When Barack Obama became president, the trail to Osama bin Laden had long gone cold. “I can only speak with authority through February 15, 2009,” said Michael Hayden, who ran the CIA under George W. Bush. “But at that point, when people would ask, ‘when’s the last time you really knew where he was?’ my answer was Tora Bora in 2001.”
So begins Harvard Professor Graham Allison’s dramatic cover story this week in Time Magazine. Allison offers readers a behind-the-scenes account of how President Obama made the most fateful decision of his presidency – to launch the Special Forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on May 1, 2011.
Allison puts readers in the president’s Oval Office chair as Obama weighed the risks of the several options he faced when evidence emerged that bin Laden was living in a compound in Abbottabad, 30 miles from the capital of Pakistan. It was never certain right up to the day of the raid that the suspect at the site was bin Laden. And key members of Obama’s own inner circle, including Vice President Joseph Biden and Defense Secretary Bob Gates, voted against launching the helicopter-borne assault.
With echoes of his prize-winning 1971 book, Essence of Decision, about President John F. Kennedy’s decision-making during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Allison traced Obama’s handling of the hunt for bin Laden from the first days of his presidency up to the decision to go for a boots-on-the-ground assault rather than an airstrike or joint operation with Pakistan.
Allison spent more than 100 hours interviewing officials in the White House, the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency to gather material for the Time article. The piece was paired with another article by Peter Bergen, a respected terrorism analyst, that tells the story of the raid itself.
Graham Allison is the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard and was the founding dean of the modern Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the Kennedy School’s principal research center for international security policy issues. He served as assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton Administration and as an adviser to the secretary of defense during the Reagan Administration.
Allison concluded that the national security decision-making in the bin Laden case offers important lessons for future foreign policy challenges. “Summarized in a single line, the takeaway from the bin Laden operation is that American government worked,” Allison wrote.
Allison ascribed the success in part to new capabilities of U.S. intelligence and military agencies forged in the decade since 9/11, as well as to Obama’s improved national security decision-making process, developed after his rocky first year in office.
The president “had the confidence and determination to slow the clock long enough to aim carefully before he pulled the trigger,” Allison said. That required unprecedented secrecy. Most members of the National Security Council didn’t even know of the planned raid until hours before it occurred.
“The bin Laden case demonstrates why success requires both discovering secrets and then keeping them, allowing a President time to reflect in private and permitting him to reach a decision and act. As [National Security Adviser Tom] Donilon likes to say, ‘There is only one way to keep a secret: don’t tell anybody.’”
However, such secrecy bears a cost, Allison said, by excluding people who might bring in perspectives not considered by the small group involved in the decision. One consequence may have been inadequate attention to the implications of the raid for Pakistan, which was not consulted.
To the surprise of everyone in Washington, the treasure trove seized in the raid suggest that Pakistani military and intelligence leaders didn’t know bin Laden was living in Abbottabad, Allison said — leading to a genuinely frightening thought.
“Could it be that a nation that is unaware that bin Laden lived within its borders for six years, moved five times with three wives and fathered four children (two born in local hospitals) is also a nation that is in control of some 100 nuclear bombs? That seems unlikely – but the evidence so far suggests exactly that.”