Obama, National Security Team Tracked Pakistan Raid

While U.S. Special Forces were raiding a compound in Pakistan, President Obama and members of his national security team were monitoring events from the White House Situation Room. Osama bin Laden was killed in that operation. John Brennan, deputy national security adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, talks to Steve Inskeep about the event.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And Im Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The White House released a photograph of President Obama with his national security team over the weekend. They're getting an update on the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The room in this photo is crowded with many of the administration's top figures, from Joe Biden to Robert Gates to Hillary Clinton.

And also, if I'm not mistaken, over here on the right-hand side John Brennan, the president's counterterrorism adviser who is on the line with us this morning.

Mr. Brennan, good morning. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JOHN BRENNAN (Deputy National Security Adviser, Homeland Security and Counterterrorism): Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I want to understand a little bit better how Osama bin Laden managed to stay hidden for almost a decade. It's said that the house was there for several years, we were told that. Do you know how long bin Laden was actually in that house?

Mr. BRENNAN: Well, it's our information at this point that he had been there at least five years or so. And it is one of the most vexing questions that we are facing right now, how was he able to stay in a house 35 miles outside of Islamabad for so long and be undetected.

INSKEEP: And do you have any idea how he was able to stay undetected in anywhere that he may have been from late 2001, when he was believed to be in Tora Bora in Afghanistan and 2006, I guess, when he would've been in this house, as best to know?

Mr. BRENNAN: Well, I think at this point that's still a mystery, how he got from Tora Bora to Abbottabad, how long it took him to get there, where he might have stopped along the way. But it's our understanding that he stayed in the house in Abbottabad, did not go out, relied on the other individuals who lived in that compound to provide him the food, supplies, and contact with the outside world. So he was hiding there, but yet it was in a million-dollar compound right outside of the Pakistani capital.

INSKEEP: Why do you say it was inconceivable; that's the word you used when speaking with reporters yesterday? Why is it inconceivable that he would be able to hide without a support system in Pakistan?

Mr. BRENNAN: Well, for a period of five years or so, I think we know that he was in contact with al-Qaida operatives in many parts of Pakistan, as well as the rest of the world. We know that he had contacts with other people but he was doing it through cutouts; he was doing it to the people who lived in the compound. There were a couple of other adult males who were killed during the raid.

But what we're trying to do, now, is pieced together the rest of the puzzle, to give us a sense of were there other people in the Abbottabad area that were knowledgeable about bin Laden and provided support. Were there other people inside of Pakistan who were knowledgeable and assisted bin Laden and his family in maintaining their anonymity for so long?

INSKEEP: Is that also inconceivable that bin Laden could hide in that location without the knowledge of someone in the Pakistani government or in the military?

Mr. BRENNAN: We're looking at that question very closely right now. And we're having an ongoing dialogue with Pakistani officials. It is...

INSKEEP: Are you learning anything in the last 24 hours about that? Are they giving you any information?

Mr. BRENNAN: They are expressing as great a surprise as we had when we first learned about this compound. So there's no indication, at this point, that the people we have talked to were aware of this. But we need to dig deeper into this. And I know the Pakistani officials themselves are looking closer into this. Was there somebody within the Pakistani establishment that knew about bin Laden's presence at the compound and provided support, and helped maintain the secret?

INSKEEP: I want to play a little bit of tape here, if I might. Pakistani ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, heard that you'd said that bin Laden must have had a support system inside Pakistan. And this is how he responded on NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED last night.

Ambassador HUSAIN HAQQANI (Pakistan to United States): Did the government of Pakistan know and did the state of Pakistan know? No, it did not. Had we known, we would have got him ourselves. And that said, very happy to enter into a discussion with our American allies and look at whatever questions Mr. Brennan or others have for us.

INSKEEP: Mr. Brennan, I want to see if I can understand one of the questions I think you're raising. You're saying you're confident that people who are talking to you, someone like the ambassador, they didn't know. But that somebody in the - I believe you said the establishment, the military establishment; that the people who - the large number of people but that large - who have great influence in Pakistan. You think possibly somebody there might have known something.

Mr. BRENNAN: Yes, we're still in the early stages of this investigation, post-raid and the Pakistanis are themselves. Less than 48 hours since this raid was conducted, so I think it would be premature to rule out the possibility that there were some individuals inside of Pakistan, including within the official Pakistani establishment, who might have been aware of this.

But we're not accusing anybody at this point but we want to make sure we get to the bottom of this. And I know that the Pakistani officials, and I'm sure Ambassador Haqqani, as well, would like to know whether or not somebody within the Pakistani government was knowledgeable about bin Laden's presence on that compound.

INSKEEP: Pakistan's President, Asif Ali Zardari, has written an op-ed article in The Washington Post, saying that bin Laden wasn't anywhere that we anticipated; meaning the government of Pakistan anticipated.

But does Zardari really have any influence, at this point, over what somebody in the military or the intelligence agencies might do in Pakistan?

Mr. BRENNAN: Well, he's the president of Pakistan.

INSKEEP: Right.

Mr. BRENNAN: But, yet there are military commanders who maintain quite a bit of control over their forces and a degree of independence. But, so what we're trying to do right now is again, work with the Pakistani officials, both military and civilian, because I am confident that they want to get to the bottom of this. The Pakistani-U.S. relationship is important for both countries and what we need to do is to understand all of the different aspects of this development as far as bin Laden's presence there, so that we can assure that the Pakistani-U.S. relationship moves forward in a positive way.

INSKEEP: To the extent that you can tell us, now that another day has passed, what, if anything, are you learning from the material that was gathered at this compound when the raid was made?

Mr. BRENNAN: We're going through whatever material we're able to grab, as the individuals went into the compound. It is still early. There is some information that we are acquiring at this point. I don't want to go into details at this time, because of the operational sensitivities associated with any of that material, but suffice it to say that we are putting a priority on exploitation of this material as quickly as possible.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask another question that is surely on people's minds and will increasingly be on the public's minds. We have a profile elsewhere in the program of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two of al-Qaida. For years we've been asking people like you, where do you think bin Laden is, and now the question is where do you think Zawarhiri is, what country?

Mr. BRENNAN: I think our latest information is that he's in the same area of Southwest Asia, whether it's in Pakistan or Afghanistan. There have been a number of al-Qaida senior officials who have been taken out of major cities of Pakistan, again, hiding in plain sight. There is the area in Waziristan where al-Qaida is rooted and speculation that Zawarhiri and other senior officials remain hunkered down in that area.

So we're going to continue to pursue every lead. We're going to work very closely with the Pakistani government. But as the president has said, repeatedly, both before he was president and afterward, if we have information about where these senior al-Qaida officials are, we're going to do everything in our power to bring them to justice.

INSKEEP: But you're not willing to say, as officials sometimes did say about bin Laden, that you specifically think that Zawarhiri is in Pakistan?

Mr. BRENNAN: I'm not going to say with confidence, that we are sure of his location, what country. Our information is only as good as the latest information we might have received from our sources. So I know these individuals now are concerned about their own welfare and well-being. They may be on the move, but if they are, we're going to track them down.

INSKEEP: In a few seconds, Mr. Brennan, why haven't you released photos of Osama bin Laden?

Mr. BRENNAN: We are in the process of releasing a lot of information to the American public. We want to do it in a thoughtful manner.

INSKEEP: But why not photos?

Mr. BRENNAN: We are considering, at this point, releasing additional information, but that is a decision to be determined.

INSKEEP: So you may release photos, but not yet.

Mr. BRENNAN: So we may release photos, yes.

INSKEEP: What would prompt you to do that?

Mr. BRENNAN: There is not a question at this point, I think, in anybody's mind that bin Laden is dead. And so I know that there are some people who are interested in having visual proof. This is something that we're taking into account, but what we don't want to do is to release anything that might be either misunderstood or that would cause other problems.

INSKEEP: OK.

MR. BRENNAN: We are looking at these decisions and we'll make the right decisions.

INSKEEP: Mr. Brennan, thanks very much for your time.

Mr. BRENNAN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: John Brennan is assistant to the president for Homeland Security and counterterrorism, part of the team that made decisions that led to the death of Osama Bin Laden.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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U.S. Probing Whether Bin Laden Had Help From Within Pakistani Establishment

John Brennan at the White House on Monday (May 2, 2011). i i

John Brennan at the White House on Monday (May 2, 2011). Carolyn Kaster/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Carolyn Kaster/AP
John Brennan at the White House on Monday (May 2, 2011).

John Brennan at the White House on Monday (May 2, 2011).

Carolyn Kaster/AP

Steve Inskeep speaks with John Brennan

Asked if the U.S. believes that someone in the Pakistani establishment might have known that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and helped him hide there, President Obama's counterterrorism adviser said today that "we need to dig deeper into this."

And, John Brennan said on Morning Edition that:

"It would be premature to rule out the possibility. ... We're not accusing anybody at this point, but we want to make sure we get to the bottom of this."

The U.S., Brennan told host Steve Inskeep, is looking at the question of who in Pakistan knew about bin Laden's presence "very closely right now."

There is "no indication at this point that the people (in the Pakistani government) we have talked to were aware," but that does not rule out the possibility that others in the establishment "knew about bin Laden's presence at the compound and provided support and helped maintain the secret." He said that Pakistani officials the U.S. has been dealing with also want answers.

Brennan made the rounds of several morning news shows today to talk about the U.S. raid that resulted in bin Laden's death on Sunday, the investigation into how long he had been in Abbottabad and what the U.S. has learned from the intelligence it seized during the mission.

Pakistani officials, on All Things Considered and in op-eds (including this morning in The Washington Post) have said their government did not know where bin Laden was.

Brennan also said on Morning Edition that the U.S. believes al-Qaida's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, "is in the same area of Southwest Asia, whether it's in Pakistan or Afghanistan."

And Brennan said that U.S. officials "may release photos" of bin Laden. "What we don't want to do is release anything that might be misunderstood or cause other problems," he added.

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