The Decision in Favor of Operation Neptune Spear: Presidential Leadership and Political Risk

Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Robert Gates

In this May 1, 2011, image released by the White House and digitally altered by the source to obscure the details of a document in front of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, right with hand covering mouth, President Barack Obama, second from left, Vice President Joe Biden, left, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, right, and members of the national security team watch an update of the mission against Osama bin Laden in the White House Situation Room in Washington. As the world now knows well Obama ultimately decided to launch the raid on the Abbottabad compound that killed bin Laden, though faced with a level of widespread skepticism from a veteran intelligence analyst, shared with other top-level officials, which nearly scuttled the raid. That process reflected a sea change within the U.S. spy community, one that embraces debate to avoid “slam-dunk” intelligence in tough national security decisions. (AP Photo/The White House, Pete Souza, File)

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 2, No. 7, July 2014.

By Lauren Hickok

I. Introduction

On May 1, 2011, President Obama declared: “Tonight I can report to the American people and the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.”[1] The president had made a bold choice in authorizing Operation Neptune Spear.  His decision rested on an appraisal of several factors, which together determined the level of political risk associated with the mission: (1) the accuracy of the intelligence; (2) the ability of SEAL Team Six to succeed despite unexpected challenges; and (3) the costs to US national security, relative to the benefits. The president remained committed to countering al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, involved himself in the planning for Neptune Spear, and took on considerable risk in order to succeed. In final review, the president’s decision was not easy, or even prudent—but it succeeded.

II. The Obama Administration’s Efforts to Disrupt, Dismantle, and Defeat al Qaeda

As President, Barack Obama emphasized the need to counter terrorism. The US National Security Strategy of May 2010[2], [3], [4] stated bluntly: “we are at war with a specific network, al-Qa’ida, and its terrorist affiliates who support efforts to attack the United States, our allies, and partners.”[5] Thus, America would “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qa’ida and its violent extremist affiliates in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and around the world.”[6] In a December 2009 speech at West Point, [7] President Obama had already made clear: “if Pakistan cannot or will not take out al-Qaeda leadership when we have actionable intelligence about their whereabouts, we will act to protect the American people.”[8], [9] As he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2009, President Obama remarked, “negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.”[10] He continued, “to say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism—it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”[11]

As the administration articulated the rationale for targeting al Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the president was concurrently advancing vital initiatives that would allow America to defeat the al Qaeda ideology and gain the support of moderate Muslims. Speaking at Cairo University on June 4, 2009, the president called for “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.”[12] He assured listeners that America and Islam “share common principles,” among them, “principles of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”[13] The president promised that America would “relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security—because we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women, and children.”[14], [15], [16] At West Point, the president had already explained that al Qaeda represented “a group of extremists who have distorted and defiled Islam, one of the world’s great religions, to justify the slaughter of innocents.”[17]

III. Timeline of Decision

Understanding the presidential decision in favor of Neptune Spear requires a review of the salient events of 2009-2011, including the discovery of the al Qaeda courier in Pakistan, the development of options for presidential review, and the formulation and rehearsal of an operational plan.

1. June 2009: The President’s Memorandum

On June 2, 2009, President Obama sent a memorandum to CIA Director Panetta, asking that he return in thirty days with a “detailed operational plan” to locate and target Osama bin Laden.[18], [19], [20] The issue represented a priority—just after taking office, President Obama had remarked to CIA Director Panetta, “we need to redouble our efforts in hunting bin Laden,” adding, “I want us to start putting more resources, more focus, and more urgency into that mission.”[21]

2. June 2010–December 2010: The al Qaeda Courier

In June 2010, just a year after the president’s memorandum, the CIA managed to identify an al Qaeda courier, “al Kuwaiti,” who they tracked to Abbottabad, Pakistan.[22], [23], [24] After locating al Kuwaiti, intelligence officials had immediately noticed his use of operational security measures—a pattern of activity consistent with his presumed role as a courier for al Qaeda. [25], [26], [27], [28], [29] Yet his chosen vehicle—a White Suzuki Jimmy truck sporting a rear tire with a picture of a rhino—proved easy to monitor.[30] Finally, an intercepted call made clear al Kuwaiti’s affiliation. Responding to a question, he declared: “I’m with the same ones as before.”[31], [32], [33]  That is, he was working for al Qaeda. The intelligence community soon drafted a memorandum; in August 2010, “Closing in on bin Laden Courier,” explained that the courier resided somewhere just outside Islamabad.”[34]

In August 2010, CIA Director Panetta briefed the president at the White House; he explained that the intelligence community had located Osama bin Laden’s courier at a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.[35] President Obama continued to demand updated intelligence—and was thence provided regular reports.[36] The intelligence community’s September 2010 memorandum “Anatomy of a Lead” described the compound in Abbottabad, and the prospect that Osama bin Laden was based there.[37], [38]

In December 2010, CIA Director Panetta briefed President Obama again, providing new videos and descriptions of the compound.[39] The president was eager to verify the accuracy of the intelligence; he later reflected, “If we were going to embark on any kind of assault on this compound. . . we had to make darn sure that we knew what we were talking about.”[40] The president acknowledged the need to move quickly, remarking: “if he’s there, time is of the essence.”[41] Also that December, CIA Director Panetta read in Defense Secretary Gates.[42], [43], [44]

3. January 2011– February 2011: The Development of Options

In January 2011, the main CIA analyst met with Director Panetta, and made a strong recommendation: “We have to act now.”[45] He explained, “al-Kuwaiti might not be there next month,” and concluded, “the intelligence is not going to get any better.”[46] CIA Director Panetta advised President Obama: “we need to move or this particular intelligence might dissipate.”[47] President Obama demanded options for targeting the compound in Abbottabad,[48], [49] setting in motion a planning process that ran from January to April of 2011. This process would generate four options, among them, Operation Neptune Spear. [50], [51], [52] The strategic principles informing the planning process for Neptune Spear were “deeply informed by the key principles [McRaven] had laid out in Spec Ops”—repetition, surprise, security, speed, simplicity, and purpose—and ultimately the endeavor produced “a simple plan, carefully concealed, repeatedly rehearsed.”[53], [54], [55], [56]

In January, the president also delivered the State of the Union Address, remarking, “as we speak, al Qaeda and their affiliates continue to plan attacks against us.”[57]  He explained, “in Pakistan, al Qaeda’s leadership is under more pressure than any point since 2001,” as “their leaders and operatives are being removed from the battlefield.”[58] The president’s words seem well chosen, similar to earlier remarks, and consistent with the drone campaign in Pakistan; they did not reveal that the planning for Neptune Spear had begun.

4. March 2011: Meetings of the National Security Council

On March 14, President Obama chaired a meeting of the National Security Council.[59] The team briefed President Obama on four options: (1) bombing the compound,[60] (2) a drone strike on the compound, (3) a helicopter assault on the compound, employing U.S. Special Operations Forces, and (4) a joint operation carried out by the United States and Pakistan. [61], [62], [63], [64], [65] By the end of the meeting, Vice Admiral McRaven had offered to produce a feasibility assessment of the third option; he remarked: “We haven’t thoroughly tested this out yet and we don’t know if we can do it, but when we do, I’ll come back to you and I’ll tell you straight up.”[66] He offered to take three weeks to practice the mission and provide a final answer.  In an earlier meeting at the CIA, Vice Admiral McRaven had asserted that the assault on the compound would not be difficult; the challenge would be “delivering the force to the target and safely extracting it without triggering a shooting war with Pakistan.”[67], [68] He considered the mission in Abbottabad “sporty,” yet “doable.”[69]

During a March 29 principals meeting at the White House, President Obama asked Vice Admiral McRaven several questions that would allow him to make a final decision. The first two questions had to do with the timeline of the operation, and the speed of the special operations forces; the president asked, “how much time will they need to get the strike going?” and also wanted to know, “how quickly can they move?” [70]  Always eager to eliminate challenges the team might face, he also asked: “what will they do if the compound has a safe room?”[71] Finally, regarding the objective, he wondered, “what if bin Laden isn’t there?” and also asked “how would you get bin Laden out?”[72]

Ultimately, the day’s discussions produced greater support for Operation Neptune Spear. [73] Few were seriously considering the bombing option,because it would destroy useful evidence.[74] The president had also ruled out alerting Pakistan, because too much was at stake.[75] Hillary Clinton explained that the team had considered “sharing intelligence with the Pakistanis and conducting a joint raid,”[76] but because “we could not trust Pakistan,” the decision was easy: “the President immediately took that option off the table.”[77] Meanwhile, analysts diverged in their conviction about the intelligence. The main analyst at the CIA considered it a 95 percent probability that Osama bin Laden was based at the compound; a substantial group considered the probability 80 percent, while another cluster offered low estimates that ranged from 30 to 40 percent.[78]

5. Early and mid-April 2011: Rehearsals in North Carolina and Nevada

In early and mid-April 2011, SEAL Team Six[79], [80] rehearsed Operation Neptune Spear at sites in North Carolina and Nevada, [81]using scaled modelsof the compound. [82], [83], [84] The rehearsals provided SEAL Team Six familiarity with: the compound’s layout; a variety of obstacles and contingencies; and environmental conditions. As the team rehearsed Operation Neptune Spear from start to finish, their leadership critiqued and perfected the plan of attack.[85] When the rehearsals concluded, Vice Admiral McRaven briefed the president on the results. He assured President Obama that the technical aspects of the mission were similar to routine missions in Afghanistan and Iraq—the real challenges would be navigating Pakistan’s airspace, and dealing with the broader issue of Pakistan’s sovereignty.[86]

 6.  April 12, 2011 and April 19, 2011: Meetings with President Obama

Also in mid-April, President Obama chaired two principals meetings, one on April 12, and the other on April 19. In both meetings, CIA Director Panetta called for action; he explained that the intelligence community faced diminishing returns in acquiring new details about the compound.[87] Analysts continued to observe ‘the pacer’—the figure presumed to be bin Laden—nearly every day, but could not provide definitive identification.[88] President Obama would have to weigh the risks of taking action.

On April 19, Vice Admiral McRaven briefed President Obama on the latest plan of attack.[89] Secretary of Defense Gates enumerated his concerns–he had confidence in the plan of attack, but feared the risks were too great. He questioned the accuracy of the intelligence; feared that Pakistan’s military would encircle the compound and take prisoners; and worried that Neptune Spear might devolve into a disaster akin to the worst failures in special operations history. Given the recent Raymond Davis incident and the increasing anti-Americanism in Pakistan, those at the meeting heeded the words of the Secretary of Defense, as well as the words of the president, who had demanded a credible way for US troops to fight their way out.[90], [91] The participants concluded that US forces “needed to be prepared to do whatever was necessary to escape.” [92] The president commented emphatically: “The premium is on the protection of our force, not on keeping the Pakistanis happy.”[93] Ultimately “additional MH-47 helicopters and forces” were assigned to the mission.[94]

By late April, the intelligence community feared the plans for Neptune Spear would leak.[95] The president moved to execute the operation fast—before the opportunity could be lost. Officials at the National Security Council developed a book to deal with the strategic messaging; the White House also developed an unclassified document that could be made available to the media if the operation no longer remained covert.[96]

7. April 25, 2011: The Final Red Team Exercise Begins

On the morning of April 25, the CIA decided to conduct a final red team exercise to develop an alternate estimate of the likelihood that bin Laden was based at the compound in Abbottabad. The red team—a hand-picked group of analysts[97]—would take forty-eight hours to devise alternative hypotheses. The red team came up with three: (1) they had correctly associated the compound with bin Laden, but he did not presently reside there, (2) they had correctly associated the compound with al Qaeda, but a different al Qaeda leader was based there, and (3) they had failed to recognize that the courier had long ago concluded his work for al Qaeda and now worked for an unknown criminal associated with the compound.[98] The red team concluded that the first provided the most compelling explanation—that the compound was associated with bin Laden, but he was not there now. Each analyst also provided an estimate of the probability that Osama bin Laden was currently based at the Abbottabad compound—these estimates ranged from 40 percent to 60 percent.[99], [100], [101]

8.  April 28, 2011: Obama Chairs the Final National Security Council Meeting on Operation Neptune Spear

The final National Security Council meeting took place on April 28, 2011. The meeting began with a review of Vice Admiral McRaven’s latest plan of attack,and also included a briefing on the results of the red team, which introduced new estimates of the accuracy of the intelligence.[102], [103] President Obama concluded: “In the end, it’s fifty-fifty that he’s there.”[104] CIA Director Panetta implored the team to make a final decision, stating: “we’re probably at the point where we have got the best intelligence we can get.”[105]

Several at the final National Security Council meeting took a conservative approach, recommending against Operation Neptune Spear; they included: the Vice President, the Secretary of Defense, The Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Yet others offered President Obama a compelling rationale in favor of authorizing Operation Neptune Spear. They included: the CIA Director, the Secretary of State, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Commander of the Joint Special Operations Command.[106], [107]

At the close of the meeting, the president requested more time. President Obama called for additional discussion with Vice Admiral McRaven later that afternoon—and when they met, Vice Admiral McRaven assured the president the plan would work, emphasizing the past training of the operators.[108] Obama’s final decision would be issued the next morning—Friday, April 29—just as he had promised his team.

9. April 29, 2011: President Obama’s Final Decision: the Choice of Operation Neptune Spear

On Friday April 29, 2011, President Obama chaired a meeting in the Diplomatic Room of the White House, announcing his final decision: Operation Neptune Spear. [109] The following day, Saturday, April 30 in Washington, President Obama spoke briefly with Vice Admiral McRaven by phone and provided the official order for Operation Neptune Spear to begin. After noting his confidence in the team, he concluded:

Godspeed to you and your forces. Please pass on to them my personal thanks for their service and the message that I personally will be following this mission very closely.[110]

That evening, the president and several of his advisors attended the White House Correspondent’s Dinner—taking care to project an atmosphere of business as usual.

11. May 1, 2011: The Successful Completion of Operation Neptune Spear

At 1:22 PM on Sunday, May 1 in Washington, CIA Director Panetta conveyed President Obama’s final authorization to Vice Admiral McRaven and the team in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.[111] By 3:00 PM in Washington, the mission had begun. The Black Hawks[112], [113], [114] lifted off from Jalalabad, entered Pakistan’s air space, and in just over thirty minutes in Abbottabad, SEAL Team Six had successfully completed the mission.[115] Pakistan scrambled fighter jets while the team did the site exploitation.[116] One US official later stated: “This collection represents the most significant amount of intelligence ever collected from a senior terrorist.”[117] Hillary Clinton wrote: “because of the operation in Abbottabad, the SEALs returned with extensive new intelligence about the inner workings of al Qaeda.”[118], [119] Many agreed; one expert remarked, “one SEAL taking out a hard drive could destroy al Qaeda.”[120]

At 11:35 PM on the evening of Sunday, May 1, 2011, President Obama delivered his remarks. He stated:

Good evening. Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.[121]

The president explained the significance of the 9/11 attacks to Americans, and the steps that the US government had taken to destroy al Qaeda’s top leadership.

15. May 2011: The Obama Administration and the Conclusion of Operation Neptune Spear

That May, President Obama met with many Americans. He drove through the streets of New York, and visited Ground Zero, speaking with families who had lost relatives, and with New York fire fighters.[122] The president also traveled to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where he met Vice Admiral McRaven and Seal Team Six.  The reaction in the United States was jubilant—not surprising for a nation that had witnessed the deaths of more than three thousand fellow Americans in the 9/11 attacks ten years earlier.[123] As Hillary Clinton wrote, “The road to Abbottabad ran from the mountain passes of Afghanistan through the smoking ruins of our embassies in East Africa and the shattered hull of the USS Cole, through the devastation of 9/11 and the dogged determination of a handful of US intelligence officers who never gave up the hunt.”[124] She also remarked, “the bin Laden operation did not end the threat of terrorism or defeat the hateful ideology that fuels it,” noting, “that struggle goes on.”[125] Even so, Vice Admiral McRaven remarked: “it will be one of the greatest intelligence operations in history.”[126], [127], [128]

Together, Operation Neptune Spear and the drone campaign eliminated more than half of al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan by June 2011; by July, Secretary of Defense Panetta claimed that the United States had managed to get “within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda.”[129], [130], [131] Hillary Clinton remarked in retrospect, “the death of bin Laden, and the loss of so many of his top lieutenants, would certainly degrade the capacity of al Qaeda’s core in Afghanistan and Pakistan to stage new attacks against the West.”[132] Even so, US officials remained cautious. Hillary Clinton admitted, “this would shift influence and momentum to the affiliates, creating a more diffuse and complex threat.”[133]

IV. Political Risk: A Useful Concept for Evaluating Operation Neptune Spear

In making a final decision, the president had to consider the political risk[134] associated with Neptune Spear. But before reaching an understanding of the political risk, he had to understand its essential determinants—the probability of operational success and the consequences for US national security.[135], [136] The probability of operational success can be thought of as a function of two specific sub-probabilities: (1) that the intelligence is correct, and (2) that Seal Team Six succeeds. The probability of success of SEAL Team Six depends on: the capability of SEAL Team Six;[137] challenges at the compound; [138] and whether Pakistan’s military intervenes.[139]  The consequences[140] can be thought of as a subjective judgment call regarding (1) the costs of failure, and (2) the presumed benefits of success. It can be rephrased as the question ‘do the costs outweigh the benefits of success?’ The answer provides a net assessment of the political and strategic consequences. In a traditional risk assessment framework, risk is considered to be a product, in the multiplicative sense, of the probability and consequences of an event.[141]

Evaluating the decision to authorize Neptune Spear in terms of political risk reveals crucial insights that would otherwise be obscured. Most importantly, the success of Neptune Spear had several necessary conditions—it did not depend exclusively on the ability of SEAL Team Six. To maintain a 100 percent probability of success: (1) the capability of SEAL Team Six must remain optimal, (2) challenges that arise over the course of the mission must not preclude its successful completion, and (3) Pakistan’s military must not intervene. Thus, SEAL Team Six’s capability must remain close to optimal to keep Neptune Spear’s probability of success within an acceptable range. The situation becomes more palatable when allowing for interaction among the three conditions; that is, surely the considerable proficiency of SEAL Team Six generates a measure of innate ability to counter certain sets of unanticipated challenges.

An analytical approach to risk also underlines the importance of clarity when discussing percentages. For example, when the president declared, “all right, it’s fifty-fifty” he referred to the odds that Osama bin Laden was based at the compound—not the probability that SEAL Team Six would succeed. If the intelligence were really this questionable, then the decision to authorize Neptune Spear must have rested on President Obama’s judgment that the potential benefits by far exceeded the potential costs.  More cynically, perhaps the president chose to keep it at 50-50 for the sake of simplicity. Or perhaps he provided a low estimate in order to hedge—that is, to: (1) present the appearance of a bold choice if Neptune succeeded, while also (2) over-preparing Americans for the prospect of failure. More generously, perhaps the president realized that by overstating the uncertainty of the intelligence—setting the probable accuracy of the intelligence at 50 percent when it might have actually been 80 percent—he invoked a figure that more closely reflected Neptune Spear’s broader political risk, a measure of even greater importance for reaching a decision. Regardless, President Obama’s declaration that the accuracy of the intelligence was 50 percent had important implications for the direction of the debate—the president was effectively encouraging his advisors to discuss other factors that would shape Neptune Spear’s probability of success: (1) the proficiency of SEAL Team Six, (2) unexpected problems that might arise during Neptune Spear, and (3) the response of the government of Pakistan.

V. The Responses of the National Security Team: Political Risk

The real controversy of the last meeting of the National Security Council did not relate to the accuracy of the intelligence, but rather, to the broader political risk.[142] In weighing the final recommendations from his team, President Obama had to consider: (1) factors that might have influenced their cost-benefit assessments—for example as a result of their organizational mandate or future aspirations, and (2) factors that they might have implicitly weighed more heavily in their net assessment of political risk or their more specific assessment of Neptune Spear’s likelihood of success.

 

Secretary of State Clinton:

Yes, “The Risks Were Outweighed by the Benefits of Success”

At the April 28 meeting of the National Security Council, Secretary of State Clinton briefed the president, making a final recommendation in favor of Neptune Spear. Clinton recalled the presentation: “I methodically laid out the case, including the potential damage to our relationship with Pakistan and the risks of a blown operation.”[143] She remarked, “the stakes were significant for America’s national security, our battle against al Qaeda, and our relationship with Pakistan,” not to mention for “those brave SEALs and helicopter pilots.”[144] Clinton finally asserted: “I came to the conclusion that the intelligence was convincing and the risks were outweighed by the benefits of success.”[145] She wrote: “I concluded, the chance to get bin Laden was worth it.”[146]

While Clinton focused mainly on cost-benefit calculations and their implications for political risk—she also drilled down into specifics at the operational level. During the planning process, Clinton had wondered how the US could avoid generating a response from Pakistan if their radar picked up the helicopters. Clinton noted, “if the Pakistani military, always on a hair trigger out of a fear of a surprise attack from India, discovered a secret incursion into their airspace, it was possible they’d respond with force.”[147]

 

In this May 6, 2011, file photo President Barack Obama talks with U.S. Navy Vice Admiral William H. McRaven, commander of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), at Campbell Army Airfield in Fort Campbell, Ky., just days after McRaven led operational control of Navy SEAL Team Six's successful mission to get Osama bin Laden. McRaven ordered military files about the raid on bin Laden's hideout to be purged from Defense Department computers and sent to the CIA, where they could be more easily shielded from ever being made public. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

In this May 6, 2011, file photo President Barack Obama talks with U.S. Navy Vice Admiral William H. McRaven, commander of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), at Campbell Army Airfield in Fort Campbell, Ky., just days after McRaven led operational control of Navy SEAL Team Six’s successful mission to get Osama bin Laden. McRaven ordered military files about the raid on bin Laden’s hideout to be purged from Defense Department computers and sent to the CIA, where they could be more easily shielded from ever being made public. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

Vice Admiral McRaven:

Yes, Given the Plan for Neptune Spear and the Ability of SEAL Team Six to Complete the Mission

Vice Admiral McRaven’s recommendation to launch Operation Neptune Spear rested on his favorable assessment of Seal Team Six.  Operation Neptune Spear would be routine, similar to many successful operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Under Vice Admiral McRaven’s command, the jackpot rate —that is, the “rate of missions in which Special Operations forces captured or killed their targets in Afghanistan and Iraq”—had increased from 35 percent to more than 80 percent.[148] From the earliest stages of the planning process, Vice Admiral McRaven had asserted that the assault on the compound would not be difficult—the real challenge would be managing Pakistan’s reaction and military response—either during the flight phase or in the fighting on the ground.[149], [150]

A later interview revealed that Vice Admiral McRaven knew the intelligence might be flawed—and planned for either contingency. He stated: “my job was to get him if he was there,” and “if he wasn’t there, we would know that pretty quickly, and our intent was to get up or get out.”[151] Arguably, the Vice Admiral’s acknowledgement of the second contingency helped to lower the political risk of the mission—because it helped to prevent a failed raid from becoming a crisis of bilateral relations. Finally, he surely realized that Neptune Spear, if concluded successfully, could expand the Joint Special Operations Command’s role in winning the war in Afghanistan and advancing US national security.

 

Admiral Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

Yes, Given the Capability of SEAL Team Six

Admiral Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a recommendation in favor of Operation Neptune Spear. He had considerable confidence in the proficiency of SEAL Team Six; as long as the intelligence was accurate, he expected Neptune Spear to succeed. Admiral Mullen may also have been able to anticipate Pakistan’s reaction, given his work in Pakistan in recent years. He had repeatedly emphasized to General Kayani, “If we know we can find Number One or Number Two, we are going to get them,” also making clear, “we are going to get them unilaterally.”[152] Given the dismal state of bilateral relations in April 2011, he may simply have concluded that US-Pakistan relations would be hard pressed to worsen.

 

CIA Director Panetta:

Yes, Given the Intelligence and Our Obligation to the American People

CIA Director Panetta made a final recommendation in favor of Operation Neptune Spear. He had confidence in the accuracy of the intelligence, and claimed the president had a responsibility to the American people to act—he remarked: “we have enough information such that the American people would want us to act.”[153] Yet he appears to have said little about Pakistan’s probable response, the broader implications for the war in Afghanistan, or even the ability of SEAL Team Six to execute the mission. As CIA Director Panetta framed the issue, the principal costs were political—those of not taking a shot the American public would want the president to take.

 

John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Terrorism and Homeland Security:

Yes, Given Confidence in the Intelligence

Descriptions of the April 28 meeting and the earlier decision process provide limited insight into the views of John Brennan, the Assistant to the President for Terrorism and Homeland Security, who also ruled in favor of Neptune Spear. John Brennan made clear his confidence in the analysts; he expressed almost total certainty that the intelligence was accurate.

 

Secretary of Defense Gates:

No, Because Neptune Spear Risks “The Fate of the War in Afghanistan”

At the final meeting of the National Security Council, Secretary of Defense Gates made a formal recommendation against Operation Neptune Spear.[154], [155] Elaborating on his rationale, he later remarked: “my highest priority was the war in Afghanistan.” [156] The Secretary of Defense had already noted his principal concern on April 19: that Neptune Spear would “jeopardize an already fragile relationship with Pakistan” and thus risk “the fate of the war in Afghanistan.”[157] He feared Pakistan might: close the supply line running from Karachi to Afghanistan; rescind approval for the United States to overfly Pakistan; and act to hinder US strategic objectives in Afghanistan.[158],[159], [160]

The remaining concerns raised by the Secretary of Defense—if correct—had the cumulative effect of substantially lowering Neptune Spear’s probability of success. First, Secretary Gates remarked that “the case for bin Laden’s presence in the compound was purely circumstantial,”[161] emphasizing the lack of “a single piece of hard evidence he was there.”[162] Obviously, if the intelligence proved inaccurate, Neptune Spear could not succeed. Second, Secretary Gates feared that challenges arising during Neptune Spear could preclude its success; in one worst-case scenario, “the Pakistanis could get a number of troops to the compound quickly, prevent extraction of our team, and take them prisoner.”[163]  Gates thought Pakistan’s military was likely to respond, given the important infrastructure nearby:

The Abbottabad compound was thirty-five miles from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, six miles from a nuclear missile facility, and within a couple of miles of the Pakistani Military Academy (their West Point), the boot camps and training centers for two storied Pakistani regiments, a Pakistani intelligence office, and a police station.[164]

The Secretary of Defense also considered the prospect of a complicit Pakistan, remarking “I worried that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was aware of where bin Laden was.” He added: “there might be rings of security around the compound that we knew nothing about or, at a minimum, that ISI might have more eyes on the compound than we could know.”[165] Thus, even though the Secretary of Defense had diplomatically expressed his “complete confidence in the raid plan,” he had serious concerns about the challenges that might arise during Operation Neptune Spear.

The Secretary of Defense made a compelling case that past failures of special operations counseled caution. In 1970, the United States had launched an assault on a camp in North Vietnam, Son Tay—but “despite a well-executed mission, the intelligence was flawed, and no US prisoners were at the camp.”[166] In 1980, the United States launched Operation Eagle Claw to rescue hostages at the American Embassy in Tehran—but difficulties arose “because of helicopter problems and then became a disaster when a helicopter crashed into a C-130 refueling aircraft on the ground.”[167] Finally, the 2008 cross-border mission in Pakistan “was supposed to be a quick and clean in-and-out,” but became “an hours-long firefight” in which the team “barely made it back across the border into Afghanistan.”[168] The experience had proved searing; US forces “had not undertaken another such operation since.”[169] He concluded: “in each case, a great plan, even when well executed, had led to national embarrassment, and in the case of Eagle Claw, a crushing humiliation that took years for our military to overcome.”[170]

 

Vice President Biden:

No, Given Uncertain Intelligence and the Risk to Bilateral Relations with Pakistan

Vice President Biden provided a final recommendation against Operation Neptune Spear. During the planning process, he wanted greater certainty about Osama bin Laden’s presence at the compound in Abbottabad; as such, he had concerns about the accuracy of the intelligence—and Neptune Spear’s probability of success. The Vice President also remarked on Neptune Spear’s excessive risk to bilateral relations between the US and Pakistan. Robert Gates affirms this notion in his memoirs; he writes that Vice President Biden feared “the political consequences of failure.”[171]

 

Michael Leiter, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center:

No, Given the Intelligence, and the Political Risk

The Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Michael Leiter, recommended against Operation Neptune Spear, a surprising choice given his organizational mandate. Throughout the decision phase, Michael Leiter had serious concerns that related not only to the probability of success, but also to the likely consequences. On the probability side, he feared the intelligence might not be accurate—and made note of past intelligence failures, such as the debacle over Iraq’s purported weapons of mass destruction. Regarding consequences, he feared an immediate backlash against US interests in Pakistan, and a possible increase in homegrown terrorist attacks domestically. At the broadest level, Michael Leiter judged that launching Neptune Spear was simply too high risk.

 

General Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

No, Given the Political Risk

General Cartwright, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advised against Operation Neptune Spear—in contrast to the recommendation of Admiral Mullen. General Cartwright “supported the drone option,” the sole alternative to Neptune Spear under consideration at the last several meetings of the National Security Council.[172] The drone strike represented a lower political risk than Neptune Spear—but had other disadvantages. Namely, the use of a drone strike meant the United States could not provide definitive confirmation of Osama bin Laden’s death; furthermore, the United States would necessarily forego the chance to recover and exploit the cache of intelligence information that surely existed at the compound in Abbottabad.[173]

 

Figure 1:

Responses of President Obama’s National Security Team on April 28, 2011 [174]

Table

page 14 final

page 15 final

VI. Evaluating President Obama’s Decision in Terms of Political Risk

President Obama made a final decision in favor of Neptune Spear. The president’s remarks reveal his assessment of the three elements that determined political risk: (1) the accuracy of the intelligence, (2) the probability that SEAL Team Six could succeed, and (3) a net assessment of potential costs and benefits. In assessing Neptune Spear’s probability of success, the president refused to allow the debates about the accuracy of the intelligence to shape his decision. The president remarked, “some of our intelligence officers thought it was only a 40 or 30 percent chance,” while “others thought it was as high as 80 or 90 percent.”[175] President Obama recalled, “I said, this is basically 50-50,” and he commented, “it was circumstantial, we couldn’t know for certain.”[176] President Obama concluded: “even though I thought it was just 50-50 that bin Laden was there, I thought it was worth us taking a shot.”[177]

President Obama considered the Special Operations Forces “the best of the best”[178] and remarked that the proficiency of these teams “gave me the confidence to go ahead.”[179] The Navy SEAL Mark Owen argues that the president’s confidence was well placed; the team had successfully completed more challenging missions in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Admiral Mullen and Vice Admiral McRaven made this point throughout the planning process, assuring the president that SEAL Team Six was up to the challenge. However, Neptune Spear’s success could not be guaranteed. After all, the United States had located al Kuwaiti with surprising ease; analysts asked: “was Ayman Zawahiri burning Osama bin Laden, or was Al Qaeda using their leader as bait to lure American special operations into a clever ambush?”[180], [181], [182], [183]

The commander of SEAL Team Six concluded that “the most dangerous aspect of this operation” would be “going into an urban environment.” [184] The team would not control adjacent buildings, and might face counter-snipers or a tripwire; they might be fighting into a building rigged with explosives, or face a superior force. President Obama echoed these concerns; he pointed out, “they don’t know if the building is rigged,” and added, “they don’t know if there are explosives that are triggered by a particular door opening.”[185] When a reporter asked the president to identify the greatest challenge of Operation Neptune Spear, he said: “that you’re sending guys in and things can go wrong.”[186] Even so, such risks represented nothing out of the ordinary for the special operations community. During Operation Anaconda in 2002, one Navy SEAL at Takur Ghar reflected on risk: “This is not how we work, reducing risk to zero—otherwise, send accountants up there.”[187]

The president and his advisors also feared that Pakistan’s armed forces might intervene, threatening the successful completion of Neptune Spear, and perhaps even generating a crisis of bilateral relations.[188], [189] To avoid this problem, President Obama and Admiral Mullen had repeatedly told Pakistan’s leadership that if the United States had the chance to take out Osama bin Laden, the United States would act unilaterally; but ultimately, the president could not know in advance whether Pakistan’s military or police would react. [190], [191], [192] Ultimately, Admiral Mullen and Vice Admiral McRaven—both deeply involved in the planning for Neptune Spear—deemed the raid worth the risk. Suffice it to say—if President Obama had reason to expect that Pakistan would not intervene, Operation Neptune Spear’s political risk would have decreased considerably.

Understanding how the prospect of a complicit Pakistan affected the political risk of Neptune Spear remains crucial. If Pakistan knew of Osama bin Laden’s presence, a variety of scenarios can explain how the government planned to react. For example, Pakistan (1) had decided in advance not to mobilize its military, (2) had decided in advance that it would use military force, or (3) had not decided on a specific policy, but realized that the compound’s proximity to other important infrastructure might itself trigger a response from military forces or the police. The first option dramatically lowers the political risk, while the second and third option dramatically raise it. Given the high variability in the political risk for Neptune Spear, the drone strike may have seemed an appealing alternative—for Pakistan’s military response remained unlikely to threaten its success.

The variability of the political risk makes an easy appraisal of the presidential decision impossible—unless one takes into account the speed with which US forces would complete Operation Neptune Spear. Arguably, if the US forces could act fast, they would succeed—regardless of Pakistan’s response plan. Operation Neptune Spear unfolded in exactly this manner—fast. As Pakistan scrambled jets, SEAL Team Six concluded the mission and touched down in Jalalabad. In this context, President Obama’s questions about speed suddenly become relevant; they make clear that his final decision rested in part in confidence about the speed with which Operation Neptune Spear would unfold. As Vice Admiral McRaven had made clear in Spec Ops, speed—along with surprise and secrecy—represented an essential principle that would generate success. Here, speed also promised to drive down the political risk.

Ultimately, the government of Pakistan made clear that it had no such advance knowledge of Osama bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad—and even issued an official report to explain the intelligence failure. Obviously, this was not known at the time of President Obama’s decision. Many US experts had suspected Pakistan’s complicity right from the start, given signs that Pakistan’s intelligence service had sheltered other terrorists, who apparently shuttled between safe houses throughout Pakistan.[193] Such a notion would be consistent with Admiral Mullen’s terse appraisal that extremist groups in Pakistan amounted to nothing less than the veritable arm of the I.S.I.

In making a final decision on Operation Neptune Spear, President Obama necessarily evaluated whether the benefits would exceed the costs—that is, he assessed the probable consequences of the mission, and their impact on the political risk. The prospective benefits remained considerable—a strategic and symbolic victory against al Qaeda, as well as the seizure of an intelligence cache that would prove instrumental in future efforts to ‘disrupt, dismantle, and defeat’ al Qaeda. In assessing the likely costs, the president had to consider the probable reaction of the government of Pakistan—now in terms of the threat to bilateral relations and the future of the US-led war in Afghanistan. Such concerns amounted to the greatest concern for the Secretary of Defense. The president made a few remarks about the cost of failure but otherwise remained laconic; he feared both the “potential loss of life to SEAL Team Six” and the “huge geopolitical ramifications.”[194], [195] The president concluded: “ultimately I had so much confidence in the capacity of our guys to carry out the mission that I felt the risks were outweighed by the potential benefits.”[196]

VII. Assessing Presidential Leadership: The Decision to Launch Operation Neptune Spear

What does the decision to authorize Operation Neptune Spear say about President Obama as a leader? To what extent did his leadership make a difference, above and beyond the natural course of history—and as opposed to others in government? Developing an answer involves asking several questions. First, what decisive actions did the president take that truly made a difference? Second, what were the views of those on the president’s team? Third, what does the classic scholarship on leadership reveal about the president’s actions and the value they added?

1. Decisive Actions by President Obama

From the time that President Obama took office to the successful completion of Neptune Spear in May 2011, he took several decisive actions. These actions added value in ways that others in government could not—and they represented ways that presidential leadership made a difference.

(1)   Prioritizing counterterrorism: President Obama prioritized counterterrorism from the early days of his presidency.[197], [198]  By March 2009, three months after taking office, the president had called for the destruction of al Qaeda in Pakistan;[199], [200] he had also opened up a new offensive against al Qaeda and its affiliates around the globe, groups he vowed to ‘disrupt, dismantle, and defeat.’ By June of 2009, the president had sent a memorandum to CIA Director Panetta requesting that he return in thirty days with a “detailed operational plan” to locate and target Osama bin Laden. A year later, in June 2010, the intelligence community was honing in on al Kuwaiti; by the early spring of 2011, the planning for Neptune Spear had begun.

(2)   Demanding information: throughout the planning for Operation Neptune Spear, President Obama actively sought information, both from the intelligence community and from the planning team. The information shaped the president’s final decision; the requests kept the experts vigilant, and established a standard of accountability.

(3)   Shaping the development of options: The president selectively intervened in the development of options, and in the creation of the final plan of attack for Operation Neptune Spear. He wanted to know how fast the mission could unfold, and wanted to be sure the team could fight its way out—for a safe return to Jalalabad, and finally, to the US.

(4)   Formally authorizing Operation Neptune Spear as President and Commander in Chief: On April 29, 2011, the president chaired a meeting to announce his final decision, authorizing Operation Neptune Spear.  After considering the final recommendations of the National Security Council, he assessed the political risk, and made a final decision. Ultimately, CIA Director Panetta conveyed the official order to Vice Admiral McRaven and the team in Jalalabad, but the decision was President Obama’s.

(5)   Adept use of speeches and remarks: President Obama’s speeches and remarks made the case for counterterrorism to Americans, while also appealing to a worldwide audience, including many moderate Muslims around the globe. The president also succeeded in gracefully handling the successful completion of Operation Neptune Spear; he provided a rationale for America’s use of force, which aimed to ‘disrupt, dismantle, and defeat’ al Qaeda.

2. The Views of the President’s Team:

Many who participated in the planning process argued that presidential leadership made a decisive difference. In her memoir, Hillary Clinton remarked, “it was as crisp and courageous a display of leadership as I’ve ever seen,” and also explained that the decision to authorize Neptune Spear represented “one of the most important national security calls the president would ever make.” [201], [202] Robert Gates argued that the president’s efforts to prioritize counterterrorism made a difference. Before President Obama took office, Defense Secretary Gates had come to the conclusion that efforts to target the top al Qaeda leadership had stagnated; “The hunt for Osama bin Laden had been dormant as far as senior policymakers were concerned.”[203] Vice Admiral McRaven called attention to the president’s role in the planning process, remarking “the president asked all the right questions.”[204] A senior defense official concurred, remarking, “the president’s role in this should not be underestimated,”for, “in the final weeks and months of this, his personal interest and direction and attention pushed the case to a new level that enabled real action.”[205] Vice Admiral McRaven made clear that the president deserved an enormous amount of credit for the decision to authorize Operation Neptune Spear; he remarked: “at the end of the day, make no mistake—it was the president of the United States that shouldered the burden for this operation, that made the hard decisions.”[206]

3. Presidential Leadership

The scholarship on presidential leadership also illuminates President Obama’s decision to authorize Operation Neptune Spear. John F. Kennedy once observed: “the heart of the Presidency is therefore informed, prudent, and resolute choice—and the secret of the presidential enterprise is found in an examination of how presidential choices are made.”[207] While the earlier analysis has evaluated ‘how presidential choices are made,’ a brief review of the extent to which President Obama’s decision embodied ‘informed, prudent, and resolute choice’ is surely in order—and promises to reveal important insights about the heart of the Obama presidency. President Obama took care to remain ‘informed’—he continually sought new information, asked questions, shaped the planning process, and reviewed the red team analysis. President Obama was also surely ‘resolute.’ From his early years in office to the conclusion of Neptune Spear, the president prioritized counterterrorism: (1) he wanted to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda, (2) he wanted to eliminate the top leadership of al Qaeda and its affiliates, and (3) he wanted to do it in a decisive way, even if it meant taking risks.

Ultimately, the real question is whether ‘prudent choice’ characterized President Obama’s to launch Operation Neptune Spear. Choosing to launch a special operations raid just a few miles from Pakistan’s main military academy, on 50-50 odds surely amounted to a bold choice, more than a prudent one. Adjusting the parameters in different ways can suggest different conclusions, but by most assessments, the odds remained questionable and the president’s decision remained bold. This defined the character of the presidential choice.

President Obama’s decision to authorize Operation Neptune Spear also amounts to what the scholar Theodore Sorenson considers “a great presidential decision,” one that “defies the laws of mathematics” and “exceeds the sum of its parts.”[208] The president and the national security team evaluated every aspect of the decision to launch Neptune Spear—but ultimately no mathematical formula could provide an easy answer. At most, such formulas provided ways of thinking about how different factors related to each other, and together determined risk—better clarifying essential tradeoffs. That is, mathematics could make sense of the issue at stake, and some of the tradeoffs, but could not generate an authoritative answer. The choice came down to a judgment call that was by its very nature subjective: whether the prospective political and strategic costs would outweigh the benefits.

As Hillary Clinton wrote in her memoir, “Keeping America safe, strong, and prosperous presents an endless set of choice[s], many of which come with imperfect information and conflicting imperatives.”[209] She continued: “Perhaps the most famous example of my four years as Secretary of State was President Obama’s order to send a team of Navy SEALs into a moonless Pakistani night to bring Osama bin Laden to justice.”[210] Of this challenging choice, she remarked:

The President’s top advisors were divided. The intelligence was compelling, but far from definitive. The risks of failure were daunting.[211]

The scholar Joseph Nye remarks that the president “made a big bet . . . on violating Pakistani sovereignty to kill bin Laden,”[212] but he also acknowledges that “big bets, however, often involve big risks. . . they raise important questions of what risks and costs foreign policy leaders should impose on their followers.” He concludes that such bets must at least “have a reasonable prospect of success” to be considered just.[213]

VIII. Conclusion

The successful conclusion of Operation Neptune Spear in May 2011 amounted to one of the Obama Administration’s principal successes, and helped to achieve objectives outlined in the National Security Strategy. At the National Security Council, initial discussion focused on the accuracy of the intelligence, and the likelihood that SEAL Team Six could succeed. However, the president and the national security team soon realized that assessing the broader political risk would be crucial. While the benefits of Neptune Spear proved relatively uncontroversial, by contrast, considerable debate emerged about the political, military, and strategic costs of failure—for some participants, such as Secretary of Defense Gates, such contingencies sufficed to dampen interest in authorizing Neptune Spear altogether.

A cursory appraisal reveals two important yet uncontrollable factors which together dramatically increased Neptune Spear’s political risk: the accuracy of the intelligence and the reaction of the government of Pakistan. If the intelligence proved faulty, Operation Neptune Spear would fail; the team could only hope to avoid the political risk associated with a firefight in Abbottabad or a crisis of bilateral relations. If Pakistan intervened—either during Neptune Spear, or after its conclusion—political risk could escalate, given the uncertain fate of US forces in Pakistan and the broader outcome of the war in Afghanistan.

Ultimately, President Obama amounts to a leader who took risks and won. Operation Neptune Spear ranks among the successes of his presidency. To John F. Kennedy, “the heart of the Presidency is therefore informed, prudent, and resolute choice,” an apt statement that characterizes President Obama well, albeit with a bit less emphasis on the prudence; certainly, the president displayed an approach that was well informed and resolute in the extreme. The president’s decision also meets Sorensen’s formidable requirement, representing a great presidential decision—one that “defies the laws of mathematics and exceeds the sum of its parts.”

Appendix: The Al Qaeda Courier

In fully analyzing the presidential decision about Operation Neptune Spear, the initial developments in the discovery of the courier prove useful. Understanding how the courier Ahmed al Kuwaiti finally drew attention to the Abbottabad compound provides a deeper understanding of the process that the US intelligence community used to find Osama bin Laden.

In 2002 and 2003, several detainees had mentioned the name “al Kuwaiti.” The first to do so was the al Qaeda operative Mohamedou Ould Slahi, or “Abu Masab.”[214] The expert Mark Bowden notes:

One of the names Slahi mentioned—one among many—was this Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, whom he said had been killed. It was obviously a pseudonym. The name meant “the Father of Ahmed from Kuwait.”[215]

Of the level of attention this information was getting, the expert Mark Bowden remarks: “It was just one name among thousands that were daily being entered into what would become the Terrorism Information Awareness database.”[216]

The second lead on “al Kuwaiti” emerged from information provided by Mohammed al Qahtani, a Saudi citizen who was an al Qaeda operative interested in joining the 9/11 hijackers. At Guantanamo, he eventually provided a detailed description of his work with al Qaeda; as one journalist recounts:

One of the many names he mentioned as part of bin Laden’s inner circle was this same Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti. He did not know the man’s real name, but said he was not only alive and well but had worked closely with Khalid Sheik Mohammed, al Qaeda’s Number Three, and had given Qahtani some preliminary computer instruction at an internet cafe in Karachi, showing him how to communicate with the group’s leaders once he was in America. . . . Qahtani would also describe Ahmed the Kuwaiti as a “courier.”[217]

Mark Owen, a member of Seal Team Six, provided a slightly different account; he asserts that Qahtani had described “al Kuwaiti” as “one of bin Laden’s couriers and right hand men,” which considerably elevates his status from the other account, in which he was just described as a courier.

On the topic of whether the two operatives who provided these early leads were subjected to harsh interrogation techniques, Peter Bergen concludes that they were.[218] Whatever actually happened, officials concluded that charges could not be made against these al Qaeda operatives, because the information had been obtained under torture.[219] As for the CIA’s own public statements, we know that Director Panetta stated, rather obliquely, in an interview:

I think some of the detainees clearly were, you know, they used these enhanced interrogation techniques against some of these detainees. But I’m also saying that, you know, the debate about whether—whether we would have gotten the same information through other approaches I think is always an open question.[220]

Whether Obama could in any way be held responsible for using information obtained before his time in office remains an open question, as does how much of the information led to bin Laden. One expert remarks, “it remains unclear whether harsh techniques indeed led to bits and pieces of possibly relevant information but one thing is certain: brutal interrogations certainly did not lead directly to bin Laden’s compound.”[221]

In any case, further information about “al Kuwaiti,” a third reference, emerged in 2003, in information provided by Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who had been the third in command to al Qaeda; he acknowledged, “such a character existed, but said the man was unimportant and had retired from al Qaeda years earlier.”[222] However, there were good reasons to be suspicious; one expert notes: “KSM’s assertion that the Kuwaiti was retired was curious, as not too many members of al-Qaeda were known to have retired.”[223] Information from KSM in turn led to the arrest of Hambali, the leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, who under interrogation revealed that he had visited an al Qaeda safe house in Karachi, organized by al Kuwaiti.[224] Clearly, by the close of 2003, the US experts tracking this issue had a lead of some kind, but certainly not one they could take action on in any way.[225] Yet the name “al Kuwaiti” emerged again—now at least the fourth or fifth time—in 2004, from Hassan Ghul, an al Qaeda operative[226] who had been detained by Kurdish police as he tried to enter Iraq; specifically, he described him as, “an important courier, one of the Sheik’s most trusted aides.”[227] Another expert provides more information about what exactly may have been revealed:

At some point, Ghul told interrogators that the Kuwaiti was bin Laden’s courier and frequently traveled with al-Qaeda’s leader. He also said that the Kuwaiti was trusted by KSM and by Abu Faraj al-Libi, KSM’s successor as the operational commander of al-Qaeda.[228]

Further information emerged in 2005, from Abu Faraj al-Libi himself, who had been captured in Mardan, Pakistan and had at that time served as al Qaeda’s third in command. When asked about “al Kuwaiti,” he claimed that he had not heard of such a person.[229] Bergen provides a slightly contradictory account of the information al-Libi provided, as well as a few more additional details:

After KSM was captured, he, Libi, had received notice from bin Laden through a courier that he had been promoted to KSM’s spot as the number three in al-Qaeda. At the time of his promotion, Libi was living in Abbottabad, an early indicator that the city was something of a base for al-Qaeda. It would be another seven years before the CIA would focus on Abbottabad as a likely hiding place for al-Qaeda’s leader. Libi also told his interrogators that the Kuwaiti wasn’t an important player in al-Qaeda and that it was in fact “Maulawi Abd al-Khaliq Jan” who was the courier who had informed him of his promotion by bin Laden. Counterterrorism officials later concluded that Maulawi Abd al-Khaliq Jan was a made-up name.[230]

The intelligence community found this gap puzzling, and followed up.

The next major development came toward the end of the Bush administration, in 2007. At that time, the CIA discovered that the real name of “al Kuwaiti” was Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed. The CIA refused to disclose how and why it had reached this conclusion—though one senior official did note that the information came from “a third country.”[231] This opened up new possibilities, but at this time, the courier was not yet a major priority in the broad range of leads the US government was pursuing.

Lauren Hickok presently works as a fellow in the Worldwide Support for Development – Handa Fellowship Program of the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies.  She holds a B.A. in history from Yale University, a M.A. in international relations from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and a M.A. in public affairs from Princeton University. Dr. Anders Corr and Matthew Michaelides provided editorial oversight for this article. JPR Status: Working Paper, archived 7/31/2014.


[1] Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on Osama bin Laden,” May 2, 2011, Washington, DC.

[2] In addition to the US National Security Strategy, several other documents of the Obama administration provide useful context.  The June 2011 National Strategy for Counterterrorism—published after the conclusion of Neptune Spear—reveals the way that the President and many administration officials were probably already conceptualizing counterterrorism strategy in 2009 and 2010.  Most notably, the June 2011 strategy set the conditions of victory: “We aim for a world in which al-Qa’ida is openly and widely rejected by all audiences as irrelevant to their aspirations and concerns, a world where al-Qa’ida’s ideology does not shape perceptions of the world and local events, inspire violence, or serve as a recruiting tool for the group or its adherents.”

[3]The Administration had planned to publish the National Strategy for Counterterrorism months earlier, but eventually chose to delay its publication until June 2011.

[4] The Executive Office of the President, National Strategy for Counterterrorism, June 2011.

[5] The Executive Office of the President, National Security Strategy, May 2010.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The main purpose of the December 2009 speech at West Point was to announce the deployment of additional US troops to win the war in Afghanistan.

[8] Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” December 1, 2009, West Point, New York.

[9] The president had already articulated this message while campaigning for the presidency.  In The Audacity of Hope, he explained that if elected, he would ensure that the United States would take “unilateral military action to eliminate an imminent threat to our security.”  In a 2007 campaign speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center, he stated: “if we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.”

[10] Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at the Acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize,” December 10, 2009, Washington D.C.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on a New Beginning,” June 4, 2009, Cairo, Egypt.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] The president had made many of these points in the January 2009 inaugural address.  He had stated: “to the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”  He called for a prosperous global future, remarking “to those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not on what you destroy.”

[16] Barack Obama, “President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address,” January 20, 2009, Washington, DC.

[17] Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” December 1, 2009, West Point, New York.

[18] Daniel Klaidman, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012),43-44.

[19] Nicholas Schmidle, “Getting bin Laden: What Happened That Night in Abbottabad,” The New Yorker, August 8, 2011.

[20] Yaniv Barzilai, 102 Days of War: How Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda and the Taliban Survived 2001 (Washington: Potomac Books, 2013),126.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Couriers had an important role within the broader organizational structure of al Qaeda, as the experts Peritz and Rosenbach note:  “top leaders needed to issue orders, and they usually did so via a complex, multilayered human courier network.” For the US intelligence community, the couriers also served a useful purpose: the couriers provided a chance to identify and eliminate the al Qaeda leaders who employed them.

[23] Aki Peritz and Eric Rosenbach, Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns that Killed Bin Laden and Devastated Al Qaeda (New York: Public Affairs, 2012), 209.

[24] However, the full story of the discovery of the courier had begun much earlier.  In 2002 and 2003, the name “al Kuwaiti” emerged in interviews with detained al Qaeda operatives, but the name was just one among thousands of others.  By 2004, the intelligence community had become more certain of “al Kuwaiti’s” role as a courier, and by 2007, the CIA had learned the real name of “al Kuwaiti,” Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed.  However, the pursuit of the courier did not yet represent a priority among the many leads the US government was pursuing.  President Obama’s 2009 memorandum may have helped to focus resources on this lead and others like it, but without the details, it is difficult to make a definitive judgment.  For information on how the intelligence community first gained information about the courier, see the appendix.

[25] As the expert Mark Bowden notes, the intelligence community was able to track the courier’s cell phone to Abbottabad, perhaps as a result of “some change in his cell phone or its service package” or “some improvement in their own capability,” either of which would have allowed experts to “pinpoint the phone’s location when it was in use.”  Peter Bergen affirms this interpretation, noting that in June 2010 al Kuwaiti and his brother changed the way they communicated on their cell phones, a shift that allowed the intelligence community to pinpoint their location.

[26] Al Kuwaiti and his brother, who both resided in Abbottabad: only spoke on the phone while driving in the car; typically drove for at least an hour before making an outgoing call; each used an alias; and concealed from family members their actual place of residence.  Arshad and Tareq Khan are the aliases for the two brothers.  Their real names are actually Ibrahim and Abrar.

[27] Mark Bowden, The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012), 121.

[28] “Killing bin Laden,” The Discovery Channel, aired May 15, 2011.

[29] Peter Bergen, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad, (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), 123.

[30] Mark Owen, No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden (New York: Dutton, 2012), 165.

[31] Mark Bowden, The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012), 122.

[32] Aki Peritz and Eric Rosenbach, Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns that Killed Bin Laden and Devastated Al Qaeda (New York: Public Affairs, 2012), 216-217.

[33] Seth Jones, Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of Al Qaeda Since 9/11 (New York: Norton, 2012), 416.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Daniel Klaidman, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), 234.

[36] Mark Bowden, The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012), 142.

[37] The August 2010 memorandum “Anatomy of a Lead” was released to a small group of US government officials with need-to-know.

[38] Mark Bowden, The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012), 142.

[39] Peter Bergen, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad, (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), 163.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] As Hillary Clinton writes in Hard Choices, in December 2010, CIA Director Panetta read in Secretary of Defense Gates, who had not yet had word of “al Kuwaiti” or the compound in Abbottabad.  Indeed, in Duty, Robert Gates confirms this chronology when he remarks, “in the summer and early fall of 2010, I did not know that a small cell of analysts at CIA had acquired a lead on a courier thought to be in contact with bin Laden.”

[43] Hillary Clinton, Hard Choices (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2014), 191.

[44] Robert Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Knopf, 2014), 538-539.

[45] Peter Bergen, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad, (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), 164.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Around this time, the intelligence community provided the president a three-dimensional model of the compound, which proved useful in subsequent discussions.

[50] Experts have provided varying accounts of the planning process; Peter Bergen suggests that the development of options began in January 2011, but most other accounts mention or imply a general start date of February 2011.  Bergen notes that in January 2011, CIA Director Leon Panetta, Michael Vickers (the main policymaker for special operations at the Pentagon) and Vice Admiral William McRaven conferred.  Bergen also mentions that in January, Deputy CIA Director Morell and other counterterrorism officials briefed Vice Admiral McRaven. According to Bergen, Vice Admiral McRaven responded by tasking new a planning team, to be based at the CIA, to create scenarios for an assault on the Abbottabad compound.  The commanding officer of SEAL Team Six was later, in early spring, summoned to Washington for a meeting at the CIA to discuss a high value target—that is, to begin the process of planning and rehearsing Neptune Spear.

[51] By Hillary Clinton’s description of the chronology in Hard Choices, Vice Admiral McRaven was formally read in by CIA Director Panetta in February 2011.  If true, this would contradict Peter Bergen’s account of a January 2011 meeting at the CIA involving Vice Admiral McRaven.

[52] In Duty, Robert Gates, like Hillary Clinton, suggests that planning began in February 2011—with no mention of any meetings in January 2011.  He writes, “Leon would update me from time to time, and then in February 2011 he invited the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, Vice Admiral Bill McRaven, to CIA headquarters to begin a collaborative effort to strike the suspect compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.”  However, as CIA Director Panetta had already read in Secretary of Defense Gates in December of 2010, it is possible that he used the month of January to alert the leadership of the Joint Special Operations Command and begin preliminary planning.

[53] Peter Bergen, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad, (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), 169.

[54] William McRaven, Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations and Warfare: Theory and Practice, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1995).

[55] In an interview at the Aspen Institute after the conclusion of Operation Neptune Spear, Vice Admiral McRaven explained the principles of Special Operations, and the way that they differ from conventional war, remarking that Special Operations could often be characterized by “a smaller force going up against a well defended adversary.”

[56] William McRaven, “Opening Remarks: At the Point of the Spear: The Role of Special Operations Forces in America’s Post-9/11, Post-Iraq/Afghanistan Defense Strategy,” 2012 Aspen Institute Security Forum, July 25, 2012, Aspen, Colorado.

[57] Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in the State of the Union Address,” January 25, 2011, Washington D.C.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Seth Jones, Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of Al Qaeda Since 9/11 (New York: Norton, 2012), 419.

[60] The bombing of the compound would be carried out by B-2 bomber.

[61] The expert Daniel Klaidman mentions an earlier briefing in February 2011 that discussed two options: (1) bombing the compound, and (2) employing special operations forces. President Obama feared a tunnel network might exist beneath the compound, and could allow Osama bin Laden to escape—and so the president initially favored the bombing option, which would destroy any such tunnels.  Subsequent analysis revealed that the existence of tunnels was unlikely and so the president and his advisors rejected the bombing option.

[62] As the expert Peter Bergen notes, in late February 2011, Vice Admiral McRaven, General Cartwright, and Michael Vickers had met at the CIA headquarters for a preliminary review of the four options for Abbottabad.  These four options were now presented in final form to the president; the presentation included both memos and graphics.  As Peter Bergen notes, at this time “many of the participants believed that Obama was leaning toward bombing the compound with a B-2 bomber.”

[63] Daniel Klaidman, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), 235-241.

[64] Peter Bergen, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad, (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), 173-4.

[65] Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign against Al Qaeda (New York: Times Books, 2011), 258.

[66]  Ibid., 177.

[67] Mark Bowden, The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012), 153.

[68] This increased the complexity of the mission—in turn markedly increasing the number of things that could go wrong.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Seth Jones, Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of Al Qaeda Since 9/11 (New York: Norton, 2012), 423.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Peter Bergen, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), 180-181.

[74] Ibid., 178-179.

[75] Ibid.

[76] Ibid., 192.

[77] Ibid.

[78] Mark Bowden, The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012), 158-9.

[79] Richard Marcinko, Rogue Warrior (New York: Pocket Books, 1992), 5-381.

[80] The US Navy’s SEAL Team Six was designed to be small and mobile, a quick reaction force with the capability to kill terrorists and rescue hostages.  In recent decades, the unit has become more conventional, and has also grown in size, but its basic mission remains the same.  ‘SEAL’ stands for the ‘Sea-Air-Land’ units of the US Navy, because these units have the capacity to operate with ease on sea, air, and land.

[81] The expert Mark Bowden notes that on April 7, 2011 a rehearsal took place at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.  For a week in mid-April, SEAL Team Six conducted a second set of rehearsals in Nevada.  The expert Mark Bowden notes that the Nevada desert “replicated the likely heat conditions and elevation of Abbottabad.”  Nicholas Schmidle also mentions a week of rehearsals in Nevada, which he claims began on April 18, 2011.  The Navy SEAL Mark Owen notes that after initial trainings in North Carolina and Nevada, SEAL Team Six returned to North Carolina for one final rehearsal, a “last walk through,” before departing for Jalalabad.

[82] Mark Bowden, The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012), 192-195.

[83] Daniel Klaidman, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), 241.

[84] Nicholas Schmidle, “Getting bin Laden: What Happened That Night in Abbottabad,” The New Yorker, August 8, 2011.

[85] Mark Bowden, The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012), 192-195.

[86] Peter Bergen, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad, (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), 185

[87] Ibid., 187.

[88] Ibid.

[89] Daniel Klaidman, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), 241-243.

[90] Ibid.

[91] Vice Admiral McRaven thought that the SEALs should avoid a firefight with Pakistan’s military and civilians other than in the compoundaccomplishing this by creating a defensive perimeter.

[92] Robert Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Knopf, 2014), 538.

[93] Ibid., 181.

[94] Ibid.

[95] Peter Bergen, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad, (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), 187-188.

[96] Ibid., 188-189.

[97] Ibid., 193.

[98] Ibid., 193.

[99] Ibid.

[100] Whether a red team exercise completed in such a short time frame could really yield valid results remains an open question.  The CIA may have called for the red team in order to avoid another Commission Report if it turned out later that the intelligence on Abbottabad had been inaccurate.

[101] Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, tended to be more conservative in his judgments of the accuracy of intelligence assessments—he was aware of other past failures in intelligence history, including the failures related to the WMD Commission.

[102] Daniel Klaidman, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), 243.

[103] Vice Admiral McRaven’s plan of attack now included: (1) two new Chinook CH-47s, which were typically used in extraction missions; (2) attack aircraft, if necessary; (3) a precise laser-guided bomb that could target the al Qaeda leader if he were to walk outdoors; (4) two stealth Black Hawk Helicopters.  The new elements improved the likelihood of success.

[104] Ibid., 198.

[105] Ibid.

[106] Other US government officials in favor of Operation Neptune Spear included Denis McDonough, Tom Donilon, Ben Rhodes, Michèle Flournoy, Tony Blinken, Mike Vickers, Robert Cardillo, Nick Rasmussen, and Jim Clapper.  The extant descriptions of the April 28 meeting note their response in favor of Neptune Spear, but do not provide greater detail about the reasons for their recommendation.

[107] For a summary of the responses at the final, April 28 meeting of the National Security Council, see Figure 1.

[108] Daniel Klaidman, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012),243.

[109] Seth Jones, Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of Al Qaeda Since 9/11 (New York: Norton, 2012), 423.

[110] Ibid., 423-424.

[111] Daniel Klaidman, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), 245.

[112] In Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton briefly discussed the team, remarking, “The SEALs and the Night Stalkers, the pilots of the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, trained extensively for the mission”—she also mentioned “a specially trained Belgian Malinois dog named Cairo who worked alongside the SEALs.”  As the journalist Nicholas Schmidle reports, inside the MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters were “Twenty-three Navy SEALs from Team Six,” as well as “a Pakistani-American translator,” and “a dog named Cairo—a Belgian Malinois.”  Scmidle mentions that each Black Hawk had “two pilots and a crewman from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, or the Night Stalkers.” By contrast, the documentary “Killing bin Laden” noted that aboard the four helicopters was a team of 79 special operations personnel;  one expert interviewed for the film thought it likely that the team included current or former members of the US Army’s Delta Force unit, which specializes in counterterrorism.

[113] Hillary Clinton, Hard Choices (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2014), 193.

[114] “Killing bin Laden,” The Discovery Channel, aired May 15, 2011.

[115] Daniel Klaidman, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), 246-247.

[116] Ibid., 247.

[117] Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign against Al Qaeda (New York: Times Books, 2011), 256.

[118] Hillary Clinton, Hard Choices (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2014), 199.

[119] Hillary Clinton also remarked, “it would add to what we already understood about the spread of affiliated organizations: Somalia’s al Shabaab, North Africa’s al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula,” groups which “were becoming bigger threats every day.”

[120] “Killing bin Laden,” The Discovery Channel, aired May 15, 2011.

[121] Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on Osama bin Laden,” May 2, 2011, Washington D.C.

[122] “Killing bin Laden: The President’s Story,” 60 Minutes, aired May 8, 2011.  New York: CBS Broadcasting, 2011.

[123] Daniel Klaidman, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), 248.

[124] Hillary Clinton, Hard Choices (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2014), 171.

[125] Ibid.

[126] William McRaven, “Opening Remarks: At the Point of the Spear: The Role of Special Operations Forces in America’s Post-9/11, Post-Iraq/Afghanistan Defense Strategy,” 2012 Aspen Institute Security Forum, July 25, 2012, Aspen, Colorado.

[127] “Killing bin Laden,” 60 Minutes, aired September 9, 2012.  New York: CBS Broadcasting, 2012.  DVD.

[128] The Navy SEAL Mark Owen reached the same conclusion.  In his book describing Operation Neptune Spear, he judged the May 1, 2011 mission was “one of the most significant operations in US history.”

[129] Ibid.

[130] Experts from the Brookings Institution concurred: “the raid plus many other successful strikes that Obama has ordered, most of them by drones in the tribal areas of Pakistan, have decimated al Qaeda’s top leadership.”

[131] Martin Indyk, Kenneth Lieberthal and Michael O’Hanlon, Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2012), 71.

[132] Hillary Clinton, Hard Choices (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2014), 199.

[133] Ibid.

[134] For a graphical representation of political risk that illustrates how the elements described in the following paragraphs together determine the overall level of political risk, see Figure 2.

[135] To fully conceptualize the political risk, it is actually important to take into account not only the probability of success, but also the probability of failure.  The two probabilities are inter-related; their sum is always 100 percent.  That is, if the probability of success is, for example 80 percent, then the probability of failure is 20 percent.

[136] In addition, to fully conceptualize the political risk, it is also important to enumerate the political consequences—a net assessment of costs and benefits—not only of failure, but also of success.

[137] Capability comprises SEAL Team Six’s general proficiency, as well as contributing indicators such as the team’s past experience fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the April 2011 rehearsals in North Carolina and Nevada.

[138] Challenges at the compound might include: traps to counter an opposing force; more formidable opponents; a reaction by the local community, or a helicopter malfunction.

[139] Pakistan’s armed forces might intervene either during the flight phase of the mission, or during the fighting at the compound.

[140] Indeed, the summary judgment of consequences amounts to the difference between the two values.

[141] That is:    Risk = (Probability) x (Consequences)

[142] Admittedly, in some cases, beliefs about the nature of the nature of the intelligence process influenced certain officials’ assessments of the probability that Osama bin Laden was based at the compound in Abbottabad.  For example, John Brennan had confidence in the intelligence analysts on the team—which probably raised his assessment of the accuracy of the intelligence.  Conversely, Michael Leiter’s views of the intelligence process actually lowered his estimate of the odds, because he had witnessed past failures of intelligence, such as the recent failure to locate the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

[143] Hillary Clinton, Hard Choices (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2014), 193.

[144] Ibid., x.

[145] Ibid.

[146] Ibid.

[147] Ibid.

[148] William McRaven, “Opening Remarks: At the Point of the Spear: The Role of Special Operations Forces in America’s Post-9/11, Post-Iraq/Afghanistan Defense Strategy,” 2012 Aspen Institute Security Forum, July 25, 2012, Aspen, Colorado.

[149] Peter Bergen, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), 173-4.

[150] Mark Bowden, The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012), 154

[151] William McRaven, “Opening Remarks: At the Point of the Spear: The Role of Special Operations Forces in America’s Post-9/11, Post-Iraq/Afghanistan Defense Strategy,” 2012 Aspen Institute Security Forum, July 25, 2012, Aspen, Colorado.

[152] Peter Bergen, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), 184.

[153] Ibid.

[154] Even though the Secretary of Defense had recommended against Operation Neptune Spear at the final meeting of the National Security Council on April 28, he changed his mind after speaking with experts at the Pentagon.  In his memoirs, Robert Gates reports: “I called Donilon and asked him to inform the president that I now supported the raid.”  However, “the president had made the decision to go ahead an hour or so earlier.”

[155] Robert Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Knopf, 2014), 543.

[156] Ibid., 539.

[157] Robert Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Knopf, 2014), 540.

[158] In Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, Robert Gates explained that the supply line from Karachi carried “50 percent of our fuel and 55 percent of our cargo.”

[159] In his memoirs, Robert Gates admitted that “the Pakistani reaction was bad, although not as bad as I had feared,” also acknowledgingthat ultimately, “the supply lines to Afghanistan remained open.”  Indeed, in November 2011, Pakistan briefly closed down one of the supply lines, but this did not fundamentally threaten prospects for success in the war, because the United States. had alternate supply lines through Central Asia, and the closure was sufficiently brief that it did not produce a serious problem at the strategic level.

[160] Ibid., 539.

[161] Ibid.

[162] Ibid., 539-40.

[163] Ibid, 541.

[164] Ibid., 539.

[165] Ibid.

[166] Ibid., 541.

[167] Ibid.

[168] Ibid.

[169] Ibid.

[170] Ibid.

[171] Ibid., 539.

[172] Ibid., 543.

[173] Hillary Clinton, Hard Choices (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2014), 192.

[174] All reasons noted above are documented in contemporary accounts of the meeting in the published literature; the official transcripts of these meetings are not yet available.  Other US government officials in favor of Operation Neptune Spear included: Denis McDonough, Tom Donilon, Ben Rhodes, Michèle Flournoy, Tony Blinken, Mike Vickers, Robert Cardillo, Nick Rasmussen, and Jim Clapper.  The extant descriptions of the April 28 meeting note their response in favor of Neptune Spear, but do not provide greater detail about the reasons for their recommendation.

[175] “Targeting bin Laden,” The History Channel.  A&E Television Network, 2011.

[176] Ibid.

[177] Ibid.

[178] “Killing bin Laden: The President’s Story,” 60 Minutes, aired May 8, 2011.  New York: CBS Broadcasting, 2011.

[179] Ibid.

[180] Chuck Pfarrer, Seal Target Geronimo (New York: St. Martins, 2011), 168-174.

[181] Ultimately, red team analysts for Neptune Spear considered the idea of a trap far fetched: “Zawahiri was not known to be living in this part of Pakistan, while the Kuwaiti had never had any connections to Zawahiri.” The red team judged that Zawahiri did not, in April 2011, reside in Pakistan.  However, this had not always been the case—the intelligence community had evidently at one point believed that Zawahiri was spending considerable time within PakistanObama said as much in his 2007 campaign speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

[182] Peter Bergen, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad, (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), 193-94.

[183] Barack Obama, “Obama’s Speech at Woodrow Wilson Center.”  August 1, 2007, Washington D.C.

[184] Targeting bin Laden,” The History Channel.  A&E Television Network, 2011.

[185] Peter Bergen, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), 202-203.

[186] “Killing bin Laden: The President’s Story,” 60 Minutes, aired May 8, 2011.  New York: CBS Broadcasting, 2011.

[187] Malcolm MacPherson, Roberts Ridge: a Story of Courage and Sacrifice on Takhur Ghar Mountain, Afghanistan (New York: Dell, 2005), 4.

[188] One former Blackhawk operator thought that even if the Pakistani government saw the helicopters, they probably wouldn’t shoot since they were US helicopters—but he admitted that you couldn’t know for sure.

[189] “Killing bin Laden,” The Discovery Channel, aired May 15, 2011.

[190] Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” December 1, 2009, West Point, New York.

[191] The president had also articulated this message while campaigning for the presidency—it appeared in his remarks at the Woodrow Wilson Center in 2007, and in his book, The Audacity of Hope.

[192] Peter Bergen, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), 184.

[193] Chuck Pfarrer, Seal Target Geronimo (New York: St. Martins, 2011), 167-168.

[194] Ibid., 203.

[195] Targeting bin Laden,” The History Channel.  A&E Television Network, 2011.

[196] “Killing bin Laden,” 60 Minutes, aired September 9, 2012.  New York: CBS Broadcasting, 2012.  DVD.

[197] Mark Bowden, The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012), 247.

[198] Bruce Riedel, Avoiding Armageddon: America, India, and Pakistan to the Brink and Back (Washington: Brookings, 2013), 167.

[199] At the time Bruce Riedel made this judgment, the drones had been particularly successful against al Qaeda.  Other events at the timesuch as the 2009 attack on the US forward operating base in Khost, Afghanistansurely in some way also propelled the president to this more aggressive stance against al Qaeda.  This attack killed seven people, a team of CIA officers and contractors—all as a result of a Jordanian double agent in Khost who had promised to provide the location of Ayman al-Zawahiri.

[200] Peter Bergen, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad, (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012),119.

[201] Hillary Clinton, Hard Choices (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2014), x.

[202] Ibid., 194.

[203] Robert Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Knopf, 2014), 538.

[204] William McRaven, “Opening Remarks: At the Point of the Spear: The Role of Special Operations Forces in America’s Post-9/11, Post-Iraq/Afghanistan Defense Strategy,” 2012 Aspen Institute Security Forum, July 25, 2012, Aspen, Colorado.

[205] Yaniv Barzilai, 102 Days of War: How Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda and the Taliban Survived 2001 (Washington: Potomac Books, 2013), 128.

[206] William McRaven, “Opening Remarks: At the Point of the Spear: The Role of Special Operations Forces in America’s Post-9/11, Post-Iraq/Afghanistan Defense Strategy,” 2012 Aspen Institute Security Forum, July 25, 2012, Aspen, Colorado.

[207] Theodore Sorensen, Decision-Making in the White House: The Olive Branch or the Arrows (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), xxx.

[208] Ibid.

[209] Hillary Clinton, Hard Choices (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2014), x.

[210] Ibid.

[211] Ibid.

[212] Joseph Nye, Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 148.

[213] Ibid.

[214] This information was revealed when he was in Mauritanian custody; he later was questioned in Jordan, and finally in Guantanamo Bay.  He had been a priority in the war on terror because of his close affiliation with Mohammed Atta, an al Qaeda operative at the center of the 9/11 plot.

[215] Mark Bowden, The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012), 112.

[216] Ibid.

[217] Ibid., 114.

[218] Peter Bergen, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad, (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), 95-98.

[219] Mark Bowden, The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012), 113-114.

[220] Aki Peritz and Eric Rosenbach, Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns that Killed Bin Laden and Devastated Al Qaeda (New York: Public Affairs, 2012), 211.

[221] Ibid., 212.

[222] Mark Bowden, The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012), 116.

[223] Peter Bergen, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), 100.

[224] Ibid.

[225] Mark Bowden, The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012), 116.

[226] Mark Owen, a member of SEAL Team Six that conducted the raid, terms Hassan Ghul as a courier, in addition to “al Kuwaiti.”

[227] Mark Bowden, The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012), 118.

[228] Peter Bergen, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), 100.

[229] Mark Bowden, The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012), 119.

[230] Peter Bergen, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), 101.

[231] Mark Bowden, The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012), 120.