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Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey On Obama’s Bin Laden Bragging Rights

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

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HH: I begin today’s program with the former Attorney General of the United States, Michael Mukasey. General Mukasey, welcome, it’s great to have you on the program.

MM: Good to be here, Hugh.

HH: I want to begin by talking about your Wall Street Journal piece this morning, but first, what’s your reaction to the President’s decision to travel to Afghanistan on this day, and speak to the country at this time?

MM: Well, I frankly was caught flat-footed when your colleague told me about it before we got on the air. I have no idea what it is that he’s talking about, or what this is all about. And so I can’t very well comment. I don’t know that he chose the day. If he did choose the day, it’s another reach.

HH: Another reach. It is consistent with your piece this morning about the plan by the President and his campaign team to “exploit the bragging rights to the achievement,” of killing bin Laden. It seems awfully coincidental, doesn’t it, General Mukasey?

MM: Well, you know, I’m sure that whatever it is that he’s going to announce could have been announced at some other time. If what was chosen was the timing, I’m sure it was chosen with a political end in mind. That said, it’s certainly no crime to choose a politically advantageous time to do something, but it’s a question of whether you’ve chosen to do something because it’s that time or not.

HH: General Mukasey, you’re generally regarded, I worked for Ed Meese and for Bill Smith, and have followed…you’re like the least political of the attorney generals ever. And so for you to write this piece today to say that it’s unlikely to benefit him, this search for bragging rights, kind of surprised me in that you normally don’t do politics. 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.

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?

HH: Yes.

MM: Yes.

HH: (laughing) All right, General Mukasey, in terms of what the President is attempting to accomplish now with the political reaping of benefit from the take out of bin Laden, do you think it’s going to work with anyone at large in the country? Or is 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.

HH: You have three examples in your Wall Street Journal piece – Lincoln on the night of Lee’s surrender, Ike on the eve of the D-Day invasion, and President Bush on the capture of Saddam Hussein. And in each case, the three presidents, one of whom was a commander-in-chief in the field at the time, were eager to accept blame if necessary, but were also very quick to recognize it had very little to do with them, and everything to do with soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in the field. This is sort of the reverse, isn’t it?

MM: It’s precisely the reverse. I mean, there are other examples that could have been used. Jack Kennedy took responsibility for the Bay of Pigs, notwithstanding that had probably gotten bum advice. He said that you know, success has a thousand fathers, and failure is an orphan, and then took responsibility for the failure. So there are other examples that might have been offered, but this is precisely the reverse.

HH: Let’s talk a bit about the intelligence community, because you mention in your Wall Street Journal piece that the treatment of the bin Laden trove of intelligence “infuriated the intelligence community, because it squandered the opportunity to exploit the intelligence that was the subject of the boast. Can you expand on that a little bit for the audience?

MM: Sure. If you get into bin Laden’s headquarters and you kill him, that’s one thing. But if you then announce that we seized a whole lot of material that’s of enormous value, you tell everybody who was in touch with bin Laden, or whether directly or indirectly, that we got a bunch of stuff, and we may be able to find out who you are and where you are. Those people are immediately going to change their pattern, their location. You then compound it by saying that not only did we find intelligence information, we even found the location of al Qaeda safe houses. How long do you think those safe houses continued to be occupied after that announcement was made? There’s no need to have boasted about that. There was no need, really, to have disclosed the killing until a couple of days afterwards when some of that intelligence could have been exploited by surprise. But there was a felt compulsion to go in there and make the announcement. The announcement could have been confined to the killing of bin Laden. That would have been enough.

HH: Why do you think that existed? Why that felt compulsion?

MM: You know what? I’m not clinically trained. I can’t get inside anybody’s head. But I think it was an unnecessary thing to do, a wasteful thing to do, and an unhelpful thing to do.

HH: Talking with Attorney General Michael Mukasey. General, going then to the last point in the piece I want to cover, which is the President’s commitment to intelligence as evidenced by this commitment or his swift decision to end the interrogation program, his reopening of investigations of CIA operators for alleged abuses in connection with that interrogation program. Is the President serious about the war on terror, about which we had a conviction today in the city of New York. The would-be subway bomber was convicted today. What….

MM: Well, good for that.

HH: Yeah, what do you think about his level of seriousness?

MM: Well, that’s the problem. The question is really whether the bin Laden operation and the al-Awlaki operation are episodes, or are they evidence of a policy? And my own sense gets to be, when you do things like go out and announce intelligence and forego any interrogation program beyond the Army Field Manual, which has been out there on the internet for years, and is used as a training manual by terrorists, the sense that’s conveyed is that your heart, your mind and your stomach aren’t in it.

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.

HH: Why?

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.

HH: I agree. It’s one of the most amazing and unexplored aspects of this. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, thanks for joining us today. Obama And The Bin Laden Bragging Rights is the piece at the Wall Street Journal. It’s available online. Go and read it.

End of interview.

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