Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Would any president have made the call to kill bin Laden?

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
May 4, 2012 -- Updated 1556 GMT (2356 HKT)
President Barack Obama announces the death of Osama bin Laden a year ago.
President Barack Obama announces the death of Osama bin Laden a year ago.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mitt Romney said he would have ordered the Osama bin Laden raid in Pakistan
  • Peter Bergen says President Obama OK'd the raid despite strong opposition on his team
  • Robert Gates and Joe Biden advised against the mission, Bergen says
  • Bergen: Intelligence had not conclusively shown that bin Laden was in the compound

Editor's note: Peter Bergen, CNN national security analyst, is the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden, From 9/11 to Abbottabad," from which this article is adapted.

Washington (CNN) -- At a campaign event Monday in New Hampshire, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney asserted that he too would have made the decision to send a U.S. Navy SEAL team to kill Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, telling reporters, "Of course, even Jimmy Carter would have given that order."

At the same event, former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, who was chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush and is campaigning for Romney, said that President Barack Obama was wrong to take any credit for bin Laden's death. "It's wrong in taking credit, and it's wrong in implying that someone else would not have made the same decision."

Of course, these assertions are easy to make after you already know the successful outcome of the bin Laden operation, so let's consider the decision-making process that went on in the White House before Obama ordered the bin Laden raid and then readers can assess for themselves if just any old president would have made the call.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

Throughout the planning process for the Abbottabad operation, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was consistently one of the most skeptical of the president's advisers. His was a voice that carried great weight, as he had worked for six American presidents; he was working for Nixon's National Security Council when Obama was only 13. And Gates had enough experience from his tenure as CIA director to know that you could have a pretty strong circumstantial case and still be wrong. In the event of a ground attack on the Abbottabad compound, he was also concerned about the level of risk for U.S. forces and for the American relationship with Pakistan.

Above all, Gates was concerned about a replay of Operation Eagle Claw, the botched effort in 1980 to release the 52 American hostages held in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution. It was Jimmy Carter who did make the call to send in American forces to rescue the hostages, which ended up with eight U.S. servicemen dead and no hostages being freed.

The failed rescue operation was a major factor in making Carter a one-term president. Eagle Claw was something Gates had lived through in excruciating detail when he working for then-CIA Director Stansfield Turner as his executive assistant. As the disaster unfolded in Iran in April 1980, Gates was with Turner the whole night of the operation, shuttling between the CIA and the White House. Gates recalled, "We finally left the White House at about 1:30 in the morning. ... I had a long, sad drive home."

Bergen: Documents could damage al Qaeda
Bergen: Bin Laden paranoid
Exclusive access to bin Laden's compound
Bin Laden papers released

Vice President Joe Biden, who was elected to the U.S. Senate when Obama was 10, and was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before becoming vice president, was worried about the local fallout from a SEAL raid in Abbottabad: a possible firefight with the Pakistanis or an incident at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad.

Gates and Biden also pointed out that the proposed raid would not just cause problems in America's relations with Pakistan but would likely cause a permanent rupture, and that would mean the end of both the land and air corridors across Pakistan that were critical to the resupply of the 100,000 America soldiers then stationed in neighboring Afghanistan.

There was also the issue that the case for bin Laden living in the Abbottabad compound was entirely circumstantial. No U.S. satellite ever photographed bin Laden at the compound, and no American spy on the ground had ever seen him.

At one point in the months before Obama made his decision, Michael Morell, deputy director of the CIA, told the president that, when it came to the sheer volume of data points, "the circumstantial case of Iraq having WMD (weapons of mass destruction) was actually stronger than the circumstantial case that bin Laden is living in the Abbottabad compound."

At the final National Security Council meeting to discuss the Abbottabad operation on Thursday, April 28, 2011, Gates continued to be skittish about the proposed SEAL operation, saying, "There is a degree of risk associated with the raid option that I am uncomfortable with. An option of some kind of precision strike, I would be more comfortable with that." The defense secretary reminded Obama's war Cabinet that he had been in the White House the night the Eagle Claw mission imploded.

At this final NSC meeting, Biden was unambiguous, "Mr. President, my suggestion is: Don't go."

At the same meeting, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a long, lawyerly presentation that examined both the upsides and the downsides of the raid option. It wasn't clear where she was going with it until she summarized. "It's a very close call, but I would say: Do the raid."

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

CIA Director Leon Panetta and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Obama's top military adviser, were both strong proponents of the SEAL raid, while Gen. James "Hoss" Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was in favor of deploying a tiny experimental drone-fired bomb to take out bin Laden, an option that was very much on the table during the April 28 meeting.

With both Gates and Biden still leery of the largely circumstantial intelligence and the toll that a raid would place on the critical U.S.-Pakistani relationship, that made two out of the three most-senior officials in Obama's Cabinet urging against the SEAL helicopter assault. Cartwright, whom Obama had great respect for, was also advocating an alternative course of action.

In essence the nation's most senior national security advisers to the president were split down the middle about the advisability of the SEAL operation to take out bin Laden in Pakistan.

Obama listened to the counsel of his senior advisers intently but kept his views to himself. One of the officials in the room who had attended countless meetings with the president says, "He is very hard to read. He's an introverted guy. He's a thinker."

As the meeting wound up, at around 7 p.m., the president said, "This is a close call and not one that I'm ready to make now. I need to go think about this. I'm going to sleep on it. I'll give an order in the morning."

At 8:20 Friday morning, in the White House Diplomatic Reception Room, Obama gathered some of his top aides around him and said simply, "I've considered the decision: It's a go."

Tony Blinken, Biden's top national security adviser, heard the news shortly afterward. "I thought, 'Man, that is a gutsy call.' First, we don't know for sure bin Laden is there; the evidence is circumstantial. Second, most of his most senior advisers had recommended a different course of action. I remember when the president left the meeting the previous day I was not convinced he was going to do it. Leaving that meeting, I think a lot of people had visions of Jimmy Carter in their heads."

If you still think this was an easy call, I have a compound in Abbottabad I'd like to sell to you.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT