MS. BORGER: A dramatic week in Washington after the death of Osama bin Laden. I’m Gloria Borger in for Gwen Ifill this week. The back-story, the context and the implications tonight on “Washington Week.”
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Justice has been done.
MS. BORGER: And with that declaration, President Obama announced that the world’s most notorious terrorist had been killed. But what about the details? How did the CIA find Osama bin Laden? And how did the U.S. military get him? We’ll have the story of the plan –
LEON PANETTA [CIA Director]: (From tape.) We looked at several options that were discussed by the president and by the national security team.
MS. BORGER: – the details behind the mission –
JAY CARNEY [White House Press Secretary]: The team methodically cleared the compound moving from room to room in an operation lasting nearly 40 minutes.
MS. BORGER: – and the impact on an already rocky relationship with Pakistan.
JOHN BRENNAN [White House Counterterrorism Adviser]: Although there are some differences of view with Pakistan, we believe that that partnership is critically important to breaking the back of al Qaeda.
MS. BORGER: And, of course, the political fallout.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER [Speaker of the House]: (From tape.) The operation against Osama bin Laden is an unmistakable triumph for our military and our intelligence personnel. It’s also a credit to our commander-in-chief, the current one and the previous one.
MS. BORGER: All this from the reporters who have been covering every detail of the death of bin Laden: Tom Gjelten of NPR; Peter Baker of the New York Times; James Kitfield of National Journal; and Charles Babington of the Associated Press.
ANNOUNCER: Award winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill,” produced in association with National Journal.
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, sitting in for Gwen Ifill this week, Gloria Borger of CNN.
MS. BORGER: Good evening. What a week. As reporters scrambled on Sunday with word of dramatic news from the president, 57 million Americans tuned in to hear President Obama announce the death of Osama bin Laden.
PRES. OBAMA: For over two decades bin Laden has been al Qaeda’s leader and symbol and has continued to plot attacks against our country and our friends and allies. The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda.
MS. BORGER: In his nine-minute message to the nation, President Obama explained how a group of U.S. Special Forces stormed bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout and executed a mission that had been years in the making. And this afternoon, in a visit to Fort Kendall, Kentucky, the president met with members of the military team that carried out that mission.
PRES. OBAMA: Thanks to the incredible skill and courage of countless individuals – intelligence, military – over many years, the terrorist leader who struck our nation on 9/11 will never threaten America again. (Cheers, applause.)
MS. BORGER: So, Tom, let’s start with you. How did the U.S. do it?
MR. GJELTEN: Well, Gloria, the short answer is two dozen Navy SEALs came sweeping in at midnight on Black Hawk helicopter, blew a hole in the wall of the compound where Osama bin Laden was hiding, went in, found him, shot him dead along with four other people. That was the military operation.
But the truth is that this – and it was impressive – but the truth is this was less of a military achievement than it was an intelligence achievement. The truth is the Navy SEALs do operations like this all the time. They’re very good at it. But this was an intelligence operation that was one of a kind, that was over a decade in making and truly remarkable, the most remarkable intelligence achievement in decades, probably. And what it required was putting together a painstaking, step-by-step process of clues involving human intelligence, electronic intelligence, surveillance that ultimately culminated in them finding bin Laden. I think that’s the key. It was an intelligence achievement.
MS. BORGER: You know, they finally decided to look at the couriers. Since bin Laden had separated himself, they thought, okay, now we’re look at find the couriers who were actually helping bin Laden. And that’s how they found him, right, Peter?
MR. BAKER: Right. But that’s not easy.
MS. BORGER: Right.
MR. BAKER: They had a particular courier they had in mind. He was a trusted lieutenant of bin Laden. They’d known about him for years. Even once they got his nickname it took them two more years to figure out his actual name. It took two years after that to figure out where he lived and where he was basically based in Pakistan. And only last year in late summer did they actually finally track him down in Peshawar. They found him. And some Pakistani agents working for the CIA scribbled down his license number. And that eventually takes them to Abbottabad. Not an easy thing. As Tom said, a long, painstaking intelligence trail that leads us, eventually, to this compound, just an hour away from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan.
MR. GJELTEN: And you know, I’ve been looking at the Guantanamo documents, the detainee assessments that the New York Times, NPR and other news organizations got. You can see in those assessments that they were zeroing in in their questioning of detainees years ago, you can see them trying to find out who’s the courier. Once they get the name, like Peter says, trying to find out more information.
MS. BORGER: They got the nickname then they had to get the name. Right.
MR. GJELTEN: Right. Right. Exactly.
MR. KITFIELD: He’d released 30 tapes over – since 9/11, audiotapes, videotapes that usually show up on Al Jazeera, so you knew that the chain of custody was how you were going to trace it back and that was the only way because he quit using the satellite phone. He quit using his cell phones. And when they actually found his compound, one of the things that was the real tipoff to them was, no telephone lines, no cell phone, no computer they could see as far as hardwire. It looked – for a million plus dollar compound looked like it didn’t have much common communications.
MS. BORGER: But even then, the CIA Director Leon Panetta could only tell the president that it was a 60 to 80 percent certainty that Osama bin Laden was actually in that compound. That’s a pretty tough political decision to make, isn’t it?
MR. BABINGTON: Exactly. As impressive as the intelligence work was, then a very important political operational decision: what to do? And it worked out so well, it might be easy to look in hindsight and say, well, that was a natural call to make. But remember how when Jimmy Carter was president and he tried to rescue the hostages in Tehran, it was disastrous. The helicopters failed out in the desert. So many things could have gone wrong.
MR. KITFIELD: And a helicopter did fail in this case.
MR. BABINGTON: Right. That’s right. In these operations anything can go wrong and this one really was remarkably well.
MR. BAKER: And he had other choices. The president was presented with the option which is the easy option: push a button, launch a missile or a bomb, hit it, kill it, flatten the place. But the problem was everybody realized you don’t have a body. Do you really know then that you got Osama bin Laden? And they wanted proof. The president decided to take a risky option, as you said, because it could go wrong very easily because they wanted the proof to know finally, 10 years later after 9/11 that we really actually did get him.
MR. GJELTEN: And we know now that the CIA actually had a safe house in Abbottabad where they were sort of keeping track, monitoring this house. And I understand that the operatives –
MS. BORGER: How did they keep that undercover?
MR. BAKER: Amazing, isn’t it?
MR. GJELTEN: It is amazing. You know, Abbottabad is – you know, I read somewhere that it’s the nearest thing to Britain in Pakistan so it’s not like having a safe house out in the northwest frontier where you would really stand out. It’s a much more cosmopolitan city than that. But, still, I mean they had to keep this very low profile. My understanding is that these CIA operatives who were there – one of the tasks or one of the missions that they considered for a while was to provide perimeter security around the compound when the raid took place just in case the Pakistanis tried to intervene, it would have been their job to block them. In the end, they decided even that was too risky so they just decided to go ahead and do it in this kind of stealthy way.
MS. BORGER: So in the end, was this always a kill mission and not a capture mission?
MR. KITFIELD: I think it was. I think the last thing this administration wanted was a court case with Osama bin Laden. I mean, there would be hostages taken all over the world, threatens to behead them if they don’t let him go. He would have used masterful propaganda to see – just sort of tried to hijack those as a propaganda victory. But they had to be careful because the whole war on terror is fought in the laws of war. In the laws of war you can kill your enemy, but if he is throwing his hand up and surrendering, at that point even under the laws of war you’re supposed to, I believe, to take him prisoner. In this case, he’d sworn to martyrdom, he would never be taken alive. There was all kinds of concerns about whether he had a vest on or a suicide vest.
MS. BORGER: Or an AK-47 by the door.
MR. KITFIELD: Or an AK-47. So I think, you know, I think the assumption was going in this was going to be an assassination basically.
MR. GJELTEN: But, Jim, you wrote in your article that these U.S. forces obliged his desire for martyrdom. And that raises the question: what would it have been like if they had captured him alive? Would that sort of make him weak? Would that have actually in a sense undermined his claim because now, if you look at the al Qaeda statement, he’s a hero because he was a martyr?
MS. BORGER: Well, right. That leads me to the point is al Qaeda has actually released this statement because, of course, there was a big debate – and we will talk about that, about whether we should release – the United States should release the picture of him with the bullet wound in the head. Now, al Qaeda has released a statement saying – without the photograph – saying that indeed he is dead. So how do we interpret that? Should we know understand that there is going to be retaliation, that we need to be worried about this?
MR. GJELTEN: Well, of course, I think U.S. intelligence agencies are very concerned about that. I think – you know, I think the chances of some kind of target of U.S. or Western installations in Pakistan itself is very high. I don’t think that al Qaeda would want necessarily to, let’s say, attack a cricket match or something like that that could inflame the Pakistani people. But if they could attack some kind of Western installation, make it seem like revenge for Osama bin Laden’s killing, that would make sense.
MS. BORGER: Well, let’s talk about – since the president decided not to drop a bomb on the place – what kind of intelligence we’re actually getting out of this compound? Everybody’s calling it a treasure trove is the cliché of the day. Do we think that is in fact the case and what are we learning?
MR. KITFIELD: Well, clearly they got a lot of intelligence out of there. They got some hard drives apparently, some written documents, some videotapes and they pouring through that. They have already had to walk back a couple of stories already. So I think a little bit of bit of caution is wise here about what the first reports are. They are saying that there was communication between him and other al Qaeda leaders, which leads you to believe or at least hope that Zawahiri’s communications is in there and in some ways it might be able to follow a chain of custody to him.
So there have been some comments from people who had been read in stated we’re hot on the trail of Zahawiri. We don’t know yet. There’s also this idea that he had talked about derailing some trains in America to coincide with the 10-year anniversary this September 11th. That chatter has been already been picked up by the intelligence community out there in the sort of stratosphere.
MS. BORGER: Wasn’t it just a plan on paper, though? I mean, that’s what I was told.
MR. BAKER: It was, but it’s fascinating that all of our assumption or a lot of our assumptions about bin Laden were wrong, right? We thought he was in a cave in the mountains along the border with Afghanistan.
MS. BORGER: We did.
MR. BAKER: We thought – well, I mean, collectively, the great thinkers and knowledge people of the West. We thought he was on dialysis. Remember all that conversation about he was – we thought that he had no real connection operationally anymore and he was more of a figurehead when it comes to al Qaeda, but he wasn’t really directing traffic, if you will, in terms of these attacks. All of those now seem to be false assumptions which, again, as you say, ought to give us some pause in our thinking about how much we know about places like that.
MR. KITFIELD: Although I did run the idea that he’s waking up every morning and plotting these plots like this train thing by a top CIA guy who recently retired. And his point was, yes. He’s got nothing better to do. He wakes up and he has these plots. And, yes, they may get communicated through code and et cetera, but that’s not the same thing as being operationally directing serious terrorist plots. That’s him sort of trying to keep his hand in.
MS. BORGER: Right.
MR. KITFIELD: But I think the conventional wisdom that he’s more inspirational at this point than operational may still hold true. We don’t know yet.
MS. BORGER: Let’s switch gears for a moment and talk a little bit about what was going on inside the White House at this particular moment. And I want to put up a picture here on the screen, the famous picture now – it’s iconic at this point – of the Situation Room, inside that Situation Room. And you see there they’re staring at something that is captivating. They all look powerless in a way. And these are really, really important people here. And I’ll start with you, Peter Baker. What were they looking at? Do we really know?
MR. BAKER: Yes. It’s a great picture taken by Pete Souza, the official White House photographer, so it was not a media picture. So none of us really knows exactly what was happening at that moment. It looks like a scene from “24,” right, or a scene from a movie, and they’re watching this happen and his head is being blown up right in front of them. That’s why the president looks so grim and the first lady has her – well, maybe not.
What we’ve been told is in fact what was happening was Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, was narrating what was happening from a video link back at Langley, the CIA headquarters. They won’t talk about exactly what they’re able to see or listen to in the Situation Room for obvious reasons. That picture makes it look much more dramatic than listening to Leon Panetta narrate.
But, in any case, it tells you a little bit of something about that moment, right? The president of the United States is not in the center chair, right? He’s off to the side and he’s kind of like almost sort of withdrawn compared to some the other figures who look larger. And the face on John Brennan and Denis McDonough, who all had this very powerful reaction – the secretary of state said she was not in fact gasping when she had her hand over.
MR. KITFIELD: (Inaudible) – maybe?
MR. BAKER: She said she had allergies and having trouble.
MS. BORGER: She looked a little nervous.
MR. KITFIELD: There was tension in the room. There was tension in the room.
MS. BORGER: And let me go to you, Chuck, because there’s been a lot of controversy this week over, shall we say, the evolving story of how events unfolded from the White House. There was a rush, the White House would say to transparency, in which they may have forfeited accuracy to a certain degree. How do you explain that? Are they trying to hide information or is it just that people like us are pushing them for information immediately?
MR. BABINGTON: You know, Gloria, by any account this was a great week for the president and the administration. And about the only thing that did sort of go wrong was the way that they unfolded, spun out the story themselves. And you’re right. In the very first big briefing that the public and the media got from John Brennan there were some inaccuracies. And part of the problem there was they seemed to be trying to unfold the story about how bin Laden was a coward and hiding behind a woman but also shooting. It turns out those things were not true. We don’t really know and maybe we won’t know for a long time why that happened. They clearly got ahead of themselves. I’m sure they regret it because really the story, the facts as we do know them now, to the extent we do know them, are plenty good enough from their standpoint.
MS. BORGER: Right.
MR. BABINGTON: They obviously had a tremendously successful ending. Not a single American was injured. So I think they’re going to look back and regret for getting ahead of themselves in that regard.
MR. BAKER: Let’s face it – anybody who’s been in the field, right, you know better than all of us, is you know that the first reports are always wrong –
MR. KITFIELD: Right.
MR. BAKER: – that information is often fungible in those initial hours and days after any kind of operation. You’re a little surprised that they wouldn’t be more careful knowing that about what they’re putting out. And John Brennan, who, of course, has been chasing bin Laden for years and years and years, former CIA guy, you saw him smiling. I never saw him smile before. He was a happy man finally having gotten this guy. He had served in Saudi Arabia. So I think he got wrapped up in this narrative of a coward hiding behind a woman, and probably was too quick to put that out there.
MS. BORGER: And so much is happening so quickly. They also have to get rid of the body and figure out what they’re going to do with that. Then they have to decide whether to release these pictures. And there was internal disagreement about whether in fact you should release that picture.
MR. GJELTEN: Well, and the interesting thing is, Gloria, it comes right in the aftermath of the birth certificate controversy where the president finally had to release his birth certificate in order to quiet that controversy. And I guess there was some thought that people are not going to believe that bin Laden is really dead. So maybe we’ll just –
MS. BORGER: Well, now al Qaeda has announced it.
MR. GJELTEN: Now al Qaeda has announced it. So that was the strongest argument for releasing the pictures. And I think now that this has happened, I would frankly be surprised if these pictures are going to come out anytime in the short term.
MS. BORGER: Well, what was interesting to me too was that it didn’t really break down along party lines. Listen to John McCain on whether he would have released the photographs.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): That’s a judgment that has to be made by the president and taking all things into consideration. My initial opinion is that it’s not necessary to do so. I think there’s ample proof that this was Osama bin Laden. But I will defer to the judgment of the president of the United States.
MS. BORGER: Sarah Palin thought differently.
MR. BABINGTON: She did, Gloria, but she was almost the only Republican, from a partisan standpoint. The great majority of Republicans in this town and elsewhere came to a fast conclusion this was a great success for the administration. Let’s just congratulate him and move on. Quite a few of Republicans did, as we saw Speaker John Boehner in the intro, twin his compliment to the president with that of the previous president, George Bush. He didn’t say either man’s name. Quite a few Republicans did twin those two names. It almost seemed to be scripted. But that was about the only – I wouldn’t even say that was grudging. Really the vast majority – Mitt Romney, who’s going to run for president, said it was fine not to release the photos.
MS. BORGER: But, you know, there were difficult political moves here for the president because he really had to walk a fine line, not looking like he was taking victory lap, going to Ground Zero, meeting with the families, everyone would say, obviously, going to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, today. Did he navigate that well?
MR. BAKER: Well, I think he tried to. Obviously it’s hard. I mean, on the one hand, a president should in this moment of national significance find a way to mark the occasion and not to celebrate, but to mark it with the victims of Osama bin Laden and to celebrate the actions of the Navy SEALs who were pretty brave going in there. He tried to do it without making it a spectacle. He invited President Bush to join him at Ground Zero on Thursday, which would have been an interesting scene had the two gotten together up there. President Bush declined on the theory that he’s stayed out of the limelight since he left office. He wanted to stay that way. But it’s – he doesn’t look triumphal.
MS. BORGER: I want to take a turn here, James, to talk about what this all means, particularly in terms of our relationship with Pakistan. The big question is what they did they know and when did they know it?
MR. KITFIELD: Right. It’s pretty much ruptured that relationship for the short term. It’s very hard to look at this set of circumstances and convince yourself that the Pakistanis – none of the Pakistani officials, in this what really is their sort of West Point town, right down from their top military academy, lots of retired military guys there – it’s just hard to believe that no one knew he was sitting in this big compound, or who lived there. I mean, it does sort of strain your beliefs there. Now, the Pakistanis are absolutely masterful as this plausible deniability. They lie to themselves. The intelligence service lies to the military. The military lies to the civilian government and all the way around.
MS. BORGER: And we give them $3 billion in aid.
MR. KITFIELD: Exactly. And so, there is a lot of talk about – you know, the administration really wants to use this as a leverage point because we need the Pakistanis really critically right now for a couple of things, one of which is we think this is a possibility with bin Laden out of the way to have serious reconciliation talks with the Taliban. Marc Grossman, our special envoy is over there this week talking to them about that very thing, with them and the Afghans. We need Pakistan’s help on that. We also need some help if we have a hotline on Zawahiri. We need their help to do that.
MS. BORGER: Right.
MR. KITFIELD: So it’s not a time to break relations. However, you know, we need them to sort of take this seriously because it does look really bad. Their first reaction is, hey, they’re trying to drum up a lot of sort of support amongst the local population. This was America sort of invading us. And, oh, isn’t that terrible, trying to deflect the fact that they were either incompetent or in cahoots with bin Laden.
MS. BORGER: Well, that’s exactly – I was going to raise this with Tom. That’s exactly what apparently CIA Director Leon Panetta, according to my colleague Dana Bash, told members when he was briefing them on the Hill. He said they were either involved or incompetent. Neither is a good place to be.
MR. GJELTEN: Well, that’s interesting that Director Panetta said that. I’ve heard – the sort of the line elsewhere in the government is trying to give the Pakistanis a break. I mean, Hillary Clinton in particular, people at the State Department have been insisting that they don’t have any reason to believe that the Pakistanis were complicit in letting bin Laden stay there. Like Jim says, I think we’re probably never going to know for sure what the Pakistanis, if anything, knew about this. You know, he said that as a joke in a sense, but I think that there are a lot of people in this government that actually think the Pakistanis are incompetent and that that may be the explanation – that they just aren’t very good at doing this.
MR. BAKER: Just down the road from Osama bin Laden’s secret compound that the Pakistanis supposedly didn’t know about was our secret compound that the Pakistanis apparently didn’t know about, right? We were there for weeks and months apparently watching. And in theory anyway we kept that hidden from them.
MR. BABINGTON: But it’s too important a country, of course it has nuclear weapons. We can’t just let it –
MR. KITFIELD: There’s no walking away from this.
MR. BABINGTON: Exactly.
MR. GJELTEN: And John Boehner came out – it doesn’t look like this is going to be a partisan issue, another case of that, because he came out and said, look, Pakistan’s a critical partner and we can’t break with them right now.
MS. BORGER: And this is another thing – and we only have a minute or so left – but the political arguments it seems to me will remain the same – the same argument over torture that we’ve had continues after this, right, Peter?
MR. BAKER: Right. Exactly. Did this come as a result of the waterboarding type techniques that had been banned by President Obama, supported by President Bush? You know, lots of different ways of looking at that. There’s lot of different ways this intelligence came together. But it’s once again brought us back to some of the same arguments we’ve been having for the last couple of years.
MS. BORGER: And what about the notion, as the president was saying today, or the hope that this would tap into some sort of national unity in the country that would carry over into the big arguments that we’re going to have, whether it’s about the debt or Afghanistan?
MR. BABINGTON: I talked to a lot of people in Congress and not very many people think it will translate into that. This is a foreign policy issue. Those are domestic issues. These kinds of moments of unity typically are short lived. It will help the president’s image as he goes on.
MS. BORGER: His numbers?
MR. BABINGTON: His numbers will go up, but in terms of the election, it’s 18 months away and I think these issues like the debt and the deficit probably are just going to be seen as separated from this.
MR. KITFIELD: I think one place where this could be cathartic, and the White House told me this as well – if you saw the reaction in the Arab world to this, they shrugged. You saw the reaction here and it was just this outpouring of relief. And I think it might be cathartic and they certainly hope so. And getting the American people to sort of downsize terrorism just so it’s a natural place; it’s not this existential threat that maybe it was five years ago when he was at top of this power as we have –
MS. BORGER: We’re going to have to end on that optimistic note.
MR. KITFIELD: Okay.
MS. BORGER: So thank you very much. Thank you all for being here. And that’s going to have to wrap it up for us tonight. That went quickly. Gwen will be back next week but be sure to check out the “Washington Week” website at pbs.org for a look back into the “Washington Week Vault.” The year is 2003 and the capture of Saddam Hussein. I’m Gloria Border. Thanks for joining us. And for all the moms out there, have a wonderful Mother’s Day weekend. Good night.