In this episode of Intelligence Matters DECLASSIFIED: Spy Stories from the Officers Who Were There, CBS News Intelligence and National Security Reporter Olivia Gazis interviews Michael Morell and retired Admiral Bill McRaven about the raid on the complex in Abbottabad, Pakistan that brought Osama bin Laden to justice nearly a decade ago. Morell and McRaven discuss the initial tip obtained by the CIA, the agency’s development of the intelligence, the initial briefings of President Obama, and the military operation devised and executed by the Joint Special Operations Command. They also offer behind-the-scenes details about key players and pivotal moments before, during and after the operation. This episode was produced in partnership with the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. Intelligence Matters DECLASSIFIED is new series dedicated to featuring first-hand accounts from former intelligence officers. 

HIGHLIGHTS:

  • McRaven’s words to his men on the eve of the operation:  “I’m sending them off. They’re about to board the helicopter and they kind of turn to you as the coach for one final thing to say. And once again, I hadn’t put a lot of thought into it until I arrived at the fire pit, but I knew exactly what needed to be said. And I turned all of them and I said, ‘Look, since 9/11, all of you guys have dreamed about being the man that goes on the mission to get bin Laden. Well, this is the mission and you are the men. Let’s go get bin Laden.’   And there wasn’t a lot of hoopla. It was just: ‘Got it.’ And then away they went.”
  • The moment bin Laden was killed: [Morell]: “That was an incredible moment. And, you know, it wasn’t a locker room atmosphere, you know, at CIA. It was it was somber, actually. You know, there was – we were certainly happy that we were right about the intelligence. And we were certainly happy that we took off the battlefield America’s number one enemy, and that we did it without losing a single man. But it wasn’t a locker room atmosphere.”
  • Teamwork between CIA and JSOC: [McRaven]: “I think what made this even even a better level of collaboration was really Leon Panetta, Michael Morell, the senior leadership of the agency, reached out and embraced us in a way that I do think was unprecedented. We were, in fact, one team because we knew that this mission was too important to be anything but one team.”

Admiral William McRaven (retired). CBS News

INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – RET. ADM. BILL MCRAVEN & MICHAEL MORELL

This episode was produced in partnership with the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. 

OLIVIA GAZIS: Michael, I’d like to start with you. More than 10 years ago – in fact, almost 20 years ago, in 2002, when the agency first got a tip that there was a potential courier working with Osama bin Laden. Take us from that moment in time to where the agency felt confident enough to brief the President of the United States on its findings. How was that received? Why did it take until 2010 to get a name and location? And why did it get so promising? If you could just encapsulate that period for us, to start.

MICHAEL MORELL: Sure. So in 2002, a detainee in the detention of a North African country told his briefers about a guy named Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti.

And this detainee said that Abu Ahmed was a courier for bin Laden, was somebody who was close to bin Laden. And it went from there. And we took that information, which was given to us by that country, and we asked all the other detainees that were in either our detention or the detention of other countries about this guy named Abu Ahmed. And as we did that, we started to build this picture of Abu Ahmed as a pretty important guy. 

We were told that he was close to to bin Laden prior to 9/11, that he often was a courier for bin Laden. Prior to 9/11, we were told that he was very close to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11. And we were told by one detainee in particular that he could be the kind of person who might be even living with bin Laden. 

And then probably the most important thing happened: we asked two very senior al-Qaida operatives, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed himself, and a guy named Abu Faraj al Libi, about this guy named Abu Ahmed. And Khalid Sheikh Mohammed told us that, yes, he was aware of a guy named Abu Ahmed, but he was never a courier and that he quit working for bin Laden after 9/11. 

What Abu Faraj told us, and previous detainees had told us, [was] that Abu Ahmed was very close to Abu Faraj. So, Abu Faraj says, ‘I never heard of a guy named Abu Ahmed, let alone met a guy named Abu Ahmed.’ And then the coup de gras was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: After his interrogation, goes back to his cell and he tells his cell mates, ‘Nobody say anything about the courier.’ So, all of a sudden, Abu Ahmed skyrockets, right, in our interest. We obviously have the cell bugged, right. So we heard what he was telling the other prisoners. 

So at that point, we had his Arab nickname, Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti. We did not know his name. It took us two to three years – at this time it’s 2003. It took us two or three years to figure out his true name. It took us another couple of years to find out his phone number. Once we had his phone number, it was pretty easy to locate him on the planet and we found him in Peshawar, Pakistan. 

And over a period of time, we followed him from Peshawar to this compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, which is a pretty upscale city in Pakistan, not too far from Pakistan’s version of West Point. 

So it was at that point where we found the compound that our counterterrorism experts came to Director Panetta and me, and that was in August of 2010. And they said, ‘Mr. Director, we have found this guy named Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti.’ 

Now, that name meant nothing to Director Panetta or me. So in that meeting late on a Friday afternoon, they told us all about Abu Ahmed. They basically told us the story that I just told you and they told us about this compound where they followed him to. And they really, at that first meeting, gave us the physical characteristics. 

So, a large compound, much larger than the other compounds in the neighborhood. They told us that it was surrounded by walls, 12- to 18-foot walls, with barbed wire. They told us that the main house had very few windows. They told us that there was a terrace on the third floor, but the terrace had a privacy wall – so if you’re out on the terrace, you actually couldn’t see out. And I remember Director Panetta saying, ‘Why would you have a privacy wall? Isn’t the whole point of a terrace to be able to see out?’ 

And what was interesting, Olivia, was that nobody at that meeting – there were only four or five of us there – but nobody at that meeting said the words, ‘bin Laden might be there.’ But everybody was thinking that. 

Over the next couple of weeks we learned some more information. So over the next, I’d say, five weeks, we learned that Abu Ahmed was there with his brother, Abrar. That they were the owners of the property. They paid cash for it. And neither one of them had any means of of work. They weren’t working. They weren’t earning any money. 

We learned that there was no telephone at the compound. There was no Internet at the compound. We learned that the large number of children at the compound did not go to school, unlike the rest of the kids in the neighborhood. And we learned that the residents of the compound burned their trash as opposed to everybody else in the neighborhood who put their trash out for collection. 

And we took all of that information, and we took it to President Obama on September 21st, 2010. So just 11 days from today. And we briefed him on essentially what I just told you. 

He gave us two directives. Number one: find out what the hell is going on inside that compound. And number two, don’t tell anybody about this – anybody. And this was the best kept secret that I’ve ever been involved in in government.

OLIVIA GAZIS: Michael, just to complete that intelligence picture: Did you deliver all of this to the president with any sort of confidence level? And if you did, did the agencies involved all have the same confidence level, or were there differences?

MICHAEL MORELL: So, great question. At that first meeting, we just briefed him on everything I just told you. We had not yet come to the conclusion that bin Laden was being harbored there. So that took a couple more months. So the president says, ‘Find out what’s going on inside that compound,’ right. So we did everything we could to try to learn more about that compound and who was there. And we tried a number of operational concepts to try to gather more information. And we really only gathered a few more tidbits.

One was that there was a third family living at the compound and that that third family never left the compound, and that the neighbors were not aware that there was a third family there. 

We also learned that the composition of that third family was consistent with what we thought bin Laden’s family would have been at that moment in time, in terms of number of children, in terms of their age, et cetera. So that was number one. 

Number two, and really importantly, we learned that Abu Ahmed was still working for al-Qaeda; one of our great fears early on was that Abu Ahmed had left al-Qaida and was now working for somebody else, an organized crime figure, drug dealer, or any kind of possibility in that direction. And we got some intelligence that made it absolutely clear that he was still in the employment of al-Qaida and was still a dedicated jihadist.

OLIVIA GAZIS: But you can’t or won’t tell us how you found that out, right, Michael?

MICHAEL MORELL: No, but it’s really it’s a really good spy work, Olivia. And so we learned those those two pieces. And it was the combination of all of that: still circumstantial, right.

But the combination of all of that led the analysts in November, December, to tell the president that there was a ‘high probability that Abu Ahmed was harboring bin Laden at the Abbottabad compound.’ Those are almost the exact words they used. But that wasn’t until the late fall.

OLIVIA GAZIS: Right. Admiral McRaven, let’s bring you in and fast forward slightly from that point to late January 2011 – because at that point, having been presented with the intelligence as it existed, the president asked for some concepts of operation and that the military be brought into the fold. You’ve said in the past that there were leads on bin Laden’s whereabouts before. Did this particular intelligence stand out? Was it remarkable or unremarkable? Did you think this is just another false lead or were you actually encouraged by it?

ADM. BILL MCRAVEN: You know, we’d had a lot of leads on bin Laden; some of them fairly tangential. But part of the responsibility of my command was to work with the Agency and those that had leads to kind of track these down. I remember at one point in time somebody had reported that bin Laden was up in the Hindu Kush in northern Afghanistan at 14,200 feet. So sure enough, we sent a helicopter 14,200 feet to track down who we thought might be bin Laden marching through the snow.

Needless to say, he wasn’t there. 

But every time one of those leads came up, we would do the best we could to kind of follow the end of the lead. Having said that, when I first got notified about this was actually in December of 2010. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, came out to visit us in Afghanistan, which he did quite frequently.

And after he had talked to all the folks in my headquarters, they said, ‘Hey, Bill, let’s let’s go upstairs and talk.’ So I went up to my office and he said, ‘Look, the Agency thinks they have a lead on bin Laden, and they may call you to come back in and take a look at the intelligence they’ve got.’ 

And I’ll be honest with you, I was a little dismissive – only because we had seen a lot of leads before. And again, I didn’t have any of the intelligence. It was just Admiral Mullen telling me that the Agency had a lead. 

A couple of weeks later, I get a call from General Hoss Cartwright, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. And I went back and that’s actually when I met up with Michael and he laid out to me in his office the intelligence that they were looking at. And they didn’t give me a complete look behind the curtain. It was really, ‘Hey, here is the compound at Abbottabad. And if your special operations forces had to take down that compound, how would you do it?’ 

And I said, ‘It’s a compound. It’s what we do every night.’ We were doing about 20 to 25 missions a night in Iraq and we were doing about 10 to 12 missions a night in Afghanistan. And your average mission in Afghanistan was, you’d take five or six heavy lift helicopters, MH-47, the twin-bladed special operations helicopters, put a whole bunch of SEALs and Rangers, or Army Special Operations and Rangers, you’d fly about an hour, you’d land in an offset location. You’d foot patrol for about 10 to 15 kilometers so the enemy couldn’t hear you coming. You’d surround the compound, you put up blocking positions around. The snipers would get up on the wall, and then you’d lock it down. 

We actually would come out with a bullhorn and say, you know, ‘Come out with your hands up’ – that rarely happened. But if it did, you know, we’d get the guy. If not, things tended to get a little sporty. We’d get the guy, we’d put him on a helicopter, and we take him back. That was a profile that the force was running, again, about 10 to 12 times a night in Afghanistan. 

So when Michael showed me the Abbottabad compound, of course, it was this large kind of trapezoid-shaped compound with the big three-story building in the middle, a couple of outbuildings. I said, “Well, you know, it’s a compound. A little bigger than what we’re used to.’ And clearly, as Michael kind of teased me with the intelligence, it was at that point in time I had to admit it was pretty compelling. I went after we had the discussion, I actually went back to Afghanistan and then came back very soon thereafter and then had a discussion. And they really kind of opened up all the books to me and and had a chance to look at all the intel at that point in time. 

Again, I thought the intelligence was was very compelling. And then we had our first meeting with the president and and that was, again, late January, early February, to your point.

OLIVIA GAZIS: Right. And then there there came a point where a decision needed to be made whether to leave the operation in the CIA’s hands or enlist Special Operations. You’ve written about how you made a concerted effort not to make it seem like you guys did do this every night and may have had better ideas on how to approach it than the CIA. Why was that important? 

And Michael, after the Admiral answers the question, let us know how that was received within the Agency. Was there a sigh of relief? Was there resentment? Tell us a little bit about how that discussion went.

ADM. BILL MCRAVEN: So, yeah, so when we were brought in and it was me – and I actually had a Navy captain who was in D.C. who was kind of helping me coordinate as I bounced back and forth between Washington and Afghanistan – but very early on, I mean, this wasn’t about the Joint Special Operations Command. This wasn’t about the military. This was about doing what was right for the country. And if the best chance of getting bin Laden was to go with the Agency’s paramilitary folks, I was all about it. 

At the end of the day, we wanted to get bin Laden and and we didn’t want this to be about our egos or our reputation or anything to that effect. So I made sure that the message was clear as we were beginning to kind of develop this plan. And there was a great – and I have told this story I think before – there was a great kind of former military officer that was leading the effort and a remarkable, remarkable professional. And he had a pretty good plan. The problem was we knew it was going to be a little bit more complicated than that. 

At one point in time, Director Panetta, along with Michael and a number of their senior officers, kind of called me into his office and said, ‘Hey, look, you know, we think, based on the complexity of this, you guys probably ought to take the lead.’ 

Again, to be honest with you, I was even at that point in time a little standoffish because I just wanted to be careful that there wasn’t the presumption that we thought we were the pros from Dover and that we were going to come in and do this better than anybody. I wanted to make sure that that it was a collaborative effort. 

But, you know, Leon Panetta, who is incredibly gregarious, a great team player, reached out and said, ‘Look, we think you’re the right folks to do this.’ 

And I’ll add one more point – and Michael can talk to how the senior leaders looked at it. But when we kind of had to break the news to this young intelligence officer at the Agency, instead of kind of moping, that he had missed the chance, you know, to be part of this great operation, no, he just did everything that you would expect a great professional to do. He stood up, said, ‘Sir, what can I do to help you?’ 

And frankly, in the course of the next several months, he and his team did everything they could to help us. He was just remarkable. And the information that he had already gleaned from all the intelligence was exceedingly helpful to our operation. So it was just this great collaborative effort and it all started with the agency’s kind of outreach to us.

MICHAEL MORELL: And really, the only thing I would add is, is a couple of days before we had the conversation with Admiral McRaven in Director Panetta’s office – he and I and Jeremy Bash were alone in the director’s office, and we were talking about the various concepts of operations that we had at that moment. I think there were there were five, but really only three because a couple were involving the Pakistanis and there was no way we were going to go down that road.

So we only had like three concepts of operations, but they were all complicated. And I remember the conversation eventually revolved around to the absolutely best people to do the job. And we never thought for a second about, you know, ‘We should do this because we found him, or we should do this because this is going to be a covert action’ – that never crossed our mind. We wanted to do what would increase and give us the best chance to get in there and get in and get out without anybody being hurt. And there was no doubt in our mind that that was Bill and his team, because, as Bill said, they did this multiple times every night in Afghanistan. And we were there with them every night in Afghanistan as they did this. So we knew how good these guys were. And it was a really easy decision to make at the end of the day.

OLIVIA GAZIS: Because it was a covert action, it was sort of the CIA’s operation in terms of oversight, right? Why was that, Michael?

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, so the president decided that he wanted this to be a covert action and he wanted it to be a covert action in case that, you know, Bill’s guys went in there and bin Laden wasn’t there and Bill’s guys got out without being detected by the Pakistanis – we would just deny everything. We would deny that this ever happened. So the president wanted it to be a covert action. And because of that, it falls under CIA authorities.

So, yeah, unusually in this case, the chain of command went from the President to the CIA Director to Bill as the commander; the Secretary of Defense was not in the chain of command. 

But I will tell you, even though Director Panetta was was playing the role of the Secretary of Defense, here, we left all of the operational planning and decisions to Bill. We knew that that was not our business. The day after the raid, when it was public that we had gotten him, we gathered all our employees in the auditorium.

And at one point in Leon’s talk with the employees, he mentioned that he was in charge of this operation. And then he paused and he said, ‘That’s total bullshit. I wasn’t in charge of anything.’ 

So that’s the way it played out. And I’m sure that Bill can talk, but I’m sure he kept his superiors at the Pentagon informed of what he was doing.

OLIVIA GAZIS: Admiral, in fact. So let’s get to late March, when the president – this is your second meeting with the president. He turns to you, having all this background and he says, ‘Can you do the mission, Bill?’ And you didn’t actually tell him, ‘One hundred percent, yes, we can.’ What did you tell him?

ADM. BILL MCRAVEN: Yeah. So up to that point in time, because we hadn’t brought in the SEALs to do the rehearsal, it was really just a plan that frankly, myself and one or two others had kind of conceived, which was a pretty straightforward plan: we would in fly a couple of helicopters from Afghanistan to Abbottabad, get the bad guy, put him or the remains back on a helicopter and fly back.

We tried to make it as elegant and as simple as we could, but it was 162 miles into Afghanistan. The complexities of the tactical maneuvers on the ground, we hadn’t rehearsed any of that because I hadn’t brought the SEALs into the discussion and behind the curtain, if you will, at that point in time. 

So the president said, ‘Can you do it?’ And I said, ‘Sir, I don’t know.’ I said, ‘I really need to bring the guys in and we need to rehearse this.’ 

He said, ‘How long do you think it’ll take?’ And I said,’ I think it’ll take about three weeks.’ 

And he said, ‘OK, you’ve got three weeks; report back to me in three weeks.’

OLIVIA GAZIS: And so what in that period did you actually map out? What kinds of contingencies did you plan for?

ADM. BILL MCRAVEN: So we had been doing a little – I had brought in, the president had agreed to allow me to bring in a couple of kind of subject-matter experts, a ground force commander and a helicopter commander and one or two other folks. And we did kind of the more detailed planning with all the agency’s folks, so the folks who had all the intelligence. We were one team, one fight, so to speak. We were there at Langley, we were sitting there reviewing the intelligence. And, of course, what we wanted to know as operators, the agency was providing all that information. 

So, What does the Pakistani integrated air defense look like? You have a helicopter, a Blackhawk helicopter crosses the border here; When is the first chance we’re going to get picked up? If we fly along this ridge line for 162 miles and now the last two minutes, we’re going to be vulnerable, what is the chance that the Pakistanis will hear us then? When we get on the ground, what’s the compound look like? Was the compound loaded with explosives? How many men and how many men are at the compound? How many women and children in the compound? 

All the sort of tactical details that we had to know for the operation, the agency was providing that for us in order to develop the plan. 

Having said that, we hadn’t brought in the ground force, the SEALS, nor the helicopter pilots to rehearse the plan. So in that three weeks when the president finally said, ‘OK, you can bring the guys in,’ I called the the SEAL commander of the SEAL team and I said, ‘OK, I need these guys.’ 

There’s been a lot of discussion about, ‘Why did you pick the SEALs and not the Army guys?’ And I think folks thought that I picked the SEALs because I’m a SEAL. Let me tell you, the only thing I was interested in was being successful on this mission. But I had two commanders that I had, frankly, tremendous trust and confidence in. And interestingly enough, the Army guys, their squadron had literally just gone to Afghanistan and relieved the SEAL squadron that was there and the SEALs had just flown back to the United States. So for my purpose, I had cover for action; that SEAL squadron had returned and they were supposed to be on leave. So nobody, nobody really thought about, ‘Where are these guys? How come they’re not showing up on the team?’ – because everybody just assumed they were with their girlfriends or their wives or they were off someplace. 

So we took the opportunity of that three weeks really to have the guys come and do an exercise. Now, kind of one of the funny things about it was they were on leave and we recall them. They thought we were recalling them for an exercise. And we do these kind of classified exercises every once in a while. And we have an undisclosed location on the East Coast where we do this. So we had them kind of congregate in in Virginia. They flew down to this undisclosed location. They got into this classroom. And I can tell you they were not happy campers. I had pulled them off leave again with their girlfriends or out skiing in Tahoe, and they thought we’d pulled them off for an exercise.

And the first thing that happened in the classroom was the CIA security guy got up and handed out non-disclosure statements. And then we had an officer get up and start to brief the intel. And I kind of was watching the body language. And all of a sudden they’re looking around thinking, ‘Is this part of the exercise? Are we pretending to go get bin Laden?’ And then I think it dawned on them that this wasn’t an exercise. 

And then I got up, had an opportunity to say a few words, to tell them, ‘Hey, boys, this is the real deal. And as soon as we get through here, grab your gear.’ 

The agency had done a magnificent job in those three weeks of building us a  mock-up on this particular site. And so right after the the briefing was over, the ground force commander got the guys together, collected them. We went to the rehearsal site and then they began about two days of of rehearsals on this this mock-up that the CIA had built. 

And then kind of just to continue after we did that, we went out to another location out on the West Coast. We ran a couple of full dress rehearsals and then we brought some senior folks from the Pentagon and the intelligence community out. And the White House, they got a chance to review our full dress rehearsal. And then after that, I was able to go back to the next meeting. And when the president said, ‘Can you do this?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir, we can do this..

OLIVIA GAZIS: Did you have a personal assessment, Admiral, as to whether Osama bin Laden was there? Was it higher than Michael’s 60 percent or Obama’s 50 percent? Did you have just a personal guess?

ADM. MCRAVEN: You know, I hope this doesn’t come out wrong, but it really didn’t matter to me from a tactical standpoint or an operational standpoint. If he was there we were going to get him, if he wasn’t, we were going to come home. The tactics of whether he was there or not really weren’t going to fundamentally change. 

So, you know, when I looked at the intelligence, I actually was leaning more towards the high side, more towards Michael’s, you know, 60 percent, maybe even a little higher because, you know, some of the analysts there at the agency had such passion and they had been looking at this for so very long. And when you looked at all of the detail – which we did day in and day out – you really got a sense that, ‘Wow, this really could be him.’ 

The thing, of course, that was driving us a little crazy was we just couldn’t get to to certainty or near certainty that it was bin Laden, which which goes to the boldness of the decision of the president, which we can talk about later.

But again, I thought it was better than 50 percent, certainly at least 60 percent. But as an operational commander, that was really fairly immaterial. We were going to conduct the mission as though it were him and we were going to do everything we needed to if it turned out not to be him. We had a plan to address that.

OLIVIA GAZIS: Right. Michael, the Admiral’s point, what was the pressure like on the agency to come to a more definitive conclusion as to whether he was there? And how heavily did some of the agency’s past experiences – with Desert One, with Iraq WMD – weigh on that process?

MICHAEL MORELL: So we took very seriously one of the things that analysts do regularly, which is not only have a judgment about something – bin Laden is at this compound – but also have a confidence level with that judgment: low, medium or high. And we take that very seriously. And that’s a lesson from Iraq WMD, that we do that with almost every judgment and in particular every judgment that is important. 

And so the analysts who were working this actually did their own Red Team. They went through a process where they asked themselves, ‘What are all the other possibilities that are consistent with the data here?’ You know, ‘Is this a drug dealer?’ Right, and ‘What would that look like?’ So they went through that process.

And then the director of our counterterrorism center did his own little Red Team. He invited four analysts who weren’t even part of CTC, but that he trusted and that he had great respect for. And he brought them in to look at all of the intelligence and ask them what they thought. And their response was, you know, ‘We think he’s there, but we’re not as confident as the analysts who have been working this directly.’ 

So there were actually two Red Teams done by CIA. There wasn’t a lot of pressure put on us by the president to nail down whether it was him or not with that level of certainty that Bill talked about, but there was from Director Panetta. Director Panetta put pretty intense pressure on the operational side of the agency to get to near-certainty. And at the end of the day, we just couldn’t.

And, you know, we were very direct with the President about what we knew and what we didn’t know; very direct with the {resident, that this was a circumstantial case, that we had no direct evidence that he was there. We didn’t have a source telling us that he was in there. So we were very clear about all of that. And I remember near the end – and Bill may remember this as well –as we were approaching the final days. I remember John Brennan in a deputies meeting saying that, ‘If he’s not there, I want to make it very clear to everybody that this is not an intelligence failure.’ And I think that was a remarkable thing for John to do at that moment in time.

OLIVIA GAZIS: Admiral, you referenced the courage that it took to make the decision. Let’s fast forward to April 29. when the President greenlights the mission. You delay it one day because of bad weather. I’d like you to talk a little bit about how you thought about talking to your men that evening of, the evening before. It involved a basketball reference – what did you want to convey to them?

ADM. MCRAVEN: Yes, so every time we have a large mission like this, a hostage rescue or major operation, we do this kind of final and very large and very detailed brief. So in one of the hangars in our location there in Afghanistan, everybody that’s involved, every helicopter pilot, every backender, every seal, every intelligence person, as I sit kind of on the front row, they come up and they brief me. 

‘Sir, I’m Chief Petty Officer Jones. My job tonight is to do this.’ 

‘Sir, I’m Lieutenant Smith. My job tonight is to do this and that.’ 

And they go through every aspect of the mission. And we were fortunate, we had the mock-up in front of us and everybody kind of tells their role. And then at the end of a briefing like that, the expectation is the commander gets up, gives some clarifying points, and frankly, you’re a little bit like a coach with a team. I think you’re expected to say something a little inspirational. And I hadn’t really thought about it. 

And as the briefing is going on, finally, it’s time for me to make a couple of clarifying points, which I did, things that I wanted to see the guys do. And then it kind of spontaneously occurred to me that I need to say something. And a lot of the guys there knew that I like to play basketball on Sundays in Afghanistan and Iraq. We go to the motor pool and play basketball. 

And so I said, ‘Look, I know a lot of you guys know I like to play basketball,’ and you kind of see a few of the heads nod. And I said, ‘Look, I don’t know how many of you have seen the movie “Hoosiers,”‘ – you know, a few more heads are nodding. And I said, ‘Well, you know, it’s set in – I think I said like 1955, starring Gene Hackman as this coach of this small-town basketball team. And the small-town basketball team gets the chance to go to the state championship in Indianapolis. And they go from the small town in Indiana and they go up to the big city there in Indianapolis and they get up into the stadium. And of course, it’s this huge stadium. 

And these kids have been playing on a very, very small court. And you can tell that that they’re nervous. They’re about to play on the big court in front of a large fan base. And  Hackman says to one of those guys, says, ‘Hey. Walk off the length of the court.’ A guy walks off the court. He says, ‘How long?’ 

He says, ‘Coach, it’s 94 feet.’ 

‘So what’s the height of the basket?’ 

Guy goes, ‘Coach, it’s 10 feet high.’ 

And the coach turns to the guys and he says, ‘This is the exact same court that you’ve been playing on your whole life. Just play your game and we’ll be fine.’ 

And so that was my message to the guys. All of these guys had spent a lot of time in combat. I mean, many, many of the helicopter pilots and all of the SEALs had been in this really since 9/11. So I knew they knew what to do. 

And so I said, ‘Just do it like you always do it, and we’re going to be fine.’ 

And that was the message on Friday night. I will tell you, though, that the message on Sunday when we finally were getting ready to do the raid, I left my little makeshift command center and I went out to see the SEALs and they were around kind of a fire pit and they had their game face on. They were getting all their ammunition, getting their gear ready to go. 

And once again, now, I’m sending them off. They’re about to board the helicopter and they kind of turn to you as the coach for one final thing to say. And once again, I hadn’t put a lot of thought into it until I arrived at the fire pit, but I knew exactly what needed to be said. 

And I turned all of them and I said, ‘Look, since 9/11, all of you guys have dreamed about being the man that goes on the mission to get bin Laden. Well, this is the mission and you are the men. Let’s go get bin Laden.’ 

And there wasn’t a lot of hoopla. It was just: ‘Got it.’ And then away they went. 

So those are the – again, the two points of interjection between me and the force.

OLIVIA GAZIS: Michael, I’d like to get into the raid itself. You are watching from Washington and you see the Black Hawk helicopter go down. What goes through your mind? What do people in the room say?

MICHAEL MORELL: So one of the things that the Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates, repeatedly said in the meetings we had both at the Principals level and then with the president, was that something always goes wrong in a military operation. And that he remembered Desert One, the attempt to rescue the hostages in Tehran and what happened in the Iranian desert.

And he reminded us that he was in that very room, in The Situation Room, dealing with that issue. So he had mentioned that a number of times. So when the helicopter went down, my first reaction, my first thought was for the safety of those forces on that helicopter. And my second reaction was, ‘Wow, Bob Gates was right.’ 

And I had a big lump in my throat because I didn’t know what this meant. But one of the things that steeled me in that moment was how calm Bill McRaven was and how he was absolutely ready for this and explained very quickly what the what the process was going to be going forward.

I think he told us that everybody in helicopter was fine and that the mission would go forward and he would call for another helicopter to come in. And his calmness in that moment helped me. And I know it helped Director Panetta and everybody else that was sitting in our operation center that day.

OLIVIA GAZIS: Admiral, you said that you were already thinking of the next step when the helicopter went down. Was there ever a doubt in your mind that the mission would continue and be successful?

ADM. BILL MCRAVEN: No, none whatsoever. Again, we had kind of gamed this out, as was mentioned earlier when the helicopter came in and it was right at about the third deck, the third story of this building. And we had been concerned that when the helicopter came in, in order for the guys to fast rope down, kind of repel down from the helicopter, that somebody from inside the room could have fired an RPG, a rocket-propelled grenade, could have engaged the helicopter. We had door gunners. We were prepared for that. 

But I remember in talking to the helicopter pilot, he said, ‘Sir, unless I am dead at the controls, I will be able to get that helicopter in’ — to what we referred to as the animal pen, the other kind of portion of the of the compound. So as I saw the helicopter coming in and I’m watching it on the screen and it begins to waffle and lose control and it began to spin – of course, I have the advantage, as I’m listening on the headset when the helicopter kind of hard lands in the animal pen. There’s been – and I’m always a little embarrassed about the degree to which people think I was calm; well, I was calm because I had the advantage of actually knowing what was going on at the time. 

The fact of the matter was, I knew immediately that the guys were OK. We did have a backup plan. I had a helicopter waiting kind of around the corner because we had thought that we might lose a helicopter. And so you had to be prepared to deal with that. And as long as the guys were OK, I knew that we were going to be able to adjust. The ground force had rehearsed this multiple times. They had, again, they had planned a plan B, Plan C and Plan D..

OLIVIA GAZIS: And then after what probably seems like an eternity to everybody who was watching, you hear, ‘For God and country, Geronimo.” … and each of you thinks, what? Michael, let’s start with you.

MICHAEL MORELL: So we knew that was the call sign for, ‘We got bin Laden.’ So that was, you know, that was an incredible moment. And, you know, it wasn’t a locker room atmosphere, you know, at CIA. It was it was somber, actually. You know, there was – we were certainly happy that we were right about the intelligence. And we were certainly happy that we took off the battlefield America’s number one enemy, and that we did it without losing a single man. 

But it wasn’t a locker room atmosphere. It was a recognition that we killed a woman. We killed one of the wives accidentally. That we scared out of their wits a large number of children. And so, you know, the whole picture was of a great satisfaction. But, you know, again, not a not a locker room kind of atmosphere at all. 

OLIVIA GAZIS: Admiral, what did you think?

ADM. BILL MCRAVEN: Same thing. I mean, I was looking for the next mission execution checklist.

So, you know, when the ground force commander radioed in and said, you know, ‘For God and country, Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo,’ frankly, I don’t think I gave it any thought.

‘Oh, then OK, what’s the next line item on the execution checklist?’ 

What did occur to me, of course, was when he called in ‘Geronimo’ and I reported to Director Panetta that we had ‘Geronimo,’ then I hesitated for a second. I said, ‘Well, I don’t know whether he’s dead or whether we captured him there.’ 

Contrary to popular belief, this was not a kill-only mission. We had talked a lot in The Situation Room about what happens if bin Laden has his hands up. And it’s clearly not a threat. The answer was easy: we have to capture him. We have an obligation under the law of armed conflict to capture him. We were going to do that. We had a plan for doing that. 

But if he presented any threat at all, or if we could not ascertain in that split second that he was not a threat, then the guys had the right to take the shot. But what I didn’t know after I made the comment was, is he alive or dead? So I called back to the ground force commander and I said, ‘Is it Geronimo EKIA, Enemy Killed In Action?’ He reported that it was. And I immediately got back to Director Panetta to say, ‘Geronimo, EKIA.’ 

And then, of course, I was looking on to the next line on the execution checklist to figure out what are we supposed to be doing next.

OLIVIA GAZIS: And one of those items, I assume, was actually trying to verify his identity, which posed a challenge in the immediate aftermath, right, Admiral? In particular, because maybe you lacked a tape measure.

ADM. BILL MCRAVEN: So – well, on the target, all we could get back was from the force there. The intent, of course, was to take a picture and be able to relay that picture back. But candidly, everything was moving so fast that didn’t end up becoming an option. They did take some pictures, obviously, on site, which we looked at as soon as as soon as they got back. 

But, yeah, they you know, the other thing that happened on the compound, of course, was they found intelligence on the second floor. So the ground force commander, we had originally planned only to be on the ground for 30 minutes and about 20 minutes or 25 minutes into it, I get a call saying, ‘Hey, we found all of this intelligence on the second floor. We’d like to scoop it up.’ 

By this time, we are noticing that the Pakistanis are starting to react. They know something’s going on and I’m not sure exactly the sequencing, but now they were starting to alert people. I was getting a little bit nervous that it was time to get out of there. But I didn’t want to leave the intelligence because we didn’t know whether we would have access to this again. 

So I told him, ‘OK, get everything you can.’ And frankly, I was calling back about every five minutes going, ‘OK, how are you doing?’ 

‘Sir, we’re still picking up intel.’ 

And finally, about 45 minutes, so, 15 minutes past my 30-minute timeline, I call down and I said, ‘OK, you’ve got to wrap it up. We’ve got to get out of here.’ It took them about three minutes to get all the women and children out of the way. We had already loaded the helicopter with demolition to blow it, got the women and children out of the way, blew the helicopter. The backup helicopter came in. We’d already picked up, I think, bin Laden’s remains. By that time, our guys got out and we started heading back.

OLIVIA GAZIS: So just to wrap up the story of the raid itself, before we move on to a couple of other topics, so much of its success has been attributed to the teamwork and the trust that was established and maintained between the intelligence officers and your team. Was that unique to this operation? Was it was it unprecedented? Characterize a little bit about that relationship.

ADM. MCRAVEN: Yeah, certainly wasn’t unprecedented. We had been working with the Agency –  frankly, my whole career, I have been working with them 37 years. I met my first Agency officer when I was deployed to the Philippines and they were, you know, an old Vietnam veteran. So I’ve spent my whole career on and off working with the Agency. But 9/11 really accelerated that. I mean, we had agency bases were co-located with my force, so it was just always kind of this team that worked together on all the important targets. 

I think what made this even even a better level of collaboration was really Leon Panetta, Michael Morell, the senior leadership of the agency, reached out and embraced us in a way that I do think was unprecedented. We were, in fact, one team because we knew that this mission was too important to be anything but one team. 

And again, I give just tremendous credit to Leon and Michael because they set the tone early on. They built the culture of the team. They gave us access to everything. And I mean, there wasn’t anything that we needed that the Agency didn’t provide.

OLIVIA GAZIS: Michael, anything you’d want to add?  

MICHAEL MORELL: I just want to add one thing; So this this level of trust was as Bill described. And one moment where it was driven home for me, was Bill asked us – and you mentioned this earlier – Bill asked us, ‘Do your analysts think that the compound or the house is wired for explosives?’ So the analysts went back and they thought it through and they worked it through and they come back and they said, ‘No.’ And Bill says, ‘OK.’

And you know Bill just saying, ‘OK, thank you very much,’ and going on was an amazing moment in him trusting the CIA.

OLIVIA GAZIS: Let’s talk a little bit about al-Qaida today. So obviously bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, takes over within a matter of weeks. It elicits a question of why is Zawahiri still at large? I’d love your thoughts on that.

MICHAEL MORELL: Maybe I’ll take that. So before we found bin Laden, I can’t tell you how many people would ask us, ‘Why haven’t you found bin Laden yet?’

And the director of our counterterrorism center would answer with a quip. He would say, ‘Because he is hiding.’ I would answer it with a little bit more analytic bent to it. I would say, you know, it took the FBI 17 years to find the Unabomber. It took the FBI seven years to find the bomber of the Atlanta Olympics. And those two people were hiding on the FBI’s own soil. The FBI’s own turf. And here we were looking for a guy who was, you know, on somebody else’s turf. And that gives that person a huge advantage. 

And if you take extraordinary security practices – you know, bin Laden never used a phone after Tora Bora. The two brothers who were at the compound, Abu Ahmed and Abrar, never turned their phones on until they were 30 kilometers away from the compound. So extraordinary operational security. 

So if you’re going to go to that length and you are in another country, it is not easy for the United States of America to find you. So I’m sure they’re still looking for Zawahiri, but we haven’t found him yet. But we will.

OLIVIA GAZIS: Do you think if Osama bin Laden were alive today, HE would agree with this assessment that al-Qaida is in crisis, or would he view its potency and its resiliency a different way?

MICHAEL MORELL: [T]he jihadist extremist movement is now much bigger than al-Qaida core and al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It now stretches from West Africa all the way to Southeast Asia, and it includes al-Qaida and al-Qaida affiliates in Africa and in the Middle East and in Southeast Asia. And it includes ISIS. It includes ISIS in Afghanistan, ISIS in Africa. It is huge, right? 

So the number of of jihadist extremists who are willing to use violence is magnitudes greater today than it was on September 10th, 2001. It’s down a bit from where it was in 2017, but it is still very large. So this threat remains significant. We have other threats in the world that we need to focus on, absolutely. But this threat remains significant.