Behind the Scenes the Day Osama Bin Laden Was Killed
Ben Rhodes Watches History Unfold in the Situation Room
Like a third-tier awards show, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is the kind of ritual that you complain about while desperately seeking an invitation. Washington people pretend to be glamorous in the basement of a characterless hotel, drinking bad wine, avoiding one another, and craning their necks to catch a glimpse of passing celebrities. That night, I walked through the cramped, carpeted hallways of the Washington Hilton surrounded by a black-tie crowd of political and media elite, people I never felt entirely comfortable around. Every now and then, I would spot someone who knew—there’s Michael Morell across the room—and we’d make eye contact and nod at each other, as if we were giving a signal: Yes, see you at ten tomorrow. Somewhere in the early morning hours of Abbottabad, Osama bin Laden was waking up, perhaps for the last morning of his life.
The drama at the dinner was the presence of Donald Trump. After months of dealing with Trump’s invidious “birther” innuendo, Obama took the unprecedented step—just a few days earlier—of publicly releasing his long-form birth certificate. He was not happy. The decision to release the document had been his alone, made with his personal attorney—he knew, in ways that perhaps his white staff didn’t, that the issue wasn’t going to go away otherwise.
When Obama walked to the microphone, all I could think of was how his mind must have been on the men who were preparing to fly deep into Pakistan on his orders, and how the already absurd scene in front of him must have been even more oppressively trivial. But he betrayed no trace of distraction. Reeling the audience in with his unique approach to comedy—he’d sometimes laugh at jokes he read, as if he was surprised to hear how funny they were when spoken aloud—he slowly worked his way around to Trump: “Donald Trump is here tonight!” Just saying the words brought laughter and applause. “No one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter—like, did we fake the moon landing.” The whole room seemed to exhale at the chance to laugh about it; it was funny, but in a way, Obama was letting the largely white elite laugh about their failure to contain the birtherism in our politics. Some of their networks, after all, had given Trump a platform to peddle racist lies, and few Republicans condemned it. “We all know about your credentials and breadth of experience. For example—no, seriously, just recently in an episode of Celebrity Apprentice at the steakhouse, the men’s cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around. But you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so ultimately, you didn’t blame Lil Jon or Meat Loaf. You fired Gary Busey.” The room exploded in laughter.
The next morning, a Sunday, while everyone was still sleeping, I showered and dressed. Around ten, as people were beginning to stir and wander into the kitchen for coffee, I announced that I had to go to work. David asked if I’d be back soon and I said no, offering no further detail, and we said nothing more.
The Deputies and Principals met in the Situation Room, where we’d spend the next twelve hours or so. We went through the motions as if it was any other meeting—getting the latest update on the compound; going through all of the various things that had to get done; reading in all of the officials who needed to know that they might be unexpectedly busy later that day. I had to ask Pete Souza, the president’s photographer, to come in to work so he could capture the scene, however it played out. We made Starbucks runs and sat silently waiting for our coffee orders, unable to talk about what we were thinking. Then, back in the secure confines of the Situation Room, we waited, chatting nervously.“In that moment, it was as if none of the events of the last decade had taken place—no wars, no Great Recession, no political discord. Osama bin Laden was dead.”
Obama came down around two o’clock to get updated just as the operation was set to begin. Leon Panetta was on a screen from CIA headquarters and McRaven was on from Jalalabad, the Afghan town near the border where the team was taking off for the long helicopter ride to Abbottabad. Once they were in the air for the 90-minute flight, Obama went back up to the Oval Office to sit and play cards, a more relaxing way to kill time than sitting with us. With nothing to do, we started telling one another the stories of where we were on 9/11 to pass the time. I thought of the view from a helicopter flying through a moonless night in Pakistan.
Obama came back down a few minutes before the team was supposed to land at the compound. We all took our seats and McRaven began narrating the operation, like a play-by-play announcer giving you the highlights of a baseball game on the radio. All we could see was McRaven’s face, wearing a headset, on a split screen in front of us with Panetta. At one point, a helicopter clipped the side of one of the high walls of the compound as it was coming down, and McRaven told us they’d had to make an improvised crash landing. We still didn’t know if bin Laden was at the compound and already it seemed that the worst-case scenario was playing out. People avoided making eye contact. McRaven sounded unconcerned, as if he was relaying that a light rain shower was passing. The pilot will handle it, he said.
In the small conference room across the hall, a general sat hunched over a laptop with a video feed in front of him that allowed him to monitor the raid in real time. When Obama figured out that there was a better seat in the next room, he walked over there, trailed by most of his principals. I didn’t go. I was nervous, and felt I shouldn’t intrude. So I was still sitting in the large conference room when both McRaven and Panetta said that “Geronimo” had been identified. I didn’t know what that meant and had to ask someone. That was the code name for bin Laden. To me, this was the key moment—we wouldn’t have to tell the world why U.S. ground forces had flown all that way into Pakistan for no reason. I shot out of my chair and out into the hallway behind the small conference room, which was filled with the most senior people in government. I peered in around them and saw Obama eyeing the screen. Mullen fingered his rosary beads. Suddenly, the phrase “Geronimo EKIA” was being repeated. I heard Obama say, “We got him.” Some people clapped awkwardly. Everyone started smiling at one another silently. Could it really be this easy? the smiles seemed to say. Pete crouched in the corner, taking pictures. I decided to get some air.
I walked outside to the area adjacent to the press briefing room, where a driveway curves down from the entrance to the West Wing to the bowels of the White House residence. It’s among the least scenic places on the complex: a slab of gray concrete between a sloping lawn and the white walls of the structure where the press sits. But you could smoke there, and that’s what I did, pacing back and forth. The whole operation was playing out thousands of miles away, and the people I worked for were still monitoring it inside the quiet of the West Wing, behind the closed doors of the Situation Room. There was work ahead—meetings, to-do lists, notifications to foreign governments, calls to former presidents and congressional leaders, a speech to be written and delivered. But I needed these minutes alone.
The balcony of my Queens apartment used to have no view of Manhattan except for the tops of those towers, something I didn’t even realize until a few days after the attacks. I was one of millions of people whose lives had been altered in some way by 9/11, I thought. A 24-year-old graduate student, handing out city council campaign flyers outside a polling site, preparing for a life of . . . what? I’d never know. I lost that life and was now a 33-year-old government official pacing outside his workplace. Normally, at important moments in our lives, we call the people we love. I could call no one.
In that moment, it was as if none of the events of the last decade had taken place—no wars, no Great Recession, no political discord, no experience of my own. It was as though I had just turned away from the sight of the first tower collapsing into ash. Osama bin Laden was dead. I was one of a few dozen people in the world who possessed that knowledge. It was midafternoon and the Sunday sun was high in the sky. A couple of cameramen doing weekend duty walked by. I stood there, hesitant to go back inside because that would set time back in motion, the purity of the event polluted by what came next. Nothing would ever feel this right.
I walked back into an unchanged scene in the Situation Room. Then Obama stood up and announced that he wanted to be notified as soon as the Special Operations team was out of Pakistani air space. There were muted congratulations, but things could still go wrong; there was much to do.
Once the team was safely back in Jalalabad, Obama returned to the meeting. Admiral Mullen left the room to call the chief of Pakistan’s army, General Kayani, to tell him we’d launched this military operation in his country. The question became how certain we could be that it was bin Laden. Apparently, some of the women in the compound had identified him at the scene—Sheikh Osama. The intelligence community had done a facial recognition test that confirmed it was him, but these tests had only a 95 percent confidence rate. DNA evidence would take another day or two. McRaven reported that one of his men, someone who—at six foot four—was the same height as bin Laden, had lain down next to the corpse to confirm that the height was a match. Obama leaned forward. “You guys need to get a tape measure.”
There was a debate about whether to make a statement that night or the next morning. The consensus in the room was the next morning, as we’d want to get the highest confidence that it was bin Laden, and we had a number of notifications to make. I was worried that the Pakistanis or al Qaeda could get out in front of us. There was, after all, the smoldering wreckage of a helicopter in the middle of a compound deep inside Pakistan. I had the Situation Room monitoring media from the region. One story posted with the headline army chopper crashes in Abbottabad. “The chopper,” the story read, “was on its routine flight when it crashed. . . . Witnesses disclosed that there were two helicopters, one of which crashed to the ground. The cause of the crash is as yet unknown.”