In retrospect, the week leading up to the killing of Osama bin Laden seems like the christening scene in The Godfather. The birth certificate, the tornado response, the correspondents’ dinner, the Sunday-morning golf game, and finally the secret in Abbotabad — interlaced narratives all adding up to a picture of fearsome, masterful competence.
That the story line happens to be true was only half the battle, because truth hasn’t done so well in the media in recent years. So no chances were taken. The media rollout of bin Laden’s assassination was a second operation, carried with some of the same values of the first, a case study in obsessive, mostly expert presidential messaging. “I was shocked at how controlled the coverage was,” one Washington journalist remarked. The president’s appearance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner now appears all the more incredible in light of the news that was about to break in less than 24 hours. “There was clearly a little bit of a poker game going on there,” CBS News president David Rhodes told me. Rhodes hosted Defense Secretary Bob Gates at the CBS table during Saturday’s correspondents’ dinner and, like everyone in the room, had no idea what was about to go down.
Around 9:45 on Sunday night, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer released a statement on Twitter that Obama would address the nation. Reporters had been hearing rumbling from their White House sources to get ready for a big announcement and instantly knew the news would be epic. National Journal’s Marc Ambinder first got the news as he surfed his computer at home and realized it would be a long night. “Having been a working journalist since eight days before 9/11, a president doesn’t interrupt the nation or The Apprentice on a Sunday at 10 p.m. on 45 minutes notice unless something unimaginably transcendent has happened, like the first contact with aliens or the killing or capture of Osama bin Laden,” Ambinder told me.
Obama’s advisers were hyperaware of the forms the story would take. “This White House, more than most White Houses, understands the tick-tock as a journalistic art form,” New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker told me. “They understand the value of that. They’re so into the idea of tick-tocks that they will see if we’ll do them on subjects that are prosaic.” Baker told me last year the White House pitched him on doing a tick-tock on the White House’s policy to encourage NATO to send more troop trainers to Afghanistan. “Their goal is to make their guy look good,” Baker said. “Our goal is to find out what happened.”
From the outset, aides briefing reporters portrayed a commanding president with nerves of steel making what is, by any measure, a stunning decision to send in the SEALs to kill bin Laden. One critique the Obama White House has faced is that Obama’s foreign policy lacks decisiveness. It is an image that grew out of the protracted 2009 debate over the Afghan troop surge and wasn’t helped by the slow-footed response to the rebellions sweeping the Arab world or the chaotic military intervention in Libya. A recent New Yorker article in which a senior Obama adviser described his management style as “leading from behind” swirled through Washington, much to the administration’s dismay. “This White House, like most, tries to communicate its version of a President being Commander-in-Chief,” says Washington Post foreign-affairs columnist David Ignatius.
After Obama addressed the country shortly before midnight, officials went to work briefing reporters. Owing to the gravity of the news, some of the senior-most officials got on the phone with reporters. “They were some of the names you normally never hear,” Ambinder told me. Obama was described as being firmly in control. “[They showed] Obama was on this,” Ambinder said. “The guy was focused like a laser on this even though the public had no idea. Officials sent out an e-mail that said the president participated in nine meetings about this, and that the president had made the final decision to give the execute order. In other words, they were showing the president intimately involved in weighty national-security decisions to violate the sovereignty of another country.”
The first day’s wave of news reflected this press strategy. A series of articles that read like Tom Clancy thrillers appeared in Monday’s papers. On Monday afternoon, the White House dispatched counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to brief reporters. The decision to put Brennan front and center no doubt helped with the media strategy. A gravely voiced Irish former CIA analyst from New Jersey, Brennan is a tough-talking official who has become one of the administration’s most effective national security briefers. He’s more inner-city street cop than D.C. eminence. “He looks like he’s straight out of central casting as Jason Bourne’s handler back at Langley,” Baker told me.
Much like the operation itself, there were a few problems in the rollout that required improvisation later. On Tuesday, White House officials had to amend many of their initial comments. Then there was the matter of the gruesome photograph of bin Laden’s body. As of Tuesday evening, the White House had not decided whether to release it.
At the White House press briefing this afternoon, press secretary Jay Carney delivered what, for the White House, amounted to a second draft of history, reading a carefully prepared tick-tock of the recent events which, among other things, removed the gun from Osama’s hand. The Obamans have learned that you don’t want anyone else controlling your narrative.