فصل 27کتاب: سرزمین موعود / فصل 28
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OSAMA BIN LADEN’S PRECISE whereabouts had been a mystery since December 2001, when, three months after the 9/11 attacks that killed nearly three thousand innocent people, he had narrowly escaped as American and allied forces closed in on his headquarters in Tora Bora, a mountainous area along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The search had continued in earnest for a number of years, though by the time I took office, bin Laden’s trail had gone cold. He was still out there, though: As al-Qaeda had slowly reorganized, basing itself in Pakistan’s FATA region, their leader would periodically release audio and video messages, rallying supporters with calls for jihad against Western powers.
From the very first time I spoke publicly on America’s response to 9/11, opposing the Iraq War at Chicago’s Federal Plaza on the eve of my U.S. Senate race in 2002, I had advocated for a renewed focus on bringing bin Laden to justice. I’d returned to the same theme during the presidential race, pledging to go after bin Laden inside Pakistan if the government there was unable or unwilling to take him out. Most of Washington, including Joe, Hillary, and John McCain, had dismissed that promise as a stunt, a way for a junior senator unschooled in foreign policy to sound tough. And even after I took office, some people undoubtedly assumed I would set aside the issue of bin Laden in order to deal with other matters. But in May 2009, following a Situation Room meeting about terrorist threats, I had brought a handful of advisors—including Rahm, Leon Panetta, and Tom Donilon—up to the Oval Office and closed the door.
“I want to make the hunt for bin Laden a top priority,” I said. “I want to see a formal plan for how we’re going to find him. I want a report on my desk every thirty days describing our progress. And, Tom, let’s put this in a presidential directive—just so everyone’s on the same page.”
There were the obvious reasons for my focus on bin Laden. His continued freedom was a source of pain for the families of those who’d been lost in the 9/11 attacks and a taunt to American power. Even deep in hiding, he remained al-Qaeda’s most effective recruiter, radicalizing disaffected young men around the world. According to our analysts, by the time I was elected, al-Qaeda was more dangerous than it had been in years, and warnings about terrorist plots emanating from the FATA appeared regularly in my briefings.
But I also viewed the elimination of bin Laden as critical to my goal of reorienting America’s counterterrorism strategy. By losing our focus on the small band of terrorists who had actually planned and carried out 9/11 and instead defining the threat as an open-ended, all-encompassing “War on Terror,” we’d fallen into what I believed was a strategic trap—one that had elevated al-Qaeda’s prestige, rationalized the Iraq invasion, alienated much of the Muslim world, and warped almost a decade of U.S. foreign policy. Rather than gin up fears about vast terror networks and feed extremists’ fantasies that they were engaged in some divine struggle, I wanted to remind the world (and, more important, ourselves) that these terrorists were nothing more than a band of deluded, vicious killers—criminals who could be captured, tried, imprisoned, or killed. And there would be no better way of demonstrating that than by taking out bin Laden.
A day before the ninth anniversary of 9/11, Leon Panetta and his CIA deputy, Mike Morell, asked to see me. They made a good team, I thought. As someone who’d spent much of his career in Congress before serving as Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, the seventy-two-year-old Panetta not only provided steady management of the agency but also enjoyed the public stage, maintained good relationships across Congress and with the press, and had a keen nose for the politics of national security issues. Morell, on the other hand, was the consummate insider, with the meticulous mind of an analyst, and while only in his early fifties he had decades of experience at the agency.
“Mr. President, it’s very preliminary,” Leon said, “but we think we have a potential lead on bin Laden—the best one by far since Tora Bora.”
I absorbed the news in silence. Leon and Mike explained that—thanks to patient and painstaking work, involving the compilation and pattern mapping of thousands of bits of information—analysts had identified the whereabouts of a man known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, who they believed served as an al-Qaeda courier and had known ties to bin Laden. They had been tracking his phone and daily habits, which had led them not to some remote location in the FATA but rather to a large compound in an affluent neighborhood on the outskirts of the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, thirty-five miles north of Islamabad. According to Mike, the size and structure of the compound indicated that somebody important lived there, quite possibly a high-value al-Qaeda member. The intelligence community had set up surveillance on the compound, and Leon promised to update me on anything we learned about its occupants.
After they’d gone, I made a point of tempering my expectations. Anyone could be in that compound; even if it was someone with al-Qaeda connections, the likelihood that bin Laden would be staying in a populated urban area seemed small. But on December 14, Leon and Mike were back, this time with an officer and an analyst from the CIA. The analyst was a young man with the polished, fresh-faced look of a senior congressional staffer, the officer a lean, thickly bearded gentleman who was older and with a slightly rumpled, professorial air. He turned out to be the head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center and the team leader for the bin Laden hunt. I imagined him holed up in some subterranean warren, surrounded by computers and thick manila folders, oblivious to the world as he combed through mounds of data.
The two men walked me through everything that had led us to the Abbottabad compound—a remarkable feat of detective work. Apparently the courier al-Kuwaiti had purchased the property under an assumed name. The compound itself was unusually spacious and secure, eight times larger than neighboring residences, surrounded by ten- to eighteen-foot walls topped with barbed wire, and with additional walls inside the perimeter. As for the people who lived there, the analysts said they went to great lengths to conceal their identities: They had no landline or internet service, almost never left the compound, and burned their trash instead of putting it outside for collection. But the age and number of children in the compound’s main house appeared to match those of bin Laden’s children. And through aerial surveillance, our team had been able to observe a tall man who never left the property but regularly walked in circles in a small garden area within the compound’s walls.
“We call him the Pacer,” the lead officer said. “We think he could be bin Laden.”
I had a ton of questions, but the main one was this: What else could we do to confirm the Pacer’s identity? Although they were continuing to explore possible strategies, the analysts confessed that they weren’t hopeful. Given the configuration and location of the compound, as well as the caution of its occupants, the methods that might yield greater certainty that it was in fact bin Laden might quickly trigger suspicion; without us ever knowing it, the occupants could vanish without a trace. I looked at the lead officer.
“What’s your judgment?” I asked.
I could see him hesitating. I suspected that he’d been around during the run-up to Iraq; the intelligence community’s reputation was still recovering from the role it had played in supporting the Bush administration’s insistence that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction. Still, I caught an expression on his face that indicated the pride of someone who’d cracked an intricate puzzle—even if he couldn’t prove it.
“I think there’s a good chance he’s our man,” he said. “But we can’t be certain.”
Based on what I’d heard, I decided we had enough information to begin developing options for an attack on the compound. While the CIA team continued to work on identifying the Pacer, I asked Tom Donilon and John Brennan to explore what a raid would look like. The need for secrecy added to the challenge; if even the slightest hint of our lead on bin Laden leaked, we knew our opportunity would be lost. As a result, only a handful of people across the entire federal government were read into the planning phase of the operation. We had one other constraint: Whatever option we chose could not involve the Pakistanis. Although Pakistan’s government cooperated with us on a host of counterterrorism operations and provided a vital supply path for our forces in Afghanistan, it was an open secret that certain elements inside the country’s military, and especially its intelligence services, maintained links to the Taliban and perhaps even al-Qaeda, sometimes using them as strategic assets to ensure that the Afghan government remained weak and unable to align itself with Pakistan’s number one rival, India. The fact that the Abbottabad compound was just a few miles from the Pakistan military’s equivalent of West Point only heightened the possibility that anything we told the Pakistanis could end up tipping off our target. Whatever we chose to do in Abbottabad, then, would involve violating the territory of a putative ally in the most egregious way possible, short of war—raising both the diplomatic stakes and the operational complexities.
By mid-March, in the days leading up to the Libya intervention and my trip to Latin America, the team had presented what they cautioned were only preliminary concepts for an assault on the compound in Abbottabad. Roughly speaking, I had two options. The first was to demolish it with an air strike. The benefits of that approach were obvious: No American lives would be risked on Pakistani soil. Publicly, at least, this option also offered a certain deniability—the Pakistanis would, of course, know that we were the ones who’d carried out the strike, but they would have an easier time maintaining the fiction that we might not be, which could help quell outrage among their people.
As we delved into the details of what a missile strike would look like, though, the downsides were significant. If we destroyed the compound, how would we ever be certain that bin Laden had been there? If al-Qaeda denied that bin Laden had been killed, how would we explain having blown up a residence deep inside Pakistan? Moreover, there were an estimated five women and twenty children living with the four adult males at the Abbottabad compound, and, in its initial iteration, the proposed strike would not only annihilate the compound but almost certainly level several adjacent residences as well. Not long into the meeting, I told Joint Chiefs vice chairman Hoss Cartwright that I’d heard enough: I was not going to authorize the killing of thirty or more people when we weren’t even certain it was bin Laden in the compound. If we were going to use a strike, they’d have to come up with a much more precise plan.
The second option was to authorize a special ops mission, in which a select team would covertly fly into Pakistan via helicopter, raid the compound, and get out before the Pakistani police or military had time to react. To preserve the secrecy of the operation, and deniability if something went awry, we’d have to conduct it under the authority of the CIA rather than the Pentagon. On the other hand, for a mission of this magnitude and risk, we needed a topflight military mind—which is why we had the Defense Department’s Vice Admiral William McRaven, head of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), in the room to walk us through what a raid might entail.
The chance to work closely with the men and women of the U.S. armed forces—to witness firsthand their teamwork and sense of duty—had been one of the most humbling aspects of my two years in office. And if I’d had to pick one individual to represent everything right about our military, Bill McRaven might have been that person. In his mid-fifties, with a friendly, open face, a deadpan sense of humor, and a plainspoken, can-do demeanor, he reminded me of a sandy-haired Tom Hanks—if Tom Hanks had been a career Navy SEAL. Like his predecessor at JSOC, Stan McChrystal, for whom he’d served as deputy, McRaven had helped write the book on special ops. For his postgraduate thesis eighteen years earlier, in fact, McRaven had studied a series of twentieth-century commando operations—including a 1943 glider rescue of Mussolini ordered by Hitler, and the 1976 Israeli operation to free hostages in Entebbe—examining the conditions under which a small group of well-rehearsed, highly trained soldiers could use stealth to maintain short-term superiority over larger or better armed forces.
McRaven had gone on to develop a model for special operations that shaped U.S. military strategy around the world. During his storied career, he had personally commanded or carried out more than a thousand special ops in some of the most dangerous settings imaginable, most recently going after high-value targets in Afghanistan. He was also famously cool under pressure. As a SEAL captain, he’d survived a 2001 parachuting accident in which he was knocked semiconscious during a jump and plunged four thousand feet before his chute properly deployed. (The accident broke his back and tore his leg muscles and tendons from his pelvis.) Although the CIA had developed its own internal special ops teams, Leon had wisely chosen to consult with McRaven in mapping out what a raid on Abbottabad might look like. He’d concluded that no CIA operators could match the skill and experience of McRaven’s Navy SEAL team and, thus, had recommended an unusual arrangement in which the chain of command ran from me to him to McRaven, who would have complete authority to design and conduct the mission if we decided to go forward with it.
Guided by data collected by aerial photography, the CIA had built a small three-dimensional replica of the Abbottabad compound, and during our March meeting McRaven walked us through how a raid might go: A select team of SEALs would fly one or more helicopters for nearly an hour and a half under the cover of darkness from Jalalabad, Afghanistan, to the target, landing inside the compound’s high walls. They would then secure every perimeter entry point, door, and window before breaking into the three-story main house, searching the premises, and neutralizing any resistance they encountered. They would apprehend or kill bin Laden and fly back out, stopping to refuel somewhere inside Pakistan before returning to the base in Jalalabad. When McRaven’s presentation was over, I asked him if he thought his team could pull it off.
“Sir, right now we’ve just sketched out a concept,” he said. “Until I can get a larger team together to run through some rehearsals, I won’t know if what I’m currently thinking is the best way to do it. I also can’t tell you how we would get in and out—we need detailed air planners for that. What I can tell you is that if we get there, we can pull off the raid. But I can’t recommend the mission itself until I’ve done the homework.” I nodded. “Let’s do the homework, then.”
Two weeks later, on March 29, we reconvened in the Situation Room, and McRaven reported feeling highly confident that the raid could be executed. Getting out, on the other hand, he said, might be a little more “sporty.” Based on his experience with similar raids and the preliminary rehearsals he’d run, he was fairly certain that the team could finish the job before any Pakistani authorities caught wind of what was happening. Nevertheless, we considered all the scenarios in which that assumption proved incorrect. What would we do if Pakistani fighters intercepted our helicopters, either on the way in or on the way out? What if bin Laden was on-site but hidden or in a safe room, thus extending the amount of time the special ops team spent on the ground? How would the team respond if Pakistani police or military forces surrounded the compound during the raid?
McRaven emphasized that his planning was built on the premise that his team should avoid a firefight with Pakistani authorities; and if the authorities confronted us on the ground, his inclination would be to have the SEALs hold in place while our diplomats tried to negotiate a safe exit. I appreciated those instincts; his proposed approach was yet another example of the prudence I’d consistently encountered when dealing with our top military commanders. But with U.S.-Pakistan relations in a particularly precarious state, both Bob Gates and I expressed serious reservations about this strategy. U.S. drone strikes against al-Qaeda targets in the FATA had been generating increasing opposition from the Pakistani public. Anti-American sentiment had been further inflamed late in January when a CIA contractor named Raymond Allen Davis killed two armed men who approached his vehicle in the teeming city of Lahore, setting off angry protests over the CIA presence in Pakistan and resulting in nearly two months of tense diplomatic drama as we brokered Davis’s release. I told McRaven and the team that I was not going to risk putting the fate of our SEALs in the hands of a Pakistani government that would no doubt face intense public pressure over whether to jail or release them—especially if it turned out that bin Laden wasn’t in the compound. I therefore wanted him to beef up plans to get the raiding party out no matter what—possibly adding two extra helicopters to provide backup for the team in the compound.
Before we adjourned, Hoss Cartwright offered a new, more surgical option for an air strike—one involving a drone that would fire a small, thirteen-pound missile directly at the Pacer while he was taking his daily walk. According to Cartwright, the collateral damage would be minimal, and given the experience our military had developed in targeting other terrorist operatives, he felt satisfied that it could do the job while avoiding the risks inherent in a raid.
The possible courses of action were now in focus. McRaven would oversee the construction of a full-scale model of the Abbottabad compound at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where the SEAL team would conduct a series of dress rehearsals. Should I decide to authorize the raid, he said, the optimal time to do it would be the first weekend in May, when a couple of moonless nights would provide the SEALs with extra cover. Left unstated were obvious concerns that with each step we took to plan and prepare, and every day that passed, more people were being read into our secret. I told both McRaven and Cartwright that I wasn’t yet ready to make a decision as to which option, if any, we’d pursue. But for planning purposes, I said, “Assume it’s a go.” —
ALL THE WHILE, we carried on with business as usual at the White House. I was tracking the situation in Libya, the war in Afghanistan, and the Greek debt crisis, which had flared up again and was once more starting to affect U.S. markets. One day, on the way back from the Situation Room, I ran into Jay Carney, who’d succeeded Robert Gibbs as my press secretary. Jay was a former journalist who’d had a front-row seat for all sorts of historic moments. He’d covered the breakup of the Soviet Union as Time magazine’s Moscow correspondent and had been on Air Force One with President Bush on the morning of 9/11. Now he was telling me he’d just spent part of his daily press briefing fielding questions about whether my birth certificate was valid.
It had been more than a month since Donald Trump had inserted himself into the national political dialogue. My advisors and I had assumed that, having milked it for all it was worth, the media would gradually tire of his obsession with my birth. And yet, like algae in a stagnant pond, the number of stories on his conspiratorial musings proliferated with each passing week. Cable shows ran long segments on Trump and his theories. Political reporters searched for fresh angles on the sociological significance of birtherism, or its impact on my reelection campaign, or (with barely acknowledged irony) what it said about the news business. A major point of discussion was the fact that the document we’d made available on the internet in 2008 was a “short-form” birth certificate, which was the standard document issued by the Hawaii State Department of Health and could be used to obtain a passport, Social Security number, or driver’s license. According to Trump and his fellow birthers, however, the short-form document proved nothing. Why hadn’t I produced the original long-form version of my birth certificate? we were asked. Had information on the long form been deliberately omitted from the short form—perhaps some clue that I was Muslim? Had the long form itself been doctored? What was Obama hiding?
Finally I decided I’d had enough. I called in White House counsel Bob Bauer and told him to go ahead and obtain the long-form birth certificate from its home in a bound volume, somewhere deep in the bowels of the Hawaii Vital Records office. I then let David Plouffe and Dan Pfeiffer know that I planned not just to release the document but to say something publicly as well. They thought this was a bad idea, arguing that I’d just feed the story, and anyway, answering such ridiculous charges was beneath both me and the office of the president.
“That,” I said, “is exactly the point.”
On April 27, I walked to the podium in the White House briefing room and greeted the press. I began by remarking on the fact that the national TV networks had all decided to break from their regularly scheduled programming to carry my remarks live—something they very rarely did. I observed that two weeks earlier, when the House Republicans and I had issued sharply contrasting budget proposals, with profound implications for the nation, the news had instead been dominated by talk of my birth certificate. I noted that America faced enormous challenges and big decisions; that we should expect serious debates and sometimes fierce disagreements, because that was how our democracy was supposed to work, and I was certain that we had it in us to shape a better future together.
“But,” I said, “we’re not going to be able to do it if we are distracted. We’re not going to be able to do it if we spend time vilifying each other. We’re not going to be able to do it if we just make stuff up and pretend that facts are not facts. We’re not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers.” I looked out at the assembled reporters. “I know that there’s going to be a segment of people for which, no matter what we put out, this issue will not be put to rest. But I’m speaking to the vast majority of the American people, as well as to the press. We do not have time for this kind of silliness. We’ve got better stuff to do. I’ve got better stuff to do. We’ve got big problems to solve. And I’m confident we can solve them, but we’re going to have to focus on them—not on this.” The room was quiet for a moment. I exited through the sliding doors that led back into the communications team’s offices, where I encountered a group of junior members of our press shop who’d been watching my remarks on a TV monitor. They all looked to be in their twenties. Some had worked on my campaign; others had only recently joined the administration, compelled by the idea of serving their country. I stopped and made eye contact with each one of them.
“We’re better than this,” I said. “Remember that.”
BACK IN THE Situation Room the next day, my team and I conducted a final review of our options for a possible Abbottabad operation to take place that weekend. Earlier in the week, I had given McRaven approval to dispatch the SEAL team and helicopter assault force to Afghanistan, and the group was now in Jalalabad, awaiting further orders. In order to make sure that the CIA had adequately pressure-tested its work, Leon and Mike Morell had asked the chief of the National Counterterrorism Center, Mike Leiter, to have a fresh team of analysts pore over the available intelligence on the compound and its residents, to see how the agency’s conclusions matched up with those of Langley. Leiter reported that his team had expressed a 40 to 60 percent degree of certainty that it was bin Laden, compared to the CIA team’s assessment of 60 to 80 percent. A discussion ensued about what accounted for the difference. After a few minutes, I interrupted.
“I know we’re trying to quantify these factors as best we can,” I said. “But ultimately, this is a fifty-fifty call. Let’s move on.”
McRaven let us know that preparations for the raid were complete; he and his men were ready. Cartwright likewise confirmed that the drone missile option had been tested and could be activated at any time. With the options before us, I went around the table to get everyone’s recommendations. Leon, John Brennan, and Mike Mullen favored the raid. Hillary said that for her, it was a 51–49 call, carefully ticking through the risks of a raid—especially the danger that we could rupture our relations with Pakistan, or even find ourselves in a confrontation with the Pakistani military. She added, however, that considering that this was our best lead on bin Laden in ten years, she ultimately came down on the side of sending in the SEALs.
Gates recommended against a raid, although he was open to considering the strike option. He raised the precedent of the April 1980 attempt to rescue the fifty-three American hostages held in Iran, known as Desert One, which had turned catastrophic after a U.S. military helicopter crashed in the desert, killing eight servicemembers. It was a reminder, he said, that no matter how thorough the planning, operations like this could go badly wrong. Beyond the risk to the team, he worried that a failed mission might adversely impact the war in Afghanistan. Earlier that same day, I had announced Bob’s planned retirement after four years as secretary of defense and my intention to nominate Leon as his successor. As I listened to Bob’s sober, well-reasoned assessment, I was reminded of just how valuable he’d been to me.
Joe also weighed in against the raid, arguing that given the enormous consequences of failure, I should defer any decision until the intelligence community was more certain that bin Laden was in the compound. As had been true in every major decision I’d made as president, I appreciated Joe’s willingness to buck the prevailing mood and ask tough questions, often in the interest of giving me the space I needed for my own internal deliberations. I also knew that Joe, like Gates, had been in Washington during Desert One. I imagined he had strong memories of that time: the grieving families, the blow to American prestige, the recrimination, and the portrayal of Jimmy Carter as both reckless and weak-minded in authorizing the mission. Carter had never recovered politically. The unspoken suggestion was that I might not either.
I told the group that they would have my decision by morning—if it was a go on the raid, I wanted to make sure that McRaven had the widest window possible to time the operation’s launch. Tom Donilon walked back to the Oval Office with me, his usual assortment of binders and notebooks tucked under his arm, and we quickly went down his checklist of potential action items for the weekend ahead. He and Brennan had prepared a playbook for every contingency, it seemed, and I could see the strain and nervousness on his face. Seven months into his tenure as my national security advisor, he’d been trying to exercise more and lay off the caffeine but was apparently losing the battle. I’d come to marvel at Tom’s capacity for hard work, the myriad details he kept track of, the volume of memos and cables and data he had to consume, the number of snafus he fixed and interagency tussles he resolved, all so that I could have both the information and the mental space that I needed in order to do my job. I’d asked Tom once where his drive and diligence came from, and he’d attributed it to his background. He’d grown up in an Irish working-class family, putting himself through law school and serving on various political campaigns to eventually become a heavy-hitting foreign policy expert; but despite his successes, he said, he still constantly felt the need to prove himself, terrified of failure.
I’d laughed and said I could relate.
Michelle and the girls were in rare form at dinner that night, teasing me relentlessly about what they called my “ways”—how I ate nuts a handful at a time, always shaking them in my fist first; how I always wore the same pair of ratty old sandals around the house; how I didn’t like sweets (“Your dad doesn’t believe in delicious things…too much joy”). I hadn’t told Michelle about my pending decision, not wanting to burden her with a secret until I knew for certain what I planned to do, and if I was more tense than usual, she didn’t seem to notice. After tucking the girls in, I retired to the Treaty Room and turned on a basketball game, my gaze following the moving ball as my mind ran through various scenarios one last time.
The truth was, I’d narrowed the scope of the decision at least a couple of weeks earlier; every meeting since had helped confirm my instincts. I wasn’t in favor of a missile strike, even one as precise as Cartwright had devised, feeling that the gamble wasn’t worth it without the ability to confirm that bin Laden had been killed. I was also skeptical of giving the intelligence community more time, since the extra months we’d spent monitoring the compound had yielded virtually no new information. Beyond that, considering all the planning that had already taken place, I doubted we could hold our secret another month.
The only remaining question was whether or not to order the raid. I was clear-eyed about the stakes involved. I knew we could mitigate the risks but not eliminate them. I had supreme confidence in Bill McRaven and his SEALs. I knew that in the decades since Desert One and the years since the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia, America’s special forces capability had been transformed. For all the strategic mistakes and ill-conceived policies that had plagued the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, they had also produced a cadre of men who had carried out innumerable operations and learned to respond to almost every situation imaginable. Given their skill and professionalism, I trusted that the SEALs would find a safe way out of Abbottabad, even if some of our calculations and assumptions proved to be incorrect.
I watched Kobe Bryant launch a turnaround jumper in the paint. The Lakers were playing the Hornets, on their way to wrapping up the first round of the play-offs. The grandfather clock ticked from its spot against the Treaty Room wall. Over the past two years, I’d made countless decisions—on the faltering banks, on Chrysler, pirates, Afghanistan, healthcare. They had left me familiar with, if never casual about, the possibilities of failure. Everything I did or had done involved working the odds, quietly and often late at night in the room where I now sat. I knew that I could not have come up with a better process to evaluate those odds or surrounded myself with a better mix of people to help me weigh them. I realized that through all the mistakes I’d made and the jams I’d had to extract us from, I had in many ways been training for exactly this moment. And while I couldn’t guarantee the outcome of my decision, I was fully prepared and fully confident in making it.
THE NEXT DAY—Friday, April 29—was mostly travel. I was going to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to survey the damage from a devastating tornado outbreak and had an evening commencement address to deliver in Miami. In between, I was scheduled to take Michelle and the girls to Cape Canaveral to see the final launch of the space shuttle Endeavour before it was decommissioned. Ahead of leaving, I sent an email asking Tom, Denis, Daley, and Brennan to meet me in the Diplomatic Reception Room, and they found me just as the family exited to the South Lawn, where Marine One awaited. With the roar of the helicopter in the background (along with the sound of Sasha and Malia engaging in some sisterly bickering), I officially gave the go-ahead for the Abbottabad mission, emphasizing that McRaven had full operational control and that it would be up to him to determine the exact timing of the raid.
The operation was now largely out of my hands. I was glad to get out of Washington, if only for the day—to occupy my mind with other work and, as it turned out, to appreciate the work of others. Earlier in the week, a monstrous supercell storm had swept across the southeastern states, dropping tornadoes that killed more than three hundred people, which made it the deadliest natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina. A single mile-and-a-half-wide tornado fueled by 190-mile-per-hour winds had ripped through Alabama, destroying thousands of homes and businesses.
Landing in Tuscaloosa, I was met by the director of FEMA, a burly, low-key Floridian named Craig Fugate, and along with state and local officials the two of us toured neighborhoods that looked like they’d been flattened by a megaton bomb. We visited a relief center to offer solace to families that had lost everything they owned. Despite the devastation, nearly every person I talked to—from the state’s Republican governor to the mother comforting her toddler—praised the federal response, mentioning how quickly teams had been on the ground; how effectively they had worked with local officials; how every request, no matter how small, had been handled with care and precision. I wasn’t surprised, for Fugate had been one of my best hires, a no-nonsense, no-ego, no-excuses public servant with decades of experience dealing with natural disasters. Still, it gave me satisfaction to see his efforts recognized, and I was once again reminded that so much of what really mattered in government came down to the daily, unheralded acts of people who weren’t seeking attention but simply knew what they were doing and did it with pride.
In Cape Canaveral, we were disappointed to learn that NASA had been forced to scrub the space shuttle launch at the last minute due to problems in an auxiliary power unit, but our family still had a chance to talk to the astronauts and spend time with Janet Kavandi, the director of flight crew operations at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, who’d come to Florida for the launch. As a kid, I’d been fascinated by space exploration, and while president I’d made it a priority to highlight the value of science and engineering whenever possible, including instituting an annual science fair at the White House at which students proudly showcased their robots, rockets, and solar-powered cars. I’d also encouraged NASA to innovate and prepare for a future mission to Mars, in part by collaborating with commercial ventures on low-orbit space travel. Now I watched Malia and Sasha grow wide-eyed as Kavandi emphasized all the people and the hours of diligent work that went into even a single launch, and as she described her own path from being a young girl entranced by the night sky over her family’s cattle farm in rural Missouri to becoming an astronaut who had flown on three space shuttle missions.
My day ended at the graduation ceremony for students at Miami Dade, which, with more than 170,000 students on eight campuses, was the country’s largest college. Its president, Eduardo Padrón, had attended the school in the 1960s as a young Cuban immigrant with rudimentary English and no other options for a higher education. After receiving his associate’s degree there and later earning a PhD in economics from the University of Florida, he’d turned down lucrative job offers in the private sector to return to Miami Dade, where for the past forty years he’d made it his mission to throw others the same lifeline the school had thrown him. He described the college as “a dream factory” for its students, who primarily came from low-income, Latino, Black, and immigrant families and were, in most cases, the first in their families to attend college. “We don’t give up on any student,” he told me, “and if we’re doing our jobs, we don’t let them give up on themselves.” I couldn’t help being inspired by the generosity of his vision.
In my remarks to the graduates that evening, I spoke about the American idea: what their accomplishment said about our individual determination to reach past the circumstances of our birth, as well as our collective capacity to overcome our differences to meet the challenges of our time. I recounted an early childhood memory of sitting on my grandfather’s shoulders and waving a tiny American flag in a crowd gathered to greet the astronauts from one of the Apollo space missions after a successful splashdown in the waters off Hawaii. And now, more than forty years later, I told the graduates, I’d just had a chance to watch my own daughters hear from a new generation of space explorers. It had caused me to reflect on all that America had achieved since my own childhood; it offered a case of life coming full circle—and proof, just as their diplomas were proof, just as my having been elected president was proof, that the American idea endures.
The students and their parents had cheered, many of them waving American flags of their own. I thought about the country I’d just described to them—a hopeful, generous, courageous America, an America that was open to everyone. At about the same age as the graduates were now, I’d seized on that idea and clung to it for dear life. For their sake more than mine, I badly wanted it to be true.
AS ENERGIZED AND OPTIMISTIC as I felt during the trip on Friday, I knew that my Saturday night back in Washington—when Michelle and I were scheduled to attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner—promised to be decidedly less inspiring. Hosted by the White House press corps and attended at least once by every president since Calvin Coolidge, the dinner had originally been designed to give journalists and those they covered a chance, for one evening, to set aside their often-adversarial stance toward one another and have some fun. But over time, as the news and entertainment businesses had begun to blend, the annual gathering had evolved into Washington’s version of the Met Gala or the Oscars, with a performance from a comedian, televised on cable, and with a couple of thousand journalists, politicians, business tycoons, and administration officials, plus an assortment of Hollywood celebrities, packing themselves into an uncomfortable hotel ballroom to schmooze, be seen, and listen to the president deliver what amounted to a stand-up routine, roasting rivals and joking about the latest political news of the day.
At a time when people across the country were still trying to figure out how to find a job, keep their homes, or pay their bills in the wake of a recession, my attendance at the black-tie affair—with its clubbishness and red-carpet glitz—had always felt politically awkward. But because I’d shown up the past two years, I knew I couldn’t afford to raise any suspicions by skipping out of this year’s dinner at the last minute; despite the knowledge that McRaven would soon join the SEAL team in Jalalabad and could likely launch the operation within hours, I’d have to do my best to act like everything was normal in front of a ballroom full of reporters. Fortunately it turned out that the country’s leading distraction had been invited to sit at the Washington Post’s table that night, and those of us aware of what was going on took odd comfort in knowing that once Donald Trump entered the room, it was all but guaranteed that the media would not be thinking about Pakistan.
To some degree, the release of my long-form birth certificate and my scolding of the press in the White House briefing room had yielded the desired effect: Donald Trump had grudgingly acknowledged that he now believed I was born in Hawaii, while taking full credit for having forced me—on behalf of the American people—to certify my status. Still, the whole birther controversy remained on everybody’s mind, as became clear that Saturday, when I met with Jon Favreau and the team of writers who’d prepared my remarks—none of whom were aware of the operation about to take place. They’d come up with an inspired monologue, though I paused on a line that poked fun at the birthers by suggesting that Tim Pawlenty, the former Republican governor of Minnesota, who was exploring a run for president, had been hiding the fact that his full name was actually “Tim bin Laden Pawlenty.” I asked Favs to change “bin Laden” to “Hosni,” suggesting that given Mubarak’s recent turn in the news, it would be more current. I could tell he didn’t see my edit as an improvement, but he didn’t argue the point.
At the end of the afternoon, I placed a last call to McRaven, who let me know that due to some foggy weather in Pakistan, his intention was to wait until Sunday night to commence the operation. He assured me that everything was in place and his team was ready. I told him that wasn’t the main reason for my call.
“Tell everyone on the team how much I appreciate them,” I said.
“Bill,” I said, not having the words at that moment to convey how I felt. “I mean it. Tell them this.”
“I will, Mr. President,” he said.
That night, Michelle and I motorcaded over to the Washington Hilton, took pictures with various VIPs, and sat on a dais for a couple of hours, making small talk while guests like Rupert Murdoch, Sean Penn, John Boehner, and Scarlett Johansson mingled over wine and overcooked steaks. I kept my face fixed in an accommodating smile, as I quietly balanced on a mental high wire, my thoughts thousands of miles away. When it was my turn to speak, I stood up and started my routine. About halfway through, I turned my attention directly to Trump.
“Now, I know that he’s taken some flak lately,” I said, “but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter—like, Did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?” As the audience broke into laughter, I continued in this vein, noting his “credentials and breadth of experience” as host of Celebrity Apprentice and congratulating him for how he’d handled the fact that “at the steakhouse, the men’s cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks….These are the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well handled, sir. Well handled.” The audience howled as Trump sat in silence, cracking a tepid smile. I couldn’t begin to guess what went through his mind during the few minutes I spent publicly ribbing him. What I knew was that he was a spectacle, and in the United States of America in 2011, that was a form of power. Trump trafficked in a currency that, however shallow, seemed to gain more purchase with each passing day. The same reporters who laughed at my jokes would continue to give him airtime. Their publishers would vie to have him sit at their tables.
Far from being ostracized for the conspiracies he’d peddled, he in fact had never been bigger.
I WAS UP early the next morning, before the White House operator’s regular wake-up call. We’d taken the unusual step of canceling the public tours of the West Wing for the day, presuming there were important meetings ahead. I’d decided to get in a quick nine holes of golf with Marvin, as I often did on quiet Sundays, partly to avoid telegraphing anything else being out of the ordinary and partly to get outside rather than sit checking my watch in the Treaty Room, waiting for darkness to fall in Pakistan. It was a cool, windless day, and I hacked around the course, losing three or four balls in the woods. Returning to the White House, I checked in with Tom. He and the rest of the team were already in the Situation Room, making sure we were set to respond to whatever might happen. Rather than distract them with my presence, I asked that he notify me once the helicopters carrying the SEAL team were in the air. I sat in the Oval, trying to read through some papers, but got nowhere, my eyes running over the same lines again and again. I finally called in Reggie, Marvin, and Pete Souza—all of whom by this time had been read into what was about to transpire—and the four of us sat down in the Oval dining room to play Spades.
At two p.m. eastern time, two Black Hawk helicopters that had been modified for stealth lifted off from Jalalabad Airfield, carrying twenty-three members of the SEAL team, along with a Pakistani American CIA translator and a military dog named Cairo—the commencement of what was officially known as Operation Neptune’s Spear. It would take them ninety minutes to reach Abbottabad. I left the dining room and went back down to the Situation Room, which had effectively been converted into a war room. Leon was on a videoconference line from Langley, relaying information from McRaven, who was holed up in Jalalabad and in continuous, direct communication with his SEALs. The atmosphere was predictably tense, with Joe, Bill Daley, and most of my national security team—including Tom, Hillary, Denis, Gates, Mullen, and Blinken—already seated at the conference table. I was given updates on plans for notifying Pakistan and other countries and our diplomatic strategies in the event of either success or failure. If bin Laden was killed in the raid, preparations had been made for a traditional Islamic burial to take place at sea, avoiding the creation of a pilgrimage site for jihadists. After a time, I could tell that the team was simply covering old ground for my benefit. Worried that I was sidetracking them, I went back upstairs until shortly before three-thirty, when Leon announced that the Black Hawks were approaching the compound.
The team had planned for us to follow the operation indirectly, through Leon, since Tom was concerned about the optics of me communicating directly with McRaven, which might leave the impression that I was micromanaging the operation—a bad practice generally and a political problem if the mission failed. On my way back into the Situation Room, though, I had noticed that a live aerial view of the compound, as well as McRaven’s voice, was being transmitted to a video monitor in a smaller conference room across the hall. As the helicopters drew close to the target, I stood up from my seat. “I need to watch this,” I said, before heading to the other room. There I found a blue-uniformed air force brigadier general, Brad Webb, seated in front of his computer at a small table. He tried to offer me his seat. “Sit down,” I said, putting a hand on his shoulder and finding a spot in a side chair. Webb let McRaven and Leon know that I had changed venues and was watching the feed. Soon the entire team had squeezed into the room.
This was the first and only time as president that I’d watch a military operation unfold in real time, with ghostly images moving across the screen. We’d been following the action for barely a minute when one of the Black Hawks lurched slightly on descent, and before I could grasp exactly what was happening, McRaven informed us that the helicopter had momentarily lost lift and then clipped the side of one of the compound’s walls. For an instant, I felt an electric kind of fear. A disaster reel played in my head—a chopper crashing, the SEALs scrambling to get out before the machine caught fire, a neighborhood of people emerging from their homes to see what happened as the Pakistani military rushed to the scene. McRaven’s voice interrupted my nightmare.
“It’ll be fine,” he said, as though remarking on a car fender bumping into a shopping cart at the mall. “The pilot’s the best we have, and he’ll bring it down safely.”
And that’s exactly what happened. I’d later learn that the Black Hawk had been caught in a vortex caused by higher than anticipated temperatures and the rotor’s downwash of air getting trapped inside the compound’s high walls, forcing the pilot and the SEALs on board to improvise both a landing and their exit. (In fact, the pilot had purposely set the tail of the chopper on the wall to avoid a more perilous crash.) But all I saw in the moment were grainy figures on the ground, rapidly moving into position and entering the main house. For twenty excruciating minutes, even McRaven had a limited view of what was taking place—or perhaps he was staying silent on the details of the room-to-room search his team was conducting. Then, with a suddenness I didn’t expect, we heard McRaven’s and Leon’s voices, almost simultaneously, utter the words we’d been waiting to hear—the culmination of months of planning and years of intelligence gathering.
“Geronimo ID’d…Geronimo EKIA.”
Enemy killed in action.
Osama bin Laden—code-named “Geronimo” for the purposes of the mission—the man responsible for the worst terrorist attack in American history, the man who had directed the murder of thousands of people and set in motion a tumultuous period of world history, had been brought to justice by a team of American Navy SEALs. Inside the conference room, there were audible gasps. My eyes remained glued to the video feed.
“We got him,” I said softly.
Nobody budged from their seats for another twenty minutes, while the SEAL team finished its business: bagging bin Laden’s body; securing the three women and nine children present and questioning them in one corner of the compound; collecting computers, files, and other material of potential intelligence value; and attaching explosives to the damaged Black Hawk, which would then be destroyed, replaced by a rescue Chinook that had been hovering a short distance away. As the helicopters took off, Joe placed a hand on my shoulder and squeezed.
“Congratulations, boss,” he said.
I stood up and nodded. Denis gave me a fist bump. I shook hands with others on the team. But with the helicopters still rotoring through Pakistani airspace, the mood remained quiet. It wasn’t until around six p.m., when the choppers had safely landed in Jalalabad, that I finally felt some of the tension start to drain out of me. Over a video teleconference line a short while later, McRaven explained that he was looking at the body as we spoke, and that in his judgment it was definitely bin Laden; the CIA’s facial recognition software would soon indicate the same. To further confirm, McRaven had a six-foot-two member of his team lie next to the body to compare his height to bin Laden’s purported six-foot-four frame.
“Seriously, Bill?” I teased. “All that planning and you couldn’t bring a tape measure?”
It was the first lighthearted thing I’d said all day, but the laughter didn’t last long, as photographs of bin Laden’s corpse were soon passed around the conference table. I glanced at them briefly; it was him. Despite the evidence, Leon and McRaven said that we couldn’t be fully certain until the DNA results came back, which would take another day or two. We discussed the possibility of holding off on an official announcement, but reports of a helicopter crash in Abbottabad were already starting to pop up on the internet. Mike Mullen had put a call in to Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and while the conversation had been polite, Kayani had requested that we come clean on the raid and its target as quickly as possible in order to help his people manage the reaction of the Pakistani public. Knowing there was no way to hold the news for another twenty-four hours, I went upstairs with Ben to quickly dictate my thoughts on what I would say to the nation later that evening.
For the next several hours, the West Wing ran at full throttle. While diplomats began to contact foreign governments and our communications team got ready to brief the press, I placed calls to George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and told them the news, making a point to acknowledge with Bush that the mission was the culmination of a long, hard process begun under his presidency. Though it was the middle of the night across the Atlantic, I contacted David Cameron as well, to recognize the stalwart support our closest ally had provided from the very beginning of the Afghan War. I expected my most difficult call to be with Pakistan’s beleaguered president, Asif Ali Zardari, who would surely face a backlash at home over our violation of Pakistani sovereignty. When I reached him, however, he expressed congratulations and support. “Whatever the fallout,” he said, “it’s very good news.” He showed genuine emotion, recalling how his wife, Benazir Bhutto, had been killed by extremists with reported ties to al-Qaeda.
Meanwhile, I hadn’t seen Michelle all day. I’d let her know earlier what would be happening, and rather than sit anxiously at the White House, waiting for news, she’d left Malia and Sasha in their grandmother’s care and gone out to dinner with friends. I had just finished shaving and putting on a suit and tie when she walked through the door.
“So?” she said.
I gave a thumbs-up, and she smiled, pulling me into a hug. “That’s amazing, babe,” she said. “Really. How do you feel?”
“Right now, just relieved,” I said. “But check back with me in a couple of hours.”
Back in the West Wing, I sat with Ben to put the finishing touches on my remarks. I had given him a few broad themes. I wanted to recall the shared anguish of 9/11, I said, and the unity we’d all felt in the days that immediately followed. I wanted to salute not just those involved in this mission but everyone in our military and intelligence communities who continued to sacrifice so much to keep us safe. I wanted to reiterate that our fight was with al-Qaeda and not Islam. And I wanted to close by reminding the world and ourselves that America does what it sets out to do—that as a nation we were still capable of achieving big things.
As usual, Ben had taken my stray thoughts and crafted a fine speech in less than two hours. I knew that this one mattered to him more than most, since the experience of watching the Twin Towers collapse had changed the trajectory of his life, propelling him to Washington with a burning drive to make a difference. It brought back my own memories of that day: Michelle having just taken Malia to her first day of preschool; me standing outside the State of Illinois Building in downtown Chicago, feeling overwhelmed and uncertain after assuring Michelle over the phone that she and the girls would be okay; three-month-old Sasha sleeping on my chest later that night as I sat in the dark watching the news reports and trying to contact friends in New York. No less than Ben’s, my own course in life had been fundamentally altered by that day, in ways that at the time I could not possibly have predicted, setting off a chain of events that would somehow lead to this moment.
After scanning the speech one last time, I stood up and clapped Ben on the back. “Good job, brother,” I said. He nodded, a jumble of emotions passing across his face before he rushed out the door to get the final edits on my remarks entered into the teleprompter. It was now almost eleven-thirty p.m. The major networks had already reported bin Laden’s death and were waiting to take my address live. Celebratory crowds had gathered outside the White House gates, thousands of people filling the streets. As I stepped into the cool night air and started walking down the colonnade toward the East Room, where I’d give my remarks, I could hear the raucous, rhythmic chants of “USA! USA! USA!” coming from Pennsylvania Avenue—a sound that echoed far and wide and would continue deep into the night.
EVEN AFTER THE jubilation quieted down, all of us in the White House could feel a palpable shift in the country’s mood in the days immediately following the Abbottabad raid. For the first and only time in my presidency, we didn’t have to sell what we’d done. We didn’t have to fend off Republican attacks or answer accusations from key constituencies that we’d compromised some core principle. No issues with implementation or unforeseen consequences sprang up. I still had decisions to make, including whether to release photos of bin Laden’s dead body. (My answer was no: We didn’t need to “spike the football” or hoist a ghoulish trophy, I told my staff, and I didn’t want the image of bin Laden shot in the head to become a rallying point for extremists.) We still had to patch up relations with Pakistan. While the documents and computer files seized from the compound proved to be a treasure trove of intelligence, confirming that bin Laden had continued to play a central role in planning attacks against the United States, as well as the enormous pressure we’d managed to put on his network through our targeting of its leaders, none of us believed that the threat from al-Qaeda was over. What was beyond dispute, though, was that we’d dealt the organization a decisive blow, moving it a step closer to strategic defeat. Even our harshest critics had to acknowledge that the operation had been an unequivocal success.
As for the American people, the Abbottabad raid offered a catharsis of sorts. In Afghanistan and Iraq, they’d seen our troops wage almost a decade of war, with outcomes they knew to be ambiguous at best. They’d expected that violent extremism was here to stay in one form or another, that there’d be no conclusive battle or formal surrender. As a result, the public instinctively seemed to seize on bin Laden’s death as the closest we’d likely ever get to a V-Day—and at a time of economic hardship and partisan rancor, people took some satisfaction in seeing their government deliver a victory.
Meanwhile, the thousands of families who’d lost loved ones on 9/11 understood what we’d done in more personal terms. The day after the operation, my daily batch of ten constituent letters contained a printed email from a young woman named Payton Wall, who’d been four years old at the time of the attacks and was now fourteen. She explained that her dad had been in one of the Twin Towers and had called to speak to her before it collapsed. All her life, she wrote, she’d been haunted by the memory of her father’s voice, along with the image of her mother weeping into the phone. Although nothing could change the fact of his absence, she wanted me and all those who’d been involved in the raid to know how much it meant to her and her family that America hadn’t forgotten him.
Sitting alone in the Treaty Room, I reread that email a couple of times, my eyes clouded with emotion. I thought about my daughters and how profoundly the loss of their mother or father would hurt them. I thought about young people who’d signed up for the armed forces after 9/11, intent on serving the nation, no matter the sacrifice. And I thought about the parents of those wounded or killed in Iraq and Afghanistan—the Gold Star moms Michelle and I had comforted, the fathers who’d shown me pictures of their departed sons. I felt an overwhelming pride in those who’d been part of the mission. From the SEALs themselves, to the CIA analysts who’d pieced together the trail to Abbottabad, to the diplomats who had prepared to manage the fallout, to the Pakistani American translator who’d stood outside the compound shooing away curious neighbors as the raid took place—they had all worked together seamlessly and selflessly, without regard to credit or turf or political preferences, to achieve a shared goal.
With these thoughts came another: Was that unity of effort, that sense of common purpose, possible only when the goal involved killing a terrorist? The question nagged at me. For all the pride and satisfaction I took in the success of our mission in Abbottabad, the truth was that I hadn’t felt the same exuberance as I had on the night the healthcare bill passed. I found myself imagining what America might look like if we could rally the country so that our government brought the same level of expertise and determination to educating our children or housing the homeless as it had to getting bin Laden; if we could apply the same persistence and resources to reducing poverty or curbing greenhouse gases or making sure every family had access to decent day care. I knew that even my own staff would dismiss these notions as utopian. And the fact that this was the case, the fact that we could no longer imagine uniting the country around anything other than thwarting attacks and defeating external enemies, I took as a measure of how far my presidency still fell short of what I wanted it to be—and how much work I had left to do.
I set such musings aside for the rest of that week, allowing myself a chance to savor the moment. Bob Gates would attend his last cabinet meeting and get a rousing ovation, appearing, for a moment, genuinely moved. I spent time with John Brennan, who had been involved one way or another in the hunt for bin Laden for close to fifteen years. Bill McRaven stopped by the Oval Office and, along with my heartfelt thanks for his extraordinary leadership, I presented him with a tape measure I’d had mounted on a plaque. And on May 5, 2011, just four days after the operation, I traveled to New York City and had lunch with the firefighters of Engine Company 54/Ladder 4/Battalion 9, which had lost all fifteen members who’d been on duty the morning of the attack, and participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at Ground Zero. Some of the first responders who had rushed into the burning towers served in the honor guard that day, and I had a chance to meet with the 9/11 families in attendance—including Payton Wall, who got a big hug from me and promptly asked if I could arrange for her to meet Justin Bieber (I told her I was pretty sure I could make that happen).
The next day, I flew to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where McRaven introduced me and Joe to the SEAL team and pilots involved in the Abbottabad raid. A small-scale model of the compound had been set up at the front of the room, and as the commanding officer methodically walked us through the operation, I studied the thirty or so elite military members seated before me in folding chairs. Some of them looked the part—strapping young men whose muscles bulged through their uniforms. But I was struck by how many of them could have passed for accountants or high school principals—guys in their early forties, with graying hair and understated demeanors. They were a testament to the role that skill and judgment born of experience played in successfully navigating the most dangerous missions—experience, the commander emphasized, that had also cost the lives of many of their colleagues. When the briefing was over, I shook hands with everyone in the room and presented the team with the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest award a military unit could receive. In return, the men surprised me with a gift: an American flag they had taken with them to Abbottabad, now in a frame with their signatures on the back. At no point during my visit did anyone mention who had fired the shot that killed bin Laden—and I never asked.
On the flight back, Tom gave me an update on Libya. Bill Daley and I reviewed my schedule for the month ahead, and I caught up on some paperwork. By six-thirty p.m., we’d landed at Andrews Air Force Base, and I boarded Marine One for the short ride back to the White House. I was in a quiet mood as I gazed out at the rolling Maryland landscape and the tidy neighborhoods below, and then the Potomac, glistening beneath the fading sun. The helicopter began its gentle turn, due north across the Mall. The Washington Monument suddenly materialized on one side, seeming almost close enough to touch; on the other side, I could see the seated figure of Lincoln, shrouded in shadow behind the memorial’s curved marble columns. Marine One began to shudder a bit, in a way that was now familiar to me, signaling the final descent as it approached the South Lawn, and I looked down at the street below, still thick with rush-hour traffic—fellow commuters, I thought, anxious to get home.
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