Most Americans recall vividly where they where a year ago when they heard the news that Osama bin Laden — the man behind the 9/11 attacks on the United States — was killed, but none of us were privy to what actually occurred to pull off what President Barack Obama called “the longest 40 minutes of my life.” NBC News will take viewers behind the scenes tonight at 9pm ET with a special edition of Rock Center With Brian Williams called “Inside the Situation Room.”
Williams and NBC were granted unprecedented access to the Situation Room where Obama and his staff gathered the night of bin Laden’s death. Up until this point, all Americans really knew about those gathered in the room that evening was through a photo released by the White House, pictured above.
Among those in the picture and interviewed in tonight’s special are: President Obama; Vice President Joe Biden; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (from 2007 to 2011); Tom Donilon, National Security Advisor; Denis McDonough, Deputy National Security Advisor; and John O. Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism.
Williams re-creates the night by talking to most of the key players present on that historical night, including Obama and Clinton. Not all went as planned, however, as a U.S. helicopter went down in the course of the attack. Williams shows the president the photo taken from the Situation Room and asks him what is going on at that precise time.
“If I’m not mistaken, this picture was taken right as the helicopter was having some problems,” the president recalls. “That’s what it feels like, because I can remember Hillary putting her hand over her mouth at that point. There’s silence at this point in the room.”
Adds Clinton: “[The photo] conjures up all of the emotions that were running through [me] and every other person in that small group. It was just an extraordinary experience and a great privilege to be part of.”
One would suspect that there would be a lot of celebrating once confirmation came through that the target was killed, but Obama said that the room was actually very subdued and relieved that everything went as planned.
“I think it’s wrong to say I did a high-five, because you have a picture of a dead body,” he said. “I think regardless of who it is, you always have to be sober about death, but understanding the satisfaction for the American people, what it would mean for 9/11 families, what it would mean for the children of folks who died in the twin towers who never got to know their parents … I think there was a deep-seated satisfaction for the country at that point.”
Williams also asks the Commander in Chief why he chose to call his predecessor, President George W. Bush, who was in the White House during that 9/11 attack that killed thousands of Americans.
“I think that was an important symbol of who we are as a people,” Obama said. “We get into these partisan fights, administrations come and go, but there is a certain continuity about who we are and and what we care about and what our values are. For me to call my predecessor and say a lot of the work you did under your administration was continued in my administration, and there’s a constant thread that ultimately leads to justice being done. I think it was symbolic of how our government should work.”
And while Obama will justifiably get credit for taking down one of the world’s most notorious killers, he admits to Williams that he couldn’t and wouldn’t have done so without the brave men and women who comprise this country’s military and special forces.
“I did choose the risk, and I’ve said this before — and I absolutely believe it — the reason I was willing to make that decision of sending in our SEALS to try to capture or kill bin Laden rather than to take some other options was ultimately because I had 100% faith in the Navy SEALS themselves,” he said. “Bill McRaven, the head of Special Forces, had worked with us for months to think through every possible scenario.”
Rock Center With Brian Williams airs Wednesday, May 2, at 9p/8c.