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The Killing of Osama bin Laden

Aired October 19, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone, I'm Christiane Amanpour. Welcome to our special weekend edition. The complete story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden as told to only one man. We've already brought the first part of that story. And today, as promised, we bring you the rest.

In the presidential debates, killing Osama bin Laden has loomed large as President Obama ticks off a list of promises kept.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Not everybody agrees with some of the decisions I've made. But when it comes to our national security, I mean what I say. I said I'd end the war in Libya - in Iraq, and I did. I said that we'd go after Al Qaeda and bin Laden. We have.

I said we'd transition out of Afghanistan and start making sure that Afghans are responsible for their own security. That's what I'm doing.


AMANPOUR: So foreign policy was supposed to be a slam dunk for Barack Obama but in the closing days of this campaign, his challenger, Governor Mitt Romney, has hammered away at the president for everything, including and especially his handling of the terror attack in Benghazi, Libya.


FORMER GOV. MITT ROMNEY, R-MASS., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There were many days that passed before we knew whether this was a spontaneous demonstration or actually whether it was a terrorist attack. And there was no demonstration involved. It was a terrorist attack. And it took a long time for that to be told to the American people.

Whether that was some misleading or, instead, whether we just didn't know what happened, I think you have to ask yourself why didn't we know five days later when the ambassador to the United Nations went on TV to say that this was a demonstration. How could we have not known?


AMANPOUR: But when it comes to Osama bin Laden, we now know that after a decade with the trail having gone cold, Obama entered the Oval Office with getting bin Laden a top priority.

How all the president's men and women finally nabbed the world's most wanted terrorist is truly a stunning story. And while parts of it have been told, Barack Obama himself has confided in only one writer about all the details.

And he is Mark Bowden, the journalist and author who rose to prominence after writing the riveting "Black Hawk Down" about the U.S. debacle in Somalia 20 years ago and who's now just finished "The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden."

He joined me here in the studio. And first, we want to bring you the beginning of his tale.


AMANPOUR: You tell these stories in such an unprecedented way, investigative, the access to all the characters and the unfolding storytelling.

So we want to begin with a question that I think many people have.

Was there ever any doubt, really, that when the American forces were in that moment that they would not kill Osama bin Laden? Did the president ever really think that bin Laden would be captured alive and go to trial?

MARK BOWDEN, AUTHOR: He said that he assumed that they would probably kill him. And as he put it to me, he would have to have been naked and on the ground for him to even have the possibility of surrendering.

And I'll add to that that when the SEALs were fired upon, when they first entered the compound, that pretty much, I think, sealed the fate of any of the adult males in that building, because they were hardly going to wait around to see if someone was going to open fire on them again.

AMANPOUR: But you learned some new details from President Obama about -- was he interested in putting bin Laden on trial? A lot of people would have said that would have made him, you know, a great propagandist. It would have made him a martyr.

BOWDEN: Well, he was interested in doing that. And he's been very consistent in saying that he feels the appropriate venue for prosecuting these terrorists is in a federal courtroom. He's encountered a great deal of political opposition to that. He tried it with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and they basically had to back down.

And what he told me was he felt that if they brought bin Laden back, he might have had the political capital to really do what he would most like to do, which is put him on trial in court.

AMANPOUR: Not afraid, then, that it would have been a recruiting tool for jihadists around the world?

BOWDEN: To the contrary, he feels that, you know showcasing the American criminal justice system, showcasing our society as one of laws as opposed to one of strictly power, is the most effective way of getting across the message that he feels he wants the United States to convey to the rest of the world.

AMANPOUR: So let's go back to the beginning of this particular story. Barack Obama is president; he comes into office and in 2009, you are told that he tells his people, here's the deal: I want this hunt for Osama bin Laden and al-Zawahiri -- his second in command -- to come to the front of the line. I worry that the trail has gone cold. This has to be our top priority.

How much do you personally credit the president with moving this agenda? Or was it the CIA? Was it the special forces who had been trying to find him for a long time?

BOWDEN: I think it was all those things. But I do give President Obama a lot of credit because I think that when you have the man at the top asking for monthly progress reports, nobody wants to file a monthly progress report with no progress in it.

So even though I don't believe the analysts at the CIA had ever flagged in their efforts, I think the people above them, all the way up to Director Panetta, to those in the White House overseeing it, all felt, I think, the urgency of the president's desires. So I do believe it had an effect.

AMANPOUR: You're one of the only ones, if not the only one, who's talked to the whole group of national security and intelligence people involved in this.

So I want to go to the options. We know from previous reporting that there were two main options -- at least we thought there were only two main options -- and that would be either to bomb the compound and take your chances that you get him -- but, of course, it would have caused a whole lot of collateral damage.

And the other was as happened, which was to go on a raid and extract him, capture or kill him, which actually did happen.

But you write about another option, the air option, that none of us knew about until you wrote it. What is that?

BOWDEN: Well, it was a very small missile, about the size of my forearm, fired from a small drone. And it -- and it basically functions as a sniper shot. And they had been watching a tall man pacing in the garden outside the compound -- or inside the compound walls. And he would come out every day.

And so President Obama rejected the notion of bombing immediately as something that would cause too many collateral -- too many innocent casualties. And they came back to him with this option, which would have, if it worked, just hit the pacer or, in this case, since it turned out to be bin Laden, would have just killed bin Laden.

AMANPOUR: And they didn't do it because.?

BOWDEN: They didn't do it because there were -- it's an -- it's a new weapon; it's not as tested. If it missed, he would be gone again. They probably would never find him.

And the other piece of it was that, even if they got him, they wouldn't know who they got.


AMANPOUR: And there is so much more. So don't go away; we'll be right back with the cliffhanger.




AMANPOUR: Journalist and author Mark Bowden joins us again to pick up this incredible story of the killing of Osama bin Laden.

We talked about the three options in our previous installment, the air attack -- the bombing of the compound -- which they decided not to do; the raid, which they did do; and then was a third option, a potential drone, mini-drone strike with a mini-missile. You said it was about the length of your arm.

They didn't do it and there are, indeed, questions now. Had they done that would they have been willing to kill anybody? You said they did not now who Osama bin Laden was. One moral question, firing a drone strike, quite apart from whether or not it would have killed him or found him.

What if it had killed the wrong person?

BOWDEN: Exactly. And I think that figured into the president's decision. There were --


AMANPOUR: What did he say about that?

BOWDEN: Well, there were people advising him to take a shot with the drone, even people who, much to my surprise, thought there was a less than 50-50 chance that the pacer was bin Laden. But the president said, you know, with men on the ground, there was an -- the option of eyeballing the target before you fired.

There was a better chance that you weren't going to kill someone who you weren't targeting, that they wouldn't kill the wrong person. And then the other thing was they would be able to gather intelligence at the site and they would know with certainty who they had killed if they killed him.

AMANPOUR: You have given a huge amount of credit to President Obama for really relaunching the search for Osama bin Laden, making it top priority and making the tough decisions. Who do you think amongst his circle were those who were egging him on or agreeing with him? And who were those pulling back? Who did he really listen to?

BOWDEN: I think Director Panetta, now the Secretary of Defense, was probably the most --

AMANPOUR: CIA director.

BOWDEN: He was then the CIA director. And I think he was the most enthusiastic advocate of sending in the SEALs. And Hillary Clinton. She gave a long talk at their final decision meeting, weighing, you know, the very large potential downside in our relationship with Pakistan if this all went south.

And then and actually surprised everyone in the room, because they thought she was leading to a conclusion that we shouldn't do this, but then turned around and said, "But this opportunity is too important to miss and I think we should do it."

AMANPOUR: I was fascinated by the account of Robert Gates, who was the Defense secretary, and he didn't want to do it.

BOWDEN: Right.

AMANPOUR: And then he went home and he changed his mind and called back in.

BOWDEN: Right. And actually he was cornered in his office by his deputies, Michael Vickers and Michelle Flournoy, and they said, "Boss, we think you've made a mistake," and they went over their assessment of the options.

And they had gone on -- Michael Vickers had gone down and seen the SEALs run these practice sessions. He had gotten a lot closer to Adm. McRaven and the men involved and had a great del more confidence in their ability to pull this off.

And he also pushed Secretary Gates' assessment of the chances of that little missile hitting the right target, you know --

AMANPOUR: He was a proponent of that?

BOWDEN: That's right. He wanted to shoot the missile -- you know, he was there, Bob Gates, in the White House in 1980, when the Iran rescue mission failed. He was a staffer in Jimmy Carter --


AMANPOUR: During the Iran hostage crisis.

BOWDEN: So he had a visceral memory of how bad things can go if one of these missions fails.

AMANPOUR: (Inaudible) three decades (inaudible). But then he came back and he said, "Boss, I've changed my mind."

BOWDEN: Exactly. He said -- he got in touch with the White House the following morning and he said, I want to change my vote. And he voted in favor of the raid.

AMANPOUR: And now to the operational details. We all know that there were mockups created at Ft. Bragg and also in Nevada, that these SEALs had practiced and practiced and practiced. But then they got to the actual compound, secretly evading Pakistani radar, and they get there and the helicopter goes down.

How did they manage to make that -- how did that happen?

BOWDEN: It's fascinating because they built a mockup of the actual compound, a very detailed mockup so that they could do their training runs clearing the house. But they -- out in Nevada is where they did the entire mission, where they staged the entire 11/2-hour flight to the target and the time spent on target.

But they didn't make an authentic mockup of the compound in Nevada. There they were more interested in basically testing the helicopters. And what they didn't do is they had a sealed fence around the compound in Nevada, steel -- a chain link fence instead of a stone wall. And so now the difference was when they landed in Nevada, the air underneath the helicopter dispersed.

When they got to the compound in Abbottabad, which had a stone wall around it, this very warm helicopter, which has just flown fast for an hour and a half, is loaded to the gills and it's heating up the air underneath of it, which makes the air density decrease and the -- and the helicopter can't hold itself aloft anymore.

AMANPOUR: Honestly, it's incredible that one inconsistency --


AMANPOUR: -- could have brought the mission down.


You know, the thing, Christiane, is you have to also understand how talented this pilot was.

AMANPOUR: To land it straight up.

BOWDEN: Exactly. That could have been the most disastrous moment, because --

AMANPOUR: 100 percent.

BOWDEN: -- I mean if -- even just for the people who were on board. But his ability to stabilize that aircraft and put it down -- it was a hard landing -- but put it down flat, no one was injured on board. And as it happened, it didn't even slow them down.

AMANPOUR: And at that moment, of course, the White House photographer captured the principals in the Situation Room, and there's that now-famous photo of Hillary Clinton with her hand to her face.

BOWDEN: Right.

AMANPOUR: Did they know? Was that that moment?

BOWDEN: Yes. And they -- and they didn't know what was going on. You know, they're looking at this with a video feed from above. So they can't even tell if the helicopter has crashed. They just know it's down, inside the compound. And they all knew the mission plan, none of the plans called for a helicopter to land inside the compound.

So they knew something had gone wrong. And they were just waiting to find out what's going on, did something bad happen, you know, and they didn't know what to expect. So that was a -- I think the president said that was the most nervous moment he's had in his life, except when his daughter was in the hospital and he was worried about the outcome of some tests. So.

AMANPOUR: And what else did he tell you? What did you -- what did -- you know, I'm fascinated by the psychology of this kind of decision-making. How did he make his final decision, that this was a go?

BOWDEN: Well, he listened to everyone. He told them he was not going to make a decision on the spot. He likes to do that. He likes to collect a lot of different pieces of advice and then retreat and sleep on it. And so he told me he stayed up late that night in the Treaty Room, which is kind of his living room upstairs in the White House, and he paced and thought about it.

And he said he went over and over the process he'd gone through in his mind, basically asking himself is there something else that I could do or I should do that we haven't done, or have I got enough information to make this decision.

And he said he woke up a couple times during the night, but that he ultimately concluded, number one, that waiting was not going to give him any more information than he had and, number two, he had so much confidence in Bill McRaven, the Adm. McRaven, that --

AMANPOUR: The Special Forces who directed this.

BOWDEN: He planned the mission and he was there, you know, presenting it to the president. He's the one who said to the president, "Mr. President, we can do this. We can get in; we can get out. We do this all the time." And his confidence, McRaven's confidence -- which is based on long years of experience of doing these raids was very convincing to the president.

AMANPOUR: And I remember the day the raid happened or just before, we were at the White House Correspondents' Dinner in Washington, D.C. And the President of the United States was making jokes and taking on Donald Trump and really mocking him for the whole birth certificate "birther" issue. And yet here was this raid about to go down. And he was playing golf as well.

What did he tell you about that day?

BOWDEN: Well, he said that the -- you know, it was a challenge because they had to maintain an appearance of normalcy. So for instance, if everybody backed out of the White House Correspondents' Dinner, that would raise alarms, obviously; reporters are smart, you know, they know something serious must be going on.

And this was a very high-level secret. They did not want obviously this to get out. So they had to walk through the normal procedures of the day. And as it turned out, because they delayed the mission a day, they had to stretch out this charade of normalcy for almost 48 hours.

AMANPOUR: Why did they delay it a day?

BOWDEN: Because the weather conditions were unsuitable. Admiral made that decision strictly on the basis of weather conditions over the target.

AMANPOUR: And then, we now know that Osama bin Laden was shot and killed. There's a little bit of discrepancy between the SEALs over who actually shot the fatal bullet. Is that going to be worked out? Will we ever know?

BOWDEN: I think it will eventually be worked out. But I wouldn't be surprised if it gets more complicated before it gets more simple.

AMANPOUR: What do you mean?

BOWDEN: Well, you had a bunch of SEALs in a dark house, in a tense, adrenalin-filled moment, shooting, you know, moving. I'm -- I have enough experience talking to people who've been through episodes like this to know that everybody's memory of what happened is not exactly the same. So we've had, you know, the official version, which came from SOCOM; we had the version that --


BOWDEN: Special Operation Command -- and we had the version that, you know, (inaudible) the SEAL who was there has given. I told Adm. McRaven when I met him once that -- I was trying to talk him into letting me talk to these men, and he wasn't going to hear it. But I said, "Look," -- he told me these men are not going to say anything." And I said, "Admiral -- "

AMANPOUR: They will.

BOWDEN: -- "they're -- somebody's going to say something." And I think more than one will say something.

AMANPOUR: So slowly, so we might hear the full, full story. But President Obama then met the team. What did he say? What kind of impression did they make on him?

BOWDEN: He said he was really impressed with how unimpressive they seemed. He -- you know, he had a Hollywood image of Rambo, special operators, you know, these muscle-bound specimens. And he said these guys were a lot of them middle-aged. They looked like they could be lawyers or accountants.

You know, clearly what they bring to the table is experience and skill, not superhuman physical talents. And so that surprised him. And he was also very impressed with their -- the pride they had in their unit and in the service of those who had gone before.

So they made a big point of saying that this is not our success; this is the success of all these people who've been taking us on these missions and all these guys who have fought and died, you know, for years and years and years. And that's why we can do these sorts of things.

AMANPOUR: And not one of them said, Mr. President, I'm the one who killed Osama bin Laden?

BOWDEN: That's right. At that point, they said they weren't going to tell him and --

AMANPOUR: (Inaudible).

BOWDEN: And he didn't ask, no.

AMANPOUR: Mark Bowden, great story. Thank you very much indeed.

BOWDEN: Thank you, Christiane, my pleasure.


AMANPOUR: What a story. And after a break, we'll return to the raid on bin Laden and a Navy SEAL whose bite is worse than his bark.

In the meantime, at, you can check out our story of the Zabbaleen. They collect Cairo's garbage and their pre-industrial methods of recycling put the West to shame.


AMANPOUR: And finally, SEAL Team 6, the special forces who led the raid on bin Laden had a secret weapon. And it wasn't just their self helicopters, assault rifles or night vision goggles. Imagine a world where dogs are warriors, too. His true identity remains unknown in keeping with the mission.

But a Belgian shepherd named Cairo was part of the team, trained in the same special ops as his two-legged handlers. He, too, was able to parachute from planes, fitted with high-tech body armor and high-def cameras just like the human warriors.

As the helicopter swooped in, Cairo's job was to sniff for booby traps and help keep any nosy neighbors away from the bin Laden compound while the rest of the team cornered their quarry.

As Bowden tells it, soon after the raid, President Obama met SEAL Team 6 and he learned about Cairo for the first time. As he was handing out medals, the president said, "I want to meet that dog," but the team commander advised him to bring treats instead.

And that's it for tonight's program. Meantime, our inbox is always open, Thanks for watching. Goodbye from New York.