by Zack Smith
INDY WEEK: It’s only been a little over a year and a half since bin Laden’s death. How soon after the event did you start working on this book? What were some of the challenges in making sure it was something that was ready to be published?
Mark Bowden: It all started, technically, the day after bin Laden was killed. I was out in LA at the time, and a movie producer asked me if I would consider researching and writing a script. I emailed Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, and asked me if he would consider putting me on the list of the thousands of journalists who wanted to interview the President about this event.
Much to my surprise, Jay emailed me right back and said he thought I was an ideal person to do a story like that! He didn’t know I was just writing a script, but my friend the producer wound up deciding not to pursue the project, so I wound up with potential access with no project. I called up my publisher and pitched it to him, and he said yes.
I told him I did not want to be the first—that I wanted to research this until I felt I was ready to write, and he accepted it on that basis. So I signed a contract and got to work!
How much access did you wind up having?
Ultimately, I did sit down with President Obama for an interview in the Oval Office that lasted an hour and a half. I interviewed most of the key people on the White House staff; I interviewed extensively at the Pentagon and at the CIA, and at the Joint Special Operations Command, and in and around the country with sources of my own who were able to help me understand various aspects of the technology and strategy that’s been involved in the last 10 years, and I had the help of my son and my cousin David, who worked on a documentary film for the Discovery Channel based on my work, and they did reporting and interviewed people in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
With all that, I had help, and I had opportunity.
As you were doing research for this, how did your perception of the situation evolve, in terms of your understanding of it?
Well, I think like everyone else, I was fixated on the raid itself. But as I got more into the story, I realized this was more of a 10-year-long story, for which the raid was only the last few hours. And I was only vaguely aware of the evolution of what I call the “targeting engine” that the CIA and Special Operations and NSA and various counterterrorism intelligence agencies put together.
So that was all new to me, at least in the detail that I came to understand it, and of course at that time I had no knowledge at all of how the CIA found bin Laden, which to me is probably the single most remarkable aspect of the story.
What do you feel is the biggest misconception that the public’s had about the events leading to bin Laden’s killing?
Well, I do think that most people don’t realize, or didn’t realize, that finding bin Laden was not a sudden stroke of luck. It was a very long and painstaking process that developed the information that led to this fellow Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Really, the most remarkable piece of this was finding him, not knowing that he would ultimately lead them to bin Laden, but knowing there was a good chance that might happen, and then that subsequently paying off.
I think the most surprising thing for most people is that this was not something that happened suddenly; it was a very gradual, very determined intelligence effort that found bin Laden in the compound.
That touches on one thing the book makes very apparent—that intelligence is more than what people see in thrillers, it’s about a gradual compilation and advancement of leads. What was one of the greatest challenges in presenting that information in a way that stays true to the process and conveys its impact without sensationalizing it?
Well, I think that’s obviously a major challenge when you’re constructing a narrative. But I believe that if you penetrate to the core of a story, and you understand the significance of each turning point, it becomes inherently interesting.
I think where writers get lost is when they get distracted by a lot of extraneous, but curious or interesting detail. But the key to me was focusing in on exactly what were the pieces that had to be fit together, and where did those pieces came from. If you narrow it down like that, I think it becomes compelling—if you put together the story in a very clear and I think decisive way, and I think that helps maintain the reader’s interest.
In the book, you often have passages where you go inside the head of Barack Obama and others. When you’re going through your research and interviews and translating them into prose, what are the biggest challenges with sequences like that?
What I try to avoid doing is using a lot of the conventional tools of attribution, which tend to slow down the narrative. I’m content as a writer, if President Obama tells me, “This is what I was thinking, and this is what was happening,” if I can simply relate that fact.
What I’ve done traditionally in my books is have detailed source notes at the end, if anyone wants to check the attribution of the quotes throughout the novel. In this case, that was virtually impossible, because most of the key people involved, other than President Obama, were willing to talk to me, but did not want to have specific things attributed to them, because I was dealing with people who were in high office and positions of responsibility, and they’re just concerned about putting too fine a point on their thought process.
There is a bit more of a need here than in my other books for the reader to simply trust what I’m telling them is through my reporting, rather than something I’m making up.
When you were visiting places and doing interviews for this book, what was the most revelatory experience that you had?
A lot of the things I did in reporting this book were fascinating for me—I’d never interviewed the president before, I’d never interviewed the director of the CIA. There were plenty of firsts for me in doing this.
I always find the most revelatory aspect to be the writing, though. Because at that point, when you begin pulling together all the various threads of information into a story and it begins to cohere, that’s when you get a much richer understanding of the story that you’re trying to tell. That’s nearly always the most exciting part of the project.
With the election coming up, it’s interesting to me how much the book emphasizes the role of the Obama administration in bringing down bin Laden. Do you feel Obama’s role has not been properly appreciated by the public, or that this is something that has not been latched upon in the election?
I think that most of the American people would readily give President Obama the credit he deserves for being commander-in-chief and the decisions that he made. I would think that most people realize—certainly, they will more if they read my book—that it was an effort that proceeded his presidency, but nonetheless came together and was finally successful under his regime and under his command.
I think there have been efforts made to minimize his efforts, political arguments that he doesn’t deserve as much credit, but I think most people just realize that’s political posturing. You can be a very good confirmed Republican who plans to vote for Mitt Romney and still, it seems to me, acknowledge that President Obama handled this situation extremely well. In fact, Mitt Romney said as much in the last debate.
How long did it take for this book to be published after you turned it in, and have you had time to start on anything else yet?
No. My publisher was very eager to get this out as soon as possible, so I was working on this up until just a few weeks before the book was printed. In fact, we had to scramble a little bit, because the SEAL who wrote his own book gave a version of the raid that had some minor discrepancies in it, but to bring my narrative up to date, we had to make some small changes, and there will be more in the next edition of the book.
So to answer your question, I haven’t had time to write anything else yet. I’m pretty busy promoting this book, and will be for the next month or so. I don’t plan to get started on anything new until the end of this year or early next year.
You’ve had a variety of eclectic subjects for your books—what, to you, is the root of a good story, something where you’re willing to devote a great deal of research and writing?
My biggest motivation is always personal curiosity, but I’m also looking for what I call a “dramatic spine” for a story. I’m not terribly drawn to writing about policy analysis and other issues, and I don’t think, “Gee, I’d like to write a book that deals with overpopulation.” There’s not a lot of journalists who are motivated by issues like those, and I’ve never been. I’ve always been motivated by dramatic stories.
In writing Black Hawk Down, for example, what attracted me was less the significance of the event, than that there were 100 American soldiers trapped in a big city in Africa fighting for their lives, and I just thought, “Wow, what a compelling and dramatic story that is!”
I think it’s a combination of my sense of how significant something is, coupled with my sense of how dramatic a story I think I can tell to bring that out.
Mark Bowden appears at Quail Ridge Books and Music on Thursday, Nov. 1, to read from and sign copies of The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden at 7:30 p.m.