In writing Countdown Bin Laden, veteran network anchor, Chris Wallace, and his co-author Mitch Weiss, found themselves facing a formidable challenge.
How was it possible to craft an intriguing account of the manhunt for Osama bin Laden when the world’s entire book-buying public already knew the outcome of the story? Wallace’s goal was to write an “historical thriller,” but with no stunning, fourth act reveal, where was the thrill?
The solution: Countdown works superbly because Wallace and Weiss recognized the real suspense in the bin Laden chase was the chase itself, not the final take down.
The eight months prior to the May 1, 2011 raid was a tight wire mixture of meticulous due diligence and carefully choreographed military execution.
Countdown is a deeply researched project. Wallace, renowned for his penetrating interview style, obviously talked at great length to all the key players. It was also to Wallace’s advantage that ten years had passed since the raid. “Immediately afterwards, some of the material was classified,” he said. “Now, well after the event, people were more willing to talk freely, more interested in setting the record straight.”
In the opening chapter, set on August 27, 2010, Leon Panetta, Director of the CIA, was presented with a brand new lead on the location of bin Laden. By following bin Laden’s chief courier, operatives believed the world’s leading terrorist was essentially hiding in plain sight. He was living in a three-story, fortress-like home at the base of a dead end street in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a resort city hard by the Himalayan Mountains.
Panetta realized if this lead was correct, what the agency believed for over nine years — that bin Laden was in the mountainous Tribal Areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan — was completely wrong.
After spending two weeks gathering more relevant data, Panetta and his team disclosed what they knew to President Barack Obama in the Oval Office. In a carefully rehearsed seven-minute presentation, senior officials explained why they believed bin Laden was actually living near Pakistan’s 40th largest city in a stronghold surrounded by barbed wire and 12 to 18 foot walls.
Obama, poker face intact, told the Director to move forward with finding out what was “going on inside the compound” and, most importantly, to keep the entire matter confidential.
At this point, Countdown really kicks into gear. Written in lean prose, each chapter is a vignette — some longer than others — that charts significant events on virtually a daily basis, right up to the raid. The authors seamlessly jump cut from the drama in Washington to the war zones of Afghanistan. The scrupulous strategizing and arduous tactical training are vividly explicated.
Vice Admiral William McRaven, who directed the mission, is portrayed as a kind of savant of special ops. His 1996 master’s thesis, The Theory of Special Operations, was a blueprint for the bin Laden raid.
Here’s Countdown on that thesis: “It detailed how a small group of highly trained, well-rehearsed soldiers can use stealth to maintain short-term superiority over larger or better-armed forces. The keys to successful missions, he wrote, are simplicity, security, repetition, surprise, speed, and purpose.”
One of the highlights in the book is the chronicling of the thorny decision making process President Obama undertook. Up until Seal Team Six forced their way into the Abbottabad compound, no one was certain that bin Laden was even there. The case for his presence was strictly circumstantial — persuasive, but not definitive. Robert Gates, Defense Secretary at the time, said, “This is one of the most courageous calls that I have ever seen a president make.”
The reaction of the Navy team when they were told bin Laden was the target of the operation is another highpoint in the book. Initially, the Seals were pumped to be part of an historic campaign — this was soon leavened by the realization the mission could be a “one way ticket.” Bin Laden was certain to be heavily fortified: booby traps and body guards, perhaps even Pakistani military intervention.
Robert O’Neill, the Seal who eventually killed bin Laden, viewed it this way in Countdown: “O’Neill’s mind kept returning to 9/11, and all the people ‘who went to work on a Tuesday morning and then an hour later, decided to jump out of a skyscraper because it was better than burning alive.’ There was still an empty place at their family dinner tables, a pain that would never heal. O’Neill knew he could die on this mission. But if they could take out bin Laden, it would be worth it.”
Ironically, one of the surprises the Seals experienced in Abbottabad was the relative lack of organized resistance. Wallace said that bin Laden, who had been in the home for five years, “let his guard down…he had gotten real lazy and sloppy in terms of operational security.”
At the conclusion of the book, Robert Gates sums up the significance of the raid: “There’s a narrative out there that government can’t do anything right, that it stumbles all over itself…this raid is a wonderful example of government performing as Americans would hope it would perform…”
Wallace and Weiss deserve to be congratulated for telling a complex story in such a gripping, entertaining manner. Countdown would make a great holiday gift: so many readers across a wide spectrum would enjoy it.