Four administration lawyers secretly worked on resolving the sensitive legal issues, to overcome any legal obstacles — and made it all but inevitable that Navy SEALs would kill the fugitive Al Qaeda leader, and not just capture him, NYT reported. The procedures were done weeks before President Barack Obama ordered the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abotabad, Pakistan, in May 2011.
The lawyers did their own research, wrote memos on highly secure computers, and traded drafts hand-delivered by trusted couriers. The White House, fearing leaks about the secret mission, did not let them consult aides or even the administration’s top lawyer, attorney general Eric Holder said.
Stephen W. Preston, the C.I.A.’s general counsel, Mary DeRosa, the National Security Council’s legal adviser, then Rear Admiral James W. Crawford III, the Joint Chiefs of Staff legal adviser, and Jeh C. Johnson, the Pentagon general counsel, worked secretly on clearing legal hurdles for the 2011 raid against Osama bin Laden.
Five secret memos were also drafted so that if pressed later, they could prove they were not inventing after-the-fact reasons for having blessed it, few days before the raid.
“We should memorialize our rationales because we may be called upon to explain our legal conclusions, particularly if the operation goes terribly badly,” said Stephen W Preston, the CIA’s general counsel, according to officials familiar with the internal deliberations.
The reports said, “If the SEALs got bin Laden, the Obama administration would lift the secrecy and trumpet the accomplishment. But if it turned out that the founder and head of al-Qaida was not there, some officials thought the SEALs might be able to slip back out, allowing the United States to pretend the raid never happened.”