By Joby Warrick and Karin Brulliard
President Barack Obama faced sharply divided counsel and, in his mind, barely better-than-even odds of success when he ordered the May 1 commando raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the president said in an interview broadcast Sunday.
Obama acknowledged having only circumstantial evidence placing bin Laden at the Abbottabad compound. There was not a single photograph or confirmed sighting of the man, he said, and he worried that the Navy SEALs would find only a “prince from Dubai” instead of the terrorist mastermind responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“At the end of the day, this was still a 55-45 situation,” Obama told CBS’s “60 Minutes” in his first broadcast interview since bin Laden’s death. “I mean, we could not say definitively that Bin Laden was there. Had he not been there, then there would have been some significant consequences.”
Obama, in his most revelatory comments about his thinking in the days before the raid, said he weighed the risks and judged that he should proceed with what was, by all accounts, the most promising opportunity to capture or kill bin Laden in nearly a decade. In doing so, he rejected the advice of a substantial number of his national security advisers, who worried that the plan to send ground troops deep into Pakistan was too risky, he said.
“I concluded it was worth it,” Obama said. “We have devoted enormous blood and treasure in fighting back against al-Qaeda, ever since 2001. And I said to myself that if we have a good chance of not completely defeating but badly disabling al-Qaeda, then it was worth both the political risks as well as the risks to our men, after a pursuit that cost billions of dollars and stretched for nearly a decade.”
Earlier Sunday, the White House’s chief security officer said there was no evidence suggesting that Pakistan’s intelligence, military or political establishment knew anything of bin Laden’s secret hideout in an army garrison town 35 miles from the capital.
At the same time, several local officials in Abbottabad and elsewhere in Pakistan continued to express doubt that government authorities were unaware of bin Laden’s presence in the neighborhood.
The president gave the order to strike on the morning of Friday, April 29, a day after his top security advisers hashed over the arguments and counter-arguments in a meeting in the White House Situation Room. Obama said his advisers expressed doubts — some of which he also shared — and security officials pored over possible scenarios and studied a model replica of bin Laden’s compound that had been brought to the White House.
Over the following two days, Obama proceeded with previously scheduled duties, including a tour of tornado-ravaged Southern states and a televised appearance at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, while continuing to ponder the gravity of the events he had placed in motion.
“The vast majority of my most senior aides did not know that we were doing this,” Obama said. “There were times where you wanted to go around and talk this through with some more folks. And that just wasn’t an option. And during the course of the weekend, you know, there was no doubt that this was weighing on me.”
Only after the SEAL team landed in Afghanistan were U.S. officials convinced that they had indeed succeeded, he said. Obama described walking out of the Situation Room and telling aides, “We got him.”
The president acknowledged surprise at learning that bin Laden had managed to remain hidden in Pakistan since 2005 without being discovered by the country’s security officials. He said White House officials believed there had to be “some sort of support network for bin Laden inside of Pakistan,” though it was unclear who or what that support network was.
“We don’t know whether there might have been some people inside of government, people outside of government,” he said, “and that’s something that we have to investigate, and more importantly the Pakistani government has to investigate.”
National security adviser Thomas E. Donilon said Pakistan remains a critical partner in battling al-Qaeda, despite new strains in the relationship a week the raid in Abbottabad. But he acknowledged that Pakistani officials have not granted Americans access to critical information gathered since the raid or allowed interviews with bin Laden family members now in Pakistan’s custody.
“We’ve asked for access, obviously, to those folks,” Donilon said on ABC’s “This Week with Christiane Amanpour,” one of four television news shows he visited Sunday.
A Pakistani intelligence official said Sunday that his government needed permission from the wives’ home countries before Pakistan could allow U.S. officials to question them. One of the wives is from Yemen; the official said he did not know the other wives’ nationalities.
Donilon also weighed in on whether senior Pakistani officials knew of bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad or perhaps even supported the al-Qaeda leader materially.
“As I sit here with you, I don’t have any information that would indicate foreknowledge by the political military or intelligence leadership in Pakistan,” Donilon said.
Other U.S. officials and congressional leaders in recent days have suggested that Pakistani officials must have known of bin Laden’s presence or else were grossly incompetent in failing to notice his nearly six-year presence in a town that is home to one of the country’s premier military academies.
Donilon said questions about how bin Laden managed to live peacefully in Pakistan for so long “are being raised quite aggressively in Pakistan,” but he said Islamabad remains “an essential partner of ours in the war against al-Qaeda” and other terrorist groups.
“This is an important relationship with the United States, so we need to assess this . . . in a cool and calm way,” he told Amanpour.
Others echoed Donilon’s efforts to cool the anti-Pakistan rhetoric in Washington. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Pakistan was helpful in the capture of bin Laden, even though the White House chose not to notify Islamabad of the raid in Abbottabad until after it ended.
“Even in the getting of Osama bin Laden, the Pakistanis were helpful,” Kerry said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “We have people on the ground in Pakistan because they allow us to have them. We actually worked with them on certain parts of the intelligence that helped to lead to him.”
In interviews in recent days, several local officials in Abbottabad and elsewhere in Pakistan continued to express doubt that government authorities were unaware of bin Laden’s presence in the Bilal Town neighborhood.
A senior police official in another area of Pakistan said he would be “amazed” if neighbors had not reported suspicious activity about the house to police in Abbottabad. The police official, who is not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity, previously served as a district-level police chief in four areas. He said he and his officers frequently advised residents to keep an eye on their neighbors and report newcomers.
“Once a week I would get a call from anonymous people that, in that house, there are a few suspicious people coming and visiting. Or there is a house where nobody is there. And, you know, we used to check those houses,” the police official said.
“In the past few years, when I was posted in districts, I used to get calls that ‘there are bearded people visiting that house!’ Everyone is aware of the fact that we are living in a very dangerous situation.”
A compound such as bin Laden’s, where Pakistani security officials say about 18 people were living, would attract notice because it would require “huge provisions. You need to provide them with groceries,” the police official said.
“I would understand if this had happened in New York – everyone is so busy,” the official said. “But Pakistanis, we are pretty intrusive people. We are very much concerned about what’s cooking in our neighbor’s kitchen.”
Sardar Sher Dil, the former nazim, or mayor, of another neighborhood in the garrison city, said he kept a detailed map of his locality and regularly updated records on the residents of each house.
“I as a civilian, local-level politician can maintain all the maps and data of my locality and voters. Why not the [military] officials and security agencies?” Dil said. “Everyone here in relevant quarters, like our main intelligence agencies, were fully aware of the Osama bin Laden compound.”
Baba Haider Zaman, the mayor of the Abbottabad district from 2005 to 2010, echoed doubts about security officials’ ignorance.
“Either they took bribes or harbored such a high-value target,” Zaman said, though he said he did not visit Bilal Town during his tenure.
The nazim of Bilal Town, Syed Sultan Shah, could not be reached Sunday.
Other officials, speaking anonymously, indicated that the failure to local bin Laden was simple oversight.
An Abbottabad police official who was unauthorized to speak publicly said his force conducted a population survey three months ago. Heads of household were required to provide property records, as well as two photographs and a copy of their National Identity Card.
The police official said the records at the bin Laden house were under the name of Arshad Khan — one of two brothers who neighbors said lived at the house. Other security officials have said that the identity card appeared to be fake, however.
A government official in Abbottabad said a census team also made rounds in the city in April, for the first time in 11 years. But no one responded to knocks at the two metal security gates of the bin Laden compound, the official said, and the census workers gave up.
Brulliard reported from Islamabad. Special correspondent Haq Nawaz Khan contributed to this report from Abbottabad.