Remarks by Thomas E. Donilon delivered at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, DC, on May 12, 2011.
Thank you for this opportunity to speak at the Washington Institute at such an important moment in the history of the Middle East.
Since its founding in 1985, this organization has played a key role in America's understanding of this region. I know firsthand what remarkable scholars you've assembled here over the years and have been fortunate to work with many of them, inside and outside of government. Indeed, we've hired several into this Administration, so thank you for nurturing such great talent.
I want to thank Rob Satloff for his invitation and kind introduction. Rob offered me the chance to either give this speech or to have a conversation with him on stage. Knowing that Rob is the Dick Cavett of think tank heads, I opted for the speech.
I would like to begin this evening with a few reflections on the operation last week against Osama bin Laden. Nearly two years ago—on May 26, 2009—President Obama called Director Panetta and me into the Oval Office. Bin Laden's trail had gone cold. The President told us in no uncertain terms to expand and redouble the effort to find him, and to make it the intelligence community's top priority. Dedicated professionals painstakingly crutinized thousands of pieces of information until we found a man we believed was bin Laden's trusted courier and began to track his movements.
In the months leading up to the raid, we combed the intelligence, worked over the options, and met regularly with the President on the way ahead. As that process culminated—having served three presidents—I was struck by how quintessentially presidential this decision was. On Thursday night, the 28th at around 7:00, the President left the Situation Room, where he had received his final briefing on the various courses of action. In that room, the President had received divided counsel from his team, and told us that he would make a decision soon. The President stood up, walked out of the Situation Room, and walked across the colonnade, past the Rose Garden, into the residence. This decision was his—and his alone—to make.
And then the next morning at about 20 minutes after 8:00, he asked a few of us to come to the Diplomatic Room and told us "It's a go." That's what strikes me now: that we ask our presidents alone to make these exceedingly difficult decisions. And at the end of the day, 300 million Americans were looking to him to make the right decision. We all know the outcome, but let me make five observations about the operation, all the hard work leading up to it, and what we see as some of the consequences.