A lengthy new oral history delves into the days and weeks surrounding one of the most consequential events in recent U.S. history

By Virginia Chamlee
May 04, 2021 10:13 PM
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President Obama Announces Death of Osama Bin Laden
Barack Obama with Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and members of the national security team
| Credit: Pete Souza/The White House via Getty

While the raid on Osama bin Laden was years in the making, requiring months of top-level meetings with those in the highest echelons of government, it also required that the daily ongoings at the White House not change too much — so word wouldn't get out before the government was ready to announce what it had done.

A sprawling new oral history by Politico, marking the 10th anniversary of the raid, details the months and days leading up to the SEAL Team Six operation that led to the death of the notorious mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The new reporting includes first-person accounts from many of the government officials who were part of the decision-making process or worked in the White House when the news first broke.

The high level of secrecy surrounding the raid meant that President Barack Obama's schedule had to remain largely unchanged, so as not to offer any clues that it was underway.

That also meant his scheduled appearance at the 2011 White House Correspondents' Dinner, was necessary, even under the stress of the pending military operation — which took place just one night later, on May 1, 2011.

Former deputy director of the CIA Mike Morell told Politico he remembered then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying, "F--- the White House Correspondents' Dinner — if we ever let a political event get in the way of a military operational decision, shame on us."

The show went on, though the forthcoming raid did have an impact on jokes delivered by the president.

Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau told Politico that he was worried when he and colleague Jon Lovett tried out some of the material they had written before a White House security official — to no laughter.

"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," Favreau said.

But when they showed the jokes to Obama, Favreau said, the president loved them.

"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," Favreau remembered. "You would not know that anything else was going on — the compartmentalization you do as president of the United States."

Still, Favreau was confused when Obama suggested that the speechwriters make one tweak to a punchline before the dinner.

"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," Favreau told Politico. "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.' "

Favreau continued: "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.' "

Not long before the correspondents' dinner, Favreau got a call from the president with a request that he said was "weird."

"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," Favreau said.

As former White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer recounted, most of the press staffers and members of the media "stayed out way too late" after the dinner "and woke up like any normal correspondents' dinner Sunday morning, which is always theoretically the quietest day in all of politics."

"This was not one of those Sundays," Pfeiffer told Politico

Back at the White House, the raid was taking shape, with all of the major players beginning to huddle to watch the situation unfold. (Obama, meanwhile, was holed up in the residence, playing cards to distract himself as the SEAL team made their way to bin Laden.)

As more military and government officials began to make their way to the White House, there was one problem: a lack of space in a small anteroom outside the main Situation Room conference room, where a Joint Special Operation Command general had set up a TV streaming the operation.

Mike Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told Politico that the lack of space in the conference room ultimately added to what would become one of the most famous White House photos in history: Obama, then-Vice President Joe Biden and other officials crowded together, watching the raid.

"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," Leiter said.

Former White House photographer Pete Souza told Politico that the lack of space made taking photos particularly uncomfortable — though he still managed to get several.

"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," he said. "I was there for the entirety of the raid, which was around 40 minutes. I shot about a hundred photos."

Though the image has since been widely shared, Souza also told Politico it contained one thing not visible to those who weren't there: "Both Biden and [Adm. Mike] Mullen had rosary beads wrapped around their fingers."

Though the raid was complicated by a hard helicopter landing, SEAL Team Six managed to make their way into bin Laden's compound, ultimately relaying the news that they had captured and killed the al-Qaeda founder.

Still, the military officials back in the states wanted to be sure the body was indeed that of the terrorist leader and they took unusual steps to make that determination.

"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 ... I knew that bin Laden was about 6-foot-4," retired Adm. William McRaven told Politico. "I saw some young SEALs standing nearby 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."

When Obama learned of McRaven's tactics, the latter said Obama injected "a little bit of levity" into what had up to that point been a tense evening by joking, "You just blew up a $65 million helicopter and you don't have enough money to buy a tape measure?"

Hours later, the White House prepared to tell the world of bin Laden's death.

The situation, while somber, was also startling to those who were called in to work very suddenly on a Sunday as Obama readied a speech to the nation.

"That evening, the Situation Room looked like a college fraternity house, so many pizza boxes stacked up," CIA Director of Public Affairs George Little told Politico.

Pfeiffer, the communications director, was at a movie theater, an hour into a film from the Fast and Furious franchise when he got an email to come in right away for a meeting.

"I went directly to the White House, wearing basically jeans and a sweatshirt," he said. "As I walked in, [former Assistant Press Secretary] Nick Shapiro was outside the back gate, with the cast of True Blood, trying to get in."

As Shapiro told Politico, the actors from the hit HBO series were ultimately turned away from a tour and instead could only go to the lower press office while the rest of the White House prepared for Obama's speech.

According to Pfeiffer, the secrecy meant that there was a clear delineation between those who were called in to work last-minute, and those who had been privy to the discussions for months.

"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," he said. "A bunch of people in sweatshirts, hoodies, jeans and sneakers."