In a report that's frankly difficult to believe, Vanity Fair says President Obama intended to put Osama bin Laden on trial in federal court if the Al Qaeda leader had survived the Abbottabad raid last May. The Vanity Fair teaser stems from Mark Bowden's new book The Finish, in which the president tells him that in the unlikely event that bin Laden wasn't killed, he would've had his day in court. “We worked through the legal and political issues that would have been involved, and Congress and the desire to send him to Guantánamo, and to not try him, and Article III.” Obama said. “I mean, we had worked through a whole bunch of those scenarios. But, frankly, my belief was if we had captured him, that I would be in a pretty strong position, politically, here, to argue that displaying due process and rule of law would be our best weapon against al-Qaeda, in preventing him from appearing as a martyr.”
Such a call by the president would certainly exhibit political courage and win him effusive praise among civil libertarians. But, there's reason to be skeptical that Obama would have been able to follow through on that. For one, President Obama was given the chance to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in federal court, but after a wave of GOP backlash, his administration caved last year, opting for a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay. Why should we expect something different from a hypothetical bin Laden trial? Another cause for skepticism is the nature of the bin Laden raid itself. Did the president even order a kill or capture mission? While officials have long insisted the SEALs were ordered to capture bin Laden if possible, the way former Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette described the Abbottabad raid made it appear like the SEALs had no intention of bringing him back alive: Bin Laden was shot immediately, unarmed, without any attempts to defend himself. (Bissonnette even called bin Laden a "pussy" for not fighting.) Of course, it's certainly possible that the SEALs simply didn't follow orders that night or that Bissonnette misremembers how events played out. But in the end, bin Laden was killed and any notion of putting him on trial in a court of law remains a fantasy.