A Politico Exclusive: Getting bin Laden - How The Mission Went Down

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From Politico's Mike Allen

Getting Osama bin Laden: How the mission went down

The helicopter
carrying Navy SEALs malfunctioned as it approached Osama bin Laden’s
compound at about 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday, stalling as it hovered. The pilot
set it down gently inside the walls, then couldn’t get it going again.

It was a heart-stopping moment for President Barack Obama, who had
been monitoring the raid in the White House Situation Room since 1 p.m.,
surrounded by members of his war cabinet.

“Obviously, everyone was thinking about Black Hawk Down and Desert One,” a senior administration official recalled.

The SEALs disembarked.

“The assault team went ahead and raided the compound, even though
they didn’t know if they would have a ride home,” an official said.

The special forces put bombs on the crippled chopper and blew it up,
then lifted off in a reinforcement craft just before 4:15 p.m., capping
an astounding 40 minutes that gave the United States a tectonic victory
in the 10-year war on terror touched off by 9/11.

The sick chopper turned out to be a tiny wrinkle in an astounding
military and intelligence triumph. Bin Laden was shot in the face by the
SEALs during a firefight after resisting capture.

He was buried at sea less than 12 hours later. He was 54.

Here’s how the world’s most-hunted man was vanquished, as recounted by senior administration officials:

Contrary to the intelligence community’s long-held belief that bin
Laden was in a lawless “no man’s land” on the Pakistani border, bin
Laden had been hiding in a three-story house in a one-acre compound in
Abbottabad, about 35 miles north of Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.
Officials describe it as a relatively affluent community, with lots of
residents who are retired military.

“Bin Laden was living in a relatively comfortable place: a compound
valued at about $1 million,” a senior U.S. official told POLITICO. “Many
of his foot soldiers are located in some of the remotest regions of
Pakistan and live in austere conditions. You’ve got to wonder if they’re
rethinking their respect for their dead leader. He obviously wasn’t
living as one of them.”

Officials described the raid as the culmination of years of highly
advanced intelligence work that included the National
Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which specializes in imagery and
maps, and the National Security Agency (NSA), the “codemakers and
codebreakers” who can covertly watch and listen to conversations around
the world.

On June 2, 2009, just over four months into his presidency, Obama had
signed a memo to CIA Director Leon Panetta stating “in order to ensure
that we have expanded every effort, I direct you to provide me within 30
days a detailed operation plan for locating and bringing to justice”
bin Laden.

In the biggest break in a global pursuit of bin Laden that stretched
back to the Clinton administration, the U.S. discovered the compound by
following one of the terrorist’s personal couriers, identified by
terrorist detainees as one of the few al Qaeda couriers who bin Laden
trusted.

“They indicated he might be living
with and protecting bin Laden,” a senior administration official told
reporters on a midnight conference call. “Detainees gave us his nom de
guerre, or his nickname, and identified him as both a protégé of Khalid
Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of September 11th, and a trusted
assistant of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, the former number three of al Qaeda who
was captured in 2005.”

Officials didn’t learn the courier’s name until 2007. Then it took two
years to find him and track him back to this compound, which was
discovered in August 2010.

“It was a “Holy cow!” moment,” an official said.

The compound had been relatively secluded when it was built in 2005 — on
the outskirts of the town center, at the end of a narrow dirt road.

“In the last six years, some residential homes have been built nearby,”
an official said on the call. “The main structure, a three-story
building, has few windows facing the outside of the compound. A terrace
on the third floor … has a seven-foot privacy wall. … [T]he property is
valued at approximately $1 million but has no telephone or Internet
service connected to it.”

Everything about the compound signaled that it was being used to hide someone important.

“It has 12- to 18-foot walls topped with barbed wire,” the official
said. “Internal wall sections — internal walls sectioned off different
portions of the compound to provide extra privacy. Access to the
compound is restricted by two security gates, and the residents of the
compound burn their trash, unlike their neighbors, who put the trash out
for collection.

For all their suspicions, U.S. officials never knew for sure that bin Laden was inside.

The White House’s original plan had been to bomb the house, but Obama ultimately decided against that.

“The helicopter raid was riskier. It was more daring,” an official told
POLITICO. “But he wanted proof. He didn’t want to just leave a pile of
rubble.”

Officials knew there were 22 people living there, and Obama wanted to be
sure not to kill civilians unnecessarily. So he ordered officials to
come up with an air-assault plan.

The SEALs held rehearsals of the raid on April 7 and April 13, with officials monitoring the action from Washington.

As the real thing approached, daily meetings were held of the national
security principals, chaired by National Security Adviser Tom Donilon,
and their deputies, chaired by John Brennan, the president’s
counterterrorism adviser.

Over the past seven weeks, Obama had chaired numerous National Security
Council meetings on the topic, including ones on March 14, March 29,
April 12, April 19 and April 28.

“In the lead up to this operation, the President convened at least 9
meetings with his national security Principals,” a senior administration
official e-mailed reporters. “Principals met formally an additional
five times themselves; and their Deputies met 7 times. This was in
addition to countless briefings on the subject during the President’s
intelligence briefings; and frequent consultations between the [White
House National Security Council], CIA, [Defense Department] and Joint
Staff. The President was actively involved in reviewing all facets of
the operation.”

At an April 19 meeting in the
Situation Room, the president approved the air assault as the course of
action. He ordered the force to fly to the region to conduct it.

Last Thursday, just after his East Room announcement that Panetta would
succeed Robert Gates as Defense Secretary, the president held another
meeting in the Situation Room, and went through everyone’s final
recommendations.

Obama didn’t announce his decision at the meeting, but kept his counsel overnight.

In the White House Diplomatic Room at 8:20 a.m. on Friday, before flying
down to view tornado destruction in Alabama, Obama informed Donilon
that he was authorizing the operation. Also attending the meeting were
Brennan, White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley and Deputy National
Security Adviser Denis McDonough.

Donilon signed a written authorization to Panetta, who commanded the
strike team. Donilon convened a principals’ meeting at 3 p.m. to finish
the planning.

The raid was scheduled for Saturday, the day when Obama and most of the
West Wing was due at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
But weather pushed it to Sunday.

Top West Wing staff worked most of the day on the operation. Senior
national-security officials stayed in the Situation Room beginning at 1
p.m.

The official’s e-mail gave this account of Obama’s day: “2:00pm the
President met with the Principals to review final preparations. … 3:32pm
the President returned to the Sit Room for an additional briefing. …
3:50pm the President first learns that UBL was tentatively identified. …
7:01pm the President learns that there’s a ‘high probability’ the HVT
[high-value target] was [bin Laden]. … 8:30pm the President receives
further briefings.”

In the Situation Room, the president was surrounded by Daley, Donilon,
McDonough, Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Joint Chiefs of
Staff Chairman Mike Mullen, Director of National Intelligence James
Clapper, and others.

Panetta was at CIA headquarters, where he had turned his conference room
into a command center that gave him constant contact with the tactical
leaders of the strike team.

With the team still in the compound, the commander on the ground told a remote commander that they had found bin Laden.

Applause erupted in Washington.

Three other adult males were killed with bin Laden, officials said.

“We believe two were the couriers and the third was bin Laden’s adult
son,” an official said on the call. “There were several women and
children at the compound. One woman was killed when she was used as a
shield by a male combatant. Two other women were injured.”

U.S. forces took photographs of the body, and officials used
facial-recognition technology to compare them with known pictures of bin
Laden.

It was him.

At 11:35 p.m., Obama stepped into the East Room and told the world: “Justice has been done.”