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Obama talks risks, payoffs in making bin Laden decision

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by Staff Writers
Washington DC (AFP) May 09, 2011
President Barack Obama acknowledges he was nervous in the run-up to the secret US raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Even some advisers "voiced doubts" about the plan, he said.

He thought about the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, in which two US Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by militiamen, who dragged corpses of US soldiers through the streets.

There's also the April 1980 failed rescue mission in Iran. President Jimmy Carter had ordered the secret mission to rescue American hostages, but it was aborted when two aircraft collided before reaching Tehran.

"You think about Black Hawk Down. You think about what happened with the Iranian rescue," Obama said in an interview with the CBS news show "60 Minutes" broadcast Sunday. "Yeah, absolutely. The day before, I was thinking about this quite a bit."

That's not all he had on his mind. Despite the best efforts of his intelligence agencies, Obama said there was no photograph of bin Laden at the targeted Pakistani compound.

"There was no direct evidence of his presence," he said. "At the end of the day, this was still a 55/45 situation. I mean, we could not say definitively that bin Laden was there. Had he not been there, then there would have been some significant consequences."

Launching a military operation in the sovereign territory of another country - and not informing Pakistan - carried heavy risks.

"And so if it turns out that it's a wealthy, you know, prince from Dubai who's in this compound and, you know, we've sent Special Forces in, we've got problems," he said. "So there were - there were risks involved - geopolitically in making the decision."

Some advisers were against a commando-style raid - but Obama said he wanted "to be able to say that we'd definitely got the guy," while also having a chance to gather information from the compound and limit damage in a residential area.

"So the fact that there were some who voiced doubts about this approach was invaluable, because it meant the plan was sharper, it meant that we had thought through all of our options," he said.

Ultimately, envisioning the potential payoff made it worthwhile.

"I said to myself that if we have a good chance of - not completely defeating but badly disabling Al-Qaeda - then it was worth both the political risks, as well as the risks to our men."

Obama made his final decision late on the Thursday before the Sunday raid.

In between, he carried on as usual, visiting the tornado-battered US south, making a commencement speech, even lambasting Donald Trump at an annual journalists' dinner the night before the raid.

The US president said secrecy about the mission was vital.

"I didn't tell my own family... Very few people in the White House knew. The vast majority of my most senior aides did not know," he said. "There were times where you wanted to go around and talk this through with some more folks. And that just wasn't an option.

"And during the course of the weekend, you know, there was no doubt that this was weighing on me."

Obama played golf Sunday, waiting for sundown in Pakistan. Then it was off to the Situation Room of the White House where he others watched the 40-minute raid unfold "in real time, he said, describing the mood as "very tense."

"It was the longest 40 minutes of my life with the possible exception of when Sasha got meningitis when she was three months old and I was waiting for the doctor to tell me that she was all right," he said, referring to his daughter.

Then they heard the magic word - "Geronimo."

"They said Geronimo is - has - been killed. And Geronimo was the code name for bin Laden. And now obviously at that point these guys were operating in the dark with all kinds of stuff going on, so everybody was cautious. But at that point cautiously optimistic."

Later, when the helicopters landed, photos were taken and facial analysis indicated it was bin Laden, the president said.

"As nervous as I was about this whole process, the one thing I didn't lose sleep over was the possibility of taking bin Laden out. Justice was done.

"And I think that anyone who would question that the perpetrator of mass murder on American soil didn't deserve what he got, needs to have their head examined."

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