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, reports NYT.
But most significant in the NYT story is that the Obama administration wanted to kill bin Laden, from the start, not capture him.
Weeks before President Obama ordered the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in May 2011, four administration lawyers hammered out rationales intended to overcome any legal obstacles — and made it all but inevitable that Navy SEALs would kill the fugitive Qaeda leader, not capture him.
Stretching sparse precedents, the lawyers worked in intense secrecy. Fearing leaks, the White House would not let them consult aides or even the administration’s top lawyer, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. They did their own research, wrote memos on highly secure laptops and traded drafts hand-delivered by trusted couriers.
Just days before the raid, the lawyers drafted five secret memos so that if pressed later, they could prove they were not inventing after-the-fact reasons for having blessed it. “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 C.I.A.’s general counsel, according to officials familiar with the internal deliberations.
While the lawyers believed that Mr. Obama was bound to obey domestic law, they also believed he could decide to violate international law when authorizing a “covert” action, officials said.
The lawyers also grappled with whether it was lawful for the SEAL team to go in intending to kill Bin Laden as its default option. They agreed that it would be legal, in a memo written by Ms. DeRosa, and Mr. Obama later explicitly ordered a kill mission, officials said.