How the president learned to stop worrying and love hard power -- as long as it's covert
Was there ever an unlikelier pair to be leading a team of elite warriors? The man up on the screen was a pudgy, avuncular Californian, Leon Panetta, with a lifelong passion for environmental causes--in particular, protecting marine life (as in fish, not jarheads). The president who was watching him from a secure room inside the White House, Barack Obama, had so inspired the world with his give-peace-a-chance rhetoric that he'd won a Nobel Prize after only eight months in office. Yet here they were, the two of them, about to take out the world's No. 1 terrorist, a task that all those bare-toothed Bushies had failed to accomplish.
The operation was CIA--that is to say, civilian. Though the Navy SEALs who carried it out were America's fiercest fighters (their commander, Adm. Bill McRaven, can "drive a knife through your ribs in a nanosecond," a colleague once said), the military had "loaned" Team Six to the CIA for this operation under Title 50 of the National Security Act. McRaven and the SEALs were in charge on the ground, but it was a supersecret unit within Panetta's Central Intelligence Agency that had been pursuing, almost alone, this particular quarry in a manhunt that had dramatically accelerated since President Obama took office. Charged by Obama to find Osama bin Laden at all costs, the CIA had managed to track the Qaida leader's chief courier to certain areas in Pakistan. And now, two years later, that painstaking hunt had led the agency to this moment--perhaps the greatest in the CIA's storied history--with Panetta giving the "go" for the op on Obama's direct orders.
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If you think it's an accident that the May 1 takedown of bin Laden occurred on Obama's watch, think again. The mission's success followed a meeting that included the president and his new CIA director in October 2009, as the administration reviewed its Afghanistan and Pakistan policy. As usual, the agency put together a wish list of counterterrorist activities for Panetta to take to the president: adding more predator drones inside Pakistan; enlarging the areas in which they operated; and opening new facilities in the country, including CIA safe houses like the one set up to observe bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad. The CIA hoped it might get, as usual, about half of the 10 items it wanted. "But at the end of the day, the president told Leon, 'You're getting everything you want, all 10 things,' " said a senior administration official who asked not to be named.