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Obama: Decision to Kill Bin Laden Was Heavily Debated

  • Ken Schwartz

FILE - President Barack Obama reads a statement on the death of Osama bin Laden from the East Room of the White House in Washington, May 1, 2011.

FILE - President Barack Obama reads a statement on the death of Osama bin Laden from the East Room of the White House in Washington, May 1, 2011.

The decision to hunt down and kill al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was a priority from the moment he took office, President Barack Obama says, but whether to actually undertake the mission was heavily debated.

Obama spoke to CNN television Monday, on the fifth anniversary of the special forces operation that killed the world's most wanted criminal -- responsible for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington that killed 3,000 people.

It was the first time Obama spoke about details of the mission.

U.S. intelligence had identified bin Laden's most trusted courier in late 2010. Months of intelligence led the president's security team to conclude that bin Laden was hiding on the third floor of a heavily guarded compound near the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.

This May 2, 2011 file photo shows Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan shortly after the raid that killed the al-Qaida leader.

This May 2, 2011 file photo shows Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan shortly after the raid that killed the al-Qaida leader.

Surveillance video showed a tall man resembling bin Laden shuffling through a courtyard for exercise.

Obama said the risks of going after bin Laden were very high, especially if the information pointing to his hiding place was wrong.

An incorrect conclusion that it was bin Laden in the house would cause "significant blowback" within Pakistan, Obama said.

The president said when it came time to decide whether to go forth with the mission, some members of his security team said more intelligence was needed. But Obama said there was good reason to think the terrorist was hiding there.

"If we did not take action, he might slip away and it might take years before he resurfaces," Obama said.

U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd L) and Vice President Joe Biden (L), along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011.

U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd L) and Vice President Joe Biden (L), along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011.

As Obama and his security team watched a live video feed, four U.S. helicopters landed in the compound and discharged members of a highly trained Navy SEAL team. One of the aircraft was damaged as it landed, causing plenty of anxiety inside the White House, he said.

Hillary Clinton, who was then secretary of state, said her "heart was in her throat."

"I never spent a more stressful 30 minutes in my life," she said.

The SEAL team killed a guard on the first floor, shot dead one of bin Laden's sons on the second floor when it appeared he was about to open fire, then burst into a third floor room. One team member shot the world's top criminal twice in the head.

Obama said no one in the White House watching the operation cheered or "high-fived" each other.

A combination of images shows various takes of Osama bin Laden from video images released by the U.S. Pentagon, May 7, 2011. Five videos were found in bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan after U.S. Navy Seals stormed the compound and killed bin Laden.

A combination of images shows various takes of Osama bin Laden from video images released by the U.S. Pentagon, May 7, 2011. Five videos were found in bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan after U.S. Navy Seals stormed the compound and killed bin Laden.

The SEAL team captured boxes of computer drives and DVDs from bin Laden's house along with his body, which was later deposited into the sea after a Muslim burial ceremony.

Just seconds before bin Laden was shot dead, Obama said, "hopefully at that moment, he understood that the American people hadn't forgotten the some 3,000 people who he killed."

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