DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. It's been a year since Navy SEALs launched a raid on a compound in Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden. Our guest today, journalist Peter Bergen, has spent much of his career studying al-Qaida and its founder. Bergen met bin Laden in 1997 as a producer for CNN, and he says that in some respects, he'd been preparing ever since to write his new book, called "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden From 9/11 to Abbottabad."
Bergen is the only journalist to have examined the compound where bin Laden spent his final years, and he interviewed more than a dozen key officials involved in the manhunt and the decision to launch the raid on Abbottabad. Bergen's book is in part a chronicle of bin Laden's life and career.
He describes what life was like at bin Laden's compound and how he sought to respond to al-Qaida's declining influence. The book is also a dissection of the search to find bin Laden. Among the issues Bergen explores is whether harsh interrogation techniques yielded information that led to bin Laden's capture.
Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst and a director of the New America Foundation. He's written three previous books about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. He spoke with us from Washington yesterday.
Well, Peter Bergen, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You write that, you know, before the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden regarded the United States as weak. What did he think the 9/11 attacks might do to the United States? What did he think their impact might be?
PETER BERGEN: Well, what he hoped and what he fervently believed, as I write in the book, was that the United States was, in his mind, very similar to the former Soviet Union; would, after an attack on the scale of 9/11, soon withdraw from the Middle East, pull its support away from the authoritarian regimes, the Saudis, the Egyptians - and that they would then crumble just as the client regimes of the Soviets in Eastern Europe had crumbled. That was his analysis.
And the reason that he believed that was the case is, you know, as you said in the interview we did with - for CNN in 1997, the pullout from Vietnam in the 1970s, the pullout from Beirut after the embassy - Marine barracks attack in 1983, the pullout from Somalia after the Black Hawk Down in 1993.
So, you know, that was his analysis. The fact is it was completely wrong, and the United States didn't pull out of the Middle East. It did something quite different: It invaded Afghanistan, later Iraq. The United States now has massive bases in places like Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, you know, the list goes on and on.
So as a strategic matter, the 9/11 attacks were like Pearl Harbor for al-Qaida, a tactical victory which eventually led to their strategic defeat.
DAVIES: And of course, he was, at the time, living in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban regime. And it's interesting that you write that he made no particular plans to, you know, to escape from Afghanistan because he didn't think the United States would really come after him, right?
BERGEN: No, I mean, the worst thing in life is believe - you know, coming to believe your own propaganda, and he really believed the United States was a paper tiger. He did not prepare for an American invasion of Afghanistan. There was no clever plan to draw the United States into a Soviet-style quagmire, as some in al-Qaida sort of many years later, you know, in a sort of post-facto rationalization of their own failures tried, to make out.
There was no plan. You know, bin Laden presumed that there would be an attack similar to what Clinton had done in '98 after the embassy attacks in Africa, where there would be cruise missiles. At worst, he thought it would be, you know, some air strikes a-la Kosovo, which had happened two years earlier, where there were no American boots on the ground and no American casualties.
You know, instead he got presented by something very different, which was 300 U.S. Special Forces, 110 CIA officials who overthrew the Taliban in the course of three weeks, which is one of the great sort of unconventional victories of the modern era.
DAVIES: Right, and he ends up retreating to the mountains of Tora Bora. And of course, as we know, he was not captured or killed. Do we know how close he was to the American bombing and whether he might have been injured?
BERGEN: Oh, he was - I think indisputably injured quite badly, and videotape of him that surfaced later showed that he had - wasn't moving his left side. So one presumes that he was - you know, took some shrapnel in the shoulder in the left side. Accounts that I have in the book of people within al-Qaida who then ended up either talking to jihadi websites or in Guantanamo, indicate that bin Laden was giving speeches inside Tora Bora.
He left around December 11, 2001. You know, the American bombing campaign was incredibly intensive. He didn't really do much to plan for that. He seemed, in the words of one of the people who was there, mostly interested in making good his own escape, which he did. And quite a lot of people from al-Qaida got captured or killed in Tora Bora or captured on their way out of Tora Bora, I should say, more accurately, going into Pakistan.
DAVIES: If so many al-Qaida fighters were arrested trying to get into Pakistan, how did Osama himself slip away?
BERGEN: Bin Laden is one of the - he would boast, routinely, that he could ride a horse 48 miles without stopping. He would take his sons on expeditions through the Tora Bora mountains, where he had essentially a vacation home in the post - the pre-9/11 time period.
And, you know, he would routinely hike through these mountains for 12 or 14 hours. His sons would dread these expeditions, which for bin Laden, seemed to be, you know, one of the world's greatest activities. And so, you know, he knew this place like the back of his hand. He'd been visiting this area since the mid-'90s.
He'd built a road through the mountains down the neighboring city of Jalalabad in 1997. So he just knew this place really, really well, which is why he retreated there. And it wasn't to retreat there to have a spectacular martyrdom, as I think people on the U.S. side assumed - those who weren't paying attention - was to actually escape, and he escaped. We now know, I think, and it's - you know, this is from the WikiLeaks material - I think this is a very plausible account. Instead of going into Pakistan, he doubled back into Afghanistan, back to the city of Jalalabad, and then up to the very remote province of Kunar in eastern Afghanistan, which is perfectly designed to hide.
It's an area of dense forest. It's an area that goes up to 12,000 feet. It's - the central government has no presence, what to speak of. So it was a great place to disappear, and I think that that is a very plausible account of what happened, because one of the great mysteries, Dave, in sort of reporting the book, was trying to account for where bin Laden was in the years between his disappearance at Tora Bora and when he showed up in Abbottabad, in Pakistan, in the summer of 2005.
DAVIES: Now, you write that during the Bush administration, of course there was a large focus on Iraq from 2003 on. Did - do you think this slowed down or detracted from the hunt for bin Laden?
BERGEN: Let me answer that question in this way: Robert Grenier, who I interview for the book, was a CIA station chief in Pakistan, and in fact, played a critical - an interesting role in negotiating with a very senior leader of the Taliban shortly after 9/11 to basically hand over bin Laden. And that discussion was sanctioned by Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban.
By 2002, 2003, - certainly by the summer of 2002, Grenier was appointed to a new job at the CIA, which had never existed before, the Iraq mission manager. And basically, you know, in Grenier's telling, you know, he sucked up - or was asked to suck up every great counterterrorism official in the agency.
You know, Iraq was this huge pull on the agency's talent. And I quote another guy in the book, a guy called Art Keller, who was an operations officer posted to Pakistan, and he said: Look, we were very few of us there in Pakistan in 2006, because Iraq was sucking up all the energy.
And I quote somebody who worked for Condoleezza Rice, which is David Kilcullen, the Australian counterinsurgency guru, and he - you know, Kilcullen said: Look, it was all Iraq all the time until 2007, when things began, sort of, slightly improving in Iraq.
DAVIES: Now in the end we know that this courier, known as The Kuwaiti, was key to finding the Abbottabad residence and getting to bin Laden. How did U.S. intelligence get a bead on him?
BERGEN: Well, that's the heart of the book. It was really a - you know, assembling a lot of really small pieces of information to build a mosaic, which of course is the intelligence business, very often. No one - there's no - as I write in the book, the CIA by 2005 realized there was no magic detainee who was just going to tell them, you know, tell them what they needed to know about bin Laden.
And so, you know, there's a debate about - you know, recently we've had Jose Rodriguez, a senior CIA official on "60 Minutes," who has also released a book just now, claiming that enhanced interrogation, I think, was pretty important to the finding of bin Laden.
I have a chapter on this question because you can make arguments on both sides. Two key al-Qaida figures fingered this guy, Kuwaiti, as the courier, as an important guy in al-Qaida in between 2002 and 2004. Both of them were coercively interrogated, using techniques like sleep deprivation, you know, white noise, all the sort of panoply of those kinds of techniques, though neither of them were water-boarded.
And then the counterargument is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the number three in al-Qaida, and then his successor, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, so the number three in al-Qaida, were captured by the United States and were then water-boarded and/or coercively interrogated. Both of them gave up disinformation about the courier, saying The Kuwaiti was no longer important, which is one of the reasons the CIA actually began to think maybe he was important.
So, I mean, where does that leave on enhanced interrogation? I think it's pretty kind of murky, mixed picture, and the fact of the matter is that really big breakthroughs about the courier have nothing to do with coercive interrogations or non-coercive interrogations.
An absolutely critically key piece to the puzzle was a third country, which I could never really nail down what that third country was, told the agency that the real name of the courier wasn't Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, which was a pseudonym, but was something else, Ibrahim Said(ph).
And that was a very important piece of information because, you know, you can't find somebody if you don't have their real name, generally speaking, and that was in 2007.
The next really big break came when the courier and his brother changed the way in which they were communicating on cell phones, in June of 2010. Maybe they changed their cell phone carrier, something like that. This allowed national - the NSA, the big eavesdropping agency in the United States, to geolocate, to use the kind of term of art, where one of these phones was. And they traced it to the city of Peshawar.
Then you still needed a CIA officer recruiting a CIA asset on the ground in Peshawar to be able to go and find this guy and go back, you know, and trace him back to the city of Abbottabad, which is about two and a half hours to the east of Peshawar.
So, you know, these very big breaks didn't come from any interrogations. They came from help from a liaison intelligence agency, (unintelligible) signals and televisions by the National Security Agency and classic human intelligence, or humint, as it's called, by CIA assets on the ground in Pakistan.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Peter Bergen. His new book is called "Manhunt." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with journalist Peter Bergen. He's been studying al-Qaida for years. His new book is "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden From 9/11 to Abbottabad."
Well, eventually the U.S. intelligence community managed to put together all of this different information from different sources and conclude that this courier of bin Laden's known, as The Kuwaiti, was indeed still active, still very close to him. And they discovered where he was living.
This was obviously a huge break. Do you want to describe the house that they found?
BERGEN: Yeah, well, I can describe it in some detail because I'm the only journalist to have been allowed to get into the house, and really the only outside observer who's been allowed to tour inside the compound.
So the compound sits in a Bilal neighborhood in Abbottabad, which is a - not the premiere place to live in Abbottabad but a fairly decent place to live. It's, as is well-known, about a mile from Pakistan's premiere military academy. It was quite well-designed in the sense that sightlines into the house from outside, it's not very easy to see in. There were, you know, terraces with high walls. The whole thing is very well-walled.
It's not the million-dollar mansion that was initially portrayed by people in the Obama administration. It was $50,000 to buy the land and maybe, you know, a few hundred thousand dollars to build the house. It's a bigger house than many in the neighborhood, but it's not completely out of character in this part of the world to have high walls.
A lot of Afghan refugees, wealthy refugees, have walls to protect their womenfolk from strangers' eyes. So, none of that would really stick out. It was...
DAVIES: And was the house built by Osama and his crew, or did they buy it?
BERGEN: Yeah, the courier in 2004, 2005 started assembling plots of land, knowing that his boss needed, you know, this kind of, you know, really well-constructed hiding place. And bin Laden, you know, it's not clear, exactly, when he moved there, but at some point in 2005, probably towards the end of 2005, he moved in.
There was a small house for the courier and his wife and his kids. There were fields on one side of the house for crops and then another big field on the other side of the house, which was a, sort of, vegetable garden. They were growing cucumbers. They were growing everything they needed. There was chicken cages. I found cartons of Quaker Oats at the compound. I found cartons of Sasso Olive Oil at the compound.
In bin Laden's bedroom, I found Just For Men Hair Dye because in his old age - or older age - he was getting quite vain and dying his beard black and dying his hair black. And so, you know, the life they led was pretty confined. There were, you know, about 24 people living on the compound in total.
DAVIES: Let's just talk about that. Who - now that we know more about it, who was living there with bin Laden and the courier?
BERGEN: Well, he had his three wives: 62-year-old Khairiah who was from Saudi Arabia; 54-year-old wife and exact contemporary of bin Laden's, also from Saudi Arabia. Both of these women, interestingly, have Ph.D.s, so, you know, bin Laden married people who were - these are quite intelligent women. And then finally his 29-year-old wife, who didn't have any formal education, sort of, you know, married bin Laden straight of high school, basically. She was living with him on the third floor.
Then there were - each of the wives had some kids. There were about a dozen kids. There were four grandkids, in total, on the compound, bin Laden's grandkids, and they were all living together. They were not living large. I mean, the beds that I saw when I toured the compound were basically bits of plywood hammered together with nails.
Each wife had her own very small kitchen, which had a very crude kind of exhaust system, which was basically a metal bucket suspended over the stove and a sort of metal piping going and taking the kitchen smells outside.
So it was a pretty - my overwhelming impression from being inside the compound was that it was a pretty squalid place, but on the other hand, not uncomfortable, because of course Bin Laden was 200 miles away from the area where all of these drone strikes were taking out his key leaders in al-Qaida.
He was able to indulge in his hobbies of reading anti-Zionist, anti-American literature. He was making occasional video tapes and audio tapes for release to the wider world. He was, you know, keeping up his very severe practice of Islam, where he was praying seven times a day and fasting.
He was lecturing his family on an almost daily basis about dos and don'ts. He was a bit of a disciplinarian, you know, and he'd been used to living in sort of fairly deprived circumstances, because he did that when he was living in Sudan in the '90s and did that in Afghanistan under the Taliban.
DAVIES: Now, as far as we know, did bin Laden himself ever leave? Did he ever exercise? Was his life in that room?
BERGEN: He basically was in the top-floor study and top-floor bedroom of his house. He did take an occasional walk, which is why, you know, the CIA famously identified somebody called the pacer. But he was smart enough to take those walks under a tarpaulin in the vegetable garden, just on the off chance that an American satellite might be passing overhead. He made sure that they would never get a picture of him, and they didn't. In fact, that of course is one of the reasons that there was never proof-positive that bin Laden was there.
DAVIES: There's a fascinating section of the book in which you tell us what we know, I guess, probably from some of the material that was captured, about what Osama bin Laden was thinking and doing in these last years. I mean, he communicated with a lot of al-Qaida units around the world. He was very security-conscious. How did he communicate with them?
BERGEN: Well, he communicated - you know, the courier was the key to his communications. I mean, he was sending people letters, or sending people disks, or sending people thumb drives with information. And I was able to review some of the documents in the so-called treasure trove that was found by the U.S. Navy SEALs and then translated, something like 6,000-plus documents.
A lot of them are just, like, you know, insignificant, or some of them are too operational to be released, but they're going to be released publicly very, very soon.
DAVIES: Well, you mentioned that he wrote a seven-page letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was the head of al-Qaida in Iraq, which you described as a polite but blistering critique. What did he tell him?
BERGEN: Well, he told this guy, you know, one of the big things - I mean, this letter was released by the U.S. military in 2005. I mean, basically it was through a subordinate. It was essentially saying, you know, you are killing us, killing the brand with your violence against civilians and beheading people on television.
And one of the things that you really get a sense from the documents that have now been recovered in the Abbottabad compound, is that bin Laden was very aware of how damaged the al-Qaida brand had been by particularly al-Qaida in Iraq and its, you know, just absolutely indiscriminate violence against any Muslim civilian who didn't precisely share its views.
So that's a very clear kind of takeaway from these documents that bin Laden was working on. I mean, he had a lot of time on his hand. So he was writing these 48 - he wrote in one case a 48-page memo to his chief of staff, you know, saying the drones are killing us, we've got to, you know, we've got to tell people in our organization to essentially think more politically.
And he was instructing his affiliate in Yemen not to kill local tribal members because that's what had done in al-Qaida in Iraq. And so, you know, the picture that emerges from the documents that have been retrieved in the compound is the organization under a lot of pressure from the drones, an organization realizing that its brand was in great difficulty and trying to fix that.
DAVIES: Did he have other ideas for dealing with al-Qaida's PR problem, in effect? Like changing its name was one of them, right?
BERGEN: Well, changing its name, and he fiddled with some very un-catchy alternatives like the Monotheism and Jihad Group, and a whole slew of other names. That didn't happen. But, you know, he is - he is - you know, I think it's really a portrait of a guy who knows he's sort of managing a declining organization and, sort of, casting around for ways to kind of resuscitate it.
DAVIES: Peter Bergen's new book is "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden From 9/11 to Abbottabad." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.
One year after the Navy SEALs raid that led to the death of Osama bin Laden, we're speaking with journalist Peter Bergen. He spent years covering al-Qaida and its leaders and he has a new book about bin Laden's final years in Pakistan, the search to find him and the assault on Abbottabad. It's called "Manhunt."
Bergen was the only journalist who examined bin Laden's compound before it was razed. He described what life was like inside the house at a time when American intelligence was trying to figure out if bin Laden was really there.
So we've been talking about what was going on inside the house. You have Osama sort of increasingly kind of isolated but still communicating with his subordinates and a large extended family living with him. Of course, the U.S. intelligence officials didn't know a lot of this, right? How much did they know about what was going on inside the house and how did they try and figure out more?
BERGEN: Yeah. There's a sort of menu of options that the agency, which is signals intelligence while there was no Internet service at the house and there was no phone service, so that kind of knocked that out as an option. Of course, they had satellite imagery at the house and they could kind of that, you know, was helpful to some degree but it doesn't really tell you who's living in which room and how many people really are there, is bin Laden really there? They put a safe house on the ground in somewhere in Abbottabad and were able to get more eyes on, but the house itself was designed in such a way it wasn't really easy to like look into it from outside.
One interesting thing that the agency did is they looked at clotheslines to see how many female garments and how many male garments were being hung up as a way to kind of try and determine - break down who was living where in the complex and how many adults there were, etcetera. And over time, you know, they identified what seemed to be a third family in the compound that wasn't belonging to the courier or his brother and over time some people began to think that this is bin Laden. On the other hand, some people also thought well, maybe this is just a criminal who's keeping a low profile and the courier used to work for al-Qaida and now he's working for this criminal. Or maybe it's another high-value member of al-Qaida who isn't bin Laden, although most people dismissed that because there was a pretty good understanding of where the other al-Qaida high-value targets lived.
One point, President Obama has said, you know, was it, you know, maybe just some prints from Dubai who was like trying to hide from his wives or something. So it looked pretty suspicious, this guy who was keeping a low profile, but you could, you know, as the red team - when the red team did their work if they were other explanations that could be put onto that, the alternative explanations. They weren't as good as the explanations generally speaking that this was bin Laden, but...
DAVIES: You know, maybe you should just explain. When you say the red team, you mean this was the point in which they specifically said - they appointed this group of people and said give us an alternative explanation. Convince us that this is not bin Laden, right?
BERGEN: Right. The CIA had been doing a lot of thinking about what other reasons, what other kind of explanations could there possibly be. The red team came in. They were people who generally had not worked on the case already. Some of them came from the National Counterterrorism Center; two of them came from within the agency. You know, they kicked the tires. They only - they had very limited time. They had about 48 hours to sort of basically look at all the data. And, of course, there wasn't a lot of data.
One of the sort of great remarks in the book, I think, is from deputy CIA Director Michael Morell who says at one point to President Obama in terms of available data points there was a better circumstantial case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction than bin Laden is living in the Abbottabad compound, which is, I think, is a pretty amazing comment. This was in the last week. This is when President Obama was having the last meetings of his National Security Council about this. And, you know, generally when you want to make a decision like this your level of certitude you kind of want it to go up, not to go down. And I quote Tony Blinken, who is national security advisor to, you know, Vice President Joe Biden and, you know, he says that the numbers kind of were sort of going down during this process from, you know, 70-30 two suddenly 50-50. You know, clearly that was making some people uncomfortable. And Bob Gates, the Defense secretary in particular found the red team assessments to be persuasive - not persuasive that bin Laden was there but persuasive that he might well not be there.
DAVIES: And one of the interesting points, and I don't remember whether this was your observation or one of the people that you interviewed was, that while there was no consensus here and some senior people, including the vice president, thought that they shouldn't proceed with the raid. That the closer you got to the people who had been with this issue for a long time, the more convinced they were that it was the right thing to do.
BERGEN: That's right. So the people who had been on what's the bin Laden account, which is sort of the term of art that the agency uses, I mean some of them were up at 90 percent that bin Laden was there, this is the right thing to do. And, of course, Leon Panetta, who was then the director of the CIA, he was by far the most persuasive person at that final National Security Council meeting to make it, you know, basically to go at.
DAVIES: So this was a fascinating dilemma. I mean there was no one saying we know bin Laden is there. It was a circumstantial case that you could evaluate in many different ways. But the other thing that they had to evaluate, apart from the certainty or uncertainty that bin Laden was living in this compound, was how risky this was operationally to have a crew go in and...
DAVIES: ...and take him out. You want to just talk a little bit about some of, you know, they rejected some things like a drone strike. But once you decided you were going to send a team, how risky an operation was that? How difficult?
BERGEN: Well, there's two options that it came down to, the decision that faced President Obama on April 28th in the final National Security Council meeting was, one, was a drone strike using what I determined to be a small experimental weapon that had never been used before - a 13 pound bomb, most - the smallest American bomb is usually a 500 pound bomb. Admiral Mullen, who spoke to me for the first time on the record about this operation, was very opposed. He's the principal, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time. He thought we basically placed too much emphasis on technology sometimes - particularly technology that are untried. He was very dismissive of this idea.
President Obama himself at the end of the day didn't want to do the drone attacks because he felt, hey, if we're going to essentially do something that, you know, the Pakistanis aren't really going to like let's at least do a boots-on-the-ground raid. Now I think in terms of the SEALs, President Obama had a very high degree of confidence in their ability to carry out this mission because he'd had quite a lot of experience overseeing missions that they were involved in or signing off on, authorizing missions they were involved in.
DAVIES: These are the Navy SEALs who are operating in Afghanistan at the time, right?
BERGEN: I mean one of the very first big crises you may recall in his presidency was Richard Phillips, Captain Richard Phillips, the captain of an American Merchant Marine ship had been, you know, basically kidnapped by a group of Somali pirates and three months into his presidency and President Obama said if Phillips' life appears to be in danger, you know, let's take the pirates out. U.S. Navy SEALs parachuted in near where the pirates were, got on an American warship, saw the pirates pointing a gun at Phillips and three of them took out three pirates simultaneously with three shots at nightfall from a distance of 100 feet in heaving seas is kind of an amazing feat. And I, you know, that must've been quite impressive to the president very early on and that the leader of that operation, the overseer of that operation, was somebody called Admiral William McRaven, vice admiral then. And, of course, he was the architect of the operation in Abbottabad.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Peter Bergen. His new book is called "Manhunt." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: We're speaking with journalist Peter Bergen. His new book is called "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad." In the book, Bergen describes the uncertainty American officials faced about whether bin Laden was at the Abbottabad compound and whether the planned operation would succeed.
So they developed this plan in which you would have these Blackhawks fly, undetected hopefully, by the Pakistanis across the boarder and land and send teams into the compound at Abbottabad. And one of the things they had to consider were scenarios in which things went wrong. What were some of the scenarios that they considered?
BERGEN: Well, the big scenario that, you know, was getting involved in a firefight on the ground with the Pakistani forces who, you know, after all it's, you know, a Pakistani military academy is around the corner and, you know, President Obama - and this is according to Admiral Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs - was insistent that the premium should not be on keeping the Pakistanis happy. The premium should be on making sure that if the SEALs got in a firefight, were in sort of in a hostage situation in Abbottabad, that they could fight their way out. And that had a very practical effect on the way the plan, the operation was planned.
Initially, it was planned as a sort of lighter operation, fewer helicopters, fewer men on the ground and it got, you know, more Chinooks, the big kind of size of a school bus helicopter, three of those were put in to the operation so there was backup and, of course, one of the Blackhawks did crash and there were two Blackhawks - to Chinooks standing by 20-minutes-flight north of Abbottabad, one of which flew in to relieve the downed helicopter. So, you know, the biggest potential problem - well, there were all sorts of problems but that, you know, the big problem number one would be what if bin Laden wasn't there?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BERGEN: And they planned for that, which is, you know, we go in, we leave and we don't say anything about it. And the Pakistanis probably have a good reason to keep this quiet because it's sort of embarrassing that we managed to do this. And so there was a whole messaging strategy at the White House led by, you know, which was put together by Ben Rhodes, who's the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. And basically they gamed out: What do we say in case he isn't there? What do we say if something starts going really wrong, civilians are dead on the ground, SEALs are off taken hostage? And part of the answer to that was we need to have a really good case that we can present publicly that isn't going to compromise sources and methods that explains why we did this. Because we're going to have to explain both to the American people and to the Pakistanis and the world writ large if something goes wrong, this is what we had.
DAVIES: Tell us just a little bit about a couple of the operational details. I mean they were coming in, what, in the dark. How were they going to pull this off?
BERGEN: Well, they had to fly to a, you know, they had to fly 150 miles from Afghanistan to Pakistan. They were doing it at night. They were flying so-called nap-of-the-earth, which means a few feet above the ground, weaving between trees and flying along riverbeds. Of course, these were stealth helicopters which are very hard to detect by Pakistani radar, which is anyway largely pointed at Indian. They were wearing night vision goggles. It was a tricky operation but the trickiness of the operation wasn't that because the SEALs do this every night - sometimes a dozen times at night in Afghanistan. The tricky part was going to Pakistan, you know, encountering Pakistani F-16s, potentially encountering Pakistani forces on the ground, maybe encountering some kind of, you know, bin Laden bodyguard team that hadn't really been assessed, bin Laden not being there, bin Laden holding up in a safe room, bin Laden, you know, escaping. I mean there were a whole sort of menu of things.
BERGEN: There were bin Laden getting wounded but not dying, bin Laden surrendering was another interesting issue. So, you know, there was a pretty large menu of possibilities.
DAVIES: Yeah. I guess there was some concern when the first helicopter crashed, did that military officials worry that the civilians in the room might suddenly want to abort the mission?
BERGEN: Oh, this is a great quote from Admiral Mullen, who, you know, he was very concerned. I mean he says, you know, one of the downsides of all the great technology we have is that, you know, the people can kind of get in and start micromanaging the operation from the Situation Room and, you know, he says in the book I was going to throw myself - my body, you know, throw my body in the way of anything like that happening. And, of course, President Obama let the operation proceed.
There was also, by the way, a concern that from the White House side, from Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, they didn't want the president to be watching the bin Laden operation in real time, concerned that he might say something or do something that would be, you know, something went wrong that somehow would be misconstrued. And there was a debate about whether he should be even watching the video of this operation and proceeding and the president just ended the debate by walking into this tiny room where the famous photograph was taken. And that's why, you know, it wasn't the Situation Room. It was a tiny room off to the side that could only really fit about seven people comfortably and about 25 people crowded in there, which is why the president is sitting off to one side crouched on the floor looking very grim.
DAVIES: So the one helicopter crashes in the courtyard. The Navy SEALs emerge intact from it and begin the assault. You have another team that breaks into the compound from the outside. Tell us what happens, who they encountered and how the raid progressed.
BERGEN: Well, the raid progress the following way: three SEALs go in and shoot the Kuwaiti, the courier, in his one-bedroom - his one-story building where he was living with his family. They also wound his wife and shoot her in the right shoulder. They then proceed into a courtyard where the main residence is and they - on the ground floor, they shoot and kill the courier's brother and his wife. Between the ground floor and the next floor they encounter Khalid bin Laden, who is bin Laden's 23-year-old son, they shoot and kill him. They storm up the stairs. They see bin Laden. Bin Laden makes a mistake because he has opened the gate that separates his floor from the rest of the house. He doesn't think to lock it and the SEALs storm through it, turn to their right, shoot his - Amal bin Laden, the Yemeni wife, there in the leg. She collapses unconscious on the bed. They then shoot bin Laden in the - in the eye and also in the chest and he basically dies right there.
DAVIES: Now, you describe the scene at that point, and it must've been awfully chaotic - they're dragging his bloody, gruesome body out of the building. Many of the women and children are still there and alive. What else did the SEALs have to do before leaving?
BERGEN: Well, they had to flexi-cuff all these wives and kids and get them in one room. They had to take bin Laden's body down the stairs. They had to, you know, pull out some DNA samples from the body which could then be analyzed in two different locations in Afghanistan. They had to get on the Chinook that had come in, sort of the quick reaction force so-called that came in to basically pick them up.
They had to blow up, of course, a helicopter which had all this stealth technology and didn't want that to fall into people's - anyone's hands. They had a lot of work to do. I mean, they killed bin Laden in the first 15 minutes; in the next 23 minutes they did the things I've already talked about. They also had thousands of documents which were either hard copies or in some, you know, computers, thumb discs, disc drives - all the stuff that was really, you know, which they knew to be kind of essentially, you know, whatever bin Laden had been writing or thinking about and anything that people had sent to him in the last six years or more.
DAVIES: One of the things that you write about is that it had long been believed that the American forces were better off killing bin Laden than capturing him, for a whole series of reasons, but do we know what instructions the SEALs had for their encounters with the inhabitants of the house, what they were to do...
BERGEN: I do not really know because I was not able to talk to the U.S. Navy SEALs directly. I mean I think it's just a matter of kind of standard U.S. military doctrine: If somebody conspicuously surrenders, you don't shoot them. And so certainly if bin Laden had conspicuously surrendered, you know, he might've survived.
I don't think the SEALs were given any - I mean those are just sort of standard operating procedures, so it wouldn't have been different that night.
DAVIES: So what did they do to identify the body, to make sure they had bin Laden?
BERGEN: The body arrived in Jalalabad airfield - city, small city in eastern Afghanistan. That's where the operation was directed by Admiral McRaven. He got a look at the body. The CIA station chief in Afghanistan did. A bin Laden analyst did. They got a U.S. Navy SEAL of roughly bin Laden's height to lie down next to him, 6'4". It was a match.
They took photographs. Those photographs were transmitted to the United States. They had two separate teams of facial recognition experts to do a - you know, running a test to basically see if his face matched with other pictures of bin Laden. They'd taken DNA samples. That was going to take longer. By about 6:00 p.m., the night the president went out and made the speech, there was, you know, a very, very good match for the facial recognition.
Shortly thereafter there was, you know, a very good match for the DNA, but only 95 percent, and President Obama wasn't about to go out and announce the death of bin Laden if there was a five percent chance that he was actually still alive. But people, some people in the White House were saying this was going to leak. You know, people were twittering about it already and there was Pakistani media showing up at the site.
And General Kayani, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, effectively, in Pakistan was talking to his counterpart, Admiral Mullen, and basically asked the president to go out and explain what had happened because, you know, Pakistani media was there. A new day is dawning in Pakistan. You know, the Pakistanis couldn't explain what happened - it wasn't their operation. They wanted the United States to explain that this was a bin Laden operation. Otherwise it would have been, you know, very strange.
DAVIES: An element of the debate that occurred after this is whether the Pakistanis themselves knew where bin Laden was. And it seems clear...
BERGEN: I asked.
DAVIES: Yeah. It seems clear from your explanation that was probably not the case. Right?
BERGEN: You know, so many people - I talked to quite a number of people who spoke to the Pakistanis that night and, you know, they were surprised as anybody else. And now we've recovered all these thousands of documents from the Abbottabad compound. There's no evidence of a smoking gun of Pakistani complicity and I was always very sort of skeptical of the idea that there would be.
After all, Pakistan was a target of bin Laden. He and his men had tried to kill President Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan, in 2003. Bin Laden was a very paranoid guy. He wasn't going to let people that didn't need to know, know where he was. So there's no evidence of official complicity.
DAVIES: Well, and it's also fascinating that, as you related, the conversations that the Americans had both with the president of Pakistan and the chief of staff of the military, their initial reaction was to congratulate the Americans on the operation. They were relieved too, right?
BERGEN: Yeah. Well, you know, General Kayani, who's the most important figure in the Pakistani military, had investigated. He was the lead investigator on al-Qaida's attempts to kill his then-boss, Pakistani president Musharraf. So yeah, I mean there's a pretty good understanding within the Pakistani military that al-Qaida is, you know, a problem for them.
DAVIES: Well, Peter Bergen, it's been really interesting. Thanks so much.
BERGEN: Thank you.
DAVIES: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst and a director of the New America Foundation. His new book is called "Manhunt."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.