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Watching history unfold from afar

By BEN FELLER
May 4, 2011

President Obama and his national security team watch the raid on bin Laden's hideout (White House photo)

Taut and riveting, the photo takes the world inside history: Around a lacquered table in the Situation Room, the president and his team are watching a heart-pounding hunt for a killer, Osama bin Laden.

President Barack Obama leans forward, deadly serious. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton holds her right hand over her mouth, a worried look on her face. Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Robert Gates stare stone-faced. So do the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the national security adviser and the White House chief of staff.

So what exactly were they watching on that video screen?

What’s clear is that Obama viewed and listened to updates by the minute on the mission to get bin Laden in his secure compound in Pakistan.

It appears the president would have been able to see one of two U.S. helicopters fall and land hard inside the compound just as the SEALs started sliding down the rope, indicating that the risky mission was not going as planned. Obama was getting the same feed as the one being piped into an operations center at CIA headquarters, an aerial view of the compound. A U.S. official described the tense moments at Langley of the hard helicopter landing, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the classified operation.

CIA Director Leon Panetta said the president and his team were not getting a direct video feed of the floor-by-floor raid as U.S. commandos searched for, found and killed bin Laden in his compound.

Obama never saw the moment when bin Laden was shot dead.

In fact, the tension in the Situation Room was caused largely by the agonizing wait that the president and his team had to endure before learning just what was happening.

“Once those teams went into the compound, I can tell you, there was a time period of almost 20 or 25 minutes where we really didn’t know exactly what was going on,” Panetta told PBS. “And there were some very tense moments as we were waiting for information.”

The White House refuses to say exactly what was happening in the moment captured by Pete Souza, the chief official White House photographer for Obama. Officials said that revealing details could disclose sensitive information about how such operations are run.

“The president and his top national security aides in the Situation Room had available to them minute-by-minute updates on the operation, and that photograph was taken during the operation,” Obama spokesman Jay Carney said. “I can’t get more specific than that.”

The split screens in the Situation Room allowed for Obama to get accounts from different locations.

Military leaders were in the Pentagon, in the National Military Command Center, monitoring the operation. From there, Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, communicated with those in the Situation Room via videoconference as the operation progressed, providing updates and seeking decisions from the president when needed.

Meanwhile, Panetta was at the CIA, and his image was piped up on the screen in the Situation Room as he, too, communicated with those there.

He and CIA employees were gathered in his conference room near his office on the seventh floor of the CIA, which was turned into a makeshift operations post.

Panetta was overseeing the mission and was in touch with the one who commanded the mission on site, Adm. William McRaven, head of the Joint Special Forces Command. A U.S. official in the room said the CIA team had the same audio and video feed that was being piped into the White House.

One video feed came from aerial surveillance of the compound from above. There was also a video feed from some of the commandos’ helmets, though it was not clear that the officials at the CIA and the White House could see the helmet cameras as well.

Panetta said: “We did not have direct flow of information as to the conduct of the operation itself as they were going through the compound.” After the tense 20 or 25 minutes, McRaven reported back that commandos had bin Laden.

Regardless of the specific details, the photo from the Situation Room drew intense reactions.

“It demonstrates the intensity and emotion for the nation’s key leaders, who carry the burden of these decisions,” said Juan Zarate, a top White House counterterrorism official under President George W. Bush and now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This was a very risky operation. And the risk is evident in the eyes of the president and the gestures of the secretary of state.”

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Associated Press writers Kimberly Dozier and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press