The day after President Obama announced the U.S. military had killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist and Black Hawk Down author Mark Bowden was approached by a film producer who felt Bowden should be the one to write the movie version of the raid. So he emailed Obama press secretary Jay Carney and asked if he might be able to interview the players involved.
The script deal would eventually fall through—the movie project that eventually happened instead was Zero Dark Thirty; maybe you’ve heard of it—but by then, Bowden had already been granted access to numerous members of the team that killed bin Laden. So he wrote a book instead of a movie, and this past October, Atlantic Monthly Press published The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden. To chart the tale of the hunt for the world’s most notorious terrorist, Bowden assembled an extensive history of the modern warfare and intelligence tactics that led to the raid, execution and deep-sea burial.
On Thurs., Jan. 31, the author will speak at the Free Library of Philadelphia alongside retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, who also has a book out. First, though, Bowden—who lives in Chester county—spoke with PW about The Finish, the current state of America’s military operations, and what the next four years might hold in store for the national-security landscape.
Where were you when you first heard about bin Laden’s death?
I was at my cousin David’s house in Hermosa Beach, California, which I guess is part of L.A., and I was watching the Phillies play the Mets on Sunday night baseball.
I remember that game—the crowd began chanting “U.S.A.!” at Citizens’ Bank Park, and it went viral on the Internet. What do you think the killing of bin Laden meant for the U.S.?
It obviously had a tremendous emotional impact on the country; I think greater than anyone in the White House, or anyone involved, anticipated—although they knew it was a big deal. For a lot of Americans, it was a very satisfying final chapter in a long and very painful episode in American history. I felt it myself; I felt a sense of relief and satisfaction. I think that the outpouring of excitement and happiness was completely understandable.
How does that affect you as a journalist sitting down to write a book on the topic?
Well, I think it’s true that in anything that you write, whatever the project is, you bring to it your own basic values and the person that you are. I think as a reporter, one of the things I strive to do is to learn from my reporting, to better understand the story, to better understand the people I’m writing about. And I have no doubt that I’m not perfect at sublimating my own feelings that I originally had about it. But I think that years of practice have enabled me to keep a fairly open mind about the people and events that I’m researching. Because experience has taught me that until I start working on a project myself, I really don’t know enough to have a strong opinion—and if I don’t allow myself to be influenced by what I learn, then what’s the point?
How soon after the announcement of bin Laden’s death did you decide you’d be the one to write the definitive account of the raid?
I don’t know that I am, or was. And I suspect there will be many accounts written. One of the cautions in my own head is that in order to do something truly definitive, I think you really have to wait for years to get access to people. So you have to make the decision whether you want to proceed rapidly or whether you want to just wait. In my case, I would never have done this [had it not been for the initial proposal to write a film script], even though I’ve written about military actions, like in Black Hawk Down and other shorter pieces, and also Killing Pablo [about the hunt for Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar]. Some people would think a Special Forces or Special Op mission would be right up my alley. But in fact, all the other stories that I’ve written have really been about things that are out of the mainstream of popular interest.
When I wrote Black Hawk Down, no one was interested in the battle of Mogadishu. In fact, that book came out six years after that battle took place. I was the only one working on that story. Likewise with Killing Pablo. And likewise, when I wrote Guests of the Ayatollah, the United States was invading Iraq, and I was going off to investigate a story that took place 25 years earlier in Iran.
What was your interaction with President Obama like? Had you ever met him before?
I hadn’t. And it was very exciting for me, both professionally and personally. I’ve never interviewed any president of the United States in the Oval Office. I have interviewed the vice president in the White House for that piece I did for The Atlantic some years ago. I had been to the White House for various things over the years, so that piece of it wasn’t all that awe-inspiring, although it is always fun to go do reporting there. So, I was very excited about it and very pleased. Because clearly, whenever I write a story, my goal is to talk to the people most directly involved. And in this case, that would be the president of the United States, the director of the CIA, various counterterrorism officials in the White House and in Washington. I felt very fortunate and tried to live up to the opportunity.
I’ve seen conservative bloggers re-edit videos to highlight how many times President Obama says the word “I” in his speeches, portraying him as an egomaniac. They did that with his speech announcing the bin Laden raid. What impression did you get of the president?
I was very favorably impressed. He was very unpretentious and charming, funny, smart, helpful—all those things. I really enjoyed talking to him. I wish I had talked to him longer. You can just imagine the list of things you would like to chat with the president about. I was narrowly focused on this particular story and had a limited amount of time. But I was very grateful to him, because I think he was candid and gave me insight into his thought process and his concerns. It was a terrific opportunity. But, you know, I like him a lot and in all honesty, I think he’s done a terrific job as president.
As far as him taking a lot of credit—I mean, there is not a man who runs for office who doesn’t have a fairly high voltage and personal opinion of himself. [Obama] doesn’t have—at least meeting him personally—any trait of an obnoxious obsession with himself. I don’t think it’s fair, although I address this in the final chapter of the book: He was criticized for pointing to his own involvement and responsibility for going after bin Laden, which I think was ill-advised. However, I think it was also accurate.
At the same time, if you read that speech, he gives, first and foremost, credit to the intelligence officers and military officers who risked their lives and worked more than a decade to enable that mission. So I think any [suggestion] that he tried to steal the thunder of the intelligence agencies and military people is false. And I think anyone who reads his comments in a fair-minded way will have to agree.
One thing I found extremely interesting about the book is your delving into the history—and a vast description—of drone technology. It’s obviously been something the U.S. and Israel have been using for a while; why has drone warfare finally become such a hot-button issue in the last several years?
PW's Summer Guide 2015