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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But what if Pakistan discovered the U.S. forces en route or on the ground and took them hostage? What if a chopper crashed? When Obama raised these questions at a meeting on April 19, McRaven responded, "Oh, you mean the s — t-hits-the-fan scenario?" Though McRaven had thought of most possibilities, Obama found haunting Gates' vivid recollection of Carter's failure when a helicopter crashed at Desert One. He thus expanded the final plan to include two additional Chinook helicopters carrying 24 more SEALs for backup so that even if they were discovered and surrounded at the site by Pakistani forces, they could "fight their way out."

A war cabinet of NSC members held five meetings over the final six weeks to review all the options once more. Participants report that in these sessions Obama invited competing views and re-examinations of his previous conclusions. Even in this phase, the loop was tight: Gates and Clinton had to come to the meetings alone, without their deputies or staff. As more officials needed to be briefed on the operation, every new name required Donilon's personal approval.

Less than a week before D-Day, on April 25, WikiLeaks' Guantnamo files appeared on the front page of the New York Times, citing thousands of pages of classified material it had put up on the Web. One of the documents came from the interrogation of the individual from whom the CIA had learned the identity of bin Laden's courier and pointed to Abbottabad as a refuge for al-Qaeda. CIA interrogators noted that the operative had moved to Abbottabad in mid-2003 after receiving a letter from OBL's "designated courier" inviting him to become bin Laden's "official messenger." Had bin Laden's protectors read the Times closely, and thus inferred that the U.S. had learned the identity of the courier, the house could have been empty when the SEALs arrived.

On April 28, in a final meeting in the Situation Room, Obama asked each adviser what they would do and took an up-or-down vote on whether to launch the raid. Gates and Biden voted no. The next morning, in a brief meeting in the Diplomatic Reception Room, Obama told Donilon, Brennan, McDonough and chief of staff Bill Daley, "It's a go." At that point the circle widened: Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, FBI Director Robert Mueller, special assistant to the President for Afghanistan and Pakistan Douglas Lute and others were told of the pending raid. A process that began with just six people in the White House eight months earlier had expanded to include scores of others.

After the U.S. helicopters escaped Pakistani airspace, officials made hundreds of phone calls to key individuals at home and abroad to inform them of the news before making a public announcement. Obama's first calls were to former Presidents Bush and Clinton. Mullen called Pakistan's army chief of staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, who seemed stunned. Others called key congressional leaders — all according to a telephone playbook Donilon had constructed and participants had rehearsed earlier that day. And when did the news become public? Five minutes after the calls to members of Congress and an hour before the President's formal announcement, CNN broke the news.

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