President Barack Obama calls the killing of Osama bin Laden "the most important single day" of his time in the White House—and the daring Navy SEAL raid that ended the al-Qaida chief's life "the longest 40 minutes of my life."
"I did choose the risk," Obama said in an exclusive interview with NBC News' Brian Williams, to be broadcast late Wednesday.
"The reason I was willing to make that decision of sending in our SEALs to try to capture or kill bin Laden rather than to take some other options was ultimately because I had 100 percent faith in the Navy SEALs themselves," the president told the "Rock Center" anchor.
Obama emphasized that plans for the raid—dubbed "Operation Neptune's Spear"—had to be a closely guarded secret to avoid tipping off bin Laden—code-named "Geronimo."
"Even a breath of this in the press could have chased bin Laden away," Obama said. "We didn't know at that point whether there might be underground tunnels coming out of that compound that would allow him to escape." Huddled in the White House's high-tech Situation Room, Obama and his top national security aides watched the first part of the raid and gasped when one of the helicopters carrying the elite commandos crashed over the compound's stone wall.
"That helicopter didn't make it to the right spot and everyone went, like, 'Whoa,'" Vice President Joe Biden told NBC.
"The only thing that I was thinking about throughout this entire enterprise was, 'I really want to get those guys back home safe,'" said Obama. "I want to make sure that the decision I've made has not resulted in them putting their lives at risk in vain, and if I got that part of it right, if I could look myself in the mirror and say as commander in chief I made a good call."
Obama, who has refused to release photographs of the slain al-Qaida leader, said, "It's wrong to say that I did a high-five" when he first saw them.
"You have a picture of a dead body and, you know, there's I think regardless of who it is, you always have to be sober about death. But understanding the satisfaction for the American people, what it would mean for 9/11 families, what it would mean for the children of folks who died in the twin towers who never got to know their parents, I think there was a deep-seated satisfaction for the country at that moment," he said.
Meeting a few days later with the SEALs who carried out the raid, Obama gave the pilot of the crashed helicopter "a pretty good hug."
"They presented me with the flag that had gone on that mission, signed by all of them on the back, and I think it's fair to say that will probably be the most important possession that I leave with from this presidency," he said.
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