It could be done.
Theoretically, the president was told, the U.S. could try to force Pakistani General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani to join the operation with the U.S. Kayani would be approached the morning of the attack, informed about the information on bin Laden and given twelve-to-twenty-four hours to join forces with the U.S., the president was told. Pakistan would only be asked to cordon off the area. After all, it wasn't as if the Pakistanis wouldn't know about the mission, especially if the president opted for the heliborne assault. Abbottabad is home to the Pakistan Military Academy and hundreds, if not thousands, of retired military officers. They would see the helicopters, and if there was a firefight, they would hear it. With a Pakistani buy-in, there would be no risk of retaliation.
The president said it would be great if we could trust another country with this and proceed with the raid bilaterally.
But, he then said, I don't think we can trust any other country.
Two weeks later, on March 29, President Obama called his team together again to walk through the two options, again.
The president had a pointed question at this meeting: If they proceeded with the B-2 option, would the U.S. be able to find bin Laden's body in the rubble? Would they be able to confirm that they had killed him? Would they be able to provide proof of his death to the world?
No, he was told. The attack would reduce the whole compound to rocks. There would be the remote possibility that the U.S. could send someone to the compound to kick through the rubble and look for traces of flesh or hair, but with twenty-two people at the compound the U.S. would have no real idea of what they were getting, and they certainly would not have a body to produce.
This is a problem, the president thought: we need to be able to know we definitely got the guy. We need to be able to exploit potential information in the compound. And we need to try to minimize collateral damage since this is a residential neighborhood.
He put McRaven through the paces on the heliborne assault proposal. How much time was needed to get the surgical strike going? How quickly could the team move? What would the Special Forces soldiers do if the compound has a safe room? What if bin Laden isn't there? How would you get bin Laden out?
McRaven answered every question as best he could.
We really ought to think harder about the helicopter option, as risky as it is, the president finally said.
The B-2 option had been removed from the table.
The president told McRaven to come back to him by April 18 with a more fully-fleshed out plan for a helicopter assault and a specific recommendation of whether Special Forces could pull this off. McRaven picked the Navy SEAL squadron from the legendary Team Six and worked in earnest with planners. On April 7 and April 13, the SEALs staged two rehearsals in the U.S. on a replica of the compound. On April 19, McRaven briefed President Obama on the helicopter mission.
Influenced in no small part by Gates' vivid memories of Eagle Claw and Black Hawk Down, President Obama's biggest question now was what they could do to make sure the SEALs could get out safely, especially if everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The Special Forces would be rappelling down from the helicopters and entering the compound of a terrorist not to be underestimated. What if the building were booby-trapped? What if the Pakistani military responded quickly to this sudden air assault from an unknown entity?
We need to be able to get our guys out, the president said.
McRaven had planned to have a QRF -- quick reaction force -- at the Afghanistan/Pakistan border in case everything went south. And the president had been told that if everything went wrong, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, could call Gen. Kayani and put it to him: Look, you want to get bin Laden, we got a tip, we attacked his compound, our boys are pinned down there, we need your help here.
But that was weak, the weakest part of McRaven's proposal. And everyone knew it. The Pakistanis were unpredictable. After all, in January 2011, authorities had completely disregarded agreements of diplomatic immunity when they incarcerated CIA contractor Ray Davis for more than two months. Davis allegedly had killed two thieves who he said had pulled guns on him in Lahore.
No one could know what they would do in this situation.
You've got to come up with something better, the president said.
It would need to be a "fight your way out scenario."
McRaven pledged to work on that.
President Obama told him he could pre-position his Special Forces at the U.S. base in Jalalabad in Eastern Afghanistan, not far from the Pakistan border, and the same general area where bin Laden had been lost nine years before.
Troops were on the move.
This was going to happen.
April 28 was an unusual meeting for the team, given that it was so conspicuous. Indeed, the president held a formal event in which he announced that he was switching around some members of his national security team: Panetta would replace Gates at the Pentagon, Afghanistan commander General David Petraeus would replace Panetta at the CIA, and so on. McRaven had been refining the "fight your way out" scenario, and Mullen explained what the new plans were: they would add two Chinook helicopters to the two stealth versions of the MH-60 Black Hawk.
The SEALs and helicopter pilots would be told to avoid engaging with the Pakistani military if at all possible. But they would be prepared to fight their way out if need be.
Others talked about how they could deal with Pakistani reaction if this happened. It would not be good, but a diplomatic crisis was the least horrible scenario.
The president thanked everyone.
"I'm not going to decide anything at this meeting," he told them.
He wanted to talk to McRaven one more time. McRaven told him his men could pull this off. This is what they trained for their entire lives.
The president thought about the men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, their dedication and sacrifice. He saw it whenever he went to Walter Reed Army Medical Center or Bethesda Naval Hospital, young men and women once in the prime of their lives now injured beyond repair.
It was an impossible decision. The case was completely circumstantial. No one knew that bin Laden was there. It seemed likely that he was, but then again intelligence agencies had said other things seemed likely that turned out to have been false. There was no unanimity among his aides. Gates, for one, thought the intelligence just wasn't there, and the president trusted Gates. Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, thought the CIA was inflating the probability that bin Laden was there; he thought the odds were less than fifty percent. Panetta and Brennan thought they should do it. Panetta said the odds were between sixty and eighty percent. The president put the odds at maybe fifty-five percent.
The U.S. had devoted so much blood and treasure in the fight against al Qaeda. The president thought again about all those young men and women at the hospitals, at Arlington National Cemetery, those still fighting in Afghanistan. How did they factor into this decision? A victory for them -- the chance that the U.S. could badly disable al Qaeda -- was that worth both the political risks, as well as the risks to the troops?
He made his decision.
The president had a busy schedule ahead of him that Friday morning. He would be flying to Alabama to survey tornado damage, then to Cape Canaveral to watch the planned final Space Shuttle launch. The next night he would deliver a speech -- a roast of sorts -- at the White House Correspondents' Dinner.
Before he left for Alabama, he convened his team in the Diplomatic Room: Donilon, Brennan, Chief of Staff Bill Daley, Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough. It was 8:20 a.m.
"It's a go," he said.
The operation would take place the next day, Saturday.
Donilon then prepared the formal orders. The team, without the president, would convene for final planning at 3 p.m.
That evening on the way back from the South, the president was informed that because of cloudy weather, the operation would be moved from Saturday to Sunday.
On Saturday April 30, the president called McRaven. "I couldn't have any more confidence in you than the confidence I have in you and your force," he said. "Godspeed to you and your forces. Please pass on to them my personal thanks for their service and the message that I personally will be following this mission very closely."
The president went out for a round of golf on Sunday to clear his head, but he did not finish. By 1 p.m. Gates, Donilon, Brennan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others had convened in the Situation Room. At 1:22 p.m. on Sunday, May 1, Panetta, acting on the president's orders, directed McRaven to move forward with the operation.
"Our prayers and confidence are with you and your men," Panetta told him. "Go in and find bin Laden, and if he's not there, get the hell out."
That afternoon, shortly after 3 p.m., the president and his team huddled in the Situation Room. Vice President Joe Biden twisted his rosary ring.
On the screen in front of them they watched night-vision images from a drone, while Panetta, at CIA headquarters, was in a corner of the screen narrating what was happening. Audio reports came in from McRaven.
The raid started out poorly. One of the stealth Black Hawks crashed, luckily with no serious injuries. It was a serious white-knuckle moment, but the pilot was a pro and everyone was OK. The rappelling was scrapped.
Then someone started firing at the SEALs from the compound. The SEALs fired back.
Flashes and flares filled the screen. There was no audio, only McRaven off in the distance, relaying the sounds to Panetta, who explained what they were watching.
The SEALs were getting off the choppers. The SEALs were returning fire. One of the SEALs had a specially trained dog that could attack on command, a Belgian Malinois. The SEALs were exploding walls. Some of the SEALs were entering one house where one courier lived, others were entering the bigger house, where bin Laden might be.
It was excruciating in the Situation Room. Everyone was nervous, and there was nothing they could do but watch. When the SEALs entered the buildings, there were around twenty-to-twenty-five minutes that passed when the screen in front of them showed nothing happening.
The codeword for securing bin Laden was "Geronimo." McRaven reported that one of the men had said the word. Bin Laden was there.
The minutes lasted for hours. This was the most nervous President Obama had ever been, with the possible exception of when his daughter Sasha got meningitis at three months old, and he could only wait for the doctor to tell him she wasn't going to die.
Finally came the good news: "Geronimo-E-KIA," the president was told.
Bin Laden, the "E" – enemy -- had been "KIA," killed in action.
But they weren't out of the woods. Pakistani's military scrambled fighter jets looking for the helicopters, trying to figure out who was in their country and why. After all, its relations with neighboring India are tense and Pakistan routinely is on high alert.
This was the scenario the SEALs had prepared for. What would happen?
The SEALS detonated the crashed Black Hawk and took off in the one surviving stealth Black Hawk. The two Chinooks and the SEALs in the Black Hawk motored back to Jalalabad.
The operation on the ground lasted only forty minutes, but no one breathed easy until the troops were all back on the Afghanistan side of the border, around 5:45 p.m. ET. They carried with them bin Laden's corpse, and a trove of computers and other data storage devices from his house. They left behind the crashed chopper, which they had detonated.
Once they were safe, then came the other dilemma. How sure were they that they had got their man? The SEALs were certain that it was Osama bin Laden, and women who lived at the compound had identified him. Pictures from the scene indicated it was him.
The corpse was over six feet tall, the president was told, matching bin Laden's reputed height of six-foot-four. Back at Jalalabad, one of the SEALs who stood at six feet lay down next to the body. The corpse was well over six feet tall.
We can afford to expend a $60 million plane on this operation, but we can't afford a tape measure? the president joked.
Also in Jalalabad, a SEAL took a picture of bin Laden and sent it back to the U.S. for facial recognition analysis. At 7:01 p.m. the results came back: the analysis indicated a ninety-to-ninety-five percent certainty that the corpse was bin Laden's.
A DNA sample had also been electronically delivered back to the U.S. for scientists to compare with DNA samples from multiple blood relatives of bin Laden. Those results, however, would not be ready for another day.
President Obama's instinct was to wait. Yes, this looked like it was a successful operation. But there was no need to rush out tonight to tell the world. Let's wait until we get that DNA evidence back. Let's tell the Pakistanis, make sure they understand our perspective, he said. Let's get all of our ducks in a row.
Mullen was told to call Kayani. Panetta called ISI Chief Ahmad Shuja Pasha.
The story is going to get out, the president's advisers said.
The president didn't care. It wouldn't be official until it came from the White House.
You can't contain this, they told him. This is the biggest story of the decade.
The president was calm, serene. He eventually was convinced. They would make the announcement that night.
Mullen reported back: Kayani was of the opinion that the sooner they announced what they had done, the better. There was a downed U.S. helicopter in his country. That this had been a successful mission to kill bin Laden should come out as soon as possible. It did.
"Good evening," the president said to the nation at around 11:35 p.m. ET. "Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and a terrorist who's responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children."
The information for this chapter came from numerous interviews with administration officials who spoke under condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly about classified events, and in some cases public statements by or interviews with President Obama.
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