Meeting

Lessons From History Series: Screening and Discussion of "Revealed: The Hunt for Bin Laden"

Tuesday, April 27, 2021
Handout/Reuters
Speakers

Executive Vice President and Deputy Director for Museum Programs, National September 11 Memorial and Museum; Executive Producer, Revealed: The Hunt for Bin Laden, CFR Member

Distinguished Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; Chairman, BlackRock Investment Institute; Former Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, The White House (2010–2013)

Cofounder and Managing Partner, WestExec Advisors; CFR Member

Presider

Pentagon Correspondent, Washington Post

Lessons From History Series

Ten years after the Abbottabad raid that found Osama bin Laden, speakers discuss the decade-long search to find the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

The Lessons From History Series uses historical analysis as a critical tool for understanding modern foreign policy challenges by hearing from practitioners who played an important role in a consequential historical event or from experts and historians. This series is made possible through the generous support of David M. Rubenstein.

 

STAFF: This event is presented by the Council on Foreign Relations.

RYAN: Alright. Thanks very much, Sam, and welcome and good afternoon, everyone. I'm Missy Ryan. I cover the Pentagon for the Washington Post. And I'm really honored to be here today with this distinguished panel to discuss this film that is incredibly compelling and provides some, I think, really impressive insights into the events surrounding the raid against Osama bin Laden almost a decade ago. I'm going to start by introducing our panelists, and then we're going to have thirty minutes of moderated discussion. And then at 4:30 we'll open it up to questions from the audience.

So I'm joined here by Cliff Chanin, the executive vice president and deputy director for museum programs of the National September 11 Memorial Museum and executive producer of the film we're here today to discuss, Revealed: The Hunt for Bin Laden. We're also joined by Mr. Tom Donilon, distinguished fellow at CFR, chairman of BlackRock Investment Institute, and former assistant to President Obama for national security affairs. And also we're joined by Michèle Flournoy, cofounder and managing partner of WestExec Advisors and previously the undersecretary of defense for policy. And Ms. Flournoy recently authored a piece that you can now find in the current issue of Foreign Affairs entitled, "America's Military Risks Losing Its Edge," and I would definitely recommend the article.

So I'm going to open things up with you, Cliff. As you produced the documentary, what did you learn? I'm assuming there was a massive period of research, and you really have an impressive array of speakers who take us through the moments leading up to the raid, and you really feel the tension surrounding the events prior to and during the raid. I'm wondering, what did you learn about the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the raid that occurred in May of 2011 that you think adds to what the public already knew about this event?

CHANIN: Well thanks, Missy. And thanks to the Council for this program, and for showing the film to the members. You know, the project started to build an exhibition about the hunt for bin Laden. And that began over five years ago. We opened that exhibition in the museum in November 2019. We're just reopening that gallery now, which has been closed for COVID reasons. And so what we did in putting the exhibition together was a number of interviews and we realized we had much more, and a much deeper story than we could tell in the galleries, and so wanted to expand it that way. And in so doing, we were able to add interviews to what we had in the exhibition. I would say for me, you know, there's sort of an inner challenge and a content challenge, if you will. The inner challenge in putting all of this together was how to get the story. I mean, essentially, this is classified. And while the principles were able to speak about it or write about it, the folks who were much more granular in their involvement on both the military and the intelligence side were still in the shadows, and were not coming forward to talk about it. So getting to them became a real challenge. And it's something we were able to do over time, through relationships with the intelligence community and also in the military as well.

But what I took away from the story itself as we were able to tell it, was sort of the complexity of putting these pieces together. You have to have the intelligence side making very big changes in the way it went about its business, both in terms of, you know, how it collected and acted upon intelligence. You know, knowing what leads looked like under these circumstances, because you're looking for someone who, you know, at the start of the hunt could literally be anywhere in the world, and so how do you narrow that down? And then the story as we tell it is really a three-act story. It starts with intelligence, and then it goes to the White House because the handoff from an uncertain intelligence brief is nonetheless enough to bring it to the presidential level. And all of his advisors are then brought in to talk about just how serious is this and what can we do about this. And then of course, you get to the point where they never really know whether he's there but the president makes a decision to go forward. And then finally, the SEALs who had carried out so many raids like this, and Admiral McRaven talks about the frequency of this, you know, they knew how to do this, but they didn't really know how to do this 160 miles, 169 miles inside of Pakistan, in a place where, until they got to the third floor of this building, they still didn't know whether Osama bin Laden was going to be there.

And so one of the things that I think was so dramatic in trying to put the pieces of the story together was, you know how many times it could have gone off the rails and at moments it seemed like there were more factors pushing it off the rails than there were holding it on. And yet, you know, focusing on just the quality of the folks who were doing the work, and just how they worked, and we were able to get some of them to describe the logic. It's not the history of the analysis so much, it's the history of the logic of intelligence analysis, how did they change the hunt. And so much of this, getting into the nitty gritty of, you know, how the SEALs were selected, how the helicopters were selected, that's a much more complicated set of questions than I think has ever been told before.

RYAN: Yeah, and you really do get the sense about what a close call it was to make the decision to go ahead with the raid. And that's one of the things I want to ask you about now, Mr. Donilon, as we, I'd like to take the audience inside the planning for the raid and the execution of the raid with a couple of questions. One of the moments that's described in the film, and certainly was a subject of a lot of news coverage after the fact, was a meeting that President Obama held in which he solicited the input of his senior advisors about whether or not to go forward. And then, you know, he takes an evening to consider and as it's laid out in the film, the next morning you came back and informed some other staff members that President Obama had actually decided to go ahead, and you know, and made this very close call, as we've discussed. Can you tell us a little bit more about what happened in the interim there between the moment that he left and then the moment where the decision to go ahead was communicated to the fuller group of people who were in the know? And what were your chief concerns in the moments leading up to the raid itself?

DONILON: Yeah. Okay. Thank you, Missy. And Cliff, congratulations on the film. Really terrific. I think it captures a lot of the essence of the story, which is the persistence of the intelligence community over the course of two administrations, by the way, from Bush 40-Bush 43 into the Obama administration. I think it does capture the persistence and the high quality of the work that was done in preparation, and the careful coordination and collegiality with which it was all put out. So Cliff congratulations, I think it captured a lot of the essence of it.

Missy, with respect to the, kind of the end game, if you will, leading up to the May 2 raid, which we will have the anniversary of this weekend. As we went into the last week beforehand, and we had kind of a, we had some deadlines, right for a number of reasons, including light, the light, the shadow of the moon, right, and also the heat in Abottabad, which affects the performance of the helicopters. These were all coming on us as we got to the end of April. So a decision had to be, a decision had to be made. We had a long process, an eight-month process, which by the way, is striking in the fact that, as a reporter you will appreciate this, nothing leaked for eight months which in Washington is an extraordinary accomplishment. I certainly learned something during the course of that, which is, if you want to keep a secret don't tell anybody. I think it's kind of a general, a good general rule of thumb, but really it was kept. And I think that indicates the seriousness obviously with which the people dealing with this took it, and how serious it was for the United States.

But you come to the last week, we've had a month of review of intelligence. We then moved at the beginning of 2011 into a consideration of various operational alternatives, what we would do about it if the president decided he wanted to go, and we had a careful consideration of those actions informed by the intelligence community, and by the Defense Department, Admiral McRaven, and others. And we get down to the last week when the decision was going to be made. And on the Thursday evening before the raid, the president gathered his most senior advisors and we went over the options that the president had, in terms of operational options. Went over the intelligence again. And the president went around the room. Now seated at the table, to draw the picture, are the most senior national security people in the United States government, some of the most recognizable people in the country. From Vice President Biden to Hillary Clinton to Bob Gates to Mike Mullen, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, Denis McDonough. So it was the president's most senior people. And the room was not unanimous, frankly, when the president went around the table and asked for the final recommendation that he wanted to hear from his most senior advisors. And you know, it's interesting, I think history was in the room. There was history here from people who have been in the government and involved in the failed April 1980 effort to free the hostages in Tehran which resulted in a tragedy in the desert. History was in the room, I think, because out of that, of course, came the creation of the special forces, which I think was the critical factor, which I can talk about, I think in the president's final decision.

But nonetheless, at the end of it, we had that discussion. He got the final recommendations. It was not a unanimous recommendation. I walked out with the president to go back up to his to his office. And he was going to go over to the mansion. And he said, I'll email you in the morning with a decision. And he walked out of the West Wing of the White House and on to the colonnade, which runs next to the Rose Garden back to the residence for the president. I remember thinking that night, looking at him, thinking that we put these decisions on the shoulder of one man, one person in this government, and that decision was on his shoulders. The next morning, at eight o'clock, I got an email from him saying, meet me in the Diplomatic Room. The Diplomatic Room is on the first floor of the White House and it looks out on this tremendous vista over the South Lawn to the Washington Monument and beyond it to the Jefferson Memorial. And the president came in, I gathered our team, our White House team, myself and Denis McDonough, who was the deputy national security advisor at the time, and Bill Daley, who was the chief of staff, and then John Brennan, who was assistant to the president for counterterrorism and homeland security, and we waited. The president came in, came in in a windbreaker. He was about to get on a helicopter which was on the South Lawn to go to Alabama, I think, to view storm damage, there had been a tornado in Alabama. He came over to us and looked at us and said, I made a decision. It's the raid, let's go. We're gonna do the raid. And he said to me, you know, issue the orders. And we said, yes, sir. And he headed out to the helicopter. I headed back to my office and Leon Panetta recounts this in his book, and he actually I think reproduces his note of the conversation with me in his book, I call Leon Panetta and gave him the president's decision, that it was the raid. We would go from Jalalabad, and that the operational decisions were in the hands of Admiral McRaven. Leon, then, put the word out to the operational side, to Admiral McRaven. And that was the decision.

RYAN: And what were your chief concerns, you know, from that moment to Sunday night, when you guys were sitting there in the Situation Room?

DONILON: Three or four, you know, it got delayed. You know, it was supposed to go, as is set out in Cliff's film, it was supposed to go on Saturday night. Admiral McRaven was not comfortable with the weather conditions on Saturday night and decided to go on Sunday. So I informed the president of that. So you start to worry about a leak. Because although we had a very small circle, a miniscule circle of people who knew about this in the first, you know, the months leading up to the decision. At this point, quite a few people know about it because we are on the verge of a major operation in Afghanistan, and there were a number of people now in the U.S. government which had been brought in because they would have roles after it, after the fact that they would have to execute on. So you had a much larger circle, you worry about operational security, it was first and foremost.

And then you worry about the, you worry about the dangers around the operation itself. Although I must tell you, again we had a lot of competence, and the president certainly had a lot of confidence in the special forces. At the end of the day you ask, if it was a close call decision, if in fact it was not a kind of a direct evidence case, as a lawyer would say, it was an analytical case, it was an intelligence analysis case as to whether or not Osama bin Laden was at this location. And you ask, well, what tipped it at that point? Right. What tipped the president's decision? I think a couple things. One is the strategic blow to al-Qaeda, which would result from taking out its only leader to that point, Osama bin Laden. I think the second was a strong sense that the American people, that the United States had pledged to pursue justice in this case, as President Obama says in the film, in his interview with Cliff.

But I think at the end of the day, and Michèle can certainly talk about this, it was his faith in the special forces and in Admiral McRaven. That at the end of the day, that is what gave him tremendous confidence that the special forces could go in, if Osama bin Laden wasn't there they would get out, and if he was there they would deal with the operation. McRaven, as he points out, had done thousands of these, nothing quite like this, but thousands of these kinds of raids and we had had quite a bit of experience with that, with him and his team. And that I think was kind of the confidence builder about the worries on the operation. You worry about the operational accidents obviously, it is very high on the worry list. But there was tremendous confidence in the special forces, which is obviously a unique American asset as you know, Missy.

RYAN: Yeah. Well building on that, I'd like to ask you Ms. Flournoy. One of the other things the film gets into, I think in a very interesting way, involves some of the reservations that the DOD leadership had, as depicted by Secretary Gates who has also written about this and, you know, his initial reservation to do a raid vis-à-vis some other sort of operation. Can you just tell us a little bit more about the Pentagon perspective on that at that time, and how the Pentagon ended up getting comfortable? And then, what do you think the takeaways were from a military perspective from the raid itself and how it went down that, you know, might have been applied to future military operations?

FLOURNOY: Well, I do think that one of the things, you know hats off to Tom and his team in the White House is, they ran a very disciplined process. Once the intelligence was gathered, red teamed, you know, even though there was no direct evidence, as Tom said, there was a very strong intelligence analysis case. And really, you know, the conversation turned to the options. It was a very disciplined process of really bringing forth a number of options, including those talked about in the film. You know, one was an airstrike, another was the soft raid, and so forth. But then, really pressing the presenters to go the next round of buying down risk. And so when the soft raid sort of emerged as the preferred option, then we started thinking about what are all the ways things could go wrong? And as you mentioned, Secretary Gates's nightmare was a downing of a helicopter à la what happened in the Iranian hostage rescue situation, which was a disaster.

And so we started doing the contingency planning. Okay, what if a helicopter goes down? That is what led to the positioning of the two additional helicopters, having them ready to go, to come in. And so when the helicopter went down, yes, everybody went white as a sheet, Gates felt like he was having a heart attack. (Laughs.) But the truth is, we were ready for it. And, you know, okay, plan B, you know, move the other ones in. So, and that was just one example. There were just multiple places where you thought through the risk, and you made a plan to reduce it. And I think that is one of the things that's a real strength of our military, and then the special operations in particular. And, you know, as you hear in the film, not only was it a plan, but they rehearsed all kinds of things going wrong. You know, they rehearsed ending up on the outside of the wall and having to figure out how to go in rather than going in on the rooftop or in their preferred location. So they had pretty much been through every possible permutation, which again, you know, just gets you ready to be agile and on your feet when the unexpected happens. So, you know, I think that there was a lot of planning and training and practicing that really reduced the level of risk.

You know, at the end of the day, even within DOD there was not a consensus recommendation. One of the lessons that I learned was the importance of the appeal. So you know, Secretary Gates initially had not, he writes about this, had not supported the raid. Mike Vickers and I, when we heard that we went in and appealed, went through it all again with him, talked about the ways that risk had been reduced, and so forth. And he ended up calling Tom back and saying, I'm changing my recommendation, I'm willing to go along with Admiral Mullen and others, and support the raid. So that, I think that whole process empowered people to speak up. And even the junior intelligence analysts, the, you know, the military operator who was working several levels down from McRaven, people felt empowered to speak up, raise issues, offer dissent, and that made the whole thing better and more resilient to challenge in the actual execution. So I think there's some great lessons to be learned and replicated there in the future.

RYAN: Okay well, I'd like to go back to the film really quickly. It's interesting how the raid even after ten years has really become sort of mythologized in American culture, some ways, I think, in part because of the Hollywood take on it. And so, Mr. Chanin you mentioned before we started that the movie Zero Dark Thirty had actually been an obstacle to the production of this documentary film. Can you talk about that a little bit? I'm sure that the audience would be interested in hearing about how that went as you were bringing things together.

CHANIN: Yes, of course, well, I did see Zero Dark Thirty when it originally came out, and I was fascinated by it. But it's been years since I watched it, because, you know, I didn't really want that account to sort of shape what we were doing in the exhibition and in the film. But as we began to make some headway within the intelligence community, particularly at the CIA, just in terms of contacts, in terms of sitting down with them and saying, you know, well who could we speak to? We do have folks who are still active, who are still active in the CIA today, who are critical to the hunt as part of the film. And one of the concerns the CIA had was, you know, they felt that the work of at least dozens and probably many more people within the CIA, within the intelligence community, had been, as Hollywood I guess tends to do, sort of made into a composite character. And so all of this work, which they were very proud of, the team nature of the work, had been put into the Jessica Chastain character in the movie. And in talking with us about access and other things, they made very clear that they were hesitant because they did not want that to happen again. They didn't want, you know, that issue, which was felt I believe inside the workforce, to sort of come back. And you know, one of the things we were able to do, and in a way it served our purposes entirely was, it was easy for us to say, well just give us more people and we'll use them. And in fact, we wound up doing exactly that. So, you know, the way they were able to assure themselves that that was not going to be the problem was to make much more accessible to us than initially, frankly, I had thought would be accessible.

RYAN: Fantastic. I'd like to go back to a couple of questions about the bigger picture here before we open things up. And this is for Mr. Donilon and Ms. Flournoy. Can you just talk, each of you talk a little bit about what are the lessons that we should think about, from the hunt, the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden? Which as the film really lays out very well began very, in a very urgent way, obviously after 9/11, but then stagnated and then, you know, ten years later, a significant time lapse for the victims of 9/11 and their families, came to this very dramatic conclusion. What are the lessons that we should think about from the manhunt and the raid when we're thinking about today's national security challenges?

DONILON: Can I start, Missy? And then go to Michèle? Okay, thank you. I think a couple of things. One is, as I said earlier, a kind of persistence. The intelligence story here is an extraordinary story. One of the great successes, I think, in the history of the Central Intelligence Agency and the other intelligence elements in the United States government. And it persisted regardless of politics and elections. It persisted right through the Bush administration into the Obama administration. And I think that's an important lesson here of persistence and keeping the kind of the politics out of these things. And I think that was successful in this regard.

The second is, and it's still, you know, a critical asset to the United States today, is the importance of the special forces and how it developed as, again as I said, as a unique American asset. It's an important lesson, it's still very critical to our counterterrorism efforts and other efforts around the world, around the world today. And it's interesting, we talked about, you know, as Michèle referenced, you know, Bob Gates's, kind of lessons from the last time he was involved in something like this as a, working on Zbigniew Brzezinski's staff for President Carter in the late 1970s into 1980. History was also in the room because out of that catastrophe, right, arose a push towards the development of the special forces. You know, at that point, you look at the after-action reports after the failed raid into Tehran, it talks about how it was kind of a pick-up team and everything had to be kind of put together at the last minute. We don't have that, we now have these coherent, this coherent team.

The third thing is that you know, there's quite a bit of power in the United States doing what it says it's gonna do. And at the end of the day, you know, let's just take ten seconds on this, a bit of a personal reflection, is that after the raid, the SEALs and the pilots and the CIA officers were back in Jalalabad and safe, the president finished his speech in the Oval Office, and we were about to head over to the East Room of the White House. This is where the president delivered the address to the nation that evening, that Sunday evening. And as we walked out, and Hillary Clinton tells this story in Cliff's film, I think it really it struck, if you were there you couldn't help but be struck by it. We walked out it was, it was 10:30 on a Sunday night in downtown Washington, which is usually dead quiet, obviously. And there was this noise, cheering, right. You know, this kind of loud noise. And, you know, we turned to the Secret Service agent and said, what is that? And they said, he said, there's a huge crowd out in front of the White House. And that, I did not expect that, you know, we planned on this thing, this is one of the few projects in government that I've been involved in over many, many years, where we actually had the opportunity to do everything we wanted to do in terms of planning. I mean, we had, the notebooks were tabbed minute by minute as to how we were going to go through this. That is one thing that surprised me. And that was the cathartic reaction of the country, and the power of the United States saying and completing, doing what I said it was gonna do. Two presidents said that we would bring bin Laden to justice, and we did and there's tremendous power in that. Don't you think?

RYAN: Yes, absolutely. Great, Ms. Flournoy, you want to tell us what your your thoughts are on that?

FLOURNOY: You think, you know, having that clarity of an objective that really matters to the country, not only in terms of our interests but in terms of our psyche and our, you know, our sense of justice, and closure, and so forth. Persisting in that, you know, just the dogged persistence in it. Dedicating a team, you know fencing off, people allowing them to keep at this, not get pulled into the day-to-day and the tyranny of the inbox, but a dedicated team, both intelligence and interagency keep working this. An environment that encourages them to be innovative, you know. If what you're doing isn't working, try something different, take a risk, innovate. Investing in the excellence of the capabilities. You know, we had an incredible intelligence apparatus, we had these honed special operations forces, that takes years and years and years of investment and support to keep our edge. And then, you know, that last piece of presidential leadership. You know, for President Obama to actually make the hard call. And one of the things that really struck me in the film was, you know, President Obama said, the message that it sends to the world, if you do us harm, you will be brought to justice. There will be justice. And I think, you know, that's the cheering and the singing that we all heard coming out of the White House that night, was, I think, a release for the American people that it wasn't vengeful, but it was just this sense of closure like yes, the perpetrators of this horrible, horrible attack were brought to justice. This is a bookend on what happened. And it's a point of closure.

DONILON: Missy, if I could add just ten more seconds on Michèle's answer. You know during the movie, during the film, Cliff has an interview with Leon Panetta where he talks about how the president made clear to him early on that this was going to be a priority for his administration. When he came into office, of course, the case had gone cold. And the trail had gone cold. We really, we really, as the film points out, we really hadn't had a bead on Osama bin Laden's whereabouts since when we lost him in the mountains of Tora Bora years before. And the timing of that, Cliff, is interesting, because you don't go into the timing in the film. That was in May of 2009 when, after a kind of a normal Thursday afternoon counterterrorism meeting, the president asked Leon and myself and Rahm Emanuel and Mike Leiter, who was head of our counterterrorism center at the time, to come up to the Oval Office, he wanted to talk about something. And we walked in, this sunny day I remember it as the sun is shining in and the president's standing in front of the desk, and the four of us kind of gathering around him. And he said, I just want to talk about one thing. And he really leaned into Leon on, this is a priority for me. I want all the resources necessary put on it. And of course, they had remained a priority obviously, but that leadership, presidential focus, it makes a big difference. And I think Leon indicated that, Cliff, in your movie. But that's a moment I won't forget, right. Early on in the administration, it wasn't on any agenda, it was after a meeting that had nothing to do with it when he called the four of us up to the office and made it clear that this was a priority for him and he wanted all the resources needed applied to it, and he wanted regular reports on how they were doing. And of course, he got that report in August of 2010 that the intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency had the best lead they'd had since Tora Bora.

CHANIN: Can I just add one point?

RYAN: Go ahead.

CHANIN: It'll be brief. And in this sense, I mean, I think Tom and Michèle represent this and they may even take it for granted. But the thing that as an outsider strikes me maybe most out of all of the time I spent with folks who were involved in this, is just the quality of the people involved and the quality of the work that was done. That's all the way up and down the ladder of command, but also, you know, the specializations that developed, whether it's on the intelligence or the military side. And remarkably, at least as far as the story came to us, you know, when it was time to hand something off, when you had done your part and moved it to the next level, people did that very willingly, they maintained their contact so they could add expertise as needed. But you know, when it was the intelligence turn, that's who focused it. When it was the policy turn, that's who focused it. And finally, when it was given to the military, it was their work to be done. And all along the way the quality of the thinking, the quality of the commitment, it just, it oozed out of all of these conversations. And I think you're seeing it again, now. It's quite remarkable.

RYAN: Alright well, I have a long list of questions that I'd love to ask you all, but I do know that the audience is here waiting, and I'm sure have a lot of questions themselves. So we're going to open it up here for Q&A. And I think Sam's going to provide some ground rules.

STAFF: We will take our first question from Cindy Storer. And please remember to state your affiliation.

Q: Hello, everyone, can you hear me okay?

RYAN: Yes.

Q: Thank you. I'm Cynthia Storer, I teach for the masters of science in intelligence analysis At Johns Hopkins and I'm a former counterterrorism analyst. I want to thank you all for being here today and speaking with us. And I really appreciate this emphasis on collaboration and cooperation and non-politicization throughout the film. Thank you so much. My question, though, has to do with analysis of potential futures or forecasting with regard to potential consequences of removing bin Laden. So I've been wondering since the day of the raid, whether there was ever any discussion, even if only from outliers in the community, of potential changes to al-Qaeda and the larger movement from capturing or killing bin Laden that could have negative repercussions for the United States and other countries?

RYAN: Who wants to take that? Michèle?

FLOURNOY: I was gonna offer it to Tom.

RYAN: (Laughs.) Okay. Tom, do you want to weigh in?

DONILON: Sure, yeah. Thanks for the question. I think that number one, it was judged by the intelligence community that it would be a strategic blow against al-Qaeda. I think that it turned out to be that. And I think that was the core judgment. And of course, you know the taking out bin Laden, combined with obviously the persistent pressure on al-Qaeda over time by the United States, has resulted in a diminished threat. So I think that the assessment at the time turned out to be correct. That it was a serious blow. And I understand different dynamics about, you know, potential succession, but I think the assessments turned out to be correct. And, of course, the, you know, that plus the effort to pressure al-Qaeda in the subsequent years and beforehand has diminished that as a threat. And the threat matrix today that we face in the United States is very different than the threat matrix that President Obama faced when he came into office, frankly.

RYAN: And just to follow up on that, though, that as an organization, while greatly diminished, it has proved fairly resilient. You know, you've seen a fairly consistent estimate of, you know, some low hundreds of al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. And then at some point in Syria, what's your takeaway from that? Is that just too much to hope for, for a full eradication? Is there any comment you'd like to make on that?

DONILON: I can ask Michèle to comment, but my comment I would be that it is a much diminished threat. And you saw, by the way, in the worldwide threat assessment testimony given by Bill Burns and Avril Haines just last week or the week before, assessing a diminished, or assessing that currently they don't have the capability to launch the kind of well pre-planned external operation like 9/11. That was the assessment, I think I have it about right as to what the assessment was. But I think that, I think that it's been a pretty big, it's been a pretty important success for the United States, and has diminished the threat significantly. Now, they also, you know, we also have to be, and Michèle can comment on this, we also have to be, and I think Bill Burns said this at his testimony, we have to have the intelligence capability and attention and intensity around looking for reconstitution of capabilities. Because at the end of the day, they would obviously retain the intention to do the United States harm.

FLOURNOY: I would agree. I think these groups will tend to continue to remake themselves, relaunch themselves, rehabilitate, and morph and take other forms. But I think the standard we want to judge by is, do they play, you know what threat, do they pose more or less of a threat to the U.S. homeland, to U.S. interests overseas, to U.S. allies? And I think on all of those measures, the threat from al-Qaeda, even though it still has remnant organizations in places like Yemen, in the Maghreb and so forth, is greatly diminished from what it was. So I agree with Tom, this has to be viewed as a success but we also can't take our eye off the ball, right? I mean, these groups will continue to regenerate and morph.

DONILON: And they, as we've found out these groups only had, you know we have to be right all the time. It's an almost cliche now. They only have to penetrate our defenses once so vigilance is obviously the watchword.

RYAN: All right, should we go to the next question?

STAFF: Our next question will be from Lawrence Wright.

Q: Thank you. I am so glad it was a success but what if it had been a failure? I'm wondering what, you know with all the extensive planning you had to succeed, what did you plan to do in case of mass civilian casualties? Or our units scrap there the invasion of a Pakistani territory? I mean, there are just manifold numbers of ways in which this could have failed. What were your plans?

FLOURNOY: I think there were a number of contingency plans that covered things like what if the SEALs got trapped there, you know, what if the Pakistanis arrived and they had a faster response than we expected. And there were plans worked out for all of that. I mean, there is no way to buy down risk completely in an operation like this. It's really a weighing of the risks vis-à-vis the benefits at the end. But I did, I think we thought through just about every possible contingency, and there was at least some sense of, you know, what the first set of actions would be done in each case. You know, what was striking to me in the film that I had not heard before, was, you know, hearing the individual SEALs talking about how they thought they might not come home from this, and that they got their wills in order and their letters to their families and so forth. So they understood the risk. But, you know, there was also the risk that it wasn't bin Laden. You know, I think we felt pretty confident that it was but, so again, I think this is the hard part of presidential leadership, President Obama had to make this decision, knowing that it A, might not be bin Laden and B, it could have failed. But he also had to weigh the risks of not going in. And what if it was, you know, if it is bin Laden and we actually had him and we didn't go in? What would that mean, not only for missing that opportunity, but for al-Qaeda as an organization? Remember, al-Qaeda was run like a company. I mean, this is a very top-down, hierarchical organization that took orders from the top and bin Laden was that guy, and removing him had a devastating effect all the way down the organization on a global basis. I don't know if you want to add things, Tom.

DONILON: You know, Lawrence, I think you saw the risk in the first couple of minutes of the operation. When, you know, when the initial helicopter had to make a hard landing in the courtyard at the Abottabad compound. But Michèle's right, I think that the risks had been assessed and had contingencies planned against them. So for example, the president, as Admiral McRaven has said in a number of interviews, the president insisted that the team be able to fight its way out of any contingency and not have to rely on negotiation or seeking help from the Pakistanis and things like that. And again, we had, you know, and we're prepared as Admiral McRaven said, we were prepared to bring whatever resources were needed to obviously go in and ensure that our forces get out of there. We had a number of contingencies around contacts with the Pakistanis if that were necessary. There were relationships that have been built up over time with the Pakistani military that we knew could be useful in the event of a, of an accident or taking a wrong turn. But this was not, I think that goes to the difficulty of the decision. Clearly all those risks were quite clear to the president and to the team. And as I said, you know, history is always in the room with these things. And there were a number of people who had been there in April of 1980 and saw the impact on the country and on the Carter presidency, right, you know, and on our position in the world as a result of the failure in April 1980. So it's a fair question, but you do every single thing you can do, and I don't think there was any risk that would have emerged that we hadn't thought through.

RYAN: Let's go to the next question.

STAFF: Our next question will be from Scott Quigley.

Q: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you to all of the panel. It's been a great discussion and the film, Cliff, is exceptional so thank you. I'm a former Army officer, Army captain, actually served in JSOC under General McChrystal and Admiral McRaven. And my question is a two part one. One, operationally, and either to Michèle or Tom, was there a plan in process if bin Laden was not killed? If we captured him? Or was that not part of the ROE, the rules of engagement? So curious if you could speak to that, if there was a plan in place. And then two, more strategically, was there any discussion in the administration that, you know, once we got bin Laden, that Afghanistan we could, you know, turn the page? You know here we are ten years later, and I think many of us who served, and many in the country, once we got bin Laden, you know kind of turn the page on Afghanistan? So just I wonder if there was any discussion, post, you know, the success of this mission, about getting out of Afghanistan. Thank you very much.

FLOURNOY: Well, I can take the second question first. Thanks, Scott, for your service and for the question. You know, I think that there was a sense that once we had killed bin Laden, there was a real opportunity to actually amp up the pressure on al-Qaeda and its affiliates, particularly in the Fatah, in and around Afghanistan, groups like the Haqqani Network and so forth. But this was a moment of vulnerability for them. And that, you know, it wasn't just about taking out bin Laden, it was also about really trying to decimate the network for the longer term. So I certainly think that that was kind of a continued area of focus. Whether there was other consideration of getting out of Afghanistan, I think it wasn't too long after that that we started planning for kind of phased hand-off and drawdown in terms of, you know, handing off areas of responsibility and eventually the lead for combat operations to the Afghans, pulling U.S. forces back into the advise-assist-support role, and gradually starting to draw down force levels. So it did have that effect it, you know, it may have, (Laughs.) it probably went more slowly and gradually than many people would have liked. But I do think it was part of turning that corner in Afghanistan. Tom?

DONILON: Scott on the first question the answer is yes. Because one of the, there were various possibilities, right, that the force had gone in and he wasn't there and they would get out. And that would be the operation. You know, there were contingencies around the question that Lawrence asked about the various, you know, kind of negative possibilities and risks. But there was, there absolutely was a contingency, right. It was an option, it was a possibility right, that in fact bin Laden would be captured. And there was a series of plans for how we would handle him as captured. I don't think they've ever been discussed, I'm not going to go into any details. But there was a set of, there was a set of plans in place for how the United States would handle Osama bin Laden after his being captured at Abottabad on May 2.

CHANIN: Can I just add also that while the contingencies were considered in advance before this all got going, and then you'll remember from how this mission rolled, I mean, the SEALs get there, there's an exchange of gunfire in the southern part of the compound. There's a shootout with the second courier on the ground floor. The son is on the second floor. So the point is, and the SEALs commented on this in terms of what their expectations were and how they changed in the course of the mission, you know, as you're exchanging fire it just becomes a very, very different climate because the threat has already been defined by the actions of his supporters, if you will. And so by the time they get to the third floor, I'm not saying it was foreordained, but they're already in a combat situation and that is their orientation, I think, towards their entire presence at that point.

DONILON: Yeah, this was not a situation that, it developed very quickly, this was not a situation where the entire team there was surrendering to the American force. It was a hostile encounter, obviously.

RYAN: Alright, let's go please to the next question.

STAFF: Our next question is from Malcolm Wiener.

Q: Thank you. What is your assessment of whether the Pakistani military or parts of it knew all along where bin Laden was hiding?

FLOURNOY: My favorite, you know, comment came from Secretary Panetta who at the time said, you know, there is either, this is a question of either collusion or incompetence. (Laughs.) That it's hard to explain it one way or the other. For my part, I don't have a conclusive answer to whether you know, exactly which side of that equation we were on. But lots of people have different views on this. Tom, I don't know if you have a particular view that you want to offer?

DONILON: Look I kind of agree with Leon's assessment, but I don't have a basis on which to give you an answer on this. I don't have a conclusive view, either.

CHANIN: I will say, it's a question I asked pretty much everybody and no one was willing to say they thought the Pakistanis knew. The other thing that was sort of stated to me as evidence for them not knowing was, apparently the U.S. was monitoring a lot of communications inside of Pakistan. And none of those communications at that moment, when the Pakistanis are trying to figure out what's going on in the country, none of those communications to the people who were listening to them gave any indication that the Pakistanis were aware that bin Laden was there in Abottabad.

RYAN: And Cliff, was there any, as you were pulling the film together, was there any possibility of getting the Pakistani leadership's viewpoint or participation in telling their side of the story? Or it's sort of a, obviously a sore subject in some ways.

CHANIN: Well, I did try but it didn't, it didn't get very far. There is a Pakistani commission report that looked at this, the Pakistani parliament empowered a commission which could only go so far because the parliament is not particularly powerful in Pakistan. And their conclusion, and the tone of the report is very interesting because it is written with this undercurrent of fury on the part of the commissioners that this could have happened, and Michèle cited Leon Panetta but you could have cited the Pakistani commission report as well. It's either complicity or incompetence. And from the Pakistani point of view, neither is a particularly good outcome.

RYAN: Alright, let's go to the next question please, Sam.

STAFF: Our next question is from Christopher Preble.

Q: (Laughs.) Well, at the risk of repeating the questions that were asked before, this is the part of the story that I've really struggled with. I think the film did an excellent job of focusing on the mission itself, and really a testament to the training and professionalism of those who participated. This was a very dangerous mission. And as we discussed, there were many different ways when it could have gone sideways. But the difference, of course, between this incident and the Desert One incident in 1980, is that Iran was hostile territory. And after years of alleged cooperation between the Pakistanis and the U.S., there wasn't anyone apparently, or again I'm moderately encouraged by Tom Donilon's response that there were contingency plans in the case that it went very badly wrong. But I just feel that it's a comment on the inability to secure cooperation from our Pakistani partners. Look, if this compound had existed in the U.K. or France or Spain or go on the list, then the response would have been, hey, go knock on the door. And we would have had enough confidence in our partners that they wouldn't have revealed this information. And so I again, I just keep going back to this was a very, very dangerous mission. It didn't have to be.

DONILON: It's an interesting point. I'm happy to take that. The, you know, one of the options that we considered actively, but not for a long time frankly, was whether or not to do a joint raid on the ground with the Pakistanis. We had a lot of discussion about the potential impact of doing this operation, entering into Pakistan's sovereign airspace, and taking this raid without their knowledge or permission in the town where they have their equivalent of West Point. And with an infantry battalion about three miles down the road from where this was, where this was happening. So, and we decided against that, pretty decidedly against that, because we didn't have any confidence that we could maintain operational security. And that was I think that was the correct decision. But I do think it reflected the state of the relationship between the United States and the Pakistani military. Which is, by the way, a complicated organization with lots of different elements in it, some of which we had close relations with, some of which we didn't have such close relationships with, including elements of their security force, their intelligence community, their intelligence forces. So I think that's a fair, I think it's a fair characterization. But we did actively consider as one of the options at the beginning of the process, whether or not to do this, to do this with the Pakistanis.

There was, you know, obviously from General Kayani and others when they had their initial conversation with Admiral Mullen, when he had initially talked to them right after the operation, you know, of, why didn't you do this with us? Right, you know, and then of course it developed into, as Cliff described, it developed into a kind of a fury for violation of their sovereignty. And the answer, the answer wasn't, and you know it was fairly straightforward, it was an important issue to the United States. And in fact, during the campaign of 2008, the president was asked about this. He was asked if bin Laden, if you'd learned that bin Laden was in Pakistan, and you could take an operation against them would you do it? And he said, absolutely, yes. And he got a lot of criticism during the campaign. So our view was, in our conversation with the Pakistanis is that they were on notice. That, in fact, the United States reserved the right to act directly in Pakistan against bin Laden, if we had reason to believe that he was there.

FLOURNOY: Just to add that the judgment was based on some history, you know, there had been several, it wasn't the bin Laden raid but there are several operations where we had tried to do it with the Pakistanis. And they had either gone their own way, or we had lost operational security and the target had been able to flee. And so it wasn't just making a judgment out of thin air, it was a judgment based on several years of attempted, you know, joint operational work together.

DONILON: And Pakistan being a safe haven over a number of years for al-Qaeda. So it's a fair point, I think it's exactly right, that it was a dangerous operation. It's why it was difficult, obviously, a set of difficult decisions. But I don't think cooperating with the Pakistanis was really not an option based on everything that we knew and had experienced.

RYAN: Alright well let's see if we can get a couple of final questions in before we wrap up.

STAFF: Our next question is from Charles Duelfer.

Q: Hi, thanks, it was a very good film. And it was a successful raid. But I wonder if you know, if you could look at it in a different way and say it took the last superpower, you know, over a decade, hundreds of millions of dollars, you could argue that of course, to find one person. You know, we found other people, Zarqawi and al-Baghdadi, do you think it would take that long again for the intelligence community to think creatively, to use advanced techniques, etc.? Or was it only, I mean because I wonder you know you mentioned a meeting with Obama in 2009 in trying to light a fire under the intelligence community. Is there something that they did wrong in that process? Thank you.

DONILON: I don't think so. I think it's difficult to find one person who undertakes extraordinary operational security in one spot on the face of the earth. So I don't know of any, I don't know of anything that was done wrong by the intelligence community leading up to this and I'd rather focus on the persistence of the effort and its success. But I don't know, Michèle, if you have any comments from the military, from the military side.

FLOURNOY: Man-hunting is extraordinarily difficult. We learned that lesson in Somalia. We've learned it many, many times. We learned it in the Balkans. We've learned it in other places but, and many have questioned the value of focusing on just one individual. But I think in this particular case the, you know, bin Laden was, had such power in the organization and had become such a symbol more broadly for everything that al-Qaeda stood for that, you know, it was worth focusing on that one individual. Not to the exclusion of other elements of our counterterrorism strategy but as part of it, a much more comprehensive effort that was also yielding, you know, results over time, even as we were spending time hunting for him.

CHANIN: And one of the points that we were able to make in the film is that in the early days of the hunt, there were all of these sort of leads that had to be followed up and it sort of took a lot of time and effort, and nothing came of it. But what we didn't have time to put in the film was a really interesting observation by one of the senior intelligence folks who said, you know, we went into this dark time and we decided to use the dark time positively. You know, we weren't being asked to sort of chase our own tails and so we sat down and we were trying to figure out well, how should we do this differently? What are we looking for here? What is the pattern of life that we can try to establish for this guy so we know when we're on a place that actually reflects what we think about where he's going to be living? And so you know, the point was being made to me that even when you're not actively hunting, you are really hunting and you're trying to rethink your assumptions about what you're looking for and how you're looking.

RYAN: Okay, I'm going to squeeze in one final question. And we may ask just one person to respond. So maybe just the last question, Sam.

STAFF: Our last question will be from Jay Parker.

Q: Yes, thank you for this discussion and Cliff, congratulations on this great production.

CHANIN: Thank you, Jay.

Q: I was struck in watching the film about the consistent creative thinking, critical thinking, and imagination that went into the process of finding bin Laden and planning and executing this raid. And yet, one of the very first points made in this documentary was, and you hear this again and again about 9/11, we could not have possibly imagined an attack like the one that occurred. What can be done as part of the lessons learned from this process, to take that creativity, that critical thinking and that imagination that went into responding to this attack to fixing, if you will, the institutions, the processes, and the people who are part of it, to have that same level of imagination and creative and critical thinking to prevent and to foresee future threats? Thank you.

FLOURNOY: I would say, that—

RYAN: Michèle why don't you have the final word there?

FLOURNOY: —I think that sort of investing in forecasting, really having a team of people who are really focused over the horizon, trying to understand how an adversary might surprise us, how they might do things in an unexpected way, take a look at the intelligence through a different set of lenses. Not get drawn into focusing on the meeting of the day, the topic of the day, the operation of the day, protecting and empowering those resources, giving them time with senior leaders to shape thinking, is really, really important if we're going to have that ability to anticipate and to imagine what's coming rather than simply recognize what's right before us.

RYAN: And, Tom, do you want to just have a really quick final word?

DONILON: Sure. I think it's a great question. And, of course, you know, the 9/11 Commission Report concludes that there was a failure of imagination around 9/11 as you said. It's very important also to see, to constantly look at how the threat matrix is changing. And to, as Michèle said, have resources devoted to that. So for example, I'll leave on this, that it's important for us as policymakers, and important for our government, to be looking at the threats as they are today. So for example, we should be putting the same kind of critical thinking, imagination on threats like health, like cyber, these emerging threats that, and climate, that face us today and need the same kind of rigorous thinking so that we don't, we don't get caught unawares and surprised. But I think it's important to constantly shift the focus to the threats that are over the horizon.

RYAN: All right, well I want to thank all of our panelists and the audience members for being here today, and congratulate Cliff and his team on the film, and I hope everybody has a nice evening.

DONILON: Thank you. Great film, Cliff.

STAFF: For more event audio, subscribe on iTunes or visit us at CFR.org

(END)

Top Stories on CFR

Trade

President Biden’s goal of bolstering democracies around the world will need robust U.S.-Europe cooperation to succeed.

Energy and Environment

The Biden administration has unveiled plans to dramatically ramp up the nation’s offshore wind industry to help fulfill U.S. climate pledges. How realistic is the roadmap?

COVID-19

Western rhetoric on partnering with African countries as equals appears hollow as Western nations slap travel bans on African countries with confirmed cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.