FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: “Well we did, and the guy’s name was Osama bin Laden.”
DOOCY: “And didn’t you tell President Obama ‘don’t go’ after bin Laden that day?”
BIDEN: “No, I didn’t. I didn’t.”
— exchange on Jan. 3, 2020
Biden, to put it mildly, is not the most disciplined speaker. He sometimes gets himself in trouble with flat declarations and evolving versions of the same story. His advice in 2011 to President Barack Obama on whether to risk an attack on the possible location of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is a case in point.
Depending on the venue or the vantage point, Biden has emphasized advice he gave in a top-level meeting — essentially “don’t go yet” — or advice he claims he gave privately — essentially “go if you want to go.”
There is possibly a case to be made that various versions make sense when viewed in a continuum, as part of the same story. But the problem is that Biden’s supposed advice that Obama should launch a raid was made in private, while other high-level participants recall Biden’s words of caution. Obama, the only other person privy to the private conversation, has not commented.
Bin Laden was killed by a team of Navy SEALs on May 2, 2011, after fierce debate among Obama’s top advisers about whether the intelligence was strong enough to merit an attack that would violate Pakistan’s sovereignty.
Biden’s first version of his role in the discussion was best expressed in January 2012, when he spoke to House Democrats at a retreat. Biden at the time probably did not expect to run again for president. He was clearly trying to make Obama look like a gutsy decision-maker in the face of antsy aides.
“The president, he went around the table with all the senior people, including the chiefs of staff, and he said, ‘I have to make a decision. What is your opinion?’ He started with the national security adviser, the secretary of state, and he ended with me,” Biden said. “Every single person in that room hedged their bet except [CIA Director] Leon Panetta. Leon said, ‘Go.’ Everyone else said, 49, 51. 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.’ ”
As you can see, Biden suggested that he was not against a raid per se but believed more work needed to be done, such as sending an unmanned aerial vehicle to confirm that bin Laden lived in the home in Abbottabad, Pakistan, identified by the CIA.
Peter Bergen, in his 2012 book “Manhunt,” describes at length the Situation Room discussions, based on interviews with many key participants. He depicted Biden as worried about the possibility of local fallout from the raid. “We need greater certainty that bin Laden is there,” Biden is quoted as saying. “The risks to the Pakistani relationship and its importance are such that we need to know more before acting.”
Various accounts portray Biden and Defense Secretary Robert Gates as the biggest skeptics, with Panetta the most forceful in pushing for a “go” decision.
“Biden remained skeptical,” wrote former secretary of state Hillary Clinton in her memoir “Hard Choices.” “I respected Bob and Joe’s concerns about the risks of a raid, but I came to the conclusion that the intelligence was convincing and the risks were outweighed by the benefits of success.” (Bergen, in his book, said Clinton gave a lawyerly presentation in which her final conclusion was not evident till the end: “It’s a very close call, but I would say: Do the raid.”)
Panetta, in his book “Worthy Fights,” also says Biden wanted to take more time: “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.’” And Gates, in his book “Duty,” agreed that he and Biden were the “two primary skeptics, although everyone was asking tough questions. Biden’s primary concern was the political consequences of failure.”
Mark Bowden reports in his 2012 book, “The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden”: “The only major dissenters were Biden and Gates and, by the next morning, Gates had changed his mind.” Former deputy CIA director Mike Morell confirmed that in his memoir, “The Great War of Our Time,” saying Obama polled the principals in the final meeting: “The vice president and Bob Gates voted no; everyone else voted yes,” but then Gates called the next morning and switched to yes.
Starting with an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in May 2012, Biden began to add something else to the story — a private conversation with Obama after the Situation Room debate.
“I walk out of that meeting, as I usually do,” Biden said. “I get to be the last guy to be with the president. We walked up toward the residence, toward his office. And I knew he was going to go. And what I always tell him, when he said — looked at me again, I said, ‘Follow your instincts, Mr. President. Your instincts have been close to unerring. Follow your instincts.’ I wanted him to take one more day to do one more test to see if he was there.”
In an interview in the New York Times magazine in January 2013, Biden put it this way: “I remember walking up to his office and saying: ‘Look, follow your instincts. Follow your instincts,’ and him coming down the next morning to say, ‘Go.’ ”
These statements are rather ambiguous. It’s not quite saying “go.” Instead, it’s more like “go with your gut.”
The story evolved even more in 2015, around the time Biden was first mulling a presidential run, when Biden told a public forum: “So as we walked out of the room and walked upstairs, I said, uh, I told him my opinion that I thought he should go but follow his own instincts.”
As Biden explained in an interview a week later with CBS: “Everything I said was completely accurate. I just never until last Tuesday night told the whole story.” He claimed that he did not say “don’t go” but instead had said, “Try one more thing.” He argued that since Obama had not made a final decision, he did not want to be on record in front of other administration officials as urging the mission. “We walked up to the Oval. I said: ‘Mister President, follow your instincts. I know you should do it, but follow your instincts.’”
Antony Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state who in 2011 was Biden’s top foreign policy adviser, told The Fact Checker that he had learned of the private conversation between Obama and Biden shortly after it happened. Biden had argued in the Situation Room meeting for taking more time to get positive identification of bin Laden, but in the private conversation with Obama, Biden said, “Follow your instincts, they are always good,” according to Blinken’s recollection. (Blinken is a campaign adviser to Biden.)
So it appears that there was a second conversation between Obama and Biden, after the Situation Room meeting, in which he urged the president to follow his instincts. Whether Biden delivered a firm “go” message — or Obama heard one — remains unconfirmed. Obama has not commented, but perhaps he will address this question in his upcoming memoir. (Update, Nov. 28: Obama’s memoir describes the Situation Room debate as others have, saying he appreciated Biden’s willingness to offer a contrary viewpoint, but he makes no mention of this supposed conversation with Biden afterwards.)
(Note: Some reporters also have pointed to remarks Obama made in an Oct. 22, 2012, presidential debate with Mitt Romney as saying Biden opposed the raid. We believe those comments are taken out of context. Obama was talking about criticism he received during his 2008 run, from both Romney and Biden (at the time both presidential candidates), for saying he would go after bin Laden even if the Pakistani government was unwilling to help. “When you were a candidate in 2008, as I was, and I said if I got bin Laden in our sights I would take that shot, you said we shouldn’t move heaven and earth to get one man,” Obama said in the debate. “Even some in my own party, including my current vice president, had the same critique as you did.” Obama clearly was not talking about the internal White House debate over the 2011 raid. Panetta says in his book that Obama made the hunt for bin Laden the CIA’s top priority shortly after he took office, citing the statements he made in the 2008 campaign.)
The Pinocchio Test
Biden’s story of his advice to Obama has evolved over time. He now says he’s telling the full story, involving both a meeting of top advisers and a private conversation afterward with Obama.
According to the various accounts of administration officials involved in the internal debate, Biden was one of the two main skeptics of the intelligence suggesting that bin Laden was in Abbottabad. He publicly even stated that he said “don’t go” until more intelligence was gathered.
So it’s certainly clear he advised Obama not to go at that moment when Obama’s advisers were debating the issue. No matter what he said to Obama privately, he cannot so easily argue that he did not offer this guidance.
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