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Bin Laden’s Death a ‘Tremendous Sigh of Relief’ After Tense Abbottabad Raid

May 2, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Americans of all positions and places today marked the death of the most wanted man in the world, Osama bin Laden.

Ray Suarez begins our coverage of the raid and the reaction.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think we can all agree this is a good day for America. Our country has kept its commitment to see that justice is done. The world is safer. It is a better place because of the death of Osama bin Laden.

RAY SUAREZ: This morning President Obama hailed the killing of bin Laden, as he bestowed Medals of Honor on soldiers from the Korean War and praised heroism then and now.

BARACK OBAMA: We are fortunate to have Americans who dedicate their lives to protecting ours. They volunteer. They train. They endure separation from their families. We may not always know their stories. But they are there every day on the frontlines of freedom and we are truly blessed.

RAY SUAREZ: As the president spoke, more emerged on the raid that left bin Laden’s Pakistan hideout in flames and the al-Qaida leader dead. U.S. officials said Navy SEALs carried out the mission. They were part of what was once called SEAL Team six, a counter-terror unit.

They helicoptered in from Afghanistan to this walled compound at the end of a dirt road in Abbottabad, Pakistan. An intense firefight ensued and bin Laden was shot through the head.

The president and top officials monitored the operation in real time from the White House yesterday afternoon.

Terrorism adviser John Brennan described the scene today:

JOHN BRENNAN, deputy national security adviser: It was probably one of the most anxiety-filled periods of time, I think, in the lives of the people who were assembled here yesterday.

The minutes passed like days and the president was very concerned about the security of our personnel. But it was clearly very tense, a lot of people holding their breath, and there was a fair degree of silence as it progressed, as we would get the updates.

And when we finally were informed that those individuals who were able to go in that compound and found an individual that they believed was bin Laden, it was a tremendous sigh of relief.

RAY SUAREZ: Also killed, one of his sons, two guards and a woman reportedly used as a human shield. Officials said bin Laden’s wife identified the body on scene.

The troops then returned to Afghanistan where DNA testing confirmed the I.D.

According to the official account, the body was ritually washed, wrapped in loose cloth, according to Muslim custom, and buried at sea from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. An Arabic native speaker translated Islamic prayers as part of a Muslim funeral service.

There was no firm decision today on whether photographic evidence of bin Laden’s death and burial would be released. Brennan said U.S. forces would have taken him alive, given the chance. CIA Director Leon Panetta had said the order was to kill and not to capture.

Either way Brennan was direct about the damage done to the terror network.

JOHN BRENNAN: This is a strategic blow to al-Qaida. It is a necessary, but not necessarily sufficient blow to lead to its demise.

But we are determined to destroy it. I think we have a lot better opportunity now that al-Qaida — that bin Laden is out of there.

BARACK OBAMA: Justice has been done.

RAY SUAREZ: The initial announcement of the raid was a dramatic late-night statement by the president, after an elaborate intelligence operation a decade in the making.

BARACK OBAMA: Finally, last week I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.

RAY SUAREZ: Bin Laden had long been thought to be hiding in Pakistan in the wild tribal frontier lands that border Afghanistan. Instead he was living just north of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

His heavily guarded compound, built in 2005, was near a military academy, a large army garrison and a training facility. It all fueled new questions about whether Pakistani intelligence and military elements had helped hide bin Laden.

With that in mind, U.S. officials said the Pakistani government wasn’t informed of the operation until it was over. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, in an interview today, praised the action.

As for Pakistani cooperation, the prime minister said: “I don’t know the details. I don’t know minute details, but in short, we have intelligence cooperation.”

Back in Washington, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin was stark in his assessment of Pakistan’s role.

SEN. CARL LEVIN, D-Mich.: Well I think that the Pakistani army and intelligence have a lot of questions to answer, given the location, the length of time and the apparent fact that this was actually — this facility was actually built for bin Laden and its closeness to the central location of the Pakistani army.

RAY SUAREZ: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had sought to ease that tension in an earlier statement.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: Our partnerships, including our close cooperation with Pakistan, have helped put unprecedented pressure on al-Qaida and its leadership. In Pakistan we are committed to supporting the people and government, as they defend their own democracy from violent extremism. Indeed, as the president said, bin Laden had also declared war on Pakistan.

RAY SUAREZ: But Clinton also spoke of the larger implications of the killing.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: History will record that bin Laden’s death came at a time of great movements toward freedom and democracy, at a time when the people across the Middle East and North Africa are rejecting the extremist narratives and charting a path of peaceful progress, based on universal rights and aspirations. There is no better rebuke to al-Qaida and its heinous ideology.

RAY SUAREZ: Bin Laden’s end came nearly 10 years after he orchestrated the 9/11 attacks and after killing thousands more worldwide.

Al-Qaida had previously launched several high-profile attacks on U.S. targets overseas, the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings and the Oct. 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. After Sept. 11, there were more attacks, in Bali in 2002, in Madrid in 2004, and in London in 2005.

British Prime Minister David Cameron:

DAVID CAMERON, British prime minister: Osama bin Laden was responsible for the death of thousands of innocent men, women and children right across the world, people of every race and religion.

RAY SUAREZ: And in Afghanistan, where the U.S. and NATO are still at war with al-Qaida and the Taliban, President Hamid Karzai welcomed the news.

HAMID KARZAI, president of Afghanistan (through translator): Osama bin Laden received his due punishment during an operation in Abbottabad of Pakistan. Bin Laden was the one whose hands were dipped in the blood of thousands and thousands of children, youths, and elders of Afghanistan.

RAY SUAREZ: But from the Pakistani Taliban came a warning that bin Laden’s death wouldn’t go unavenged. A spokesman vowed there would be new attacks against Pakistan and the U.S.