Tuesday, May 10, 2011

EDITORIAL >> The general in the picture

For more than a week, we’ve wondered about the Air Force general near the center of the picture that was taken in the White House Situation Room on the night of May 1 as Navy SEALs dispatched Osama bin Laden into another world.

His name is Brig. Gen. Marshall B. Webb, who is the assistant commanding general of Joint Operations Command at the Pentagon. He’s the least worried person in the room. He seems to be running the computer that brings instant news to an anxious President Obama and his team, including an apprehensive Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose hand is covering her mouth.

The general is a helicopter pilot by training and doesn’t appear to have passed through Little Rock Air Force Base. But several previous LRAFB commanders have moved up to the Pentagon and have taken key positions involving secret worldwide operations.

Col. Greg Otey, the previous commander at the air base, was assigned to Air Force headquarters as senior planner with the joint chiefs of staff.

A couple of years ago, Brig. Gen. Rowayne A. Schatz Jr., the air base commander before Otey, was named deputy director for global operations with the joint chiefs. He’s close to Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief who served at Little Rock Air Force Base and is a veteran of Air Force Special Operations.

Schatz is responsible to the chairman of the joint chiefs — that’s Admiral Mike Mullen standing on the left — “for oversight and coordination of worldwide operational matters,” according to his Air Force biography. Responsibilities include “joint-force readiness, strategic and reconnaissance operations, command system operations, information operations, space and missile defense, psychological operations, special technical operations and management of the National Military Command System.”

We can only speculate about the details of the successful operation. One day we’ll know more about the raid that eliminated the world’s No. 1 terrorist. But we do know it took dozens, perhaps hundreds, of intelligence and combat professionals to remove bin Laden from the world’s stage.

Many of those professionals were in the Situation Room on May 1. They had made the right call, and we were done with bin Laden. He even had a proper Muslim burial: His body was wiped clean before he was dumped into the sea facing Mecca.

Toward the end, he was careless and stupid: Our intelligence spotted him months ago pacing the courtyard inside his compound. It wasn’t much of a hiding place. It was just a matter of time: He didn’t bother with tunnels or a basement or an escape plan. When the Americans showed up, he couldn’t even jump out the upstairs window.

Bin Laden was said to be 54, but in one of his last videos where he was watching himself on TV, he looked much older. He put brown shoe-polish in his hair and beard, desperately trying to appear young.

A terrorist on the run will grow old pretty fast.

Ayman al-Zawahir, bin Laden’s No. 2, is said to have taken over the leadership of al-Qaida. Navy SEALs or a powerful bomb will find him sooner or later. There will be another gathering in the Situation Room like the one above and, we hope, more celebrations.