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280 In the afternoon of May 1, 2011, top military and diplomatic officials, including the vice president and the secretary of state, joined President Barack Obama in the White House Situation Room, beneath the West Wing. The staff brought beverages and sandwiches to the twenty leading policymakers, who huddled at one end of the cramped room to watch a live video feed on a television monitor. The image came from a computer-operated spy camera mounted on a pilotless drone, circling 15,000 feet above Abbottabad, Pakistan. Shrouded by a moonless night, twenty-two Navy SEALs had traveled from the US base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, to a walled-off mansion in Abbottabad. Years of intelligence work revealed that the building was most likely the hideout of Osama bin Laden, the instigator of the 9/11 attacks and the world’s most wanted outlaw. Neptune’s Spear, as the operation was code-named, aimed to locate and to kill Bin Laden. Obama, Joseph Biden, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the others squinted at the infrared video images and listened as sporadic audio communication from the SEALs provided narration. The drone’s images provided a distant bird’s-eye view, and contrary to early news reports, the SEALs did not wear helmet-mounted cameras that might have provided viewers with a perspective from the ground. Disaster seemed imminent when one of the two helicopters carrying the SEALs toppled in the building’s courtyard and crippled its propeller blades. “There was a time period of almost twenty to twenty-five minutes where we really didn’t know just exactly what was going on,” CIA director Leon Panetta later recalled. The accident required C H A P T E R  CONCLUSION conclusion 281 the crew to destroy the damaged helicopter to thwart looters and the Pakistani government—an uneasy ally of the US, filled with Al Qaeda sympathizers , which had not been told of the raid—but none of the SEALs was injured, and the mission proceeded according to plan. In the next few minutes , the troops killed a guard and entered the house. A contingent of SEALs located Bin Laden, unarmed, in the private suite on the top floor. “For God and country—Geronimo,” one SEAL shouted, and the contingent killed Bin Laden with two rifle shots. “Geronimo E.K.I.A.”—enemy killed in action—a soldier then reported, indicating the success of the mission . The group at the White House breathed freely and said prayers; “we got him,” Obama said quietly. In the next hour, a rescue helicopter helped the remaining original aircraft evacuate the SEALs. They took with them Bin Laden’s body, destined for a secret burial at sea later that night, as well as computer data found in his rooms. As the journalist Nicholas Schmidle later reported, news of the helicopter ’s crash brought the tensest moment in the Situation Room. A specialoperations officer told Schmidle that “eternity is defined as the time between when you see something go awry and that first voice report.” The officials who had gathered at the White House similarly “viewed the aerial footage and waited anxiously to hear a military communication.” Inevitably, one of the leading officials who spoke off the record with Schmidle—Clinton, perhaps , or Biden, or even Obama—“compared the experience to watching ‘the climax of a movie.’”1 Contemporary Americans would register little surprise in response to this last statement. Like many aspects of the contemporary presidency, the capture of Bin Laden has been filtered through our long exposure to motion pictures. Crisis monitoring via remote satellite feed was dramatized in 1990s action movies such as Patriot Games and Air Force One. The scene in the Situation Room that day was similar to a movie screening in a wellappointed home theater, albeit with inferior picture quality. The powerful group in the room huddled together in casual clothing and nervously consumed snacks and drinks as they watched the drama unfold. As with the bombings of Al Qaeda sites ordered by Bill Clinton in 1998 (the Wag the Dog incident), the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch in Iraq, and numerous other recent military actions, the mission presented a narrative fraught with 282 the leading man suspense and an uncertain outcome. Enhanced video and satellite technology heightened the experience by providing live sound and pictures to the White House (as well as CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and command centers in the Pentagon and Islamabad, Pakistan...


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MARC Record
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