The bin Laden Situation Room revisited – One year later
Seated to the left of Biden and Obama: Webb (sitting), Mullen, Donilon, Daley, Blinken, Tomason, Brennan, Clapper, McDonough (seated), Clinton, Gates
May 1st, 2012
02:00 AM ET

The bin Laden Situation Room revisited – One year later

By Jamie Crawford

In the annals of American history, the famous photo taken by Pete Souza of President Barack Obama and his national security team monitoring 'Operation Neptune's Spear'–the Navy SEALs raid that killed Osama bin Laden– has achieved icon status. Splashed across newspapers and television screens across the world, the tension in the room seemed palpable to all who saw it. But an interesting footnote to the famous photo is that it was not taken in the actual Situation Room at the White House.

As CNN Terrorism Analyst Peter Bergen reports in his new book "Manhunt," about the decade long search for bin Laden, the room where the photo was taken is actually a smaller room adjoined to the larger Situation Room. Like the Situation Room, the smaller room has secure video and phone communications, but it has a table that can only accommodate seven people Bergen writes, as opposed to the larger table next door which can seat more than a dozen.

Brigadier General Marshall "Brad" Webb, assistant commanding general of Joint Special Operations Command who sits in the center of the famous photo, was monitoring the operation on a screen through a laptop computer. Michael Leiter, then director of the National Counterterrorism Center, went into the room to watch the feed that was being relayed from a secret drone. Secretaries Clinton, Gates, and Vice President Biden soon followed. Moments later Bergen reports, the president walked in and said, "I need to watch this," as he seated himself next to Webb.

In the days and months that followed, many of the people in the room have reflected on that crucial time in U.S. history, what it meant to them, and what they were thinking.

President Barack Obama:

In a recent interview with NBC News, Obama said he thinks the photo was taken at about the time the helicopter went down.

In the days after the raid, Obama told CBS's 60 Minutes that the raid was "the longest 40 minutes" of his life with the possible exception of when his younger daughter Sasha became sick with meningitis when she was three months old.

When they received word the helicopters carrying the Navy SEALs and the bin Laden body had left Pakistani airspace, the first person Obama called was his immediate predecessor, former President George W. Bush to inform him of the operation. Obama also called former President Bill Clinton that evening as well.

Vice President Joe Biden:

Vice President Joe Biden was opposed to going forward with the raid all the way up to the point when Obama made the decision to proceed. In remarks to House Democrats at their annual retreat earlier this year, Biden recalled the final moments before the commander-in-chief made his decision. Obama went around the table of his senior national security team to get their thoughts on whether the operation should go forward.

"He got to me. He said Joe what do you think," Biden recalled. "I said, we owe the man a direct answer. Mr. President, my suggestion is, don't go. We have to do two more things to see if he's there."

Biden told an audience in New York last week that Obama's decision to ultimately go ahead with decision shows the president has a "backbone like a ramrod."

Anthony Blinken – National Security Advisor to Vice President Biden:

On the morning of April 29, President Obama gathered with Tom Donilon, his national security adviser, White House Chief of Staff William Daley, Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough, and his counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, and told the men he had made the decision to go forward with the operation. Anthony Blinken, Biden's national security adviser heard the news shortly thereafter.

In an interview with Bergen, Blinken was somewhat surprised of the decision.

"I thought, 'Man, that is a gutsy call," Blinken told Bergen. "First, we don't know for sure bin Laden is there; the evidence is circumstantial. Second, most of his senior advisors recommended a different course of action."

Obama's presidency and the lessons of history also hung in the balance Blinken thought.

"Leaving that meeting, I think a lot of people had visions of Jimmy Carter in their heads," Blinken told Bergen in reference to the failed attempt by the Carter administration in 1980 to rescue the Americans held hostage at the U.S. embassy in Iran.

John Brennan – Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism:

White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan recently told an audience at NYPD headquarters in New York that once Obama made the "gutsy call" to approve the mission, "the minutes passed like hours and days."

When an NYPD official asked Brennan what it was like to be at the White House that evening, Brennan said there "wasn't a sense of exuberance, there were no high fives," he said. "People let out a breath. It was a moment of reflection. This was something we'd all worked toward for a long time."

Brennan recalled leaving the White House at 1:30am and passing by Lafayette Park, where many people had gathered and were chanting, "USA, USA." Brennan said he was hit by a wave of emotion. "I had goose bumps," he said.

James Clapper – Director of National Intelligence:
Clapper told Security Clearance "the tension in the air was palpable" particularly when the helicopter encountered its problem. "There was a lot of tension, and then as it became clear that we were reasonably sure that yes, it was Usama bin Laden, there was, if I can use the phrase, not only emotional closure, but functional closure in that operation illustrated the effectiveness of what an integrated intelligence and operational community could accomplish," he said.

Clapper told Security Clearance he walked with the President through the Rose Garden on their way to the East Room where Obama addressed the nation. It was the first time they had been outdoors for 12 hours, and they could hear the crowds in Lafayette Park. "It was then that it hit me what a momentous event this was, and I'll not forget that" Clapper said.

"It is hard for me to recall a single vignette that carried with it so much importance, and so much symbolism for this country," Clapper said. "As an intelligence professional that has spent 50 years in the business, I cannot remember an event that would approach that raid and its success in my memory."

Hillary Clinton – Secretary of State:

For Secretary Clinton, who was a U.S. Senator from New York on 9/11, the operation provided a sense of closure to her she said recently in an address at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. "We did our very best to try to give the president our honest assessment, and ultimately you know it was his decision which I fully supported because I believed that we had to take the risk and it was a risk."


Watch as Hillary Clinton recounts the mood at the White House during the bin Laden raid.

"It was a pretty intense, tense, stressful time because the people who were actually doing it on the ground were thousands of miles away," she said. "I'm not sure anyone breathed for you know 35 or 37 minutes."

"I wasn't even aware people were taking pictures, the White House photographer obviously was, but you were just so concentrating on what you could see and you could hear. We could see or hear nothing when [the SEALs] went into the house. There was no communication or feedback coming so it was during that time period everyone was particularly focused on just trying to keep calm and keep prepared as to what would happen," Clinton said.

William Daley – White House Chief of Staff:

President Obama's former chief of staff might have come closest to tipping off the press that something monumental was in the works before Obama made his historic address to the nation.

That Saturday evening, Obama, Daley, and many other senior administration officials were attending the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner in Washington. George Stephanopoulos of ABC News had heard from someone that the White House had uncharacteristically closed itself to public tours the next morning. "You guys have something big going on over there?" Bergen writes of Stephanopoulos's surprising query to Daley. "Oh no. It's just a plumbing issue," Daley said, seemingly ending the newsman's curiosity.

In an address to a conference of public relations executives in Chicago last week, Daley called that night of the operation at the White House the "biggest moment of my life in a professional sense."

Tom Donilon – National Security Adviser:

"Well, obviously we're thinking about the successful and safe completion of the mission," Donilon told CNN's Candy Crowley a week after the raid. "That was first and foremost in everybody's mind as we were monitoring the mission as it was ongoing."

"You know, as I look at the picture now though, and focus in on the president, having served three presidents," Donilon told Crowley, "you really are struck by these being quintessentially presidential decisions, and you see it in new experiences that you have."

For Donilon, who watched the president receive divided opinions from his advisers on whether to go forward with the mission, "that's what strikes me now, looking at the president, is that we ask our presidents to make these exceedingly difficult decisions," Donilon said. "And at the end of the day, 300 million Americans are looking to him to make the right decision."

Robert Gates – Secretary of Defense:

Gates, who was the only hold over in Obama's cabinet from the previous administration, said for him, the most difficult moment for him that evening was when one of the Blackhawk helicopters carrying a Navy SEALs team crashed in the courtyard of the bin Laden compound.

Like Biden, he was opposed to the operation involving the SEALs. Gates, who spent a majority of his career at the C.I.A. and was the intelligence liaison at the White House in 1980 during the failed attempt to rescue the American hostages held in Iran, advocated for a much larger operation.

"Well, I think like the rest, I was just transfixed," Gates told CBS's 60 Minutes last year. "And of course, my heart went to my mouth when the helicopter landed in the courtyard, 'cause I knew that wasn't part of the plan. But these guys were just amazing."

Admiral Mike Mullen – Chairman of the Joint Chiefs:

For Mullen, there was also a concern about whether the White House would interfere after the helicopter went down.

Mullen told Bergen his biggest concern "was that someone at the White House would reach in and start micromanaging the mission. It is potentially the great disadvantage about technology that we have these days," he said. "And I was going to put my body in the way of trying to stop that. Obviously, there was one person I couldn't stop doing that, and that was the president."

Audry Tomason – National Counterterrorism Center:

CNN reached out to Audrey Tomason to get her reflections of that evening, but she was unavailable for comment.

Brigadier General Marshall "Brad" Webb – Assistant Commanding General, Joint Special Operations Command:

Webb was the senior officer in the room from Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). The commanding officer of JSOC, Admiral William McRaven, briefed the officials on the operation from his position in Afghanistan. Webb declined to comment to CNN about his role in the operation, or his reflections of the evening.

Denis McDonough – Deputy National Security Advisor:

"I think what strikes me about the picture more than anything is the fact that it speaks to the teamwork that was emblematic," McDonough told CNN's Wolf Blitzer the day after the operation. "The broader teamwork from the IAC, the intelligence community, from the military, from our diplomats, to make sure that this happened in the successful way that it did."

Leon Panetta – Central Intelligence Agency Director:

Panetta, who at that point was the Director of the C.I.A. at the agency headquarters in Langley, VA that evening, but was communicating with Obama and his team via a video link. The Title 50 operation called for the C.I.A. to have operational control, so everyone at the White House was listening to Panetta narrate what was happening.

"There were a number of tense moments going through the operation," now Defense Secretary Panetta said on his way back to the United States from South America last week. "Just the fact that having these helicopters going 150 miles into Pakistan, and the concern about whether or not they would be detected." When one of the helicopters went down at the compound, Panetta said it was "pretty nerve-wracking for a lot of us that, you know, trying to figure out what happens now."

When they received confirmation from the SEAL team that they had killed bin Laden, Panetta said there was a "huge sigh of relief by everybody involved." But with a disabled helicopter down at the compound, it had to be destroyed by members of the team before they were able to leave Pakistani territory. "And so there was a lot of concern about the ability to get everybody back to Afghanistan," Panetta said. "But we were able to do that, and it was at that point that I think everybody kind of looked at everybody and said, 'mission accomplished."

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