Much has been made of President Obama’s considerable use of the pronoun “I” on the night he announced to the nation the killing of Osama bin Laden. As Mark Bowden notes in his recently published account of the killing and the decision-making that led up to the operation, The Finish, the president was not shy about putting himself front and center when it came to the decision to proceed with the operation: “I directed Leon Panetta … I was briefed … I met repeatedly with my national security team … I determined … and authorized … Today at my direction.”
While a bit over the top when it comes to the “me” factor, nevertheless, the president is indeed commander in chief and, under the Constitution, with its unitary executive, he is, as the text of that document asserts, the sole holder of “the executive power.” Unlike many of the state constitutions of the time, the national executive authority was not divided among various state office holders nor as under the Articles of Confederation—the country’s first federal constitution—was it in the hands of the national assembly. So, whether critics of the president liked his rhetoric or not, whether they felt it was unseemly or not, it wasn’t out of bounds from a constitutional perspective.
Now, the founders thought the “unitary executive” was necessary because it provided two distinct but complementary institutional qualities: decisiveness and responsibility. In times of emergency, one man could act more quickly than many and one man, whose decision it was to act, could be judged for that decision more clearly by Congress and the nation than a muddle of decision makers. One only has to remember the now iconic picture relayed around the nation and the world the next day of the president, surrounded by aides, the vice president and the secretary of state, intently watching the feed from an overhead drone in the White House situation room as the operation against bin Laden’s compound went down to understand the role the president plays in such matters.
Of course, that was then.
There are no pictures of the president watching a live feed from the drone that was above Benghazi the night Ambassador Stevens was killed. There are no pictures of the president monitoring the hours-long assault on the American diplomatic compounds there or the resulting firefight between the Islamists militia and U.S. security guards, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, both of whom were killed early in the morning of September 12.
What we do have are reports that U.S. commandos, gunships, and other specialized forces were moved into position to come to the Americans’ assistance. Now, putting aside the fact that such deployments do not normally occur without the highest level of consultation within an administration, what we don’t know is who made the ultimate decision not to deploy those forces into Benghazi. Did the president? If he did, what reasons can he give to justify the decision to keep from sending those forces in? It might even have been the right decision but we will not know that until we have a clearer picture of when he was informed, what he was told, how he stayed informed, and when and why he gave the order to stand down.
But the very fact that the White House and the administration have been reluctant to provide this information (and, indeed, seem to be passing the buck on who did what and when) raises another possibility: that the president was not carrying out his responsibilities as commander in chief. Yet whether distracted by the upcoming election, calls to the Israeli prime minister, or prepping for a fundraiser the next day in Las Vegas, presidents don’t get to delegate that power, even to a secretary of defense. So, the night of September 11 comes down to this: was the president in charge—or not? The Constitution makes it clear, he must be.