“Inside the Situation Room,” which aired this week on NBC’s "Rock Center," was as dramatic as any television procedural — but it was with otherwise incomparable resonance that the NBC News program chronicled what Barack Obama called “the most important day of his presidency.”
Talk about keeping secrets from your spouse. Obama revealed to anchor Brian Williams — who got unprecedented access to the president, his top advisers and the two conference rooms where they discussed and watched the secret Navy SEALs operation that killed terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden at his lair in Pakistan — that the first lady had no idea what was going down until after it happened.
The hour-long program also revealed the president to be an A-list actor, giving off no outward signs that he greenlighted the operation as he toured tornado damage that day in Alabama, and that night attended the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Even when comedian Seth Meyers made a prescient joke about finding bin Laden, Obama just laughed along, keeping the history-making secret close to the vest.
As a viewer, I was riveted as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, Leon Panetta — then head of the CIA — and the few other advisers who were privy described in emotional detail their thoughts and feelings about the raid — and the especially dramatic moments when the first helicopter to land at the bin Laden complex crashed.
It was known as "Operation Neptune’s Spear," and some of those advisers were dead set against it, including Biden. But despite the lack of verifiable evidence of bin Laden’s presence, Obama was resolute in his decision. “The reason I was willing to make that decision of sending in our SEALs to try to capture or kill bin Laden rather than to take some other options was ultimately because I had 100 percent faith in the Navy SEALs themselves,” Obama told Williams in the exclusive interview.
Killing or capturing the man behind the 9/11 attacks and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing had been a top priority of two previous administrations, and after the choppers flew successfully back to their base in Afghanistan with bin Laden’s dead body on board, Obama called both former presidents Bush and Clinton with earth-shattering news that came in from the field as (OBL code name) "Geronimo KIA."
Hillary Clinton had also kept the plans secret from her husband. She had to keep a straight face as she attended a wedding the night before the raid and was asked whether the U.S. was ever going to get bin Laden, to which she replied that we would keep trying. “This was such an important secret to keep,” she told Williams. “No one in the State Department knew. I just felt a personal responsibility to keep it close, but that meant that I was basically, you know, having to consult with myself, to be honest.”
During their tense 40 minutes on the ground and after the firefight that killed the remorseless terrorist leader, the SEALs gathered up five computers, 10 hard drives and a trove of other storage devices. The content of some of them, just released, showed bin Laden plotting more attacks even as his organization was being decimated, lamenting the incompetence of some of his Al Queda lieutenants and affiliates and even the media-savviness of the terrorist organization, which apparently had a dislike for Fox News.
One of the letters just published by the U.S. Army’s Combating Terrorism Center discusses the circumstances of an Al Queda spokesman releasing a message to the media. In it, he tells bin Laden, “I suggest that we should distribute it to more than one channel, so that there will be healthy competition between the channels in broadcasting the material, so that no other channel takes the lead. It should be sent for example to ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN and maybe PBS and VOA. As for Fox News, let her die in her anger.”
But bin Laden had much bigger targets in his crosshairs. He even strategized on how to kill Obama and thus make Biden president, calling him “utterly unprepared” to be the leader of the free world.
What he couldn’t have factored into that diabolical plot was Biden’s hours-long twisting of a rosary ring around his finger as he and the other insiders watched the raid go down in real time. That, and the skillful team of U.S. operatives that was finally able to take him down in short order.
As we look back a year later, and even as the triumph of getting bin Laden gets politicized and criticized, we can never forget the bravery of the commando team and the bold decision to launch their mission in the face of improbable odds.
Williams and Co. added invaluable insight into a day in history that ended in an unscripted manner, with hordes of people jubillantly descending on the White House to laud the demise of a man who represented pure evil.