WASHINGTON, May 9, 2011 — The death of Osama bin Laden and the unprecedented collection of intelligence material from the raid that killed the terrorist leader will help the United States deal a serious blow to al-Qaida, President Barack Obama said in a “60 Minutes” interview broadcast on CBS last night.
Obama discussed the operation that killed bin Laden in Pakistan and the implications of his death for the fight against terrorism.
“We now have the opportunity … to finally defeat at least al-Qaida in that border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan,” Obama said.
“That doesn’t mean that we will defeat terrorism. It doesn’t mean that al-Qaida hasn’t metastasized to other parts of the world,” he added. “But it does mean we’ve got a chance to deliver a fatal blow to this organization if we follow through aggressively in the months to come.”
Describing last week as one of the most satisfying for the nation since he’s been president, Obama called bin Laden “a symbol of terrorism and a mass murderer” who has long eluded justice.
“For us to be able to definitively say, ‘We got the man who caused thousands of deaths here in the United States and who had been the rallying point for a violent extremist jihad around the world’ was something that I think all of us were profoundly grateful to be a part of,” he said.
The president said shortly after he took office he spoke privately with CIA Director Leon E. Panetta about putting more resources, focus and urgency into efforts to find bin Laden. The CIA had been working steadily on the problem since 2001, Obama said, but “a range of threads were out there that hadn’t quite been pulled all together.”
Over many months, CIA and military experts worked closely to identify bin Laden’s compound and gather evidence, and beginning last August, to shape the action plan that ultimately nabbed the al-Qaida leader.
“This was a very difficult decision, in part because the evidence we had was not absolutely conclusive,” he said.
The plan entailed enormous risk to the men who carried out the mission, the president said. “I thought it was important, though, for us to be able to say that we’d definitely got the guy,” he added.
Also, the president said, the opportunity to exploit information that might be found in the compound factored into his decision to authorize the raid.
Obama said he and his team were not surprised to find bin Laden hiding in plain sight, but they were surprised to learn that the compound had been there for so long without information leaking out about it.
“I think the image that bin Laden had tried to promote was that he was an ascetic, living in a cave,” Obama said. “This guy was living in a million-dollar compound in a residential neighborhood.” Bin Laden had been in the compound for at least five years, he added.
The president said his biggest concern in planning and executing the operation was ensuring the U.S. team could get out, regardless of how the mission turned out.
“As outstanding a job as our intelligence teams did, … at the end of the day, this was still a 55/45 situation,” he said. “We could not say definitively that bin Laden was there. Had he not been there, then there would have been significant consequences.”
Geopolitical risks were involved in entering the sovereign territory of another country, landing helicopters and conducting a military operation, he said.
“If it turns out that it’s a wealthy prince from Dubai who’s in this compound and we’ve sent Special Forces in, we’ve got problems.”
The team that conducted the raid was so capable, Obama said, that it gave him the confidence to proceed with the mission. “I think the American people have some sense of how good these guys are,” he added, “but until you actually see them and meet them, it’s hard to describe how courageous, how tough, how skilled, how precise they are.”
The mission was worth the risk, Obama said, because the nation has “devoted enormous blood and treasure in fighting back against al-Qaida since 2001” and before that, with the embassy bombing in Kenya.
“I said to myself that if we have a good chance of not completely defeating, but badly disabling, al-Qaida, then it was worth both the political risks as well as the risks to our men,” the president said.
After the mission, Obama said, he felt relieved. “I walked up with my team and I just said, ‘We got him,’ ” he said. “And I expressed my profound gratitude and pride to the team that had worked on this.”
The successful mission prompted him also to think about the families of those who died at the hands of bin Laden in 2001, he said.
“I got a letter the day after, an email from a young person who had spoken to her dad when she was 4 years old before the towers collapsed,” the president said. “He was in [one of the buildings]. She described what it had been like for the last 10 years growing up, always having … the sound of her father’s voice and thinking that she’d never see him again, and watching her mother weep on the phone,” he said. “That’s what I thought about.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)