A Rehearsal For Killing Osama

"The rules have changed," said President Bush as he put the U.S. military on a path to participation, with some unpleasant people employing savage tactics, in an extraordinary manhunt. The target was the world's most notorious criminal--someone who had ordered many terrorist acts, and whose fatal mistake involved attacking commercial aviation. The president spoke in 1989.

The criminal was Pablo Escobar of Medellin, Colombia, who in 1989 was listed by Forbes magazine as one of the world's richest men. His business was cocaine. In conducting business he made war against his nation's government, killing thousands--innocent bystanders, policemen, military officers and political leaders, including a presidential candidate.

In an attempt to kill that candidate's successor, he gave an underling a briefcase, directing him to throw a toggle switch that supposedly would activate a tape recorder to eavesdrop on the passenger seated next to him on an Avianca flight. The switch detonated a bomb that blew the plane out of the sky, killing 110, including two Americans. But not the candidate, who had changed his travel plans.

The story of Escobar's blood-drenched career, and America's decision to help end it, is told in a gripping book that suddenly has a pertinence that its author, Mark Bowden of The Philadelphia Inquirer, could not have anticipated six months ago when he published "Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw." It is an introduction to some techniques and choices that may be involved in the hunt for Osama bin Laden--a hunt in mountains, in winter, more daunting than a hunt in a South American city.

President Reagan's 1986 directive that drug trafficking be considered a threat to national security opened the way to counternarcotics uses of the military--uses beyond the airborne and satellite surveillance help already being given to Colombian forces. In 1989 Bush sent Special Forces to train Colombian soldiers in rapid-strike tactics. Since the 1988 bombing by Libyan terrorists of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, airline safety had become a world concern. The destruction of the Avianca plane was viewed, Bowden writes, "as an attack on global civilization."

It led to the 16-month manhunt in Medellin, a city of 2.9 million. The hunt was conducted primarily by a Colombian police contingent called Search Bloc. It was assisted by intelligence gathered by U.S. assets, including so many planes that at one point an AWACS aircraft was sent aloft to direct air traffic over the city. On the ground there was a U.S. Army unit, then called Centra Spike, specializing in spying--and in finding individuals. Dispatch of this unit was approved by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of Defense--Colin Powell and Dick Cheney.

Bowden gives fascinating glimpses of Special Forces technologies. But in driving Escobar underground and hunting him down, high-tech gadgetry was less important than savagery, applied by Los Pepes, a private paramilitary group organized by Escobar's many enemies--rival cocaine interests, families of those Escobar had murdered, wealthy Colombians who believed that they, and the nation, were threatened by him. Los Pepes were prolific bombers, arsonists and killers, targeting the homes and other property of Escobar and his associates, killing members of his extended family, his bankers and lawyers--in short, the white-collar infrastructure of his empire.

The relationships between U.S. forces, Search Bloc and Los Pepes were murky. No doubt deliberately so, given Executive Order 12333, issued by President Ford in 1974: "No person employed or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination." In 1989 a Bush administration legal opinion said the order established that the United States "does not condone assassination as an instrument of national policy" but does not limit "lawful self-defense options."

In Washington there had been worries that the U.S. Special Forces in Colombia included "forward leaners"--warriors who push against the codified parameters of their mission. Clearly U.S. forces were helping Search Bloc, which was collaborating with Los Pepes as it administered what Bowden calls "a controlled bloodbath." Escobar's corpse was proof that Order 12333, and the rule that supplying anyone "lethal information" requires presidential authorization and congressional notification, are not national handcuffs.

U.S. Marines have a saying: "No one wants to fight, but someone had better know how." Lawyers and their language cannot always say how America will fight for its security.

In the movie "A Few Good Men," Marine Col. Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) explodes at the attorney (Tom Cruise) who is grilling him: "I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it." Questions are necessary, but so are the hard decisions to send hard men in harm's way on our behalf.

As happens every time America experiences something ghastly, Sept. 11 triggered a chorus saying that America had suddenly "lost its innocence." By innocence the choristers mean naivete--about the existence of evil, life's perilous contingencies and the occasional necessity for nasty means to serve noble ends. What rubbish.

Innocent? This nation has been tempered in many furnaces--the savagery of 17th-century frontier life and the westward conquest of a continent, warfare from Fort Pitt (as war made Fort Duquesne) to Brooklyn Heights to Shiloh to Belleau Wood to Okinawa to Tet Offensive to... Medellin. America's justifiable participation in the killing of Pablo Escobar was not the work of a nation unschooled in life's darker facets. The attitudes and skills America brought to that task, and that it is bringing to the task of killing Osama bin Laden and as many of his associates as can be caught in its cross hairs, are not attributes of a naive nation.

Join the Discussion