Bin Laden is dead: some background from a White House briefing

Osama bin Laden is dead. President Obama announced it after 11 pm Sunday, and soon I found in my email inbox an invitation to a conference call with senior administration officials who would brief on the background to the president’s announcement. Here’s a link to the text of the president’s announcement:

Before I spew out my notes, here’s why this lowly Miami-Dade Democratic Party blogger is on the White House press list. It dates from the 2008 Democratic Party convention in Denver. I attended as one of about a dozen Florida progressive bloggers who were given one accreditation to cover the convention floor – we shared it around, and I had the fun of being on the floor when Barack Obama’s name was put in nomination. Later, back home in South Florida, I was still on a good list of accredited bloggers, and after the president was elected and took office, I got emails advising me I could participate in briefings by the White House and other Cabinet departments. And emails continue to come in, and several times a week I listen in to briefings, sometimes on the record, sometimes sourced to those “senior officials.” As a retired reporter, I’m used to this. My job was not covering the White House, but I was in it several times in my reporting career. I’m not going to say who the senior officials were, other than one was very senior, and two or three others were deputies.

So, the notes:

Official No. 1 – a deputy: There was a “relentless” campaign to get Bin Laden and to defeat Al Qaeda for years after 9/11. In 2010 the CIA came to believe he was in a compound in Pakistan. From mid-March this year until April 28 the president chaired five meetings of the National Security Council on this topic and issued orders on Friday to launch the attack by a small team.

As it was a bipartisan drive against Al Qaeda, the president briefed George W. Bush and Bill Clinton on the mission. (My notes are not clear on whether that was before the actual attack or reporting the results).

Official No. 2 – very senior. Added little detail other than to name location as Abbottabad, a suburb of Islamabad, and to repeat that it was a “small team” that went in.

Official No. 3 – a deputy: One of the ways the CIA developed the information was by concentrating on couriers who moved messages to and from Bin Laden. He said information from detainees was helpful in developing this information. He said one apparent courier was identified about four years ago and two years later they learned where he and his brother “operated” in Pakistan. They were very careful, which tended to confirm that they could be a courier team. In August 2010 the CIA identified a compound in Abbottabad as their location (or a location they frequented; my notes indicate the information got vague here). The compound was far larger than other houses in the area, which was affluent with retired Pakistani military nearby. It’s on a large plot of land with walls about 15 feet tall, and inner walls as well, breaking the interior into separate areas. A three-story structure is the main building, with few windows oriented to outside the compound, and it had a seven-foot-tall privacy wall in one area.

There was no phone service or Internet to the compound. No indication of what wealth was behind the large building. The residents appeared to be a group that could include Bin Laden and some family members including his youngest wife.

Official No. 4 (possibly this was No. 1 again): The small team went in on two helicopters and the aim was to minimize collateral damage. The raid lasted about 40 minutes. In addition to Bin Laden, three other men were killed, plus one woman who was used as a shield by one of the targets.

One helicopter was lost due to mechanical failure, and it was deliberately destroyed. So the team left on the remaining one helicopter. (Though they didn’t exactly say, I’m assuming they took at least Bin Laden’s body and perhaps others. See below for more on the body.)

Again switching briefer, unclear which official it is, but not the very senior one: (This is about the bigger picture). Pakistani officials were not briefed until after the action. The briefer stresses that the president has said for several years that he would order attacks in Pakistan if that was necessary.

There may be heightened danger of attack now, and the US is taking all precautions. A travel advisory on Pakistan is being issued.

This is “the single greatest victory” in the campaign to defeat Al Qaeda.

The second in command, Ayman al Zawahiri, will have difficulty keeping the loyalty of Bin Laden’s followers in the Gulf.

Al Qaeda is out of fashion now anyway, as it stands in opposition to the democratic trends now rising in the Arab world.

Now some Q-and-A:

–Some detail on how Bin Laden was killed? “He was killed in a firefight.”

–Navy writer asked about the chopper failure; no details were offered.

–Again about Bin Laden’s death? “He did resist the assault force, and he was killed in a firefight.”

–Indian questioner probes for Pakistani cooperation with Bin Laden? Pakistan cooperated as the US prepared the leads. Indian questioner tries again? “We are concerned that he was inside Pakistan.”

–What about Bin Laden’s body? It is being handled “in accordance with Islamic tradition.”

–NPR asked for more detail on the compound? It was built about five years ago and the CIA believes it was built to hide Bin Laden, though not clear how long he had been there.


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