Hillary Clinton says combat in Iraq and Afghanistan helped hone the Seal Team Six assault on Osama bin Laden’s compound one year ago. Recounting that night, the Secretary of State recalls a Special Forces officer speaking with administration officials outside a small room under the White House.
“This may sound really exotic and scary to you all, but we’ve probably done something similar to this – helicopter in, take the target, look for who you’re after, and get out of there – we have probably done it now 1,000 times.”
Even with that experience in theater, Clinton says President Obama’s advisers worked through every contingency they could think of: What if something went wrong with the helicopters, like in the failed effort to rescue hostages in Iran in 1980? When was the next moonless night? What would Pakistan do?
“We did our very best to try to give the president our honest assessment,” Clinton says. “Ultimately it was his decision. Which I fully supported because I believed that we had to take the risk – and it was a risk – that that large house in Abbottabad was the haven for bin Laden.”
Clinton discussed the assault in an appearance at the U.S. Naval Academy. Uniformed men and women listened politely to her Forrestal Lecture on strategy in the Asia-Pacific. But they sat forward in their seats when she was asked about her thoughts on the night of bin Laden’s death.
“We were attacked. And one of my goals as a senator and then as a Secretary of State was to do everything I could to try to bring bin Laden to justice.”
She recalled her first visit to Pakistan as Secretary of State in 2009. “I can’t believe that there isn’t anybody in the Pakistani government who doesn’t know where bin Laden is. And that caused a little bit of a ruckus. But I believed that somebody had to have known where he was.”
When the U.S. intelligence community ran down the trail to Abbottabad, Clinton says a very small group began discussing whether to launch an air or a ground assault.
Having decided on Seal Team Six, U.S. officials beneath the White House watched a live video feed from the helicopter as it landed.
“We could see or hear nothing when they went into the house. There was no communication or feedback coming. So it was during that timetable that everyone was particularly focused on trying to keep calm, prepare for what might happen,” Clinton said. “I’m not sure anybody breathed for 35 or 37 minutes.”
A helicopter caught its tail on the compound wall, so another was sent in from Afghanistan. Seals moved women and children from the house to shield them from the blast to destroy the damaged helicopter while other Seals brought out what they hoped was bin Laden’s body.
“All of this is happening — the body is going out, the women and children are coming in, the reserve helicopter is on its way but it’s not there yet,” Clinton says. “There was a lot of breath-holding.”
With the Seal team finally on its way back to Afghanistan and a second DNA test confirming bin Laden’s identity, Clinton walked with President Obama up to the East Room for his address to the nation. Afterwards, along the Rose Garden colonnade, they heard cheering from George Washington University students who had come to the gates of the White House to celebrate.
“Many of them, like many of you, were children when we were attacked,” Clinton told the men and women of the Naval Academy. “This had been part of your consciousness for as long as you can remember.”
“So listening to those cheers, feeling the relief that came from knowing that it was a job very well done, and for me personally having the sense that for many of those who lost their loved ones, who had been grievously injured during that attack whom I knew personally, that they could – in a way that they had not been able to the day before – think about the future.”
Scott Stearns is VOA's State Department correspondent. He has worked as the Dakar Bureau Chief, White House correspondent, and Nairobi Bureau Chief since beginning his career as a freelance reporter in the Liberian civil war. He has written for the BBC, UPI, the Associated Press, The Jerusalem Post, and The Economist. Scott has a Bachelors and Masters in Journalism from Northwestern University.