On the morning of May 1, 2011, most Americans had never heard of Abbottabad. By that night, the dusty midsize city near the mountains of northwest Pakistan was the center of the biggest story in the world. A team of U.S. Navy SEALs had just descended by helicopter on a high-walled mansion there in the dark of night, located the globe’s most hunted man and killed him.
The effort to track and execute Osama bin Laden, which took place 10 years ago this weekend, was the most closely held operational secret in modern American history—a highly sensitive, politically fraught and physically risky mission that involved breaching the sovereign territory of a purported U.S. ally to target an icon of international violence and terror.
Once his death was announced in a hastily organized late Sunday night presidential address, much of the initial attention focused on the bravery and skill of the SEAL operators who flew in and conducted the attack. Other popular culture, like the movie Zero Dark Thirty, would later center on the years of work by the analysts who traced the elusive bin Laden to his compound. But the operation also stands as a fascinating window into the most rarefied zone of presidential decision-making: Barack Obama had sole authority to approve an act with huge consequences and huge risks, one that could easily sink his presidency if it went bad. And, with a decade’s hindsight, there was another consequential domestic political subplot at work that week, too: On the day between when Obama approved the operation and when Seal Team Six helicoptered in, the president kept a long-scheduled date at the White House Correspondents Association dinner, where he publicly roasted celebrity real estate developer-turned-TV host Donald Trump for pumping up the “birther” conspiracy theory that he wasn’t a real citizen.
The bin Laden raid that President Obama greenlit that Friday in late April—code-named Operation Neptune’s Spear—was the culmination of months of intricate preparation that reached across the capital and around the globe, from full-scale SEAL dress rehearsals in North Carolina to deep Washington legal debates over whether the mission would be “kill or capture,” all planned around a small, precise physical model of the Abbottabad compound that traveled back and forth from CIA headquarters in suburban Virginia to the West Wing. The tense moments as the raid unfolded half a
world away yielded one of the most famous inside-the-room photographs in presidential history, Pete Souza’s portrait of 14 people crammed into a White House Situation Room anteroom—a moment of high drama that included Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and two future current Cabinet secretaries.
The full story of how, and why, America’s top security officials decided to pull the trigger that night in May has never been told. This oral history—the story inside the West Wing and U.S. intelligence agencies as Neptune’s Spear coalesced over the fall of 2010 and spring of 2011—is based on extensive original interviews with nearly 30 key intelligence and national security leaders, White House staff, and presidential aides—including some who have never spoken publicly before, and roughly half of those pictured in Souza’s famous photograph. Their accounts, from the White House, CIA headquarters and Afghanistan itself, paint a never-before-seen view of the most momentous decision of Barack Obama’s presidency.
(All titles and military ranks are presented as people were during the course of the operation, and interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Gen. James Clapper (Ret.), U.S. director of national intelligence: Since 9/11, the U.S. Intelligence Community had one mission that surpassed all others, at least emotionally: Find and capture or kill Osama bin Laden.
George Little, director of public affairs, CIA: 9/11 was still very fresh in everyone’s minds and consciousness.
Jon Darby, senior official on counterterrorism, NSA: There were dozens of leads being worked at any one time.
Leon Panetta, director, CIA: Some thought he was living in a cave; some thought he was in the tribal areas of Pakistan; others thought he might be in Iran; others thought he might be dead.
Mike Leiter, director, National Counterterrorism Center: You had no shortage of reporting about a 6-foot-3 man wandering through the streets of Berlin—crazy things, none of them really had any meat on the bones.
Leon Panetta: It was clear that after almost 10 years of working on it, almost every lead had led to a dead end.
Tom Donilon, national security adviser, White House: The president, after one of our regular counterterrorism meetings, called a group of us—myself and Leon Panetta, Rahm Emanuel, Michael Leiter—up to the Oval Office and said that he had been told that the case had gone cold and he wanted the intelligence community to reinvigorate its efforts.
Jeremy Bash, chief of staff, CIA: After the tragedy at Khost where we lost seven CIA officers on December 30, 2009, Director Panetta said to the team responsible for hunting al Qaeda, “I want you to come brief me every Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. on the hunt for bin Laden, even if there’s nothing new to report.”
Leon Panetta: I remember saying that in the very least I expected them to come in and tell me four or five new ideas about how they would try to locate bin Laden.
Adm. William McRaven, commander, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC): He represented everything—everything we were fighting against.
Letitia “Tish” Long, director, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency: I was in my office in August 2010 and my executive assistant, a Navy captain, comes in and says, “Ma’am, there’s a couple of folks here to see you.” And I said, “OK, you want to tell me a little bit more?” He said, “It’s two analysts and the director of analysis. They said they really need to see you.” He brings them in. I said, “Brett, you stay,” and the director of analysis looks at me and says, “Ma’am, he can’t stay. He is not read into this program.” They lay out a bunch of the imagery and proceed to brief me on the compound of interest. As they’re briefing me, I’m thinking, “Wow—just wow.”
Mike Morell, deputy director, CIA: The director and I would have a three-times-a-week meeting with our Counterterrorism Center officers in the director’s conference room starting at 4:30 p.m. Occasionally at the end of that meeting, the director of the center would say, “Hey, can I see you guys in a smaller group?” In August of 2010, the director of the Counterterrorism Center said, “Can I see you guys alone?” He had never used that word “alone” before.
Jeremy Bash: The briefer said, “We’ve been following two individuals who were historically couriers for bin Laden. We found them and we followed them down a dead-end street in a town called Abbottabad. At the end of the street, there’s a place that looks like a fortress.” I remember Panetta looked up from his briefing binder and he’s like “A fortress? Tell me about that fortress.”
Mike Morell: As he was going through what was unique about this compound, the hair on the back of my neck literally stood up. Literally stood up.
Jeremy Bash: They began to tell him that this place had 12-foot-high walls on the front, 18-foot-high walls in the back, no electricity, no phone service. The people who were living there were taking great pains to conceal their identity.
Mike Morell: He showed us that the main house had very few windows. He showed us that the compound was compartmented, broken up with internal walls so it was difficult to move from one part of the compound to another. And he pointed out to us that there was a balcony off the third floor—the interesting thing is the balcony had a privacy wall, so if there was somebody on the balcony, you couldn’t see them. And I remember Director Panetta saying, “Why would you put a privacy wall on a balcony—isn’t the whole point of a balcony to be able to see out?”
Leon Panetta: Abbottabad is about the closest thing in Pakistan that comes to a resort area—there are mountains all around. If you have a compound, you would assume you’d like to look at the mountains. To have a seven- or eight-foot wall on the third floor raised a lot of issues.
Mike Morell: Nobody said aloud that bin Laden might be there, but everyone was thinking it.
Leon Panetta: Not only was there high security around the compound, but the couriers would travel 90 miles away to make a cellphone call. In addition to that, there was this mysterious family on that third floor. Using our intelligence capabilities, looking at the clothes and the clothesline, we identified how many members were in that family. The sense was that the number of members in that family matched the number of family members they thought were in bin Laden’s family. But we never saw that family.
Mike Morell: The first briefing we did with the White House was [White House homeland security adviser] John Brennan—just John—and then a second briefing was John, Tom Donilon and Jim Jones, who was then the national security adviser.
Mary DeRosa, legal counsel, National Security Council, White House: I was in the Sit Room—as all the meetings were—and before the briefing started, I remember an unusual amount of attention to who could be in the room, including for people who were normally in everything. That’s the atmospherics—like, “What am I about to hear?” I’ve been in many very, very sensitive meetings, but it hadn’t been like that before.
Tom Donilon: The intelligence community came to me and indicated that they thought they had the best lead on where bin Laden might be since the United States lost him in the mountains of Tora Bora years before in Afghanistan.
Nick Rasmussen, senior director for counterterrorism, National Security Council, White House: They were labeling it as a “compound of interest.” There were still many, many maybes attached to this.
Mary DeRosa: I usually carry around these green notebooks and took notes in meetings I was in. I wrote one word down and the person next to me put his hand on my arm and shook his head. I remember later looking, and the word was “compound.”
Leon Panetta: The president listened very seriously. He’s not somebody who started jumping for joy or even expressing any kind of a commentary. He basically said that what was essential was that we continue to do surveillance on the compound with the hope that we could ultimately find conclusive evidence that bin Laden himself was there.
Mike Morell: He gave us two very specific orders at the end of that meeting. The first was “Leon, Michael, find out what the hell is going on inside that compound.” The second orders he gave was “Don’t tell anyone. Don’t share this with anyone.” This is CIA and this group in the White House, and that’s it, nobody else. No secretary of Defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs, no secretary of State, no attorney general and director of the FBI—nobody else.
Leon Panetta: We began around the clock, 24/7 surveillance of the compound itself, using drones to do the surveillance, and trying to see if there were other ways to try to figure out exactly whether bin Laden was there.
Jon Darby: A full-court press ensued where the CIA, NSA and NGA tried to see if we could answer that question.
Leon Panetta: We had individuals who walked outside and tried to film the compound and see if they could catch anybody. The garbage was not picked up; they basically burned their own garbage there—that was another indication of the kind of security that they had taken. We continued to see if there was a break. We did that for almost six months.
We found that there was a gentleman who was older, who would come out of the compound, walk in circles like a prisoner coming out in a prison yard, maybe a dozen or more circles in the yard there, and then go right back in. Because of the walls and high security, it was difficult to really get a good shot. I was like, “Get me a telescope on the mountain, give me a camera on one of the trees, get me something to give me a facial ID on that individual.” I remember saying to them at that point, “I’ve seen movies where the CIA can do this,” and we all laughed. We never did get any kind of facial ID on that individual.
John Brennan, White House homeland security and counterterrorism adviser: Leon would come down [to the White House] and give us some additional details and walk through what they what they know—more about the courier himself, what they knew about his relationship with bin Laden over the years, what they had heard from some of the detainees at Guantanamo about this individual. It continued in October, November, December.
Tom Donilon: Along the way, my role was to press hard on questions and test the case, which we did during many, many meetings over the course of the next eight months.
Letitia Long: We red-teamed the heck out of it. You think about the other folks like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libbi who were in settled areas of Pakistan and bin Laden just hadn’t shown up anywhere else. Based on what we had, I was fairly confident. We were not able to come up with a better alternative—I don’t mean another place, I mean a better alternative than bin Laden in this compound.
Leon Panetta: There just was not that conclusive piece of evidence. It was essentially there was this family, there was this individual who was walking in circles, there were the couriers.
Jon Darby: It was a combination of little things. That’s what intelligence is—putting together jigsaw puzzle pieces to come up with a story to explain the situation..
Mike Morell: In December, we presented the president with our formal assessment: “We assess that Abu Ahmed is harboring bin Laden at AC One,” and “AC One” was our shorthand for “Abbottabad Compound One.”
John Brennan: Before Obama took off for his Hawaii vacation in December, he told us, “This looks real.” So it evolved from being purely an intelligence collection and analysis effort to one of exploring what those options might be that could get bin Laden at that compound.
Mike Morell: He asked us to start thinking about finish options.
Leon Panetta: We actually had a working model of the compound that we brought with us to some of the briefings.
Letitia Long: Our model-makers do extraordinary work and this is exactly what they do—mock-ups, whether simply for show-and-tell or for operational purposes. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a model is worth ten thousand.
John Brennan: They were able to put in some amazing details.
Letitia Long: They put sand down in the right color to really make it look like it’s Pakistan. They’ve got the little barbed wire going around on the walls—and, by the way, it’s not on 100 percent of every wall. I say, “Is that the way it is or did you run out of wire?” And they said, “No, ma’am, actually, for some reason there isn’t wire at this point.” It is absolute precision—everything down to trees in the right places, where the animals were, you name it.
John Brennan: That model became a regular feature of the meetings.
Letitia Long: The model-makers did not know what they were building. When the picture was on the front page of the New York Times the day after the operation, that’s how they found out what they’d built.
Tom Donilon: The number of people who were told about this was very, very small—in the White House, only four or five people knew anything about this—and until we moved to an operational point, really no one outside the intelligence community. It facilitated doing something which was exceedingly difficult to do in Washington: keep a secret for eight months.
Mike Morell: January was when the president gave us permission to engage with the U.S. military.
Adm. William McRaven: When Adm. Mike Mullen [the chairman of the Joint Chiefs] came to me and said, “Look, the CIA thinks they got a lead on bin Laden,” I was like, “I’ll be interested to see what they’ve got.” But I was not jumping for joy because I’d seen this movie before. We had a lot of leads on bin Laden. I was interested, but a little skeptical.
Leon Panetta: I asked Bill McRaven to come to the CIA. He came over, and I remember having the model of the compound at that point. He looked at it, and we told him what we suspected. His eyes did light up. It was clear he understood the importance of what we had found.
Adm. William McRaven: We looked at the model and Morell says, “If you guys had to do this, how would you do it?” I said, “Look, it’s a compound. This is not hard.” It’s a little bit bigger than we’re used to, but we were doing about 10 to 12 missions a night in Afghanistan at the time. Those closely replicated what I thought this mission would be. I said, “I don’t see anything particularly challenging about it other than the fact that it’s large.” Once we got on target, the guys could do their job.
Mike Morell: We ended up briefing five options to the president.
Leon Panetta: One option was a B-2 bomber to just go in there and blow the hell out of the place—that sure had a certain attraction to it—but it was clear that the amount of firepower that would be necessary to turn that compound into dust would also have some impact on nearby villages.
It came up at some point of using a drone strike against the individual that was walking in the compound—the concern was that although we’ve been pretty effective at using drone strikes, you’re not always sure that you’ve been able to get the individual you’re after.
The third was the use of commando forces. One idea was to do a commando raid working with the Pakistanis, to avoid all the problems of having to go in the covert operation, and the other was to just have the SEALs do it on their own.
Jeremy Bash: President Obama determined that no other country, including Pakistan, should be alerted to this intelligence. We also determined that an airstrike carried a lot of risk—including a potential risk of not being able to identify any of the remains.
Nick Rasmussen: We might never know if we’d succeeded in killing bin Laden. And we wouldn’t control the narrative of the aftermath.
Adm. William McRaven: Over the course of March and April, we went from a number of different options—the large bombing raid, a more surgical bombing raid, partnering with the Pakistanis—and eventually we came down to the raid option.
Jeremy Bash: McRaven’s heli-borne assault plan became the favorite course of action.
Adm. William McRaven: At one point, the president turned to me and said, “Bill, do you know whether or not you can do this mission?” I said, “Sir, I don’t. I won’t know until I can bring the SEALs in and we can rehearse this to the nth degree.” He said, “How much time do you need?” I said, “About three weeks.” He said, “OK, you got three weeks.”
Leon Panetta: Then it was really a question of McRaven working with the SEAL team to practice that operation. A model of the compound was built at one of our classified facilities.
Jeremy Bash: I went to both the rehearsals. The first rehearsal—special operations forces were brought into a briefing room, and a senior CIA official was overseeing the operation. That individual stood up in front of the room and briefed that, in fact, the mission that this team had been gathered to undertake wasn’t what they had been told, which was that there was going to be something happening in Libya.
Adm. William McRaven: There were two commanders I trusted, implicitly, for a mission like this, and one of them—a Navy SEAL commander and his team—had just gotten back from Afghanistan and were all on leave. I recalled the squadron and, frankly, these are not happy campers. I’ve got them in this classroom, and I can see the body language. Then a CIA officer comes out and hands out some nondisclosure statements. Then the next agency officer comes out and briefs the target: Osama bin Laden.
Jeremy Bash: The CIA official said, “We’ve located a compound in Pakistan and we’re going to be asking you to go in and get bin Laden.”
Adm. William McRaven: I’m watching the look on these guys’ faces. It’s like, Is this part of the exercise? Are we here to do an exercise on bin Laden or is he serious? I got a chance to get up and said, “OK, this is not an exercise, gentlemen.”
Jeremy Bash: The meeting broke up, and they came up to the front of the room where there was a mock-up of the compound that had been developed by NGA. The leaders of the special operations forces began to walk around it, look at it, and began to live brainstorm right there about how to conduct the raid—where the helicopters would go and who would go where. I was impressed that Adm. McRaven and the leadership did not tell special operations forces, “Here’s how you should conduct the raid.” It was, “Here’s the mission. You guys figure out how to do this.”
Adm. William McRaven: I looked at it as a mission to get whoever the guy was in the compound. I’m thinking, “OK, we’re going to have to fly 162 miles. We’re going to put SEALs on target. We’re going to have to breach doors. We’re going to go from the first floor to second to the third floor and our objective will be there.” The mission was “The Pacer,” The Pacer that came out every day around noon and walked around the courtyard. And if The Pacer turned out to be bin Laden, great.
The bottom line is we planned the mission to get the guy in the compound in Abbottabad. If it turned out that it wasn’t bin Laden, nothing about how I was constructing a plan would have changed. I was determined to approach it exactly like it was any other mission.
Leon Panetta: They decided to make use of these newer helicopters that had been developed because they were better able to avoid radar detection.
Jeremy Bash: The second rehearsal was at night, during the actual time of the raid, at altitude. We first gathered in a hangar and after the briefing, I remember Adm. Mullen walked down the row of all the special operations forces folks who were there—including the dog, Cairo—and he shook everybody’s hand and one paw, and wished them luck.
Adm. William McRaven: It’s important to do a full dress rehearsal. You want to rehearse every aspect of the mission you can—you find out, “Oh, I didn’t bring the right piece of gear,” “This doesn’t fit,” or “I’m uncomfortable for 162 miles crammed into the back of this helicopter.” All the little details are important.
Jeremy Bash: We all went out to the observation post—we were given night vision goggles and parkas to stay warm—and looked out over the ridge and waited for the helicopters to emerge. To the surprise of everybody, the helicopters emerged not at the ridge we were looking at, but actually right behind us, right over our backs. It reinforced how these aircraft could come with a pretty good degree of surprise.
Adm. William McRaven: We were out there for several days, rehearsing all the aspects of the mission. Then once we were through, I had one more meeting with the president and he asked me: “Can you do this?” I said, “Sir, we can. I’m confident we can do this.”
As the CIA and military worked to determine strike options through the spring, the decision about whether to strike at all was still up in the air. That charged decision and all of its implications—geopolitical and militarily—became the sole topic of a series of highly secret meetings held at the Pentagon, the CIA’s Langley headquarters and the White House Situation Room, where the nation’s security leaders debated the latest intelligence and logistical challenges of a strike against the mysterious compound in Pakistan.
Jon Darby: As things progressed, the other key question that was being discussed is: What U.S. action, if any, was going to be taken against that compound?
Nick Rasmussen: Up until the actual date of the operation, I was involved in a very intense sequence of policy meetings at the White House, which reviewed every facet of every aspect of the intelligence, brought forward various operational courses of action to the president for his consideration for debate, discussion among the president’s principal advisers on national security and all of that. It was handled very much off-book, without formal paper.
Audrey Tomason, director for counterterrorism, National Security Council, White House: The meetings were highly tactical for the level of seniority that was in the room because they were all managing this process themselves, they had no staff to support the details, and they were not going to delegate to lower levels.
John Brennan: We also had the cameras and the audio in the Situation Room covered or turned off.
Mike Morell: Any meeting in the Situation Room about this issue was put on the calendar as “Mickey Mouse meeting,” and that was John Brennan’s doing.
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, White House: I had access to the schedule of Situation Room meetings every day. Suddenly, there was a very unusual pace of deputies- and principals-level meetings without a subject. I knew that there was something happening. At no other point in my eight years in the White House did that happen until 2016 with the Russian interference in the election.
Audrey Tomason, director for counterterrorism, National Security Council, White House: They allowed everybody to have a voice, which felt different than other senior-level meetings that I had sat in on in the past. It was a lot of questions that were about what happened after: What happens if bin Laden is killed? What do we do with the body? What would the reaction of the Pakistanis be? What is the threat that would come afterward, particularly to U.S. facilities and persons abroad? What is the future of al Qaeda without bin Laden?
John Brennan: The CIA had adrenaline and momentum that just sustained it 24/7 to do everything possible to try to confirm that bin Laden was at the compound.
Nick Rasmussen: One of the meetings that was particularly impactful was March 29, when the president convened a meeting of the National Security Council. The president asked what I thought was a very practical question: “Will the intelligence picture get any better? Will we be able to narrow the gap of uncertainty in the weeks or months ahead?”
One of the things I admired about the way CIA dealt with this was that they were very honest. They certainly were pulling out every stop, but Panetta was very clear in saying, “Look, we’re doing lots of things, but Mr. President, none of those is likely to give us in the near term a much better picture than what we have today.”
Adm. William McRaven: In March, we started having these meetings with the president—I was a junior guy at the table—but the president’s leadership was really remarkable. He made sure that all of the principals sitting around the room, everybody had an opportunity to give their opinion. Everybody had the opportunity to dissent. This was a very important part of the process. Being a military guy, to me process is important, because process allows you to get eventually to the best decision.
Nick Rasmussen: There is a sense of time pressure in April because McRaven has, as part of the planning process, described how things like the lunar cycle, the amount of darkness at night, the temperature—it’s now late spring getting toward summer in Pakistan—the heat signature gets worse and worse from an operational perspective. We’re going to have to make a decision on this for operational reasons, but also just the fact that you’re holding onto the secret. You can’t expect to hold onto a secret forever.
John Brennan: Each passing day, we wondered whether bin Laden had decided to pack a suitcase and leave that compound. We didn’t think he was going to stay there forever, which is one of the reasons why we decided to move forward with the operation. Every 28 days or so—the lunar cycle—was another 28 days that he might leave.
Tom Donilon: The focus then at the beginning of April was on the operation.
Adm. William McRaven: I was sitting in my office at Fort Bragg and realized that this mission needed a name, a name that represented both the legacy of the SEALs and the legacy of the great Nightstalkers, the helicopter pilots that were going to fly us in there. I am sitting, thinking, “What do I want to name this? Because if this turns out to be bin Laden, the name will have some historical value.” In my office, I have this small statuette that I bought in Venice, a very stylized statue of Poseidon or Neptune on this fighting seahorse, trident in hand. The symbolism of the seahorse as our helicopter force and the trident—the emblem of the Navy SEALs—in his hand. As soon as I saw that, that’s what I need to call it: NEPTUNE’S SPEAR.
John Brennan: We decided that we really need to put together a playbook because there were so many aspects of this—the sequencing of events up to and in the aftermath of the raid.
Mary DeRosa: If we have to explain ourselves, we don’t want to have cut corners or done anything wrong. I never really let myself think about the success scenario. I was thinking about the failure scenario almost exclusively.
George Little, director of public affairs, CIA: This was going to be big news, and we needed to be prepared. I pulled together a very small team that would produce what ultimately became a 66-page folder—33 pages for success, 33 pages for failure, however defined. We prepared draft speeches for senior government officials, photographs of the compound.
John Brennan: We had several discussions about what would happen if, when the assaulters were going to compound, bin Laden showed up and had his hands up in the air, nothing in his hands, and said, “I surrender”?
Mary DeRosa: If surrender was offered, then it had to be accepted, if it was offered in a way that was credible—it was clear there was no suicide vest, which is something that they were always concerned about.
Leon Panetta: McRaven said that under the rules of war, if somebody raises their hands and doesn’t fight back, they have an obligation to capture and not kill.
John Brennan: Bin Laden was the head of al Qaeda, at war with the United States. I think it was understood that this almost certainly would be a kill operation.
Leon Panetta: I frankly was concerned about, if they did capture him, what the hell would we do? I assume that if that had to be the case, we put him on a ship for a period of time and then we have to figure it out.
Mary DeRosa: For the most part, the legal issues weren’t among the more difficult legal issues that I’d had in my time there. There was one that was more difficult: going into Pakistan without telling them.
Bill Daley, White House chief of staff: We were invading an ally’s sovereign-ness, five miles from their West Point, 10 miles from a nuclear storage facility. This was a very, very big, a very powerful event, even beyond Osama bin Laden.
As the end of April arrived, the White House was moving toward two high-profile weekend events that could not have been more different—the raid on bin Laden’s compound, and the president’s scheduled Saturday night roast at the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner.
Katie Johnson, personal secretary to the president, White House: My role was basically running the president’s day when he was in the White House. Especially as that week progressed, there are often meetings in the Sit Room that didn’t have a title—that wasn’t entirely uncommon—but there were huge blocks of time for that. He was also seeing a lot of John Brennan that week. It wasn’t that uncommon for him to see John all the time, but that was usually around a shooting or a terrorism incident or something like that. I could tell something was underway.
Jay Carney, press secretary, White House: It was right as I became press secretary in February 2011 that Donald Trump started doing the birther shit and when it got traction. It was just so appalling—all of it—but we were, including the president, a bit naive about it. We thought it was hard to take it seriously, because Trump was such—as I think Obama once referred to him—a carnival barker.
Dan Pfeiffer, communications director, White House: As far as I knew, that week had the very typical Correspondents Dinner rhythm to it—the draft of the speech goes in like a week in advance. There was a meeting where Obama reacts to the jokes, he gets pitched on some of the gags involving videos.
Jon Favreau, presidential speechwriter, White House: The birth certificate brouhaha loomed large. The reason that we went after Donald Trump is very simple: We always look at the guest list—who’s going to be at the Hilton? Who’s an easy target? And when we saw that Trump was attending, we just thought, “Oh, well, he’s been out there doing the birther shit. Great target.”
Jay Carney: We collectively, at the president’s direction, had treated it as not serious, because it wasn’t. Unfortunately, it got to the point where the president had to engage directly.
Dan Pfeiffer: He was going to release the long-form birth certificate.
Jon Favreau: Pfeiffer called me up to his office a couple days before the dinner: “We’re getting the actual long-form birth certificate flown in from Hawaii. They found it and the president’s going to do a press conference.” I was initially angry because all our jokes presume that the birth certificate had not been found yet. Then I was like, “Oh, we can be even funnier.”
Cody Keenan, presidential speechwriter, White House: Wednesday morning the president went into the briefing room to talk about the birth certificate. He not only wanted to try to put the controversy to bed, but also make the point, cut out the bullshit in day-to-day political coverage—this is nonsense. You want to shame people a little bit.
President Obama, in remarks in the White House press briefing room, 9:48 a.m., April 27, 2011: We do not have time for this kind of silliness. We’ve got better stuff to do. I’ve got better stuff to do.
Cody Keenan: Then we left for Chicago. It was one of the few times the president was ever curt with me. I walked into the conference room on Air Force One on Wednesday, and he just looked up and said, “What do you want?” I tried to melt into the floor or slink out the door. It was really rare to ever hear him talk like that to anybody. I was like, “Nothing.” It made sense in retrospect. Apparently, Wednesday was the day where they went to him and said, “You’ve got to make this decision by Friday because there’s no moon this weekend.”
Tom Donilon: Thursday of that week was the decision meeting.
Leon Panetta: We had gotten the permission of the White House to relocate the team to Afghanistan. They were staged already—SEALS plus the helicopters. McRaven actually located himself in Afghanistan as well.
Bill Daley: The operation window was Friday through Monday.
Nick Rasmussen: The president had chosen at the beginning of the meeting to say that he was not going to issue or give a decision in that meeting. He just wanted to hear everybody; he would think about it and come back.
Ben Rhodes: It was an incredibly dramatic meeting—everybody knew that it was the last one before you would have to make a decision. It got started off on a strange note, because this meeting included a briefing from an intelligence red-team led by the National Counterterrorism Center, where they essentially took a bunch of analysts who weren’t assigned to this case, briefed them on all the intelligence and asked them what they thought about the probability of bin Laden being there.
Mike Leiter: The three analysts were spread about the likelihood that it was bin Laden: The highest was 70, 75, 80 percent, then there was one who said 60 percent, and then the lowest was 40 percent.
Ben Rhodes: That led to this brief debate about who is right, and Obama cut that off with some irritation and just said, “Look, this is inevitably a 50/50 call. We’re just going to have to accept that.”
Leon Panetta: McRaven basically presented that summary of what would happen: Helicopters would go in and [SEALs would] rappel down, go into the compound. It would be a nighttime operation. After that’s when the president basically looked at everybody around that table and said, “What do you think?”
Tom Donilon: He had seated in the Situation Room at the table some of the most prominent Americans in national security—from Vice President Biden to Secretary Gates to Admiral Mullen to General Cartwright to Leon Panetta and Mike Morell and John Brennan, Hillary Clinton—all of which brought a tremendous amount of experience to the table. The president was moving around the table, asking people their views.
Ben Rhodes: The first person to speak was Bob Gates, and Gates was against the raid. That was a big thing for the secretary of Defense to be expressing that caution. When Gates was making his argument, he referenced “Desert One” and Jimmy Carter’s catastrophic effort to rescue the Iranian hostages. It was the worst ghost you could bring into the room. It’s a scenario that nobody wanted to think about happening, but it was a scenario that obviously had basically ended Carter’s presidency. Gates’ comment framed this decision—this is not going to be a slam dunk.
Leon Panetta: When the president asked me, “I said, Mr. President, I had an old formula I used when I was in Congress and I had to make a tough vote on an issue. I would say to myself: If I told an average citizen in my district, if you knew what I knew, what would you do? In this case, if I told the average citizen in my district that we had the best information on the location of bin Laden since Tora Bora, I think that citizen would say you have to do this operation. That’s what I’m telling you, Mr. President. I think it would be important to do this. I think we regret it if we didn’t do it.”
James Clapper: I have confidence in the instincts of the analysts that have been doing this for years. They seemed to feel pretty confident that he was there. I recommended to the president that he listen to the experts.
Ben Rhodes: Hillary gave a really long intervention that made a lengthy case against going forward now, essentially talking about all the negative fallout that could take place in Pakistan and the things that could go wrong with the operation. But then she made a similarly long intervention making the argument that this was the best chance that we had—the best circumstantial case we had for a lead on bin Laden. You don’t want to live knowing that you didn’t take that chance. She came down in favor of doing it.
Tom Donilon: I and John Brennan and Denis McDonough had already given the president our views—we favored the raid and favored the operation. We saw the president every day and had many, many conversations about the operation.
Ben Rhodes: And then Biden. Biden had worked a lot on Pakistan over the years, and he really laid out the risk of this going wrong and the potential for confrontation with the Pakistanis. Our embassy being overrun, the fallout that could ensue. I don’t remember it as being firmly against as much as it being about like, “I’m going to point out the downsides that you need to consider from the perspective of Pakistan.”
John Brennan: I think Joe Biden was most concerned about if it was a failed mission, what it would mean for Barack Obama and his prospects for a second term.
Ben Rhodes: I was struck by the absolute confidence that McRaven had in this operation. Mullen represented that in the meeting. It was interesting because Mullen and Gates had never disagreed before about a big issue.
Tom Donilon: He had a split room—the most prominent national security Americans in this country had different views.
James Clapper: In fact, we hadn’t really settled on how it was going to go—the special ops folks, they were already primed, but there was still discussion about some kind of standoff attack, either with the B-2 or one of these small anti-personnel weapons that you’d launch from a remote-piloted vehicle.
Ben Rhodes: I remember sitting in that meeting and thinking about the campaign; I wrote the speech he gave in 2007 where he said that he’d go into Pakistan to get bin Laden and everybody pounced on him. The Pakistanis had declared martial law and threatened the United States and all these things. I remembered how certain he was having that fight on the campaign. I figured already that he made up his mind—he decided years ago that if he had a lead on bin Laden in Pakistan that he would do this. I framed my recommendation around that. I said, “You always said that you would do this, so let’s do this.”
Mike Leiter: I was the last one to go. I ended with, “Even if I take the lowest range of what one of the red team analysts said—40 percent—in my view, that’s 38 percent higher than we’ve been for the past 10 years going after bin Laden.” Even if it is not a slam dunk, it is thoroughly more convincing than anything else we’ve seen.
Audrey Tomason: I was nervous, understanding that this opportunity had never come around before and that “The Pacer” could have left at any moment. The circle of people who were aware was starting to grow, which increased the risk of a leak, which then increased the risk of tip-off. The moment we had was fleeting. I was nervous we might miss it.
Tom Donilon: At the end of the session, the president said, “You’ll have my decision tomorrow morning.”
Ben Rhodes: Biden pulled me and Denis McDonough into the small conference room in the Situation Room and asked us, “You guys think he’s going to do this?” We both said, “Yes, absolutely. He always said he would.” What was interesting about that is that Biden said, “Look, I see my role as trying to stretch out his options.” In a sense, Biden was just trying to make sure that Obama had a bunch of room for his decision-making. That always made me think that while he was opposed in the meeting, that some of his opposition was this role he saw for himself—he took a position against the grain to just create space.
Tom Donilon: I left the Situation Room with the president. We went up to the Oval Office. I went over some other things, and he walked out of the Oval Office over to the colonnade, which separates the West Wing from the main White House mansion where president lives. My distinct memory is standing there watching the president walk in the colonnade all by himself and thinking: “We put these decisions solely on the shoulders of one person.”
On Friday, Obama was scheduled to travel to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to tour recent tornado damage, then head onward to Cape Canaveral to watch the final space shuttle, commanded by astronaut Mark Kelly, whose wife, Rep. Gabby Giffords, had been shot earlier in January.
Tom Donilon: The president emailed me that morning at around 7:30 or so and said, “Meet me in the Diplomatic Room.” I gathered myself, Bill Daley, John Brennan and Denis McDonough—the top national security team in the White House—and went over to the Diplomatic Room, which is on the first floor of the White House and has really one of the stunning views. If you look out the back door, it’s where the helicopter is sitting.
The president came in wearing a windbreaker and walked over to us. He looked at us and said, “It’s a go, we’re going to do the raid.” And he said to me, “Draft up the orders,” and he walked out to go look at tornado damage.
Bill Daley: Holy shit, this thing’s going to happen.
John Brennan: We had a lot of work to do in the next 48 hours.
Tom Donilon: I called Leon Panetta and relayed the president’s decision.
Ben Rhodes: There was a kind of brief discussion of the White House Correspondents Dinner. Obama was like, “Just tell McRaven to go whichever day he thinks is best.”
Mike Morell: I remember Hillary saying, “Fuck the White House Correspondents Dinner—if we ever let a political event get in the way of a military operational decision, shame on us.” I thought that was hilarious and absolutely right.
Nick Rasmussen: Donilon convened the principals that afternoon. OK, we’ve got the president’s decision—what do we need to implement? How do we mitigate risk for bad outcomes? Can we do that in a way that doesn’t tip off that we think something is up?
Matt Spence: I’ve often wondered whether we could have pulled this off if this had been like post-Benghazi, because of all the preparations you would need to do for embassy security that might have conflicted with the operational security.
Ben Rhodes: There were scenarios where we go in, there’s a firefight, and we have to explain it; or we go and bin Laden’s not there, we leave, and we try to keep it a secret—basically, talking points and question-and-answer documents and scripts for calls with the press, notification plans, for all these different scenarios.
Katie Johnson: I got the call that we were canceling West Wing tours all weekend. I don’t think I did it any other time for the 2½ years I was there. It was very much without explanation. That was the first thing for me that really raised a red flag that something big was going to happen. People were upset. I remember getting emails—famous people or celebrities were in town over that particular weekend. They just all got pulled down.
Bill Daley: Friday night, my wife says to me, “Something wrong? You seem to be really off. Is there something going on with us—personally or what?” We had an apartment in D.C., and I took her down to the first-floor bathroom, turned on the faucet, took her in the shower, shut the shower door, and whispered in her ear: “We’re going to go after Osama bin Laden.”
George Little: I had driven to CIA headquarters in Langley, and I picked up a lock bag—classic intelligence community lock bag in which I could carry classified materials—and drove myself down to the White House to meet Ben Rhodes. I went to the Secret Service gate outside the West Wing. I was not in the entry system that day, and it took me a while to get cleared in. I was standing there for about 45 minutes, and all I could think was someone was going to steal this bag, which has every single detail of the bin Laden operation in it. I will personally be responsible for blowing this. I was sweating bullets.
Jon Darby: It was my responsibility to update the director of NSA—Gen. Keith Alexander at the time—on how things were going. All those updates, nothing was emailed. It was all hard copy and hand-carry up to him. We even clamped down on all system upgrades for several weeks before the operation just in case. It’s a highly technical agency—sometimes you do upgrades and some things go wrong. We couldn’t afford anything to go wrong.
I’ve been in this business for—at the time—27 years, and I’d never been involved in anything as secret as compartmented as this. We couldn’t tell a lot of people across NSA about what this was all about. We still had people working round-the-clock in the weeks leading up to this under the guise of a military operation of some sort, but nobody really knew the objective. On that weekend—you think about how big NSA is—maybe roughly 50 people at NSA knew.
Mike Morell: We go to the White House that morning for these daily deputies meetings. The meeting starts with McRaven—he’s on the screen from Jalalabad—saying that they’re weathered out for Saturday night, Washington time. It’s not going to happen today.
Leon Panetta: At that point, the decision was that we all should show up for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner as if nothing else was happening.
Ben Rhodes: I was on all the White House speechwriter email chains. I remember the absurdity of that week—the speechwriters being in hysterics about this Trump takedown that they’re writing, different jokes flying back and forth, Gary Busey and Celebrity Apprentice. There was this bizarre duality—my classified email has all these scripts for how we’re going to talk about the bin Laden operation, and my unclassified email with the speechwriters was them just kind of going back and forth with this roast of Donald Trump.
Jon Favreau: The famous joke—the one that everyone remembers—came from Judd Apatow. When we do these speeches, we have this long list of comedians and comedy writers that we ask to send in jokes. It’s the most fun part of my job every year. I was in the speechwriter’s office, with Jon Lovett, Cody and Judd was on speakerphone. Lovett asked him, “OK, tell us this joke that you want to do about The Celebrity Apprentice.” We were laughing so hard. After he finished, I said, “I think we should try this.” We gave it to Obama and he was like, he thought it was like the funniest thing he’d ever heard. He was really getting into the Trump stuff.
Dan Pfeiffer: There was so much fodder—these great jokes about Trump and Celebrity Apprentice. And we were going to do this video that had the birth scene from The Lion King.
Jon Favreau: Jon Lovett and I walked up to the Outer Oval, and I tried out some of the jokes in front of Katie Johnson and Nick Rasmussen, and he was not laughing. I was like, “Oh, I guess you didn’t have a great sense of humor.” Little did I know at the time he had a few other things on his mind. Then we go into the Oval and go over all the jokes. And the president’s very excited. He loves the jokes. He’s laughing and in great spirits. You would not know that anything else was going on—the compartmentalization you do as president of the United States. You have one meeting with a bunch of fucking jokers like us about your one-liners for the correspondents’ dinner. And then the next minute you were meeting with your national security team about a potential strike against Osama bin Laden.
We get into the speech, he says, “There’s one joke that I want to change.” The joke is about all of the Republicans mocking Obama’s middle name. The joke was about how, “You wouldn’t know it, but a lot of these potential Republican candidates in 2012 also have some interesting middle names.” And one of them was like “Tim bin Laden Pawlenty.” And he’s like, “Why don’t we say his middle name is Hosni, like Hosni Mubarak? I remember just being like, “That’s not as funny.” And Obama is like, “Trust me on this. I really think Hosni will be much funnier.”
Dan Pfeiffer: No one could figure out why Obama made that change. It seemed like a weird change.
Mike McFaul, senior director, National Security Council, White House: I was in charge of Russia and Central Asia, and Friday night, I got a call from McDonough saying we’re going to make a phone call to Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan, to ask him for an enhancement of something called the NDN, the Northern Distribution Network, which helped us airlift military supplies and personnel into Afghanistan. I had a pretty long argument pushing back on McDonough as to why I thought the timing of this particular ask was inappropriate and wrong. I remember Denis saying something like, “Thank you, Mr. Kazakhstani expert McFaul, for your wisdom about the timing of this call, but this call is happening tomorrow.”
The reason we were calling Nazarbayev is that we are worried—I didn’t know this at the time, I literally did not know it—that after the raid they would close down our supply routes through Pakistan. We were hedging our bets.
Adm. William McRaven: The president called on Saturday to wish me luck. He was so sincere about me ensuring that the guys understood that, he as the president, understood that they were taking great risks—that this was important for the nation. He was asking them to risk their lives for this. He appreciated that. That’s an important phone call for me.
Jon Favreau: It was like an hour before the dinner started—I was in my tux getting ready to go to the Hilton—and I get a call from Obama. And he’s like, “I’ll probably remember to say this, but just in case, could you please put in the script, ‘May God bless our troops, may God keep our troops safe.’” I thought that that was weird and unusual for him to want to add in there.
Cheryl Smelson: The White House Correspondents’ Dinner back in 2011 was still a really huge deal. Everyone went and it was just a whole weekend of parties.
Jay Carney: Obama always complained a lot about having to do the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
Cody Keenan: The president came out to “I am a real American.” We pulled the ’80s Hulk Hogan theme music. He came out to like an exploding birth certificate on screen and like a screaming eagle flying in a pickup truck. And he said, “My fellow Americans, Mahalo.”
Barack Obama, speech to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Washington Hilton, April 30, 2011: Donald Trump is here tonight! Now, I know that he’s taken some flak lately, but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter—like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?
But all kidding aside, obviously, we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience. For example—no, seriously, just recently, in an episode of Celebrity Apprentice—at the steakhouse, the men’s cooking team cooking did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around. But you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so ultimately, you didn’t blame Lil Jon or Meatloaf. You fired Gary Busey. And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night.
James Clapper: Obama is very comedic, and he just skewered Trump and brought the house down. I look over at Trump, and he wasn’t laughing—he was glowering. I’ll never forget that.
Dan Pfeiffer: It was at the time we thought our most successful speech. Whether it ultimately maybe propelled Donald Trump to run for president is something that history can judge us for—but it felt great.
Ben Rhodes: It was a very strange experience to be in this incredibly packed room with hundreds of influential people from politics and the media all mingling. And then every now and then, I see Michael Morell or somebody who knew what we were going to be doing tomorrow, make eye contact and nod—acknowledgment that this is totally absurd that we’re doing this.
Mike Morell: My table was in the front row, to the right of the stage. While the president was speaking, my CIA phone vibrated. I get up, holding my phone to walk away to answer it. The president sees this out of the corner of his eye. I can tell by the look on his face, he’s like “I wonder if this is about our issue?” I remember that look like it was yesterday.
Ben Rhodes: I remember watching Obama sitting on the dais through this whole dinner and wondering, “What is he thinking?” Then he gets up and roasts Trump and leaves, and I remember thinking, “What a strange night that must have been for him.”
Dan Pfeiffer: All of us left the dinner, went to the after parties, stayed out way too late, probably had a few too many things to drink, and woke up like any normal correspondents’ dinner Sunday morning, which is always theoretically the quietest day in all of politics, because everyone involved in covering news or making news is too hungover to do anything. It’s normally super quiet.
This was not one of those Sundays.
Adm. William McRaven: By the time Sunday arrived, I was not particularly nervous or concerned. We’ve done everything we needed to do. I knew the guys were prepared.
John Brennan: The unknowns we had about whether or not the compound itself was booby-trapped, if there were tunnels, if the whole compound was laid with explosives—that was a real concern. U.S. helicopter pilots are the best in the world—I knew they’d be able to get across that terrain, since it was a period of less moonlight—but the Pakistanis do have radar systems and there’s always something that could happen. Murphy could show up.
Jon Darby: As I came into work that Sunday on May 1, I was walking into the NSA parking lot and thinking, “I’m pretty sure he’s there, but I don’t know if I would bet my annual salary on it—or my presidency.”
Bill Daley: We had all these people coming to the White House—the secretary of State, secretary of Defense, CIA, the vice president. There was a very coordinated get-the-motorcades-out-of-there quickly. If anybody saw all these motorcades come and go, they’d figure something was going on.
Tom Donilon: We gathered in the Situation Room for what turned out to be basically a 15-hour principals meeting. You rarely get to the end of the operation or the end of a project and say, “I did everything—every single step I needed to do.” This was one of those operations where John Brennan and the Deputies Committee had gone through every single step, every single question, every single contingency that related to this.
Nick Rasmussen: Every principal had at their place at the conference table a three-ring binder with a series of sets of talking points that we turn to under this set of circumstances—“OK, Mr. Vice President, you might be called upon to make this phone call to this head of state,” or “Secretary of State Clinton, you might have to pick up the phone and call this person.”
Bill Daley: It was like waiting at a hospital for a baby to be born. There’s not a lot you could do. Everything’s been done, everything’s in motion.
Matt Spence: At one point someone says, “We need to get some food. This is going to be like a college all-nighter. We’re going to be here for a while.” Someone said, “Let’s order pizzas.” The secretary of State said, “No, we need something healthier.” So someone went to Costco and bought a bunch of veggie plates, which people were not super thrilled at. Later someone did bring in pizzas.
Tom Donilon: There were three key places that day—you had the Situation Room, where you had those key national security officials; then Leon Panetta and Mike Morell were over at Langley, where they were directly overseeing the operation; then you had Bill McRaven in Afghanistan, who was directing the operation into Abbottabad.
Leon Panetta: On the seventh floor of the CIA, we had anywhere from eight to 10 people in that room. We had set up our surveillance so we could track the helicopters going into Pakistan and we were taking those images and sending them to the White House.
Mike Morell: Before Leon and I leave his office to go to this operations center that we set up in the director’s conference room, he says, “What do you think?” And I said, “I won’t be surprised if he’s there and I won’t be surprised if he’s not.” “Yeah,” Leon said, “I agree.”
Ben Rhodes: Obama wanted to golf, and then he was like, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t golf, because it’s weird to play golf.” But we’re like, “You play golf every weekend. If you don’t play golf, people might think something’s up.” He decided to play nine holes instead of eighteen.
Ben Finkenbinder, press wrangler, White House: I played golf with the president with regularity over the course of my time at the White House. This Sunday was no different than anything else. Me, Marvin Nicholson, David Katz was the fourth. Nothing out of the ordinary. We knew that the president had to be back on campus at a certain time, but that wasn’t abnormal. It was a normal round of golf. I literally had no idea what was going on.
Cheryl Bolen, White House correspondent, BNA: I was assigned to be the pool reporter. We’re back at the White House early afternoon. Then the White House called a “lid.” A lid means that there will be no sightings or no appearances by the president for the rest of the day. There was no reason for me to ever doubt that. I went home and cooked dinner, never even gave it another thought.
Pete Souza: I knew that a big special ops mission was planned for the weekend. The president came up into the Oval Office. I was waiting for him and I walked downstairs to the Sit Room with him. We sat down like around 1 p.m. They start going into last-minute details, before the helicopters leave Afghanistan to go into Pakistan. Not long after that meeting started, I realized, “Holy shit, we’re going after bin Laden.”
George Little: I happened to walk into the director’s conference room, which had been made into a makeshift operations center, and Panetta was on screen talking to Bill McRaven. They were having a relatively informal chit chat, back and forth, exchanging jokes. Then it turned very heavy when Panetta said, “Bill, now I need to tell you that the president of the United States has approved this operation, and I am directing you to carry it out.”
Adm. William McRaven: Prior to the SEALs actually getting on the helicopter, I went out and chatted with them a little bit. I passed on the president’s best. I have been at these moments when you look back in hindsight—people think of them as these great historical moments—but there aren’t timpani drums in the background beating bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum. There isn’t music playing. There is no crescendo all of a sudden as you say something notable. It just doesn’t happen. I went back into my command center. I sat down, went through my checklist again to make sure I had all the details worked out, I talked to the staff. Are we all good to go? Everybody good? Then I waited and watched.
Ben Rhodes: Then there’s this long period where you’re just kind of waiting. Obama went back upstairs to play cards and kill time. That’s what he did when he didn’t want to think about something.
Leon Panetta: It took about an hour and 40 minutes for them to reach the compound.
Matt Spence: No one was going to leave because the president was going to come back, so you had basically the Cabinet—Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates, the most senior people in the U.S. government—just milling around the Situation Room, making small talk. It had this feeling of a wedding—the ceremony had happened, and everyone’s waiting for the bride and groom to get back for the reception.
Ben Rhodes: We all just started telling our 9/11 stories. What else do you do while you’re waiting to find out if SEAL Team Six gets bin Laden? I saw the Towers collapse. Denis McDonough had to run from the Capitol. Everyone had some interesting and formative story like that.
Letitia Long: I was in the Pentagon on 9/11. I was the deputy director of Naval Intelligence, and I was at Ground Zero about 15 minutes before the plane hit, conducting our morning meeting. I ended the meeting early because when the second plane hit we all knew we were under attack, and I needed to go see the boss, the chief of naval operations. We lost eight folks that day. But for the grace of God—that’s where I was conducting that meeting. So 9/11 is very personal to so many people in our country and so, so many people in our business—and particularly for me with that experience on 9/11.
James Clapper: I’ll never forget when I saw the Pentagon on fire.
George Little: I had a very close family member who died on 9/11—Cantor Fitzgerald, 104th floor. I thought about Donald. I thought about the other victims of 9/11. I thought about all those people who for nearly 10 years had been pursuing bin Laden.
Katie Johnson: Upstairs, Reggie Love, Marvin Nicholson and Souza were there. They spent most of the in-between time playing cards in the dining room. That was a huge part of the day. The president was very much bouncing back and forth between the Oval and the Sit Room. He was never in either place for that long.
Pete Souza: We were playing spades. For me it was awkward, because in that moment I’m his friend and I’m playing cards with these two other guys—Marvin and Reggie—and I have no idea whether Reggie or Marvin even knows what’s why he’s been in the Situation Room. I wasn’t going to say anything. He was preoccupied with playing cards, he was signing some photos, catching up on correspondence. I think there was some game on the little TV in the dining room. Not talking anything about what was going on. He was trying to do everything to keep his mind off of it. Then at some point, Donilon came in and said, “It’s time,” and we walk back downstairs.
Katie Johnson: That’s my vivid memory of the actual progression of the day—just him going up and down between the Oval and the Sit Room and me like pretending like something wasn’t going on.
Jon Darby: A big part of NSA’s role is to provide force protection to any troops going in harm’s way. So we did that—we provided the overwatch to look for any threats to the helicopters or the personnel as they went down to the compound and carried out the operation and then got back out. We had our NSA offices in Georgia, Utah, Hawaii, our overseas offices all geared up.
John Brennan: We had made a decision prior to that day that Gen. [Brad] Webb [from Joint Special Operation Command] would be set up in the small anteroom, which was four or five steps from the main Situation Room conference room, in communication with the CIA and Adm. McRaven.
Mike Leiter: I remember, once the helicopters had taken off, wandering by the smaller of the Situation Room rooms and seeing Gen. Webb in there, and saying, “You guys watching this?” “Yep.” About every 10 minutes someone else would wander in saying, “Are you guys watching this in here?” The first one was the then vice president; he wandered in. Then Hillary and Bob Gates wandered in. I got up and gave my seat to Bob Gates.
John Brennan: Once they were approaching the compound, we all started to drift into that room one at a time.
Mike Leiter: That’s how you end up with this rather clown car-like image of everyone trying to cram into the small room, because no one can quite figure out how to move the video over to the big room.
John Brennan: We didn’t want to disturb Webb from the work that he was doing.
Pete Souza: Right around 3:30, the president and I walk into that little tiny conference room. Gen. Webb didn’t realize that the president was going to be there, so he stood to give up his chair, and President Obama just motioned him, no, you sit right where you are. Gen. Webb had this little laptop, messaging somebody. And so the president pulled up this hardback portable chair right next to him. I went as far back into the corner of the room as I could—I could see everybody’s faces—and I had my butt up against a printer. I was there for the entirety of the raid, which was around 40 minutes. I shot about a hundred photos.
John Brennan: It seemed the minutes went by like hours.
Ben Rhodes: McRaven relays almost like he’s a play-by-play announcer.
John Brennan: During the day of the raid, the president maintained a calm and composed demeanor, but I could see in his face the worry. That iconic photo in that anteroom is a good snapshot. He internalized this. He knew that when he authorized this with a couple of dozen special forces that it could go very badly—it could go very badly, not just from the standpoint of their lives, but also the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, support for our troops in Afghanistan, the terrorists’ reaction.
Leon Panetta: The concern during that trip was whether or not the Pakistanis would, either with radar or some kind of visible sighting, have been alerted to the operation—that did not happen, fortunately. They got over the compound, and it was at that point that because of the heat that day, the heat came up from the ground and stalled one of the engines on one of the helicopters.
Adm. William McRaven: We had looked at the possibility that somebody would come out from the third floor, possibly with an RPG, and try to hit the helicopters. I had had a number of discussions with the great warrant officer who was flying the helicopter—at one point, in one of the rehearsals, he said, “Look, sir, unless I am dead, I’ll be able to get this helicopter on the ground safely over into this thing we called the animal pen, on the other side of the wall.”
Leon Panetta: Thank God there was an old warrant officer pilot who had a lot of experience who was able to settle the helicopter down quickly. And it came down with its tail on one of the walls of the compound.
Tom Donilon: It had a really hard landing.
Mary DeRosa: McRaven says: “Well, as you can see, the helicopter is down.”
Ben Rhodes: There’s almost like a gasp in the room because the worst-case scenario was a helicopter crashing and Americans die right there.
Leon Panetta: It’s one of those “oh shit” moments.
Mary DeRosa: That was an unbelievably, enormously stressful time in an already very stressful day. I remember seeing Ben Rhodes—who never should play poker—he was white as a ghost.
George Little: Desert One—that was one scenario that haunted me all throughout the planning process.
James Clapper: What I remember is what a cool head Bill McRaven was. The helicopter pancakes. Before anybody could really get their head around what they just saw, he just came right on and said, “Hey, we’re good to go here. We got plenty of lift capacity, and we’ll just go to plan B.” Just like calling a cab, just as calm and cool as he could be.
Adm. William McRaven: I wasn’t overly concerned because I’m listening on my headphones. I know the guys are a little banged up, but they’re OK. Nothing was going to stop us from getting into that three-story building and finding out whether or not “The Pacer” was bin Laden.
Mike Morell: He said, “The mission’s on.”
Tom Donilon: Our special forces didn’t miss a beat. You wouldn’t even have detected an increase in heart rate.
Leon Panetta: It was soon after they actually breached the walls and went into the compound that there was gunfire. We could pick up the gunfire. Part of me was encouraged because we did run into resistance—that there was something there and that bin Laden could very well be there.
John Brennan: There are some gun bursts as they were accessing the compound and had to get through the gate. We were all holding our breath, hoping that we were not going to see the compound go up in a fiery explosion.
Leon Panetta: Then there was about 15 minutes of silence, probably the longest 15 minutes of my life.
Pete Souza: One thing about the photo that you don’t see is that both Biden and Mullen had rosary beads wrapped around their fingers.
Rob O’Neill, senior chief petty officer, Seal Team Six, U.S. Navy: We were pretty sure that we weren’t going to come back from the mission—we had this new stealth technology, but no one really knew if it worked. We didn’t know how good the air defenses for Pakistan were. We knew that we were invading, and that they could shoot us down and be justified. We also thought we might simply run out of gas in the helicopters and end up on foot in a really, really bad part of the world. We thought if anyone’s going to blow himself up and his entire family and martyr everybody, it’s going to be bin Laden. He wasn’t going to let us get him.
We had our last meals with our families and our kids—I know I did—and then hand-wrote letters to our families. We all joined to be in the fight, and that’s why we were going. We had that conversation about how the first ones to fight al Qaeda were the passengers on Flight 93 that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. God knows how many lives they saved, but they killed themselves for the western world. We had these conversations every night. That was why we went.
Adm. William McRaven: I hear over the radio, “For God and country, Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo.” I wanted to be careful because until you do a positive ID on somebody, you can’t really claim that you’ve gotten the jackpot—the term we use for the individual we’re after. When I relayed “Geronimo” to Director Panetta, it took me a second to realize, I didn’t ask if it was Geronimo EKIA [Enemy Killed in Action]? I had to go back to the ground force commander and say, “I’m sorry, was it Geronimo EKIA?” Then he responded, “Yes, Geronimo EKIA.”
Mary DeRosa: I turned to Nick and I said, “What’s Geronimo?” And he said, “That’s bin Laden.”
Jon Darby: When he said “Geronimo,” I was thinking, what does that mean? We didn’t know. But shortly after that, Admiral McRaven stated, “HVT number one,” and “EKIA.” High value target number, enemy killed in action. When he passed those words back over the air, going through my head is, “Wow, this is surreal. It worked. We got him.”
Letitia Long: Justice—justice had been done. It took me back to 9/11, to the families of our fallen. I thought about all the families.
Tom Donilon: The United States said after 9/11 that we would bring the perpetrators of this attack on the country to justice. It took years over the course of two administrations of the United States, and we executed on that promise.
John Brennan: There was no jubilation, no high fives or applause. We continue to just listen. It was a somber, solemn moment.
Bill Daley: The tension didn’t end just because we got him. You had one helicopter down, another helicopter that was already out of sight or very close to being out of sight. And now the big thing was to get them out and then all the way back to Afghanistan.
Adm. William McRaven: The ground force commander calls up and says, “Hey, we found a whole lot of intelligence on the second floor.” The initial plan was to keep the guys on the target for no more than 30 minutes. I’m looking at my watch thinking, “OK, all right. Gather up what you can.”
Leon Panetta: They had to put the body on the helicopter, get whatever intelligence they could that was in the compound, destroy the helicopter that was down because it was classified and they did not want it falling into the hands of the Pakistanis or, more importantly, the Chinese.
When the helicopter blew up, obviously, it then really woke up some of the villagers nearby, but the SEALs had posted patrols, and a dog named Cairo was part of the team that kept people from coming close to the compound.
Mike Morell: The crowd was worrisome. We had an officer who spoke the local language and with a megaphone told them that this was a Pakistani military operation, and they should stay away.
Adm. William McRaven: 25 minutes went to 30 minutes, went to 35, went to 40. I started getting a little concerned; finally at about 45 minutes, I said, “OK, I don’t care what you guys got—we got to wrap it up. We got to get out of here.” It was about 48 minutes or so the guys lifted off.
Leon Panetta: It wasn’t until the helicopters actually took off that there was at least a sense of relief.
Pete Souza: It was as tense a 40 minutes as he had in his presidency.
Ben Rhodes: Obama stood up and told everybody, “Good job, but I want to be briefed the second that helicopter gets out of Pakistani airspace.”
Mary DeRosa: It was an hour and a half before they got out of the airspace. I remember eating like a ton of pizza.
Nick Rasmussen: That period between roughly 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. was a lot of breath-holding.
Adm. William McRaven: The moment that sticks in my mind was when the SEALs crossed back into Afghanistan and I knew that they were safe again, that meant something to me. I was thrilled that the mission turned out the way it did—we needed to bring bin Laden to justice, and I wanted to make sure that we got that part of the mission accomplished. But as commander you also always want to bring the boys home safely.
George Little: The visual I recall most vividly, at that point when we knew that we were in the clear, was Director Panetta hugging Michael Morell.
Pete Souza: There’s a big lag between the time the raid ended and when the president made the announcement—it’s seven-plus hours.
Mike Morell: They were talking about the issue of “Did we get him?”
Adm. William McRaven: The president is on a video teleconference with me and he says, “Bill, do you know, whether or not it’s bin Laden?” I said, “Sir, I don’t. I need to go personally ID the remains, and I’ll let you know as soon as I can find out.”
Mike Morell: At that point, what we had was a photograph of the dead body, but it had been shot in the face. In the movies when somebody gets shot in the face it’s a small bullet hole—that doesn’t happen in real life. There wasn’t a lot of the face left.
Adm. William McRaven: The SEALs landed—they have the body in a rubberized body bag. They put it on the floor of the hangar. I got down on the floor and I unzipped the body bag. There was no doubt in my mind it was bin Laden. I knew that bin Laden was about 6-foot-4. I saw some young SEALS standing neaby and I said: “Hey son, how tall are you?” He said, “Sir, I’m 6’ 2.” I say, “I need you to lie down here.” He immediately understood what I was trying to do. The remains were a couple of inches longer.
Mike Leiter: The president at the moment quipped to Bill McRaven, “You just blew up a $65 million helicopter and you don’t have enough money to buy a tape measure?”
Adm. William McRaven: It was a tense night, but at exactly the right moment, the president injects a little bit of levity.
Mike Morell: You had the lead analyst—she had worked on bin Laden for a considerable period of time, and when she looked at him, she thought it was him. And we had our Chief of Station there from Kabul—he had worked on al Qaeda for a long time as well—and he too thought it was bin Laden. The CIA Science & Technology guys did a facial recognition—it turns out you can do the ears. They came back to me and the director and said, “Based on the ears, we’re 95 percent certain that it’s bin Laden.” That still wasn’t good enough for the president.
Ben Rhodes: The first reaction from the senior team was, “Let’s wait till the morning to announce this. That way we can get a firm ID on bin Laden.”
Matt Spence: We started hearing that there are Twitter reports out of Pakistan that there’s some explosion or something and then very quickly said we need to accelerate the timeline.
Sohaib Athar (@ReallyVirtual), 3:58 p.m. ET, May 1, 2011, via Twitter: Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).
Mike Leiter: I think Mike Mullen was really the single most important person at finally putting his fist down and saying, “Mr. President, I’ve got to call [Pakistan military chief of staff Ashfaq] Kayani. I can’t let this continue. I need to get on the phone as we had planned and tell him what just happened.”
Mike Morell: The first thing Gen. Kayani said was, “Congratulations, you killed Osama bin Laden.” And the way he knew that is the Pakistani military showed up at that compound, they talked to the women and children and learned who was living there.
Based on the Pakistanis telling us that we killed bin Laden, the president decided that it was OK to make this announcement to the nation.
George Little: That cascade of communications began.
Dan Pfeiffer: Sunday I had to go pick up a suit that I had bought that had been altered at the Mazza Gallerie [mall in Washington]. While I was there, I decided to go see “Fast Five,” from the Fast and Furious franchise. About an hour into the movie I look at my BlackBerry. I had an email from Ben Rhodes to me and [Senior Adviser] David Plouffe asking us if we could come to the White House right away for a meeting.
Jay Carney: I remember getting an email from Rhodes, just saying, “Hey, something’s come up. Can you come in today?” I remember being pissed off because Sunday was the only time I almost never have to go in. We really tried not to have Sunday meetings. I remember griping at my wife about it.
Dan Pfeiffer: I went directly to the White House, wearing basically jeans and a sweatshirt. As I walked in, Nick Shapiro was outside the back gate, with the cast of “True Blood,” trying to get in.
Nick Shapiro, assistant press secretary, White House: The Secret Service guys are like “You can’t give a tour.” I was like what are you talking about?” I got them in, and as soon as we got into the West Wing, Katie was like, “You can’t walk them around today.” Katie said bring them to the lower press office, and you can’t leave your office. And I said, “That’s the most boring tour ever!” She goes, “Sorry, you have to.”
Dan Pfeiffer: When I walked in on to West Exec [Avenue, the street between the White House and the Old Executive Office Building], there were like 25 idling Suburbans, which means that there were Cabinet secretaries and other high officials inside, which I thought to be quite strange. I got to the West Wing, and there was not a single person around.
I went downstairs to the Situation Room and see Ben Rhodes and press aides and chiefs of staff of a number of the people from the CIA, DNI, elsewhere eating this disgusting bunch of food—like ranch dip and vegetables. I asked them what was happening? They told me, and I thought they were full of shit. It was a complete, total shock. Then I went right from “Oh, we got bin Laden!” to “How the hell do we get the pool camera into the East Room to ensure that this is actually covered on television?”
Mike Leiter: Everyone was calling everyone. I was honored to call one of the family members of the 9/11 victims; I called the House Homeland Security Committee and Janet Napolitano. While I was in the Situation Room, I overheard one of the White House operators, saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry—I didn’t know you didn’t work for President Clinton anymore. Do you know where I can reach him?” President Obama was calling his predecessors, George W. Bush and President Clinton. The operator is trying to find President Clinton. I looked at him and I said, “Hold on one minute.” And I stepped back into the main room, Hillary was there, and I said, “Madam Secretary, I’m really sorry to bother you, but do you have your husband’s phone number?”
Audrey Tomason: Nick and John Brennan realized that nobody was going to staff the president’s calls. They turned to me and said, “Would you go do that?” So I listened to the president do those six calls that he made—former presidents Bush and Clinton, [UK Prime Minister David] Cameron, Speaker [John] Boehner, Senator [Harry] Reid and Pakistan President Zardari. The other side of the phone calls was very congratulatory.
Jon Darby: I went up to one of the NSA offices that had been working around the clock for a few weeks under the guise of some unspecific military operation. I call them all together and said, “Hey, this operation you’re supporting, let me tell you what it was all about,” and told them who the target was and that it was successful. That’s another moment I’ll never forget—all of them started cheering and clapping and hugging each other and crying.
John Brennan: I called [Saudi Interior Minister] Prince bin Nayef. I could in hear his voice how pleased he was at the news; his immediate reaction was, “How were the boys?”—the ones who carried out the raid, he knew the risk that these folks would do these operations. I was very pleased that he decided on his own and immediately that the Saudis would not take bin Laden’s remains. It allowed the process to move forward then as far as the disposal of bin Laden’s remains by the U.S. government.
Jeremy Bash: John, I think smartly, realized that we don’t want his grave to be in any way venerated. He and others realized that probably the best way to do it was to do the at-sea burial. It was flown out to a Navy ship, and the last rites were read by someone of the Islamic faith.
Mike Leiter: The two hours or so between the event and the announcement, as we’re all calling people, it’s probably the only time I’d actually seen the Situation Room look like it’s portrayed in the movies—with people running back and forth. I remember hearing, “King Abdullah on line 3!” It was this mass of everyone connecting with so many people in the world.
George Little: That evening, the Situation Room looked like a college fraternity house, so many pizza boxes stacked up.
Dan Pfeiffer: You had two groups of people—the people who knew in advance, who had been there all day, and were in formal White House weekend, slacks with a blazer, and then the people who were told to come to the White House on no notice on a Sunday in which they were most likely hungover. A bunch of people in sweatshirts, hoodies, jeans and sneakers.
Pete Souza: President Obama went to Bill Daley’s office, and with Ben Rhodes—Daley was sitting nearby—from the top of his head, President Obama dictated what he wanted to say to the nation. He still had the same clothing that he wore to golf—windbreaker, casual pants, shirt. It wasn’t until after that session in the chief of staff’s office that he went upstairs and put on a suit.
Ben Rhodes: He wanted to start with the day of 9/11, he had a whole series of points he wanted to make, and he said, “Look, I want to end on this idea that it’s been a pretty rough decade, but this shows that if America actually sticks to something, you know, we can do really big things. That’s something that should bring us together.” Writing was a very strange feeling. You’re the last thing standing between the entire world knowing this.
Dan Pfeiffer: We went into the East Room—it is now 9 o’clock or something on Sunday night. The room is set up for a Medal of Honor ceremony that is supposed to happen on Monday morning. Plouffe and I were moving the chairs out of the East Room together—just like the two of us moving them—which we got trouble for when the ushers eventually showed up because you’re definitely not supposed to do that.
Jay Carney: I spent a lot of time in my office trying to urge key anchors to get to their chairs. To George Stephanopoulos, I was like, “George, I can’t tell you, but believe me, you’ll want to be in the chair. That’s all I can tell you.” There was a lot of, like, “Well, is it Gadhafi? Is it—?” I just wouldn’t go there. Nobody mentioned bin Laden when I was making those calls.
Dan Pfeiffer: Between Jay, Plouffe, and me, none of us knew how to do a single actual thing, so we called Ben Finkenbinder and made him come in, get the pool together, lift the lid, and begin the process of setting us up to give the speech.
Ben Finkenbinder: I’m at the Capitals game with my buddies and I get a call on my BlackBerry. It was Jay calling from the Situation Room, he said, “We need you back in the White House. The president needs to make a speech.” I remember pretty hastily getting through the concourse, getting onto the street, and I started calling reporters from my BlackBerry, walking and jogging between the Caps game and the White House, still dressed in my Caps-colored track jacket and hat. I was just trying to get a pool together on the way there—telling them the president needed to make a speech.
Cheryl Bolen: My cellphone rang. Ben said, “Cheryl, the lid has been lifted.” And I was like, “What?” I didn’t even understand what that meant. Ben said, “The president’s going to be giving a statement by about 10:30. You need to send out a report and come back to the White House.” We knew something very serious had to have happened at this point—one of my first thoughts was, Has there been a bombing? Has a foreign leader died? The first thing I did was send out a pool report that the lid had been lifted and the president was going to be giving a statement. Then I jumped in my car and started to drive. With a pool report like that, my phone just lit up. Every news organization on the planet was calling me saying, “What do you mean the lid has been lifted? What is he going to say?” Everything wanted to know. I was driving probably past the speed limit to get back to the White House, with my hands on the phone, just telling everyone who called, “I’m sorry. I don’t know.”
Ben Finkenbinder: You have folks roaming around in the East Room trying to pull this thing together in sweatshirts, hoodies, and stuff. There’s a guy walking around in an Ovechkin jersey.We were trying to piece together anything we could—a sound guy from one network and a camerawoman from another network.
Keith Urbahn, former chief of staff to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: I got a phone call from a very senior producer at NBC News, and he said, “Hey, Keith. It sounds like we got bin Laden and there’s going to be a big announcement by the president tonight, and we’re wondering if you can get ahold of Donald Rumsfeld to have him come on air tonight?” I looked at my watch and it was past 10 p.m., so I told the producer, “I’m pretty sure Rumsfeld is in bed, but I’ll give him a call.” He didn’t say anything about it being a secret or confidential information—I assumed I was one of many phone calls he was making that evening. I called Rumsfeld’s house, and his wife Joyce answered. She said, “Well, he’s fast asleep, but I’ll see if I can wake him and call you back.” Right after I got off the phone, I had Twitter open on my BlackBerry—Twitter wasn’t quite what it is today, where now it’s ubiquitous as a source for breaking news—so at that moment, I tweeted out what I had heard assuming that similar rumors were flying.
Keith Urbahn (@Keithurbahn), 10:24 PM. May 1, 2011, via Twitter: So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn.
Keith Urbahn: All of a sudden my phone just started just blowing up with Twitter notifications. There was something new about social media in the bin Laden news cycle—how it informed people in near-real time as the first people outside government found out. It showed that news like this didn’t need to be delivered anymore through reading it on the front page of the newspaper or hearing it on a network broadcast from a Walter Cronkite. Besides the guy in Abbottabad, who didn’t know what was going on, mine happened to be the first tweet that put it all together. The Rock tweeted something at same minute—I beat him by a few seconds—but he was opaque about what he knew.
Dwayne Johnson (@TheRock), 10:24 p.m., May 1, 2011, via Twitter: Just got word that will shock the world – Land of the free…home of the brave DAMN PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN!
Ben Rhodes: We’re like, “How the hell did The Rock know about this?” I have no idea where The Rock gets his information, but it’s pretty good information.
Pete Souza: Just before we walked over to the East Room, the president was sitting making last minute edits to his speech on one of the desks outside the Oval Office, and it had started to leak out on TV.
Jay Carney: When it mattered to him, he would always rewrite it by hand.
Pete Souza: We start walking over to the East Room, along the colonnade, and you could hear the crowd that was starting to gather in front of the White House from what had been leaked out.
Ben Rhodes: I was still calling in edits to the teleprompter operator as Obama was walking down to the East Room. In the East Room there, when the president speaks, you’re usually with a bunch of people. But in this case it was just everybody from the operation—people like Brennan, Hillary Clinton, Gates and Mullen. We’re all just standing in the back of this room.
Cheryl Bolen: It was super quiet.
Barack Obama, president of the United States, May 1, 2011, 11:35 p.m.: Good evening. Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world, the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children. … After nearly 10 years of service, struggle, and sacrifice, we know well the costs of war. … Yet as a country, we will never tolerate our security being threatened, nor stand idly by when our people have been killed. We will be relentless in defense of our citizens and our friends and allies. We will be true to the values that make us who we are. And on nights like this one, we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to al Qaeda’s terror: Justice has been done.
Ben Rhodes: I was next to Brennan, and I turned to him, “How long were you trying to get bin Laden?” Without skipping a beat, he said “15 years.” I remember having this sense: How many people in the U.S. government are like Brennan, who in some way or another had been trying to get bin Laden for 15 years?
Ben Rhodes: When we walk back outside on the colonnade, you could hear these really loud chants of “USA.” This very powerful emotion, standing in the Rose Garden in the White House, hearing this explosion of cathartic joy, justice, resolution in those chants.
Bill Daley: Kids coming down the street with flags and chanting on their way to the White House was pretty impressive. The Secret Service was upset because nobody had given them the heads up, so they didn’t bring in extra Secret Service for the gates. If they had brought in a whole additional crew, that would have been a potential leak.
Mary DeRosa: My number two at that time was Avril Haines. We saw that there were all these celebrations going on outside of the White House. I had been so in the “This is going to fail” mode or “What do we do if it does?” that I hadn’t allowed myself to appreciate the magnitude of what had happened. Avril and I went out to the North Lawn. I remember being overwhelmed with emotion.
Nick Rasmussen: I would have never predicted that you would have had thousands and thousands natives of Washington, D.C., on the street on a Sunday night.
James Clapper: I’ll go to my grave remembering this: Walking out the door of the West Wing and hearing this chanting “USA, USA, USA.” It represents closure for the country and certainly closure for the intelligence community, and personal closure.
Mike Morell: We could hear these kids from Georgetown and GW in Lafayette Park chanting “USA, USA, USA, CIA, CIA, CIA.”
George Little: I didn’t know whether to smile or run—large crowds chanting “CIA” is not usually a good thing.
Leon Panetta: I never in my life expected to hear a crowd celebrating the CIA.
Matt Spence: I leave the White House, the northwest gate, to go home very late, very exhausted. Someone on the street asked me, “Hey, did you hear about just what happened?” I looked at him, tired. He said, “Haven’t you been paying attention to anything? We just got bin Laden!”
Jon Darby: When I finally got home, I just walked into my house, sat down, and just started crying my eyes out. It was a flood of emotions—having worked this for 10 years, aware of all the sacrifices so many people had made for so long, to see the perpetrator brought to justice. It was an amazing sense of closure.
Ben Rhodes: I remember leaving, whatever time it was, and suddenly I’m just an anonymous guy walking home, out in the crowd of people who are banging on cars and standing on the back of pickups and chanting and yelling. I called a friend of mine who I know from working on the 9/11 Commission, whose mother was killed in one of the planes. I remember thinking in government—and particularly national security—very rarely do you get outcomes that are exactly what you would want to happen without anything going wrong. As a New Yorker who got into this field because of witnessing the 9/11 attacks, I just remember wanting the day to never end.
Cody Keenan: I think we knew we’re not going to get one of these moments again. The way war works nowadays, there is no signing of a surrender, there’s no big celebration. It might be the last one of those we get.
Caroline Pahl contributed to the research for this article.