The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden, by Mark Bowden

The Finish is an account of the hunt for, and assassination of. Osama Bin Laden by the United States. It focuses on a number of individuals who had pivotal roles in this effort including Barack Obama as well as various special forces and intelligence figures.

It is a decent work of journalism detailing the evolution of American war making since the 11 Sept attack on the Twin Towers, particularly in relation to the integration of intelligence gathering and information management with special forces operations. However it is not the best work by Mark Bowden that I have read and it is not without controversy.

In Roadwork, an earlier collection of his journalism, Mark Bowden has written thoughtfully and highly critically on the issue of torture. Here he argues, with some discomfort, that a key lead in the hunt for Bin Laden emerged from a number of interrogations of different people under torture during the Bush administration. However the information gleaned from these interrogations was not recognised as important until advances in US information systems allowed for the effective analysis of the multitudinous quantities of intelligence that the US had gathered.

A practical (as opposed to moral) argument against torture has always been that the person being tortured will say anything to get the torture to stop. Hence the information they give cannot generally be relied upon. In her book Audacity to Believe Shelia Cassidy describes this very phenomenon in her account of her torture in Pinochet’s Chile. She also describes how her torturers had time to check every detail that she gave and so with repeated visits to the torture chamber were able to break her utterly. In this book Bowden suggests that advances in information systems which allow for cross checking of all sorts of information has automated the torture verification process that Cassidy’s interrogators undertook at such leisure. So such systems could become used in the future for continued justification for the use of torture.

Bowden acknowledges that his sources did not reveal to him how they actually turned the vague indication from torture interrogations into a solid lead on a real person. However Kevin Toolis, a filmmaker and writer who has made a movie, Complicit, about the use of torture in the “war on terror” argues that in the end the location of Bin Laden resulted from simply bribing a senior member of Pakistani Inter Service Intelligence to help reveal his hiding place. This corresponds with the Obama administration’s official position that torture was not used to locate Bin Laden.

This controversy over torture and a rather superficial treatment of the criticisms of the use of drones aside this is a gripping narrative and still provides a useful and thought-provoking insight into evolution of counter-insurgency and some of the moral questions associated with it.

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One thought on “The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden, by Mark Bowden

  1. Pingback: Torture, mass surveillance, and Dr Sheila Cassidy | aidanjmcquade

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