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During Bin Laden Raid, ‘The Minutes Passed Like Days’

May 2, 2011 at 6:30 PM EDT
The plan that led to the death of al-Qaida leader and Sept. 11 plotter Osama bin Laden was reportedly in the works for months. Margaret Warner reports from the White House with the details of the planning and execution of the raid on bin Laden's compound, and why the U.S. kept Pakistani officials in the dark until it was over.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And back live now, and we turn next to how President Obama and his top officials put together the plan that led to the killing of bin Laden.

Margaret Warner has been reporting that part of the story. She joins us from the White House.

Margaret, so how did American military intelligence first track bin Laden to this compound?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Jeff, as you know, ever since 9/11 there’s been a whole intelligence operation designed to try to find Osama bin Laden, but many times the trail went cold.

About six years ago, based on detainee interrogations, they learned the pseudonym of Osama bin Laden’s official courier, official messenger to other parts of the network. And that was just another piece of information that they were collating with everything else.

Then, maybe four years ago, they actually learned the real name of this individual. And then, a couple of years ago, they finally learned where he was operating. But it wasn’t until last August that they actually tracked him to the compound that Saima just described.

Once they zeroed in on it, and they saw 18-foot-high walls, barbed wire on top — from overhead, you could see the balconies are all protected by privacy walls. All the windows are opaque. Something big was going on there. There was no Internet or phone service, though it’s a $1 million house. They wouldn’t take their trash out. They would burn it inside the compound, which you could see from overhead.

So, by September, actually, we’re told that the CIA was pretty — not certain, but they thought a high likelihood that it was Osama bin Laden.

JEFFREY BROWN: But…

MARGARET WARNER: And — go ahead.

JEFFREY BROWN: No, I was going to say, but then they had months of planning, of course. And, so, I was going to ask you to tell us about that, and is — and the — the Joint Special Operations Command that oversaw that operation that most Americans, most of us are not familiar with. So, explain how that worked out.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

The JSOC, as it’s called, is the sort of military half of this operation. And that’s — basically, it’s made up of the elite units from the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. And they’re all special forces. And some people call them Murder, Inc., Assassination, Inc.

Their — their expertise is assassinations. This unit or this sort of joint command really hit full flower in Iraq, when they were taking out top Sunni insurgent leaders, and under the — under the leadership of Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

When President Obama took office, he ordered that most of the big intelligence assets be moved to the Afghan-Pakistan theater, out of Iraq. And so, one, you had this great military — I mean, intelligence operation on the ground, much beefier than it had ever been before.

And once they decided, in about March — I mean, there was a lot of planning going on: Could you do a special operation or something else? As planning began really in earnest, one of the things they did, for instance, was to build an entire mock compound, we’re told, somewhere in Afghanistan and practice many times just going into that compound.

They also, of course, planned for every eventuality, taken dead or alive, what to do with the remains, how to do quick forensic analysis, so they could dispose of the body within 24 hours.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then before that final raid, of course, I gather there was a great debate about exactly how to try to take bin Laden out.

MARGARET WARNER: Absolutely, Jeff.

There were really two main options, with a lot of suboptions in between. One would be to do it by remote, by standoff, as they call it, so, whether it was bombers or drones or Predators. And the other was to send in men on the ground.

And there were risks associated. The latter was obviously much riskier, not only in the potential loss of American lives, but also if there were a fiasco. If it were to be bungled, it could well be revealed.

And they were, of course, thinking of the 1980 attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages — the American hostages in Iran. On the other hand, they knew that this kind of operation versus a bombing raid, you have the certainty of knowing, you know, with real eyes and ears, as someone said to me, instead of smart bombs, that you got your man, if you got your man.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and that…

MARGARET WARNER: So, in the end, the president made the decision.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and once he made the decision, then, of course, they had to watch.

And we heard John Brennan, the top counterterrorism adviser to the White House, talk a little bit about the tensions. You have learned a little bit more about that.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, yes, Jeff.

As he said, every — the minutes passed like days, and every moment was tense. But the tensest moment came when one of the helicopters they had taken in there essentially stalled out. It got on the ground, but it stalled out. And they needed it to get out.

So, as Brennan said, we — of course we had a plan B, but that was still, he said, the worst moment, because it was the first time they had had to go off the perfect script. They did get another helicopter in. And, ultimately, as they left they blew up the one that was — that was stranded on the ground.

The other tense moment was, near the end of the operation, they became aware that the Pakistanis were aware something was going on and were scrambling their F-16 fighter jets. And, interestingly, there were earlier stories today that the U.S. had called the Pakistanis and say: Stand down. It’s one of ours.

They did not. And Brennan said they did not notify the Pakistanis until they flew out of the airspace. And he said: Fortunately, we didn’t have to engage with Pakistani forces and there was no engagement — so, leaving open the question: Were they prepared to actually shoot down Pakistani planes, if necessary? We don’t know yet.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally, briefly, Margaret, we also heard that there’s no decision yet about whether to release photos, video or other evidence. Where — where does that stand?

MARGARET WARNER: I don’t know exactly where it stands, Jeff.

But, certainly, again, there’s a debate about the advantages and disadvantages. Brennan said, you know, you don’t want to do anything that could encumber or threaten any future missions.

Now, it’s hard to see how a photograph of a body wrapped in a shroud being prepared, or even with bin Laden’s face, of course, sliding into the sea would compromise operational security, but maybe he means by not inflaming — by inflaming public sentiment.

However, he made very clear that we don’t want to leave any doubt in anyone’s mind that this was Osama bin Laden. And while they have DNA analysis from the remains, in terms of evidence and proof to the world, it’s hard to see how they can’t do — how they can do that without a photo. But we’re told there hasn’t been a decision yet.

JEFFREY BROWN: Margaret Warner from the White House, thanks a lot.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks, Jeff.