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White House welcomes news on Osama bin Laden's death but eschews jubilation

May 01, 2011|By Peter Nicholas | Washington Bureau
(Brendan Smialowski/Getty…)

Reporting from Washington — Long after midnight, after the president had announced the death of Osama bin Laden, a pair of White House officials left their West Wing offices and strode onto the grounds for a look at the jubilant scene unfolding beyond the north gates.

The crowd was celebrating, but the team that had directed the capture and killing of the world’s most infamous terrorist had no wish to join in.

“We’re not going to gloat,’’ said one official, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Sunday was a long day of private briefings and status reports in the Situation Room. President Obama tried to keep up appearances, playing nine holes of golf at the course on Andrews Air Force Base rather than the usual 18. After his motorcade returned to the White House about 2 p.m., Obama went immediately into a meeting to review “final preparations’’ for the assault on Bin Laden’s compound, the White House said.

Asked what the day was like, one top national security aide gave a one-word answer: “Excruciating.’’

Even as Obama and his staff learned that a U.S. team had killed the elusive Bin Laden, there were no high-fives.

“It was a very complex operation,’’ the national security aide said. “We were very focused on what needed to be done.’’

Obama’s reaction was “sober and serious,’’ said another aide. After Bin Laden’s death was confirmed, the president set about revising his speech to the nation, making editing changes by hand right up until the moment he appeared on television.

Such was the level of secrecy surrounding the mission that even a few veteran aides were caught by surprise.

Around the White House, one aide was wearing a Washington Capitals hockey jersey, having come to the West Wing directly from a playoff game. Others who are normally never seen in the West Wing without a jacket and tie wore jeans and sneakers.

Intense, closed-door meetings continued until after midnight. David Plouffe, a senior White House advisor who ran Obama’s 2008 campaign, met with the president’s press team and afterward, ambled past the Oval Office in blue jeans, shirttail out, looking tired but happy. A single Secret Service agent stood guard outside the Oval Office, where the light was still on.

For a White House that has seen its poll numbers drop amid a sour economy and setbacks overseas, Sunday was a welcome reprieve.

Asked if there were any toasts before turning off the lights for the night, one official, while leaving the building said: “When I get home.’’

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