Mike Head: The three analysts were distributed over the probability that it was bin Laden: the highest value was 70, 75, 80 percent, then there was one who said 60 percent, and the lowest was 40 percent.
Ben Rhodes: That led to this brief debate about who is right and Obama cut it off with some annoyance and just said, “You see, this is inevitably a 50/50 call. We just have to accept that. “
Leon Panetta: McRaven basically presented this round-up of what would happen: helicopters would get in and [SEALs would] Abseil, go into the terrain. It would be a nightly operation. After that, the president basically looked at everyone at that table and said, “What do you think?”
Tom Donilon: He had sat at the table in the Situation Room by some of the most prominent Americans in national security – from Vice President Biden to Secretary Gates, Admiral Mullen, General Cartwright, Leon Panetta and Mike Morell and John Brennan, Hillary Clinton – all of whom brought a tremendous amount of experience on the table. The President moved around the table and asked people for their views.
Ben Rhodes: The first person to speak was Bob Gates, and Gates was against the robbery. It was a big deal for the Secretary of Defense to express this caution. When Gates advanced his argument, he was referring to “Desert One” and Jimmy Carter’s disastrous efforts to rescue the Iranian hostages. It was the worst ghost that could be brought into the room. It’s a scenario nobody wanted to think about, but it was a scenario that obviously had ended Carter’s presidency. Gates’ comment framed that decision – this won’t be a slam dunk.
Leon Panetta: When the President asked me, “I said, Mr. President, I had an old formula that I used when I was in Congress and I had to vote hard on an issue. I would say to myself, if I told an average person in my district, if you knew what I know, what would you do? In this case, if I told the average person in my district that we have the best information on bin Laden’s location since Tora Bora, the citizen would say you need to perform this operation. I tell you that, Mr President. I think it would be important to do this. I think we regret if we didn’t. “
James Clapper: I trust the instincts of analysts who have been doing this for years. They seemed pretty confident he was there. I recommended that the President listen to the experts.
Ben Rhodes: Hillary gave a really long intervention that made a lengthy argument against the future, basically talking about all of the negative effects that could occur in Pakistan and the things that could go wrong with the operation. But then she made a similarly long intervention, arguing that this was the best chance we had – the best circumstantial case we had for a reference to bin Laden. They don’t want to know that you missed this chance. She came down for it.
Tom Donilon: Me and John Brennan and Denis McDonough had already given the President our views – we approved the raid and the operation. We saw the President every day and had many, many conversations about the operation.
Ben Rhodes: And then Biden. Biden had worked a lot on Pakistan over the years and he really set out the risk of failure and the potential for a confrontation with the Pakistanis. Our message is overrun, the fallout that could follow. I do not remember it being so strongly against, as it is said, “I am going to point out the downsides that you have to take into account from the Pakistani point of view”
John Brennan: I think Joe Biden was most concerned about whether it was a failed mission, what that would mean for Barack Obama and his prospects for a second term.
Ben Rhodes: I was impressed with the absolute confidence McRaven had in this operation. Mullen advocated this at the meeting. It was interesting because Mullen and Gates had never argued over a big problem.
Tom Donilon: He had a shared space – the most prominent national security Americans in this country had different views.
James Clapper: In fact, we hadn’t really agreed on how to proceed – the special ops guys were already prepared, but there was still some discussion of some kind of ranged attack, either with the B-2 or one of those little anti-personnel weapons that you would start from a remote-controlled vehicle.
Ben Rhodes: I remember sitting in that meeting and thinking about the campaign. I wrote the speech he gave in 2007 saying he was going to Pakistan to get bin Laden and everyone pounced on him. The Pakistanis had declared martial law and threatened the United States and all these things. I remembered how secure he had that fight in the campaign. I thought he made up his mind – he decided years ago that he would do this if he had a head start on bin Laden in Pakistan. I have tailored my recommendation accordingly. I said, “You always said you’d do this, so let’s do this.”
Mike Head: I was the last one to leave. I ended up with, “Even if I take the lowest range of what one of the red team’s analysts said – 40 percent – I think that’s 38 percent more than in the last 10 years after Bin Laden.” Even if it’s not a slam dunk, it’s quite more convincing than anything else we’ve seen.