In the universe of historic photographs, few reign more iconic than the image of key White House policymakers watching and waiting for confirmation that SEAL Team Six had succeeded in capturing or killing Osama bin Laden.
Although this photo is known as the “Situation Room” picture, White House photographer Pete Souza actually took it squeezed into a corner of the small adjacent conference room into which President Barack Obama had stepped in order to watch the video feed in real time. A plate of sandwiches and other snacks, fetched earlier in the day from Costco by a White House staffer, was abandoned in the main Situation Room.
The result: a moment of almost tangible tension and anxiety among the silent group of senior leaders. We don’t see CIA Director Leon Panetta, who brought the first news of bin Laden's Abbottabad compound eight months earlier, only days before the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Nor do we see Vice Admiral William McRaven, the head of JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command), a special ops veteran who had commanded or participated in more than a thousand similarly hazardous ventures. He was in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, supervising the SEAL team’s mission from there. Still, the image captures a defining moment in history, offering a rare glimpse into who the key White House players were—and what they were thinking—as they waited to hear the words “Geronimo (bin Laden’s code name) EKIA (enemy killed in action).”
Seated, From Left to Right:
Joe Biden, Vice President
What no one looking at this photo can see is that Biden, Obama’s vice-president and later elected as president, was fingering his rosary beads as he watched events unfold. The devoutly Roman Catholic Biden had been wary of the raid, Obama would recall in his memoirs. Biden himself later insisted that his advice had merely been to wait to be sure it was the right decision. The photo does capture some of that ambivalence and anxiety, to a greater extent than can be seen on the stony visages of other opponents of the raid, like Defense Secretary Robert Gates. When the SEAL team confirmed that Osama was dead, the VP gripped Obama’s shoulder, squeezed it and softly said, “Congratulations, boss.”
Barack Obama, President
The 44th president of the United States, perched on what Souza described as a folding black chair, is one of the most informally dressed people in the room—and simultaneously the most intensely focused on what was unfolding in front of him. Obama had decided very early on in his first term that he wanted to bring Osama bin Laden to justice. “I wanted to remind the world…that these terrorists were nothing more than a band of deluded, vicious killers,” he later recounted in his memoirs. The president, still wearing the clothes in which he had played golf earlier in the day (to avoid alerting anyone else to the fact that something unusual was happening at the White House), stayed out of the way of his team until just before the helicopters arrived at the compound. He wrote that didn’t want to sidetrack them by having them rehash all the plans and the strategies they’d deploy to address any glitches.
When he realized there was a live aerial view of the compound on offer in a smaller conference room, that’s where he headed; that’s how the most powerful figure in the room ended up sitting on the side of the image. “This was the first and only time as president that I’d watch a military operation unfold in real time,” he wrote later. When one of the helicopters was damaged on landing, “a disaster reel played in my head.” Waiting and watching, he wrote, was “excruciating.”
Marshall B. Webb, Brigadier General
At the center of the table, in a commanding central chair, sits “Brad” Webb, an Air Force general, watching the live stream of the video and overseeing all the communications with the special forces. When Obama walked into the small conference room from the main situation room, Webb tried to give Obama his seat, only to be told by the president to stay where he was. When he raised his head to glance around the room, Webb later recalled thinking to himself, “I should be freaking out right now,” with all of the country’s leadership watching him. Instead, he stayed calm and in “the zone.”
Denis McDonough, Deputy National Security Advisor
The fact that McDonough was fast enough to follow the president and grab a seat around the small conference room table, leaving his boss, Tom Donilon, standing behind him, may give us a hint of his growing influence in the Obama administration; he would become chief of staff to the president when Obama’s second term began. McDonough, involved in the planning of the operation from its earliest stages, “sweated the details,” as Obama recalled.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of State
There were audible gasps, Obama later recalled, when the group received confirmation of bin Laden’s death. Is Hillary Clinton trying to contain a gasp in this photo, or to stifle a cough due to springtime allergies? Even she couldn’t later recall clearly. “Those were 38 of the most intense minutes,” she later said. “The risks were enormous.” In spite of the tension that clearly shows on Clinton’s face, she had supported the decision to go ahead with the raid. She was also concerned about the president’s decision to monitor the video feed in real time. “Do you think it’s a good idea for the president to watch this?” she asked a national security staffer, who reassured her he wouldn’t be directly managing anything. Having cast her vote in favor of the raid, Clinton clearly remained anxious about the consequences of any mishaps for Obama’s presidency.
Robert Gates, Defense Secretary
Gates had been one of those wary of undertaking the Abbottabad raid, reminding Obama of what had happened in 1980 when U.S. forces tried to use helicopters to rescue 53 Americans held hostage in the embassy in Teheran. (The mission was aborted when one helicopter crashed en route in the desert; eight military service members died.) A safer option, he believed, would be to use bombs to obliterate the compound altogether. Nonetheless, he would call the president’s decision to go ahead with the raid “courageous.”
Key figures among those standing:
Mike Mullen, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff (standing behind Gen. Webb, wearing tan shirt and dark tie)
“If he had failed that night, I think it would have cost Obama the presidency,” Mullen said later, citing the thought that haunted him as he and others watched the raid unfold. Curious about what he had been thinking at the precise moment that photographer Pete Souza clicked the shutter, Mullen later asked whether the photo had a timestamp. It didn’t.
Thomas Donilon, National Security Advisor (standing with arms crossed, in blue shirt, next to Mullen)
Donilon had been among the first to learn of Obama’s determination to find bin Laden, during a May 2009 Oval Office meeting during which the president instructed him to help develop a formal plan and issue a presidential directive. Like Clinton, he wanted to avoid the impression that Obama was micromanaging the raid and suggested that the president not communicate directly with McRaven in Jalalabad. It was at Donilon’s suggestion that Webb and his video feed had been based in the smaller conference room.
Bill Daley, White House Chief of Staff (wearing dark suit jacket, next to Donilon)
Daley, who served as Obama’s chief of staff for a year until January 2012, is the only man in the room wearing a full suit and tie, thanks to his wife’s insistence that he recognize the momentous nature of the day. “One way or the other this presidency is either over, or we’re still breathing,” he recalled thinking. For Daley, the only person to sit in on every meeting during the raid’s planning stages who wasn’t part of the intelligence or national security establishments, it had been the right decision. The next morning, he awoke with the realization that, “if I got fired today, it would be OK.”
Anthony Blinken, Biden’s National Security Adviser (head and shoulders visible, peeking over Daley’s shoulder)
In 2021, Blinken achieved a national profile as President Joe Biden’s secretary of state. At the time this picture was taken, he was largely unknown outside the Beltway and the Washington community. Shortly after Souza’s iconic photograph was published, David Letterman interviewed Mullen on his talk show, and, producing the photo, pointed to Blinken. “Who is that guy? He obviously doesn’t belong in the photograph,” Blinken remembered Letterman joking. “Did he just come in off the tour of the White House?”
Audrey Tomason, Director for Counterterrorism (only her head is visible)
The only other woman in the room and the youngest member by far of this lofty group of policymakers, Tomason became well-known as a result of the photo. But the woman herself—and her thoughts—remain a mystery, probably because of the clandestine nature of her work for the National Security Council.
John Brennan, President Obama’s Assistant for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism (standing behind Clinton)
Together with Donilon, Brennan had been tasked with trying to conceive what the Abbottabad raid would look like. In spite of his support for a mission that was in part his brainchild, his knuckles were white throughout the entire attack. “Minutes seemed like hours,” he recalled, even after the SEAL team members were back on board their helicopters with bin Laden’s body and a trove of data retrieved from the compound. They still had to get out of Pakistani airspace safely, he knew. Obama named Brennan to head the CIA in 2013.
James R. Clapper, Director of National Intelligence (in pale blue shirt, the last man whose face is fully visible on the right hand of the photo)
“Right up until the last minute, we couldn’t confirm he was there,” recalled Clapper, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general who served as president Obama’s top intelligence official from 2010 until 2017. He’d been an advocate of launching the mission, arguing that “at least with a raid, you’d have people on the ground who could make judgments.” In this image, he’s waiting to find out whether that vote of confidence was justified.