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208: Zero Dark Thirty with Peter Bergen

Zero Dark Thirty shows the decade-long search for Osama bin Laden. Peter Bergen is the author of The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden and he joins us today to dig into the true story behind the movie.

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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

Dan LeFebvre  02:10

Let’s start with a high level overview of the movie. If you were to give it a letter grade for historical accuracy, what would it get?


Peter Bergen  02:19

Well, you know, I think the the makings of the film, because they they said it was based on real events. They open themselves up to criticism, legitimate criticism that a lot of what they’ve portrayed wasn’t really accurate. And they hid behind. When they got those criticisms they hid behind Well, it was only just a film that wasn’t a documentary. Yet, at the same time, they were claiming that it was sort of strongly based on real history. And I think that, yeah, it’s a it’s a good film, that doesn’t mean that it’s good history.


Dan LeFebvre  03:01

That’s, that’s fair, that’s fair. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t the filmmakers during some of the marketing of the movie kind of put forth that it was more of a journalistic approach? And that kind of added them to even more scrutiny?


Peter Bergen  03:16

Yeah, I mean, yeah, in that offense, they did talk to people involved in the hunt, particularly the character that is sort of a composite, but it’s called Maya in the film. And they also talked to people at CIA and the CIA was somewhat cooperative. Obviously, the CIA was putting out there, kind of the version of the story that they wanted to put out. But it’s not a work of history. I mean, I don’t I don’t think people will be watching it. Now to say, Well, what really happened with the hunt, that means is that it would be kind of a waste of time, to be honest. In our, which isn’t to say, you know, it’s a good film. But yeah, they, I think they kind of override the putting to use of British expression when they they talked about all the journalism behind it, it was, you know, it. You know, we can get into the specifics, but there were a lot of things that weren’t really kosher from a factual point of view.


Dan LeFebvre  04:15

One thing that the movie never really mentioned is how the US knew that bin Laden was behind the 911 attacks. We know from history, there was the letter to America that bin Laden wrote claiming responsibility for the attack, but the movie never really explains that. Did the US just take Bin Laden for his word, or was there more investigation to verify that bin Laden was behind the attacks?


Peter Bergen  04:40

Yeah, that’d be this was the largest criminal investigation in history. They, they, I think they went up, they went after 500,000 leads they interviewed 10s of 1000s of people. I mean, this dirt, it’s not as Bin Laden who took credit for it or each of the 19 hijackers because all filmed, sort of so called martyrdom videos, which were released over time, and initially, bin Laden denied his involvement, because it was problematic at the time, he’s been protected by the Taliban. And if he said, Yeah, I was behind, it would be hard for the Taliban to say, well, we’re not going to give him up. So, I mean, the evidence of bin Laden was involved in 911, as overwhelming as the 911 Commission report is easily available. And yeah, if anybody has any lingering doubts, they can just refer to that.


Dan LeFebvre  05:31

One of my questions, I guess, would be that why would he want to claim responsibility? Wouldn’t it be easier to carry out more tax if no one knew who he was, but maybe initially he didn’t. But once people realize it was a millage is kind of a moot point?


Peter Bergen  05:44

Well, it became moot at the certain point the Taliban had fallen, he was on the run. If this was his, in his own mind, his greatest achievement, so he had no problem taking credit for it particularly Yeah, years after 911. But he was in hiding. And if it was it, it no longer no longer made sense for him to maintain some kind of implausible deniability.


Dan LeFebvre  06:05

Okay, that makes sense. Something that we do see throughout the movie is more terrorist attacks than just 911. For example, we see there’s a shooting in Saudi Arabia, a double decker bus that gets bombed in London. Were these events that actually happened? And did Bin Laden claim responsibility for them?


Peter Bergen  06:21

Yeah, I’m shooting in Saudi Arabia. I, I there was Al Qaeda launched a number of attacks inside Saudi Arabia, sort of starting in 2003. And those were al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. So there was certainly, ultimately the lion’s responsibility. The attack in London in 2005, killed 52 commuters on the London transportation system on buses and subway, the London Underground, and Al Qaeda was deeply involved in that. So the fact that the movie reference those is completely reasonable, because al Qaeda continued to try and attack the West and other and also targets like the Saudis that al Qaeda has been opposed to since the beginning, or the group was founded.


Dan LeFebvre  07:13

One of the plot points that we see in the movie gave me the impression that and bin Laden knew, obviously, people were looking for him, but really, who in the US government was looking for him. I give some examples from the movie. With an I think it was September 28 2008. With the movie mentions, there’s an attack at the Marriott Hotel in Pakistan, nearly kills Jessica and Maya, two characters, the two CIA agents in the movie, they’re looking for Bin Laden, then later that Jessica has put together a meeting with a Jordanian doctor who claims to be bin Laden’s inner circle. And Jessica is killed by the bomber who turned out to be not actually a doctor, and the movie mentioned at being an American base camp Chapman in Afghanistan. And then even later in the movie, there’s an attempt on my his life while she’s in Pakistan, did Bin Laden know about the search for him? I mean,


Peter Bergen  08:09

he, he knew people were looking for him in a general sense, yet a pretty healthy kind of respect for the capabilities of US intelligence. He, for instance, when he when he was living in Abbottabad, Pakistan, he wear a cowboy hat when he took his very short walks in the garden, Soviet American satellites, American satellite image, couldn’t couldn’t see him. In fact, nobody could see him when he was taking his walk. So was his intention. So you know, I? And then yeah, movie. Yeah, it was the fact Jessica is based on a real CIA operative, who was one of the first to be attached to the bin Laden unit, had been looking for Bin Laden since 1996. She was assassinated by an al Qaeda triple agent who posed as somebody that could help the CIA find Bin Laden, but in fact, he was working for al Qaeda, and he killed her. Six other CIA contractors and officials at Camp Chapman in Afghanistan, in a suicide attack, he was coming to a meeting with them. And he, he was he was using the use out as an opportunity to kill them. So the movie, you know, that’s part of the issue. Of course, it’s a film. So that is completely true. The, you know, whether or not, you know, Maya, Maya character, and the Cheska character narrowly escaped, then, you know, a suicide bombing at in Islamabad at a particular hotel. I have no idea. There was a suicide bombing at that hotel. Were they there? I don’t know. And that’s kind of part of the problem is that some of the things the movie asserts as facts, or, you know, it’s just hard to like, disentangle kind of what’s true and what isn’t true. And it’s a movie I mean, so You know, your course you’re going to take artistic license. But that said, yeah, they tied it so much to like, what really happened? That, I think then you’d be completely legitimately people are going to kind of critique what they say. Some of the things, they said it just like I did, you know, there’s no factual record, to dispute or to assert what they assert, for instance, the scene we just discussed, which is Maya, and Jessica, now, Maya, anyways, she’s a composite character. She’s based on a particular CIA officer who was instrumental in the 501. But she has elements of some other other CIA female officers who, who were involved to the extent that you can decipher all this, because again, it’s it’s it’s a complicated.


Dan LeFebvre  10:56

There’s a scene in the movie after a bombing in New York City where the CIA station chief, Joseph Bradley, tells Maya that he doesn’t care about Bin Laden anymore. The mission is to protect the homeland, it seems like the focus is kind of shifting, it’s changing. Bradley goes on to say that no one has talked to bin Laden for years, he’s probably dead. Maya basically has to threaten Bradley with a congressional hearing about subverting the effort to capture or kill bin Laden. And that’s when he lets her continue her quest, Were there ever actually points like this, where people within US intelligence just assumed Bin Laden might already be dead or just not a priority target anymore?


Peter Bergen  11:39

Yeah, that was the weaker. I mean, there was certainly a school of thought that the CIA amongst some people that, you know, they actually do change the name of the bin Laden unit in 2005. They it kind of like, it became, instead of a sort of single unit that was looking for Bin Laden, it became sort of its it, it took on a bigger mission, because it was certainly a view of the CIA, that, you know, it was more bigger than just one man, it wasn’t just about Bin Laden, and, you know, sort of the war in Iraq, it happened, al Qaeda in Iraq was now pretty strong force. There were other affiliates of al Qaeda. And so that that’s true. But the idea that one of the kind of I think strange things in the film is the idea that only Maya, the character played by Jessica Chastain was really trying to find Bin Laden, which was complete nonsense. I mean, there was there was a relatively small group of people at the CIA, still classified number, who, you know, were looking for Bin Laden every day. But there was a very strong and people stayed in that unit long. Some of them stayed, if that didn’t get want to get promoted into some other position, because they were so keen to yet and so the idea that she was the only person sort of trying to find them on this one of the, I think, an absolutely fanciful part of the film.


Dan LeFebvre  13:10

Yeah, that really stood out to me too, because it just seemed like she was really the driver behind it. And she had to fight almost. Was there any point where bin Laden maybe wasn’t as high of a priority? Or was it just that they just kind of changed their scope and then grew?


Peter Bergen  13:26

I mean, it was always a priority. I mean, the guy bin Laden was the kid killed nearly 3000 Americans in one morning, in Washington, New York and Pennsylvania, it was leaving, it was a high priority. And that, but the problem was that is the cold, the trailer gone very cold. But particularly, by 2004 2005, I think the CIA realized that there was going to be no detainee who would just either would know that bin Laden was, and even if he knew he wasn’t gonna say, and, in fact, no one really did know, including the people that they had in custody, they might have information that ultimately would be helpful, but they didn’t have any kind of like, here’s the Rosetta Stone to find the line that belonged was hiding from people in his own organization. They didn’t know where he was, he was practicing very careful operational security. So you know, if the film opened, I think one of the most leading misleading things about the film, and I watched an early sort of non close to Final Cut with with with a group of others. And it was this sort of very long, torturous sequence at the beginning, which the film strongly implies, but led to bin Laden. And, you know, in fact, the story of the hunt for Bin Laden was really an Agatha Christie story, not a, we’re going to talk to this guy. So he gives up this one piece of information that will basically, you know, because the film has to be very linear, and if you’ve only got two and a half hours, and you know, so in fact, it was a very calm A story that even in a book you have, and I’ve written a book about this, called man hunt. And I sort of, you know, learn more about it in written book I just published called The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden, we’re still finding out things about the hunt about what bin Laden was doing. We’re still finding out things 10 years later, because it was only in 2017, that all the documents that were public recovered by the US Navy Seals and abided by Pakistan, were completely released, and a lot of them are in Arabic. There are meant this, like 470,000 files or six pages of useful material. So, you know, all by way of saying that, certainly, some of the detainees that had a useful information about Bin Laden were taught were coercively, interrogated by the CIA, most of those people gave up misleading information about Bin Laden boasts over the film by indication makes an argument torture was very helpful to finding that line, which is, of course, what the CIA that’s a message of CIA was very much trying to get get across and that they, of course, cooperated with the filmmakers. And I don’t think the film is necessarily completely understood that they were essentially putting out a message that really benefited the CIA. And in fact, the film came out. Senator Dianne Feinstein who led the Senate Foreign Intelligence Committee and did a huge investigation of this question. 600 pages of which republished on classified six sites that there’s 1000s of pages that have not been published, yet, their conclusion was very clear. And they, you know, they spent they, yeah, they looked at a great deal of information. That torture, you know, didn’t lead to bin Laden, there were a whole set of other things that were helpful. And, you know, they, they range from detainee interviews, some of which were not, you know, which were just conducted by standard interrogations, third party intelligence services, giving information, satellite intelligence, the intercepts, etc. I mean, it was really a mosaic of things that created the circumstantial case, the bin Laden was living in the bottom part. And it was always a circumstantial case, it was never, like a definitive piece of proof. At the end of the day, President Obama, who doesn’t really appear in the film at all, in fact, interestingly, I mean, you know, that, that the whole, the whole decision making around was either her or not, isn’t really treated at much in the film. And when I wrote the book about it, I mean, I realized there were several buckets. You know, there was the CAA story, which was really this Agatha Christie story, detective story. That was the the story of the political decision making in the White House. After all, President Obama had to make a decision to redo a raid, will there be a small drone strike? Will there be


Peter Bergen  17:57

some operated joint operations with the Pakistanis? Will it be through a menu of optimal A B, A, B 52. Bombing array, there are a menu of options from which you can select in the end, he went with the raid, which was, of course, had some risks, but you know, that you could definitely prove that bin Laden was there, you could pick up all the intelligence that they picked up after the raid if he really was there. So that, you know, again, the film was two and a half hours or whatever the length is, and so we can’t tell everything. But yeah, the array. Yeah, it required it was almost a year of decision making, from August of 2010, to May of 2011. For Obama, to get the first intelligence have been allowed, maybe there and then to go through all the different. Can we get more intelligence, whatever, I put out a military operation options, and then to approve the array that actually happened. And then, of course, the other big bucket is the raid and what happened last night, and went on to another big bucket, which the film conch doesn’t really get into detail is what was the Glog doing wrong during this time. He was living in a bonobo he wasn’t. He was trying to manage a global terrorist enterprise. But he was doing it through couriers and handwritten messages, which is not the most efficient way to do it. But he certainly was trying to micromanage his organization. And he wasn’t a sort of passively just sitting there, which, of course, is why he was eventually found because if he hadn’t communicated with anybody, there wouldn’t have been the trail of breadcrumbs that led to him eventually.


Dan LeFebvre  19:32

One of them ask you about because movie does show some of that kind of minus character. She finds a career I think he mentioned in the very early and you’re talking about the interrogation. The courier named Abu Ahmed and then towards the end of the movie, they find out that his real name is Abraham Saeed. They geo locate him using his phone follow his white SUV to a large compound where they think you must be living in that compound becomes something of interest because it has like 16 foot walls top with barbed wire blacked out windows privacy fence even on the higher level balcony. But even despite this, nothing really seems to happen for a long time and movie, it seems to frustrate my head because she eventually grows to believe that bin Laden himself is there and nothing’s really happening. But it sounds like there was a lot more decision making going on in the background. Was that how they found and identified when lunchtime?


Peter Bergen  20:28

Yeah, I mean that. That’s basically right. There was some point there was been an intercept of the sky, Abu akhmedov, Kuwaiti, the father of arcmin, from Kuwait, which was a sort of nom de guerre. And he, he was talking to somebody al Qaeda, they intercepted his phone call to someone in the Gulf, the content of the call indicated that he was still in Al Qaeda, which was an open question of the CIA. They found him in Oshawa. Some of the lights, we still don’t think we completely understand all the different things that happened here, because some of it, it’s like, still highly classified, but they were able to find him and see that he was making this call and shower and have a shower is a city of millions of people. So it’s not like, you know, that was a and then I think, you know, a third that. Another intelligence agency, which I’ve got to presume is the Pakistan is said that his real name was Abraham. So he, which was correct. And eventually, somehow, they were able to find his very distinctive white Suzuki Jeep, which had a rhinoceros wheel on the back in Prussia, and tracking back to the city of a Baba, which is a pretty obscure provincial city and the Pakistan to this compound, which you mentioned that the high walls, people that weren’t using the internet, they were burning, they’re burning their trash. The CIA started observing it. And you’re one of the reasons things move slowly. But this was August of 2010. I mean, there was no, they could never, they could never determine as a factual matter that bin Laden really was there was circumstantial. So they realized that there were two families living on the compound, the body, two bodyguards didn’t lie. And then they realized, the third family. And this third family seemed to be pretty sizable. There were three female, three adult females, and a number of children and grandchildren, that was built on his kids and grandkids. And his three wives. And they did that by counting laundry, you know, on the laundry line, yeah, this all does take time. And again, you know, the, the, the, there were some people like the Maya character, based on a real person, who had been following the line for some period of time. And they were pretty convinced that this was going on. There was also other people at the agency who had gone through the rocky weapons of mass destruction debacle. And, you know, they were like, very leery of a circumstantial case. Because at one point in lot, Obama asked, you know, why is it that some people are 80%, you have 72 in lungs there and why it’s not at 40%? Mike, morale was the number two CIA director said, look, I mean, you know, there was people like myself, who didn’t have the weapons of mass destruction to offer the agency, it’s like, you know, there was more circumstantial evidence for Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction than, than, you know, bin Laden living in a bottom bar, which will reveal that’s a pretty sobering comment. And so, you know, it really became a political question. It, you know, at a certain point, it wasn’t intelligence question. Bin Laden was either 100% there, or he was not there. You know, it’s like these percentages sort of give, were actually kind of misleading, because he either was really there really wasn’t. And so it’s no longer an intelligence question. So political question about what am I going to do about a bomb, I made the right choice, but it’s easy to see that he made the right choice when you know how it turned out. But if it hadn’t gone well, you know, meet all the people in the room where that final meeting on April 28 2011, when they met to discuss what to do, and Obama went around the room said, you know, what should we do with Biden, Biden was suppose because he thought there were too many risks, blowing up the relationship with the Pakistanis. Having some kind of firefight with the Pakistanis, Robert Gates, the defense secretary was opposed. The gates would be working for every president since Lyndon Johnson Biden to become a senator when Obama was like, 12. And yeah, so those and then other people, Hillary Clinton kind of gave a sort of long response about the negatives and positives and came down saying should do it other people around the rooms and you should do it. So you know, that it, it kind of moves away from like, what’s the intelligence to Okay, what do we do about it? And that really becomes a political question and a military question. And, but, so that you know, that the intelligence first began developing in a real way way in August 2010,


Peter Bergen  25:03

Obama authorizes the raid on the morning of April 29 2001, or 2011. The next day, there’s cloud in cloudy weather in a butter ban. Admiral McRaven, who’s the overall commander of Joint Special Operations Command, delays the operation because of the clouds. Like why why take an extra risk. And then of course, on May 1 2011, the two Blackhawk helicopters who have stealth Blackhawk helicopters take off from eastern Afghanistan. They’re accompanied also shortly thereafter by large Chinooks, which have been contained to quick reaction force. And by you know, Pakistan is nine hours ahead. And so this is beginning of this process. You know, people start gathering at the White House, you know, shortly after lunchtime, it’s beginning to take off at 1030 at night from eastern Afghanistan. And they arrive in a bar to bar essentially midnight, local time, which is 3pm in the afternoon, White House time.


Dan LeFebvre  26:12

Okay, so someone was there. I think the movie mentioned, when the SEAL Team Six was training Chris Pratt character, just and one of the seals, mentioned something to Maya about how there was an app in 2007, where they thought they found Bin Laden, but he wasn’t there and they lost a few guys. So was the movie correct to suggest that there were other times where intelligence thought perhaps they’d found bin Laden?


Peter Bergen  26:36

I mean, there were a ton of there were a ton of kind of sightings of Milan, almost none of which panned out, all of which had to be kind of rundown. Bin Laden was in Brazil, or he was, you know, is most of them were nothing. They were a, you know, there was newer, the Sunday was some Joint Special Operations Command operations going after what they thought might be Bin Laden, or even I was worried. Not, I’ve made maybe one or two on the Afghan Pakistan border. Of course, you know, that those didn’t pan out either. So yeah, this was really it’s not like there was some other operation that nearly dropped in law. That didn’t happen.


Dan LeFebvre  27:27

Okay. Okay. Because that was the impression that I got was because it was somebody from Team Six, then they must have gone in and so they must have, they must have sent seals in before for another operation when they thought I was Bin Laden, wasn’t him. It sounds like it wasn’t, well,


Peter Bergen  27:43

they may have signed him. But there was no evidence that any operation ever was ever renewed. And a lot of the last time okay, US soldiers had him surrounded more or less was December 12 2001, at the Battle of Tora Bora, but he escaped.


Dan LeFebvre  27:59

Oh, you mentioned this and in the movie, we do see the operation itself on May 1 2011. Maya is at the Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan. And she finds out to the operation to take up in Laden is a go. So we see two black Hoth, Blackhawks stealth helicopters take off and disappear into the night. And right away the machine doesn’t really go according to plan, at least in the movie, one of the helicopters crashes. Fortunately, nobody on the SEAL team is hurt though. So the other helicopter lands and they continue to mission. Before they breach the house. Someone fires a gun through the door. Team Six returns fire they call for Abraham to come out. A woman comes out instead. And then once they get inside, they find Abraham is dead. Apparently they hit hit him in with it. We’ve turned fire through the door. And the CEOs continue going through the house. Next is a call for someone named Abrar which that movie doesn’t really talk too much about him. Man with a gun appears they shoot him. And there’s women screaming over his body as well. It was interesting me at this point was there’s enough noise being created that the residents around the compound are starting to investigate. Team Six members use loudspeakers to tell people to stay back or they’re going to open fire. And then inside we see Team Six members moving upstairs they call him sama and we don’t really see him in the movie. But there’s like this dark figure it’s dark out so they shoot hear a body thud women are screaming and a couple more shots to make sure that the man is dead. And then the other side we hear the radio over the radio Dinovo forgotten country, Toronto and then they take bin Laden’s body in a bag. How well did the movie do showing the operation itself?


Peter Bergen  29:49

Well, you know, what you just recited is basically what happened. I mean that there’s not nothing now that is inaccurate. And that’s a very good summary of like what happened that night.


Dan LeFebvre  29:59

Okay, so it seems second movie got it pretty accurate the operation itself?


Peter Bergen  30:03

Yep. And yeah, there’s just that that’s pretty much exactly as went down. I also was the only outside observer to get on the compound before the Pakistan is demolished it in 2012. I didn’t know they were gonna demolish it two weeks later. But that enabled me to kind of get a better sense of kind of what happened that night. And also our bin Laden and his three wives and two dozen kids and grandkids were living on the compound. And, you know, I think the movie, which I haven’t seen for a while, but your description of it kind of accords pretty, pretty closely with, with what happened that night. And, you know, there was also the benefit of literally being able to retrace the steps of what the seals did that evening where you, you could see that night, I saw where the helicopter crashed, you can still see burn marks on the wall were buried where it crashed. I saw the intense firefight that you described with First of all, Abraham. And then a bra and then the son Khalid on the second floor, and then finally, Osama bin Laden on the top third floor. So you know, that that, that, that that’s pretty much still a movie, but that’s a good summary of what happened.


Dan LeFebvre  31:30

Do we know if they knew that they were coming? Yeah, I mean, in the movie, it seems like they’re still pretty quiet even though once things once they start kind of reading compound.


Peter Bergen  31:42

Yeah, I mean, we now know that what a no American Blackhawk helicopter goes down and your compound is gonna make some noise. Yeah, that’s gonna that’s gonna, that’s gonna make a lot of noise. But even before that, you know, helicopters no fly at night in around the BattaBox. And they’re loud. And we now know from a fairly detailed Pakistani investigation of what happened. heard the sound. The sound of these helicopters. Yeah, they were stealth helicopters, but by the time they’re two minutes out, they’re still making a lot of noise, relatively speaking. And he Yeah, aliquot Pakistani helicopters don’t fly at night around the city like about a vide so Benard knew the game was up. There was a moonless night, the electricity was off in the neighborhood, which is not uncommon in Pakistan to have these rolling blackouts, notice brownouts. And you know, his wife wanted to also was his young what youngest wife was with him she wanted to turn on a light either PC said no, he knew that the Americans arrive soon as you have those homes hope that the sound helicopters even before the helicopter crash, he knew the game was up.


Dan LeFebvre  32:51

And the movie we do see Team Six taking things from the compound after killing Bin Laden, there’s books, DVDs, CDs, computer hard drives, but they only have a few minutes to do this, because according to the movie, they can’t stay longer because the Pakistanis have scrambled F 16. So they have to get out of there. Can you explain some of the politics that were at play the US military taking off from Afghanistan to strike a target in Pakistan? What sort of risks were up in the air if it hadn’t been bin Laden?


Peter Bergen  33:21

Well, I mean, there was certainly there was initially some discussion about a joint operation with the Pakistanis that was dismissed because people thought that the information would lead. Yeah, Pakistan was a normal ally, in the war against al Qaeda relations were pretty bad at this time. Because the CIA contractor just killed two Pakistanis he put been put in jail for being released. So the the relationship, which is always kind of fraught, was kind of at a low point already. Yeah, the concerns of the White House were what the Pakistani equivalent of West Point was, was about a mile from the bin Laden compound. You know, whether it be a Pakistani quick reaction force that sort of came on and exchanged fire, not really knowing who they were firing on. Could al Qaeda have, you know, a bigger presence than within? or might there be some response from al Qaeda? Could some of the seals be taken captive or by al Qaeda are captured by the Pakistanis? Yeah, there was a lot of potentially negative things that could happen. And the F 16 is Pakistan does scramble them, they they, you know, they didn’t they weren’t really clear what was going on. They knew it wasn’t their own helicopter that crashed. And they, but Pakistan doesn’t have much of a capacity fly at night. And I think people who really understood Pakistani so flying capabilities knew that even though the F 16 is a scramble, they didn’t mean that they were gonna be able to be able to find, you know, stealth helicopters in the middle of the night, flying into Afghanistan, but certainly the ban on Cravens run the operation. He basically had done alongside any of these and you’ve done many of these and operations is like, once you get past half an hour on the ground, you’ve given up the element of surprise, which was true. In this case, he gave another 18 minutes for the seals to gather all this material. And at a certain 140 minutes and said like, it’s time to wrap up, the open lungs body on the helicopter, they took all this material, they blew up the helicopter, they landed, taking the hell out of the heart landing because cattle this very interesting stealth, material and avionics. They didn’t want that to sort of end up in the wrong hands. And and they left and they but it’s still like, yeah, it’s still like at least an hour plus to get to the Afghan border. Flying. And but they they got there. And everybody was very happy to hear. You know, welcome to Afghanistan.


Dan LeFebvre  35:53

Yeah. What did we learn from some of the data that was gathered by SEAL Team Six,


Peter Bergen  35:59

we learned a lot about how a couple of things, we learned a lot about what we learned was thinking because you never expected this to kind of fall into any hands. He there would have been long family journal, they were very concerned about the Arab Spring because this was belong to the biggest event in the Middle East and over a century. And, and yet, al Qaeda has ideas and personnel were not involved. And he was trying to work out a way to insert himself into the Arab Spring released a speech is to highly educated wise with PhDs, we’re kind of helping him think through what to say. So his two oldest daughters, who are both adults. So we learned a lot about kind of what benign was worried about his bodyguards were paying to leave. And he was very concerned about that, because they were just linked to the outside world. T. He was also trying to plan something for the 10th anniversary of 911. A big statement, hopefully the terrorist attack on American target. Yeah, he was kind of delusional about our caterers capabilities, but he was certainly very much in touch with al Qaeda affiliates, and Somalia and Yemen, North Africa, etc, of the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, he was trying to maintain all these relationships, and try to instruct these various groups about what they should be doing. So he had a lot of time on his hands, he wrote all the material, there are 6000 pages of useful material. And a lot of it is about kind of how he was trying to manage our Qaeda, al Qaeda affiliates, and also some of this about his personal relationship with his wives, with his kids. And all that is now in the public domain.


Dan LeFebvre  37:41

You mentioned this earlier in your book manhunt. In 2013, there was an HBO documentary based on your book, and in that you do a great job recounting a lot of the events that lead up to your interview with bin Laden in 1997. And I want to ask you in that documentary, you asked the cameraman, another Peter, Juvenal. And he asked me if he remembers what it was like when Bin Laden entered the room shaking his hand. But the question was never posed to you. So what was your experience? Like meeting bin Laden?


Peter Bergen  38:15

You know, we were there to do an interview. I mean, it was much, you know, I was mostly focused on the mechanics of that, are we getting the questions in that we need? We had limited time with him, he was maybe somewhere between 60 to 90 minutes, we were not allowed to bring anything with us, including watches. They gave us their camera to do the interview, because they were very concerned about tracking devices. So yeah, I was mostly focused on like, we need to get in the questions we want, we need to make sure that this is lit properly, we need to make maximum use of the time we have with him. So I was focused on that, you know, I wasn’t focused on kind of what I was. Yeah. I knew we we had a lot of questions and very little time, so I was kind of like, making gum and I was the producer. So I was responsible for making sure the thing work.


Dan LeFebvre  39:17

And yeah, sounds like you’re using equipment that you’re not used to. And so I had to kind of do it on the fly a lot. Sounds like


Peter Bergen  39:25

well, we knew that going up there. I mean, they’ve also provided you know, we’re in the middle of the mountains, they provided the generator. So that we had lightning, so yeah, they are but you know, none of this is not like we could argue with them about what we bought probably $50,000 of professional equipment. We had to leave that behind. This was not outfitted purpose. Either that or no interview or on that camera. And so we did the interview on our camera and it came out it looks pretty juvenile this cameraman Yeah, did a very professional job with a less good camera.


Dan LeFebvre  39:58

Well, thank you so much for coming. We’re going to chat about Zero Dark 30. Mr. Smoke is first movie does focus a lot on the US government’s search for Bin Laden, it doesn’t really show much about Bin Laden himself. That leads me right into your newest benign book called The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden. It’s an incredibly well done biography. As of today, it is out on paperback. Before I let you go, I have to ask in the decades since you’ve been reporting and writing about Bin Laden, is there something that you’ve learned about him in that time that has surprised you?


Peter Bergen  40:31

Yeah, I mean, you know, one thing that I thought is, you know, I’ve been following him since 96. And one thing that, that Sunday that I found interesting was the extent to which he was relying on his older ones, to help him edit speeches to think through his strategic, you know, reasoning, you know, he look at what has been lands ideal and state, it’s a Taliban style theocracy. And so I think, you know, people, anybody who’s listening to this might be sort of surprised to the extent to which he really relied on these two highly educated wives. Both of them had PhDs, one was a child psychologist with an independent courier before Samaritan Law. Another one had a PhD in Quranic grammar. They both claimed dissent from the Prophet Muhammad. And they came from sort of distinguished families. They both join, Ben got married to the Lord knowing that he was already married. They, they, they were true believers in his cause. And one of the lines had been after 911 lived in Iran under some form of house arrest for a decade, she rejoined in in February of 2011, a few months before he was killed. And yeah, he was very excited about seeing her she was 62. And he was 54 at the time. And he sent her these letters, which were almost like love letters about how excited he was to be seeing her. So yeah, Hitler was nice with dog. That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t, you know, was responsible for the Holocaust. So Bin Laden, it turns out was fairly nice to his immediate family members. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t responsible for 911. So but I think that what we some of the materials or the seals found that night, which are portrayed in the film, and we have a really good understanding now of what was happening inside al Qaeda, in the years after 911, what bin Laden was doing what he was thinking, and as sort of an historian of all this, that to me is super interesting. And you find new things whether it’s belongs relationship with his with his older wives and the importance of that, for new reacted to this, that history bodyguard for came to leave. And in fact, the relations with the bodyguards got so bad that he wrote them a letter, even though they live together, but yards apart, January 2011, he wrote a letter saying, Hey, I know that you’re, we last time we met, he was so angry that I feel like I need to put in writing what you agree to, which is, you’ll stay with me for another several months while I find replacements. So he was very cognizant that this was a big problem. Because these guys spoke Arabic, they spoke to local language pastor, they were Pakistanis who grew up in Kuwait. So and they’ve long been members of al Qaeda. They were not going to be easy people to replace, but they were fed up because they were taking being paid very little $100 a month to look after the world’s most wanted man. And they were fed up and they wanted to move on. Of course, they were getting fed up because both of them will be killed in this era. It was a very dangerous trough. And, you know, Obama turned out to make the right choice because it is if you’d waited longer, you know, it’s possible that the bodyguards would have left and didn’t have that because without the bodyguards demand, couldn’t stay in that house. It was registered in that in that bodyguards name. The you know, they were going to have to separate so one of the things that was discussed if it isn’t in the film was in one of the deliberations, the White House, is it like if we don’t do doing nothing is also a form of decision making? Yeah. And yeah, that’s what happens belong leads, which are what happens if this leaves out that he’s there in some way, because the more people you involve, the more Yeah, the somebody was once asked, How do you keep it secret in Washington? And the answer is Don’t tell anybody. And, you know, once you start planning a military operation, the circle of knowledge, we’re getting bigger and bigger and bigger. So there were risks and just doing nothing which so President Obama obviously made the right call.


Dan LeFebvre  44:28

Looking at it from hindsight, definitely. Well, I’ll make sure to include links to your book in the show notes for this episode. Thank you again, so much for your time, Peter.


Peter Bergen  44:36

Okay, thank you Dan, take care.



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