During the 2008 campaign, when Barack Obama bluntly vowed “we will kill bin Laden,” he did not know that one of the most consequential moments of his presidency would be deciding whether to make good on that vow. In fact, his fierce campaign pledge to resort to unilateral action to get Osama bin Laden, should he be hiding in Pakistan, was slammed by both Hillary Clinton and John McCain as reckless talk. But Obama took the promise seriously. Five months into his presidency, he sent a memo to Leon Panetta, then the new CIA chief, signaling that he considered finding bin Laden a high-priority task. He requested a detailed operation plan for locating and “bringing to justice” the mass-murderer. Yet for a year, Panetta did not have much to report to Obama on this front. Then in the summer of 2010, the agency informed Obama there was a lead: bin Laden might be in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, about 35 miles north of Islamabad. He could be within Obama’s reach.
For months, however, there was not much for the president to do, as the spies gathered more intelligence. In mid-February 2011, Obama and the small number of White House aides tracking the CIA’s effort concluded that the intelligence was strong enough to start thinking about a mission to nab or kill bin Laden. Panetta brought Vice Admiral William McRaven, the commander of the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, into the picture and asked him to start cooking up options for an assault. Now the bin Laden mission had become a matter of presidential decision-making.
In mid-March 2011, Obama convened a series of National Security Council meetings on a possible bin Laden operation. At the first, on March 14, Panetta presented Obama with the three basic course of action—COAs, in the parlance of military planners—that McRaven and a small team had devised: a massive bombing strike in which B-2 stealth bombers would drop dozens of 2,000-pound GPS-guided bombs and obliterate the compound; a helicopter raid mounted by U.S. commandos; or a joint assault with Pakistani forces, who would be informed of the operation only shortly before its launch. According to a participant, the president had “a visceral reaction” against the bombing strike because collateral damage would likely extend beyond the compound into the surrounding neighborhood. The CIA had already determined that the compound contained a number of women and children.
Another drawback of such an attack was that it would leave behind only rubble—and the remains of 20 or so people mixed in with the concrete and steel. In all that wreckage, could they find a piece of bin Laden—hair or flesh—for DNA analysis?
“The question was, would you accrue the strategic benefits of getting bin Laden if you couldn’t prove it?” Ben Rhodes, a national security aide, recalled.
“And what could be worse,” Nicholas Rasmussen, the White House senior director for counterterrorism, later noted, “than OBL survives and comes out and says, ‘The United States failed to kill me’?”
Obama all but scratched this option off the list. He did ask the military to consider a surgical strike targeting the specific person living within the compound whom intelligence analysts suspected was the al Qaeda leader. The analysts had dubbed him “the pacer,” for he would stride around the compound as if for exercise.
The CIA had not been able to obtain physical evidence that confirmed this man was bin Laden. But the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which analyzes overhead imagery, had determined the fellow was between 5 feet 8 and 6 feet 8. Far from definitive. And he might be a decoy.
The president appeared to be leaning toward an assault. He pressed McRaven on the details. How much training time would a squad need? How could the commandos make a positive identification of bin Laden?
Defense Secretary Bob Gates and others, though, were skeptical— or, as one participant later recalled, “keenly focused on the risks associated with a helicopter raid.” Gates had been at the CIA during Desert One (the failed mission President Jimmy Carter had approved to rescue American hostages held in Tehran in 1980) and Black Hawk Down (the 1993 operation in Somalia that fell apart and resulted in the deaths of eighteen U.S. troops). Another high-risk helicopter raid—this time flying undetected a hundred miles into another country—was worrisome to him.
Obama and his aides dismissed a joint raid with the Pakistanis. They simply could not trust them. U.S. officials had long suspected Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence of routinely tipping off targets of U.S. actions, including drone strikes. Obama did not believe any other nation, let alone Pakistan, could be trusted with advance information of an assault.
Soon afterward, officials reported back to the president that even a surgical strike would require a large amount of ordnance. That is, it wouldn’t be all that surgical. A helicopter raid appeared the only viable choice.
As the planning meetings proceeded—the president and his aides often had a model of the compound before them—a critical point about a unilateral U.S. assault caught Obama’s attention: How would these covert warriors return safely from the compound, especially if they were to encounter hostile Pakistani military forces? He noticed that in the initial planning the assault force was small. He asked McRaven if such a force could fight its way out if necessary.
McRaven had based the planning on an assumption that if his commandos were confronted by the Pakistanis, they would protect themselves without attempting to defeat the Pakistani forces, while waiting for the politicians in Washington and Islamabad to sort things out. He calculated that his team could hold off any Pakistani assault for one or two hours.
Obama nixed the idea of commandos hunkering down to await diplomatic rescue. He worried that the Navy SEALs conducting the mission could end up as hostages of the Pakistanis, and he told McRaven to ensure that the U.S. forces could escape the compound and return to safety, whether or not they encountered Pakistani resistance.
“Don’t worry about keeping things calm with Pakistan,” Obama said to McRaven. “Worry about getting out.”
McRaven added additional forces; a second group of SEALs would be prepared to take on any Pakistani forces that might try to intervene.
The pace of the meetings in the White House—still involving merely a few aides—and at the CIA and JSOC picked up.
Throughout April a team of Navy SEALs from the elite and supersecret Team 6 unit (which was developed in response to the Desert One debacle) practiced for the assault, using a site built to resemble the compound. From a safe house it had set up earlier in Abbottabad, the CIA continued to watch the compound.
On the evening of Thursday, April 28, the president convened what would be the last NSC planning meeting on the bin Laden operation. McRaven was already in Afghanistan, ready to launch the raid if so ordered.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the latest plans. In response to Obama’s demand for a fight-your-way-out plan, McRaven had added two Chinook helicopters to complement the pair of MH-60 Black Hawk stealth copters. And the SEALs had been instructed to be prepared to engage if they were met by the Pakistani military.
Panetta reported that the intelligence community had conducted a red team test exercise, in which analysts who had not previously worked on the bin Laden case evaluated the intelligence that had been collected. The CIA had earlier told Obama that its analysts had concluded there was a 60 to 80 percent certainty that bin Laden was in the Abbottabad compound. The red team ended up with lower odds: 40 to 60 percent.
Several of Obama’s national security advisers were worried by the red team results and wondered why the confidence level was lower. Michael Leiter, the chief of the National Counterterrorism Center, believed the CIA had inflated the case. But the president showed little interest in calibrating the difference between the two conclusions.
“My impression was that he viewed this as a 50-50 case,” Rhodes later said. “He knew there would always be a significant chance that the intelligence was not correct and he would have to live with the downside risk.”
Whatever the percentages, Obama and everyone else realized this was the best shot the U.S. government had at finding bin Laden since he escaped at the battle of Tora Bora in late 2001.
The group reviewed the three COAs now on the table: a unilateral U.S. raid, a small missile strike from “a standoff position” (probably using a drone), or postponing any action while more information was collected.
Obama and his aides went over the negative scenarios related to an assault. Bin Laden might not be there; he might escape the commandos. The compound could be rigged to explode if attacked. The mission could end in a firefight with the Pakistanis, and that could ignite anti-U.S. demonstrations throughout the country and cause a breach in the already delicate relationship with Islamabad.
Neither Obama nor anyone else in the room had to discuss the most obvious point: Obama would be placing his presidency on the line. If he ordered the mission to proceed and it succeeded, he would receive hurrahs. It could well boost his political standing.
Yet if the mission went sour—and American lives were lost, and the United States embarrassed—Obama would be denounced as hapless and incompetent. His right-wing critics would have evidence for their otherwise baseless contention that he was an amateur on national security. Obama and his aides were well aware that Desert One had reinforced the charge that President Carter, then contending with economic troubles, was feckless, and that the failed mission severely damaged his reelection prospects.
It was entirely possible—arguably probable—that Obama might never recover from such a failure. So much had to go exactly right for the raid to succeed; one accident or screwup (well beyond Obama’s control) could sink the operation—and his presidency. Obama was on the verge of taking the ultimate political risk.
It was time to decide. Obama asked his national security team for their individual recommendations. Vice President Joe Biden and Gates each counseled waiting for more intelligence. “Don’t go,” the vice president said. Several of the participants still opted for a missile strike. Panetta and the president’s chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, backed the helicopter assault. There was no consensus.
The raid was not supported by a majority—and Obama’s most experienced advisers, his vice president and defense secretary, were wary of proceeding with this mission.
“He had very senior people advising a different course,” a participant recalled. “It would take a lot of confidence and fortitude to go against all that.”
At the end of the meeting, Obama said, “I’m not going to tell you what my decision is now. I’m going back and thinking about it some more.” But he said he would decide soon.
Obama left the meeting, walked across the colonnade past the Rose Garden to the residence, to make a decision. He was thinking of Desert One and Black Hawk Down.
Obama, despite the public perception that he was a cautious seeker of consensus, was a risk taker. He had pushed for health care reform when practically no one in the White House thought it could be achieved. In internal deliberations, he had advocated pressuring Egyptian President Mubarak, when pro-democracy protests erupted, though his top foreign policy aides preferred preserving the status quo. He had launched a multilateral military action in Libya over the reservations of his most experienced military advisers. And once again, the president was considering disregarding the play-it-safe advice of senior national security advisers to move forward with a bold action that had no guarantee of success and that could bring about a heap of trouble.
Dealing with Congress over the budget (and a possible government shutdown) that spring had forced Obama into the role of a hostage negotiator who had to pursue well-calculated compromise (perhaps not to his liking) to prevent economic harm. Now, as commander in chief confronting challenging circumstances, he remained deliberative, but he also had the latitude to be decisive and daring.
On Friday morning, April 29, before flying to Alabama to inspect tornado damage, Obama called national security adviser Tom Donilon, White House chief of staff Bill Daley, deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough, and John Brennan to the Diplomatic Room of the White House. They had expected to brief Obama again on the bin Laden options. But before the aides proceeded, Obama interrupted: “It’s a go.”
“I’ve never seen a decision that courageous done without any sense of drama,” a top national security aide subsequently observed.
Obama’s orders were conveyed to McRaven. The admiral now had to choose when to launch the raid. He had briefed the president that the next five or six days, starting that Saturday, were the optimal time frame, but the sooner the better.
Now all Obama and his aides could do was watch from afar and wait.
“Those last few days,” a senior administration official recalled, “we were all terrified that we’d come in for the latest meeting and Mike Morell [the deputy CIA director] would say the compound is empty.”
On Saturday, McRaven opted against launching the mission, due to bad weather. Later that day, while on a break from rehearsing his speech for the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner that night—during which he would lob barbs at Donald Trump—Obama called McRaven. He asked if the admiral had learned anything while in Afghanistan that had altered his confidence level in the mission or its risk profile. Nothing has changed, McRaven replied. The raid was likely to occur tomorrow.
“There’s no one I’d rather have doing this than you guys,” Obama told him. “Godspeed.”
This article is adapted from David Corn’s bestselling book, Showdown: The Inside Story of How Obama Fought Back Against Boehner, Cantor, and the Tea Party, with permission from William Morrow, copyright © 2012 by David Corn.