How Obama kept the biggest secret of his presidency

The operation against Bin Laden was one thing; concealing it from the world something else

Even the most diligent felt happy switching off after lunch on Sunday. The President had cut short a golfing trip to Maryland (rain was threatening) and returned to his family early. A reporter accompanying him told colleagues in an email that the "lid" was coming down – the moment in the day when nothing more Obama-related was expected. "Arrived at White House after uneventful trip at 2:04," she typed. "Enjoy the rest of the weekend!"

No politician can reach such high office without being good at cheating on the American public, particularly where national security is concerned. Every commander-in-chief will have a moment when that capacity to keep a secret – and maintain a poker face – is tested to an almost unbearable degree. For Barack Obama it came over three days on the cusp of April and May in 2011.

For those 72 hours, the public part of the President's schedule was followed with the usual alacrity by the White House press corps. It was at 8.43am on Friday that Obama boarded a helicopter on the South Lawn (khakis and dark jacket) with his wife Michelle and their two daughters on the first leg of a trip to Alabama to console tornado victims, and thereafter Cape Canaveral in Florida to visit Nasa.

As they toured a shuttle hangar – "Think about that, eight minutes and you're up in space," Obama told his girls – Vice President Joe Biden headed to the British Embassy in Washington for a party to celebrate the royal wedding. He was on characteristically garrulous form, reminiscing about a trip to Britain with his late mother. It would have been hard to stop him talking.

Fast-forward 24 hours to the Washington Hilton and Obama was taking the art of nonchalance to a higher plane. For 20 minutes, in front of journalists and Hollywood stars at the White House Correspondents' dinner, he played the joker, alternately making a chump of himself and of Donald Trump. Who could have guessed at his anxiety about an imminent Special Forces operation in Pakistan that was set either to make his presidency – and his chances for re-election – or sour it horribly?

While the clock on the effort to take out Osama bin Laden had actually begun ticking late last summer, when CIA analysts first identified a high-walled compound in a town north of Islamabad that looked to be the lair of the al-Qa'ida leader, the final countdown had really started at 8.20am on Friday, barely 20 minutes before the Obama family boarded that helicopter on the South Lawn.

In the Diplomatic Room of the White House, the President sat across from four of his top aides, including the National Security Advisor, Tom Donilon. All were part of a very tight circle that had been deliberating with him about when and how the proposed assault on the compound should unfold. The option to drop a crushing payload of bombs on it had been ruled out by the President, who wanted Bin Laden, or his body, to be recognisable when it was all over. A boots-on-the-ground raid by Navy Seals was what he favoured. But were the plans fool-proof, and were they certain Bin Laden would be there?

The aides came to the meeting prepared to brief Obama. Saturday looked tricky weather-wise, but he cut them off before they started. "It's a go," he told them, and that was that. John Brennan, the top anti-terrorism advisor, would later describe it as the "gutsiest" decision made by a US president in recent memory.

As had been advised, the conditions meant that Sunday – or the very early hours of Monday in Pakistan – would bring the moment when America would, after more than a decade of frustration, finally have its best shot at eliminating its Enemy Number One. Obama and his co-conspirators, who included Robert Gates, the Defence Secretary, and Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, would have to hold their tongues a little while longer.

Possibly it was helpful that there was plenty else going on in the world as a distraction. Biden had played his part, pretending that the only thing that mattered over this long weekend was a certain ceremony far away in Westminster Abbey. And Obama went through the rituals of the Correspondents' Dinner that most presidents find excruciating under any circumstances. In fact, he received high marks for his comedy.

But there were clues that something was up. Anyone watching closely on Sunday might have wondered at Obama stopping after nine holes of golf when he usually plays 18. The moment he got back to the White House – and that "lid" was declared – he raced to the Oval Office in his golfing shoes, rather than to the family quarters to change. Meanwhile, all tours of the West Wing – Hollywood types from the previous night's dinner were expected as well as tourists – were cancelled. No one wanted Scarlett Johansson or Sean Penn bumping into a furrow-browed Robert Gates.

It was on Sunday afternoon that the drama of at last netting "Geronimo" – the codename given to Bin Laden for the operation – began. Obama, Clinton, Gates, Donilon, Brennan and a few others huddled in the White House Situation Room. A video and audio link connected them to Leon Panetta, the CIA director in Langley, Virginia, who would talk them through what was going on in Pakistan in real time, beginning with the helicopters carrying the Seals clattering through the night sky and arriving above their target. It was just after 2pm.

According to Brennan, the atmosphere in the room was intolerably tense. Between bulletins from Panetta, those inside said almost nothing. "They've reached the target," Panetta began, according to one version reported by the New York Times. Minutes later, he added: "We have a visual on Geronimo." Finally, they heard Panetta say: "Geronimo EKIA [enemy killed in action]." Still nobody said anything, as if to do so would jinx this victorious moment. Then Obama looked up and said simply, "We got him."

There was still some work to do. A photograph of the dead Bin Laden was uploaded by a commando on site to help experts at Langley confirm his identity. Later, a DNA analysis offered a 99.9 per cent match. As the body was taken into Afghanistan and the Navy prepared to dispose of it at sea, Obama began making calls to those who had to be let into the loop first, among them his predecessor, George W Bush.

Eventually, it was time to tell the rest of the world. The "lid" was rescinded and all White House correspondents were summoned back to their stations. And no one knew why until just a few minutes before Obama finally came into the East Room to speak at 11.35pm.

We like to think that every secret is leaked eventually. The tracking down and killing of Bin Laden was the best Washington secret in years. And, as it happens, it was clearly one of the best kept ones, too.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015