Updated Friday, November 9, 2012 at 07:31 AM
For the book industry — traditionally, not known for speed — Mark Bowden's latest undertaking would have offered no end of challenges.
A typical timeline in the publishing world is 12 to 18 months from submission of manuscript to book on shelf. With "The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 266 pp., $26), Bowden and the Atlantic Monthly Press have produced a book — one with sweep and sophistication — about a pivotal, secretive operation that occurred only 17 months before the book's publication.
That they were able to pull this off testifies to the match of writer and subject. The story of finding and killing Osama bin Laden in an Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound requires expertise in all kinds of fields, but Bowden, 61, has them covered: special operations ("Black Hawk Down"); Middle East machinations ("Guests of the Ayatollah"); and the intricacies of an international manhunt ("Killing Pablo").
The book's quick turn was one challenge. Another was the timing of its release. When a book comes out three weeks before a presidential election — and that book details a stirring achievement of the incumbent candidate's first term — there will be skeptics, eager to cry embellishment and opportunism.
But "The Finish" won't make an easy target. The book is smart and measured, long on transparency and short on speculation.
Books about politics and national security often descend into a game of hide-and-seek, leaving readers to guess who said what. But Bowden lets you know who was interviewed — a list that includes President Obama, Obama's national-security adviser and chief counterterrorism adviser, and military higher-ups — and who was not (the members of Navy SEAL Team Six).
Bowden enjoyed exceptional access, but wasn't captured by it. His book dispels myths that magnified the White House's derring do — for example, the stirring depiction of the president facing down a phalanx of advisers opposed to the mission. (Almost every adviser supported it.) Bowden also makes clear that, contrary to assertions from the Obama administration, torture did contribute to the intelligence breakthroughs that led the U.S. to bin Laden.
"The Finish" offers greater details about the mission's run-up than its final execution. But that's no surprise. Bowden's lens is wide, encompassing Obama's evolution as a politician and the peculiar influence of bin Laden, a man whose ideas "belonged to an ugly cul-de-sac of history, an era where witches and heretics were burned in town squares."
Where the book shines is in Bowden's reconstruction and refined analysis of the intelligence operations that turned up bin Laden's location. Bowden calls it a "triumph of dot connecting" and a testament to bureaucracy's "limitless capacity for work."
The book also succeeds in its artful portrait of Obama as commander in chief. In matters of war, Obama has been anything but timid. The respect he has for the military — and the respect the military has for him — comes through powerfully, particularly in the relationship between Obama and Bill McRaven, the Navy admiral who organized the mission that killed bin Laden.
Had the mission failed, the fallout for Obama and the country would have been precipitous. That Obama was willing to take that risk — especially given the uncertainty of whether it was really bin Laden in that Abbottabad compound — makes for compelling drama, and Bowden has captured it with skill and style.
Ken Armstrong: firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Seattle Times reporter, he is the co-author of "Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity," winner of the 2011 Edgar Award for best fact crime book.
Mark BowdenThe author of "The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Microsoft auditorium of the central branch of the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave. Free (206-386-4636; www.spl.org).
ATLANTIC MONTHLY PRESS