President Obama recalls that he lost sleep and did “some praying” the night before approving the raid that killed Osama bin Laden on what he now looks back on as “the most important single day” of his presidency. He said he also avoided doing “a high five” when he saw the first photos of the dead bin Laden, explaining that “regardless of who it is, you always have to be sober about death.”
The disclosures come in an interview with Brian Williams of NBC for an edition of Rock Center devoted to the most comprehensive and detailed look at the White House decision-making that led to the apprehension of the al-Qaida leader. The interview was conducted before the president’s surprise trip to Afghanistan this week.
The show aired Wednesday night on NBC, with detailed quotes released earlier by the network. It included new details about that decision from the president and the top members of his national security team, including Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, then-CIA Director Leon Panetta, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, and Adm. William McRaven, then commander of Joint Special Operations.
In his interview with Williams -- conducted in the White House Situation Room where so much of the drama played out one year ago -- the president stressed that he understood the risks of the decision, which many of his team recommended against. And he emphasized how critical it was at the time to keep the deliberations secret, even refusing to share anything with first lady Michelle Obama while Clinton kept the matter away from her husband, the former president.
“This had to be such a close-held operation,” Obama said. “There were only a handful of staff in the White House who knew about this.” He added, “Even a breath of this in the press could have chased bin Laden away. We didn't know at that point whether there might be underground tunnels coming out of that compound that would allow him to escape.” He also acknowledged that it was by no means certain that bin Laden was in the compound in Pakistan. “Ultimately, it was a 50/50 proposition as to whether this was actually bin Laden.”
But while he lacked full confidence in the intelligence, he said he had no doubts about the ability of the SEAL team that had been rehearsing the raid. “I did choose the risk,” he said. “The reason I was willing to make that decision of sending in our SEALs to try to capture or kill bin Laden rather than to take some other options was ultimately because I had 100 percent faith in the Navy SEALs themselves.”
To make sure the team was ready, Adm. Mullen attended a dress rehearsal in the Nevada desert, NBC reported, meeting all the members of the team who had been practicing even though they had not been told who their target was. “I got to look each of them in the eye. They showed me in their execution of rehearsal and also in that steely-eyed glare that they give you that they were ready to go,” Mullen said.
A week after the dress rehearsal, the White House was told that it would be a moonless night in Pakistan with clear skies, just the conditions they wanted for the raid. With that news, the team met in the Situation Room on Thursday, April 28, 2011, so the president could get their final advice. As Biden told Williams, “There was no consensus. The president on the last day got us all down in the Situation Room and he said, ‘OK, it’s basically a roll call.” The advice was conflicting. Panetta and Clinton supported a raid with Special Forces. Biden wanted more proof that bin Laden was in the compound. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates wanted an airstrike with no use of ground forces.
But despite the conflicting advice, Obama said, “It was never contentious because I think everybody understood both the pros and cons of the action. People who were advocating action understood that if this did not work, if we proved to be wrong, there would be severe geopolitical consequences and obviously most importantly, we might be putting our brave Navy SEALs in danger.” Hearing the advice, the president promised a decision Friday morning.
He remembers it as a rough night, telling Williams, “Well, there is no doubt that you don't sleep as much that evening as you do on a normal night. I stayed up late and I woke up early.” But he was comfortable with the “go” decision he gave the next morning in the Diplomatic Room of the White House. “You have some serenity in knowing that you've made the best possible decision that you can and, you know, in that situation you just, you do some praying,” he said.
With the order given, all the members of the team were determined to maintain normal schedules that betrayed nothing of the critical operation they had launched. That included attendance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner that Saturday night and a quick nine holes of golf for the president. But he acknowledged his mind was elsewhere -- particularly when Seth Meyers, the comedian at the dinner, made a joke about bin Laden. Obama laughed. But, he told Williams, “That was a little bit of acting going on there because my mind was elsewhere.”
The efforts to hide what was going on even extended to the food ordered in for the team gathered at the White House on Sunday when the raid was under way. Pizza came from different restaurants and an aide went to Costco to get other food. But the tension was high, as everyone understood bin Laden might not be there or might elude capture. “It is one of those rare moments when you know that the man you’re watching is putting everything on the line,” said the vice president. “Everything on the line. Not only risking the lives of these incredible, incredible warriors, but also knowing that if he’s wrong about this, man, he’s going to pay a very, very high price for it.”
The tensest moment came when the team, following the raid in real time with audio and video in a room next to the Situation Room, saw the first helicopter crash over a stone wall. “That helicopter didn’t make it to the right spot,” recalled Biden, “and everyone went, like, ‘Whoa’.” The president remembered it as “a touch and go moment.” Obama told Williams, “This was the longest 40 minutes of my life.” But he added, “The only thing that I was thinking about throughout this entire enterprise was, ‘I really want to get those guys back home safe’.... I want to make sure that the decision I’ve made has not resulted in them putting their lives at risk in vain, and if I got that part of it right, if I could look myself in the mirror and say as commander in chief I made a good call.”
The nerves were also evident in the quiet prayers of Biden and Adm. Mullen, both of whom are Catholic and both of whom, NBC reported, gripped rosaries during the operation. When the team heard the code word “Geronimo” that told them they had bin Laden, Biden started to put his rosary ring away. But Mullen tapped him on the shoulder. “I leaned down,” said Mullen. “I said, ‘Mr. Vice President, not yet. Keep it going because as important as capturing or killing bin Laden was, it was more important to get him out.'"
Later, the SEAL team sent photos back to the White House to prove that bin Laden was dead, shot in the head. The president paused for a long time when Williams asked him his reaction to the grisly photos, which he has refused to make public. “I think it’s wrong to say that I did a high five. Because you have a picture of a dead body and, you know, I think regardless of who it is, you always have to be sober about death,” he said. “But,” he added, “understanding the satisfaction for the American people, what it would mean for 9/11 families, what it would mean for the children of folks who died in the Twin Towers who never got to know their parents -- I think there was a deep-seated satisfaction for the country at that moment.”