Almost exactly 12 years to the day since Barack Obama authorised the raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden, a cache of previously unseen pictures of events in the White House around the raid was obtained by the Washington Post.
The images of Obama, his vice-president, Joe Biden, secretary of state Hillary Clinton and key military and civilian advisers underscored the high stakes of the operation, the tension as US special forces carried out the mission, and celebrations of its completion.
Bin Laden founded al-Qaida, the terror network which attacked New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, killing more than 3,000 people.
The US invaded Afghanistan in search of Bin Laden but he avoided capture for nearly 10 years before finally being tracked to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Obama’s official White House photographer, Pete Souza, took the new images of the night.
The Post also published a timeline of the raid, from approval on 29 April 2011 to completion and Obama’s address to the nation shortly before midnight on 1 May.
It included a picture already widely known, of Obama, Biden, Clinton and other aides “squeezed” into a small White House room, watching the raid in progress.
With an unremarked echo of current investigations into Biden and former president Donald Trump over their handling of classified information, the paper said: “At 4.05pm, Souza took the now iconic photo of Obama and his advisers intensely watching the video feed of the raid.
“A document on the desk remains blurred in the version released by the Obama Library. The library withheld 307 photos … describing their contents as ‘national security classified information’.”
The images the library did release show discussions between Obama and aides also including Leon Panetta, then CIA director; James Clapper, director of national intelligence; Tom Donilon, national security adviser; and Bill Daley, White House chief of staff.
In 2020, Obama described deliberations over the raid in his memoir, A Promised Land.
“Joe weighed in against the raid,” Obama wrote of Biden, in a book released shortly after the former vice-president beat Trump for the White House.
“As had been true in every major decision I’d made as president, I appreciated Joe’s willingness to buck the prevailing mood and ask tough questions, often in the interest of giving me the space I needed for my own internal deliberations.”
Biden was not the only adviser – and Washington veteran – to counsel against the raid. Obama wrote that he “knew Joe, like Gates, had been in Washington during Desert One”.
Ordered by President Jimmy Carter in April 1980, Desert One was an attempt to rescue US hostages in Iran that went badly wrong, resulting in the deaths of eight Americans in a helicopter crash and severe damage to Carter’s hopes of re-election. Obama was a year out from his own re-election campaign when he ordered the Bin Laden raid.
Robert Gates, the defense secretary and a holdover from the Bush administration which launched the hunt for Bin Laden, told Obama “that no matter how thorough the planning, operations like this could go badly wrong”.
Obama has said Panetta, the homeland security adviser John Brennan and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Adm Mike Mullen, favoured mounting the raid. Clinton, Obama said, thought it was a “51-49 call” but “came down on the side of sending in the Seals”.
Brennan later saluted Obama for one of the “gutsiest calls of any president”.
Pictures published by the Post also showed Obama working on the speech he made to announce Bin Laden’s death. In one celebration shot, Biden and Mullen displayed rosary beads they carried while the raid played out.
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