Last Sunday, CIA Director Leon Panetta called me to say the decade-long search for Osama bin Laden was over. The man responsible for terrorist attacks against the United States in 1998, 2000 and 2001 had been killed.
This was a signature achievement, a brilliantly executed Special Operations mission that capped eight years of intelligence collection and analysis. The announcement of this success brought cheering crowds to the streets in Washington and New York and celebrations around the country.
It was a moment that brought our nation together. The night after the mission, President Obama hosted members of Congress from both parties at the White House. He spoke movingly about setting aside our differences to unite in the way we did after the September 11 attacks.
But pride over the joint intelligence and military operation -- which demonstrated the progress we've made since the intelligence failures of 9/11 and the run-up to the war in Iraq -- was fleeting.
In short order, this unqualified success was examined, parsed, dissected and second-guessed to a point where Americans might believe what happened in Abbottabad, Pakistan was not a successful operation. It was.
This rapid shift in conversation meant we were no longer talking about the strategic shift in our efforts to defeat global terrorism or the opportunity to push Pakistan to be a better counterterrorism partner.
Instead, the discussion lurched to whether post-mortem pictures of bin Laden should be released (they should not), whether harsh interrogation techniques led the CIA to him (they did not) or whether bin Laden presented a threat to the strike team (he most certainly did).
The administration made every attempt to quickly and responsibly provide as much information as possible on the intelligence and the strike.
But instead, any small discrepancy in information (provided from halfway across the world, at night, in a complicated raid) was attributed not to the fog of war, but rather as an effort to mislead.
Let's remember these facts:
- The spiritual, operational and financial leader of al Qaeda is dead, positively identified by DNA and facial recognition technology.
- The highly trained operatives who assaulted the compound went beyond the call of duty and took heroic measures to avoid collateral damage.
- Bin Laden, our nation's number one target who evaded detection since leaving Tora Bora in late 2001, no longer poses a danger to the world. The use of force in bringing him to justice was authorized and carefully employed.
- We are different than terrorists. We minimize deaths to noncombatants instead of aiming for them. We don't publicize images of death.
- Intelligence reforms are working. The stovepipes have come down and the flow of intelligence is more seamless. There is increased coordination between the 16 intelligence agencies and the Department of Defense, better analysis, and a better relationship with Congress.
Now is not the time to co-opt this counterterrorism success for partisan politics or to reflexively question every operational detail. Many of the details that have been held secret must remain so -- not because the government has something to hide -- but because we need to preserve our capabilities to collect intelligence and employ force to strike targets in the future.
The more we publish our playbook, the harder our next mission becomes.
In time, the Senate Intelligence Committee will fully examine the details surrounding this operation.
For example, it isn't clear if the Pakistani Government was aware that bin Laden was in its midst. We need to know if Pakistan officials were complicit, or the intelligence and security forces were merely incompetent. Was this benign indifference or calibrated neglect?
We must also learn what intelligence can be gleaned from the materials taken from the Abbottabad compound, what it tells us about al Qaeda's plans and whether it can be used to further destabilize the organization.
These are important questions.
But equally important is the need to recognize that neutralizing bin Laden was a historic achievement--a victory around which the entire nation should unite in support and shared relief that the leader of al Qaeda is no more. Now is the time to celebrate the hard work and dedication of our military and intelligence professionals and express our deep gratitude.
It was among bin Laden's lifelong goals to divide and weaken our country's resolve. Let's not allow him to triumph now that he's gone.
U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence