Think Again: The Bin Laden Raid
Six myths about President Obama's greatest foreign-policy success.
"The decision to launch the raid was a close call."
Not really. The idea that U.S. President Barack Obama bucked the counsel of his key advisors in deciding to order the Navy SEAL assault on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, apparently arose from reports of the spirited discussions that the president entertained in the weeks before the raid. Some of the confusion can be traced back to the administration itself. Vice President Biden’s National Security Advisor Tony Blinken was quoted in a CNN report saying, "First, we [didn’t] know for sure bin Laden is there; the evidence [was] circumstantial. Second, most of his senior advisors recommended a different course of action."
In fact, nearly all the principals favored sending in the SEALs at their final meeting on the topic, three days before the raid. The biggest exception was Vice President Joe Biden, who was the only one who urged the president not to attack the Abbottabad compound … yet. He wanted more time to make certain that bin Laden was, in fact, present. However, Obama had accepted months earlier that the chance the al Qaeda chief was staying at the compound was essentially "50-50," and that ordering the raid would mean accepting those odds.
Obama’s advisors did provide him viable alternatives to a direct military assault on the compound. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs James Cartwright favored launching a small missile fired from a drone at "The Pacer" — their term the tall man who was often seen walking back and forth within the compound walls, and who they suspected was bin Laden. This carried with it a greater risk of missing the target, but was much lower risk than sending a SEAL team into Pakistan.
But as the moment of truth neared, Obama’s advisors abandoned the idea of a drone strike. Gates changed his mind the morning after the final decision meeting on April 28 after conferring with two of his deputies, Michael Vickers and Michèle Flournoy.
Support for launching the raid also went well beyond the principals, and included the CIA, National Counterterrorism Center officials, and the National Security Council staff. In the end, Obama would have only been bucking his advisors if he had refused to launch the raid.
"Obama called off the raid several times."
Completely false. This rumor has no basis in fact, but is reported in Richard Mintner’s broadside against Obama published last summer, Leading From Behind. It is a claim that apparently appeals to those who view the president as a closet pacifist, but contradicts every account by the principals involved in planning the operation — many of whom I have interviewed personally. It also contradicts the timeline for mission preparation.
Adm. Bill McRaven, then the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) chief in charge of the raid, presented the president with a fully formed plan for the raid in March 2011, and pointed toward the end of April, the next moonless nights over Abbottabad, as the first optimal opportunity to launch. The raid took place on May 1.
"The SEAL team engaged in a prolonged firefight during the raid."
A major exaggeration. This myth derives from the misstatements of Obama administration officials, who spoke to the press before being fully briefed on the details of the raid. "It was a firefight," White House Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan said on May 2, explaining why bin Laden was not captured.
In fact, the SEAL team encountered only a single burst of inaccurate fire, evidently from Ibrahim Ahmed Saeed, the courier who inadvertently led the United States to bin Laden, when they first approached the compound. The team returned fire and immediately killed Saeed. The only other shots fired during the assault were fired by SEALs as they methodically cleared the house room by room, killing Saeed’s brother and his wife, bin Laden’s son, and the al Qaeda chief himself. This process took more than 15 minutes.
It should be noted that having encountered that initial fire, the team members had to assume that the other occupants of the house were armed and likely to shoot at them, even though this did not happen.
"Bin Laden was living in luxury."
False. This myth has its origins in the fact that bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound was built on a large slice of suburban property with a value estimated in the millions of dollars. White House Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan, in the days after the raid, also got carried away denigrating bin Laden as a hypocrite, and described him as living in "luxury."
Bin Laden was a fanatic and a determined mass murderer, but no one could accuse him of being addicted to the good life. True, his compound and its main three-story house was large compared with others in the neighborhood — but it housed three families, including eight adults and a dozen or more children.
Nor was it in any way lavish. Bin Laden was a determined ascetic who refused such modern conveniences as refrigeration and air conditioning, even as he lived in some of the warmest climates on Earth. For his final five years, he hid with three of his wives and children in the cramped upper two floors of the Abbottabad house, leaving it only to pace in circles in the garden. It was more like imprisonment than high living, and it certainly fell well below middle-class living standards in the United States.
"Obama’s determination to bulk up the operation saved the day."
Hardly. This misconception arose from poorly briefed White House staffers who were eager to inflate their boss’s role in the raid. They assumed that the additional chopper — one of two Chinooks that flew into Pakistan with back-up fuel and a rescue team when one of the stealth Blackhawks crashed — was present only because the president had ordered McRaven to be prepared to fight his way out of the country if challenged by Pakistani forces.
It’s true that the mission was bulked up because of the president’s orders — but the additional men and choppers added at his direction stayed parked near the Pakistani border inside Afghanistan during the raid. The SEAL mission was never noticed or challenged by Pakistani forces. The two Chinooks that did fly into the country, one of which provided timely backup when the Black Hawk went down, were part of the force McRaven had planned for the mission from the start.
"The Obama administration has enthusiastically leaked secrets about the raid to reporters."
I wish. This charge has been leveled at the president by political opponents apparently looking to find some way to muddy one of the unalloyed successes of his term. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney accused the Obama team of leaking secret information about the bin Laden raid in a July speech, and said that such security breaches were "contemptible" and "betray our national interest."
The charge is certainly untrue in my case, and I worked as hard as anyone to get close to the story. I would, frankly, have welcomed a leak from somewhere. In the first days after the raid, White House staff members responded to a flood of questions about the mission — and in some cases got things wrong — but none of what they said revealed secrets. Someone with close knowledge of the raid itself did speak with Nicholas Schmidle of the New Yorker for his detailed account on the assault, but he has not revealed his source.
There have also been unsubstantiated claims that a SEAL team member cooperated with filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow in creating her yet-to-be-released movie version of the raid, "Zero Dark Thirty." But with me, the White House declined to make any effort to encourage those in the military or intelligence community to discuss the raid.
The single biggest leak has come from a former Navy SEAL who has dubbed himself "Mark Owen," and whose book on the raid, No Easy Day, has topped bestseller lists for weeks. He was not authorized to tell his story — indeed, the Pentagon has said it may take legal action against him. Even though his account of the raid is far more detailed than anything published previously, the former SEAL has argued that his version discloses no secrets.
Given that the death of Osama bin Laden is such a major story, it is no surprise that journalists have sought interviews with the president and key decision-makers since the day its success was announced. White House staffers spoke to me about the decision-making process, but offered only carefully guarded accounts of what they witnessed while monitoring the raid from the Situation Room.
President Obama himself hardly rushed to help me, and to my knowledge spoke to no other print journalist about it. He agreed to answer my questions almost a year after I made my initial request, and spoke only about how he arrived at the order to launch the raid and dealt with its repercussions. No member of the SEAL team, other than "Owen," has spoken to reporters as far as I know.
In the more than a decade that has passed since the 9/11 attacks, the raid that killed bin Laden ranks as perhaps America’s greater counterterrorism success story. But if some in the White House had the urge to do the political equivalent of an end zone celebration following the attack, wiser voices evidently prevailed.