TARGET: Bin Laden – The Death and Life of Public Enemy Number One


As a presidential candidate, then-freshman Senator Barack Obama had told voters that President Bush had taken his eye off the ball by sending troops to Iraq. He said he'd send more troops to Afghanistan.

He put Pakistan on notice, saying in August 2007: "There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again...If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and (then-Pakistani) President Musharraf won't act, we will."

At the time, Obama's speech, delivered at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., seemed to many observers to be simply an attempt at deflection by a young senator criticized by rivals like then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, as naive and potentially too soft on America's enemies. It was unclear how many of Obama's supporters even bought it when, in a debate with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in October 2008, Obama promised voters "we will kill bin Laden. We will crush al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority."

The reality was that all leads had gone cold long ago, and such a promise seemed foolish to many in the intelligence community. And after winning, the president had changed his tune, down-playing the importance of bin Laden, the individual.

"My preference obviously would be to capture or kill [bin Laden]," he said, shortly before taking office in January 2009. "But if we have so tightened the noose that he's in a cave somewhere and can't even communicate with his operatives then we will meet our goal of protecting America."

That wasn't how the president actually felt, but it was the public posture he took. Truth was, the U.S. government had no idea where bin Laden was, whether he was in a cave or a palace, whether he was cut off or in full operational control of al Qaeda and its many affiliates.

In the Oval Office in spring 2009, the president told his top intelligence officials that the U.S. needed to kill bin Laden, that al Qaeda could never be truly defeated if its iconic leader continued to elude the United States. The nation needed the closure bin Laden's death would provide.

"We need to redouble our efforts in hunting bin Laden down," the president said. "I want us to start putting more resources, more focus and more urgency into that mission."

On June 2, 2009, he sent a memo to Panetta stating "in order to ensure that we have expended every effort, I direct you to provide me within 30 days a detailed operation plan for locating and bringing to justice Usama Bin Ladin…"

Now, a year-and-a-half later, the president did not mince words in a December 2010 meeting. "Even as you guys are building a stronger intelligence case, let's also start building an action plan," he told his national security team. "If we've got a good chance that this is him, we need to figure out what we do about that."

This was no easy puzzle. If this unknown person on the third floor of this compound was bin Laden, he was living deep in Pakistan, 100 miles inside the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, only about 40 miles from Islamabad, the nation's capital.

In January, the team reached out to Navy Vice Admiral William McRaven, commander of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), to talk about possible scenarios. The Pentagon and CIA huddled. One Friday night on February 25, a bunch of big guns came to Langley -- McRaven, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Mike Vickers, General James "Hoss" Cartwright, vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- to go over the intelligence about the compound and to discuss a few potential courses of action.

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