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President Obama: Bin Laden raid is 'most important single day of my presidency'

By Jessica Hopper, Subrata De and Tim Uehlinger

Rock Center

Originally published May 2, 2012.  An encore presentation of 'Inside the Situation Room' aired Dec. 27 at 10pm/9c on NBC.

President Barack Obama describes the killing of Osama bin Laden as the “most important single day” of his presidency and said that the decision to carry out the raid was one that he had to ultimately make alone.

“I did choose the risk,” the president said in an exclusive interview with Rock Center Anchor and Managing Editor Brian Williams. “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.”

A year after the May 1, 2011, raid on bin Laden’s compound, Obama and several of the advisers who helped plan the operation, known as “Operation Neptune’s Spear,” spoke exclusively to NBC News, reflecting on the tense months spent planning and debating the feasibility of this daring raid. The interviews occurred before the president made an unannounced visit to Kabul on Tuesday, where he and President Hamid Karzai signed an agreement on the future of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

“This had to be such a close-held operation,” the president said. “There were only a handful of staff in the White House who knew about this.”

The president did not share news of the mission’s launch with his staff, or with the first lady.

“Even a breath of this in the press could have chased bin Laden away,” Obama said. “We didn't know at that point whether there might be underground tunnels coming out of that compound that would allow him to escape.”

The killing of the 9/11 mastermind had been years in the making, a mission that Obama’s two predecessors had been unable accomplish. President Bill Clinton fired 75 cruise missiles trying to kill bin Laden while President George W. Bush was frustrated by the al-Qaeda leader’s ability to evade capture.

The lead

After years of hunting bin Laden, the Central Intelligence Agency got its biggest break in late 2010. 

Helmed by then CIA Director Leon Panetta, the agency identified the home of bin Laden’s courier in the upscale town of Abbottabad, not far from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Satellites revealed someone else living at the same compound: a tall man walking in the courtyard that analysts dubbed “The Pacer.”

“Ultimately it was a 50/50 proposition as to whether this was actually bin Laden,” Obama said.

He and his advisers, including Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, hammered out the possibilities.

Clinton said that she was brought into the process in January 2011 when a series of intensive meetings began in the White House Situation Room, or “Sit Room.”

In March of 2011, the president ordered Admiral William McRaven, then commander of Joint Special Operations, to outline a possible raid on the suspected bin Laden compound.

“I remember the moment in the Sit Room with General McRaven,” Clinton said, “and, you know, someone said, ‘Well, this sounds really dangerous and we’re going to expose our guys and what do we know is going to happen?’ And he said, ‘Well, with all due respect, we’ve done this hundreds of times.’”

In fact, the night bin Laden was killed, Special Forces carried out several other missions in the region.

“What may not be known is in addition to this operation that night, this specific one, there were multiple operations just like this going on in Afghanistan,” said retired Admiral Mike Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Some of them actually more difficult than the one that got bin Laden. And when I say more difficult, I don't think higher strategic risk, certainly not more important, but physically more difficult, more dangerous than the one that our great Special Forces executed.”

The dress rehearsal

The plan to raid the compound in Abbottabad developed rapidly and by April 21, 2011, Admiral Mullen attended a dress rehearsal in the Nevada desert.

“When I actually went to the rehearsal and watched it at night at a place where they built a compound just like Abbottabad and watched it in execution, that just gave me great confidence that they could execute this,” Mullen said. 

He met every member of the SEAL Team Six that would ultimately carry out the mission.

“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. 

Some of the men weren’t yet aware who they were preparing to attack, but Mullen’s presence signaled that they were going after a high-value target.

“They knew certainly how critical this was. They knew who they were and who they were working with,” he said. “They may not even have known it was bin Laden at that point, but I'm sure they suspected it.”

One week later, it looked like weather conditions in Pakistan would be perfect for the raid — a moonless night with clear skies.  If the raid didn’t happen that night, it could be months before weather conditions would be appropriate again for this high-risk operation.

Making the decision

Armed with the confidence that the Special Forces could carry out the mission, it was decision time. So on Thursday, April 28, 2011, the president gathered his advisers in the Situation Room, located below ground level in the White House.

“There was no consensus,” Biden said.  “The president on the last day got us all down in the Situation Room and he said, ‘Okay, it’s basically a roll call.’”

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recommended an air strike with no forces on the ground.  CIA Director Panetta supported a raid by Special Forces and so did Secretary of State Clinton. Vice President Biden wanted to wait on further proof that bin Laden was indeed in the compound.

“It was never contentious because I think everybody understood both the pros and cons of the action,” Obama said.  “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.”

During the meeting, the president never indicated which way he was leaning. After the discussion, he dismissed his team and said he’d have a decision in the morning. He had dinner with his family and then went to his study after his wife and daughters went to bed.

“Well, there is no doubt that you don't sleep as much that evening as you do on a normal night,” the president said. “I stayed up late and I woke up early.”

The next morning, in the Diplomatic Room of the White House, he told his national security advisers that the mission was a go.

“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,” Obama said.

A trio of national security advisers – John Brennan, Tom Donilon and Denis McDonough – had prepared briefing points for the president, but it was clear his mind was made up.

“My recollection is that he said, ‘It’s a go, we’re going to do the assault.  We’re going to do the raid. Complete the orders, let’s go,’” said Donilon.

Keeping the Secret

In order to not raise suspicions, the president and his advisers had to keep up their weekend plans.

Secretary Clinton said she faced an awkward question at a wedding for one of her daughter’s friends. 

“It was so ironic,” she said.  “All these smart young people who work in all kinds of enterprises, one of them came up and said, ‘Do you think we’ll ever get bin Laden?’  I said, ‘I don’t know. I have no way of knowing, but I can tell you this, we’ll keep trying.’”

She also hid the raid from her husband.

“This was such an important secret to keep,” she said. “No one in the State Department knew. “I just felt a personal responsibility to keep it close, but that meant that I was basically, you know, having to consult with myself, to be honest.”

Moments after giving the go-ahead for the raid, the president and the first lady boarded Marine One on a trip to inspect tornado damage in Tuscaloosa, Ala. And on Saturday night – the evening before the raid – he attended the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and chuckled when a joke about bin Laden was made by comedian Seth Meyers.

“That was a little bit of acting going on there because my mind was elsewhere,” he said.

National Security Advisor Donilon said that when he left the White House Correspondents’ Dinner early, a reporter asked why he was leaving before the event concluded.

“I got this thing tomorrow,” Donilon said as offhandedly as he could.

The raid

On Sunday, May 1, 2011, the president’s advisers gathered in the Situation Room at around 11 a.m.  Half a world away, the SEAL team waited for nightfall.

So as not to arouse suspicion that a major gathering was under way in the West Wing, the team ordered pizza from several different places and also sent someone to Costco to get food.

The president played nine holes of golf at Andrews Air Force Base before heading to the Situation Room at around 2 p.m.

“It is one of those rare moments when you know that the man you’re watching is putting everything on the line,” Biden said. “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.”

At around 2:30 p.m., word arrived that the first wave of helicopters had left Jalalabad, Afghanistan, for Abbottabad with Navy SEALs, a Pakistani-American translator and a service dog named Cairo. At the president’s request, two Chinook helicopters stayed close by with additional SEALs as backup.

“They were accustomed to operating in the dark,” Obama said. “They were accustomed to landing in the compounds where they weren’t sure what was behind closed doors. These guys were all trained to do that.”

“A lot of them had as much gray hair as you and me and, you know, if you had passed them on the street, you might have – and if they were in civilian clothes – you might have thought they were accountants or doctors or, you know, worked at Home Depot.”

After the mission started, the CIA provided audio and video of the raid in real time in a smaller room next to the Situation Room. The atmosphere, said Admiral Mullen, was tense.

Soon, the president and his advisers began crowding into the room where the video was being played, which was never meant to hold as many people as it did that day.  Brigadier General Marshall “Brad” Webb was receiving and interpreting information from the mission. Never expecting Obama to come in the room, he was sitting in the chair intended for the president.

“He started to get up and people were starting to go through the protocol and figuring out how to rearrange things,” the president said. “I said, ‘You don’t worry about it.  You just focus on what you’re doing.  I’m sure we can find a chair and I’ll sit right next to him.’  And that’s how I ended up (on a) folding chair.”

The group watched the hazy, but intelligible images and gasped when the first helicopter’s rotor stopped turning and it suddenly dropped, crashing over a stone wall.

“That helicopter didn’t make it to the right spot and everyone went, like, ‘Whoa,’” Biden said.

Obama remembers seeing the Secretary of State cover her mouth with her hand.

“It was just the shock of the moment,” Clinton said.  “It was, I mean, all of us sitting there, and I would even predict probably our military and defense colleagues, you know, for a minute were kind of holding that breath again.”

The mishap was blamed on a bad downdraft and unusually warm temperatures, which can affect lift and maneuverability. The president called it a “touch and go moment.”

“The only thing that I was thinking about throughout this entire enterprise was, ‘I really want to get those guys back home safe,’” he added.  “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.”

Back inside the Situation Room, the loss of a helicopter didn’t make any difference in Admiral McRaven's monotone play-by-play voice, beamed in from Afghanistan.

“Did not miss a beat.  He is a cool customer,” said Obama.

Clinton recalled watching the SEALs leave the helicopters.

“We could see our guys moving,” she said.  “It was an intense experience for all of us because it was real time, visually, until we lost the visual connection inside the building.”

The SEALs had moved inside the compound with their body armor, weapons and night vision. 

“At this point, I think all of us understand that we’re a long way to go before the night is done,” Obama said. “And, you know, I’ve said this was the longest 40 minutes of my life.”

As the SEALs moved inside, the national security team listened for “Geronimo,” the code name for bin Laden.

“We knew that was the call sign and when we heard that, they felt they had identified Geronimo, that was the first moment, and then Geronimo KIA,” the president said.

Several members of the president’s national security team told NBC News that there were provisions in place to take bin Laden alive.

“But we also understood that it was not likely that he was going to be giving himself up in that way,” Obama said, “and that there was a strong possibility that he would end up being killed if in fact he was in the compound.”

Along with precision and planning, prayer played a role for some of the president’s closest advisers.  Vice President Biden and Admiral Mullen both nervously spun rosary rings on their fingers as they received word that the body of the man they believed was bin Laden had been put on a helicopter with U.S. forces.

“We knew the mission had been successful in that bin Laden was on board, but then it was an hour flight back,” Biden said.

Biden had begun to put his rosary away when he felt a tap on his shoulder from Mullen.

“I leaned down," Mullen explained. "I said, ‘Mr. Vice President, not yet. Keep it going because as important as killing, capturing or killing bin Laden was, it was more important to get him out.’ And so we were a long way, even as we got bin Laden, his body in that helicopter, we were a long way from completing that mission at that point.”

The death photo

When the SEAL team made it safely back to Afghanistan, photos were transmitted to the president and his team to offer photographic proof that bin Laden was dead.

When asked about seeing the picture of bin Laden, who had been shot in the head, the president took a long pause.

“I think it’s wrong to say that I did a high five,” he said, “because you have a picture of a dead body and, you know, there’s I think regardless of who it is, you always have to be sober about death.  But 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.”

Secretary Clinton believes strongly that the president was right not to release the photos.

“I looked at them,” she said. “Obviously, (it's) never easy to see any dead body, but it was part of the job. I think we made the right decision not to sensationalize this, not to desecrate it, so to speak.  His body was flown to a Navy ship. It was given a proper Islamic burial at sea and I think that we handled it exactly right.”

After the president and his team felt confident that bin Laden was indeed dead, they began calling Cabinet members, Congressional leaders and foreign heads of state.

The president called Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

“I think it was an important symbol of who we are as a people,” he said of the calls.  “We get into these partisan fights, administrations come and go, but there’s a certain continuity about who we are and what we care about and what our values are.”

For Mullen, one of the most important calls placed was to his Pakistani military counterpart about the crashed helicopter.

When the first pictures of the wreckage emerged hours later, aviation websites went wild.  The crashed chopper appeared to be proof of a stealth version of the Blackhawk that the United States had been rumored to be developing for years.  Its noise-reducing technology and unique fin had been designed for near silent, invisible operation.  In coming days, neighborhood children picked through pieces of what had been among the military's best kept secrets. 

“I called General [Ashfaq Parvez] Kayani in Pakistan,” Mullen said.  “I felt obligated to let him know what had happened … and then part of that conversation was about the helicopter and I said, ‘We need that back.’”

As more calls were made, the news began to leak, spread at lightning speed by the Internet. The president and his advisers, however, were unaware that throngs of young people were pouring into Lafayette Park to cheer outside the White House.

“The thing that surprised me that night and I don’t think we had planned for was the public reaction,” Donilon said.  “We walked out and we could hear the noise and I remember very clearly turning to whoever was walking next to me saying, ‘What is that?’”

Secretary Clinton described it as an “astonishing moment.”

“We could hear this roar. We had no idea what it was,” she said.  “Then all of a sudden we were able to decipher, 'U.S.A., U.S.A.'”

Telling his family

Before the president heard the cheering crowds and addressed the nation, he checked in with the first lady. 

“She’s at dinner," he said. "I let her know, you know, that I’m probably going to miss dinner because I’ve got a few other things going on tonight.  It turns out we had a fairly important thing to announce.”

He recalled telling his daughters that bin Laden was dead.

“Malia and Sasha, I think, were too young to fully absorb 9/11.  On the other hand, they’ve grown like all our children have grown up in the shadow of 9/11 and terrorism and understood who Osama bin Laden was.” 

The president said that the full impact of the mission hit him a few days later when he met the SEALs who had carried out the operation. He said that he gave the pilot of the helicopter that crashed a “pretty good hug.”

“They presented me with the flag that had gone on that mission, signed by all of them on the back and I think it’s fair to say that will probably be the most important possession that I leave with from this presidency,” he said.

Editor's note: Click here to watch the special edition of Rock Center with Brian Williams, 'Inside the Situation Room,' that aired Wednesday, May 2 on NBC.