WASHINGTON >> President Barack Obama ordered the commando raid that killed terrorist leader Osama bin Laden after deciding the risks were outweighed by the possibility “of us finally getting our man” following a decade of frustration, he said in a Sunday broadcast interview.
The helicopter raid “was the longest 40 minutes of my life,” Obama told CBS’ “60 Minutes,” with the possible exception of when his daughter Sasha became sick with meningitis as an infant.
Monitoring the commando raid operation in the White House Situation Room a week ago, Obama said he and top aides “had a sense of when gunfire and explosions took place” halfway around the world, and knew when one of the helicopters carrying Navy SEALs made an unplanned hard landing. “But we could not get information clearly about what was happening inside the compound,” he said.
Public opinion polls have shown a boost in Obama’s support in the days since the raid, and his re-election campaign was eager to draw attention to the interview.
Jim Messina, the president’s campaign manager, emailed supporters encouraging them to watch the program. The note included a link to a listing of all of the network’s local affiliates around the country — and another one requesting donations to Obama’s re-election effort.
In the interview, Obama said that as nervous as he was about the raid, he didn’t lose sleep over the possibility that bin Laden might be killed. Anyone who questions whether the terrorist mastermind didn’t deserve his fate “needs to have their head examined,” he said.
Obama said bin Laden had “some sort of support network” inside Pakistan to be able to live for years at a high-security compound in Abbottabad, a city that houses numerous military facilities. But he stopped short of accusing Pakistani officials of harboring the man who planned the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that killed nearly 3,000.
“We don’t know 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 the United States wanted to investigate further to learn the facts, “and more importantly, the Pakistani government has to investigate.”
Some members of Congress have called for a cessation of U.S. aid to Pakistan, at least until it becomes clear what role, if any, the government played in bin Laden’s ability to avoid detection for years. But Obama said that since the Sept. 11 attacks, “Pakistan has been a strong counter-terrorism partner with us” despite periodic disagreements.
The president was guarded in discussing any of the details of the raid, and offered no details that have not yet been made public.
Discussing his own role, he said the decision to order the raid was very difficult, in part because there was no certainty that bin Laden was at the compound, and also because of the risk to the SEALs.
“But ultimately, I had so much confidence in the capacity of our guys to carry out the mission that I felt that the risks were outweighed by the potential benefit of finally getting our man,“ he said.
Two influential lawmakers rebutted calls for a cut-off in American aid to Pakistan, an inconstant ally in the long struggle against terrorists.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said: “Everybody has to understand that even in the getting of Osama bin Laden, the Pakistanis were helpful. 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, and they have been extraordinarily cooperative and at some political cost to them in helping us to take out 16 of the top 20 al-Qaida leaders with a drone program that we have in the western part of the country,” he said.
The senior Republican on the committee, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, said: “Pakistan is a critical factor in the war against terror, our war, the world’s war against it, simply because there are a lot of terrorists in Pakistan.” He also noted that the nation possesses nuclear weapons, and said a cut-off in aid could weaken the United States’ ability to make sure they do not fall into the hands of terrorists.
Kerry strongly defended the president’s decision to order the raid, and the shooting death of bin Laden.
The administration has offered shifting accounts of the events that unfolded in the 40 minutes the Navy SEALs were inside bin Laden’s compound, most recently saying the terrorist mastermind was unarmed but appeared to be reaching for a weapon when he was shot in the head and chest.
“I think those SEALs did exactly what they should have done. And we need to shut up and move on about, you know, the realities of what happened in that building,” Kerry said.
National security adviser Tom Donilon said, “I’ve not seen evidence that would tell us that the political, the military, or the intelligence leadership had foreknowledge of — of bin Laden” being in the country. He said the U.S. has asked the Pakistani authorities for access to people whom the SEALs left behind in the compound, including three of bin Laden’s wives. The U.S. also wants access to additional materials collected there, he said.
Officials have said the SEALs took voluminous computerized and paper records when they choppered out of bin Laden’s compound. Donilon likened the amount of information retrieved to the size of a small college library.
Donilon also sidestepped when asked if waterboarding and other so-called enhanced interrogation of detainees had produced information that led to the successful raid against bin Laden’s compound. “No single piece of intelligence led to this,” he said.
The national security adviser appeared on ABC, NBC, CNN and Fox. Lugar was on CNN, and Kerry spoke on CBS.