Joe Biden Advised against Osama bin Laden Raid

President Barack Obama speaks about Syria next to Vice President Joe Biden in the Rose Garden at the White House in 2013. (Mike Theiler/Reuters)

When the time came for a gutsy call, the vice president said ‘don’t go.’


oe Biden wants to run on Barack Obama’s record. Obama himself, speaking at the Democratic convention last month, glossed over Biden’s own record while reassuring listeners of Biden’s value as a wing man: “For eight years, Joe was the last one in the room whenever I faced a big decision.”

The single best moment of Obama’s presidency was the May 2011 raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden. It only happened because Obama ignored Joe Biden when he said, “Mr. President, my suggestion is, don’t go.” Biden is all too aware that he got the biggest decision of the Obama presidency wrong, which is why he changed his story years later to claim that he had actually supported the raid. That history is important to remember today, on the 19th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, as Biden seeks to become the next commander in chief.

Biden has four main reasons for embracing Obama’s record rather than his own. One, Obama won two national elections and remains popular with Democrats. Two, the rest of Biden’s career is as a legislator, so his years as vice president are important to evaluating how he would handle an executive job. Three, as David Harsanyi has detailed, many of Biden’s own legislative stances are now sufficiently unpopular with Democratic activists that Biden has felt compelled to renounce them. And four, the tasks Biden handled himself as vice president, ranging from overseeing “shovel-ready” stimulus projects to dealing with Ukraine, are a morass of ineptitude, favoritism, and sleaze that Biden would rather avoid. So why not run on the best thing Obama ever did?

Killing Osama bin Laden, who had evaded American justice and retribution for nearly a decade after September 11, 2001, was a big deal, and a big factor in Obama’s re-election a year and a half later. It was cheered, and justly so, by Republicans as well as Democrats across the country. It made Obama look strong and successful compared with the years of fruitless search by George W. Bush, and helped distract from the many foreign-policy areas in which Obama was weak and timid in standing up to bad actors. Biden himself famously turned it into a pithy campaign-trail slogan he repeated across the American heartland: “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive!”

Behind the headline news, however, there was a complication for Obama and his backers: The hardest part had been finding bin Laden. That was what eluded Bush after bin Laden’s escape from Tora Bora. Nobody, after all, seriously doubted that George W. Bush would have pulled the trigger on a raid to get the man if he could have found him. But the uncomfortable truth for Obama was that the steps that led to finding bin Laden were littered with controversial Bush policies that Obama had opposed:

  • The trail of intelligence that led investigators to focus on bin Laden’s personal courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, came from the interrogation of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and CIA “black site” detention centers.
  • The man described as the “linchpin” of the investigation, Hassan Ghul, was intercepted at the Iraq-Iran border in 2004 carrying a message from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to bin Laden asking for bin Laden’s support in the insurgency in Iraq — a capture that does not happen without the Iraq War.
  • After the CIA pieced together al-Kuwaiti’s identity around 2007, and before he was located in 2009, the NSA surveillance net began to track calls in and out of Pakistan to or from al-Kuwaiti’s family members and associates, which identified his full name.
  • Ghul was subjected to some forms of coercive interrogation, and Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, one of the sources of intelligence that led to al-Kuwaiti, had been waterboarded. Mark Bowden: “The first two mentions of Ahmed the Kuwaiti were made by Mohamedou Ould Slahi and Mohammed al-Qahtani in coercive interrogation sessions. The third, the misleading characterization of the Kuwaiti as retired by Khalid Sheik Mohammed, came during one of his many water-boarding sessions. Hassan Ghul verified the Kuwaiti’s central role during secret interrogation sessions at an undisclosed CIA detention center.”

It would not do for Obama and Biden to talk about any of this, so they instead played up the one part of the bin Laden raid that involved Obama personally: the decision to send the SEALs into Abbottabad to get him. The Democrats at the time leaned so hard on this being a “gutsy call” that Obama for America even registered the domain name John Brennan described it as a “gutsy call.” Denis McDonough called it a “gutsy call.” Robert Gates described it as a “very gutsy call.” John Kerry, Leon Panetta, and Dianne Feinstein varied the script by calling it a “gutsy decision.” Middle East Institute president Wendy Chamberlain claimed on CNN that Obama’s decision “took some real courage, as much courage as our Navy SEALs did in pulling off a near flawless operation.” Biden himself told a Democratic fundraiser just weeks after the operation: “The American people now . . . have a crystal clear picture of how strong and decisive this president is. And that’s the last piece of the puzzle that had to be put in place for this great man. The American people will no longer confuse being contemplative with being a coward.”

Obama apparently agonized for months over the decision. Richard Miniter reported, based on unnamed sources, that Obama canceled the raid three times between January and March 2011, on the advice of Valerie Jarrett. (At the time, Obama spokesman Josh Earnest called this a “fabrication.”) Biden himself later claimed that he had known about the Abbottabad compound as far back as August 2010, and the Cabinet was briefed in January or February. Robert Gates warned against the raid, reminding Obama that Gates had been in the room for the failed 1980 Iranian hostage rescue operation that helped sink Jimmy Carter.

Biden’s advice against the bin Laden raid has been widely reported for years and confirmed on the record by multiple senior Obama advisers. It was, at one time, even admitted by Biden himself during the “gutsy call” stage, when it was politically useful to emphasize the decisiveness of Obama. ABC News, January 2012:

Vice President Joe Biden confessed this weekend that he advised President Obama not to launch the mission that ultimately killed Osama bin Laden last spring. During remarks at a Democratic congressional retreat this weekend, Biden explained that when it came time to make the final decision, he had some lingering uncertainties about whether the 9/11 mastermind was in the suspected compound in Pakistan. When the president asked his top advisers for their final opinion on the mission, all of them were hesitant, except for the former CIA director, now Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Biden said. “Every single person in that room hedged their bet except Leon Panetta. Leon said go. Everyone else said, 49, 51,” Biden said, as he offered the unsolicited details of the decision-making process. “He got to me. He said, ‘Joe, what do you think?’ And I said, ‘You know, I didn’t know we had so many economists around the table.’ I said, ‘We owe the man a direct answer. Mr. President, my suggestion is, don’t go. We have to do two more things to see if he’s there,’” Biden recalled.

The Obama White House confirmed Biden’s account at the time:

On Monday, Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said Mr. Biden was “speaking accurately.” He added, “The broader point, as the president has made here, is that this was not a sure thing, but the president had so much faith in our special forces and their capacity to fulfill this mission, that he made the call to go forward.”

In an October 2012 debate with Mitt Romney, recounting doubts John McCain and Romney had advanced years earlier about going into Pakistan, Obama told the nation, “Even some in my own party, including my current vice president, had the same critique as you did.” CNN’s Peter Bergen, May 2012:

Vice President Joe Biden, who was elected to the U.S. Senate when Obama was 10, and was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before becoming vice president, was worried about the local fallout from a SEAL raid in Abbottabad: a possible firefight with the Pakistanis or an incident at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad. Gates and Biden also pointed out that the proposed raid would not just cause problems in America’s relations with Pakistan but would likely cause a permanent rupture, and that would mean the end of both the land and air corridors across Pakistan that were critical to the resupply of the 100,000 America soldiers then stationed in neighboring Afghanistan. . . . At the final National Security Council meeting to discuss the Abbottabad operation on Thursday, April 28, 2011 . . . Biden was unambiguous, “Mr. President, my suggestion is: Don’t go.”

With both Gates and Biden still leery of the largely circumstantial intelligence and the toll that a raid would place on the critical U.S.-Pakistani relationship, that made two out of the three most-senior officials in Obama’s Cabinet urging against the SEAL helicopter assault. . . . As the meeting wound up, at around 7 p.m., the president said, “This is a close call and not one that I’m ready to make now. I need to go think about this. I’m going to sleep on it. I’ll give an order in the morning.” At 8:20 Friday morning . . . Obama gathered some of his top aides around him and said simply, “I’ve considered the decision: It’s a go.” Tony Blinken, Biden’s top national security adviser, heard the news shortly afterward. “I thought, ‘Man, that is a gutsy call.’”

Mark Bowden’s book The Finish, which incorporated interviews with Obama himself:

The only major dissenters were Biden and Gates, and by the next morning Gates had changed his mind. Biden was characteristically blunt. “Mr. President, my suggestion is, don’t go,” he said. “We have to do more things to see if he’s there.” The vice president was never shy about political calculations. He believed that if the president decided to choose either the air or the ground option, and if the effort failed in any of the many ways it could, Obama would lose his chance for a second term. Biden felt strongly about it, and never hesitated to disagree at meetings like this . . . in this case, he even disagreed with his top adviser on such matters, Tony Blinken. . . . In the end every one of the president’s top advisers except Biden was in favor of taking immediate action.

Panetta, in his memoir: “Biden argued that we still did not have enough confidence that bin Laden was in the compound, and he came out firmly in favor of waiting for more information.” Gates, in his memoir: “Finally, the president went around the table and asked each person for his or her recommendation. Biden was against the operation.” Gates attributed this to Biden’s concern for the “political consequences of failure.” Deputy CIA director Mike Morell, in his memoir: “The vice president was unconvinced about the intelligence and concerned about what a failed mission would do to our relations with Pakistan.” Hillary Clinton’s memoir: “I respected [Biden’s] concerns about the risk of a raid, but I came to the conclusion that the intelligence was convincing and that the risks were outweighed by the benefits of success.”

Ben Rhodes described Biden’s opposition more vividly in his own memoir, leaving little doubt that the meeting ended without Biden giving further, private “last one in the room” counsel:

Biden was opposed, and he went on at length about the catastrophe that could ensue with Pakistan — a firefight at the scene, threats to our embassy, a break in our relations. . . . At the end of the meeting, Obama didn’t tip his hand, he just said he’d make his decision overnight. As people filed out of the room, Biden pulled Denis [McDonough] and me into a smaller, adjacent room and closed the door. He looked genuinely pained. “You fellas really think he should do this?” [After both said yes,] “Well,” Biden said, “I’m just trying to give him a little space.”

Once Biden considered running for president in 2015, however, he began reconsidering his recollection of what happened — as well as challenging accounts that Hillary Clinton had advised in favor of the raid. Michael Crowley of Politico warned in an August 2015 article: “Biden’s ‘no’ on bin Laden raid could haunt him in 2016,” How did Biden respond? The Hill, October 20, 2015:

Biden, who is considering a run for the White House against Clinton in 2016, offered a different view earlier on Tuesday. . . . Biden said he privately supported the raid and held back his advice for President Obama until the two were behind closed doors. Biden also contradicted the Democratic presidential front-runner’s claim that she fully supported the raid. “I told him my opinion that I thought he should go but to follow his own instincts,” Biden said during a panel . . . at The George Washington University. “I never, on a difficult issue, never say what I think finally until I go up in the Oval [Office] with him alone.”

Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere, October 20, 2015, “Biden says he backed bin Laden raid all along”:

Biden said that he remembered being in favor of the raid all along, but worried about saying so in front of the other people in the room if Obama ultimately decided against it, to avoid causing a problem for the president on such a major decision. “It would have been a mistake. Imagine if I had said in front of everybody, ‘Don’t go,’ or ‘Go,’ and his decision was a different decision,” Biden said. “It undercuts that relationship. I never — on a difficult issue, never say what I think finally until I go up in the Oval [Office] with him alone.” Biden said that when he and Obama spoke privately after that meeting, he pressed the case to send in the Navy SEALs. “As we walked out of the room, walked upstairs, I told him my opinion: I thought he should go, but follow his own instincts,” Biden said.

Earnest refused to comment on Biden’s new story. The next day, October 21, Biden announced that he was not running in 2016.

Donald Trump and Mike Pence both hit Biden, albeit briefly, in their convention speeches for his stance on the bin Laden raid, which Biden is no longer eager to talk about, and which none of his rivals for the Democratic nomination felt fit to mention. It’s a strong point for Trump, as two of the biggest successes of his presidency came in taking out ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. Today of all days, we should remember that when the time came for a “gutsy call” to avenge the September 11 attacks, Joe Biden said “Don’t go.”

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