Vice President Joe Biden offered a contradictory account of his long-running assertion that he opposed the raid that ultimately killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, saying Tuesday, as he is weighing a run for the Oval Office, that he encouraged President Obama to launch the operation at the time.
Speaking at the Walter Mondale: Living Legacy forum in Washington, Biden said he withheld his view on the dangerous operation in Pakistan until he saw Obama one-on-one, so as not to jeopardize the perception of their relationship.
“We walked out of the room and walked up stairs,” Biden said. “I told him my opinion: I thought he should go, but to follow his own instincts.”
Biden maintained that only two Cabinet officers weighed in firmly on the strike, Defense Secretary Robert Gates in opposition and CIA Director Leon Panetta in favor. “We sat in the Cabinet room, and at the end of the day, making the decision, he said I want everyone’s opinion. And everyone went around the room, and there were only two people who were definitive, and were absolutely certain: Panetta said go, Bob Gates said don’t go,” he said.
But the narrative runs in the face of the one Biden himself offered in 2012, as well as that offered by Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who was the Secretary of State at the time and has said she was supportive of the operation.
In a meeting with House Democrats in 2012, Biden recounted “Mr. President, my suggestion is, don’t go. We have to do two more things to see if he’s there,” the New York Times reported, in an account later verified by the White House.
By Obama’s own account, Biden was skeptical of the raid. “Those decisions generally—generally are not poll-tested,” Obama told CBS’s Bob Schieffer in the third presidential debate in 2012. “And even some in my own party, including my current vice president, had the same critique as you did.”
In her book, Hard Choices, Clinton wrote that she supported the operation at the time. “I came to the conclusion that the intelligence was convincing and the risks were outweighed by the benefits of success,” she wrote. “We just had to make sure it worked.” Earlier this year, Clinton told the South Carolina Democratic Party chair, “I was one who recommended to the president that he go ahead. And his advisers were split.”
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The divide over the bin Laden raid is one of the key foreign policy differences between Biden and Clinton, and Biden’s attempt to rewrite the established narrative sent Washington speculation into his possible run into overdrive. As a candidate for president in 2008, Clinton was deeply critical of Obama’s then-hypothetical support for launching a strike in Pakistan to kill or capture the man responsible for the 9/11 attack.
“Last summer, he basically threatened to bomb Pakistan, which I don’t think was a particularly wise position to take,” she said in a February 2008 debate.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest declined to clarify the discrepancy Tuesday. “The people in the room at the times are the ones that should be consulted,” he said.
“Historians will probably tell you this is not the first time a significant political event has prompted different recollections to different people,” he added.