WASHINGTON -- Vice President Joe Biden’s latest description of the advice he gave to President Barack Obama on the night of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden is contradicted by an account from a former top administration official.
Biden said Tuesday that he had expressed support for the raid in a private meeting with the president after all the other principals had left the situation room.
“As we walked out of the room and went upstairs, I told him my opinion, that I said that I thought he should go but to follow his own instincts,” Biden said at an event held at George Washington University.
This latest iteration makes Biden sound far more supportive than he's suggested previously. And its veracity is difficult to check since it involves a one-on-one meeting and the White House declined to comment.
But a conversation after the raid between Biden and longtime Obama adviser David Axelrod, as recounted in Axelrod's book Believer: My Forty Years In Politics, tells a different story.
“Honestly, I didn’t have the balls to tell him to go for it,” Biden confided to me later. “And neither did many others around the table, regardless of what they say now. It was a big, big call.”
Biden’s office did not return a request for comment. But while his account of the private conversation with Obama is complicated by Axelrod's book, his retelling of the moments prior to that conversation has caused a stir too. Biden said on Tuesday that only two people in the room, CIA Director Leon Panetta and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, "were definitive" in their support for the raid. He was referring by omission, of course, to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has said she saw it as a difficult decision, but ultimately backed the raid in the critical meeting.
Additionally, Biden said that he deliberately played the role of skeptic during the meeting with the principals but never actually came out against the mission, for fear of showing a fissure between himself and the president. Former Obama chief of staff Bill Daley has called this “about the most complete and accurate explanation I’ve heard from the vice president, which is reflected in what I remember."
But Biden's portrayal of the role he played is contradicted by Panetta, who said he was actually quite firm in his opinion. "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," Panetta writes in his own memoir, Worthy Fights.
Here are recollections from him and others in the room.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Hard Choices:
I respected Bob and Joe’s concerns about the risks of a raid, but I came to the conclusion that the intelligence was convincing and the risks were outweighed by the benefits of success. We just had to make sure it worked.
Former CIA Director Leon Panetta in Worthy Fights:
As others chimed in, the doubts and worries were heavy. Gates raised questions about the strength of our information, noting that our evidence remained entirely circumstantial. Clinton acknowledged that more time might give us better intelligence, a sentiment others advanced as well, but she concluded that this was a rare opportunity and believed we should seize it. 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.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War:
The president and his senior most national security team met multiple times in March and April to debate whether to strike the compound. Joe Biden and I were the two primary skeptics, although everyone was asking tough questions. Biden’s primary concern was the political consequences of failure. My highest priority was the war in Afghanistan, and so my greatest worry was that no matter what happened during the raid, as a result the Pakistanis might well shut down our vital supply line from Karachi to Afghanistan….
Finally, the president went around the table and asked each person for his or her recommendation. Biden was against the operation. Cartwright and I supported the drone option. Panetta was in favor of the raid. Everyone else acknowledged it was a close call but also supported the raid.
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