In this White House image, digitally altered to diffuse the paper in front of Secretary of State Clinton, President Obama and Vice President Biden, along with national security team members, receive updates on Sunday’s mission in the White House Situation Room.AP photo
WASHINGTON — The photo takes the world inside history: Around a table in the Situation Room, the president and his team are watching a hunt for a killer, Osama bin Laden.
President Barack Obama leans forward, deadly serious. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton holds her right hand over her mouth, a worried look on her face. Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Robert Gates stare stone-faced. So do the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the national security adviser and the White House chief of staff.
So what exactly were they watching on that video screen?
What’s clear is that Obama viewed and listened to updates by the minute on Sunday’s raid.
It appears the president would have been able to see one of two U.S. helicopters fall and land hard inside the compound just as the SEALs started sliding down the rope, indicating the mission was not going as planned.
CIA Director Leon Panetta said the president and his team were not getting a direct video feed of the floor-by-floor raid as U.S. commandos searched for, found and killed bin Laden.
Obama never saw the moment when bin Laden was shot dead.
In fact, the tension in the Situation Room was caused largely by the agonizing wait.
“Once those teams went into the compound, I can tell you, there was a time period of almost 20 or 25 minutes where we really didn’t know exactly what was going on,” Panetta told PBS.
The White House refuses to say exactly what was happening in the moment captured by Pete Souza, the chief official White House photographer for Obama. Officials said revealing details could disclose sensitive information about how such operations are run.
From the Pentagon, Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, communicated with those in the Situation Room via videoconference, providing updates and seeking decisions from the president when needed. Meanwhile, Panetta was at the CIA, and his image was piped up on the screen in the Situation Room as he, too, communicated with those there.
Panetta was overseeing the mission and was in touch with the one who commanded the mission on site, Adm. William McRaven, head of the Joint Special Forces Command. A U.S. official in the room said the CIA team had the same audio and video feed that was being piped into the White House.
One video feed came from aerial surveillance of the compound from above. There was also a video feed from some of the commandos’ helmets, though it was not clear that officials at the CIA and the White House could see the helmet cameras as well.
After the tense 20 or 25 minutes, McRaven reported back that commandos had bin Laden.