How CNN Got Into the Real Situation Room for Peter Bergen bin Laden Special

By A.J. Katz Comment

Five years after the raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, CNN recounts what led to the mission to take out the world’s most wanted terrorist. The Anderson Cooper 360 special We Got Him: President Obama, bin Laden and the Future of the War on Terror airs tonight at 8 p.m. ET. CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen sits down with President Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others to talk about the bin Laden raid and the state of the war on terror five years later.

Bergen has been covering bin Laden for 20 years. In 1997, as a producer for CNN, he produced bin Laden’s first TV interview, in which he declared war against the United States. TVNewser sat down with Bergen to chat about the making of tonight’s special:

TVNewser: Thanks for taking a few minutes to chat with us, Peter. What can you tell us about your experience with the president, 5 years after the raid?

Bergen: I sat down with the president literally in the situation room and it was the first time he had done a sit-down TV interview in that space. He spoke about the final meeting with his senior advisers who gave them their views about what to do. Their views were conflicting. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Vice President Biden were against the raid. Hillary Clinton was for the raid. I actually spoke to her right before hopping on the phone with you. The president took all of these points of view into consideration, and he made the decision to go forward. To see him in the same room where he made the decision was very interesting.

Later, we moved to a smaller situation room, a tiny room that isn’t much larger than a very small office. President Obama and the advisers all crammed into this smaller room on that day because it was where they could all hear the audio of the raid and they could also see video of the raid (they couldn’t see video in the larger room). The president continued to walk us through how he remembers that day. After the raid took place, the president walked through the White House grounds, and could begin to hear the cheers of the crowds that had gathered outside. None of the decision makers knew how this was going to turn out, and none of them really anticipated that there would be big crowds gathering outside the White House cheering. Later, we went to the hallway where he gave his speech announcing bin Laden’s death, and he talked about what was going through his mind.

We also had the first long, sit-down interview with Retired Admiral William McRaven, who was the architect of the raid. Every single person who we had spoken to, including the president, had the highest possible regard for Admiral McRaven. He exuded competence and confidence but also made clear the risks and other options that were available. There were various types of raids that could have gone down, various different approaches. There was even a consideration of a bomb raid, which was eventually dismissed. He was on the ground in Afghanistan, narrating the raid as it went down to the White House and to the CIA. He really walked us all through that entire ordeal.

TVNewser: What was the production process like? How were you able to get access to all of these people and get them to talk about this experience?

Bergen: It’s interesting, I found out about this idea only about a week ago. Obviously, it’s a pretty big deal, meeting with the president, the architect of the raid, the Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Lisa Monaco who is his top counter-terrorism advisor, John Brennan who is the CIA director, James Clapper, the National Intelligence director. Very few of them ever give interviews. From a production point of view, there was a lot to get done but CNN has some highly competent people and we are going to pull it together. We’re still working on it. In fact, I’m doing the last interview right after we speak. We have a huge support staff, including six editors and AC360 producer Susan Chun, who has a huge amount of experience with these things.

ObamaCNNTVNewser:  We’re in the midst of a heated election cycle. CNN (along with other cable news networks) have concentrated the majority of their prime time content to the election in 2016. How can this special add to the conversation?

Bergen: That’s a good question. This was a pure example of presidential decision-making which happens in a world of imperfect information. That’s the whole point about being president. Sometimes you’re asked to make these decisions when there’s imperfect information. There’s always risk and the potential for things to go wrong. Whether it’s the Cuban Missile Crisis and President Jimmy Carter and the Iran Hostage Crisis, you can make a decision and things can go well, or things can go wrong. Certainly this is one of President Obama’s greatest achievements, with the assistance with Admiral McRaven, who had been in the Bush White House and an apolitical man. He had been in the military for 3 1/2 decades and was trusted. At the end of the day, the president is in a lonely place. People will watch the show and make their own judgments. They’ll likely ask: “What does this say about how presidents make their own decisions?” and I think it says quite a lot.

TVNewser: To follow up on your last point – What do you want the viewing audience to take away from this unique program?

Bergen: I want viewers to feel justice for the victims of 9/11, their families and American national honor. Unfortunately, this ideology of terrorism continues, and killing one man doesn’t kill his ideas unfortunately. I thought with the death of bin Laden and the Arab spring that would not necessarily be the end of terrorism, but move it to a second-tier problem. Unfortunately, it still remains a problem.

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