A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Biden’s Position on Osama bin Laden Raid


Questioned by a Fox News reporter, former Vice President Joe Biden denied that he told then-President Barack Obama “not to go after [Osama] bin Laden” in what turned out to be a successful mission to kill the 9/11 mastermind. The Republican National Committee immediately called it “an instance of Biden flat out lying.”

We wouldn’t go that far, but Biden wasn’t giving the whole story.

In his initial recounting of the events leading up to bin Laden’s death on May 2, 2011, Biden portrayed Obama as a decisive leader who decided to move forward with the daring raid over the vice president’s advice. In the mid-2011 and early 2012, Biden recounted how he advised Obama during a national security strategy meeting in April 2011 to wait for further confirmation that bin Laden was actually in the compound in Pakistan before acting. That’s the version being seized upon by the GOP as a contradiction of Biden’s recent denial that he advised Obama not to go after bin Laden.

But Biden also — months later and ever since — claimed that in a one-on-one meeting with Obama immediately after the security council meeting, he told the president to “follow your instincts,” knowing that the president was inclined at that time to move forward with the raid.

We can’t confirm what Biden may have told Obama privately. But if Biden’s account about his one-one-one advice to Obama is correct, he wasn’t fully forthcoming about his position when it served Obama’s reelection bid, and his various versions over time haven’t always comported with one another.

There is renewed interest in Biden’s contemporaneous position on the bin Laden raid in the wake of Trump’s decision to target Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike at Baghdad’s airport on Jan. 2.

Here’s Biden’s exchange with Fox News reporter Peter Doocy on Jan. 3:

Doocy, Jan. 3: As commander in chief, if you were ever handed a piece of intelligence that said you could stop an imminent attack on Americans — but you have to use an airstrike to take out a terror leader — would you pull the trigger?

Biden: Well we did — the guy’s name was Osama bin Laden.

Doocy: Didn’t you tell President Obama not to go after bin Laden that day?

Biden: No, I didn’t.

The GOP put out a press release with a video of the exchange, and paired it with a video of Biden in 2012 recounting the April 2011 national security team meeting and saying, “Mr. President, my suggestion is, don’t go.” The release cites it as evidence that Biden “has a long history of changing his tune on the bin Laden raid.”

We should note that Biden’s comment “No, I didn’t” came in the middle of Doocy’s question — after Doocy had said, “Didn’t you tell President Obama not to go after bin Laden” but before Doocy said “that day.” Biden has never said he advised Obama not to go after bin Laden, only that he thought the raid should not be undertaken until they had taken further steps to confirm bin Laden was actually at the compound in Pakistan.

The following is a timeline of accounts Biden has given about his advice to Obama about the raid.

May 25, 2011

Several weeks after the raid, at a time when Obama was gearing up for a reelection campaign, the New York Times on May 26, 2011 reported that Biden said at a Democratic fundraiser in late May 2011 “that he and others had counseled Mr. Obama to be more careful and cautious about the raid. But he said it was the president who made the decision to launch the daring action.”

“I said ‘wait another seven days for information,'” Biden reportedly said, portraying Obama as a decisive leader “with the backbone of a ramrod.”

Jan. 27, 2012

Biden gave a similar account at the House Democrats’ annual retreat in Cambridge, Maryland. Biden told the Democrats that he advised the president in the April 2011 meeting not to immediately approve the raid on the Abbottabad compound.

Biden, Jan. 27, 2012: The president, 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?”

… Every single person in that room hedged their bet except [then director of the Central Intelligence Agency] Leon Panetta. Leon said go. Everyone else said, 49, 51. It got to me, 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.” He walked out and said, “I’ll give you my decision.” The next morning he came down the diplomatic entrance … he turned to [national security adviser] Tom Donilon and said, “Go.”

This was still during the time when Obama was seeking a second presidential term, and Biden told the New York Times he cited the anecdote to show that “this guy’s got a backbone like a ramrod.”

Biden’s account of his position in that meeting, which was confirmed by the White House at the time, is not in dispute among those that were there.

In his 2014 memoir, Worthy Fights, Leon Panetta, Obama’s director of the Central Intelligence Agency at the time of the National Security Council meeting in question, wrote (on page 318) that at the meeting, “Biden argued that we still did not have enough confidence that bin Laden was in the compound, and he came out firmly in favor of waiting for more information.”

In his 2014 memoir, Duty, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote that he and Biden were “the two primary skeptics” of the raid during national security team meetings that were held in March and April 2011 to debate whether to strike the compound. Gates wrote that “Biden’s primary concern was the political consequences of failure.”

During the fateful meeting in question on April 28, 2011, Gates said “Biden was against the operation.”

And in her 2014 memoir, Hard Choices, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote only that “Vice President Biden remained skeptical” and had “concerns about the risks of a raid.”

May 6, 2012

It wasn’t until a year after his initial account of the national security team meeting, during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” that Biden added the detail about his private advice to Obama.

Biden, May 6, 2012: President had a roll call. Everybody had some maybe yes, maybe no, I think on balance, “Go.” The only guy who had a full-throated, full-throated “Go, Mr. President,” was Leon Panetta. I walked out of that meeting as I usually do, I get to be the last guy to be with the president. We walked up toward the residence, toward his office and I knew he was going to go. And what I always tell him, when he said — looked at me again, I said, “Follow your instincts, Mr. President. Your instincts have been close to unerring. Follow your instincts.” I wanted him to take one more day to do one more test to see if he was there.

During the third presidential debate between Obama and Republican Mitt Romney on Oct. 22, 2012, Obama noted Biden’s position against immediately moving forward with the raid, and he did not mention anything about Biden telling him something else privately. Obama touted his decision to green-light the raid and mocked Romney for saying the U.S. “shouldn’t move heaven and earth to get one man” (a claim that didn’t capture the full context of Romney’s words) and that they should’ve asked Pakistan for permission.

Obama added that “even some in my own party, including my current vice president, had the same critique as you did.”

Jan. 16, 2013

In a look-back at Obama’s first term for a New York Times Magazine article on Jan. 16, 2013, Biden said, “I remember walking up to his office and saying, “Look, follow your instincts, follow your instincts,” and him coming down the next morning to say, “Go.”

Oct. 20, 2015

Another account emerged in 2015, at a time when Biden was still mulling a 2016 presidential run.

In this account, given during remarks at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he talked about the legacy of former Vice President Walter Mondale, Biden said he did not offer a firm opinion during the National Security Council meeting about whether or not to go forward with the raid, and that he later told Obama privately “that I thought he should go, but follow his own instincts.”

Biden, Oct. 20, 2015: Well, I said, “I think we should make one more pass with another UAV [Unmanned Aerial Vehicle] to see if it is him [Osama bin Laden].” And, the reason I did that is I didn’t want to take a position to go if that was not where [the president] was gonna go. So, as we walked out of the room, and walked upstairs, I told him my opinion — that I thought he should go, but follow his own instincts. But it would have been a mistake, imagine, if I had said in front of everyone, “don’t go” or “go,” and his decision was a different decision. It undercuts that relationship. So, I never, on a difficult issue, never say what I think finally until I go up into the Oval with him alone.

That account is at odds with his former claim in 2012, when he said that during the meeting he 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 other words, contrary to Biden’s claim that he did not offer a “don’t go” or “go” opinion at the meeting out of fear that contradicting the president’s final opinion would “undercut” his relationship with Obama, Biden in his 2012 retelling said he provided a “direct answer” and that his answer was “don’t go,” at least not yet.

Oct. 26, 2015

Several days later, in an interview with CBS journalist Norah O’Donnell that aired on Oct. 26, 2015, Biden was asked about the apparent discrepancy between his earlier accounts and the one he gave just a few days before. Biden said all of his versions were “completely accurate” but he said that until that recent speech he had never told “the whole story.”

Biden, Oct. 26, 2015: Everything I said was completely accurate. I just never until last Tuesday night told the whole story. We got down to the final decision and the president asked everyone’s opinion. And everyone in the room said, “Well, it’s a close call, Mr. President, probably.” And it went back and forth. Two people for certain said absolutely do something. One, the CIA director said, “Go.” Two, the secretary of defense said, “Don’t go.”

I was the last guy in the room. In order to give the president the leeway he needed, I said, “Mr. President, there’s one more thing we can do” — where he had discussed about another pass to see whether it was bin Laden. I said, “You should do that and there’d be still time to have the raid. But that’s what I would do.” Immediately, we got up, as we always do, and I walked out with the president. We walked up to the Oval. I said, “Mr. President, follow your instincts. Mine are you should do it, but follow your instincts.”

… The reporting was accurate when I said I didn’t say, “Go.” And I didn’t. What I said was, “Mr. President, try one more thing.” And the reason for that was, imagine if I had said, “Mr. President, go,” and he didn’t go. And then bin Laden did something else bad, they would’ve said, “Well, everybody said, even his vice president said, to go, and he said no.” Barack Obama made that decision knowing if it was wrong, his career was over. I wanted the public to know, this is a man with a backbone of steel. That’s why I said it. And had I said, “But by the way, when I went up privately I told him to go,” it would’ve made it look like I was self-aggrandizing. It’s long since passed. It was in the context of what the role of a vice president is. And that’s exactly what happened.

The Biden campaign says there are no contradictions between Biden’s accounts, that there were two distinct occurrences: the larger security meeting and a later private meeting between Biden and Obama.

“At the outset, the Vice President advised that we first obtain additional confirmation that bin Laden was indeed at the compound — but he did not say that the operation shouldn’t ultimately go forward,” a Biden campaign official told us. “Later, in a one-on-one setting, the vice president urged President Obama to ‘follow [his] instincts.'”

And when he told Obama to follow his instincts, the Biden campaign official said, it was with the understanding that it was Obama’s inclination at that time to go ahead with the raid.

As we said when we wrote about this back in 2015, “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.”