How It Went Down

By the time Barack Obama became President, the trail to Osama bin Laden had long gone cold.

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Pete Souza / The White House / AP

Mission Accomplished. Obama and his team after watching the strike unfold on a live feed from Pakistan.

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By December 2010, Morell's team at the CIA's counterterrorism center was 60% confident that bin Laden was living in the compound, making it, as Morell told Obama, "the hottest lead to bin Laden since Tora Bora." Obama instructed the CIA to do everything it could to make certain of the identity but to be careful not to flush the prey.

But one worked against the other. Most of the actions the CIA could take to increase its confidence about the target would also unavoidably increase the odds that bin Laden or Pakistani intelligence officers would learn that the U.S. had discovered his whereabouts. More-advanced drones could provide better overhead photography of activity in the compound, but what if one crashed, as an RQ-170 did in Iran seven months later? A broadsheet of options included everything from surveilling the neighborhood with a miniaturized UAV that resembled a bird (so convincing that one was attacked by an eagle) to analyzing local sewage for genetic markers. A number of these were pursued successfully and still remain secret. One was blown after the operation when Pakistani intelligence arrested a doctor who had vaccinated children in the area in the hope of extracting bin Laden family DNA.

In a series of 40 intelligence reviews from August 2010 to April 2011, further questions were explored and competing hypotheses examined — in particular, the possibility that the suspect in Abbottabad was not bin Laden. This led to the creation of what some called the Bible: a three-inch binder listing every question about the operation, from assessing the risks of a leak at various stages to what to do with bin Laden's body.

On specific instructions from the President, only six people at the White House were in the loop from August to December: Obama, Donilon, Brennan, Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, the Vice President's National Security Adviser Tony Blinken and Biden, supported by Panetta and Morell. Up until then, Panetta and Morell had assumed that the CIA's small and rarely discussed cadre of paramilitary personnel would conduct the raid. But as they studied their options that winter after hearing the agency's plan to raid the compound, Morell turned to Panetta and said, "It's time to call in the pros."

For a career CIA official fiercely loyal to his agency, this was a painful but realistic admission. Over the previous decade, Morell knew, the military had developed unique capabilities for operations like this one. Thus, with approval from the White House, the circle was expanded to include two — but only two — additional players: McRaven and JCS Vice Chairman Cartwright, who was an Obama favorite. At this point, the circle did not include Cartwright's boss, JCS Chairman Mike Mullen; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; or even Gates, the Secretary of Defense. In order to divert the money needed for the operation — and ensure its legality — Panetta gave the leaders of the congressional intelligence committees a general idea about the mission at this stage. Six weeks later, when Donilon learned that Panetta had done this, he was astonished.

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