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Michael Smerconish Headshot

A Response to Sean Hannity

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Sean Hannity has implied that if President Obama had his way, Osama bin Laden would be alive. Earlier this week he had this exchange with Frank Luntz:

HANNITY: I know the president will say, 'Well, we got bin Laden.' Putting that aside...

LUNTZ: And the public gives him credit for that.

HANNITY: They do. The public does give him credit for that. But it wouldn't have happened if he had his way, and I think that can be proved as well on tape.

I think that is a cheap shot delivered to a commander in chief who made a difficult decision. I don't know what tape Hannity has and I challenge him to release it. I do know what recordings I possess. Mine are five different conversations I had with the now-president (three while a candidate, two while president) in which he made crystal clear his willingness to kill bin Laden in precisely the manner the al Qaeda leader was taken out.

Here is what Senator Obama told me on March 24, 2008:

"Senator Clinton, Senator McCain and George Bush all suggested I had said something wrong when I said we should be going after bin Laden and high value targets and if we've got them in our sights we should ask for Pakistan's cooperation, we should ask Pakistan to take them out but if they don't we shouldn't need permission to go after somebody or folks that killed 3,000 Americans."

Here is what Senator Obama told me on April 21, 2008:

Mr. Smerconish: Listen, when we were last together you know that I was pleased with what you had to say about redirecting our efforts toward al Qaeda in Pakistan.

President Obama: Right.

Mr. Smerconish: And that issue is even more serious today then it was a few weeks ago. New York Times front page Saturday, listen to this, this is the Times talking... they say that there's a "recurring problem for the White House: that the place where the terrorist threat is most acute is the place where American forces are most restricted from acting." What's going to be the approach relative to Pakistan and those tribal regions?

President Obama: Well I think what we have to do is first of all establish a relationship with the new government. The problem we've got is that we've backed Mursharaff so heavily in Pakistan that the incoming democratically elected Parliament there mistrusts us. We've got to establish some new relationships, indicate to them that we're supportive of democracy, but insist that we've got to go after these terrorists that it's a threat to democracy in Pakistan and rule of law in Pakistan and stability in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan and long term threat to America. I've been very clear that if we see targets in Pakistan that we can take out with drone missiles and use the predators that have been so effective then I think we've got to do so. But, I think what's clear from the New York Times story and what I've learned talking to forces on the ground is that unless we can really pin down some of these Taliban fighters who flee into the Pakistan territories, we're going to continue to have instability and al Qaeda is gonna continue to have a safe haven and that's not acceptable.

Mr. Smerconish: Are you prepared to stop writing that check if in fact you're not satisfied...

President Obama: Absolutely. Absolutely. Look, Musharaff was receiving billions of dollars and not doing much with it. Now I want to ramp up aid to Pakistan when it comes to building schools that teach math and science instead of hatred of Americans. I want to ramp up aid that helps farmers become self sufficient. I want to make sure that not just in Pakistan, but Afghanistan, people have opportunities to get out of poverty.

When it comes to military aid, we should be propping up Pak military when they're focused on a possible war with India and ignoring the very immediate and real threat of militants who are in their territories. Our aid has to be in some ways contingent on them making a serious effort.

Mr. Smerconish: I've had any number of conversations with suburbanites from the Philadelphia suburbs who say "I don't know, this Obama, I'm concerned he's going to be weak on the War on Terror because he wants to get us out of Iraq." And what I've tried to explain is that you're talking about a redirection of effort to go after those who really were responsible for September 11.

President Obama: Absolutely! Look, Iraq has been the biggest strategic error that we could have made. I mean, not only have we diverted resources that should have been used to pin down bin Laden and al Qaeda but we've actually increased the propaganda of al Qaeda in their ability to recruit terrorists and train them in Iraq. And, I think it's very important for us to recognize we've fallen into a strategic trap, we've actually strengthened Iran in the region which is why our allies like Jordan are so concerned. That is something that I'm going to put an end to. We're going to stabilize Iraq but we're going to hunt down those terrorist networks that are our biggest strategic threat. And Ambassador Crocker when he appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee acknowledged as much.

Here is what Senator Obama told me on Oct. 9, 2008:

Obama acknowledged that as the war in Iraq wound down, the United States also would have to "send a strong message to Pakistan that we can't tolerate safe havens for bin Laden, where he's training terrorists to kill Americans. We can't tolerate it. Now we need to work with Pakistan to dismantle those training camps and kill bin Laden. But if Pakistan is unwilling or unable to take bin Laden out and we have him in our sights,we've got to do it."

Here is what President Obama told me on Aug. 20, 2009:

Mr. Smerconish: Mr. President, in each of our prior three conversations, I spoke with you extensively about the need for closure, and we agreed relative to bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri. And as a matter of fact, and this is well documented -- I've written and spoken about it extensively -- things that you said during the course of the campaign played a critical role in my personal decision-making pertaining to the 2008 election. So I feel I'd be derelict in my duty if I didn't come here today and say, where are we? I know we had a major victory recently with the number-one individual for the Taliban in those tribal regions. But pertaining to bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, where is it?

President Obama: Well, here's where we're at. We are continuing to ramp up the pressure in Afghanistan. And we had a -- what appears to be a successful election in Afghanistan despite the Taliban's effort to disrupt it. You've got General McChrystal now over there and more troops who are putting pressure on the eastern and southern portions of Afghanistan.

On the other hand, you've got the Pakistani army for the first time actually fighting in a very aggressive way, and that's how we took out Baitullah Mehsud --

Mr. Smerconish: Right.

President Obama: The top Taliban leader in Pakistan, who was also one of bin Laden's key allies. So the goal here is essentially to have a pincher where we are squeezing them on both sides, we're eliminating their allies, it's making it more difficult for them to communicate, making it more difficult for them to operate safe havens, and over time what we hope to do is to flush them out. We are going to keep on putting pressure on them, and I know that it's at great cost. I have to sign letters to family members who have fallen and a lot more are falling in Afghanistan than in Iraq. And as a consequence, we've got to make sure that we are really focused on finishing the job in Afghanistan, but it's going to take some time.

And here is what President Obama told me on Oct. 27, 2010:

Mr. Smerconish: As a candidate, sir, you once told me that Pakistan was playing the United States like a violin -- is that still the case?

President Obama: You know I think we've seen over the last 18 months improvement in how Pakistan deals with us. We have seen more cooperation on counter terrorism. They've finally started to send their armies up into some of these border regions where al Qaeda and these other extremist organizations are operating.

We have not gotten all the cooperation that we need. Now some of its capacity. Pakistan is not in real good shape right now. They just went though the worst floods they've seen in a generation. They are cash strapped. And so, some of that means they are not working as effectively with us as I'd like us to be working with them.

On the other hand if you look at -- for example -- the pace of pressure we've been able to apply to Al Qaeda over this past year with the cooperation of the Pakistani government. We've been able to take over a dozen top al Qaeda leaders, hundreds of their key affiliates, they are hunkered down in a way that we haven't seen in a very long time.

And so we've made progress but we still have a long way to go. I just had a meeting last week with a Pakistani delegation including their top general indicating to them that we expect greater cooperation than we've been receiving so far.

Mr. Smerconish: Is it at a point, sir, where it's time to send our Special Forces across that Afghan Pakistan border engaged in the hunt of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri?

President Obama: Well, I can't go into details about everything that we're doing obviously because we've got a lot of brave men and women who are already out there and a lot of their work is classified. But I will say that we are ramping up the pressure each and every day and I'm actually confident that the work that General Petraeus is doing on the Afghan side of the border, the cooperation we've begun to get from the Pakistanis on their side of the border is starting to have an effect. But as you and I have talked about before -- everyday I've got a team of some of our best people who are still looking for bin Laden still looking for Zawahiri still focused on making sure that we are defeating and dismantling Al Qaeda once and for all.

Mr. Smerconish: On your watch, do you believe that we've ever had a line on bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri?

President Obama: I think it's fair to say that by the time I got into office the trail had gone very cold. And we have done a lot of work over the last several years in making sure that we are starting to resuscitate the kinds of leads that would be necessary eventually to get them.

That's my audio, Sean. What have you got?