'This Is 50-50': Behind Obama's Decision to Kill Bin Laden

New details emerge from the raid that killed Osama bin Laden


Ho New/Reuters

Best-selling author and Atlantic national correspondent Mark Bowden 's new book The Finish leverages access to key White House, military, intelligence, and foreign-policy officials -- including President Obama himself -- to get behind the the intricate story of how SEAL Team Six was sent to Abbottabad, Pakistan, to kill Osama bin Laden.

The Finish is a second-draft-of-history book; and given the interest in the hunt for bin Laden, there will be many more drafts to come. But what this one presents is close to a textbook example of complex national-security decision making. Scheduled for release three weeks before election day, The Finish won't just provide fodder for partisans, including those who believe the White House has leaked national security details to politically bolster the president; it will also help frame the election's stakes.

The Slow Grind

Bowden reviews the evolutionary progress made in intelligence processing and military capabilities that led to the raid on Abbottabad. The effort that produced the lead on bin Laden involved immense resources, trial-and-error, technological advancement, presidential pressure, and, according to Bowden, torture.

President Obama, like President George W. Bush, pushed on the bureaucratic players to find bin Laden, but Bowden thinks the success "resulted not from redirection but from a slow grind":

On May 26, 2009, four months into his presidency, [President Obama] had ended a routine national security briefing in the Situation Room by pointing to [then-Deputy National Security Adviser Tom] Donilon, Leon Panetta, his newly appointed CIA director, Mike Leiter, director of the National Counter Terrorism Center, and Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff. "You, you, you, and you," he said. "Come upstairs. I want to talk to you guys about something."

As Donilon would tell [Bowden], Obama said: "Here's the deal. I want this hunt for Osama bin Laden and al-Zawahiri to come to the front of the line. I worry that the trail has gone cold. This has to be our top priority and it needs leadership in the tops of your organizations [...] And I want regular reports on this to me, and I want them starting in thirty days."

At his regular daily briefings, [President] Bush would routinely ask, "How're we doing?" and everyone knew what he was talking about. It was the same with Obama. After that impromptu meeting in his office with his new intelligence chiefs in 2009, he would bring it up at nearly every security briefing.

"Are we any closer?"

"What have we learned?"

Bowden had his own judgments on the pressure:

"The newly elected president did make it clear that he regarded the hunt for bin Laden [...] as the top national security priority of his administration. But did that really change anything? One senior intelligence official told [Bowden] that it did not [...]

Obama's urgency did have an effect, he said, forcing the various bin Laden team leaders to prepare regular progress reports [...]

"[...] I think that requiring regular updates pushed our guys even harder, but I doubt that was the reason for the breakthrough. The resources available didn't change at all. Our focus on [al Qaeda] senior leaders never suffered from a lack of resources, certainly not the hunt."

In an "effort that began under President Clinton and improved markedly after 9/11 under President Bush," the intelligence gathering and analysis juggernaut found bin Laden:

[by] storing every scrap of intel about al Qaeda and related groups gathered by the nation's very active military and spy agencies, transforming them into data, and then plumbing that data for leads. The hunt for bin Laden and others eventually drew on an unfathomably rich database [...]" [aided by software] "[...] capable of ranging deep and fast and with keen discernment -- a problem the government itself proved less effective at solving than were teams of young software engineers in Silicon Valley.

In 2007, the agency learned that [bin Laden's courier's] real name was Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed. It will not say how the connection was made. It might have been as simple as an informant, perhaps someone detained and being interrogated in another country, or it might have emerged from the wizardry of its supercomputers [...] One senior official said that the information came from a 'third country.'

But, according to Bowden and contrary to Obama administration claims that "torture played no role [...] torture, or at the very least coercive interrogation," helped light the way to bin Laden.

It should [...] be noted this effort did involve torture, or at the very least coercive interrogation methods. The first two mentions of Ahmed the Kuwaiti were made by Mohamedou Ould Slahi and Mohammed al-Qahtani in coercive interrogation sessions. The third, the misleading characterization of the Kuwaiti as retired by Khalid Sheik Mohammed, came during one of his many water-boarding sessions. Hassan Ghul verified the Kuwaiti's central role during secret interrogation sessions at an undisclosed CIA detention center.

After reviewing the intelligence breakthroughs, the Obama administration had to grapple with the data's resulting uncertainty. When asked for confidence that bin Laden was in the Abbottabad compound, the estimates ranged from 10 percent to 95 percent certainty. Several red teams worked to "poke holes" in the analysis and finding. Bowden on the president's reaction:

So as the conversation around him about levels of certainty wore on, the president... interrupted.

"This is fifty-fifty," he said. That silenced everyone. "Look guys, this is a flip of the coin. I can't base this decision on the notion that we have any greater certainty than that."

In order to respond to the intelligence finding, the interagency process produced four options:

  1. The first option, a large bombing, was rejected because of the expected collateral damage. According to Bowden, "America was not going to obliterate [the compound, its women and children, and the surrounding houses] on a fifty-fifty chance of also killing Osama bin Laden."
  2. Another type of airstrike the White House considered was a surgical bombing with a "small guided munition that could be fired from a tiny drone [...]" It was, in Bowden's words, "a kind of magic bullet [...]"
    [But] The weapon had yet to be used in combat, although the technologies involved - drones and missiles - were hardly new. The only difference with this one was its size. Sill... did you want to hinge such a critical opportunity on one shot, with a missile that had never been fired in anger?
  3. The "ground option" -- a raid -- was more complicated, though better if Obama wanted to positively confirm bin Laden's identity. Its advocate, Admiral William McRaven of the Joint Special Operations Command, could "tell the president for sure [...] that if his team could be delivered to the compound, they could clear it and kill or capture bin Laden with minimal loss of life."
    Obama told McRaven that if his SEALs went in, they were coming out. Bin Laden was an imperative that outweighed the relationship [with Pakistan]. If the Pakistanis sounded an alarm and responded faster than they anticipated, so be it. There would have to be a confrontation. He told the admiral to be fully prepared to fight his way out.
  4. "Doing nothing" does not seem to have been ever seriously considered but it was an option presented during the final discussion on April 28, 2011.

According to Bowden, participants in that final meeting held in the White House Situation Room were "asked to choose one of the three options: the raid, the missile strike, or doing nothing -- and then defend their choice." While nearly everyone in the room preferred the ground option, the advice at that meeting forced deliberations, as designed, and reflected varying personal and bureaucratic knowledge and comfort with risk:

The only major dissenters were [Vice President Joe] Biden and [Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates and, by the next morning, Gates had changed his mind. [Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General James Cartwright and Leiter favored the drone over the raid.]  

The vice president was never shy about political calculations. He believed that if the president decided to choose either the air or the ground option, and if the effort failed in any of the many ways it could, Obama would lose his chance for a second term.

While there has been some suggestion that President Obama "had made this gutsy call after being roundly advised not to," Bowden concludes that "when Obama decided to launch the raid he was not acting against the advice of his top-level advisers."

All the Considerations to Balance

The Finish offers glimpses of how a decision like the one to pursue bin Laden can be complicated by bureaucratic, civil-military, and political challenges.

When [then-National Security Adviser] Donilon learned that [Air Force General Marshall "Brad" Webb, who would monitor a "live video feed of the assault,"] planned to move himself and the feeds into the Situation Room, he put a stop to it. Donilon did not like the prospect of Obama communicating directly with McRaven and watching the mission live. It might appear that he was micromanaging the raid. Webb would have to confine these direct links to the smaller conference room.

Eventually, when the president decided to move to the smaller room with the feed after one of the Black Hawks involved in the raid was forced to land, there was concern:

[Secretary of State Hillary Rodham] Clinton, standing over the food tray in the adjacent room with [Deputy National Security Council Adviser] Ben Rhodes, watched him go.

"Ben, do you think it's a good idea for the president to watch this?' she asked.

"He's not going to be directing anything," Rhodes said. "It's just a feed."

As the raid came closer to reality, the administration's public stance had to be considered and its presentation planned.

When someone floated the idea of asking McRaven to postpone the mission for a day, Clinton had heard enough. "We are not going to let a White House correspondents' dinner drive an operational decision," she said.

That ended it. Obama told Donilon, "Tom, if it turns out that's when we decide to go, you'll just tell them I have a stomachache and I have to bow out."

A Complicated Relationship Causes ... Complications

The raid presented real diplomatic challenges as well. The frustrated and fraying relationship with Pakistan vexed planning and the announcement of bin Laden's killing. Obama's reply to McRaven's suggestion that the SEALS ought to "hole up, and wait for Washington to work things out with Islamabad" should the operation go south was "visceral," one adviser said.

"I thought the possibilities of them being held, being subject to politics inside of Pakistan, were going to be very, very difficult," the president explained to [Bowden]. "I did not want to put them in a position of that kind of vulnerability."

Bowden believes Obama's insistence the SEAL team be ready if it had to fight its way out of Pakistan "was a risky call, made for the right reasons." But, Bowden argues, special operators face that possibility routinely. "Obama's decision to beef up the assault force [...] did not save the raid," he wrote. "No JSOC mission like this one would proceed without a Quick Reaction Force close by."

Frayed U.S.-Pakistan relations and the reality that secrecy would be hard to maintain forced the president's after-action announcement before DNA analysis had a chance to conclude bin Laden had actually been killed. Based on the "playbook" of steps to be taken once the raid was complete, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen called General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of staff of Pakistan's army, to alert him to the mission.

"Congratulations," said Kayani. The conversation went downhill from there [...]

"Look, I've got a problem," [Kayani] said. "There are all these stories about American helicopters and a raid inside Pakistan, all without good explanation. It would be very helpful if you would stand up and say what happened."

That decided the matter. They would make the statement that night.

What We Now Learn

At a time when faith is low in the government's abilities, the story of the bin Laden raid paints a remarkable portrait of what government can do.

What's presented in The Finish is close to a textbook example of complex national security decision-making. Was Obama's the right decision or even a good one? Much was riding on 50-50 odds. Chance, such as the air temperature change that contributed to the one Black Hawk's crash, was very kind to this undertaking. There were under-examined moral questions, in Bowden's telling, about torture, the deaths of bystanders and the fate of those who helped the mission. And, as Vanity Fair's excerpt from The Finish and Steve Coll's review last week demonstrated, no one effectively challenged Obama's extrajudicial measures because bin Laden ended up dead.

Would we be better off if there had been no politics behind the decision or its subsequent spin -- what Bowden calls "glitter"? The truth is, there is some good, bad, and glitter to almost all presidential foreign-policy decisions. Complicated calls are -- and should be -- political ones. And the overstatements, and misstatements, that Bowden chastises the White House for come with the territory.

As with much of modern American national security as a whole, the bin Laden raid came down to a complex decision made by one person. Only one person is asked to simultaneously weigh the certainties, manage all the various domestic, military, diplomatic, legal, and moral considerations, and make a decision Americans will live with for years to come. It is a remarkable -- some might argue impractical -- burden. The only way the country can be comfortable with a single person being in the position to make a "50-50" call with such risks is if that person is elected to the position.

Options Considered