McHENRY – Bill Daley, former chief of staff for President Barack Obama, was the only non-national security or non-intelligence person in every meeting with the president during the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Daley, who was Obama's chief of staff from January 2011 until January 2012, described his behind-the-scenes account of the bin Laden raid at a business luncheon Wednesday and afterward in an interview with the Northwest Herald.
He even appears in the iconic photo with Obama, Hilary Clinton and others in the situation room as the raid is taking place.
Below is Daley's account of the raid. The text has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
“The first day I got to the White House was Jan. 6 . Every morning, the first thing we'd do was an intelligence briefing with the president, vice president, and maybe three other people. And the first day I got there they mentioned this compound in Abbottabad. To be very frank with you, I had no idea where Abbottabad was.
"And it was, you know strictly, there may be a high-value target there. Maybe even Osama bin Laden. And then it kinda went nowhere. It was quiet. No one said anything. About a month later, I said to the national security adviser, 'Hey, whatever happened to that compound?' He said, 'Oh, they're still watching it.'
“So we went from that, which was probably mid-February, to all of a sudden a greater confidence that this is somebody. All the pieces of intelligence that are being pulled together indicated that this place was such an anomaly. And the actions of the people who were in the house were so contrary to the normal life, that something was going on here.
“The house was built to shade the second and third floor from anyone seeing in. You would go out on the balcony, and there was a wall on the balcony. There was no way to get a view in there.
“And then the pace picked up. What are the options? What do we do? Our military is the best in the world. Only the United States of America could have done this. But they came up with some pretty crazy ideas, like just level the whole area and say there was a gas leak or something.
“It was a very contentious and great debate over whether or not the intelligence was accurate to invade a sovereign nation, which was an ally, you know that's a pretty big deal. So then they came in and presented all these things, and it was all kept very hush-hush. I was the only non-national security or intelligence person in the White House who knew what was going on and sat in on every meeting with the president.
“So then they came up with the idea of the raid. And I saw the exchange, and this has been publicly mentioned. The first proposal of the raid was very small. It was small group. Smaller than the original. And the question was asked, 'What happens if the Pakistani Army shows up?' Well, we would fight until we had to give up. Well the president said, 'No, no, that ain't going to happen. Nobody is staying in there.' So we want bigger backup capabilities.
“And Bob Gates, the secretary of defense, a really great American. Someone who has really given to this country. He said, 'Look, if the military said we can do this, don't worry. We're the best. We go out and kill people all night. Or capture them.' He said, 'I sat here in 1979 as a young assistant in the national security office when the military said don't worry we can get the hostages out of Tehran.' So Murphy's Law, something that can go wrong is going to go wrong. And we're all sitting there when the helicopter spun out, and Gates was one of the few votes in the first go-round against doing this.
“So when Bob Gates says I don't think we should do it, that sent a chill up my back, thinking, 'Oh boy, here we go.' And in that picture, I'm the only guy with a coat and a tie, because that morning when I was leaving the house, my wife said, 'I think you should wear a coat and tie.' I said I think so too. I knew it was going to be a big day. One way or the other this presidency is either over or we're still breathing.
“But it was a remarkable thing. A lot of people say about the president, 'Oh, that was an easy decision.' That's a lot of B.S. I was in every one of those meetings. And even to the point where one team of people reviewing this stuff said we think there's a 30 percent chance that somebody's there and it's him. This was a pretty risky thing to do. Sending 20-something of your best military people who we have spent hundreds of millions of dollars training and getting them to be the best. That's pretty risky. And we're running the risk because Pakistan is an ally, there could be weapons. This was 2 miles from their West Point. About 10 miles from a nuclear storage facility. It was not a simple, easy sort of flippant call by [President Obama]. I watched it. It was pretty remarkable.
“I got up the next morning and said, 'If I got fired today, it would be OK.' It was an historic thing for the country and a good thing for the world. That fundamentally broke the back of the organized terrorist group that set up 9/11 and that we were fighting in Afghanistan.”
What did it mean to be a part of that iconic picture in the situation room?
“It will always be a reminder of participating in one of the most successful hunts for a one of the most savage villains. I'm proud of the U.S. military, the only one in the world that could have pulled that thing off. There's great pride in America. That night, after the president addressed the nation, there were hundreds of kids running from the couple universities in Washington and adults to the White House with flags, chanting U-S-A. A great sense of pride in the country. And when I drove home, it was about 1:30 in the morning, there were hundreds if not thousands of people around the White House. It was very moving.”
Describe the mood in the situation room on the night bin Laden was killed.
“Well there was enormous tension. Anxiety. As I mentioned, Murphy's Law says that if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. And something went wrong. No matter how well planned. No matter the enormous talent of the operators who went on that mission. It went wrong. And you could have had a debacle with some of the best trained military people in the world in the middle of it. There was tremendous tension all day. It wasn't just those hours there. It was leading up to it. To make the decision to do it. That was pretty stressful. Very tense, honest discussion and debate. And had to keep it extremely quiet.”
Did you see Zero Dark Thirty? How accurate was the film?
“I just saw it about two weeks ago. It is Hollywood, OK. So they take great liberty with facts. It was entertaining. I wouldn't say totally false. But they took liberty with a lot of stuff to make it Hollywood. To make it a more interesting movie. There were dozens of analysts who spent years on that project. The woman who was highlighted, no doubt she played an extremely important role, but there were lots of analysts who dedicated their lives and a very frustrating 10 years to piece together the puzzle that got us to where we got him.”