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THE SITUATION ROOM
Mission to Kill Osama bin Laden
Aired May 2, 2011 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, breaking news.
Gripping new details are emerging right now of the bold and risky operation that took out Osama bin Laden, the gun battle that raged from room to room, a woman used by bin Laden as a human shield. We go inside the deadly raid. Stand by.
Also the courier, the courier who inadvertently led the U.S. to bin Laden. We're getting new information right now about what officials are calling classic espionage and surveillance work.
And one White House official says -- and I'm quoting now -- "It's unconceivable" that bin Laden didn't have some kind of support system inside Pakistan. So what did officials in that country really know? I will ask the Pakistani ambassador to the United States. He's joining us live this hour.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. Breaking news, political headlines, Jeanne Moos all straight ahead. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Let's begin this hour with the breaking news, new information about the U.S. special forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden. We have learned now that the code name assigned to the world's most wanted terrorist in this operation, the code name that the U.S. used for bin Laden was Geronimo.
Also, a U.S. official tells CNN a recording from bin Laden may be released soon, a tape made before he was killed with the intention that his supporters would distribute it upon his death and presumably inspire them.
We're also getting a firsthand look inside the White House where the terror leader, the decision was made to take him out. This ABC News video, by the way, showed a blood-stained room and evidence of the gun battle that took place inside that compound in Pakistan. New details of the operation continue to emerge.
Our Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence is following all of this for us.
All right, Chris, what's the very latest? CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we have now learned that the national security team was able to see some real- time video of this assault taking place from the White House Situation Room.
The assault involved four choppers, about two dozen commandos, and they were in and out within 40 minutes. But that's because this special ops team practiced assaulting a mock compound several times. And they were told going in, don't expect these people to surrender. They will fight you hard. 7 And true to that, Osama bin Laden died with a gun in his hand.
LAWRENCE (voice-over): For years, everyone assumed Osama bin Laden would live out his days or die in the rugged mountains along the Afghan border. For all intents and purposes, he was killed in the suburbs, less than 40 miles from where the president of Pakistan lives.
There are no rocky caves near bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, but there are golf courses and the Pakistan Military Academy. And his house was eight times bigger than any home in the neighborhood.
JOHN BRENNAN, U.S. DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Thinking about that from a visual perspective, here is bin Laden, who has been calling for these attacks, living in this million-dollar-plus compound; living in an area that is far removed from the front.
LAWRENCE: The three-story building was built about six years ago. A courier and his brother lived on the first floor of another building. Bin Laden's family occupied the top two floors of the main building. Unlike other neighbors who took their trash out, these people burned theirs inside the compound.
And if two main gates weren't enough to discourage visitors opaque windows shielded the inside. And there was an 18-foot wall surrounding the outer part of the compound. It stood out. And a U.S. intelligence official says, given how bad al Qaeda's finances are, they would only spend this kind of money for one of their top two commanders.
So, in effect, bin Laden was the engineer of his own destruction. That end began with U.S. military helicopters swooping in, an assault team entering from multiple locations. A team of Navy SEALs fast- roped down to the ground, searching for Geronimo, their code name for bin Laden.
BRANDON WEBB, FORMER NAVY SEAL: And they're going room to room, very methodical, engaging targets and completing the mission. But it's a really intense, personal, you know, up-close-and-personal type of operation.
LAWRENCE: High above, multiple American planes and unmanned drones were flying just outside Pakistani airspace, ready to fire if the team needed help. CIA Director Leon Panetta was quarterbacking the mission in constant secure radio contact with the assault team.
And back at the White House, the president was anxiously monitoring events. Few officials even said a word.
BRENNAN: The minutes passed like days. And the president was very concerned about the security of our personnel.
LAWRENCE: Back on the ground, the assault team was fighting its way through the main building. Two women were wounded in the firefight and there were children inside. At one point, one of the residents grabbed Osama bin Laden's wife, against her will.
BRENNAN: She fought back. When there was the opportunity to get to bin Laden, she was positioned in a way that indicated that she was being used as a shield.
LAWRENCE: She was shot and died. The SEALs killed the two men defending bin Laden and his son. Even bin Laden himself shot back. But with a shot to the head, the SEALs took him out.
While all this was going on, one of the U.S. helicopters had trouble. The team made the call to destroy it there on the ground and hustled the women and children out before detonating the aircraft.
LAWRENCE: And we're told there was an audible sigh in the Situation Room by the national security team when that team did make it out safely with bin Laden's body.
And there was also sheer awe at what they had just been able to accomplish. Now, they didn't spend that entire 40 minutes fighting. Some of that time was spent collecting papers and material, what one intelligence official calls a robust amount of information and intelligence that they now hope to exploit to go after other members of al Qaeda -- Wolf.
BLITZER: I hope it helps them find the number-two leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri. He remains at large.
Good report, Chris. Thank you.
Bin Laden's death is certainly a crippling blow to the terror network, but not necessarily a fatal one. And there are possible successors certainly waiting in the wings.
CNN's Brian Todd is working this part of the story for us.
What are you finding out, Brian?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Chris, we're learning more detail about some of the top figures in al Qaeda who are still out there, still dangerous and operationally very capable. But they have now got the task of marshaling a network that has been dealt a body blow.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) TODD (voice-over): With al Qaeda decapitated, experts believe this is now a terror network in crisis.
(on camera): What kind of a hole is al Qaeda in right now as far as leadership is concerned?
PHIL MUDD, FORMER FBI DEPUTY DIRECTOR: Well, I think they have been in a hole for some time. They have suffered a lot of operational setbacks because of things like Predator strikes. Their operational leadership is decimated. Now, their ideological leadership and the spokesman is gone.
TODD (voice-over): Philip Mudd, former CIA officer and counterterror official, says Osama bin Laden is irreplaceable. Mudd and other experts say, with so many jihadists having looked to bin Laden for operational direction, for inspirational command, filling his void will be a disjointed, messy undertaking.
(on camera): There are at least two obvious replacements, Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden's longtime deputy, a legendary al Qaeda leader who has also been on the run since September 11, and Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who is a key leader in one of the network's most dangerous branches, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Experts say both are capable, but they also have drawbacks that bin Laden didn't have.
(voice-over): Al-Zawahri has the strategic background to lead the network, but analysts say he lacks bin Laden's charisma and:
MUDD: He's viewed as a very polarizing figure, someone who is not easy to deal with, not a good manager.
TODD: Al-Awlaki is seen as a master recruiter, an Internet sensation who inspired the Christmas Day airline plot and the attempted cargo bombing last year. His Achilles' heel?
PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Anwar al-Awlaki is not a fighter. He's a cleric. He's a speaker and not a fighter. And al Qaeda over the years have wanted to be led by a fighter.
TODD: Credentials bin Laden had from his years battling the Soviets in Afghanistan. But other dangerous figures could surface, including Saif al-Adel, who one analyst calls al Qaeda's chief of staff, believed to have played a key role in the 1998 African embassy bombings, Abu Yahya al-Libi, once a battlefield commander in Afghanistan who rose to prominence for escaping from Bagram Air Base, and Ilyas Kashmiri, a well-connected bin Laden favorite, mastermind of a serious plot last year to target Europe.
TODD: Analysts say none of them have star power, the brand name of bin Laden. And it's not effective to have several people trying to fill his shoes. But they say if no leader steps to the fore immediately, it does not mean that al Qaeda is less dangerous, at least not in the short term. They say look for the threats to spike as the network seeks to avenge bin Laden.
As one U.S. official says, Wolf, this is a wounded tiger with some life still left in it.
BLITZER: And I suspect none of them will have the ability to raise the funds, the money that bin Laden could.
TODD: He had those wealthy Saudi contacts. He had family money coming in. That's not really replaceable.
They say some of the money is going to go to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, because they have a proven track record of being effective at launching plots. But some of those other al Qaeda affiliates, they may dry up a little bit now that bin Laden is gone.
BLITZER: He's gone, but al Qaeda remains.
BLITZER: The bottom line.
Thanks very much.
President Obama says, as commander in chief, he couldn't be prouder of the operation that took place to take out bin Laden. He spoke about it at a previously scheduled Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House earlier today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think we can all agree, this is a good day for America. Our country has kept its commitment to see that justice is done. The world is safer. It is a better place because of the death of Osama bin Laden.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Well, let's get some more now with our CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen. His newest book is entitled "The Longest War." He's also -- he's also part of a "TIME" magazine cover story just out on the death of bin Laden today. Also joining us, our national security contributor Fran Townsend. She's a member of the external advisory boards for the Homeland Security Department, as well as the CIA.
Peter, you have written I think the definitive book on bin Laden and on the war on terrorism. No one should think the war on terrorism is over.
PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Yes. But history just speeded up for al Qaeda. Yes, look, the war on terror will never be over, in the sense there will be always people who are attracted to this ideology.
But if you were to come up with two giant nails in the coffin, you couldn't come up with something better than the Arab spring, in which bin Laden has absolutely no role to play, and bin Laden's death.
If we sat down and thought about it for a long time, Fran, we couldn't come up with anything better than those two things.
BLITZER: You heard Chris Lawrence, our Pentagon reporter, say, before they left, during the 40 minutes that the U.S. intelligence, special operations forces were in that compound, they went and collected a whole bunch of information, documents. Who knows if they had computer disks or whatever they had.
These are critical hours and days right now if there's -- quote -- "actionable intelligence" on that information. They have got to work that right now.
FRANCES TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: There's -- I think it is fair to say, Wolf, there was much more there than was anticipated.
There's a trove. It is not just -- there were computers, although they were not hooked to the Internet. There were documents. There were DVDs. This is a multimedia exercise. They put a task force together to go through it.
First and foremost, the first order of business is to identify any ongoing threats, especially to the United States or to our interests around the world. Second -- the second order of business will be to look for other high-value targets, like Zawahri.
BLITZER: his number two, Ayman al-Zawahri.
Bin Laden was a relatively cautious guy. You have studied him for a few decades now. Do you think he would have left actionable information in that compound that U.S. special operators could go in there and collect?
BERGEN: Fran and I just had a briefing from a U.S. counterterrorism official in a position to know. And they -- he used the word boatload of intelligence that they picked up, DVDs, CD-ROMs, a lot of stuff, much more stuff than they anticipated, knowing that bin Laden was avoiding electronic communication because of concerns about being tracked.
Yes, this guy is a paranoid and secretive guy. But don't forget, it's been 10 years now. It's a long time to accumulate a lot of stuff. And he's somebody who is very interested in what's going on, on the world. And probably, over time, you accumulate a lot of stuff. There were other people in there.
Clearly, as Fran said, the main priority is trying to make sure that there are not other plots that are -- that you can sort of suss out from what's there. But, yes, I think this is unexpected.
BLITZER: Were you surprised that he was in a compound, in a mansion only a two-hour drive from Islamabad, as opposed to a cave in some of those -- that mountainous area, that tribal area in the northwest part of Pakistan? TOWNSEND: Well, Wolf, as you know, we believed for a long time he was in that mountainous tribal area and moving around.
It actually makes perfect sense that bin Laden would have made the deliberate decision. We know that the building of this mansion started five years ago. And what did bin Laden know? He knew at that time five years ago that there was an increasing use by the U.S. government of these Predator drones mostly used in rural areas. Very hard to use them in urban built-up areas like he was in, because you worry about collateral damage.
Second, the other thing he would have known, Wolf, was the fact that there was a real dispute, including going back to the Bush administration. The Pakistani government did not want the U.S. government to put military boots on the ground inside Pakistan. And this public rift between the two governments was quite public.
And so, if you're bin Laden, you know now from those two points of data, to avoid the drones, you want to get into an urban area, and you want to get away from where we have our troops stationed in Afghanistan. And, so, he was a good -- he was several hours away from the Afghan border.
BLITZER: Do you have any sense if we're going to spend the next 10 years looking for the number-two, now the number-one al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahri?
BERGEN: Actually, I doubt it, Wolf. And I would be interested to see what Fran thinks.
I mean, Ayman al-Zawahri historically has taken much -- many more risks than bin Laden. We have already five video -- audiotapes from him discussing the recent events in the Middle East. Every time you release one of these tapes, you open yourself to the possibility a courier can be picked up, some kind of electronic trace, if you put it up on a jihadi Web site.
So, Ayman al-Zawahri -- in fact, in 2006, the U.S. almost killed Ayman al-Zawahri in a drone attack in an area called Damadola in Northwestern Pakistan. So, I don't think it will be as long as Ayman al-Zawahri. And, also, it's less significant. We wouldn't be having this conversation if Ayman al-Zawahri has been killed. It would be significant, but not sort of seismic.
TOWNSEND: That's right. And unlike bin Laden, where there was a long period of no intelligence or no sightings of him, Zawahri has been sighted. There has been intelligence. There have been targeting opportunities. He's come close several times. So, I expect this is not nearly as difficult...
BLITZER: Yes. Not only Ayman al-Zawahri but, a lot of other bad guys out there are very, very nervous based on what the U.S. has done right now.
TOWNSEND: That's right. That's a good thing, Wolf.
BLITZER: I think you make a good point. Thank you.
BLITZER: We're also learning new information about the long trail that ultimately led to bin Laden and how one trusted courier was the key to finding him.
And serious new questions about what Pakistan knew about bin Laden's presence inside Pakistan. I will put some of those questions to the country's ambassador to the United States. He's standing by to join us live here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Osama bin Laden was certainly a fixture on the FBI list of the 10 most wanted terrorists for a decade. And within hours of word of his death, the agency updated his listing with a red banner reading "Deceased."
The FBI Web site still shows a $27 million reward for information leading to bin Laden, $25 million from the U.S. government, $2 million from the Airline Pilots Association and the Air Transport Association. There's no word whether any of that bounty will actually be paid out.
Let's go to Jack Cafferty. He's got "The Cafferty File."
Amazing, Jack, amazing developments.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The terror attacks of September 11, 2001 were unlike anything most Americans had ever seen before. Three thousand innocent people murdered in cold blood on our own soil, it was an event that saddened and terrified the entire country. But it also unified us in a way that we hadn't been maybe since the end of the Second World War.
Sadly, that unity was short-lived. We've been a pretty divided nation since soon after 9/11. The partisan politics that have taken over Washington over the past few years have made things increasingly ugly in this country.
But last night, with the news that Osama Bin Laden had been killed, Americans were once again united. They converged on the streets of Lower Manhattan near Ground Zero and outside the White House in Washington. There was singing and dancing and waving American flags. There was a sense of victory, but a sense of remembrance too.
We haven't seen this sort of patriotism and sense of victory and justice in a very long time. The United States hasn't had much success in the wars that we've gotten involved in since World War Two. That was the last one we won outright. It's been pointed out that both Osama bin Laden and Adolf Hitler were declared dead on the same day, May 1, more than 65 years apart, bin Laden yesterday courtesy of U.S. special forces. Hitler turned a gun on himself when he realized his dreams of world domination for Germany were a lost cause. In the end, he was just another little coward.
Here's the question. Historically, what does the killing of Osama bin Laden compare to in your memory?
Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile and post a comment on my blog.
BLITZER: Yes. Good question, Jack. I appreciate it. Thank you.
Let's bring in our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger. She is learning some new details about the intelligence that let to bin Laden.
What are your sources telling you right now, Gloria?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, this is such a complex and circuitous story, which begins many years ago, when intelligence officials started interviewing those high-value detainees, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
And they had names of couriers. And they would throw them out and they would get some answers or try and get the names of couriers out. And there was one name where they were only given the nickname, the nom de guerre. And I think it's fair to assume that people clammed up. It's fair to assume that one of the detainees who may have clammed up was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed himself, because this courier turns out to be his protege and turns out to be the courier they tracked down, took them many years. That led them eventually to the compound.
So there's the connection with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. It's a long trail, Wolf. It went cold for a couple of years. They finally figured out his name in another part of the world, then actually had a sighting of him, but they couldn't trail him openly, and eventually led to the compound, which they found very suspicious, as you know, which eventually led them to Osama bin Laden's nest on the third floor.
BLITZER: And they -- they didn't even know for sure that it was bin Laden who was hiding out in there.
BORGER: No, they did not.
BLITZER: They didn't want to just send a missile in there because they wanted that body to confirm once and for all that they had killed bin Laden.
BORGER: In talking to sources about this, I was told that the CIA believed that the probability of finding bin Laden there was 60 percent to 80 percent. I was told by a senior administration official there was no guarantee by any stretch.
But, still, the president, and I believe that the CIA director, Leon Panetta, agreed that it would be best to go in with a helicopter rather than bomb the place, because, of course, if you were going to get bin Laden, you wanted a body. You wanted proof. You wanted to know that you had actually killed him. And that's why they decided to do it this way.
BLITZER: If they would have just sent a missile, a Hellfire missile or a Tomahawk cruise missile, you might never have known that bin Laden was dead.
BORGER: Right. And this way, they have DNA. They have family match. And they know who it is.
BLITZER: And that's that.
BLITZER: Gloria, thank you.
Bin Laden, as we say, was hiding in plain sight in a Pakistani city that had a big military presence, even its own version of West Point. So, does Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, have a lot to answer for about bin Laden?
Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: The killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. special forces is certainly a defining moment for President Obama, also for a country scarred by the horrors of 9/11.
Our chief political correspondent, Candy Crowley, is here with more on this part of the story.
It's one of those moments that all of us, Candy, will always remember.
CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It is. It's one of those times where, you know, I was laying in bed and all of a sudden saw you, and, you know, something was coming. And I probably, like you, thought, it's got to be Osama bin Laden, because you don't wake a country up at 11:30 at night to talk about what has already happened in Libya.
So, quite a moment. I want you to take a look, talking about that, at a "TIME" magazine cover from 66 years ago this week marking the death of Adolf Hitler. Now, here's the cover of this week's special edition of "TIME" coming out Thursday. It is pictorial proof that this is exactly what we think it is, a very big deal, a moment to remember.
CROWLEY (voice-over): Ten years and more than 7,000 miles from New York City, Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon, U.S. Navy SEALs raided a mansion complex in Abbottabad, Pakistan, delivering the moment.
OBAMA: After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.
CROWLEY: It was breathtaking and the moment of Barack Obama's presidency so far. Criticized as naive and timid in foreign policy, President Obama was steely in the crunch, approving a risky U.S.-only mission inside a sovereign country. Imagine if it had all gone wrong. Instead, we're told it all went right.
BARACK OBAMA: A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties.
CROWLEY: This will help him politically because it helps Americans psychologically. Their moment is his and vice versa.
Jim Deloughery lost a brother-in-law and cousin on 9/11.
JIM DELOUGHERY, RELATIVE OF 9/11 VICTIM: It helps. It helps. But it's not going to bring him back. But it helps.
CROWLEY: Bob Lynch just got back from duty in Afghanistan.
BOB LYNCH, RECENTLY RETURNED FROM AFGHANISTAN: I was awestruck. I was relieved. This part -- this portion this that started so long ago is over.
CROWD: USA! USA!
CROWLEY: It was as though 10 years of grief, anger and frustration were given some relief, a moment that produced a rock concert atmosphere near Ground Zero in New York City, Pennsylvania, and outside the White House gates.
However heinous the person, there is something dystonic, uncomfortable about celebrating a death. It was a mixed moment for the mother of a fallen fireman.
SALLY REGENHARD, MOTHER OF 9/11 VICTIM: It's good to see an evil person receive justice, but it's very bitter to realize that so many good people met a brutal and needless death at the hands of this monster.
CROWLEY: Osama bin Laden brought us to a place where we are told to report suspicious activities at airports, train stations, even malls. He sparked the global battle against the unknown and the unthinkable in a struggle with no boundaries, and for a decade, the U.S. has lived with two wars that defy the standard definition of victory.
So perhaps this is a celebration of clarity in a world where there is little. Our guys killed a bad guy.
Winston Churchill once said of a key battle victory, "Now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
Whatever it is or will become, this is a moment to take notice.
BLITZER: And also quite a moment for the CIA and the armed services. I spoke with one top Pentagon official today who told me what satisfies him the most is that, in Osama bin Laden's final moment, the last thing he saw was the face of the U.S. military.
BLITZER: What political implications, fallout do you expect from this, Candy?
CROWLEY: Listen, I think that you will see President Obama get a huge boost. I mean, you know, presidents take the rap for things that go wrong. They get credit for things that go well. This went really well. He's going to get a lot of credit.
What is -- what's it going to do a year and half from now? It depends on what the moments are between now and then. You know that. We've seen so many presidents who thought -- we thought about a year and a half, "Ooh, they are a shoo-in," or "Boy, this really -- they'll never get re-elected," and -- and then they are, because there's a lot of moments in the presidency.
BLITZER: George Herbert Walker Bush back in '91, '92 after the first Gulf War, his approval numbers were -- were terrific. And then you know what happened.
CROWLEY: And then he lost. I remember Ronald Reagan and the bombing of the troops in Lebanon. And I thought, well, that's it. That's over. He'll never win re-election. And of course, he did.
BLITZER: He did, of course. All right, Candy, thanks very much.
All right. We're just getting some new details about the U.S. raid that killed bin Laden. Let's go straight to our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry.
What are you hearing, Ed?
ED HENRY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, one senior administration official now telling us that Osama bin Laden was shot twice, that he was actually shot in the chest first, and then in the head. We had previously only learned that he had been shot in the head. He was also shot in the chest.
Also some new information from this senior information official that, in fact, Osama bin Laden's wife was not killed and not used as a human shield. That was some of the initial information that was being reported on yesterday. Now this official saying that, because of the fog of war, because of varying accounts, instead this was another woman, not Osama bin Laden's wife, who was caught in the crossfire. It's unclear now whether or not she really was used as a human shield.
Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden's wife was wounded, we believe hit in the calf, according to the senior official, but not killed and is still now in Pakistan, was not taken away by U.S. officials.
Another important detail coming in from a second senior administration official is that when President Obama and some of his top aides were here, that dramatic scene we've been talking about in the White House situation room yesterday afternoon and evening as they were watching these events in Pakistan unfold in that secure area of the White House situation room, we're told now the president and his aides heard someone on the ground in Pakistan say this phrase, "Geronimo, E-K-I-A." As in "Geronimo, enemy killed in action."
Why that's significant, is we're now learning that "Geronimo" is the code name that the U.S. officials were privately using for either capturing or killing bin Laden. That was not the name for bin Laden himself but the code for actually capturing or killing him.
So what the president of the United States heard in the situation room was someone in Pakistan saying "Geronimo E-K-I-A," as in enemy killed in action.
Finally, after the firefight that we've heard about, we're now hearing from the senior administration official that the president and a lot of top aides sat around the conference table in the White House situation room. In some pictures today of that scene. And after they went through the facial recognition, after they went through Osama bin Laden's wife, saying on the ground that that was in fact Osama bin Laden, there was a big debate going on, we're told, among these officials as to whether or not they should now announce to the world, start briefing congressional leaders and others that, in fact, Osama bin Laden was killed.
We're told as this debate was going on, the president of the United States finally interjected and said simply, "We got him." He made the decision as commander in chief, after hearing all this debate, hearing the information that was coming in, that this, in fact, was Osama bin Laden. That set everything in motion. This scene played out last night before the world learned it, Wolf.
BLITZER: And two other points. I'm picking up from authoritative U.S. sources saying to me -- I assume you've got this as well. Bin Laden did not actually personally fire back. Did you hear the same thing?
HENRY: That's right. And in fact, we're now hearing from a senior administration official that they do not believe that Osama bin Laden reached for a weapon. There was some suggestion in early reports that maybe he was and maybe that's why he got shot. But we're told now that he did not have a weapon; he didn't fire anything.
Also we're learning that late on Thursday night, as we go through the timeline now, a little bit more detail, there was a big briefing here privately at the White House. The president went through all the options with the commander about what could be done, what could not be done. And he wanted to sleep on it, basically.
Friday morning, we've already known that the president gave the authorization to move forward with this mission. The new piece of information we're getting is that, as all this was going around the table and they were trying to figure all this out on Friday morning, the president after waking up, came down and basically said to his staff, "It's a go." And they went through the options again and he interrupted and said, "It's a go." He had made up his mind between Thursday night into Friday morning, when they were waiting for him in the diplomatic room. He told them, "It's a go," and that's what set everything in motion, Wolf.
BLITZER: The other point that I was told is, contrary to some of the earlier reports, information we were getting from U.S. officials, the Navy SEALs did not come down from those helicopters on what's called that fast rope. They lower a rope. Then they climb down. They -- apparently, the helicopters just landed. Did you pick up that at your briefing?
HENRY: I have not heard that specific piece of information yet. But what I do have that sort of fits into that -- and the reason why, so our viewers understand, why we're piecing through this bit by bit is that one senior administration official told me, basically, that because of the fog of war there is some confusion about some of those specific details.
And what's going on right now is each one of these Special Forces are being interviewed by authorities to get their own accounts. Each person in this firefight as we're describing it, saw different things from different sides of the room, from outside the compound, inside the compound.
Interesting final note is that this senior administration official was telling me that they believe Osama bin Laden was actually in this compound for at least three years, maybe even longer. We know that this compound in Pakistan was completed in 2005. This official saying they now believe inside the administration that the compound was built for bin Laden. So he could have been there as far back as 2005.
So all this suggestion out there maybe he was hiding in a cave, whatever, no, he may have been in this compound now for several years, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Well, excellent reporting. Thanks very much for all that information. The latest information from our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry.
So how could bin Laden have been living in that mansion without Pakistani officials knowing about it? I'll ask the country's ambassador to the United States. He's here standing by live in THE SITUATION ROOM.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Many Muslims are certainly cheering the death of Osama bin Laden. The Council on American Islamic Relations says the feared terror leader never represented Islam. CNN's Ted Rowlands went to a prominent mosque in Orange County, California, to find out what its leaders are saying.
TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): After leading the 5 a.m. prayer at the Islamic Society of Orange County, Dr. Muzammil Suddiqi said bin Laden's death is great news for Muslims around the world.
MUZAMMIL SIDDIQI, DIRECTOR, ISLAMIC SOCIETY OF ORANGE COUNTY: We saw nothing but misery and terrible things. I hope this will be an end. Things will move to a different direction.
ROWLANDS: This mosque is where Adam Gadahn, one of the FBI's most wanted terrorists, worshiped before joining al Qaeda. Thousands of Middle Eastern Americans live in this Southern California community. Shortly after word spread of bin Laden's death, the overall reaction ranged from celebration to skepticism.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You cut off the head of the snake, you -- the rest, you know, follows. So it just means, you know, this is finally over.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're elated that someone who is the biggest symbol of terrorism is finally gone now. And I can't wait to actually see his picture, to be honest with you, because we've been waiting for this moment for a long time.
ROWLANDS: At one point police were called to this hookah bar, Fusion Ultra Lounge, after someone hurled raw eggs at people sitting on the patio, including Mohammed El Khatib, the Muslim owner who served in the U.S. military.
MOHAMMED EL KHATIB, OWNER, FUSION ULTRA LOUNGE: Sitting down and enjoying a hookah, and all of a sudden, we've got eggs falling from the sky on us.
ROWLANDS (on camera): Leaders here at the mosque say, in part because of their association with Adam Gadahn, over the years they have been subjected to numerous threats. They want people to know that they are celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden just like other Americans.
Ted Rowlands, CNN, Garden Grove, California.
BLITZER: A top White House official says it's, quote, "inconceivable" that bin Laden didn't have some kind of support system in Pakistan. So what did officials in Pakistan know? I'll ask the Pakistani ambassador to the United States. Stay with us.
BLITZER: Let's get right back to Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question this hour is: "Historically, what does the killing of Osama bin Laden compare to?"
Kevin in Virginia writes, "The fall of the Berlin wall, because that was the beginning of the end of communism. Bin Laden's death is the beginning of the end of Islamic fundamentalism."
Joe in Minnesota writes, "It's like the end of the Korean War. It feels good at the moment, but at the end, we're right back where we started."
Cliff in New York, "If you first eliminate head of government despots like Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Papa Doc Duvalier, Nikolae Ceausescu, and Slobodan Milosevic, then Timothy McVeigh comes to mind."
Terri in California writes, "The end of the cold war. Although bin Laden's death ends his personal reign of terror and it's a huge accomplishment, we'll forever always have enemies who wish us harm. I'm curious to see how Donald Trump will try to spin this to make it his own personal victory."
Tom in Louisiana writes, "I think Obama bin Laden's death best compares to the death of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Both were high-profile criminal figures with a flock of followers, and both managed to elude authorities for years. Both faced grisly deaths at the end of gun barrels by the military. Then it was the war on drugs versus the war on terror symbolism, and that draws a further parallel."
Jim writes, "I think the excitement over the killing of bin Laden will have a very short self-life. His presence or absence on the planet has had little impact on the daily lives of most of us compared to the serious economic problems the great majority of Americans face and have to deal with."
Zoe writes, "There's nothing for me to compare it to. I was a kid during 9/11. It's the victorious wonderful end to something that's been a part of my life for the majority of the time I've been alive."
And Susan in Idaho writes this: "This is a coup that is incomparable. Bin Laden was being hidden by those that knew what he had done. At the end of World War II, the Germans would have served Hitler up on a silver platter. It's a well-known fact that skill and daring will overcome ignorance and superstition. I've never known a Navy SEAL, but I am smitten."
All right, Susan.
If you want to read more on this, go to the blog: CNN.com/CaffertyFile.
BLITZER: Thank you, Jack. See you tomorrow.
When we come back, the Pakistani ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani. He's got lots to talk about.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it's just a wonderful thing to have had happen. We've all been waiting on some justice to be done.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it's a victory for us, a victory for peace and a victory for justice.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is finally retribution for all the victims' families from 9/11, both here in Virginia, in Pennsylvania, across the United States and in New York.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it's a great day for America. I think it's a time to celebrate and rejoice that he's gone.
BLITZER: Folks outside of the 9/11 memorial outside the pentagon reacting to the death of Osama bin Laden.
I want to show you that picture that the White House released, a still photo. This is from the White House situation room yesterday, when this mission was underway. Forty minutes on the ground, Delta force Navy SEALs, I should say, forces were there. They were watching. You see the vice president next to the president. Over there, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with her hand over her mouth next to Dennis McDunn (ph) in the back, Bill Daley, Tom Donovan.
All of these officials there, they're looking at a video screen, and they're watching this operation, video coming in of the operation. You can see the anxiety, the nervousness there. There were moments when that helicopter was disabled that they feared the worst.
We'll take a quick break. When we come back, the Pakistani ambassador of the United States.
BLITZER: Some more now on the breaking news, the death of Osama bin Laden, killed by U.S. forces in a raid on a mansion just a few dozen miles north of the Pakistani capital. It's raising lots of questions about the terror leader's presence in Pakistan, what officials there knew. Let's talk about it with Husain Haqqani, he's the Pakistani ambassador to the United States.
Mr. Ambassador, thanks for coming in. John Brennan, the president's counter terrorism advisor, says it's inconceivable that bin Laden didn't have some sort of support system in Pakistan. What happened? HUSAIN HAQQANI, PAKISTAN AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED STATES: Obviously, bin Laden did have a support system. The issue is was that support system within the government and the state of Pakistan or within the society of Pakistan.
We all know that there are people in Pakistan who share the same belief system as bin Laden and other extremists. People like myself have been fighting them. Binzi Gupta (ph) was a victim to them.
So that is a fact, that there are people who probably protected him. We will do a full inquiry into finding out why our intelligence services were not able to track him earlier.
BLITZER: This compound was a huge compound, bigger than all the other houses in the area, with a big wall around it. Didn't anyone from the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service, or the military, the police go in there and see what was going on?
HAQQANI: Wolf, you can't do that in Pakistan, where there are many houses which are larger than others and unless and until you have due cause. The reason you can't enter them, if there had been intelligence, that would have happened. If you remember, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was found in a similar house in the city of Rawalpindi a few years ago, and the Pakistani government was responsible for arresting him at that time.
What I find incredulous is the notion that somehow, just because there is a private support network in Pakistan, the state, the government and the military of Pakistan should be blamed.
BLITZER: Because we have high respect for the military, the intelligence service. You can disagree with them, but they're very good. Listen to this interview I did on April 12, 2010, about a year ago or so, with your prime minister, Prime Minister Gillani. Here's some excerpts.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Are you any closer right now, do you believe, to finding, to capturing or killing Osama bin Laden or his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri?
PRIME MINISTER YOUSAF RAZA GILLANI, PAKISTAN: In fact, Osama bin Laden is not in Pakistan.
BLITZER: How do you know for sure he's not in Pakistan?
GILLANI: Because our military actions are very successful, and we have a very successful operation in Malakar (ph) and Swat and now in South Waziristan and elsewhere. If there would have been any chance, he would have been arrested or maybe even don't know whether he's alive or not.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: It sounds to me like Prime Minister Gillani was in total denial of what was going on.
HAQQANI: Look, we have to as a nation in Pakistan re-evaluate our view of this whole problem. After 911, there were people in Pakistan who said we shouldn't side with the United States because the United States is about to crumble like the Soviet Union did and we should actually support the Taliban. You remember that. That changed. Pakistan has to come to terms with the fact and we will.
BLITZER: But Mr. Ambassador, he was within a two-hours drive of Islamabad.
HAQQANI: Wolf, that is not the point. The point is that he has been eliminated in a successful operation by the United States, and Pakistan has expressed satisfaction at the conclusion of this operation.
BLITZER: Let me ask...
HAQQANI: And any question about intelligence failures will definitely be addressed by us jointly. As I said only two or three days ago in your program, we are allies. We want...
BLITZER: Why didn't the U.S. trust Pakistan to share anything about this operation until all those U.S. troops were out of your air space?
HAQQANI: Because the United States didn't share information on this operation with the Australians, with the British, with the Canadians. It did not because...
BLITZER: He was in Pakistan, not in Australia or Britain.
HAQQANI: But my point is that the United States made a critical decision. President Obama decided that the success of the operation was far more important than the niceties. And that said -- that said...
BLITZER: But even when those helicopters were flying back to Afghanistan or to the Indian -- they still didn't tell you until you were -- they were completely out of your air space.
HAQQANI: Pakistan and the United States have a lot of things to work out as we move forward, but move forward we will. Pakistan has no interest, the people of Pakistan have no interest in protecting our keeping terrorists on our soil. We need to build our nation. Half our children don't go to school. Two-thirds of our people live below the poverty line. Those are the issues we want to address.
BLITZER: Bottom line, you're happy bin Laden is dead?
HAQQANI: You bet. I have -- I have wanted bin Laden not to be on the scene for a long time. The terrorists have brought Islam a bad name. They have brought Pakistan a bad name. They have brought all our neighboring countries a bad name, and we want to defeat them as much as you and any American.
BLITZER: Mr. Ambassador, thanks for coming in. We'll continue this conversation.
That does it for me this hour. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. "JOHN KING USA" starts right now.