Panetta said that point had been reached, arguing that those tracking the compound were seeing the pacer nearly every day but could not conclude with certainty that it was bin Laden, officials said. Panetta noted that there was no signals intelligence available and contended that it was too risky to send in a human spy or move any closer with electronic devices.
The Washington Post reported Friday that the agency established a safe house in Abbottabad for a small team that monitored the compound in the months leading up to the raid.
Obama and his advisers debated the options, officials said. One option was to fire a missile from a Predator or Reaper aerial drone. Such a strike would be low-risk, but if the result was a direct hit, the pacer might be vaporized and officials would never be certain they had killed bin Laden. If the drone attack missed, as had happened in attacks on high-value targets, bin Laden or whoever was living in the compound would flee and the United States would have to start the hunt from scratch.
Panetta designated Navy Vice Adm. William H. McRaven, who had headed the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) for nearly three years, to devise a boots-on-the ground plan for the special forces that became known as “the McRaven option.”
McRaven had increased the intensity of Special Operations raids, especially in Afghanistan. During his first two years as head of JSOC, the “jackpot rate” — when the strikes got their intended target — jumped from 35 percent to more than 80 percent.
His decision to assign the operation to the Navy SEALs, a Special Operations unit with extensive experience in raids on high-value targets, was critical. SEALs have a tradition of moving in and out fast, often killing everyone they encounter at a target site. Most members of the SEAL team in the bin Laden raid had been deployed to war zones a dozen or more times.
A “pattern of life” study of the compound by intelligence agencies showed that about a dozen women and children periodically frequented it.
Specific orders were issued to the SEALs not to shoot the women or children unless they were clearly threatening or had weapons. (During the mission, one woman was killed and a wife of bin Laden was shot in the leg.) Bin Laden was to be captured, one official said, if he “conspicuously surrendered.”
The longer such raids take, the greater the risk to the SEALs. One senior official said the general philosophy of the SEALs is: “If you see it, shoot it. It is a house full of bad guys.”