A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Biden on Bin Laden, Take 2


Is Joe Biden revising history or correcting it? We don’t know for sure, but the vice president now says that he privately advised President Obama to approve the raid that killed Osama bin Laden — which is diametrically opposed to what Biden and Obama said in 2012.

Biden gave his revised version of history on Oct. 20 at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he was speaking about the legacy of former Vice President Walter Mondale. Biden recounted a meeting of the National Security Council on April 28, 2011. At that meeting, Obama asked each person for their opinion on whether the U.S. should raid the Abbottabad compound in Pakistan, where Bin Laden was believed to have been hiding.

Biden, Oct. 20: Well, I said, I think we should make one more pass with another UAV [Unmanned Aerial Vehicle] to see if it is him. And the reason I did that is I didn’t want to take a position to go if that’s not where he was going to go. So, as we walked out of the room and walked upstairs, I said, I told him my opinion that I thought he should go but to follow his own instinct.

Biden’s statement that he advised the president at the 2011 meeting to “make one more pass” with an unmanned drone to make sure that Bin Laden was there squares with the historical account that Biden and Obama have given in the past.

But then Biden went on to tell his audience at George Washington University that he privately told the president to approve the raid. That’s inconsistent with everything that has been said and written about this to date.

Here’s what we know: In 2012, Biden gave a vivid account of that National Security Council meeting at the House Democrats’ annual retreat in Cambridge, Maryland. Biden told the Democrats that he advised the president not to approve the raid on the Abbottabad compound, as reported by the New York Times.

New York Times, Jan. 30, 2012: “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?’ ” Mr. Biden said, in an account later confirmed by the White House.

The president, Mr. Biden said, started with his national security adviser, Tom Donilon, then moved to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and other senior officials, including Leon E. Panetta, then director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who oversaw the raid, before ending up with the vice president.

“Every single person in that room hedged their bet except Leon Panetta,” Mr. Biden recalled. “Leon said go. Everyone else said, 49, 51.”

The president then turned to Mr. Biden. “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.’ ”

In his book, “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search For Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad,” Peter Bergen details why Biden opposed the raid. Bergen writes (on page 199) that Biden “was worried about the local fallout from the raid: a possible firefight with the Pakistanis or an incident at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad.”

Bergen, “Manhunt,” April 2013: “We need greater certainty that Bin Laden is there,” he advised. “The risks to the Pakistani relationship and its importance are such that we need to know more before acting.” Referring to the early discussion about percentages and close calls, Biden said, “You know, I didn’t know we had so many economists at the table.” Biden concluded, “We owe the man a direct answer. Mister President, my suggestion is: Don’t go.”

Those accounts — Bergen’s book and Biden’s 2012 speech to House Democrats — also square with what Obama said during the third and final presidential debate on Oct. 22, 2012.

During the debate, Obama said “even some in my own party, including my current vice president,” opposed the raid.

Obama, Oct. 22, 2012: When it comes to going after Osama bin Laden, you [Mitt Romney] said, well, any president would make that call. But 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, and you said we should ask Pakistan for permission. … I make that point because that’s the kind of clarity of leadership — and those decisions are not always popular. Those decisions generally are not poll-tested. And even some in my own party, including my current vice president, had the same critique as you did. But what the American people understand is, is that I look at what we need to get done to keep the American people safe and to move our interests forward, and I make those decisions.

In 2012, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Biden was “speaking accurately” when the vice president said he advised the president not to approve the raid. But the White House declined to confirm or deny the vice president’s new account. “I don’t have any insight to share with you about the private conversations between the president and the vice president,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at an Oct. 20 press briefing.

There are only two people who can say for sure what advice Biden gave to Obama in a private conversation as they left the meeting together and walked up the stairs. We have Biden’s revised version, but for now Obama isn’t revising his past statements.