Inside President Obama’s Meeting With Special Ops

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Pete Souza / White House

Ft. Campbell, Ky.

U.S. Special Operations officials used a scale model of Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani compound to brief President Obama on Friday, giving the commander-in-chief a detailed minute-by-minute account of how the assault that killed America’s most wanted enemy had unfolded days earlier, according to a government official.

Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and other White House officials traveled to Fort Campbell, Ky, for a chance to thank the unnamed members of the assault team for their successful mission. But the meeting was more than just an expression of gratitude. At the start of the roughly two-hour encounter, special operations officials delivered an in-person briefing for the president, the vice president and their staffs.

The event took place under extraordinary precautions to ensure secrecy. Obama disembarked from Air Force One like he always does: A wave into the glare, a trot down the stairs, and a series of handshakes. But two of the men on the tarmac signaled that this would not be a normal visit. Admiral Eric T. Olson, the commander of U.S. Special Forces, and Admiral William McRaven, the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, had come out of the shadows for a brief appearance before the cameras.

A moment later, the president had climbed into his armored car, and the press corps was left behind. The motorcade headed south across the airfield, towards past a series of airplane hangers, and out of sight. The White House released a statement: “While at Ft. Campbell, President Obama and Vice President Biden will have the opportunity to hear from and thank some of the special operators involved in the operation.”

On the other side of the base, the press corps had been rounded into a room, awaiting word about a meeting so cloak-and-dagger that White House spokesman Jay Carney had said earlier in the day, “I will not say anything more about that. It is extremely important that I say nothing more.” Reporters emailed him questions anyway. He responded with a cryptic message. “Upon arrival, went straight to private meetings.”

The official reason for the visit to Kentucky’s Fort Campbell was to thank the Army’s 101st Airborne for their service. The unofficial reason was to give a speech to the nation that demonstrated Obama’s continued support for the war in Afghanistan, even after the capture of Osama bin Laden. The more obvious reason was to give President Obama a chance to meet and thank the faceless and nameless people who had killed bin Laden, and to get a definitive account of how the operation had unfolded.

The meeting went long. Obama was due to speak at 2:55 p.m. local time, but at 3:15 p.m., 2,200 members of the 101st, in crew cuts and digitized fatigues, were still standing and waiting their commander in chief.

At 3:14 the White House released another statement.

President Obama and Vice President Biden had several meetings at Fort Campbell to thank our troops for their heroic and selfless service. First, the President and Vice President met with some of the Special Operations forces who conducted the successful operation against Osama bin Laden. The President was briefed on the operation by members of the units who carried it out.

The President and Vice President then met with the full assault force that carried out the operation. The President awarded the units involved a Presidential Unit Citation – the highest such honor that can be given to a unit – in recognition of their extraordinary service and achievement.

The President and Vice President then met with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and the 5th Special Forces Group to thank them for their service. In each meeting, the President was able to speak and offer his personal admiration and gratitude for our service members, and to personally greet them.

“I came here for the simple reason to say thank you, on behalf of America. This has been an historic week in the life of our nation,” Obama said, when he did come out, about 25 minutes late, to address the gathered troops before cameras.

Then he turned to discuss the troops who had carried out the operation. “When I gave the order, they were ready,” he said. “In recent days, the whole world has learned how ready they were.” He also took time to praise the 125 soldiers from Ft. Campbell who had “made the ultimate sacrifice” by dying for their country.

As expected, he also praised the ongoing efforts in Afghanistan. “Because of your service, because of your sacrifice, we are making progress in Afghanistan,” he said. “The bottom line is this: Our strategy is working.” He said the best evidence was the recent killing of America’s number one enemy, bin Laden.

Post updated 3:46 p.m. CST

Post update again at 7:49 p.m. EST