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Odds of getting Osama bin Laden barely better than even, Obama says in interview

May 09, 2011|By James Oliphant | Washington Bureau
  • President Obama talked about the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound and the slaying of the Al Qaeda leader in an interview that aired Sunday on CBS' "60 Minutes."
President Obama talked about the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound… (CBS News )

President Obama estimated the odds of successfully snaring Osama bin Laden in last week’s raid in Pakistan at barely above even, according to an extended interview with CBS' “60 Minutes.”

The interview, which aired Sunday evening, portrayed a president who was as engaged with this military operation as any of his presidency, who was mindful of past failures by U.S. forces in similar situations and who acted over the strong objections of some of his national security advisers. He also provided new details of the tense scene in the White House situation room as he and his aides monitored the operation.

The president called the decision one of his most difficult and said it carried “enormous risk.”

Obama said the United States acted “with just the slenderest bits of information to piece this all together.  At the end of the day, this was still a 55-45 situation.  I mean we could not say definitively that Bin Laden was there.  Had he not been there, then there would have been some significant consequences,” the president said.

“Obviously, we're going into the sovereign territory of another country and landing helicopters and conducting a military operation,” Obama told interviewer Steve Kroft. “And so if it turns out that it's a wealthy, you know, prince from Dubai who's in this compound and, you know, we've sent special forces in -- we've got problems.”

From the time last summer when the U.S. began to scrutinize very closely the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Obama said he was as involved as he’s been in any matter during his almost 30 months as president, and he said, as has been reported, that it was critical the administration -- and the world -- know for certain that it was Bin Laden who was hiding there.

“We had multiple meetings in the situation room in which we would map out and we would actually have a model of the compound and discuss how this operation might proceed,” the president said. “And, in some ways, sending in choppers and actually putting our guys on the ground entailed some greater risks than some other options.  I thought it was important, though, for us to be able to say that we'd definitely got the guy.”

Obama said most of his senior aides did not know about the operation, and he was relieved that no details leaked out in advance, any of which would have compromised the operation, he said.

Some of his advisers who were in the loop were concerned about the plan, he said. And Obama himself was mindful of past debacles, including the failed attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages in 1980 and the “Black Hawk down” episode in Somalia in 1993.

“One of the things that we've done here is to build a team that is collegial and where everybody speaks their mind.  And there's not a lot of sniping or backbiting after the fact.  And what I've tried to do is make sure that every time I sit down in the situation room, every one of my advisors around there knows I expect them to give me their best assessments,” Obama said.

“And so the fact that there were some who voiced doubts about this approach was invaluable, because it ... meant the plan was sharper, it meant that we had thought through all of our options, it meant that when I finally did make the decision I was making it based on the very best information," he said. "It wasn't as if any of the folks who were voicing doubts were voicing something that I wasn't already running through in my own head.”

As the operation took place, Obama watched from the White House situation room and conceded that he hadn’t been as worried since his daughter, Malia, was stricken with meningitis when she was 3 months old.

One thing Obama said he wasn’t worried about was the go-ahead to kill Bin Laden, if necessary.

“As nervous as I was about this whole process, the one thing I didn't lose sleep over was the possibility of taking Bin Laden out,” the president said. “Justice was done. And I think that anyone who would question that the perpetrator of mass murder on American soil didn't deserve what he got needs to have their head examined.”

And although the White House has been careful to try not to exploit the success of the Bin Laden raid for political purposes, Obama was mindful to mention his campaign promise to hunt down Bin Laden, even if it meant entering Pakistan to do it.

“Keep in mind that, obviously, when I was still campaigning for president, I had said that if I ever get a shot at Bin Laden we're  going to take it,” Obama said.  “And I was subject to some criticism at the time because I had said, if it's in Pakistan, and, you know, we don't have the ability to -- to capture him in any other way, then we're  going to go ahead and take the shot”

james.oliphant@latimes.com

Read the full transcript of the “60 Minutes" interview here.

And here is a video excerpt of the interview:

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