Whether we like it or not, Osama bin Laden changed America. With that September morning in 2001, he introduced fear and ingrained the threat of terrorism into the daily lives of anyone who lives in a big city, travels by air or enters a federal building.
For more than a decade, bin Laden managed to elude the U.S. military and intelligence establishments, and he taunted three U.S. presidents. That finally ended last Sunday, and the last thing bin Laden saw was a Navy SEAL in the third floor bedroom of his compound in Pakistan.
A riveting 30 minutes with President Barack Obama as he describes the weekend that made history.
Now, for the first time, we hear the story from President Barack Obama, who spoke with us on Wednesday at the White House. He explains how the plan was prepared and carried out, what was going through his mind as he watched it unfold, and the secrecy leading up to his historic announcement last Sunday night.
"Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaida," the president announced in a televised address to the nation late Sunday night.
STEVE KROFT: Mr. President, was this the most satisfying week of your presidency?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, it was certainly one of the most satisfying weeks not only for my presidency but I think for the United States since I've been president. Obviously, bin Laden had been not only a symbol of terrorism but a mass murderer who had eluded justice for so long and so many families who have been affected I think had given up hope. And for us to be able to definitively say, "We got the man who caused thousands of deaths here in the United States" was something that I think all of us were profoundly grateful to be a part of.
KROFT: Was the decision to launch this attack the most difficult decision as that you've made as Commander-In-Chief?
OBAMA: Certainly one. You know, every time I send young men and women into a war theatre, that's a tough decision. And, whenever you write a letter to a family who's lost a loved one, it's sobering. This was a very difficult decision, in part because the evidence that we had was not absolutely conclusive. This was circumstantial evidence that he was gonna be there. Obviously it entailed enormous risk to the guys that I sent in there. But ultimately I had so much confidence in the capacity of our guys to carry out the mission that I felt that the risks were outweighed by the potential benefit of us finally getting our man.
KROFT: How much of it was gut instinct? Did you have personal feelings about whether...
OBAMA: You know, the thing...the thing about gut instinct is if it works then you think, "Boy, I have good instincts." If it doesn't, then you're gonna be running back in your mind all the things that told you maybe you shouldn't have done it. Obviously I had enough of an instinct that we could be right, but it was worth doing.
A "60 Minutes" producer connects the dots between a controversial campaign pledge and the president's decision to go after Osama bin Laden.
KROFT: When the CIA first brought this information to you...
KROFT: ...what was your reaction? Was there a sense of excitement? Did this look promising from the very beginning?
OBAMA: It did look promising from the beginning. Keep in mind that obviously when I was still campaigning for president I had said that if I ever get a shot at bin Laden we're gonna take it. And I was subject to some criticism at the time because I had said if it's in Pakistan and, you know, we don't have the ability to capture him in any other way, then we're gonna go ahead and take the shot.
So I felt very strongly that there was a strategic imperative for us to go after him. Shortly after I got into office I brought Leon Panetta privately into the Oval Office and I said to him, "We need to redouble our efforts in hunting bin Laden down. And I want us to start putting more resources, more focus and more urgency into that mission."
So by the time they came to me they had worked up an image of the compound, where it was and the factors that led them to conclude that this was the best evidence that we had regarding bin Laden's whereabouts since Tora Bora. But we didn't have a photograph of bin Laden in that building. There was no direct evidence of his presence.
And so the CIA continued to build the case meticulously over the course of several months. What I told them when they first came to me, with this evidence was, "Even as you guys are building a stronger intelligence case, let's also start building an action plan to figure out if in fact we make a decision that this is him or we've got a good chance that we've got him, how are we gonna deal with him?"
Produced by Frank Devine and Michael Radutzky