On Wednesday, May 4, 2011 - three days after he announced that
American troops had killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan - President
Barack Obama talked with "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft in the
Roosevelt Room of the White House. Below is a transcript of that
interview, as well as the full interview.
STEVE KROFT: Mr. President, was this the most satisfying week of your Presidency?
BARACK OBAMA: Well, it was certainly one of the most satisfying weeks
not only for my Presidency, but I think for the United States since I've
been President. Obviously bin Laden had been not only a symbol of
terrorism, but a mass murderer who's had eluded justice for so long, and
so many families who have been affected I think had given up hope.
for us to be able to definitively say, "We got the man who caused
thousands of deaths here in the United States and who had been the
rallying point for a violent extremist jihad around the world" was
something that I think all of us were profoundly grateful to be a part
KROFT: Was the decision to launch this attack the most difficult decision that you've made as Commander-In-Chief?
OBAMA: Certainly one. You know, every time I send young men and women
into a war theatre, that's a tough decision. And, you know, whenever you
go to Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] or Bethesda [Naval Hospital]
and you see the price that our young people pay to keep this country
safe, that's a tough decision. Whenever you write a letter to a family
who's lost a loved one. It's sobering.
This was a very
difficult decision, in part because the evidence that we had was not
absolutely conclusive. This was circumstantial evidence that he was
gonna be there. Obviously it entailed enormous risk to the guys that I
sent in there. But ultimately I had so much confidence in the capacity
of our guys to carry out the mission that I felt that the risks were
outweighed by the potential benefit of us finally getting our man.
KROFT: When the CIA first brought this information to you . . .
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Right.
KROFT: What was your reaction? Was there a sense of excitement? Did this look promising from the very beginning?
OBAMA: It did look promising from the beginning. Keep in mind that
obviously when I was still campaigning for President, I had said that if
I ever get a shot at bin Laden we're gonna take it. And that was
subject to some criticism at the time, because I had said if it's in
Pakistan and, you know, we don't have the ability to capture 'em in any
other way, then we're gonna go ahead and take the shot. So I felt very
strongly that there was a strategic imperative for us to go after him.
after I got into office, I brought [CIA director] Leon Panetta
privately into the Oval Office and I said to him, "We need to redouble
our efforts in hunting bin Laden down. And I want us to start putting
more resources, more focus, and more urgency into that mission."
took that to the CIA. They had been working steadily on this since
2001, obviously. And there were a range of threads that were out there
that hadn't quite been pulled all together. They did an incredible job
during the course of a year and a half to pull on a number of these
threads until we were able to identify a courier who was known to be a
bin Laden associate, to be able to track them to this compound.
by the time they came to me they had worked up an image of the
compound, where it was and the factors that led them to conclude that
this was the best evidence that we had regarding bin Laden's whereabouts
since Tora Bora.
But we didn't have a photograph of bin
Laden in that building. There was no direct evidence of his presence.
And so the CIA continued to build the case meticulously over the course
of several months. What I told them when they first came to me with this
evidence was: "Even as you guys are building a stronger intelligence
case, let's also start building an action plan to figure out if in fact
we make a decision that this is him or we've got a good chance that
we've got him, how are we gonna deal with him? How can we get at that?"
so at that point you probably had unprecedented cooperation between the
CIA and our military in starting to shape an action plan that
ultimately resulted in success this week.
KROFT: When was that when you set that plan in motion?
OBAMA: Well, they first came to me in August of last year with evidence
of the compound. And they said that they had more work to do on it, but
at that point they had enough that they felt that it was appropriate
for us to start doing some planning. And so from that point on we
started looking at the time what our options might be.
vigorous planning did not begin until early this year. And obviously
over the last two months it's been very intensive in which not only did
an action plan get developed, but our guys actually started practicing
being able to execute.
KROFT: How actively were you involved in that process?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: About as active as any project that I've been involved with since I've been President.
we have extraordinary guys. Our Special Forces are the best of the
best. And so I was not involved in designing the initial plan. But each
iteration of that plan they'd bring back to me. Make a full
presentation. We would ask questions.
We had multiple
meetings in the Situation Room in which we would map out -- and we would
actually have a model of the compound and discuss how this operation
might proceed, and what various options there were because there was
more than one way in which we might go about this.
some ways sending in choppers and actually puttin' our guys on the
ground entailed some greater risks than some other options. I thought it
was important, though, for us to be able to say that we'd definitely
got the guy. We thought that it was important for us to be able to
exploit potential information that was on the ground in the compound if
it did turn out to be him.
We thought that it was
important for us not only to protect the lives of our guys, but also to
try to minimize collateral damage in the region because this was in a
residential neighborhood. I mean one of the ironies of this is, you
know, I think the image that bin Laden had tried to promote was that he
was an ascetic, living in a cave. This guy was living in a million
dollar compound in a residential neighborhood.
Were you surprised when they came to you with this compound right in the
middle of sort of the military center of Pakistan?
OBAMA: Well, I think that there had been discussions that this guy
might be hiding in plain sight. And we knew that some al Qaeda
operatives, high level targets basically, just blended into the crowd
I think we where surprised when we learned
that this compound had been there for five or six years, and that it was
in an area in which you would think that potentially he would attract
some attention. So yes, the answer is that we were surprised that he
could maintain a compound like that for that long without there being a
KROFT: Do you believe it was built for him?
OBAMA: We are still investigating that, but what is clear is that the
elements of the compound were structured so that nobody could see in.
There were no sight lines that would enable somebody walking by or
somebody in an adjoining building to see him. So it was clearly designed
to make sure that bin Laden was protected from public view.
KROFT: Do you have any idea how long he was there?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: We know he was there at least five years.
KROFT: Five years?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yeah.
KROFT: Did he move out of that compound?
OBAMA: That we don't know yet. But we know that for five to six years
this compound was there, and our belief is that he was there during that
KROFT: What was the most difficult part? I mean
you had to decide. This was your decision -- whether to proceed or not
and how to proceed. What was the most difficult part of that decision?
OBAMA: The most difficult part is always the fact that you're sending
guys into harm's way. And there are a lot of things that could go wrong.
I mean there're a lot of moving parts here. So my biggest concern was,
if I'm sending those guys in and Murphy's Law applies and somethin'
happens, can we still get our guys out? So that's point number one.
number two, these guys are goin' in in, you know, the darkest of night.
And they don't know what they're gonna find there. They don't know if
the building is rigged. They don't know if, you know, there are
explosives that are triggered by a particular door opening. So huge
risks that these guys are taking.
And so my number one
concern was: if I send them in, can I get them out? And a lot of the
discussion we had during the course of planning was how do we make sure
there's backup? How do we make sure that there's redundancy built into
the plan so that we have the best chance of getting our guys out? That's
point number one.
Point number two was: as outstanding a
job as our intelligence teams did -- and I cannot praise them enough
they did an extraordinary job with just the slenderest of bits of
information to piece this all together -- at the end of the day, this
was still a 55/45 situation. I mean, we could not say definitively that
bin Laden was there. Had he not been there, then there would have been
Obviously, we're going into
the sovereign territory of another country and landing helicopters and
conducting a military operation. And so if it turns out that it's a
wealthy, you know, prince from Dubai who's in this compound, and, you
know, we've spent Special Forces in -- we've got problems. So there were
risks involved geopolitically in making the decision.
my number one concern was: can our guys get in and get out safely. The
fact that our Special Forces have become so good -- these guys perform
at levels that 20, 30 years ago would not have happened -- I think
finally gave me the confidence to say, "Let's go ahead." I think that
the American people have some sense of how good these guys are, but
until you actually see 'em and meet them, it's hard to describe how
courageous, how tough, how skilled, how precise they are. And it was
because of their skills that I ended up having confidence to make the
KROFT: I mean it's been reported that there
was some resistance from advisors and planners who disagreed with the
commando raid approach. Was it difficult for you to overcome that? And
what level of confidence did you have?
You know one of the things that we've done here is to build a team that
is collegial and where everybody speaks their mind. And there's not a
lot of snipin' or back-biting after the fact. And what I've tried to do
is make sure that every time I sit down in the situation room, every one
of my advisors around there knows I expect them to give me their best
And so the fact that there were some who
voiced doubts about this approach was invaluable, because it meant the
plan was sharper, it meant that we had thought through all of our
options, it meant that when I finally did make the decision, I was
making it based on the very best information.
But as I
said, you know, there were sufficient risks involved where it wasn't as
if any of the folks who were voicing doubts were voicing somethin' that I
wasn't already runnin' through in my own head. You know, we understood
that there were some significant risks involved in this.
KROFT: How much did some of the past failures, like the Iran hostage rescue attempt, how did that weigh on you? I mean . . .
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I thought about that.
KROFT: . . . was that a factor?
OBAMA: Absolutely. Absolutely. No, I mean you think about Black Hawk
Down. You think about what happened with the Iranian rescue. And it, you
know, I am very sympathetic to the situation for other Presidents where
you make a decision, you're making your best call, your best shot, and
something goes wrong -- because these are tough, complicated operations.
And yeah, absolutely. The day before I was thinkin' about this quite a
KROFT: It sounds like you made a decision that you could accept failure. You didn't want failure but after looking at . . .
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yeah
. . . the 55/45 thing that you mentioned, you must have at some point
concluded that the advantages outweighed the risks . . . .
OBAMA: I concluded that it was worth it. And the reason that I
concluded it was worth it was that we have devoted enormous blood and
treasure in fighting back against al Qaeda. Ever since 2001. And even
before with the embassy bombing in Kenya.
And so part
of what was in my mind was all those young men that I visited who are
still fighting in Afghanistan. And the families of victims of terrorism
that I talk to. And I said to myself that if we have a good chance of
not completely defeating but badly disabling al Qaeda, then it was worth
both the political risks as well as the risks to our men.
KROFT: How much of it was gut instinct? Did you have personal feelings about whether . . . .
PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, the thing
KROFT: . . . he was there?
OBAMA: The thing about gut instinct is if it works, then you think,
"Boy, I had good instincts." If it doesn't, then you're gonna be running
back in your mind all the things that told you maybe you shouldn't have
done it. Obviously I had enough of an instinct that we could be right,
but it was worth doing.
KROFT: After you made the
decision to go ahead, you had like this incredible weekend where you
were you surveyed the tornado damage in Alabama.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Right.
KROFT: You took your family to the shuttle launch and met with people down there. With Gabby . . . .
PRESIDENT OBAMA: With Gabby . . . .
KROFT: . . . Giffords.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Giffords, yeah.
You attended the White House Association dinner. There was a
commencement address. And this was all going on, I mean you knew what
was gonna happen.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yeah. Yeah. The
decision was made. I made the decision Thursday night, informed my team
Friday morning, and then we flew off to look at the tornado damage. To
go to Cape Canaveral, to make a speech, a commencement speech. And then
we had the White House Correspondents' Dinner on Saturday night. So this
was in the back of my mind all weekend.
KROFT: Just the back?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Middle, front.
KROFT: Was it hard keeping your focus?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yes. Yeah.
Did you have to suppress the urge to tell someone? Did you wanna tell
somebody? Did you wanna tell Michelle? Did you tell Michelle?
OBAMA: You know one of the great successes of this operation was that
we were able to keep this thing secret. And it's a testimony to how
seriously everybody took this operation and the understanding that any
leak could end up not only compromising the mission, but killing some of
the guys that we were sending in there.
And so very few
people in the White House knew. The vast majority of my most senior
aides did not know that we were doing this. And you know, there were
times where you wanted to go around and talk this through with some more
folks. And that just wasn't an option.
And during the
course of the weekend, you know, there was no doubt that this was
weighin' on me. But, you know, something I said during the campaign that
I've learned over and over again in this job is the Presidency requires
you to do more than one thing at a time. And it is important for you to
be able to focus on somethin' that matters deeply to you, but still be
able to do the things on a daily basis that are makin' a difference in
KROFT: I want to go to the Situation Room. What was the mood?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Tense.
KROFT: People talking?
OBAMA: Yeah, but doing a lot of listening as well, 'cause we were able
to monitor the situation in real time. Getting reports back from Bill
McRaven, the head of our special forces operations, as well as Leon
Panetta. And you know, there were big chunks of time in which all we
were doin' was just waiting. And it was the longest 40 minutes of my
life with the possible exception of when Sasha got meningitis when she
was three months old, and I was waiting for the doctor to tell me that
she was all right. It was a very tense situation.
KROFT: Were you nervous?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yes.
KROFT: What could you see?
OBAMA: As I said, we were monitoring the situation. And we knew as
events unfolded what was happening in and around the compound, but we
could not get information clearly about what was happening inside the
KROFT: Right. And that went on for a long time? Could you hear gunfire?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: We had a sense of when gunfire and explosions took place.
OBAMA: Yeah. And we also knew when one of the helicopters went down in a
way that wasn't according to plan. And, as you might imagine that made
us more tense.
KROFT: So it got off to a bad start?
OBAMA: Well, it did not go exactly according to planned, but this is
exactly where all the work that had been done anticipating what might go
wrong made a huge difference.
KROFT: There was a backup plan?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: There was a backup plan.
KROFT: You had to blow up some walls?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: We had to blow up some walls.
KROFT: When was the first indication you got that you had found the right place? That bin Laden was in there?
OBAMA: There was a point before folks had left, before we had gotten
everybody back on the helicopter and were flying back to base, where
they said Geronimo has been killed. And Geronimo was the code name for
bin Laden. And now obviously at that point these guys were operating in
the dark with all kinds of stuff going on so everybody was cautious. But
at that point cautiously optimistic.
KROFT: What was your reaction when you heard those words?
OBAMA: I was relieved and I wanted to make sure those guys got over the
Pakistan border and landed safely. And I think deeply proud and deeply
satisfied of my team.
KROFT: When did you start to feel comfortable that bin Laden had been killed?
OBAMA: When they landed we had very strong confirmation at that point
that it was him. Photographs had been taken. Facial analysis indicated
that in fact it was him. We hadn't yet done DNA testing, but at that
point we were 95 percent sure.
KROFT: Did you see the pictures?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yes.
KROFT: What was your reaction when you saw them?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: It was him.
KROFT: Why haven't you released them?
OBAMA: You know, we discussed this internally. Keep in mind that we are
absolutely certain this was him. We've done DNA sampling and testing.
And so there is no doubt that we killed Osama bin Laden. It is important
for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot
in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional
violence. As a propaganda tool.
You know, that's not who
we are. You know, we don't trot out this stuff as trophies. You know,
the fact of the matter is this was somebody who was deserving of the
justice that he received. And I think Americans and people around the
world are glad that he's gone. But we don't need to spike the football.
And I think that given the graphic nature of these photos, it would
create some national security risk. And I've discussed this with Bob
Gates and Hillary Clinton and my intelligence teams and they all agree.
There are people in Pakistan, for example, who say, "Look, this is all a
lie. This is another American trick. Osama's not dead."
OBAMA: You know, the truth is that - and we're monitoring worldwide
reaction -- there's no doubt that bin Laden is dead. Certainly there's
no doubt among al Qaeda members that he is dead. And so we don't think
that a photograph in and of itself is gonna make any difference. There
are gonna be some folks who deny it. The fact of the matter is, you will
not see bin Laden walkin' on this earth again.
KROFT: Was it your decision to bury him at sea?
OBAMA: It was a joint decision. We thought it was important to think
through ahead of time how we would dispose of the body if he were killed
in the compound. And I think that what we tried to do was, consulting
with experts in Islamic law and ritual, to find something that was
appropriate that was respectful of the body.
took more care on this than, obviously, bin Laden took when he killed
3,000 people. He didn't have much regard for how they were treated and
desecrated. But that, again, is somethin' that makes us different. And I
think we handled it appropriately.
KROFT: When the mission was over . . .
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Uh-huh.
KROFT: . . . and you walked out of the situation room . . . .
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yeah.
KROFT: . . . what did you do? What was the first thing you did?
OBAMA: Yeah, I think I walked up with my team, and I just said, "We got
him." And I expressed my profound gratitude and pride to the team that
had worked on this.
I mean keep in mind this is
something, first of all, that that wasn't just our doing. Obviously
since 2001, countless folks in our intelligence community and our
military had worked on this issue. President Bush had obviously devoted a
lot of resources to this, and so there was a cumulative effort and a
testament to the capacity of the United States of America to follow
through. And to do what we said we're gonna do. Even across
administrations, across party lines and the skill with which our
intelligence and military folks operated in this was indescribable.
it was a moment of great pride for me to see our capacity as a nation
to execute something this difficult this well. And obviously, it also
made me think about those families that I had met previously who had
been so profoundly burdened by the fact that he was still runnin' around
You know, I got a letter the day after, an
e-mail from a young person who had spoken to her dad when she was four
years old before the towers collapsed, he was he was in the building.
And she described what it had been like for the last ten years growing
up, always having that image of her father's -- the sound of her
father's voice, and thinking that she'd never see him again, and
watching her mother weep on the phone. And that's what I thought about.
When you announced that bin Laden had been killed last Sunday, you said
"Our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin
Laden in the compound where he was hiding." Can you be more specific on
that, and how much help did Pakistan actually provide in getting rid of
PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, I've gotta be
careful about sources and methods and how we operate and how we pieced
together this intelligence, because we're gonna still be goin' after
terrorists in the future.
What I can say is that
Pakistan, since 9/11, has been a strong counterterrorism partner with
us. There have been times where we've had disagreements. There have been
times where we wanted to push harder, and for various concerns, they
might have hesitated. And those differences are real. And they'll
But the fact of the matter is, is that we've
been able to kill more terrorists on Pakistani soil than just about any
place else. We could not have done that without Pakistani cooperation.
And I think that this will be an important moment in which Pakistan and
the United States gets together and says, "All right, we've gotten bin
Laden, but we've got more work to do. And are there ways for us to work
more effectively together than we have in the past?"
that's gonna be important for our national security. It doesn't mean
that there aren't gonna be times where we're gonna be frustrated with
Pakistanis. And frankly, there are gonna be times where they're
frustrated with us. You know, they've got not only individual terrorists
there, but there's also a climate inside of Pakistan that sometimes is
deeply anti-American. And it makes it more difficult for us to be able
to operate there effectively.
But I do think that it's
important for the American people to understand that we've got a stake
in continuing cooperation from Pakistan on these issues.
KROFT: You didn't tell anybody in the Pakistani government or the military.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: No.
KROFT: Or their intelligence community?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: No.
KROFT: Because you didn't trust?
OBAMA: As I said, I didn't tell most people here in the White House. I
didn't tell my own family. It was that important for us to maintain
KROFT: But you were carrying out this operation in Pakistan.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yeah.
KROFT: You didn't trust 'em?
OBAMA: If I'm not revealing to some of my closest aides what we're
doin', then I sure as heck am not gonna be revealing it to folks who I
KROFT: Right. Now the location of this house, the location of the compound just raises all sorts of questions.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Uh-huh.
KROFT: Do you believe people in the Pakistani government, Pakistani intelligence agencies knew that bin Laden was living there?
OBAMA: We think that there had to be some sort of support network for
bin Laden inside of Pakistan. But we don't know who or what that support
network was. We don't know whether there might have been some people
inside of government, people outside of government, and that's something
that we have to investigate, and more importantly, the Pakistani
government has to investigate.
And we've already
communicated to them, and they have indicated they have a profound
interest in finding out what kinds of support networks bin Laden might
have had. But these are questions that we're not gonna be able to answer
three or four days after the event. It's gonna take some time for us to
be able to exploit the intelligence that we were able to gather on
And I just want the American people to think about
this. These guys, our guys, go in in the dead of night, it's pitch
black, they're takin' out walls, false doors, gettin' shot at, they
killed bin Laden, and they had the presence of mind to still gather up a
whole bunch of bin Laden's material which will be a treasure trove of
information that could serve us very well in the weeks and months to
come. It's just an indication of the extraordinary work that they did.
KROFT: Do you have any sense of what they found there?
OBAMA: We are now obviously putting everything we've got into analyzing
and evaluatin' all that information. But we anticipate that it can give
us leads to other terrorists that we've been lookin' for for a long
time, other high value targets. But also can give us a better sense of
existing plots that might have been there how they operated and their
methods of communicating.
All of this should help us
continue to push harder and harder. And one of the things that I said
when I came into office was we had to remember what our primary focus
was. Who carried out September 11th and how do we make sure that we are
laser-focused on getting them.
We have done a great job
even before we got bin Laden in degrading their capacity. And we now
have the opportunity, we're not done yet, but we've got the opportunity,
I think, to really finally defeat at least Al Qaeda in that border
region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. That doesn't mean that we will
defeat terrorism. It doesn't mean that Al Qaeda hasn't metastasized to
other parts of the world where we've gotta, you know, address operatives
there. But it does mean we've got a chance to, I think, really deliver a
fatal blow to this organization, if we follow through aggressively in
the months to come.
KROFT: Is this the first time that you've ever ordered someone killed?
OBAMA: Well, keep in mind that, you know, every time I make a decision
about launching a missile, every time I make a decision about sending
troops into battle, you know, I understand that this will result in
people being killed. And that is a sobering fact. But it is one that
comes with the job.
KROFT: This was one man. This is somebody who's cast a shadow in this place, in the White House for almost a decade.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Right.
OBAMA: As nervous as I was about this whole process, the one thing I
didn't lose sleep over was the possibility of taking bin Laden out.
Justice was done. And I think that anyone who would question that the
perpetrator of mass murder on American soil didn't deserve what he got
needs to have their head examined.