May 4, 2011— -- A bipartisan mix of lawmakers and pundits has been heaping credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden on President Obama -- and his two predecessors, Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
But to what extent did presidential leadership play a role in ultimately finding bin Laden, and who deserves the most credit for finally finding the world's most wanted man?
Public displays of unity aside, those questions remain the subject of a subtle, but hot, partisan debate.
Obama claimed credit for himself Sunday night, emphasizing the decision to make the bin Laden manhunt a key objective was his, shortly after he took office more than two years ago. He didn't mention Bush, who wanted bin Laden "dead or alive," or Clinton, who declared him "public enemy number one."
"I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al Qaeda," Obama said early in his speech, "even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network."
Moreover, White House aides said, Obama's decision to go forward with the dangerous secret operation, based on circumstantial evidence alone, was gutsy and bold. The odds bin Laden would actually be there were only 60 to 80 percent, Panetta told Time magazine after the fact.
Leading Republicans have publicly praised Obama for his leadership in the moment, and strong majorities of Republican voters in recent polls say they believe the president deserves credit for the mission's success.
But there's a remarkable divide between parties over just how much credit President Bush deserves. Eighty-one percent of Republicans say Bush deserves some recognition for the successful operation, according to a new Washington Post/Pew Research Center poll. Only 35 percent of Democrats said they agree.
"The information started on this four years ago, which was clearly in the Bush administration," said House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Mike Rogers of the assembly of intelligence clues that led to bin Laden's hideout.
It's "important to look at this as a continuum," former Vice President Dick Cheney said. "I mean, it's not just on one day you get up, bang, and you got Osama bin Laden."
Cheney said the so-called enhanced interrogation of detainees, a policy begun under Bush and ceased under Obama, could have "produced results that ultimately contributed to the success of this venture."
However, some Democrats have questioned whether Bush's foreign policy hastened the discovery of bin Laden's hideout at all, saying Bush didn't make the manhunt a top priority during his eight years in office, and even missed one opportunity to take bin Laden down.
"The decision not to deploy American forces to go after bin Laden or block his escape [from Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in 2001] was made by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his top commander, Gen. Tommy Franks," concluded a 2009 Senate Foreign Relations Committee report on what was believed at the time to be the last, best chance to find bin Laden.
Bin Laden later slipped into Pakistan, where he is believed to have remained until his death. Bush officials have said the intelligence on his whereabouts in Tora Bora was inconclusive at the time.
"Terror is bigger than one person, and he's just a person who's been marginalized," Bush told reporters at a White House briefing in March 2002. "I don't know where he is, and I just don't spend that much time on him, to be honest with you."
Bin Laden's Death: Who Deserves Credit?
Meanwhile, many Republicans have also questioned the leadership of Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, who was in the White House when bin Laden was thrust into the spotlight after his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya.
Conservatives have criticized Clinton particularly for 2002 remarks suggesting the Sudanese government had offered to surrender bin Laden but the U.S. turned it down.
"At the time, 1996, he [bin Laden] had committed no crime against America, so I did not bring him here because we had no basis on which to hold him, though we knew he wanted to commit crimes against America," Clinton said. "So I pleaded with the Saudis to take him, 'cause they could have. But they thought it was a hot potato, and they didn't, and that's how he wound up in Afghanistan."
Clinton later said he misspoke, and an examination of the evidence by the 9/11 Commission largely affirmed Clinton's revised account.
"I got closer to killing him than anybody has gotten since," Clinton said in a 2006 interview, adding that he couldn't build a military or intelligence consensus within his administration during the late 1990s to pull off an operation.
Though the debate over the presidential role in finding bin Laden will likely continue, one point on which there is agreement is that members of the intelligence community and the U.S. military were the ultimate agents of justice for the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"People who want to find blame today, I think, are misplaced," Rogers said on Monday, "in the sense that when you look at the incredible undertaking of the analysts, of the operators, the case officers in the CIA, of the folks at the NSA, who got just little snippets, little tidbits, and put it all in one place and started drawing that noose, this was an incredible operation that I argue few countries in the world, if any, could do."