Washington, May 3: The people who gathered on Sunday in the Situation Room knew they were going to witness a tense but historic moment.
For 40 minutes, President Barack Obama and his senior aides could do nothing but watch the video screens and listen to the operation and ensuing firefight in a nondescript place called Abbottabad in Pakistan, half way round the world, says a Time report..
On Obama's orders, special operations teams were invading the airspace of a foreign country, targeting a compound with unknown occupants, and hoping to get out unscathed.
The target was America's No. 1 enemy, Osama bin Laden. But no one knew for sure if he was even there.
Obama sat stone-faced through much of the events. Several of his aides, however, were pacing.
For long periods of time, nobody said a thing, as everyone waited for the next update.
In the modern age, Presidents can experience their own military actions like a video game, except that they have no control over the events.
They cannot, and would not, intervene to contact the commanders running the operation.
So when word came that a helicopter had been grounded, a sign that the plan was already off course, the tension increased.
Minutes later, more word came over the transom.
“We've IDed Geronimo,” said a disembodied voice, using the agreed-upon code name for America's most wanted enemy, Osama bin Laden.
Word then came that Geronimo had been killed. Only when the last helicopter lifted off some minutes later did Obama know that his forces had sustained no casualties.
The decision to attack had been made days earlier by the President.
He gathered his senior intelligence, military and diplomatic team together in the Situation Room on Thursday afternoon to hear his options. There were already concerns about operational security.
At that point, hundreds of people had already been read into the potential whereabouts of bin Laden. Any leak would have ruined the entire mission.
The intelligence professionals said they did not know for sure that bin Laden was in the compound.
The case was good, but circumstantial. The likelihood, officials told the President, was between 50% and 80%.
No slam dunk. Obama went around the table asking everyone to state their opinion.
He quizzed his staff about worst case scenarios–the possibility of civilian casualties, a hostage situation, a diplomatic blow-up with Pakistan, a downed helicopter.
He was presented with three options: Wait to gather more intelligence, attack with targeted bombs from the air, or go in on the ground with troops.
The room was divided about 50-50, said a person in the room.
John Brennan, the President's senior counter-terrorism adviser, supported a ground strike, as did the operational people, including Leon Panetta at the CIA.
Others called for more time. In the end, about half of the senior aides supported a helicopter assault. The other half said either wait, or strike from above.
Obama left the meeting without signaling his intent. He wanted to sleep on it.
At about 8:00 a.m. on Friday, just before he boarded a helicopter that would take him to tour tornado damage in Alabama, Obama called his senior aides into the Diplomatic Room.
He told them his decision: A helicopter assault. At that point, the operation was taken out of his hands. He was trusting the fate of his presidency to luck.
While much of the nation was snickering over birth certificate jokes or enjoying a sunny day, the President was in the White House basement, holding his breath.
The drama of the raid into Pakistan played out in real time on secure video screens and in radio bursts.
"The minutes passed like days," said John Brennan, assistant to the President for Counter Terrorism.
"It was probably one of the most anxiety-filled periods of time in the lives of the people who were assembled here."
Brennan said Obama was extremely concerned about the safety of the men he had sent into Pakistan on a covert mission to take out bin Laden.
"That was what was on his mind throughout," Brennan said.
Starting around noon, Obama and his commanders convened around the long polished wooden table in the secure room.
Mostly, they sat silently, Brennan said. "It was clearly very tense, a lot of people holding their breath," he said. "We had real-time visibility into the progress of the operation."
Brennan called Obama's decision to greenlight the raid "one of the most gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory."
He said there had been an argument around the table about whether to order the action. Obama had solicited all opinions and some advisors were against it. But now that the SEALs were in, everyone was silently rooting for them.
Two choppers went into the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, aiming to hover over the grounds and lower 12 SEALs. But one of the choppers had mechanical difficulties and had to land.
An emergency third helicopter was dispatched to help.
In Washington, the commanders watched as the clueless Pakistani military began scrambling jets to intercept the mysterious choppers.
"They didn't know who was on those [helicopters]," Brennan said. "They were scrambling some of their assets," he said. "Clearly, we were concerned."
Meanwhile, the SEAL team was inside bin Laden's house and a firefight erupted.
Bin Laden used his wife as a human shield and raised a weapon, though Brennan was unsure if he got a round off before an American bullet smashed into his forehead.