On the morning of May 1, 2011, most Americans had never heard of Abbottabad. By that night, the dusty midsize city near the mountains of northwest Pakistan was the center of the biggest story in the world. A team of U.S. Navy SEALs had just descended by helicopter on a high-walled mansion there in the dark of night, located the globe’s most hunted man and killed him.
The effort to track and execute Osama bin Laden, which took place 10 years ago this weekend, was the most closely held operational secret in modern American history—a highly sensitive, politically fraught and physically risky mission that involved breaching the sovereign territory of a purported U.S. ally to target an icon of international violence and terror.
Once his death was announced in a hastily organized late Sunday night presidential address, much of the initial attention focused on the bravery and skill of the SEAL operators who flew in and conducted the attack. Other popular culture, like the movie Zero Dark Thirty, would later center on the years of work by the analysts who traced the elusive bin Laden to his compound. But the operation also stands as a fascinating window into the most rarefied zone of presidential decision-making: Barack Obama had sole authority to approve an act with huge consequences and huge risks, one that could easily sink his presidency if it went bad. And, with a decade’s hindsight, there was another consequential domestic political subplot at work that week, too: On the day between when Obama approved the operation and when Seal Team Six helicoptered in, the president kept a long-scheduled date at the White House Correspondents Association dinner, where he publicly roasted celebrity real estate developer-turned-TV host Donald Trump for pumping up the “birther” conspiracy theory that he wasn’t a real citizen.
The bin Laden raid that President Obama greenlit that Friday in late April—code-named Operation Neptune’s Spear—was the culmination of months of intricate preparation that reached across the capital and around the globe, from full-scale SEAL dress rehearsals in North Carolina to deep Washington legal debates over whether the mission would be “kill or capture,” all planned around a small, precise physical model of the Abbottabad compound that traveled back and forth from CIA headquarters in suburban Virginia to the West Wing. The tense moments as the raid unfolded half a world away yielded one of the most famous inside-the-room photographs in presidential history, Pete Souza’s portrait of 14 people crammed into a White House Situation Room anteroom—a moment of high drama that included Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and two future current Cabinet secretaries.
The full story of how, and why, America’s top security officials decided to pull the trigger that night in May has never been told. This oral history—the story inside the West Wing and U.S. intelligence agencies as Neptune’s Spear coalesced over the fall of 2010 and spring of 2011—is based on extensive original interviews with nearly 30 key intelligence and national security leaders, White House staff, and presidential aides—including some who have never spoken publicly before, and roughly half of those pictured in Souza’s famous photograph. Their accounts, from the White House, CIA headquarters and Afghanistan itself, paint a never-before-seen view of the most momentous decision of Barack Obama’s presidency. [Continue reading…]