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Dr. Charles G. Cogan Headshot

The Controversy Over the bin Laden Raid Anniversary: The Real Contrast Is Between Obama and Carter

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As the one who was in charge of the CIA side of the attempted hostage rescue mission in Iran in 1980, what jumps out at me from a reading of the two-part piece in Time ("The Last Days of Osama bin Laden") is the feeling that Barack Obama would have gone ahead with the operation that Jimmy Carter called off.

Obama is a risk-taker who went ahead with the bin Laden raid against the recommendation of Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and the President's No. 2 military adviser, Gen. James Cartwright.

Carter, on the other hand, was a pacifist-inclined president who dallied for months before deciding to go ahead with an operation to rescue the hostages in the American Embassy compound in Tehran. The concept of the operation was of a piece with the Carter Administration: a surreptitious entry operation that could be called off at any step along the way. And finally, the operation was cancelled by President Carter when the number of helicopters had been reduced to what allegedly was an unacceptable level.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, the National Security Adviser, was with Jimmy Carter when the President called off the operation. He recounted in his memoir that the recommendation in favor of an abort was relayed by [Task Force Chief] Gen. Vaught to the White House and to Gen. Jones, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Brzezinski ruminated:

"Should I press the President to go ahead with only five helicopters? Here I was alone with the President. Perhaps I could convince him to abandon military prudence, to go in a daring single stroke for the big prize, to take the historic chance."

But Brzezinski thought the better of it and decided to recommend to the President to continue the operation with only five helicopters, but only if [Delta Force Chief] Col. Beckwith agreed. And having received a telephone confirmation from Gen. Jones that Beckwith thought the operation was not feasible with only five helicopters, President Carter gave the order to call off the operation and withdraw the force from Iran. Brzezinski recalled the moment:

"[The President] hung up... then put his head down on top of his desk, cradling it in his arms for approximately five seconds. I felt extraordinarily sad for him as well as for the country. Neither of us said anything."

The post-mortem opinion of an intelligence officer within the Task Force was, in my opinion, not without foundation:

Although it is easy to say in hindsight, the bottom line is that a daring commander in wartime could have and would have continued with five or even four helicopters. Beckwith was a fine Special Forces soldier, but his country was not at war, and his airlift had demonstrated a tendency to break before the first shot was fired. In the middle of the desert, far behind his envisioned time line, and doubtless already concerned about his transportation going into a hide site laager that had never been walked by friendly feet or seen up close by friendly eyes, he sought reassurance from a tired helicopter pilot and a frustrated airfield manager. And he didn't get it. Nor did Maj. Gen. Vaught order the mission to go forward; and neither did the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Secretary of Defense or the President.

I cannot escape the feeling that Obama would have gone ahead if he were President at the time of Desert One. At the same time the unfair statement of Vice President Joe Biden that the assertion of Obama ("Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive") might have been reversed under Romney is out of place.

Charles Cogan was the chief of the Near East and South Asia Division in the Directorate of Operations of the CIA from 1979 to 1984. He is now an associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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