President Barack Obama entered the Situation Room to watch the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani compound just in time to see one of the specially equipped Black Hawk helicopters hit the ground.
The President remembered thinking it was “not an ideal start,” he told CNN’s Peter Bergen in a lengthy and exclusive interview about the May 2011 raid that killed the mastermind of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Obama and key members of his inner circle spoke to CNN’s Peter Bergen about the raid that killed the mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks for the “Anderson Cooper 360°” special on Monday at 8 p.m. ET: “‘We Got Him’: President Obama, Bin Laden and the Future of the War on Terror.” Bergen’s exclusive interview marks the first time Obama has sat down with a journalist in the Situation Room.
Five years after the raid, the administration continues to point to it as an example of Obama’s willingness to take aggressive action overseas to protect American interests — often in response to criticism that the President’s foreign policy is too hands-off.
“We came in here at the point where the helicopters were about to actually land,” Obama told Bergen. “It’s here where we observed, for example, that one of the helicopters got damaged in the landing.”
Seeing the turn of events, Obama said, “I was thinking that this is not an ideal start.”
Obama’s top military, intelligence and security advisers watched the raid alongside him in the Situation Room.
“We were all worried,” the President said. “The good news was it didn’t crash. Our guys were able to extract themselves. The bad news was that the helicopter itself had been damaged.”
One of the 23 Navy SEALs who conducted the raid smashed classified fixtures of the Black Hawk helicopter and then set off explosives to destroy it.
“Even though we had the best helicopter operators imaginable, despite the fact that they had practiced these landings repeatedly in a mock up, we couldn’t account for temperature,” Obama said, “and the fact that helicopters start reacting differently in an enclosed compound where heat may be rising.”
The crash was one example of the many variables Obama and his team had to consider as they debated whether and how to go after bin Laden. Planning for the operation, the President said, was “meticulous.”
“We had prepared as well as we could,” Obama said, calling the decision to strike “emblematic of presidential decision-making. You’re always working with probabilities, and you make a decision, not based on 100% certainty, but with the best information that you’ve got.”
Obama said he had been inclined fairly early to send Navy SEALs into Pakistan to strike at bin Laden but waited until all members of his team had a chance to have their say.
“On decisions like this, you’re leaning in a certain direction,” Obama told Bergen. “I had been inclined to take the shot fairly early on in the discussions. But you hold back the decision until you have to make it. And in the end, what I had very much appreciated was the degree to which we had an honest debate.”
The experience taught him the lesson that “good process leads to good results,” Obama said. “I could honestly say, by the time I made the decision, that everybody had had their say, that we had all the information we were going to be able to get.”
“We had not looked at it through rose-colored glasses,” Obama said. “We knew the risks involved.”