- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Graham Allison in TIME: Inside Story of Bin Laden's Last Days

Summer 2012

When Barack Obama became president, the trail to Osama bin Laden had long gone cold. “I can only speak with authority through February 15, 2009,” said Michael Hayden, who ran the CIA under George W. Bush. “But at that point, when people would ask, ‘when’s the last time you really knew where he was?’ my answer was Tora Bora in 2001.”

So begins Belfer Center Director Graham Allison’s dramatic cover story in Time Magazine on May 7. Allison offers readers a behind-the-scenes account of how President Barack Obama made the most fateful decision of his presidency – whether to launch the Special Forces assault on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan in April 2011.

Allison puts readers in the president’s Oval Office chair as Obama weighs the risks of the several options he faced as evidence emerged that bin Laden was in the compound in Abbottabad.  It was never certain right up to the day of the raid that bin Laden was even inside the building. And even members of Obama’s own inner circle, including Vice President Joseph Biden, voted against launching the helicopter-borne assault.

With echoes of his prize-winning 1971 book, Essence of Decision, on President John F. Kennedy’s decision-making during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Allison traced Obama’s handling of the hunt for bin Laden from the early days of his presidency up to the decision to go for a boots-on-the-ground assault rather than an airstrike or joint operation with Pakistan.

Allison concluded that the national security decision-making in the bin Laden case could offer important lessons for future foreign policy challenges. “Summarized in a single line, the takeaway from the bin Laden operation is that American government worked,” Allison wrote.

Allison ascribed the success in part to new capabilities of U.S. intelligence and military agencies in the decade since 9/11, as well as to Obama’s improved national security decision-making process, developed after his rocky first year in office.

The president “had the confidence and determination to slow the clock long enough to aim carefully before he pulled the trigger,” Allison said. That required unprecedented secrecy. Most members of the National Security Council didn’t even know of the planned raid until hours before it occurred.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Graham Allison in TIME: Inside Story of Bin Laden's Last Days.” Belfer Center Newsletter (Summer 2012).