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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Sending in the SEALs
In the President's mind, the four options for killing bin Laden quickly shrank to three and then two. When Obama first reviewed his choices in late January, the joint operation with Pakistan quickly fell off the menu. On Jan. 27, 2011, CIA contractor Raymond Davis was arrested in Lahore on murder charges, an incident that reminded the White House that its Pakistani allies could never be reliable partners in such a highly sensitive mission. Had Gates and Mullen been fully engaged at this point, it is likely that the consequences of this decision would have been more carefully examined.

Several weeks later, Obama shelved the Predator plan, which called for Hellfire missile strikes on the tall, mysterious figure whose daily walks around the compound's courtyard led the CIA to name him the Pacer. A Predator strike against bin Laden would have been a fitting capstone for a technology project launched by the CIA in the 1990s for the specific purpose of targeting OBL. But Obama passed on this option for three reasons. First, he had doubts about whether 500-lb. bombs could pack enough punch to guarantee a kill. Second, since Pakistan was unlikely to cooperate in sifting through the remains, how would the U.S. know if it had killed the right man? If Pakistan dissembled, accusing the U.S. of killing innocent civilians, and al-Qaeda claimed OBL was still alive, how could the U.S. prove otherwise? Third, a Predator strike would mean the U.S. would lose the opportunity to capture evidence at the compound that would be valuable in finishing off al-Qaeda.

Similar arguments led Obama to tilt against a B-2 strike on the compound. Cartwright worked directly with the commander of the B-2 squadron to develop an option that called for dropping 32 2,000-lb. bombs on the target. While this would guarantee that OBL could not escape through underground tunnels, it would also kill the roughly 20 women and children living with him and potentially occupants of neighboring houses.

Thus, step by step, Obama arrived at the choice that promised the highest reward but also carried the highest risks: sending in the SEALs. Though the B-2 and drone options remained on the table until the final advisers' meeting on April 28, Obama directed McRaven on March 29 to perform a "full dress rehearsal" of the raid. Even then, his advisers' bets about whether the Pacer was OBL ranged from Panetta at 80% to Morell at 60% to Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, at 40%, with Gates and Biden well below that. As Morell reminded participants, the circumstantial evidence for WMD in Iraq was stronger than the circumstantial evidence for the Abbottabad man's being bin Laden. Still, Obama had high confidence that special forces could get in and out safely. McRaven was especially persuasive, explaining, "This is what we do. We fly in by helicopters, we assault compounds, we grab the bad guy or whatever is required, and we get out."

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