Policy & Strategy

‘Desert One’ shadow hung over White House during bin Laden raid

As the daring raid by elite U.S. forces on Osama Bin Laden’s Pakistani compound unfolded last May, President Obama and key administration officials couldn’t help but flash back to a similar mission decades earlier that ended tragically and derailed a presidency.

“I thought about it,” President Obama said Wednesday night during an NBC
News special on the Bin Laden raid, referring to the failed April 1980 mission to rescue 52 American hostages in Iran during the administration of Jimmy Carter. 

{mosads}The infamous Operation Eagle Claw, which later became known as Desert One debacle, crippled the Carter presidency and was no small factor in Carter’s loss to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election.

Two of the eight helicopters Carter sent in crash-landed during the mission. One helicopter crashed into a military transport plane, killing eight Army special forces members.

Last May, as President Obama watched one of two helicopters crash-land inside bin Laden’s compound in Abottabad, Pakistan, the specter of Desert One and the Carter administration crept into the situation room.

Obama admitted that the political ramifications of the Desert One failure, and how a similar mission failure of this magnitude could ruin his presidency, crossed his mind when he and his team of advisers watched a live feed of the top-secret stealth Black Hawk helicopter go down.

Obama called his time watching the raid he had ordered the “longest 40 minutes in my life.”

The Desert One fiasco was also on the minds of the military and Pentagon officials in the situation room.

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen told NBC that at the time of the helicopter crash, he saw the look of concern on the face of then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who had been at CIA during the failed Carter mission.

Gates and Vice President Joe Biden had voted against sending members of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, better known as SEAL Team Six, into Abottabad to get bin Laden.

“There were doubts voiced in the Situation Room,” Obama said. “But there was no doubt in my head.”

Obama used a sports metaphor to describe his own anxiety.

“You’ve taken the shot, but you don’t know if the shot is going to go in,” he said.

In addition to the helicopter crash, administration officials had not planned on a local resident in Abottabad tweeting about the strange helicopters hovering over and crashing in a neighbor’s yard.

Despite the unexpected turns, the president expressed confidence in his decision. He said there is “some serenity in knowing you made the best possible [decision] you can.” He then added that, in such situations “you do some praying.”

Once the Navy SEALs were in the building, they were lost to the view of Obama and his team. They heard that Geronimo — the code name for Osama bin Laden — had been identified, and shortly thereafter that Geronimo was KIA, meaning killed in action.

White House officials had made great efforts to keep the mission under wraps once the decision was made to send in the SEAL team. Virtually no one at the CIA, Pentagon or the State Department knew the plan was in motion once the call was made.

President Obama said that even First Lady Michelle Obama did not know the go-ahead for the raid had been given when she and the President attended the annual White House Correspondents Dinner the night before bin Laden was killed.

“Those were two tough days” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told NBC, noting that she did not tell her husband, former President Bill Clinton, that the White House had given the plan the green light.

“It wasn’t a high-five moment,” Hillary Clinton said, despite the growing celebration outside the gates of the White House once news of Bin Laden’s death began to spread. It was more of a shared sense of relief that the mission was finally over, Clinton said.

Once U.S. special operations forces returned to the Jalalabad air base in Afghanistan, Mullen said he immediately called Gen Ashfaq Kayani, head of the Pakistani army, to demand the return of the helicopter wreckage.

The concern was parts of the highly-classified stealth helicopter would end up in the hands of the Chinese. Parts of the helicopter were blown up by the SEALs before they departed, but other parts survivied. Speculation has been that the surviving parts have made it to China for inspection into the technology. Secretary Clinton declined comment on what may have happened to the surviving parts.

Tags Bill Clinton Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Michelle Obama
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