices of the electorate, including gays and lesbians. But the message was one about the future, not the American past.