For Barack Obama, it is the image that he might want to define his presidency more than any other – the grim-faced leader and his security team captured at the moment of the riskiest gamble of his administration. It could be a scene from political drama The West Wing. Indeed, it took place in the White House’s west wing. But this was not fiction. From halfway around the world, President Obama and members of the National Security Council huddled in front of a video screen on Sunday afternoon to follow the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s Pakistan compound as it happened. Their faces, racked by tension, looked set in stone – hardly surprising, given what was at stake.
Tension: President Obama took 16 hours to decide whether to go with the mission. Hilary Clinton watches the dramatic moment unfold with apparent shock
Geronimo, the codename for Bin Laden, was the redoubtable Apache chief who famously evaded capture by American forces. But it is also the battlecry one shouts when making a brave leap, and this was certainly one of those. Aides said there hadn’t been an intelligence meeting in previous weeks where someone did not mention the Iran hostages debacle in 1980 or Black Hawk Down, the film about the disastrous U.S. helicopter-borne attempt to seize a Somali leader in 1993. There had been deep disagreement among the security team, with half of them – reportedly mainly the politicians – opposing the assault, instead favouring waiting until they could be sure Bin Laden was definitely in the compound, or mounting a less risky bombing raid.
HOW OBAMA DELIBERATED OSAMA'S FATE FOR 16 HOURS
Presidential aides have given countless briefings presenting Barack Obama as a decisive commander in chief with a studied calm and steely resolve since Bin Laden was killed. But fresh details emerged last night that it actually took 16 hours for him to decide that the world’s most wanted terrorist should be taken out. Far from making his mind up quickly, Mr Obama kept his top military officials waiting overnight before finally telling them: ‘It’s a go.’ Presented with the latest intelligence last Friday, Mr Obama could only muster silence before telling his top military staff: ‘I’m not going to tell you what my decision is now – I’m going to go back and think about it some more. I’m going to make a decision soon.’ The following morning, a full 16 hours later, four senior aides were summoned to the White House Diplomatic Room to be told the operation could go ahead. The delay meant that, in part due to bad weather, the earliest the attack could be carried out was Sunday. Republicans grudgingly came out in praise of Mr Obama but reminded him that it was the result of years of hard work. Former vice president Dick Cheney said it would be ‘a tragedy’ to spend so much time ‘patting ourselves on the back’ that we miss the next attack. But he added: ‘The administration clearly deserves credit for the success of the operation.’ Mr Obama received extensive praise from the EU anti-terror chief, who went as far as saying he hoped the killing would lead to a second term for him. Gilles de Kerchove said: ‘I hope that this will help him be re-elected.’
But Obama took the decision to go in with the Navy Seals after deliberating for 16 hours. Officials said the photo, taken by the White House photographer in the building’s high-tech Situation Room communications nerve centre, was not choreographed. But you can see why they chose to release this particular one. It shows a leader, who has been derided for his unemotive, overly detached demeanour, instead looking every inch the concerned commander-in-chief, his attention riveted on the fate of the men he has sent into battle. It is possible to miss Barack Obama at first glance, his tall frame hunched in the corner in his golfing clothes (he had just played that Sunday morning), his trademark bottle of mineral water on the table in front of him. That said, it is impossible not to recognise his intense gaze as, jaw clenched, he watched live video feeds of the attack. Reinforcing the reported blokey informality of which his fans are proud, he has given up the padded leather presidential chair for a uniformed underling, perhaps so Brigadier General Marshall ‘Brad’ Webb – the most junior man in the room – can have space at the conference table to use his Hewlett Packard laptop.
Indeed, the usual rules whereby National Security Council members sit closest to the President in strict order of seniority appear to have been junked in the crisis. Denis McDonough, the deputy national security adviser, has drawn up a chair between that of the President and Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State. In her tweed jacket, Mrs Clinton would look her usual composed self if it wasn’t for the hand covering her mouth in apparent shock.
The raid which killed Bin Laden lasted 40 minutes and the Al Qaeda leader was unarmed
Across the table, Vice President Joe Biden looks more relaxed in his open collar but out of shot are the rosary beads that the staunchly Roman Catholic was playing with during the ordeal. Others dealt with the tension in different ways, several pacing around the room. But Mr Obama barely moved, looking ‘stone faced’ throughout, according to an aide. The Situation Room, a highly secure suite of rooms on the ground floor of the White House’s west wing, was created in 1961 to address President Kennedy’s complaints about the supposed poor ‘real-time’ information failures which hampered another U.S. surprise strike – the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. On Sunday, officials had cancelled all White House tours to avoid the possibility of a tourist or visiting celebrity accidentally running into the security officials and their tense work. The group gathered at noon without the President. A member of staff went to Costco, a local grocery, and returned with lunch – turkey in pita bread wraps, prawns, crisps and fizzy drinks. They spent the next two hours watching video and audio feeds from the CIA whose director, Leon Panetta, was connected to the Situation Room via a video link to his office at Langley, Virginia. Just after 2pm, Mr Panetta outlined the raid for a last time and, within an hour, began talking them through the operation. And then, ‘They’re in Pakistan,’ he announced simply. The raid lasted 40 nail-biting minutes. ‘It was probably one of the most anxiety-filled periods of time, I think, in the lives of the people who were assembled here. The minutes passed like days,’ said John Brennan, Mr Obama’s chief counterterrorism advisor, who was standing behind Mrs Clinton during the operation. Both Mr Panetta and Mr Brennan had supported the ground strike over waiting. The President, he said, was ‘very concerned’ about the safety of the U.S. troops – ‘That was what was on his mind throughout.’ The watchers had an early jolt of fear on that front when one of the helicopters crashed over the compound, although all its occupants were safe. The atmosphere was ‘very tense, a lot of people holding their breath’, Mr Brennan added. Nobody dared speak for fear of talking over one of the regular updates from Mr Panetta. Minutes passed before Mr Panetta came on air again to say: ‘We have a visual on Geronimo.’ It took a few more nerve-racking minutes before he was on the line again. ‘Geronimo EKIA [Enemy Killed in Action],’ he said.
Minutes after the successful mission Barack Obama tells to the world the good news at The White House
Osama Bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad where he was killed on Sunday night had a seven foot wall on one side where the terrorist mastermind could walk around
Pakistani Army soldiers secure the compound where Osama Bin Laden was killed in Abbotabad, Pakistan
Confirmation that the Seals had found their quarry was greeted with a ‘tremendous sigh of relief’, said Mr Brennan. There was silence in the room. ‘We got him,’ said Mr Obama. But the ordeal was not over. Another stomach-lurching moment came when the Pakistanis scrambled jets after discovering the unauthorised helicopters in their airspace. Fortunately, the troops were over the border before there was any military contact. Andy Card, the chief of staff to George Bush who was the first to tell him about the 9/11 attacks, spoke of the extreme tension his successors would have been under in that room. ‘You try to plan for every contingency,’ he told the BBC yesterday. ‘It’s easy to plan for optimism. I would always try to make sure there were some sceptics in the room to ask challenging questions of those that were making the plans.’ ‘But then you watch with bated breath as the plan is implemented. I am sure there were some quiet prayers that this would go well – there were a lot of things that could have gone wrong in this raid.’ He added: ‘There’s a lot of tension and ultimately the President’s decision is a lonely decision.’