By Barbara Starr
In the hours before the 2011 raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, the CIA delivered a final, crucial 66-page document to the White House.
Thirty-three pages detailed how the mission would be announced to the world if it was a success. But the other 33 pages spelled out what would have happened, and what would been said, if it all went wrong. The plan was carried to the White House in a locked bag by George Little, then-press secretary to CIA director Leon Panetta. Little spoke to CNN Wednesday, just two days before leaving government service as the Pentagon press secretary.
Little said much of the plan for the possible failure of the raid tried to anticipate various scenarios, such as an aircraft carrying the commandos crashing into Pakistan, or U.S. troops getting into a firefight with Pakistani forces. There was also discussion of what the Obama administration would have told the American people and the world, if there had been overwhelming opposition at the compound in Abbottabad, and perhaps some of the U.S. troops had been killed. The troops had been told to anticipate combat at the compound where bin Laden was found hiding and to expect the entire area to be booby-trapped.
When the Navy SEALs did move in to the compound in the early morning hours of May 2, climbing over 18-foot-high walls topped with barbed wire, they went through it quickly, meeting little opposition aside from the firing of AK-47s by a few male occupants at the site.
But in advance of the raid, it was still seen as highly risky, Little said. "Failure could have taken a number of forms. This was not an ironclad intelligence case that bin Laden was there."
That meant there was also a scenario in which President Barack Obama would have had to publicly speak about getting to the compound, but finding out that the man they had been tracking was not bin Laden.
The plan "offered an option to the President in which he could explain the rationale for undertaking the mission, the strong intelligence, the months of specific leads and the years of pursuing bin Laden," Little told CNN. "We would have emphasized (that) given the intelligence we had at the time, that we believed most Americans would have made the same decision" to undertake the raid.
The difficulty for the CIA was that some details of the plan were always supposed to remain classified, such as which U.S. military unit conducted the mission. But Little said he believes that if the raid had failed, Washington still would have had to come clean. "I think we probably at some point would have had to acknowledge what happened," he recently told reporters.