The stunning news that a small American team killed Osama bin Laden in a firefight in Pakistan comes as he had all but slipped out of the American consciousness, even as the indelible imprint of the attack he orchestrated remains as strong as ever.
A senior administration official said bin Laden was tracked to a large home in an affluent suburb 35 miles north of Islamabad. Another said the U.S. team conducted a helicopter raid and was on the ground for less than 40 minutes.
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In announcing the success late Sunday night, President Obama began with the victims of Sept. 11, 2001, before turning to the military details. He said that “images of 9/11 are seared into our national memory” and spoke of “children who were forced to grow up without their mother or father.”
Another administration official said Obama called George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before delivering his televised remarks.
Bush quickly put out a statement about Obama's call, saying: "I congratulated him and the men and women of our military and intelligence communities who devoted their lives to this mission."
The president did not divulge many details of the operation, but now much is known. A small team of Navy SEALS raided the compound, and bin Laden was killed after about 40 minutes of fighting. No U.S. personnel were harmed. Obama said in his speech that he had told CIA Director Leon Panetta to make bin Laden’s death or capture his top priority, that he was briefed last August on a possible lead of bin Laden’s whereabouts in a Pakistani compound, and that he authorized the mission last week.
The U.S. has custody of the body. “His demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace,” the president said as more than 3,000 mostly young people gathered outside the White House gates, chanting “USA” and singing the national anthem.
“His demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace,” the president said as some 3,000 people gathered outside the White House gates to share in the moment.
One of the administration officials who briefed reporters said the president chaired five National Security Council meetings on the subject between March 14 and Apr. 28. Obama gave the order on Friday morning, April 29. Another called it “a model of seamless cooperation” among such agencies as the CIA and National Security Agency, with key information provided by detainees.
Security at the compound was “extraordinary,” an official said, with 12- to 18-foot walls topped by barbed wire. Yet the $1 million compound had no phone or Internet service. “Our best assessment was that bin Laden was living there with several family members, including his youngest wife,” the official said.
Asked what bin Laden did once the U.S. team landed, an official would say only: “He did resist the assault force.”
Officials said three other men were killed in the raid—one who is believed to be bin Laden’s adult son, and two couriers. One woman was killed when she was used as a shield by one of the combatants, they said. The U.S. team lost a helicopter due to mechanical failure.
Bin Laden’s death has sweeping implications, both here, where nearly 3,000 innocent citizens were slaughtered, and around the world, but it is, at its very heart, an act of retribution for mass murder.
That bin Laden was hunted down under Obama, who, unlike his predecessor, does not talk much about a global war on terror, is a personal triumph, but the implications are much broader than merely political. It is a morale boost for America’s armed forces, who have been fighting in Iraq and especially Afghanistan in the name of deterring terrorism. The government’s inability to find bin Laden, who once regularly taunted America with defiant videotapes, became a significant liability for George W. Bush, who launched the two wars in the climate of fear and unity that followed the attacks on that September morning.
“There were a couple of times we thought we had him,” former Bush Chief of Staff Andy Card told ABC News, describing the frustrations of his time in office.
And it is an undeniable blow to al Qaeda, which already seemed weakened—it has been years since it pulled off a major attack—and now has lost both its leader and the symbol of its deadliest success. The administration has raised threat levels at such places as U.S. military bases out of concern about the possibility of retaliatory attacks.
By striking successfully at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, bin Laden changed America. We now accept it as routine that we cannot get on airplanes without security searches, taking off shoes, and carrying toothpaste only in tiny tubes. We have a Department of Homeland Security. We live under greatly expanded law-enforcement powers that allow for greater tracking and surveillance of suspected terrorists. And despite Obama’s campaign vow, the prison at Guantanamo Bay remains open for business.
And nearly 10 years later, ground zero in Lower Manhattan largely remains a hole in the ground—but such sacred land that a plan to build a mosque three blocks away touched off a huge political uproar.
The fraying of U.S. relations with Pakistan has also centered on that country’s inability or unwillingness to aggressively pursue bin Laden and other al Qaeda operations in its mountainous northwest region. Obama took pains to point out that Pakistan had cooperated with the mission.
Bin Laden bedeviled the Clinton administration as well. Bill Clinton launched an unsuccessful bombing attack against the terrorist leader in 1998, which was widely derided as an attempt to distract attention from the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
In his televised address, Obama cautioned that “the U.S. is not, and never will be, at war with Islam,” and credited Bush with articulating that stance after the attacks.
On this matter, at least, there is likely to be little or no Republican dissent. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said in a statement: “I commend President Obama who has followed the vigilance of President Bush in bringing bin Laden to justice.”
Much will transpire between now and the 2012 election, but it is safe to say that what happened Sunday will probably rank as Obama’s greatest achievement.
Editor's note: This article was updated to include new details about the raid on bin Laden's compound.
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast and Newsweek's Washington bureau chief, and writes the Spin Cycle blog. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.