Bin Laden raid expected to be a centerpiece of Hillary Clinton’s memoir


In this handout image provided by the White House, President Obama, Vice President Biden, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and members of the national security team receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room on May 1, 2011. (The White House/Via Getty Images)

The book is called “Hard Choices,” and its title refers in part to one of the hardest Hillary Rodham Clinton faced as secretary of state.

Three years after the killing of Osama bin Laden, the military raid to hunt down the fugitive al-Qaeda leader stands out as the riskiest national security decision of the Obama administration. Clinton’s staunch backing for the raid now has the potential to become one of the most politically rewarding decisions of her tenure, making it little surprise that the episode is expected to be a centerpiece of her forthcoming memoir.

Clinton has yet to declare her intention to campaign for the presidency in 2016, but Republicans are looking for vulnerabilities in her record while at the State Department — from her management of the chaotic aftermath of the Arab Spring to the difficult U.S. relationship with Russia to the deaths of four Americans in Libya on her watch.

The book is in some respects Clinton’s preemptive strike.

Even before the release, a review of Clinton’s limited public remarks on the mission, as well as the recollections of others in the Obama administration, make the outlines of her role fairly clear. She gave unwavering support for the raid into Pakistan almost as soon as she heard it might be possible, and before President Obama had made up his mind.

Through weeks of sometimes heated White House debate in 2011, Clinton was alone among the president’s topmost cabinet officers to back it. Vice President Biden, a potential political rival for Clinton in 2016, opposed it. So did then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

“What she looks like is someone decisive, smart and risk-taking in the right way,” said Robert Shrum, a top strategist on the presidential campaigns of Al Gore and John F. Kerry. “This wasn’t about risking thousands or tens of thousands of American troops. This was about taking a risk that if it failed would hurt her and the president, but it’s the kind of thing you do if you are president or if you are secretary of state.”

Privately, Republican strategists questioned whether Clinton is taking more credit than she deserves for the successful raid. But even America Rising, the leading Republican super PAC attacking Clinton in the run-up to 2016, stopped short of publicly criticizing her role in the bin Laden operation.

“When it comes to the bin Laden raid, there are some things that are above politics,” said Tim Miller, America Rising’s executive director. “That was a great moment for the country.”

Clinton’s move to highlight her role in the decision-making process does not come without political risk. For some dovish liberals in the Democratic base, it could be a reminder of her more hawkish leanings.

But if the rollout of her memoir is any indication, Clinton will not be shy about touting her influence on the raid. It is the only substantive policy issue she has mentioned when asked about the book, and a promotional excerpt released last week highlighted the episode.

“The president’s top advisers were divided. The intelligence was compelling, but far from definitive. The risks of failure were daunting,” writes Clinton, who would later be primarily responsible for handling the diplomatic fallout with Pakistan.

Clinton’s spokesman, Nick Merrill, declined to comment on her reasoning in backing the raid ahead of the book’s June 10 release. Merrill also declined to answer questions about how the debate played out in the weeks before the raid on May 2, 2011.

Republicans who consider Clinton the toughest Democrat to beat in 2016 will look for seams in her book, particularly in her account of what led to the fatal 2012 sacking of U.S. compounds in Benghazi, Libya. The attack poses an obvious weakness if Clinton makes the case that her leadership of the State Department helped prepare her for the White House.

Clinton has denied that she played a direct role in any decision to reduce or limit security measures in Libya before the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. She took overall responsibility for the tragedy, and pledged to make security upgrades and bureaucratic reforms.

In private conversations and in speeches over the past year, Clinton has made the reverse argument about the bin Laden raid. She places herself at the center of deliberations in March and April 2011, even as she has never publicly claimed that her opinion was decisive.

At a December gala in New York, Clinton talked about advising Obama to authorize the operation, and described the debate as a particularly “emotional and intense experience” for her, considering her previous role as U.S. senator representing New York in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“It became a very personal journey that I made in coming to my conclusion to recommend that there was sufficient grounds for the president ordering the SEAL raid,” Clinton said.

Clinton’s initial response to the issue of a possible raid is described in greatest detail in the book “HRC,” a narrative of Clinton’s State Department tenure published this year. In the book, she is said to have signed on to the mission almost as soon as then-CIA Director Leon E. Panetta sought a private meeting to request her help.

Over lunch on March 7, 2011, Panetta told Clinton that his analysts had the first potentially actionable lead on bin Laden, nearly 10 years after the Sept. 11 attacks. Panetta laid out what was known about the compound in suburban Abbottabad, and lobbied her to help counter “doubters” at the White House and Pentagon, according to the authors of the book, Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, who received extensive cooperation from Clinton’s cadre of close advisers.

“I think he knew from all kinds of conversations we had over the years that — especially since he was at CIA and I was at State — that if we had a colorable, creditable chance to get bin Laden, we should do it,” Clinton said.

Panetta declined to speak for this article, as did his former top aide Jeremy Bash. Bash is now in business as a consultant with longtime Clinton media and image adviser Philippe Reines.

Other participants in the bin Laden debate, including Gates, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and then-White House chief of staff William M. Daley also declined to be interviewed. Biden’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Former national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon also did not respond.

Gates, with whom Clinton frequently teamed in policy debates, was set against what he worried would be a disastrous mistake on par with Jimmy Carter’s failed attempt to rescue American hostages in Tehran.

“The president and his senior-most national security team met multiple times in March and April to debate whether to strike the compound,” Gates wrote in his own memoir, “Duty.” “Joe Biden and I were the two primary skeptics, although everyone was asking tough questions.”

Biden was chiefly concerned about the “political consequences of failure,” Gates wrote in the book, published this year. Gates’s own objections were about the effect of the raid — whether successful or not — on the war in Afghanistan, he said.

Pakistan would be livid about any U.S. military operation inside its borders and might cut off a vital overland supply route for U.S. forces, or worse, Gates reasoned. He was also worried that the case for bin Laden’s presence at the compound was circumstantial.

“We did not have a single piece of hard evidence that he was there,” Gates wrote. “From my vantage point, we were risking the war in Afghanistan on a crapshoot.”

Gates would eventually change his mind, but not until Obama had given the order for the raid. For weeks in March and April, the lineup among Obama’s three most high-ranking cabinet officials was two against the operation, one for.

Clinton was hardly alone in backing the raid, but her support gave Obama elbow room. She made the argument Obama later voiced, when the raid was over: The costs of not taking the risk were higher than the risk itself.

There was no vote at the final national security meeting to discuss the potential operation, on April 28. But participants including Gates have said that Obama went around the table and took a poll.

Clinton laid out the likely risk of Pakistani anger and retaliation, according to “HRC.” She did not make an impassioned case for action, though by then everyone in the room knew her position.

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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