Bin Laden Death: Americans Divided Over Credit for Presidents Obama, Bush, Clinton

Americans sharply divided over role Obama's predecessors played in operation.

ByABC News
May 3, 2011, 11:29 AM

May 4, 2011— -- A bipartisan mix of lawmakers and pundits has been heaping credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden on President Obama -- and his two predecessors, Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

But to what extent did presidential leadership play a role in ultimately finding bin Laden, and who deserves the most credit for finally finding the world's most wanted man?

Public displays of unity aside, those questions remain the subject of a subtle, but hot, partisan debate.

Obama claimed credit for himself Sunday night, emphasizing the decision to make the bin Laden manhunt a key objective was his, shortly after he took office more than two years ago. He didn't mention Bush, who wanted bin Laden "dead or alive," or Clinton, who declared him "public enemy number one."

"I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al Qaeda," Obama said early in his speech, "even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network."

Moreover, White House aides said, Obama's decision to go forward with the dangerous secret operation, based on circumstantial evidence alone, was gutsy and bold. The odds bin Laden would actually be there were only 60 to 80 percent, Panetta told Time magazine after the fact.

Leading Republicans have publicly praised Obama for his leadership in the moment, and strong majorities of Republican voters in recent polls say they believe the president deserves credit for the mission's success.

But there's a remarkable divide between parties over just how much credit President Bush deserves. Eighty-one percent of Republicans say Bush deserves some recognition for the successful operation, according to a new Washington Post/Pew Research Center poll. Only 35 percent of Democrats said they agree.

"The information started on this four years ago, which was clearly in the Bush administration," said House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Mike Rogers of the assembly of intelligence clues that led to bin Laden's hideout.

It's "important to look at this as a continuum," former Vice President Dick Cheney said. "I mean, it's not just on one day you get up, bang, and you got Osama bin Laden."

Cheney said the so-called enhanced interrogation of detainees, a policy begun under Bush and ceased under Obama, could have "produced results that ultimately contributed to the success of this venture."

However, some Democrats have questioned whether Bush's foreign policy hastened the discovery of bin Laden's hideout at all, saying Bush didn't make the manhunt a top priority during his eight years in office, and even missed one opportunity to take bin Laden down.

"The decision not to deploy American forces to go after bin Laden or block his escape [from Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in 2001] was made by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his top commander, Gen. Tommy Franks," concluded a 2009 Senate Foreign Relations Committee report on what was believed at the time to be the last, best chance to find bin Laden.

Bin Laden later slipped into Pakistan, where he is believed to have remained until his death. Bush officials have said the intelligence on his whereabouts in Tora Bora was inconclusive at the time.

"Terror is bigger than one person, and he's just a person who's been marginalized," Bush told reporters at a White House briefing in March 2002. "I don't know where he is, and I just don't spend that much time on him, to be honest with you."