President Obama Tells Vanity Fair He Was Prepared to Have Bin Laden Tried In Federal Court

Pete Souza/The White House

If Osama bin Laden had surrendered to the Navy SEALs, President Obama was prepared to put the al Qaeda leader on trial in a federal court, the president told journalist Mark Bowden in a November story in VANITY FAIR based on an adaptation from Bowden's pending book THE FINISH.

"We worked through the legal and political issues that would have been involved, and Congress and the desire to send him to Guantánamo, and to not try him, and Article III ," the president told Bowden. "I mean, we had worked through a whole bunch of those scenarios. But, frankly, my belief was, if we had captured him, that I would be in a pretty strong position, politically, here, to argue that displaying due process and rule of law would be our best weapon against al-Qaeda, in preventing him from appearing as a martyr."

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The information comes along with some new details about the planning for the raid, including that Michael Morell, the head of the C.I.A.'s bin Laden team - who had been part of the wrong CIA analysis concluding that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction - thought the it was an iffier proposition that bin Laden was in the Abbotabad compound.

"I'm telling you, the case for W.M.D. wasn't just stronger-it was much stronger," Morell said.

Bowden also reveals another option for killing "The Pacer" - the tall man who walked inside the compound, suspected to be bin Laden - that was taken quite seriously. Suggested by Joint Chiefs Vice-Chairman General James "Hoss" Cartwright, the plan was to "wait for the tall man in the prayer cap to go for his daily walk and take a shot at him with a small missile fired from a drone. It would require great precision, but the drones had delivered that in the past." Unlike the air option involving dropping bombs, this one would leave "no dead wives and children, no collateral damage at all," Bowden writes. "But it was strictly a one-shot deal. If the drone missed, The Pacer and his entourage would vanish."

Defense Secretary Bob Gates supported this plan, but was convinced he was wrong, Bowden writes, by Pentagon deputies Michael Vickers and Michele Flournoy, who'd been impressed by Admiral Bill McRaven, commander of Joint Special Operations Command, and did not share Cartwright's faith in the drone.

Ultimately, Gates changed his mind, meaning that - per Bowden - every one of the president's top advisers backed the plan for the SEAL assault except for Cartwright and National Counterterrorism Center director Michael Leiter, who favored the drone strike, and Vice President Joe Biden, who didn't think the intelligence was hard enough to act yet.

And ultimately it doesn't sound as though anyone went into that mission seriously thinking he would be captured and not killed.

Bowden's is, per usual, a compelling and well-reported story, you can read a preview of it HERE.

Our June 2011 story on the president's decision to give the "go" order can be read HERE.

-Jake Tapper