US President Barack Obama described the lonely decision he made to mount a Navy SEAL raid to kill Osama bin Laden and called the daring escapade the “most important single day” of his tenure.
In an interview to be broadcast later Wednesday, Obama talked about the nerve jangling moments he endured as he watched the operation, the cloak of secrecy that enveloped it and the moment he saw a photo of the dead Al-Qaeda leader.
“I did choose the risk,” Obama told NBC News anchor Brian Williams, in the latest episode of a nearly week-long commemoration of the anniversary of the bin Laden killing.
Obama spoke to Williams in the secure Situation Room in the White House basement, where top officials gathered to watch the raid unfold on a screen, and which was the site of an iconic photograph seen around the world.
Republicans have accused Obama of inappropriately celebrating the anniversary as he seeks to bolster his standing ahead of his reelection fight.
He spoke about how the operation was planned and conducted in utmost secrecy, and how he did not share knowledge of it with many of his staff, or even First Lady Michelle Obama.“Even a breath of this in the press could have chased bin Laden away,” Obama said. “We didn’t know at that point whether there might be underground tunnels coming out of that compound that would allow him to escape,” he said.
Other top officials told how Obama solicited final recommendations about the operation, before going away to make a final decision himself on whether to move on bin Laden’s suspect hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
“It was never contentious because I think everybody understood both the pros and cons of the action,” Obama said in the interview to be broadcast a day after he made a secretive trip to Afghanistan on the bin Laden anniversary.
“People who were advocating action understood that if this did not work, if we proved to be wrong, there would be severe geopolitical consequences.
“Most importantly, we might be putting our brave Navy SEALs in danger.”
The president said he collected the conflicting recommendations of his war cabinet before going back to the White House residence to have dinner with his family and retire to his study.
“Well, there is no doubt that you don’t sleep as much that evening as you do on a normal night,” he said. “I stayed up late and I woke up early.”
The next day, he told his subordinates that he had decided to go ahead with the raid.
“You have some serenity in knowing that you’ve made the best possible decision that you can and, you know, in that situation you just, you do some praying,” Obama said.
Members of the war cabinet discussed the moment in interviews when they saw one of the helicopters carrying the Navy SEALS drop over the wall of the compound in a crash landing.
“That helicopter didn’t make it to the right spot and everyone went, like, ‘Whoa,’” said Vice President Joe Biden, in an interview to be broadcast on the NBC “Rock Center.”
Obama said that the only thing he was thinking about was “I really want to get those guys back home safe.”
“I want to make sure that the decision I’ve made has not resulted in them putting their lives at risk in vain, and if I got that part of it right, if I could look myself in the mirror and say as commander in chief I made a good call.”
After the SEAL team flew back to a base in Afghanistan, they transmitted photos of the dead Al-Qaeda leader, clearly showing he had been shot in the head during the raid.
“I think it’s wrong to say that I did a high five, because you have a picture of a dead body and, you know, there’s I think regardless of who it is, you always have to be sober about death.
“But understanding the satisfaction for the American people, what it would mean for 9/11 families … I think there was a deep-seated satisfaction for the country at that moment.”
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