Transmission: 9pm on 7 September on Channel 4
This Channel 4 documentary is the most complete story yet of the operation to find and kill Osama Bin Laden. A stellar cast of White House insiders speak on camera, including the first documentary interview with President Barack Obama on the subject.
From the anxiety-drenched minutes in the White House Situation Room to the deadly stairwells of Bin Laden’s secret labyrinth, cinematic dramatisations take viewers deep inside one of the most important moments of our era, showing the US Navy Seals coming face to face with the most wanted man in history.
The film reveals an extraordinary last-minute debate inside the White House that almost stopped the 1 May 2011 US Navy Seals raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, just days before it took place.
A final ‘double check’ of the available intelligence shocked the President’s top cabinet colleagues by radically reducing the probability that Bin Laden was in the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan…
Speaking in his first documentary interview since the attack, President Barack Obama describes the mission as both ‘a gamble’ and ‘a shot’ he felt he had to take.
According to witnesses speaking about this for the first time, America’s leading policy makers were left ‘deflated’ by this downbeat intelligence assessment. So many present then went ‘soft’ on the mission that when President Obama asked for their final advice before he said ‘yes’ or ‘no’, only half of the people in the room recommended that he send the US Navy Seals into Pakistan.
Just a day later, Obama gave the command that led to Bin Laden’s death, a decision described as ‘bold’ and ‘gutsy’ by Counter-Terrorism Advisor John Brennan.
Bin Laden: Shoot to Kill reveals in detail how the Abbottabad operation ran into internal opposition when the CIA failed to get any direct evidence that Bin Laden was living in the compound, despite exhaustive efforts.
Describing the case as ‘circumstantial’ President Obama asked for a second opinion in late April from a fresh team of analysts from the National Counterterrorism Centre who, in the words of National Security Advisor Tom Donilon ‘had not been involved at all in the process, who had not taken positions on anything, who were not at all invested in the operation– to come in and take a ‘fresh eyes’ look at it all.’
In an intense review lasting under a week this so-called ‘red team’ re-assessed all of the evidence gathered by the CIA. Up to that point the agency had given a 60/70% certainty that Bin Laden was in the compound. However, the ‘red team’ came back with a figure as low as 40%, and revealed its findings at a critical 28 April meeting in the White House that was intended to be a ‘go or no go’ session.
One reason for the red team’s scepticism was the number of visitors to the compound, some with al Qaeda links. After tracking Bin Laden for so many years, some US counter-terror experts could not believe that he would take such a risk. This made them speculate that a more junior al Qaeda figure may be living there.
According to John Brennan, when ‘some of the principals heard [the red team report] it was like, ‘whoa, wait a minute, we thought the prospects were higher of his being there.’ I think that caused some folks to think my goodness, we have people now looking at this independently and raising questions about whether or not Bin Laden’s at that compound. The President recognised that when people were saying, ‘well, it’s only 40% of a chance,’ that some people were going to get a little bit soft on this.’
Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes recalls that ‘when the red team had come back with a less than 50% that Bin Laden was there, it complicated a lot of the confidence that people had in the intelligence.’
‘So we’re starting to discuss what if helicopters crash? What if we encounter resistance? What if there’s a hostage situation? At the same time you have a separate analysis come back and say, you know what? We’re not as confident as the CIA are that Bin Laden is there. In fact we may even have a less than 50% confidence that he’s there. And there’s no direct evidence that he’s there, it’s a circumstantial case.’
‘And I think there was a deflation in the room. Because what you’re looking for as you’re getting closer to the call, is greater certainty, not less. So essentially it played into all of the fears that people had about what could go wrong, is this worth the risk? ‘
‘And I think it’s fair to say, without getting into where everybody stood, that it was roughly 50-50 between those who wanted to go forward with the operation, recommended going forward with the operation, versus people who thought we should either go with the strike, or wait a little bit longer and try to collect a little bit more intelligence. So it wasn’t as if you walked out of that meeting with the sense that there was a 100% you know consensus and unanimity that we should go forward. It was a far more uncertain feeling.’
Speaking of the President, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon says, ‘He received divided counsel. There were some of his most senior advisors who advocated against doing this. Thought it was too risky. Though the case too circumstantial.’
President Obama remarks that ‘some of our intelligence officers thought that it was only a 40 or 30% chance that Bin Laden was in the compound. Others thought that it was as high as 80 or 90%. At the conclusion of a fairly lengthy discussion where everybody gave their assessments I said: ‘this is basically 50-50′. It was circumstantial- we couldn’t know for certain….At the end of that meeting, which was fairly tense, I told folks I would sleep on it. And I would give an order in the morning’.
On his decision the next day, he concludes that ‘even though I thought it was only 50-50 that Bin Laden was there, I thought it was worth us taking the shot.’
Bin Laden: Shoot to Kill is a Nutopia production for C4.
Transmission: 9pm on 7 September on Channel 4
Executive Producer: Jane Root; Producer: Phil Craig; Director: Bruce Goodison
© Channel 4