By the time President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden late Sunday night, senior White House officials had been engaged in two days of intense deliberations and communication with a team of highly trained Navy Seals in Pakistan. With a credible tip from an anonymous source in the region, the team had identified and invaded bin Laden’s compound in the resort town of Abbottabad.
Obama said in his widely-carried speech to the nation that he had received credible intelligence in a briefing last summer. Since March, he had chaired five national security meetings to discuss new intelligence on bin Laden. Then last Friday, with news that covert agents had discovered bin Laden’s whereabouts, Obama said, he ordered a secret operation to confront the 9/11 mastermind. A senior administration official said Sunday night that the mission was kept highly secret, and was disclosed to only a handful of senior officials in the U.S. government, to avoid compromising the operation.
Throughout the weekend, the White House stuck to the president’s usual schedule. Obama attended the White House Correspondents Dinner on Saturday to joke with Washington reporters and played nine holes of golf on Sunday morning.
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But when news arrived at the White House of bin Laden’s death on Sunday afternoon, the West Wing broke into a manic pace. The building's usual quiet broke into intense debate in the evening, as officials discussed how the news should be broken, and at what time. The traveling press pool, which had been sent home earlier in the day after Obama finished his public events, was called back to the White House.
When news arrived at the White House of bin Laden’s death, the West Wing broke into a manic pace.
As the president’s team of speechwriters in the basement drafted his statement, officials upstairs discussed the best venue. Some thought the occasion was big enough to warrant an Oval Office address. Others figured the president should speak directly to reporters in the briefing room. Because of the late hour and the lack of reporters in the West Wing, the decision was ultimately made to have Obama speak in the East Room of the White House. One official noted that it could lend gravitas for the president to be seen walking through the long center hallway to and from the podium.
Preparing for what would be one of the most important public statements of Obama’s presidency, press staffers tightly orchestrated the scene inside the East Room. Reporters were told to leave their Blackberrys outside the room, a request highly unlikely for journalists covering the president’s public remarks. Everyone was swept multiple times by the Secret Service to eliminate the chance that any electronics might interrupt Obama’s statement. Some of the country’s most senior national security officials, including National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon, CIA Director Leon Panetta, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden, were brought into the room.
While people waited, Obama sat on the phone in the Oval Office. A senior official said that Obama spoke with former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton to preview the news. He also said in his remarks that he had spoken with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
Obama made final edits on the nine-minute statement, which had been vetted by almost all his senior advisers. The remarks ended with a reference to the Pledge of Allegiance—a line that officials thought punctuated the serious message.
When Obama finished speaking, more than 3,000 people had assembled on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, according to one unofficial estimate from a uniformed officer. One agent wondered over his radio if security officials should “shut down” the assembly; the voice on the other end of the radio briskly responded “negative.”
By the time the crowd began to disperse shortly after 1 a.m., one official noted that the West Wing—and presumably the president—would be going to bed.
Daniel Stone is Newsweek's White House correspondent. He also covers national energy and environmental policy.