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In the universe of historic photographs, few are more iconic this this image of key White House policymakers watching and waiting for confirmation that SEAL Team Six had succeeded in capturing or killing Osama bin Laden.
Although this photo is known as the “Situation Room” picture, White House photographer Pete Souza actually took it squeezed into a corner of the small adjacent conference room into which President Barack Obama had stepped in order to watch the video feed in real time. A plate of sandwiches and other snacks, fetched earlier in the day from Costco by a White House staffer, was abandoned in the main Situation Room.
The result: a moment of almost tangible tension and anxiety among the silent group of senior leaders. We don’t see CIA Director Leon Panetta, who brought the first news of bin Laden's Abbottabad compound eight months earlier, only days before the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Nor do we see Vice Admiral William McRaven, the head of JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command), a special ops veteran who had commanded or participated in more than a thousand similarly hazardous ventures. He was in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, supervising the SEAL team’s mission from there. Still, the image captures a defining moment in history, offering a rare glimpse into who the key White House players were—and what they were thinking—as they waited to hear the words “Geronimo (bin Laden’s code name) EKIA (enemy killed in action).”
READ MORE: How SEAL Team Six Took Out Osama bin Laden
Seated, From Left to Right:
Joe Biden, Vice President
What no one looking at this photo can see is that Biden, Obama’s vice-president and later elected as president, was fingering his rosary beads as he watched events unfold. The devoutly Roman Catholic Biden had been wary of the raid, Obama would recall in his memoirs. Biden himself later insisted that his advice had merely been to wait to be sure it was the right decision. The photo does capture some of that ambivalence and anxiety, to a greater extent than can be seen on the stony visages of other opponents of the raid, like Defense Secretary Robert Gates. When the SEAL team confirmed that Osama was dead, the VP gripped Obama’s shoulder, squeezed it and softly said, “Congratulations, boss.”
Barack Obama, President
The 44th president of the United States, perched on what Souza described as a folding black chair, is one of the most informally dressed people in the room—and simultaneously the most intensely focused on what was unfolding in front of him. Obama had decided very early on in his first term that he wanted to bring Osama bin Laden to justice. “I wanted to remind the world…that these terrorists were nothing more than a band of deluded, vicious killers,” he later recounted in his memoirs. The president, still wearing the clothes in which he had played golf earlier in the day (to avoid alerting anyone else to the fact that something unusual was happening at the White House), stayed out of the way of his team until just before the helicopters arrived at the compound. He wrote that didn’t want to sidetrack them by having them rehash all the plans and the strategies they’d deploy to address any glitches.
When he realized there was a live aerial view of the compound on offer in a smaller conference room, that’s where he headed; that’s how the most powerful figure in the room ended up sitting on the side of the image. “This was the first and only time as president that I’d watch a military operation unfold in real time,” he wrote later. When one of the helicopters was damaged on landing, “a disaster reel played in my head.” Waiting and watching, he wrote, was “excruciating.”
Marshall B. Webb, Brigadier General
At the center of the table, in a commanding central chair, sits “Brad” Webb, an Air Force general, watching the live stream of the video and overseeing all the communications with the special forces. When Obama walked into the small conference room from the main situation room, Webb tried to give Obama his seat, only to be told by the president to stay where he was. When he raised his head to glance around the room, Webb later recalled thinking to himself, “I should be freaking out right now,” with all of the country’s leadership watching him. Instead, he stayed calm and in “the zone.”
Denis McDonough, Deputy National Security Advisor
The fact that McDonough was fast enough to follow the president and grab a seat around the small conference room table, leaving his boss, Tom Donilon, standing behind him, may give us a hint of his growing influence in the Obama administration; he would become chief of staff to the president when Obama’s second term began. McDonough, involved in the planning of the operation from its earliest stages, “sweated the details,” as Obama recalled.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of State
There were audible gasps, Obama later recalled, when the group received confirmation of bin Laden’s death. Is Hillary Clinton trying to contain a gasp in this photo, or to stifle a cough due to springtime allergies? Even she couldn’t later recall clearly. “Those were 38 of the most intense minutes,” she later said. “The risks were enormous.” In spite of the tension that clearly shows on Clinton’s face, she had supported the decision to go ahead with the raid. She was also concerned about the president’s decision to monitor the video feed in real time. “Do you think it’s a good idea for the president to watch this?” she asked a national security staffer, who reassured her he wouldn’t be directly managing anything. Having cast her vote in favor of the raid, Clinton clearly remained anxious about the consequences of any mishaps for Obama’s presidency.
Robert Gates, Defense Secretary
Gates had been one of those wary of undertaking the Abbottabad raid, reminding Obama of what had happened in 1980 when U.S. forces tried to use helicopters to rescue 53 Americans held hostage in the embassy in Teheran. (The mission was aborted when one helicopter crashed en route in the desert; eight military service members died.) A safer option, he believed, would be to use bombs to obliterate the compound altogether. Nonetheless, he would call the president’s decision to go ahead with the raid “courageous.”
READ MORE: 9 Unexpected Things Navy SEALS Discovered in Osama bin Laden's Compound
Key figures among those standing:
Mike Mullen, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff (standing behind Gen. Webb, wearing tan shirt and dark tie)
“If he had failed that night, I think it would have cost Obama the presidency,” Mullen said later, citing the thought that haunted him as he and others watched the raid unfold. Curious about what he had been thinking at the precise moment that photographer Pete Souza clicked the shutter, Mullen later asked whether the photo had a timestamp. It didn’t.
Thomas Donilon, National Security Advisor (standing with arms crossed, in blue shirt, next to McMullen)
Donilon had been among the first to learn of Obama’s determination to find bin Laden, during a May 2009 Oval Office meeting during which the president instructed him to help develop a formal plan and issue a presidential directive. Like Clinton, he wanted to avoid the impression that Obama was micromanaging the raid and suggested that the president not communicate directly with McRaven in Jalalabad. It was at Donilon’s suggestion that Webb and his video feed had been based in the smaller conference room.
Bill Daley, White House Chief of Staff (wearing dark suit jacket, next to Donilon)
Daley, who served as Obama’s chief of staff for a year until January 2012, is the only man in the room wearing a full suit and tie, thanks to his wife’s insistence that he recognize the momentous nature of the day. “One way or the other this presidency is either over, or we’re still breathing,” he recalled thinking. For Daley, the only person to sit in on every meeting during the raid’s planning stages who wasn’t part of the intelligence or national security establishments, it had been the right decision. The next morning, he awoke with the realization that, “if I got fired today, it would be OK.”
READ MORE: 8 Facts About Osama bin Laden's Final Hideout
Anthony Blinken, Biden’s National Security Adviser (head and shoulders visible, peeking over Daley’s shoulder)
In 2021, Blinken achieved a national profile as President Joe Biden’s secretary of state. At the time this picture was taken, he was largely unknown outside the Beltway and the Washington community. Shortly after Souza’s iconic photograph was published, David Letterman interviewed Mullen on his talk show, and, producing the photo, pointed to Blinken. “Who is that guy? He obviously doesn’t belong in the photograph,” Blinken remembered Letterman joking. “Did he just come in off the tour of the White House?”
Audrey Tomason, Director for Counterterrorism (only her head is visible)
The only other woman in the room and the youngest member by far of this lofty group of policymakers, Tomason became well-known as a result of the photo. But the woman herself—and her thoughts—remain a mystery, probably because of the clandestine nature of her work for the National Security Council.
John Brennan, President Obama’s Assistant for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism (standing behind Clinton)
Together with Donilon, Brennan had been tasked with trying to conceive what the Abbottabad raid would look like. In spite of his support for a mission that was in part his brainchild, his knuckles were white throughout the entire attack. “Minutes seemed like hours,” he recalled, even after the SEAL team members were back on board their helicopters with bin Laden’s body and a trove of data retrieved from the compound. They still had to get out of Pakistani airspace safely, he knew. Obama named Brennan to head the CIA in 2013.
James R. Clapper, Director of National Intelligence (in pale blue shirt, the last man whose face is fully visible on the right hand of the photo)
“Right up until the last minute, we couldn’t confirm he was there,” recalled Clapper, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general who served as president Obama’s top intelligence official from 2010 until 2017. He’d been an advocate of launching the mission, arguing that “at least with a raid, you’d have people on the ground who could make judgments.” In this image, he’s waiting to find out whether that vote of confidence was justified.
READ MORE: Why Did US Forces Bury Osama bin Laden's Body at Sea?
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Additionally, as these recollections will highlight, the process and planning of the raid in Abbottabad was relatively paperless due to operational security concerns, which is an important consideration when looking back 10 years later. In our discussion after the interview, Admiral McRaven and Mr. Rasmussen discussed how personal accounts from this period, including their own, may inadvertently blur some details like the precise scope and sequencing of events in the months leading up to the operation. Both Admiral McRaven and Mr. Rasmussen have sought to reconstruct those events to the best of their recollection.
CTC: I’d like to ask you both to talk about where this story begins for you. At the time, then Vice Admiral McRaven served as JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) Commander, whereas Mr. Rasmussen worked as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council staff at the White House. We know that the hunt for Usama bin Ladin was ongoing, but what do you see as the turning point in that search? And when did you start exploring more actionable options?
Rasmussen: I remember exactly when I first became aware of the idea of Abbottabad as a ‘maybe.’ The CIA director came over to brief President Obama on September 10, 2010—so several months before the operation ultimately happened—and basically said that the Agency and the intelligence community had identified a compound of interest in Pakistan. The briefing made it very clear that additional intelligence work remained to be done—and CIA laid out a set of plans to try to develop that picture—but it was just a very earliest hint that there might be a location for a high-value target and potentially bin Ladin.
Now you, Bill, were in the business of high-value target work at JSOC across multiple theaters, and of course, the bin Ladin hunt was never something you were not engaged in, in some way. But when did the idea of a potential compound of interest first enter your consciousness and when did you think “we might be on to something” as an intelligence community?
McRaven: For me, it wasn’t until months later. It was December of 2010 when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen came out to Afghanistan, which he did pretty frequently. He came to our headquarters there at Bagram [Airfield], and after we’d spent an hour or so with the troops, he said, “Hey, Bill, let’s go up to your office. I’ve got a few things I want to chat with you about.” So I went up to my office, and he said, “The CIA thinks they have a lead on bin Ladin, and it’s possible they’ll be calling you here in the next couple of weeks to come back to Langley to talk to them about it.” I was probably a little dismissive, not to the Chairman, but I was thinking, “OK, we’ve had a lot of leads on bin Ladin.” And to your point, Nick, that’s obviously what the Joint Special Operations Command did, along with the Agency, was track down these leads on bin Ladin.
A couple of weeks later, I got a call from I think [General James Edward] “Hoss” Cartwright, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who said, “You need to come back to CIA headquarters.” I’m not exactly sure of the timeline, but I think it was in late January  when I flew back to Washington, D.C., and I actually went over to meet with Secretary [of Defense Robert] Gates and Admiral Mullen before going over to meet Michael Morella at the CIA headquarters. They gave me a little bit of a preamble to what I might see and then said, “Just go over there, listen to what Morell has to say, and then come back and give us your thoughts.” So I headed over to CIA and spent the next hour or so with Morell as he showed me pictures of the compound at the time, a kind of trapezoid-shaped compound. I remember Morell saying, “If you had to take down this compound, how would you do it?” I said, “It’s a compound. It’s what we do every night in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a little bigger than what we’re used to, but there’s nothing tactically challenging about it.” So we talked for a little while, and then I debriefed the Chairman and the Secretary, and then headed right back to Afghanistan. So that was my first actual exposure to the compound in Abbottabad.
Rasmussen: For me during that period—January/February —we knew there was an ongoing effort at CIA and with their intelligence community partners to develop the picture to try to get greater fidelity around the question of a) Is a high value target actually there and b) if there is, is it potentially bin Ladin? And we were told at the White House that CIA had started this conversation with DoD about potential options if this intelligence case matured in that particular way. And yes, much as you say, taking down compounds is what you did, but this would have been an extraordinary operation. And so for you to even begin the process of discussing this with CIA partners, who were you able to bring in from your team? I suspect it wasn’t the normal staffing process around developing options that you would be used to inside of a JSOC setting.
McRaven: As you know, it wasn’t. The president had a “BIGOT” list, [that’s] a term of art concerning the limited number of people that could have access to this information. So after my initial meeting with Morell, I came back to Langley a couple weeks later, and Morell gave me all of the detailed background information about the compound and “the pacer.”b At the time, it was just me [involved from JSOC], and I had to go into the Situation Room and give the president some sense of what a military operation might look like. I actually went back to the thesis that I wrote at the Naval Postgraduate School,c and by this point in my career, I had been exposed to about 10,000 special operations missions—either having commanded them, having been on them, or having reviewed the concept of operations. So when I looked at this, as challenging as it was, I kept going back to my post graduate thesis thinking: let’s keep this plan as simple as we can I don’t want to overcomplicate it. I went through in my own mind a couple of things: can we parachute in, can we come in from the embassy by a truck, what were our options? But all of those kind of contradicted what I knew to be the “simplicity”1 factor in planning a mission like this.
The first time I briefed the president, when he asked me, “McRaven, what’s your plan?” I said, “Sir, our plan is to take a couple of helicopters and fly from Afghanistan into Pakistan, land the force on the compound, we’ll take down the compound, get bin Ladin, and bring him back or he’ll be killed on the spot.” It was that simple. And that was all of the planning I did early on because at the time, I wasn’t allowed to bring anyone else in. But I knew that the basic plan, the basic scheme of maneuver, was sound. We’ve done these thousands of times before not over these distances and a few other things, but I was confident that what I was telling the president was executable. It wasn’t until later, when I could begin to slowly bring in the SEALs and the air planners, that we really refined it in terms of the routes and the maneuvers on the ground and those sorts of things./>During a Profiles in Leadership seminar, retired U.S. Navy Adm. William H. McRaven speaks to service members inside the Pfingston Reception Center at Joint Base San Antonio in Lackland, Texas, Jan. 10, 2018. (Tech. Sgt. Ave I. Young/Air Force)
Rasmussen: Just to help readers with a sense of timeline, the meeting you’re describing, where you first briefed President Obama on what military options might look like and what you would recommend from an operational perspective, was on March 14th in 2011. That meeting was the first opportunity where the president was sitting with his full team of national security advisors and hearing the intelligence case, but then also hearing from you about what the potential operational solution was, if the intelligence did, in fact, bear out.
My recollection from that meeting was that you were very, very confident about the operation itself—an assault operation on a compound of that sort—again because you had experienced that and [it] was well within your operators’ capability-set. I remember you were also quite careful about talking about the ‘getting there’ and ‘getting back’ parts of that because, again, this was an area well inside Pakistani territory, not some dramatically remote location far from urban locations. This was right in the heart of, in a sense, [the] establishment security structure of Pakistan, Abbottabad being closely located to many key Pakistani facilities. Do you remember how you framed that to the president, that you needed to do more work before you could really speak to some of the questions related to getting in and out of Pakistan without being detected?
McRaven: I can’t remember exactly when it was, but at one point in time, the president did ask me, “Bill, can you execute this mission?” I said, “Mr. President, I don’t know. Until I can bring the SEALs in and we have an opportunity to rehearse this again and again and again, I can’t tell you whether or not it is doable.” By [late] March, I think I had had an opportunity to bring in a few of the air planners and a few of the SEALs. I didn’t bring the whole body of SEALs in yet, but I had enough planners and, of course, the CIA provided a wealth of intelligence analysts, particularly when it came to the Pakistani Integrated Air Defense.
To your point, Nick, my biggest concern was, how am I going to get the force from Jalalabad, 162 miles into Pakistan to Abbottabad—which as you noted, the compound was near their West Point, about three or four miles from a major infantry battalion, and about a mile from a major police station—but I was really concerned about, would Pakistani radars pick us up, would Pakistani Integrated Air Defenses be a problem? Between the Agency planners, intel analysts, and the helicopter and the aviation planners I brought in, I got more and more confident that we could do it. We needed to rehearse it with the [right] number of people. As you recall, we were using special helicopters—I can’t go into much more detail than that—but the lift capacity of these helicopters was not the same as the generic Blackhawk, and that constrained us in terms of the number of troops I could get on the ground. Again, the reason I was always concerned about the air component was, can I get the number of SEALs I need to get there without having to refuel and not being picked up by Pakistani Integrated Air? All of that concerned me going forward, but the more we planned it, the more realistic it appeared, before even we had a chance to rehearse it.
Rasmussen: I remember at a certain point during the planning and policy discussions at the White House with the president, the question came up of how you would respond if Pakistani forces reacted and responded to the scene. We were in the middle of a diplomatic mess with Pakistan at the time over an individual who was part of the diplomatic footprint at the embassy in Islamabad who had been arrested by Pakistani security forces.2 Things were not good with Pakistan at that particular moment, and you had to plan around contingencies about what would happen if Pakistani security personnel rallied to the scene, surrounded the compound, and you were left with managing that situation. Can you say a little bit about how the president responded to that? Because I think it fundamentally changed the way many of us in the Situation Room looked at the operation after he weighed in on that question.
/>Nicholas Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testifies during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 30, 2017. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
McRaven: I needed to think tactically and operationally, but you can’t put yourself in this position without recognizing the [geo]political constraints that you might be under. I knew that if we got on target and then all of a sudden the local Pakistani police showed up, if they started to engage us, it was not going to go well for them. If the infantry battalion showed up, we were probably going to have a hell of a good gun fight against them. So that was not going to serve anybody well. My issue all along was if we had bin Ladin, did that then become an ability to negotiate, if in fact we got locked down? It was just one of these: “Well, if we’ve got bin Ladin, if we show bin Ladin, maybe the Pakistanis just say ‘OK, all good.’” That conversation obviously didn’t go on very long. As you well know, the president very quickly told me, “No, I don’t want to put ourselves in [that] position at all”—which of course I didn’t either—”I want to be in a position to fight our way out.”
Now, I always had a plan to fight our way out. I had a package that was prepared to come in to pull the SEALs out if we needed to. And then the president gave me the latitude that I was looking for, which was, “Fine. Then we’ll fight our way out,” knowing that we had this remarkable force on the ground and that I could bring to bear the power of the U.S. military in terms of fighter, combat air support, AC-130s, you name it. We obviously didn’t want to do that. The Pakistanis are, as you know, an awkward ally at best, but certainly we didn’t want to kill, especially innocent Pakistanis that showed up doing their job. But we were certainly prepared to fight our way out if we got into that, and that goes directly to a great decision made by the president.
Rasmussen: You were an operator, but at the same time, you were a participant in the policy process unfolding at the White House. You were in a sense, jumping in and jumping out—going back and having your role with your operational team to plan and carry that part of the process forward at the same time, you were a frequent participant in Situation Room meetings where these policy matters were being debated. You had had experience earlier in your career when you were an O-6 [Captain] having served on the National Security Council staff. Talk about how that looked to you given your prior experience as a more junior director at the National Security Council staff.
McRaven: I’m glad you raised that because I look back on that experience, and I’m the junior man in the room as a three-star, and as you well recall, the room [included] the president vice president Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Secretary of Defense Bob Gates Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Jim Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence Leon Panetta, Director of CIA John Brennan Denis McDonough yourself obviously, then the group got pretty small after that. The thing that was remarkable to me was how the president managed and led his National Security Council staff. I contend he was the smartest man in the room. He asked all the right questions. As you well know, he asked both tactical questions and operational questions and strategic and [geo]political questions. He wanted to understand the details, and I was happy to provide him the details because my sense was, he’s the president of the United States, he needs to understand the risks. The one thing I wanted to make sure I did was to convey the risk to the president because you’re a fool if you don’t explain the risks on something as high profile as this.
But the other thing, and you experienced [it], was everybody sitting around that table … it’s not that the arguments didn’t get heated, but there was never any rancor. People were just trying to do what was best for the country, best for the nation. And I have to tell you, I was inspired by that. I remember these debates, and of course I’m sitting at the far end of the table where the junior people sat but listening to the members go back and forth and try to look at all the options—the two kind of bombing options the option that we waived immediately, which was including the Pakistanis and then of course the raid option—and how well they were able to carry on these conversations in, again, a sometimes heated but collegial fashion, exactly the way I thought the process should work.
Rasmussen: Well, if you were at the junior end of the table, I was in the back bench one row behind, furiously taking notes and trying to think about agendas for the next meeting. From my perspective, what was extraordinary about this set of meetings that unfolded over a 4-, 5-, 6-week period leading up to the operation itself were the conditions under which those meetings took place: absolute attention to secrecy, absolute attention to discretion in terms of how information was shared, no physical written agendas, none of the usual bureaucratic stuff that we were used to as staff officers at the NSC staff. Instead, you had calendars that simply read “meeting,” and the individual went to the meeting with no backup, and then returned back to the organization that they came from with no capacity to back brief their staff about the meeting. It was quite extraordinary that in a town and bureaucracy where paper is everything, this operated almost entirely without paper.
And yet still—I think this is a credit to what you just said about President Obama, and I give a lot of credit to [National Security Advisor] Tom Donilon and [Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism] John Brennan in this regard, too—the attention to detail in making sure there was still rigorous process and debate over all of these questions. We didn’t just, for lack of a better word, half-ass our way through uncertainties we actually worked through the different sources of uncertainty in a structured way. That, to me, was a remarkable testament to the way in which the president approached his responsibilities as Commander in Chief for something this consequential.
Now, Bill, as you know, right up until the very end, this whole operation had an overlay, which was that of significant intelligence uncertainty right up until the time your forces entered into Pakistani airspace. We still didn’t know if bin Ladin was at the compound. And there was quite a lot of the debate you described in the Situation Room around the question of the intelligence picture and how confident we could be in it. Can you talk a little bit about what your own take on that process was?
McRaven: Interestingly enough, whether bin Ladin was there or not was not going to affect the tactical aspect of the mission. We planned the mission as though he were there, but if he wasn’t, we weren’t going to make any dramatic changes to how we got on target, how we locked down the target, how we swept through the target, all those sorts of things. People often asked me, “Well, were you concerned that you didn’t know bin Ladin was there?” and I said, “No, not really,” because I understood what we had to do and that part of the mission was pretty straightforward in my mind.
The things that we didn’t know, which concerned me most, was whether or not the building was rigged with explosives and whether bin Ladin would be actually sleeping in a suicide vest. A number of times in Iraq, we had buildings that were completely rigged with explosives. And literally some of the high-value individuals we were going after slept in suicide vests. So part of it was asking, “Well, what if the guys get there on target and they’re beginning to sweep their way through the building and the whole building is booby-trapped?” As good as the intelligence was, and of course this will go down as one of the great intelligence operations in the history of the Agency, to your point, we couldn’t determine whether or not it was in fact bin Ladin, and lacked clarity on some of the real grainy details that the operators needed to at least put them in their comfort zone: things like, is the building rigged? We didn’t think it was, based on the movement of the women and children and other men from the imagery we had, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not. And of course, was bin Ladin sleeping in a suicide vest? Well, there’s no way to determine that. Did he have a bugout route? We just assumed that he would. Would there be some sort of tunnel? He’s been there for a long time, certainly going to all the trouble to build this massive compound, so wouldn’t he have built a tunnel for he and his wives and his kids to get out? Those were the unknowns that we were operating with. But in terms of thinking about whether it was bin Ladin, that part to me was pretty straightforward: We were going to do the mission pretty much the exact same way whether it was bin Ladin or not.
Rasmussen: The intelligence picture, as you described it, was one that Director Panetta made clear that the Agency was pulling out all stops to get a clearer sense of whether it was, in fact, bin Ladin. But Director Panetta was also very honest in saying we were probably at the limit of what that intelligence was going to produce in the near term. It was one thing if we wanted to sit on this case for another several months and try to learn more over time with various collection activities, but if the president was going to be in a position to make a decision in the near term, meaning over the next few weeks, this was more or less the picture he was going to have. And to your point, that left a considerable amount of uncertainty on the table as the president approached these decisions.
Now, apart from the substance, Bill, what was it like to jump in and out of the Situation Room in the operational world? I know you bumped into people who were in your chain of command in one form or fashion or who wondered, “What’s Bill doing in the D.C. area this week? I thought he was at Fort Bragg or deployed forward.” How did you manage those interactions?
McRaven: Well, Nick, that did present some problems for me in terms of my bosses, General [David] Petraeus, General [James] Mattis, Admiral [Eric] Olson, none of whom early on knew my movements either way. I felt an awkwardness because certainly I felt it was important that, at a minimum, Admiral Olson know, he was my boss at SOCOM, and of course, General Petraeus who was at the time ISAF Commander in Afghanistan, and General Mattis at CENTCOM.
Having said that, I had a cover for action for lack of a better term. I had been diagnosed in 2010 with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. None of my staff knew what was going on, even my closest aide, Colonel Art Sellers, my executive officer who got me everywhere I needed to go. Early on I told Art, “Just do what I tell you. Don’t ask any questions,” and Art was kind of one of these unsung heroes who got things done and, like the great Ranger that he was, followed orders to the T. My staff and my command knew that I have been grappling with the cancer. I felt I never said anything, but I think their assumption was I kept coming back to Washington for treatment because Bethesda Medical Center was there, and I didn’t disabuse them of that misconception. Every time I would leave Afghanistan, people didn’t want to pry in my personal life, so they didn’t ask me why I was going back.
I did bump into several folks while I was in D.C. and had to do the Texas two-step pretty quick. One of them was an old friend of mine, a reporter who I had known since 5th grade, who stopped me as I was going into the White House one day. As another bit of cover for action, the whole issue of Libya was happening. We hadn’t seen each other in a long time so she asked about family then the obvious question: “What are you doing here at the White House?” I was like, “Well…” and she goes, “Have something to do with Libya?” I said, “You know, I really can’t tell you,” and so that all kind of played out better than I hoped. But I remember after I walked into the White House, I thought to myself, “I need a better cover story. This probably won’t hold up too long.”
Rasmussen: Going back to your staff and command, I remember we all had some version of the compartmenting problem. Even in my own team at the National Security Council staff, I could only have one person brought in to support some of the staff work. That meant I was leaving out 10 or 11 high-caliber individuals, and it just killed me to make some of those choices. President Obama was very clear with his guidance that not a single person was to be brought into this process unless you could speak to the role that person would play, the value they’d add, and why that person was necessary to do it. Didn’t matter their rank or station, so you had individuals like the Secretary of Homeland Security and the FBI director who were very late into the process because, again, that very high bar for sharing of the information.
Now as we get further into March and April , Bill, there’s a point at which the action shifts to you working with the Agency to rehearse and prepare truly operationally. You know, it’s been written before, of course, that mockups had been built where you could potentially rehearse against life-size or to-scale models of a compound. Meanwhile, at the White House, there’s a lot of policy work answering questions like what do we do if bin Ladin’s captured? What do we do if bin Ladin is killed? And what do we do if we need to dispose of his remains? All of these contingencies needed to be spun out, and we were doing that work at the White House with an interagency team while you were starting to engage in the real nuts-and-bolts planning process. Can you talk a little bit about that rehearsal process and how that unfolded from your perspective?
McRaven: As you recall, Nick, at one point in time—I guess it was in April—the president asked me, “Can you do the mission?” I said, “I don’t know, Mr. President. I’m going to have to bring the SEALs in now, and I’ve got to rehearse it to find out whether or not what I have presented to you is, in fact, doable.” And he said, “How long will you need?” And I had anticipated that question. I said, “Sir, it will take me about three weeks,” and he said, “OK, you’ve got three weeks.”
The first thing we did was recall the SEAL team, and this was interesting: I’m often asked, why did you pick the SEALs? Why didn’t you pick the Army special operations guys? Was that because you were a SEAL? And of course, I’m quick to point out: are you kidding me? I’m about to report to the president of the United States, you think I’m going to play favorites? I’m going to pick who I think is the best force for the job. In this case, there were two forces: one Army, one Navy. Both of those commanders I had tremendous confidence in, both those units I had tremendous confidence in. However, what happened was the Army unit I was looking at had just deployed to Afghanistan to relieve the Navy unit that I was looking at, and so had I gone with the Army unit, I would have had to have recalled them from Afghanistan, and that would have heightened people’s awareness.
To your point, the Agency had built a mockup for us right down the road from this facility we were using. That very day, the guys got at it, and we started rehearsing. That went on for the next three weeks, and then I was able to come back after we did a full dress rehearsal at another undisclosed location with a lot of viewers—Admiral Mullen, Admiral Olson, Mike Vickers—a number of folks came out to watch the final rehearsal. Once that went off well, then frankly, I was in a position to tell the president, “Yes, sir, we can do this.”
Rasmussen: The other thing, in addition to the president putting out the kind of three-week planning deadline for you, the other reality that was driving this was we were dealing with lunar cycles. You had briefed the president that you wanted to be able to conduct an operation in a period of maximum darkness. And so that gave us a window, and if that window passed, then we’d probably have to wait another several weeks until another window would open. Can you talk about when that started to make things real in terms of a real timeline planning horizon? This is either going to happen or not happen by a certain date.
McRaven: Yeah, there are actually a couple factors. You’re right, the lunar cycle was one of them. We wanted to make sure that we could do it as dark as possible that’s what we always like. But the other part was the heat. The helicopters coming in, again modified helicopters, do not perform well at altitude and I think Abbottabad was above 4,000 feet. And the temperature was starting to rise. And this was going to be the 1st of May. We realized that if we didn’t get this done soon, probably in the first two weeks of May, it was going to be another four months before the temperature came back down in Pakistan for us to be in a position to conduct this mission. So there was a sense of urgency because if all of a sudden we didn’t do it in May, would we be in a position four months later to do it? What if we had gotten compromised? What if something had leaked? We knew we were up against what I thought was a little bit of a hard deadline with not a lot of flex time, between the lunar cycle and heat.
Rasmussen: Earlier in the conversation, you referenced that on the table in front of the president throughout this period was not only the raid option that you were developing and planning and rehearsing, but also right up until close to the end, there was the idea that a standoff strike of some form might have been the way to go after the compound and all of the difficult issues associated with that—identifying who was on the compound, knowing with certainty if it was bin Ladin, we wouldn’t control access to the site, all of those questions played in this. When you deployed to the region, when you deployed forward to stage for this, you still didn’t have an answer as to whether this was going to happen or not happen. Or did you, in your own mind, know that this was going to proceed?
McRaven: No. In fact, the last meeting I was in was I think one of the last Wednesdays in April, and as you recall, the president had asked the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Mike Leiter, to red team CIA’s intelligence, kind of review their intel. I recall at that meeting, I think the president started off and he turned to Mike Leiter, and there was kind of this long pause from Leiter and he said, “Well, Mr. President, we reviewed CIA’s intelligence and we think the chance that it’s bin Ladin is anywhere between 60% and 40%.” And when he said 40%, I’m thinking to myself, “Well, this mission’s off.” Who in the world is going to authorize a bunch of SEALs to fly 162 miles into Pakistan to hit a compound that’s near their West Point, three miles from a major infantry battalion, a mile from a police station and oh, by the way, the Pakistanis have nuclear weapons.
So actually, when I left, I thought it was less than 50/50 that we would do the mission. But once again, that affected nothing about my planning process. You go under the assumption that you’re going to make sure the boys are all ready to go, but by the time I got to Afghanistan—I think I left on a Wednesday night—no sooner had I arrived than Leon Panetta, the director of CIA, called me on that Friday and said, “Bill, the president’s decided to go,” and I remember thinking, “Wow. That’s a bold decision.” Again, it didn’t affect any of our planning because we were going to plan it like it was the case, but a pretty bold decision on the part of the president.
Rasmussen: That decision that you referenced just now, Bill, came out of a meeting on that Thursday, April 28th, when the president convened his full set of advisors for one last review of the intelligence, and then the idea of what the potential operational solutions were. You had deployed forward. I recall from that meeting the president methodically working his way around the room, wanting to hear the best advice from each and every individual. And that even included the backbenchers, which I was a little bit taken aback by. The president had made clear in that conversation that he was going to hear everybody, but he wasn’t going to make a decision in the moment in that room. Then it was the following morning, as you referenced, Friday, April 29th, when he shared the guidance through his national security team to Director Panetta and to the Secretary of Defense and the chairman that this was a go.
You’re now deployed forward, you now have a go order from the president, but as I recall, timing was left entirely to your discretion in terms of when to execute. You are now, in a sense, in control of the decision-making. The president did not want to micro-manage that from the White House.
McRaven: I think this was really one of the strengths of both the president and Director Panetta. I’d had an opportunity to work for the president for several years at this point in time on a number of operations, and he had always given me the latitude as the military commander to run the military portion—whether it was an airstrike or hostage rescue or whatever. He never inserted himself into that aspect, so I felt completely comfortable and had the full flexibility to make the decisions I needed to make. But what happened was on Saturday, there were two circumstances that caused me to roll it to Sunday. There was fog, a little bit of fog in the valley, and while it wasn’t significant, frankly, I was looking for the perfect environmental situation. The heat was also rising and the meteorologist had said, “We think on Sunday the fog will be gone and the heat will have diminished a little bit.” And so on Saturday, I rolled the mission 24 hours, but never once did I feel like the president or the White House or even the CIA was trying to give me directions on how to conduct the military portion of this operation.
Rasmussen: Once it did roll into a Sunday-night-into-Monday operation, I remember we brought the group together to be there on scene at the White House to monitor what was happening with you in the field and be prepared to deal with any fallout in the aftermath. There was quite a lot of planning around the question of diplomatic and other outreach in the aftermath: What do we say to our partners? What do we say publicly? How do we engage with the world if we’ve either successfully captured or killed Usama bin Ladin or worst case, if it turns out that the intelligence has been bad or there was a bad outcome to the military operation?
As we’re gathering in the Situation Room, we’ve got one of your deputies, Brigadier General [Marshall] “Brad” Webb, and one of his communications colleagues there to keep us plugged in to you. Can you talk about what it was like to be speaking to two audiences as the operation got underway? You’re briefing Washington back through Director Panetta at CIA headquarters and into the Situation Room. At the same time, you’re single-mindedly focused on commanding an operation that is as delicate and sensitive as any you’ve ever been involved with. How did you manage both ends of that communication pipeline?
McRaven: It was actually simpler than it sounds because we constructed it to be simple. I told the guys I wanted a decision matrix and decision points along the route. And really, all I needed to do as the commander was make decisions when we hit those points. At the end of the day, once the guys got on the ground, the tactical aspect of this was going to be with the ground force commander. But my decisions were, for example: are we going to launch the mission, yes or no? If we get over the border and were discovered by the Pakistanis, do we keep going, yes or no? If we get a quarter of the way there and we’re discovered, do we keep going, yes or no? Halfway, yes or no? Three-quarters, yes or no? We’re in the final turn, now what? I wanted to go through in my own mind all the decisions I needed to make ahead of time if things go south, because I don’t want to be sitting there in the middle of a crisis [saying], “I don’t know. What do I want to do?” I had already made up my mind. If we were compromised crossing the border, we’re going to turn around and come back. A quarter of the way, turn around come back. Halfway, turn around and come back. Over halfway, it got a little gray there, but part of that was going to be, “OK, if we were compromised, what’s happening on the ground? Do we still have time to get to the target?” But once we got three-quarters of the way there, we were committed. Then, on target. What happens if we lose a helicopter? “OK, I know what we’re going to do immediately. I got a backup helicopter. I’m going to move it to the little mountain range we have a little rally point up there.”
With those decisions made in my mind, I just had to give the order when the decision point happened. So, for me, it was a relatively easy operation to manage. Now again, I was in contact with both Leon Panetta and then of course, later on, the White House, but they were following the execution checklist and the code words just like I was. Once the guys launched, I felt very comfortable they would make all the right decisions on the ground, and I knew what decisions I needed to make if things went south on the operation.
Rasmussen: I can tell you from being a part of the team in the Situation Room that day, we were very hands off. This was entirely a decision process that was forward, but that didn’t lessen the sense of drama and concern as each of those milestones was met as you worked through the timeline. And, of course, it’s well documented that some of those contingency plans that you had put into place had to be called upon because you did, in fact, encounter problems with the aviation support. I guess that’s the kind way to put it. In the Situation Room, there was an awareness that things were now straying from the preferred plan. But what I remember, Bill, was the remarkable sense of calm that you projected to those various audiences no one had any sense of panic or [felt] that we were off script or not able to adapt. I think that speaks to the planning process that you just referred to.
Say just a very quick word about the point at which you were informed that the commander on the ground had assessed that you had, in fact, secured the objective. How did you want to present that information to both Director Panetta and to Washington, wanting to put the appropriate caveats around it, of course?
/>President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. (Pete Souza/White House)
McRaven: I’d have to go back and check the timeline, but somewhere around 15 minutes into the mission [at the compound], the ground force commander came along and said “For God and Country. Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo.” And of course, “Geronimo” was the code word for bin Ladin. People have asked, “What was your reaction?” and to me it was just another check in the box. OK, we called “Geronimo,” but believe me, in no way, shape, or form did that suddenly relieve my concern in terms of the force on the ground or whether or not it was actually bin Ladin. We had a number of times in the course of Iraq or Afghanistan where we called “jackpot,” referring to the fact that we got the individual only to bring him back and find out, “you certainly look like that guy,” and it wasn’t. So I didn’t get overly excited one way or the other. We still had to complete the mission. The guys had to get off target.
I had originally planned the mission to go about 30 minutes, and part of this frankly goes back to my naval postgraduate school thesis when I reviewed special operations. As a rule of thumb, once you got past about 30 minutes, the enemy started to get their act together, they started to converge on the good guys, and things began to go south. So when we had planned it, I’m not sure I had told the guys exactly why I was limiting it to 30 minutes—I remember Bob Gates asking me one time and I kind of deferred the question—but in my mind, I had a framework for how I wanted this thing to go. Then at about the 20 or 25-minute marker, I get a call from the ground force commander and he says, “Hey sir, we have found a treasure trove of intelligence on the second floor, and we were starting to bundle this up.” I looked at my watch, and I’m thinking, “Oh man, I’m not comfortable with this.” But I said, “OK, grab as much as you can.” Thirty minutes comes, then 35 minutes, 40 minutes, and of course at 40 minutes, I called him back and I said, “Hey, I gotta be honest with you, getting a little nervous here.” He goes, “Sir, there’s just so much stuff here. We’re throwing it into trash bags.” They were just loading this stuff up. Finally, at the 45-minute mark, I said, “OK everybody, get out of there,” and I think at 48 minutes we were off the target. But, of course, that material was, in fact, a treasure trove of intelligence that was eventually returned to the CIA, where CIA and the FBI did a lot of the exploitation on it.
Rasmussen: That’s absolutely right, and that became an important way for the intelligence community to document the state and organizational health of al-Qa`ida. It’s something we had assessed and analyzed for a long time, but this was probably the greatest single input of fresh information to that analytical project that we had had in many, many, many years.
In the Situation Room at the time, there was obviously some sense of relief that “Geronimo” had been declared, but like you noted, that was still a very uncertain outcome. Even more to the point, you still had a very significant bit of work ahead of you to extract from the target, exit Pakistani territory, and reach in a sense safety again back inside Afghanistan. That process still took a couple of hours to execute. Can you talk a little bit about what you were thinking about [regarding those] successive milestones of leaving Pakistani airspace, what that looked like from your perspective?
McRaven: Forty minutes or so into the mission [at the compound], of course, the Pakistanis did start to wake up and realize something was going on in Abbottabad. We’re obviously collecting some intelligence and know they are trying to figure it out, but now they’re beginning to mobilize some ground effort. They’re beginning to look at launching some of their fighters because they know a helicopter had gone down. So things are starting to spin, but once again, I would offer [that] my situational awareness was so good, and oh, by the way, I had what I referred to as the “gorilla package” on the other side of the Afghan border. I was not particularly concerned that the Pakistanis were going to be able to engage our helicopters because I just wasn’t going to let that happen.
What I didn’t want was us to engage the Pakistanis. Again, while I was going to do anything I needed to protect the boys at the end of the day, I was hoping we could avoid conflict with Pakistan because I knew that wouldn’t serve the mission and our relationship with Pakistan well. I also knew we had to refuel, and we picked an isolated location. After the [modified Blackhawk] and the Chinook took off, they had to stop to refuel. I think it took 19 minutes, and it was probably the longest 19 minutes of my life. As I sat there watching them on the screen, I kept turning to the guy running the helicopter part of the mission, going, “Can we just kind of top him off and keep going?” and he’d say, “Sir…” As it turns out, they landed, and sure enough, local Pakistani[s] came by and went, “Hey, what are you guys up to?” “Oh, just got an exercise going on.” “OK, can I watch?” “Sure.” They just kind of stood off to the side while the guys refueled and eventually got up and running. But I will tell you that anytime you are refueling in an unknown location at night, as we found with Desert One,d there is always potential for bad things to happen. So watching it on the screen, that’s probably the more nervous aspect of the mission from my standpoint, just because I wanted to make sure that everybody got back safely. And 19 minutes after they landed, they refueled, got up, and it was another 40 minutes or so until they finally crossed the border into Afghanistan.
Rasmussen: I can remember a palpable sense of relief among the set of people in the Situation Room when you reported to Director Panetta and through him to the White House that you were back on the Afghan side of the border. Again, still a lot to do and figure out, but just knowing that we were past the point of most imminent danger to the operating force was a huge sense of relief.
/>Pakistani police guard a gate outside Osama Bin Laden's compound, where he was killed during a raid by U.S. special operations forces, May 3, 2011, in Abottabad, Pakistan. (Getty Images)
CTC: With nearly 10 years of distance from the raid in Abbottabad, what do you believe are the most notable takeaways from the operation? Additionally, whether concerning the exploitation of captured materials, how decapitation strategies affect organizations, the role of special operations in counterterrorism, or even just a renewed respect for collaborative teams that make plans like this possible, what insights should we carry into the future?
Rasmussen: As we look back on this event, it’s an incredible story of intelligence, and it will go down in the annals of intelligence history, not only for CIA, but also for our intelligence community writ large. Quite an amazing achievement. And then you obviously can speak to where this sits in the pantheon of operational success stories for your community, but I think one thing that is sometimes lost is how quickly it could have gone sideways along the way and how the different bad outcomes could have made this a very different story. Whether that was faulty intelligence, where [it] could have been proven not to be bin Ladin, conflict with Pakistan, or an operational catastrophe of some sort on the target. When you look back on it now, what are your takeaways in terms of where this fits in that long arc of our counterterrorism efforts since 9/11?
McRaven: Let me talk briefly about the lessons that I took away, and then I’ll address that last part of the question. One, we talked about the process in the Situation Room, and what I was incredibly pleased, impressed, and inspired by, frankly, was how the president and his national security team worked the process—as you pointed out, with Tom Donilon running it from the National Security Advisor standpoint—to come to the best decision. There was never any discussion about [U.S. domestic] politics, even though the president had to know that if this went south, he was going to be Jimmy Carter and probably a one-term president. But just the president’s demeanor, the thoughtfulness, and the collegiality even in the heat of the moment was, to me, impressive. So I would offer that almost all the credit for this mission really goes to the president, who had to bear the responsibility of everything you just laid out, Nick. If the helicopter had gone down and killed a bunch of SEALs and helo pilots, if we’d have gotten into a shooting match with Pakistan, if the compound had blown up in our face, there were a whole lot of things that could have gone wrong and the one man that bore the responsibility for that was going to be the president of the United States. And so, you have to go back and put that in context as you think about this mission.
When you look back in hindsight you go, “Hey, everything went great, nobody was killed.” But make no mistake about it: as we went into this, we had 24 SEALs and a CIA operator and some great helicopter pilots and back-enders who have no idea what that night is going to mean for them. They could get shot down, they could die going on this mission, yet they all volunteered to do it. That’s sometimes lost, I think, in the narrative about the fact that “Nobody even got wounded. How bad of a mission could it have been?” But they didn’t know that going into it. The president didn’t know the outcome.
Next, I think about Leon Panetta and the way he approached us. As you know, the fact of the matter is the Agency and JSOC have always had this kind of love-hate relationship. We’re kind of tied at the hip on so many issues that sometimes that creates friction. Not with Leon Panetta. Director Panetta embraced us early on, made us part of the team, and when you think about his willingness to really make this a military operation rather than a CIA operation because it was what was right for the country—not what was right for CIA, not what was right for JSOC, but what was right for the country—I think that is a remarkable decision and a remarkable mark of the character of the man. And then I would offer the third part here was the great cooperation with all the agencies that were part of it. I talked about CIA because they had the lead, but as you know, Nick, the National Security Agency was there, the National Geospatial[-Intelligence] Agency was there, and the relationship that the operators and the intelligence community had, you could not have put a piece of paper between them when it came to getting this mission done.
And then finally really was the remarkable work of the operators, who had been in this fight for a long time. They were all combat veterans, along with their helicopter pilot brethren, and they followed through doing exactly what the nation expects them to do, which is go on target, get the bad guy, and come home safe. Take care of the other men on the target, and then of course, there were also women and children. There’s always this kind of belief that the SOF operators are a bunch of steely-eyed killers that don’t care about anything but getting the mission done. Of course, that’s just not the case. They are brothers and fathers and sons, and they’re going to go on target and do what they can to also do what is right by the innocent people that were there. I was really proud of them for making sure that they took care, as best they could, of the women and children on target while still getting the mission accomplished. So there were a lot of takeaways from that mission for me, but those are four of them.
Rasmussen: I think what makes this such a compelling story at the 10-year mark is that it has such an important operational story to tell, but also, as you pointed out, it’s a remarkable window into presidential decision-making under extraordinary conditions of uncertainty and risk. As you said, everybody else could have an opinion around the room, but only one individual in the end bore the ultimate risk, beyond the risk borne by the operators—that’s always first and paramount in peoples’ minds—was the president who had to make the case to himself that the intelligence was compelling enough to support an operation, who had to understand that this could ultimately sink his presidency if this had gone the wrong way. And so for that reason, it’s an even more compelling story when you combine the operational, the decision-making, and the collaborative work across all of the different agencies and components involved.
Maybe one last area of questions to ask, Bill, would be around the ultimate impact of the raid. I know one thing we all wrestled with was, what would it mean to remove bin Ladin from the battlefield? I don’t think anybody thought that it would end our war on terrorism. I don’t think anyone argued that al-Qa`ida would be defeated as a global organization because of this one highly significant act. Yet I don’t know that we also understood that 10 years later, we’d still be very much engaged around the globe in efforts to deal with al-Qa`ida and al-Qa`ida affiliate groups. How do you look at the ultimate result of the raid now, 10 years later?
McRaven: To me, it really was about bringing bin Ladin to justice, as the president said that night in his speech.3 It really wasn’t about revenge. It was about justice. But the impact of the mission didn’t hit me right away. The next day after the mission, I went back to Washington, D.C., briefed Congress, then went over to the Oval Office. The president was very gracious, thanking me on behalf of all the guys that had participated in this. Right after that I had to go back to work and keep chasing bad guys for a while. But later that year, after I took command of U.S. Special Operations Command in November, I went up to New York City. I had not been in there in 50 years or something, and the police met me because I was giving a speech to 2,000 of New York’s finest. And just their appreciation for the work that the guys have done on the mission, but not just these guys, all the conventional forces, the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, that were part of the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was never just about the SEALs. We were honored to have the opportunity to go on the mission, but make no mistake about it, this was about 500,000 plus soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines that took this fight to al-Qa`ida, and at the end of the day, yes, the SEAL pulled the trigger, but let me tell you, there were hundreds of thousands of men and women behind us. And I didn’t really appreciate that, and I didn’t appreciate how New Yorkers viewed this until I had a chance to get to New York.
So it wasn’t so much—as you point out, Nick—were we going to crush al-Qa`ida? We all knew going in that this wasn’t fundamentally going to change the fight against al-Qa`ida, but it really was about bringing some sense of closure to those folks who were killed on 9/11 and bringing bin Ladin to justice. I hope the signal it sent to others out there is that if you come after America, we don’t care how long it takes, we will find you and we will bring you to justice. That was an incredibly important message to send to the world. CTC
Substantive Notes[a] Editor’s note: Michael Morell was then Deputy Director of the CIA.
[b] Editor’s note: In the period leading up to the raid, intelligence analysts reportedly nicknamed a figure at the compound “the pacer” because of his regular walks within the compound’s courtyard. From an intelligence perspective, that figure, “the pacer,” was also a possible candidate for bin Ladin. Bob Woodward, “Death of Osama bin Laden: Phone call pointed U.S. to compound – and to ‘the pacer,’” Washington Post, May 6, 2011.
[c] Editor’s note: Admiral (Retired) McRaven’s master’s thesis was published as a book in 1996. William H. McRaven, Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice (New York: Presidio Press, 1996).
[d] Editor’s note: In 1980, a Delta Force operation to rescue American hostages held in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran culminated in failure before the operators reached the embassy. For more, see Mark Bowden, “The Desert One Debacle,” Atlantic, May 2006. See also “‘Desert One’: Inside the failed 1980 hostage rescue in Iran,” CBS News, August 16, 2020.
Citations Editor’s note: For more on “simplicity,” one of the six principles of special operations emphasized in Admiral McRaven’s research, see William H. McRaven, Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice (New York: Presidio Press, 1996), pp. 11-14.
 Editor’s note: For more context, see Adam Goldman and Kimberly Dozier, “Arrested US official Raymond Allen Davis is actually CIA contractor,” Christian Science Monitor, February 21, 2011.
The bin Laden Situation Room revisited – One year later
In the annals of American history, the famous photo taken by Pete Souza of President Barack Obama and his national security team monitoring 'Operation Neptune's Spear'–the Navy SEALs raid that killed Osama bin Laden– has achieved icon status. Splashed across newspapers and television screens across the world, the tension in the room seemed palpable to all who saw it. But an interesting footnote to the famous photo is that it was not taken in the actual Situation Room at the White House.
As CNN Terrorism Analyst Peter Bergen reports in his new book "Manhunt," about the decade long search for bin Laden, the room where the photo was taken is actually a smaller room adjoined to the larger Situation Room. Like the Situation Room, the smaller room has secure video and phone communications, but it has a table that can only accommodate seven people Bergen writes, as opposed to the larger table next door which can seat more than a dozen.
Brigadier General Marshall "Brad" Webb, assistant commanding general of Joint Special Operations Command who sits in the center of the famous photo, was monitoring the operation on a screen through a laptop computer. Michael Leiter, then director of the National Counterterrorism Center, went into the room to watch the feed that was being relayed from a secret drone. Secretaries Clinton, Gates, and Vice President Biden soon followed. Moments later Bergen reports, the president walked in and said, "I need to watch this," as he seated himself next to Webb.
In the days and months that followed, many of the people in the room have reflected on that crucial time in U.S. history, what it meant to them, and what they were thinking.
President Barack Obama:
In a recent interview with NBC News, Obama said he thinks the photo was taken at about the time the helicopter went down.
In the days after the raid, Obama told CBS's 60 Minutes that the raid was "the longest 40 minutes" of his life with the possible exception of when his younger daughter Sasha became sick with meningitis when she was three months old.
When they received word the helicopters carrying the Navy SEALs and the bin Laden body had left Pakistani airspace, the first person Obama called was his immediate predecessor, former President George W. Bush to inform him of the operation. Obama also called former President Bill Clinton that evening as well.
Vice President Joe Biden:
Vice President Joe Biden was opposed to going forward with the raid all the way up to the point when Obama made the decision to proceed. In remarks to House Democrats at their annual retreat earlier this year, Biden recalled the final moments before the commander-in-chief made his decision. Obama went around the table of his senior national security team to get their thoughts on whether the operation should go forward.
"He got to me. He said Joe what do you think," Biden recalled. "I said, we owe the man a direct answer. Mr. President, my suggestion is, don't go. We have to do two more things to see if he's there."
Biden told an audience in New York last week that Obama's decision to ultimately go ahead with decision shows the president has a "backbone like a ramrod."
Anthony Blinken – National Security Advisor to Vice President Biden:
On the morning of April 29, President Obama gathered with Tom Donilon, his national security adviser, White House Chief of Staff William Daley, Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough, and his counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, and told the men he had made the decision to go forward with the operation. Anthony Blinken, Biden's national security adviser heard the news shortly thereafter.
In an interview with Bergen, Blinken was somewhat surprised of the decision.
"I thought, 'Man, that is a gutsy call," Blinken told Bergen. "First, we don't know for sure bin Laden is there the evidence is circumstantial. Second, most of his senior advisors recommended a different course of action."
Obama's presidency and the lessons of history also hung in the balance Blinken thought.
"Leaving that meeting, I think a lot of people had visions of Jimmy Carter in their heads," Blinken told Bergen in reference to the failed attempt by the Carter administration in 1980 to rescue the Americans held hostage at the U.S. embassy in Iran.
John Brennan – Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism:
White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan recently told an audience at NYPD headquarters in New York that once Obama made the "gutsy call" to approve the mission, "the minutes passed like hours and days."
When an NYPD official asked Brennan what it was like to be at the White House that evening, Brennan said there "wasn't a sense of exuberance, there were no high fives," he said. "People let out a breath. It was a moment of reflection. This was something we'd all worked toward for a long time."
Brennan recalled leaving the White House at 1:30am and passing by Lafayette Park, where many people had gathered and were chanting, "USA, USA." Brennan said he was hit by a wave of emotion. "I had goose bumps," he said.
James Clapper – Director of National Intelligence:
Clapper told Security Clearance "the tension in the air was palpable" particularly when the helicopter encountered its problem. "There was a lot of tension, and then as it became clear that we were reasonably sure that yes, it was Usama bin Laden, there was, if I can use the phrase, not only emotional closure, but functional closure in that operation illustrated the effectiveness of what an integrated intelligence and operational community could accomplish," he said.
Clapper told Security Clearance he walked with the President through the Rose Garden on their way to the East Room where Obama addressed the nation. It was the first time they had been outdoors for 12 hours, and they could hear the crowds in Lafayette Park. "It was then that it hit me what a momentous event this was, and I'll not forget that" Clapper said.
"It is hard for me to recall a single vignette that carried with it so much importance, and so much symbolism for this country," Clapper said. "As an intelligence professional that has spent 50 years in the business, I cannot remember an event that would approach that raid and its success in my memory."
Hillary Clinton – Secretary of State:
For Secretary Clinton, who was a U.S. Senator from New York on 9/11, the operation provided a sense of closure to her she said recently in an address at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. "We did our very best to try to give the president our honest assessment, and ultimately you know it was his decision which I fully supported because I believed that we had to take the risk and it was a risk."
"It was a pretty intense, tense, stressful time because the people who were actually doing it on the ground were thousands of miles away," she said. "I'm not sure anyone breathed for you know 35 or 37 minutes."
"I wasn't even aware people were taking pictures, the White House photographer obviously was, but you were just so concentrating on what you could see and you could hear. We could see or hear nothing when [the SEALs] went into the house. There was no communication or feedback coming so it was during that time period everyone was particularly focused on just trying to keep calm and keep prepared as to what would happen," Clinton said.
William Daley – White House Chief of Staff:
President Obama's former chief of staff might have come closest to tipping off the press that something monumental was in the works before Obama made his historic address to the nation.
That Saturday evening, Obama, Daley, and many other senior administration officials were attending the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner in Washington. George Stephanopoulos of ABC News had heard from someone that the White House had uncharacteristically closed itself to public tours the next morning. "You guys have something big going on over there?" Bergen writes of Stephanopoulos's surprising query to Daley. "Oh no. It's just a plumbing issue," Daley said, seemingly ending the newsman's curiosity.
In an address to a conference of public relations executives in Chicago last week, Daley called that night of the operation at the White House the "biggest moment of my life in a professional sense."
Tom Donilon – National Security Adviser:
"Well, obviously we're thinking about the successful and safe completion of the mission," Donilon told CNN's Candy Crowley a week after the raid. "That was first and foremost in everybody's mind as we were monitoring the mission as it was ongoing."
"You know, as I look at the picture now though, and focus in on the president, having served three presidents," Donilon told Crowley, "you really are struck by these being quintessentially presidential decisions, and you see it in new experiences that you have."
For Donilon, who watched the president receive divided opinions from his advisers on whether to go forward with the mission, "that's what strikes me now, looking at the president, is that we ask our presidents to make these exceedingly difficult decisions," Donilon said. "And at the end of the day, 300 million Americans are looking to him to make the right decision."
Robert Gates – Secretary of Defense:
Gates, who was the only hold over in Obama's cabinet from the previous administration, said for him, the most difficult moment for him that evening was when one of the Blackhawk helicopters carrying a Navy SEALs team crashed in the courtyard of the bin Laden compound.
Like Biden, he was opposed to the operation involving the SEALs. Gates, who spent a majority of his career at the C.I.A. and was the intelligence liaison at the White House in 1980 during the failed attempt to rescue the American hostages held in Iran, advocated for a much larger operation.
"Well, I think like the rest, I was just transfixed," Gates told CBS's 60 Minutes last year. "And of course, my heart went to my mouth when the helicopter landed in the courtyard, 'cause I knew that wasn't part of the plan. But these guys were just amazing."
Admiral Mike Mullen – Chairman of the Joint Chiefs:
For Mullen, there was also a concern about whether the White House would interfere after the helicopter went down.
Mullen told Bergen his biggest concern "was that someone at the White House would reach in and start micromanaging the mission. It is potentially the great disadvantage about technology that we have these days," he said. "And I was going to put my body in the way of trying to stop that. Obviously, there was one person I couldn't stop doing that, and that was the president."
Audry Tomason – National Counterterrorism Center:
CNN reached out to Audrey Tomason to get her reflections of that evening, but she was unavailable for comment.
Brigadier General Marshall "Brad" Webb – Assistant Commanding General, Joint Special Operations Command:
Webb was the senior officer in the room from Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). The commanding officer of JSOC, Admiral William McRaven, briefed the officials on the operation from his position in Afghanistan. Webb declined to comment to CNN about his role in the operation, or his reflections of the evening.
Denis McDonough – Deputy National Security Advisor:
"I think what strikes me about the picture more than anything is the fact that it speaks to the teamwork that was emblematic," McDonough told CNN's Wolf Blitzer the day after the operation. "The broader teamwork from the IAC, the intelligence community, from the military, from our diplomats, to make sure that this happened in the successful way that it did."
Leon Panetta – Central Intelligence Agency Director:
Panetta, who at that point was the Director of the C.I.A. at the agency headquarters in Langley, VA that evening, but was communicating with Obama and his team via a video link. The Title 50 operation called for the C.I.A. to have operational control, so everyone at the White House was listening to Panetta narrate what was happening.
"There were a number of tense moments going through the operation," now Defense Secretary Panetta said on his way back to the United States from South America last week. "Just the fact that having these helicopters going 150 miles into Pakistan, and the concern about whether or not they would be detected." When one of the helicopters went down at the compound, Panetta said it was "pretty nerve-wracking for a lot of us that, you know, trying to figure out what happens now."
When they received confirmation from the SEAL team that they had killed bin Laden, Panetta said there was a "huge sigh of relief by everybody involved." But with a disabled helicopter down at the compound, it had to be destroyed by members of the team before they were able to leave Pakistani territory. "And so there was a lot of concern about the ability to get everybody back to Afghanistan," Panetta said. "But we were able to do that, and it was at that point that I think everybody kind of looked at everybody and said, 'mission accomplished."
Accuracy in Media
The photo of President Obama’s national security team watching the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound isn’t all that it appears to be.
According to the Telegraph, CIA director Leon Panetta admitted that there was no live video footage of the raid as the specially mounted helmet cameras had been cut off.
In an interview with PBS, Mr Panetta said: “Once those teams went into the compound I can tell you that there was a time period of almost 20 or 25 minutes where we really didn’t know just exactly what was going on. And there were some very tense moments as we were waiting for information.
“We had some observation of the approach there, but we did not have direct flow of information as to the actual conduct of the operation itself as they were going through the compound.”
If that was the case what was the national security team looking at? As it turns out it was just another photo op staged by the White House for dramatic effect and it resonated around the world.
Women’s Wear Daily was duly impressed by the photo and asked other photographers for their reactions:
Here, photography editors and designers explain why the picture is destined to be one for the history books:
Richard Turley, creative director, Bloomberg Businessweek
“I don’t think it’s something that you would look at as an incredible piece of photography, but as a moment of time captured, it’s very powerful.…It’s quite a human picture isn’t it: The way Obama kind of tucked himself into the corner, the body language on everyone.…It’s weight is in your own baggage of the picture, your own prior knowledge about what’s going on and what they’re looking at.”
Dora Somosi, director of photography, GQ
“It really is the two faces, between Obama’s intensity and Hillary Clinton’s surprise and shock, or whatever the hand covering the mouth is. That’s where your eye goes. She may not have had her hand over her mouth a second later, but [the photographer] did catch a moment. I think it’s about those two people and catching their unguarded reaction.…I think it’s further validated by the document that’s in front of Hillary that’s been wiped out a bit because it’s classified information. That makes you feel that you have an insider view.”
Kira Pollack, director of photography for Time
“The Hillary Clinton expression is the one that holds the photograph fully. The reaction of her hand over her face. Her eyes. Clearly, she’s reacting to something she’s watching. She’s very unaware she’s being photographed. To me, the whole image is about Hillary. In some ways, she holds the image. You look at her first, and then you look at everyone else. That instinctive reaction that must have happened for her hand to go over her mouth like that? There must be something powerful on that screen.…The other thing about this picture that we all find fascinating is that the document that is blurred. It’s one more element of what’s in that room. How extraordinary is it that we’re seeing inside that room?”
History book alright. The book of fake photos.
And as for that dramatic reaction by Hillary Clinton, New York magazine got the real scoop:
“I am somewhat sheepishly concerned that it was my preventing one of my early spring allergic coughs,” she said. “So, it may have no great meaning whatsoever.”
Powerful indeed. Next time bring along some cough drops.
Don Irvine serves as the Publisher for Accuracy in Media. He is active on Facebook and Twitter. You can follow him @donirvine to read his latest thoughts. View the complete archives from Don Irvine.
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What It Was Like In The Situation Room During The Osama Bin Laden Raid
Former chief official White House photographer Pete Souza, author of “Obama: An Intimate Portrait,” tells the story behind the iconic photo of President Obama in the Situation Room during the raid on Osama bin Laden. Following is a transcript of the video.
Pete Souza: My name is Pete Souza, I was the chief official photographer for President Obama, and my new book “Obama: An intimate portrait” just came out.
On the day of the bin Laden raid, the president and his national security team piled into this very tiny conference room within the situation room complex to monitor the raid as it happened. I chose one corner of the room to be in. And because there were so many people I couldn’t really move around during those 40 minutes. And so I was able to photograph as they all watched this raid unfold. There was very little conversation taking place. There was just observation as they watched the special forces on the ground.
When the president walked into this little conference room, there was a brigadier general sitting at the head of the table, and he stood up to give the president that chair. And the president said no, no no you stay there, because he was on his laptop, in communication with Admiral McRraven. And the president just pulled up a folding black chair and sat next to him.
The picture itself was taken towards the back-end of the raid. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when that was, but I suspect it was when the special forces were inside the house and there was no video of what was occurring inside the house. So I think they were waiting to see what would happen.
Throughout the 40 minutes in that room, it was very tense and anxious. You could see that on their faces, and when the word came over that Geronimo KIA, meaning Geronimo was Bin Laden’s codename for this mission, that he was killed in action, I think there was a sense of happiness and resolve, but there was no like high-fives or cheering or anything like that. The President stood up at the end and shook hands with a few people. But it was almost anti-climatic and actually somewhat solemn when this ended.
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The Best of the Situation Room LOL Pics
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Situation Room: 2 photos capture vastly different presidents
Two high-risk raids. Two dramatic moments in the White House.
Photos taken in the White House Situation Room during the killings of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Saturday and of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden eight years earlier capture the vastly different styles of two American presidents.
The White House on Sunday released a photo of President Trump with five of his senior national security advisers monitoring the Saturday night operation against al-Baghdadi in Syria.
The photo shows the six men, all in dark suits or military uniform, posing for the camera and staring straight forward with stern expressions as they sit around a table. The presidential seal gleams on the wall over Trump's head.
The photo invites comparisons to the Situation Room photo released by President Barack Obama's White House following the May 2011 operation in which Navy Seals killed bin Laden.
In this unposed scene, 13 faces are fully or partially visible in the crowded tableau.
Obama, wearing a polo shirt and light coat, is hunched forward and perched on a folding chair slightly off center. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the most expressive face in the group, holds her hand over her mouth as Defense Secretary Robert Gates sits next to her, his arms tightly crossed.
The Trump photo, with the president in the center and looking severe, is more formal and captures the current president's interest in conveying the power and grandeur of his office. It also reflects the tight circle of advisers from whom he solicits advice.
To his right are national security adviser Robert Oɻrien, Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary Mark Esper. To his left are Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Brig. Gen. Marcus Evans, the Pentagon's deputy director for special operations and counterterrorism.
The jumble of ethernet cables, legal pads and computers covering the boardroom table stands in sharp contrast to the formality of the moment.
The less formal Obama photo from 2011 crackles with suspense as the president's team monitors the raid where Navy Seals killed bin Laden in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The room is so crowded the presidential seal on the wall is barely visible.
Seated next to Obama are Brig. Gen. Marshall Webb, who was communicating with the Seals commander Adm. William McRaven, who was in Afghanistan overseeing the covert special operations team that stormed the compound.
In the back of the room, Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken can be seen peeking around the taller White House chief of staff Bill Daley to get a better view of the scene unfolding on a video monitor.
The packed room seems to reflect Obama's more expansive team of advisers and his interest in receiving a broad array of opinions.
Trump, in announcing Baghdadi's death on Sunday, did not shy from making his own comparison to the bin Laden raid.
"This," he said, is "the biggest there is."
Official White House photographers document Presidents at play and at work, on the phone with world leaders and presiding over Oval Office meetings. But sometimes the unique access allows them to capture watershed moments that become our collective memory. On May 1, 2011, Pete Souza was inside the Situation Room as U.S. forces raided Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound and killed the terrorist leader. Yet Souza’s picture includes neither the raid nor bin Laden. Instead he captured those watching the secret operation in real time. President Barack Obama made the decision to launch the attack, but like everyone else in the room, he is a mere spectator to its execution. He stares, brow furrowed, at the raid unfolding on monitors. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton covers her mouth, waiting to see its outcome.
In a national address that evening from the White House, Obama announced that bin Laden had been killed. Photographs of the dead body have never been released, leaving Souza’s photo and the tension it captured as the only public image of the moment the war on terror notched its most important victory.
Breaking down the Situation Room
Here is a tour of everything you need to know about the action in the photo and the specs of the room -- from its gadgetry, to its cultural representations on TV and film, to its interior design -- from our in-house experts.
(Photo by Pete Souza / White House Photo has been altered to obscure a classified document)
Official White House photographer Pete Souza has taken countless photos of President Obama signing documents or shooting hoops or greeting officials. But on Sunday, Souza snapped his magnum opus: a Situation Room action shot -- or watching-the-action shot -- of the president and his national security team monitoring the hit on Osama bin Laden.
1. Vice President Biden
2. President Obama
3. Brig. Gen. Marshall B. Webb
4. Deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough
5. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton
6. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates
7. Adm. Mike Mullen, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman
8. National security adviser Thomas E. Donilon
9. White House chief of staff Bill Daley
10. Antony Blinken, national security adviser to Biden
11. Audrey Tomason, director for counterterrorism
12. John O. Brennan, assistant to Obama for counterterrorism
13. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr.
The tableau of the already iconic photo is powerful: the unfamiliar staring-daggers gaze of Obama the operatic emotion of Hillary Rodham Clinton, cupping her mouth with her hand the Where's-Waldo quality of National Security Council staffer Audrey Tomason popping up at the back of the room and the mystery arms and elbows of otherwise unseen men.
With so much to see, and with the government withholding the bloody bin Laden images, it's no wonder that the photo is on track to become the most-viewed image on Flickr (current No. 1: a 2006 image of the Nohkalikai Falls in Cherraphunjee, India). And no surprise that it is inspiring armies of Internet Photoshoppers ("Jersey Shore's" bare-chested cast member "the Situation" placed in the Situation Room, of course).
For all that's happening inside the frame, there is a lot going on outside it, too. Using the photo as a window, our in-house experts offer a tour of the personalities, gadgets and ideas found only in the world's most secure warren of rooms.
Sarah Kaufman, Dance critic
Obama has the most to lose if things go awry, but the president's taking up the least amount of room. In contrast to Vice President Biden, with that broad open torso, spread out, filling out his seat, Obama has drawn inward, sucked himself into a small place. If this were a stage, you'd never guess the buck stopped there. It is Hillary Clinton who seizes the audience. With the gesture of the hand to the mouth, as if masking a gasp, she is expressive, emotional and human, a Cassandra who stands out amid the lockjawed, impassive ensemble. The photo depicts a pas de deux between the president and his secretary of state, former competitors now moving in sync to take down an off-stage enemy.
What do too many of us reach for when we're tired and stressed? It's not yogurt and carrot sticks, but something soft and soothing (turkey, synonymous with holidays and comfort) or crisp and salty (enter potato chips). The New York Times reported that for the viewing, "a staffer went to Costco and came back with a mix of provisions -- turkey pita wraps, cold shrimp, potato chips, soda." The choice of a wrap rather than a slice of bread to bundle the turkey strikes me as very Bush-era, wraps being so yesterday. Maybe there wasn't an option at Costco -- which, by the way, is more than one food professional's not-so-secret source for choice cuts of meat, chicken and cherries in season.
The food is all very easy to eat. Nothing requires a utensil, or much concentration, unless the shrimp included tails. Had the first lady walked into the room, no one would have felt obliged to hide what they were eating the turkey and shrimp would have met her approval. As for the potato chips and soda . hey, everything in moderation.
Couldn't White House chefs Sam Kass or Cristeta Comerford or even the Navy Mess whip up some MREs for the group? For starters, the Mess is typically dark on Sunday. Also, "if it's that quiet" a meeting, says Palena chef Frank Ruta, who cooked at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. from 1979 till 1991, "they might not want to involve many other people." In an attempt to make it appear as if everything was normal, everything was routine, the party in the Situation Room -- close to where the always-curious press hangs out -- ventured outside for fuel.
David Ignatius, Espionage expert
The Situation Room is the ultimate Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, known as a SCIF. There are SCIFs throughout the government, such as "the Tank," the Joint Chiefs' equivalent of the Situation Room. A SCIF has all kinds of protections against surveillance. When you go into a SCIF, you have to surrender your cellphone, usually in a wooden set of cubby holes.
The all-time master of the Situation Room was Henry Kissinger, who used the place to run back-channel operations. In my youth, I had a friend who worked for Kissinger in the Sit Room. One of her jobs, as I remember, was finding low-brow thriller paperbacks for him to take on his trips. The military became so nervous about Kissinger's use of the Situation Room that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs at the time, Adm. Tom Moorer, actually sent in his own spy, Yeoman Charles Radford, to monitor the paper flow.
Back then, the technology in the room was nowhere near what it is today. The first hot line to the Kremlin was literally a clankity-clank Telex machine -- that was the technology that was going to save us from nuclear war. Now the Situation Room's biggest nightmare is cyber-war -- electronic malware that would penetrate the inner lobes of the national security brain. The Pentagon and intelligence agencies take elaborate precautions: The military operates what amounts to a separate, classified Internet, and nothing from "outside" is supposed to connect with it. Memo to Situation Room attendees: Don't bring your flash drives.
In the photo, the participants all seem to be eyeballing something in real time. It's possible, though unlikely, that they were watching the actual raid through a videocam carried by a member of SEAL Team 6, just like in a Tony Scott movie.
In Sit Rooms and command centers around the world, there's often a video feed from Predator drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles, sometimes known as "Pred porn" because it's so mesmerizing. I've seen Predator feeds of a car meandering down a road, or of a dark cave in Afghanistan, and wondered: "Is he there? Am I glimpsing [Ayman al-]Zawahiri or Osama?" Look at the tension and anticipation on the faces in that White House picture: A decade of watching and waiting, and now it's about to happen for real.
I like the little details in the picture: Which men are wearing ties? Why is the president sitting away from the action, almost in the second row? (Perhaps that defines him.) Why is Tom Donilon, the big-cheese national security adviser, standing, while his deputy Denis McDonough has a front-row seat? The stiff military officer in the uniform -- is he allowed to unbutton his jacket? And that paper in front of Hillary Clinton that's so sensitive it has to be fuzzed up -- what's that about, please?
Jura Koncius, Home and Design Writer
In the Situation Room, decor is classified.
It's apparently on a need-to-know basis. But why? Isn't this essentially Corporate Office Decor 101? Long table, cushy high-back black chairs, plush wall-to-wall carpeting, a home-entertainment-center of screens.
Don't bother asking if the chairs are leather or pleather, if the polished table is cherry or walnut. The first lady's office was mum. So was the first family's decorator.
"I have no experience with that space," Michael S. Smith said. "So I have no comment."
Retired White House chief usher Gary Walters, who served in that role for 21 years, explained the secrecy. "The decorations are driven by security," he said. Walters added that the warren of rooms is furnished by the General Services Administration in consultation with the administration and the military. The room is soundproof.
And despite some presidential seals, rather blah.
"It's what I call 'office bland,'?" says presidential expert William Seale, who wrote "The President's House: A History." "It's the same decorating you see in buildings all over town."
The institutional look is duplicated in other presidential work venues. According to a WhiteHouse.gov video about the Situation Room, meeting rooms at Camp David and Air Force One are designed to evoke the same feel, textures and sounds for the convenience and comfort of the president. It wasn't always that way. Photos from the 1960s show flimsy wood paneling, paper maps, white bucket chairs (leather? Naugahyde?) and metal shelves bulging with files.
For the latest major makeover, in 2007, the government splurged on a few flashier features. A window in a small office off the main conference room fogs at the push of a button. The last time we saw that? In the Rem Koolhaas-designed Prada changing rooms.
Philip Kennicott, Art Critic
At least two basic metaphors of power are at play: being in the room and at the table. Both metaphors expressly exclude us, the viewers of the photo, who are not there, not in the loop. The photograph fascinates because it represents the most basic aspects of political power: knowledge, access, influence and proximity.
The photograph thus puts the viewer in a subordinate position. But the chain of meanings continues at least one more step. The anxiety on the faces shows the degree to which some of the most powerful people in the world can't control events. They (and their administration) are subordinate to chance and fate, to unknown unknowns and known unknowns.
So the sequence is this: We have less power than they do, and they have less power than reality. The photographer creates a kind of "V" of sightlines to emphasize this drama: We look in from one angle as they look out at another, almost a perfect mirror image.
We enjoy narratives of great power because we have so little power in our own lives over things such as errant buses, disease, death and the vicissitudes of love. The photo reveals that sometimes even people who seem to have invested in them the talent and power to be masters of their fate are frightened, worried, tense and uncertain. And so by excluding us from the world of one kind of power, the photo reminds of a more fundamental powerlessness. It keeps us out of one room but puts us all in another, from which there is no exit.
Hank Stuever, Television Critic
I find it somehow comforting that the White House Situation Room (and the situations in it) doesn't resemble the situation rooms seen in TV shows and movies. I'm glad the president and his staff aren't frantically swiping at translucent screens, a la Tom Cruise in "Minority Report." I'm glad they don't have what "24" fans laughingly called "whatever technology," which was on ridiculous display at Jack Bauer's Counter Terrorist Unit. I'm glad the real-life participants also, reportedly, suffer from tech glitches once in a while and have to call IT. Just because we all sort of like "Star Trek" doesn't mean that we really want to live our most important moments on the bridge of the Enterprise.
Rather, what we're seeing here is a group of busy people huddled in what could be a conference room at any Embassy Suites. Part of that worry on their faces, to me, reads as the relief that you would see in any type-A Washington workaholic who gets beeped on two (or even three) smartphones at the very same moment the home phone rings on a Sunday afternoon: Thank God I was there to answer it. Thank God I wasn't the last one to get here. You know one of these people in this picture was the last one to get there. The rest of them may never speak of it, but everyone in that room will know. Where were you? Asleep?
A 2007 renovation of the Situation Room updated its gadgetry and expanded its square footage, seeming to at least partly channel "24" and other espionage tropes. These places are always a dash of "Dr. No" crossed with "Apollo 13" and just a wee bit of HGTV's "Designed to Sell." They are inspired by control rooms, nerve centers, man caves, evil lairs. (How come nobody ever talks about good lairs?) The polished wood, blue carpet, mounted wall televisions and muted phone beeps also give a nod to the ongoing, quasi-colonial blanding of America. Convention hotels, think-tank lobbies, Ethan Allen, funeral homes. Whoever designed it knew that the chrome and glassy translucence of Hollywood "situation rooms" would not stand the test of time. A serious room means serious business.
Chris Richards, Music Critic
In the photo, Brig. Gen. Marshall B. "Brad" Webb, assistant commanding general, Joint Special Operations Command, is seated in the chair usually reserved for the president. Back in March 2010, it was Jay-Z in that chair. Hours before performing at a sold-out Verizon Center -- where he boasted to the crowd, "I just came from the White House" -- as part of his "Blueprint 3" tour, he toured the most top secret room on Earth with his wife, Beyonce, and an entourage that included R&B singer Trey Songz. Hova, who in a recent computer commercial acted as though he had the tools for global domination at his fingertips, then posted online a photo of himself at the head of the table. The administration was decidedly not down with it.
Political thrillers wouldn't be nearly as thrilling without the de rigueur Situation Room scene, its austere mahogany luxury providing the perfect backdrop for scenes of presidential decision-making, geopolitical tradecraft and, when the Martians attack, either consummate bravery or craven pusillanimity.
When "Air Force One" wasn't up in the air with Harrison Ford's superhuman president, it was in the Sit Room with Glenn Close's super-loyal vice president. Although John F. Kennedy spent relatively little time in the Situation Room during the Cuban missile crisis, in the film "Thirteen Days," that's where he anxiously awaits news of whether Russian ships will violate the U.S. blockade. In the "The Fifth Element," the Situation Room communed with space.
Situation Room scenes in movies usually portray the president sitting at the head of the table, overseeing a taut, often overlapping argument about national security options and "go" codes. Here, the president is hunkered down almost anonymously, his attention directed with everyone else at a screen that lies tantalizingly out of frame. As they watch a real-time military thriller unfold before their eyes, they look for all the world like they're watching a movie.
Judith Martin, Miss Manners columnist and etiquette expert
A "We Got Him!" gathering is the ultimate come-as-you-are occasion. On a Sunday afternoon, the president came in off the golf course. It was fortunate that no one showed up wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with words that might be considered, uh, off-message.
The night that Saddam Hussein was captured, I was at a black-tie dinner from which a government official departed before the soup was on the table (another instance of suspending convention that is justified on only such an occasion) and must have been the best-dressed person in that situation room. In general, however, this is the rare White House event at which formality is unseemly.
When a death is involved, even the death of an enemy, any signs of jubilation and partying are vulgar. That must be why, in a White House crammed with sets of china, coffee was served in paper cups. It may also be why the official picture shows everyone with a properly somber and dignified expression, taken before the outcome of the mission was known. Had it been taken at the moment of success, an official explanation would have been required, stating that any signs of rejoicing were only because the Americans were safe, and not because Osama bin Laden was dead.
Picture of the Day: Inside the Situation Room the Day bin Laden Died
White House photographer Pete Souza has released this instantly iconic photograph of the president and his national security team as they "receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011," the day bin Laden was killed by American forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan.Pictured are:
1. Vice President Biden
2. President Obama
3. Air Force Brigadier General Marshall Webb, Assistant Commanding General, Joint Special Operations Command
4. Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough
5. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
6. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
7. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
8. National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon
9. Chief of Staff William Daley
10. Antony Blinken, National Security Adviser to Vice President Biden
11. Audrey Tomason, Director for Counterterrorism
12. John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism
13. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper