Interview with Former Bush Adviser Andrew Card 'Obama Has Pounded His Chest a Little Too Much'

Andrew Card served as the White House chief of staff for the first five years of George W. Bush's presidency. In a SPIEGEL interview, Card speaks about Bush's failed efforts to get bin Laden, how President Obama "has pounded his chest a bit too much" and why it's OK to celebrate a terrorist's death.
US President George W. Bush listens as White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card informs him that a second plane has hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

US President George W. Bush listens as White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card informs him that a second plane has hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.


SPIEGEL: You are the man who whispered into then-President George W. Bush's ear in an elementary school on Sept. 11, 2001 that a second plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center. Those words were the beginning of a relentless hunt for Osama bin Laden. Where were you last Sunday, May 2, when the world learned bin Laden was dead?

Andrew Card: I was at a reading at the Ford Theater in Washington. I am coming out, and my BlackBerry is going crazy. I had no idea what was going on. And then I get an e-mail saying, "USA! USA! USA!" Then I get the next e-mail, saying that Osama bin Laden has been killed.

SPIEGEL: Did you talk to President Bush?

Card: We exchanged e-mails. The response I got from him, which was at 5:44 a.m. his time, in Texas, said: "Great day!" That's all it said. He is very efficient.


Photo Gallery: America Celebrates Bin Laden's Death


SPIEGEL: Has Obama's relatively rapid success been a bitter pill for George W. Bush to swallow? Bush led a futile search for bin Laden for seven years, and then Obama came along and only needed two years. Did you originally think that you could catch Osama bin Laden earlier?

Card: I thought we would get Osama bin Laden relatively quickly after the war in Afghanistan started. The CIA and the military were saying: "We will get him. We will find out where he is. We have got great photographic ability. We can take images of the mountainside and see where warm bodies are." So we had high expectations.

SPIEGEL: Was there any kind of timeline for when you expected the hunt to be over?

Card: No, I always thought: "Tomorrow, maybe tomorrow is going to be the day." But there were other times I can remember when intelligence would come in. We got information from the CIA that a tall man with a cane and a beard had been spotted. We saw the pictures and thought: "Oh, there he is. There he is." But we were wrong, and frustration mounted.

SPIEGEL: At the beginning of the war in Iraq, you reassigned many experts. Did President Bush set any priorities higher than the hunt for bin Laden?

Card: He had many top priorities, but I honestly do not believe that the president neglected the hunt for bin Laden. People we moved out were replaced. I think there was a dedicated team whose job it was to wake up every day and say: "Where is Osama bin Laden today?"

SPIEGEL: But now President Obama is the big winner…

Card: I think he has pounded his chest a little too much. He can take pride in it, but he does not need to show it so much.

SPIEGEL: He didn't appear triumphant while announcing bin Laden's death.

Card: I thought his statement was subdued, but I think his schedule is not subdued. Personally, I think it is premature to go to Ground Zero, in New York. I think my role model in this would be George H. W. Bush, when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. It was a day to celebrate, but we did not dance on the Wall.

SPIEGEL: Still, if the operation in Abbottabad had failed, it could have cost Obama his presidency. Has he not shown precisely the courage that his political opponents insinuated he lacked?

Card: President Obama made a courageous decision because so many things could have gone wrong. What would have happened if bin Laden had not been there or if the Pakistani military had intervened? With imperfect knowledge, I would say that this was probably a 50-50 chance.

SPIEGEL: The Afghan war, which was launched to capture bin Laden, is now in its 10th year. In hindsight, would it not have been better to forego an invasion and, instead, to try to take out bin Laden with Special Forces operations?

Card: When you say "take him out," that is good in theory; it makes for an interesting video game for the people watching events unfold from afar. But there is no joystick controlling the outcome of the game. It is hard to predict. Believe me, if we could have gotten Osama bin Laden on day one of the war, it would have made a big difference.

SPIEGEL: But, instead, he continued to be a symbol for al-Qaida until now. He was the face of terrorism.

Card: I'm not sure if I would say "face," but he was the personification of terrorism. After the attack, he put out videos and says: "Here I am, this was a great day." Then the FBI declared him (public) enemy number one and put his photo on the FBI Most Wanted List. So, he had a face, a beard and a name.

SPIEGEL: How could bin Laden live in his compound for so long without the either the Pakistani or the American intelligence service realizing he was there and taking action?

Card: I think it is a credible question for Congress to ask the administration about and for the administration to ask the Pakistanis about. And since the US government recognized bin Laden's hideaway as an interesting place nine months ago, it baffles me as to why the Pakistani intelligence community did not say: "Hmm, interesting place. I wonder what they are building." I live in McLean, Virginia, and I guarantee that if a mansion went up right next door to me, I would say: "Hmm, who's building that mansion?"

SPIEGEL: Now that bin Laden is dead, debates have been reignited about whether the interrogation techniques used in Guantanamo succeeded in eliciting important clues about bin Laden's hiding place. In this case, do you think the end justifies the means?

Card: I honestly believe that waterboarding, or the enhanced interrogation techniques that we used, produced intelligence that was extremely valuable in protecting America and our allies. So I am an advocate of the president having the ability to allow enhanced techniques to be used in selective circumstances to protect America.

SPIEGEL: Did the Bush administration have a plan for what to do with bin Laden if he was captured or killed?

Card: I don't remember any details about how to send him to his maker. I do not remember those discussions. It wasn't something that rose to my level. I'm not sure that it would have been a, quote, "presidential decision."

SPIEGEL: Bush always said he wanted bin Laden dead or alive. Did he have a preference?

Card: No. I don't think there was a preference. I think there are unintended consequences for "alive," and there are certainly unintended results for "dead."

SPIEGEL: Death seems to be the less complicated option.

Card: I think there is more certainty to it. I am very comfortable with Osama bin Laden's demise. And I think the real justice is now being visited upon him by a greater power.

SPIEGEL: Granted, there is great relief, but is it right for a mostly a Christian country to celebrate the death of a human being like they would if they had won the Super Bowl? Do you not find that to be a rather odd reaction?

Card: It was spontaneous; it was not contrived. There was no one who held up a sign and said "Cheer!" This was not a television show where they say "Clap!" This was truly spontaneous from the American people. When they said "USA! USA!" I thought it was a wonderful spontaneous reaction that was long overdue. My wife cried, and she is a minister. It was an important morale boost for those who are committed to bringing people to justice in the war on terror.

Interview conducted by Marc Hujer
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