The Untold Story of the Hunt for Osama Bin Laden - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY TRENDING

The Untold Story of the Hunt for Osama Bin Laden

It has been 10 years since May 2, 2011, the night a top-secret SEAL raid took out notorious terrorist and 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden at his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan. You may think you know the story of bin Laden and the ten-year manhunt that ended in his death, but you’ve probably seen it like this before. In Revealed: The Hunt for Osama bin Laden, the 9/11 Museum and the History Channel team up to present never-before-seen interviews and previously classified material. Film co-producers Clifford Chanin and Jessica Chen join Left of Boom to explain why every American should know this story.

Subscribe to the Left of Boom podcast:

iTunes | Google Podcasts | Spotify | TuneIn | Stitcher

Mentioned in this episode:

Osama bin Laden

Sept. 11, 2001 Attacks

Operation Neptune Spear

Navy SEALs

Afghanistan War

Zero Dark Thirty

The following is an edited transcript of this episode of Left of Boom:

Hope Hodge Seck 0:00

Welcome back to Left of Boom. I’m your host, Military.com managing editor Hope Hodge Seck. Today’s episode is a treat. We’ll be talking to Clifford Chanin and Jessica Chen, executive producer and co-producer of Revealed: The Hunt for Bin Ladin, a brand-new documentary premiering now on the History Channel. It’s the 10-year anniversary of Operation Neptune spear, the May 2, 2011 SEAL raid that ended the life of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. This new project includes interviews with past U.S. presidents, senior decision-making officials and the SEALs themselves to present a new picture of events that changed American history forever. After hearing this episode, I promise you’ll want to check it out for yourself. So without further ado, let’s get into it. Cliff and Jess, welcome to the show.

Clifford Chanin 0:56

Great to be here. Thanks, Hope.

Jessica Chen 0:57

Thank you.

Hope Hodge Seck 0:59

It’s hard to believe it has been 10 years since the bin Laden raid. The operation itself was one of the earlier world events to be live-tweeted. I remember there was a guy near Abbottabad who heard helicopters and started tweeting about what he was hearing and seeing. And since then reporting on what happened there has been abundant. You’ve got everything from Zero Dark 30 to the man who ostensibly fired the kill shot at bin Laden, who has accumulated some fame in his own right. But this project goes a whole lot deeper than all of that. How did it come about?

Clifford Chanin 1:35

Well, it was more than five years ago in fact that we first started talking about this as an exhibition. We have a special exhibitions gallery in the museum. And we have done a couple of shows prior to this. But certainly the raid and the end of bin Laden’s life is also the end of a major chapter in the 9/11 story. It’s not the end of the threat. It’s not the end of the 9/11 story itself. But it certainly is an important moment in that overall story. And so we began developing this as an exhibition. And in the course of that development, the relationships we had with the military and the intelligence folks had really developed through a set of other programs at the museum. And so we were getting access to people and to objects that could be shown in the exhibition that actually went far beyond what we’d originally imagined. It was hard to imagine this originally, because everything was still classified, essentially. So we didn’t even know what we were asking for in most cases. But as we began to get access to people, including some still active in the intelligence community, people who were part of the hunt, who were there for the conclusion of the hunt. We put together for the exhibition, I think it was a very, very powerful narrative in the context of an exhibition that was only a tiny fraction of what we had gathered through the interview process. And so we decided that for the 10th anniversary of the raid, it would be a very powerful film. We added even after the exhibition opened, a number of very important interviews that fleshed out the story beyond what the exhibition could tell. And so it was a bit of a rush, and doing things under COVID is, as everybody knows, at least very different, if not crazy, but we did manage and get it to completion. And here we are Sunday night, May 2, History Channel, I’m doing the plug … And that’s the short version of the story.

Hope Hodge Seck 3:44

Where do you start? What are the first phone calls that you make to kind of open the doors to as you said, to this previously undisclosed information?

Clifford Chanin 3:52

I’ll let Jess tell about these programs that I mentioned before, because they turn out to be absolutely critical in establishing a level of confidence and trust between the museum and these broader agencies. So I think Jess should pick up the beginnings of the story. And then we can talk about, you know, how we actually tried to figure out what the story should be.

Jessica Chen 4:13

Sure, thanks, Cliff. So at the museum, the museum opened in 2014. But even before that, it really benefited from a really strong relationship with a lot of the agencies that not only responded immediately after 9/11, but kind of took up the work after 9/11 to combat terrorism and also to do the work that continues to keep this nation safe. And so those groups not only provided assets for the exhibition, but have continued to come to the museum, especially with new recruits and with new staffers who are interested in understanding how 9/11 fits into their institutional history. These visits have actually become very cool programs that we offer to what we call professional groups. And these are groups that are comprised of intelligence agencies, ;aw enforcement agencies, military and government professionals who are really kind of diving into their museum experience with a very personal connection, but also a mission-oriented sense of the story for us at the museum, not only in the museum work that we do, but also thinking about this film. It’s largely stemming from these relationships that have been built over time, not only with the people who were part of making the museum happen, but also the people who continue to bring new people through the museum.

Hope Hodge Seck 5:29

It’s incredible. What do you think are the biggest misconceptions most Americans have about the story of Osama bin Laden in the way that his narrative intertwines with the United States?

Clifford Chanin 5:45

Well, you know, it’s a really interesting question. It came to such a definitive conclusion on May 2, 2011, people could get the impression that there was kind of a straight-line outcome here, that this was all forordained, and this was just how it was going to turn out. And I would say, that’s anything but the truth. The first issue is what our focus on bin Laden was before 9/11, which wasn’t widely concentrated across the national security community. Obviously, there were people who were focused on al-Qaida and understood the threat and understood that in 1996 and 1998, when bin Laden issues fatwas justifying attacks against the United States, against American civilians in the second fatwa, that, you know, that is an important threat. But there were other things going on in the world. And even those earlier attacks and the embassies in Africa in 1998, the Cole in 2000, as tragic and impactful as they were, it did not really transform the sense of the threat. And that, of course, was what happened on 9/11. And so, to me, the interesting part, and I think we present this in some fascinating detail, how do you hunt for someone who’s hiding from you who could be anywhere in the world? And who’s actually quite good at hiding? I was talking about this one of the intelligence analysts at one point, and she said, Well, you know, Ted Kaczynski was hiding in the United States, our own country, I think it was 17 years, and we couldn’t find him. So you know, why would it have been easier to find Osama bin Laden, and then even when the lead gets us pointed at that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where ultimately he was found, there’s never any assurance, it’s no more than a circumstantial case, that this may be somewhat important, but there’s no guarantee it’s Osama bin Laden. And so every step of the way has risk. Every step of the way has a calculation about, Is this real? And if we act as though it’s real, and it turns out not to be real, what are the consequences of that going to be? I mean, just imagine everything that happens on that raid happens exactly the same way. And it’s not Osama bin Laden. You know, it’s some drug dealer, we’re not going to invade Pakistani territory for a drug dealer. So how do we deal with that? And so one thing after another, which in retrospect, seemed like a very logical progression, none of it, none of it was except, and it’s a remarkable credit to their work. But the intelligence professionals who drove this hunt, said, Yes, we can’t give you a written guarantee. But this is what the conclusion leads us to determine.

Jessica Chen 8:38

I’m gonna add to what Cliff just said, and kind of characterize it in my own personal experience. I was starting eighth grade on 9/11. And then I was in New York, having just graduated from college, when the raid, the successful operation was announced. And I think for a lot of people who are my age, and who kind of, these two moments kind of form the bookends of our adulthood or growing up into adulthood, I think that it’s hard to kind of link the first moment to this moment. The film itself kind of traces these bookmarks. You know, it starts with intelligence, it goes to policy, and then it goes to the military raid. And I think we forget just how committed many people were after 9/11 to finding this person that was that was really hard to find. And I think what the film does is, it helps people to understand that the motivation and the drive to bring justice did not go away, even though they couldn’t find him, and that there were real personal sacrifices made along the way. I’m really hopeful that for my peers to watch this film, and to understand just how committed everybody was to seeing this through.

Hope Hodge Seck 9:49

I really resonate with that. I think we’re of a very similar age. I think I was also in eighth grade when the attacks happened. I think that really puts it in context. They were key moments. Guess I’ll just ask you both to expand on that. So when you have this wealth of information and all these exhibits, and all of this documentation, how do you then make decisions for how to organize it to tell and frame a story, especially when you’ve got the constraints of time?

Clifford Chanin 10:19

So it was shaped a little bit by the exhibition, although the film is very different than the exhibition. And I do want to say, again, just a brief plug, the exhibition itself, the museum is open, the 9/11 museum is open, we’ve just reopened the bin Laden special exhibition. So I hope people who are thinking of traveling to New York might consider coming to see it if they can. We’re offering online virtual tours of the museum and the exhibition as well. So 911 memorial.org, our website is the place to go looking for that. Sorry for diverging from your question. But the most powerful factor in shaping this, from the very beginning, we alluded to this before, but it’s very unusual, curatorially speaking, we never had a sense in advance of what objects and which people we would have available to us to tell the story. So we would make requests based on these relationships that just described earlier, of these intelligence agencies initially, just to say, look, were planning to do this exhibition, we’d like to be able to talk to you about what might be available for us. And those agencies are bound by the classification rules, obviously. And even though, you know, many of the key public figures who were involved in this had spoken about the raid and wrote wrote about the raid, technically it was still classified. So anything that they were going to make available to us had to go through an internal process within each of these agencies, and the agencies have different processes with different considerations. And on top of which we never knew how long it would take, or what the criteria for decision would be, as to whether or not we could get something. So that was, that was curious. But we did manage to get these meetings that particularly on the intelligence side, where we go in, and we’d say, Well, here’s the point in the story that we’re trying to make, we’re trying to tell, for example, that, you know, there was this massive effort to find as much intelligence as you could by partnering the intelligence agencies on the battlefield with the military, just do these raids and sweeps and process all this intelligence in real time. So you can really make it actionable as soon as possible. Okay. That’s a good point, right? What could demonstrate that. So we are museum curators who don’t know what the objects are, and the people were asking our intelligence professionals who don’t know what museum curators need. So, you know, we would really try to be very specific in their requests. And inevitably, what happened was, we’d be in these meetings, you know, in these secret bunkers. And you know, you have to be screened to get in with a pass and an escort and you’re never, you’re never alone. And we’d be sitting in these rooms. And we’d make a point, this is what this is the kind of thing we want. And you could see, they began looking at each other. And you could see the eyes communicating there, maybe a little smile here and there. But they wouldn’t say anything in front of us. Because what they were thinking of offering us was still classified. And so the question was, A, is this really the answer to the question of what they’re looking for? Well, we can’t ask them. And B, if it is the answer to the question of what they’re looking for, can we get it cleared and give it to them? So the process was very elaborate. Internally, the only thing I will add is, it’s very clear to me and we became, you know, friends with some of the folks in the agencies who became our internal advocates. So there were people who, for a variety of reasons thought, this story should be told the 9/11 Museum is the place to tell it, and I, Person X, who have access to the process, who understand what’s being asked for, who know the people who are involved in making these decisions, I am going to be the internal advocate for this project inside my agency. I don’t think this happens, really, if we don’t have a handful of those key people. I can’t thank them personally, well, I thank them personally, but I can’t thank them publicly, for exactly the same reasons that I’ve described in the beginning of this story. But that really is the key doing this, because they all are knit into this story together. They know one another, they trust one another. They work together. And they would vouch for us with some of the other folks who may have retired or whatever it was, Would you be willing to sit down for an interview with them? And that’s how the process really unfolded.

Jessica Chen 14:45

To pick up where Cliff leaves off. You know, now you have all these relationships, all of these advocates and what sometimes feels like a landslide of connections of details, of stories to tell. I think Cliff and I both have kind of threads in the story that we felt very personally convicted to bring to light. You know, there, there are some things that are explained that that I think I’d leave it to Cliff to kind of flesh out in more detail that have never been kind of discussed publicly before. But I think for me, you know, something that was incredibly important when evaluating how to take all of this material and put it in a film, which, although it’s, it’s a full-length film, felt a little short at the end, because we’re trying to stuff so much stuff into it. For me, it was really understanding how can we convey the humanity and the human cost at every step in the story. So the film opens, really, with an understanding of 9/11, and the human loss on 9/11. And then you go through a hunt that is marked by people who are incredibly human. I hope we’ve captured them, kind of their frustration, but also their commitment, and even their human sacrifice in terms of seeing this through policymakers, when they’re discussing the hunt, the odds that Cliff described earlier, really thinking about the people who are going to be doing this and what they’re putting, those people in that situation that they’re asking them to expose themselves to, and then the military members who take on kind of the risk and see the mission through. And so I think, because of all the interviews with so many generous, unseen individuals, we’re able to kind of get a sense of the people that the real people who kind of were involved in the story, and I hope we’ve done a good job and kind of lending some some of their personalities to tell the story.

Hope Hodge Seck 16:31

Man, I can’t wait to see it. What sorts of things are easier to understand and analyze and contextualize, with the benefit of 10 years of hindsight?

Clifford Chanin 16:44

Well, I do think there was an awareness in the community at large, that one of the failures of 9/11 was the lack of communication across agencies, and between the intelligence and the military world. And they tried to fix that right away. And because of, you know, tradition and culture, and just the different approaches, that wasn’t an easy fix. But once we were fighting in Afghanistan, and then in Iraq, it was something they realized, you just had to do it, because you were losing service members on the battlefield there. And there was always a sense that al-Qaida was still out there, bin Laden was still out there, and didn’t know what they were planning. But you knew they were planning something, and so you know, that prospect of another catastrophe, or simply not doing enough to protect American military personnel on the battlefield, that really broke down a lot of barriers. And it’s a remarkable story, because, you know, the techniques, the practices that were sort of implemented over years before the raid in Pakistan, were the very same techniques and practices that were applied to solve this problem of what’s going on in that compound. And so even though it was from the distance factor, and from the political factor of going into an allied sovereign nation without their permission, and conducting a military operation, in the heart of a populated area, the people who knew how to do this, were confident that they could do it, and they had done things like this enough and work together enough that, you know, it was more complicated, certainly, and more risky because of the factors involved. But you know, as one of the SEALs says in one of the interviews, that a raid is a raid is a raid. You know, we know how to do this. It’s really, you know, a remarkable piece. And the aviation piece of this is also something that — the whole mission was about four hours. Forty minutes of that mission, were on the ground, which means more than three hours, the operators were basically passengers on what one of the SEALs called a ginormous bus. And so the success of the mission is in the hands of the pilots, and how they conduct themselves and how they’re prepared for this and what they know about the conditions that they’re flying in all of this interaction. And all of the key actors had worked with one another on other missions before they knew one another, they trusted one another. And so again, that period, through war, of really developing expertise and trust, I think it was key to what would ultimately happen and what the U.S. military has learned about how to conduct these kinds of operations.

Hope Hodge Seck 19:41

To build on that, are there indicators that events would play out differently if they happen today? You talked about the need to communicate better. I know that’s not a problem that probably will ever be fully solved.

Clifford Chanin 19:57

You know, the thing that The experts always say is that the threat changes. And so 9/11 was a product of al-Qaida, which was at that point, a structured administrated centralized organization, with, for a terrorist group, you know, reasonably efficient command and control. The years since have seen that central structure come under enormous pressure and break in many ways. But the threat has splintered into other groups that may be connected with al-Qaida or not, may have been inspired by al-Qaida may have said al-Qaida didn’t go far enough, as the Islamic State did. Or that you might have these so called “lone actor” terrorists who radicalize online or through personal contacts with people and decide on their own as some ideologists of the Jihad have urged them, just to attack people where you can. I mean, we don’t want to have a centralized structure anymore, or we can’t sustain a centralized structure anymore. But it doesn’t change what the mission needs to be. That threat changes. Therefore, how we study it, how we understand it has to change, and how we respond to it has to change.

Hope Hodge Seck 21:09

One aspect of the way the story is told, and you’ve already referred to this, is there are these educational materials for high schoolers to discuss 911 and the hunt for bin Laden and Operation Neptune Spear. Today’s high schoolers obviously have no memory of 9/11, which is a little bit shocking for older Millennials like me to contemplate. And in fact, there are even soldiers and Marines and service members who have deployed to Afghanistan with no memory of 9/11, which is the nexus for the start of this war. Why was it so important to provide an entry point for high schoolers into this material?

Jessica Chen 21:51

For me, I think so much of and I’m also speaking from an older Millennial perspective, but our department or my department in the museum is focused on education. And I lean on my colleagues and their expertise to work specifically with students. But I think all of us on the education team feel really strongly that the world that we live in today is shaped so much by the events of 9/11 and the events that followed, I think it’s important to contextualize it because we understand that the leadership lessons, the incredible stories of courage and of commitment, that they have resonances with what is going on in the world today. And I think that trying to engage students, and trying to kind of connect them with the importance of understanding our shared history is just so, so important and so central, as they think about, you know, where they’re going to be in the next 10 years.

Clifford Chanin 22:43

You know, this is the 10th anniversary of the bin Laden raid, but it’s also the 20th anniversary, this September, of 9/11. Twenty years is the span of a generation. Think about it. I mean, nobody who’s in high school was even born when 9/11 happened. And if you’re in college, you may have been born, but you were a year or two old and you’re not going to remember it. And so it’s a funny thing that happens with history and a museum like ours. When we started this project, and I go way back to, I wasn’t in junior high school when this happened. So the thought was, well, everybody knows this story. So you know, what’s going to make our presentation of the story compelling? Well, 20 years pass, and that assumption is completely out the window. Not everybody knows this story. In fact, every day, more people don’t know this story. And so the challenge for the museum of telling this story, and as Jess says, explaining just how significant this moment in history was, and continues to be. Now that becomes, I think, frankly, more than we imagined it 15 years ago, that becomes central to the mission of our current-day museum and will only grow in importance every day. I mean, think about, it’s not just the attack and the vulnerability. It’s the response of this country. I mean, I don’t know if you guys remember. But, you know, this country came together across all divides, across all barriers, I mean, all the things we’re struggling with as a society today, were wiped away by the common solidarity and feeling that service was spontaneously the outcome of Americans reactions to 9/11. Not just Americans, people around the world. If we’re thinking about where we are today, look back and ask the question, what was it that gave us this kind of resilience and solidarity 20 years ago? What’s missing? What can we do about it now? Because it’s better to be like that than it is to be at each other’s throats. And so, you know, that’s how the mission of the museum evolves. It’s always rooted in 9/11 and telling that story, but there’s no fixed point where you can say Hey, okay, this is over, let’s turn the page. It just doesn’t happen like that.

Hope Hodge Seck 25:04

I have one final question that I hope that both of you will answer in your own way. What larger story do you think all the events that you cover in this documentary, and the accompanying presentation, tell us about America?

Jessica Chen 25:19

I think, you know, going back to personal experience again, and also I was on the West Coast when 9/11 happened, and now have spent most of my adult life on the East Coast. So I consider myself a New Yorker. But I think the breadth of characters of people who undertake this work is pretty remarkable, you know, something that I can say without necessarily speaking to specific identities, but the number of women who are involved in this work and who take on, you know, risk and responsibility. I’m hopeful that, that when people watch this film, that they’re going to see something in it that reminds them of themselves and where they are in life and how they can contribute to society, but can also just recognize the importance of working together. And this is just to kind of pick up on what Cliff was just saying, that almost everybody who we interviewed for this film, mentioned, at some point in their interview, just looking back and thinking how remarkable it is when everybody learns how to place trust in one another when everyone works together, when everyone is committed to a common purpose. And I think that obviously can be applied into situations that are not exactly like this, but even the environments that all of us work in and live in. That’s kind of that that’s where I where I land on the film.

Clifford Chanin 26:34

Yeah, I agree. You know, as we’ve gotten to know some of the folks involved, it’s very obvious that they disagree about things, they don’t all see the world the same way. And yet, when they were required to do something for the common good, the only factor was how to succeed in doing that task. Everything else was secondary. And it’s been my good fortune to see some of those relationships in action, to see how they relate to one another, in spite of whatever other differences that are much, much smaller in importance than the things they have in common. But in spite of their differences, there is a sense of mutual recognition in the idea that they went through this together, they took the risks together, they understood that the most important thing in these circumstances is to be able to count on the other person you’re working with, regardless of anything else. And every one of them came through for everybody else when they needed to. That’s just a remarkable story. And it is really what it is to offer the best of your service on behalf of your country. And really on behalf of the common humanity that you know, you share with everyone else who’s involved in this. And of course, for the families of the 9/11 victims, for the victims themselves who were killed. I mean, that focal point of the mission, never faltered through the hunt, when they weren’t finding anybody when they didn’t know where to look. All of that drove them onward to this, you know, remarkable, remarkable success story.

Hope Hodge Seck 28:21

Well, thank you both so much for being here today. This documentary, as you said, comes out May 2, what are the different ways that people can watch?

Clifford Chanin 28:29

Well, the History Channel is going to be premiering it through your cable provider. As of May 3, it’s available through histories, website and digital platforms. And you have to sign on with your cable login information. And it’s also available for sale through various streaming partners that provide History Channel broadcasts

Hope Hodge Seck 28:54

Fantastic. Thank you so much for your time.

Clifford Chanin 28:57

Thanks, Hope.

Jessica Chen 28:58

Thank you.

Hope Hodge Seck 29:08

Thanks for joining us for this special episode of Left of Boom. I’d love to hear your thoughts on “The Hunt for Bin Laden.” Send me an email at podcast@military.com and let me know what you think of the documentary and presentation. You can also pitch me ideas for future shows while you’re at it. If you’re not subscribed to the podcast, please go ahead and do it now so you don’t miss a future episode. And leave us a rating and review to so other people can find us. And remember that you can get all the news and information you need about your military community every day at Military.com.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Hope Hodge Seck 0:00

Welcome back to Left of Boom. I’m your host, Military.com managing editor Hope Hodge Seck. Today’s episode is a treat. We’ll be talking to Clifford Chanin and Jessica Chen, executive producer and co-producer of Revealed: The Hunt for Bin Ladin, a brand-new documentary premiering now on the History Channel. It’s the 10-year anniversary of Operation Neptune spear, the May 2, 2011 SEAL raid that ended the life of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. This new project includes interviews with past U.S. presidents, senior decision-making officials and the SEALs themselves to present a new picture of events that changed American history forever. After hearing this episode, I promise you’ll want to check it out for yourself. So without further ado, let’s get into it. Cliff and Jess, welcome to the show.

Clifford Chanin 0:56

Great to be here. Thanks, Hope.

Jessica Chen 0:57

Thank you.

Hope Hodge Seck 0:59

It’s hard to believe it has been 10 years since the bin Laden raid. The operation itself was one of the earlier world events to be live-tweeted. I remember there was a guy near Abbottabad who heard helicopters and started tweeting about what he was hearing and seeing. And since then reporting on what happened there has been abundant. You’ve got everything from Zero Dark 30 to the man who ostensibly fired the kill shot at bin Laden, who has accumulated some fame in his own right. But this project goes a whole lot deeper than all of that. How did it come about?

Clifford Chanin 1:35

Well, it was more than five years ago in fact that we first started talking about this as an exhibition. We have a special exhibitions gallery in the museum. And we have done a couple of shows prior to this. But certainly the raid and the end of bin Laden’s life isn also the end of a major chapter in the 9/11 story. It’s not the end of the threat. It’s not the end of the 9/11 story itself. But it certainly is an important moment in that overall story. And so we began developing this as an exhibition. And in the course of that development, the relationships we had with the military and the intelligence folks had really developed through a set of other programs at the museum. And so we were getting access to people and to objects that could be shown in the exhibition that actually went far beyond what we’d originally imagined. It was hard to imagine this originally, because everything was still classified, essentially. So we didn’t even know what we were asking for in most cases. But as we began to get access to people, including some still active in the intelligence community, people who were part of the hunt, who were there for the conclusion of the hunt. We put together for the exhibition, I think it was a very, very powerful narrative in the context of an exhibition that was only a tiny fraction of what we had gathered through the interview process. And so we decided that for the 10th anniversary of the raid, it would be a very powerful film. We added even after the exhibition opened, a number of very important interviews that fleshed out the story beyond what the exhibition could tell. And so it was a bit of a rush, and doing things under COVID is, as everybody knows, at least very different, if not crazy, but we did manage and get it to completion. And here we are Sunday night, May 2, History Channel, I’m doing the plug … And that’s the short version of the story.

Hope Hodge Seck 3:44

Where do you start? What are the first phone calls that you make to kind of open the doors to as you said, to this previously undisclosed information?

Clifford Chanin 3:52

I’ll let Jess tell about these programs that I mentioned before, because they turn out to be absolutely critical in establishing a level of confidence and trust between the museum and these broader agencies. So I think Jess should pick up the beginnings of the story. And then we can talk about, you know, how we actually tried to figure out what the what the story should be.

Jessica Chen 4:13

Sure, thanks, Cliff. So at the museum, the museum opened in 2014. But even before that, it really benefited from a really strong relationship with a lot of the agencies that not only responded immediately after 9/11, but kind of took up the work after 9/11 to combat terrorism and also to do the work that continues to keep this nation safe. And so those groups not only provided assets for the exhibition, but have continued to come to the museum, especially with new recruits and with new staffers who are interested in understanding how 9/11 fits into their institutional history. These visits have actually become very cool programs that we offer to what we call professional groups. And these are groups that are comprised of intelligence agencies, ;aw enforcement agencies, military and government professionals who are really kind of diving into their museum experience with a very personal connection, but also a mission-oriented sense of the story for us at the museum, not only in the museum work that we do, but also thinking about this film. It’s largely stemming from these relationships that have been built over time, not only with the people who were part of making the museum happen, but also the people who continue to bring new people through the museum.

Hope Hodge Seck 5:29

It’s incredible. What do you think are the biggest misconceptions most Americans have about the story of Osama bin Laden in the way that his narrative intertwines with the United States?

Clifford Chanin 5:45

Well, you know, it’s a really interesting question. It came to such a definitive conclusion on May 2, 2011, people could get the impression that there was kind of a straight-line outcome here, that this was all forordained, and this was just how it was going to turn out. And I would say, that’s anything but the truth. The first issue is what our focus on bin Laden was before 9/11, which wasn’t widely concentrated across the national security community. Obviously, there were people who were focused on al-Qaida and understood the threat and understood that in 1996 and 1998, when bin Laden issues fatwas justifying attacks against the United States, against American civilians in the second fatwa, that, you know, that is an important threat. But there were other things going on in the world. And even those earlier attacks and the embassies in Africa in 1998, the Cole in 2000, as tragic and impactful as they were, it did not really transform the sense of the threat. And that, of course, was what happened on 9/11. And so, to me, the interesting part, and I think we present this in some fascinating detail, how do you hunt for someone who’s hiding from you who could be anywhere in the world? And who’s actually quite good at hiding? I was talking about this one of the intelligence analysts at one point, and she said, Well, you know, Ted Kaczynski was hiding in the United States, our own country, I think it was 17 years, and we couldn’t find him. So you know, why would it have been easier to find Osama bin Laden, and then even when the lead gets us pointed at that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where ultimately he was found, there’s never any assurance, it’s no more than a circumstantial case, that this may be somewhat important, but there’s no guarantee it’s Osama bin Laden. And so every step of the way has risk. Every step of the way has a calculation about, Is this real? And if we act as though it’s real, and it turns out not to be real, what are the consequences of that going to be? I mean, just imagine everything that happens on that raid happens exactly the same way. And it’s not Osama bin Laden. You know, it’s some drug dealer, we’re not going to invade Pakistani territory for a drug dealer. So how do we deal with that? And so one thing after another, which in retrospect, seemed like a very logical progression, none of it, none of it was except, and it’s a remarkable credit to their work. But the intelligence professionals who drove this hunt, said, Yes, we can’t give you a written guarantee. But this is what the conclusion leads us to determine.

Jessica Chen 8:38

I’m gonna add to what Cliff just said, and kind of characterize it in my own personal experience. I was starting eighth grade on 9/11. And then I was in New York, having just graduated from college, when the raid, the successful operation was announced. And I think for a lot of people who are my age, and who kind of, these two moments kind of form the bookends of our adulthood or growing up into adulthood, I think that it’s hard to kind of link the first moment to this moment. The film itself kind of traces these bookmarks. You know, it starts with intelligence, it goes to policy, and then it goes to the military raid. And I think we forget just how committed many people were after 9/11 to finding this person that was that was really hard to find. And I think what the film does is, it helps people to understand that the motivation and the drive to bring justice did not go away, even though they couldn’t find him, and that there were real personal sacrifices made along the way. I’m really hopeful that for my peers to watch this film, and to understand just how committed everybody was to seeing this through.

Hope Hodge Seck 9:49

I really resonate with that. I think we’re of a very similar age. I think I was also in eighth grade when the attacks happened. I think that really puts it in context. They were key moments. Guess I’ll just ask you both to expand on that. So when you have this wealth of information and all these exhibits, and all of this documentation, how do you then make decisions for how to organize it to tell and frame a story, especially when you’ve got the constraints of time?

Clifford Chanin 10:19

So it was shaped a little bit by the exhibition, although the film is very different than the exhibition. And I do want to say, again, just a brief plug, the exhibition itself, the museum is open, the 9/11 museum is open, we’ve just reopened the bin Laden special exhibition. So I hope people who are thinking of traveling to New York might consider coming to see it if they can. We’re offering online virtual tours of the museum and the exhibition as well. So 911 memorial.org, our website is the place to go looking for that. Sorry for diverging from your question. But the most powerful factor in shaping this, from the very beginning, we alluded to this before, but it’s very unusual, curatorially speaking, we never had a sense in advance of what objects and which people we would have available to us to tell the story. So we would make requests based on these relationships that just described earlier, of these intelligence agencies initially, just to say, look, were planning to do this exhibition, we’d like to be able to talk to you about what might be available for us. And those agencies are bound by the classification rules, obviously. And even though, you know, many of the key public figures who were involved in this had spoken about the raid and wrote wrote about the raid, technically it was still classified. So anything that they were going to make available to us had to go through an internal process within each of these agencies, and the agencies have different processes with different considerations. And on top of which we never knew how long it would take, or what the criteria for decision would be, as to whether or not we could get something. So that was, that was curious. But we did manage to get these meetings that particularly on the intelligence side, where we go in, and we’d say, Well, here’s the point in the story that we’re trying to make, we’re trying to tell, for example, that, you know, there was this massive effort to find as much intelligence as you could by partnering the intelligence agencies on the battlefield with the military, just do these raids and sweeps and process all this intelligence in real time. So you can really make it actionable as soon as possible. Okay. That’s a good point, right? What could demonstrate that. So we are museum curators who don’t know what the objects are, and the people were asking our intelligence professionals who don’t know what museum curators need. So, you know, we would really try to be very specific in their requests. And inevitably, what happened was, we’d be in these meetings, you know, in these secret bunkers. And you know, you have to be screened to get in with a pass and an escort and you’re never, you’re never alone. And we’d be sitting in these rooms. And we’d make a point, this is what this is the kind of thing we want. And you could see, they began looking at each other. And you could see the eyes communicating there, maybe a little smile here and there. But they wouldn’t say anything in front of us. Because what they were thinking of offering us was still classified. And so the question was, A, is this really the answer to the question of what they’re looking for? Well, we can’t ask them. And B, if it is the answer to the question of what they’re looking for, can we get it cleared and give it to them? So the process was very elaborate. Internally, the only thing I will add is, it’s very clear to me and we became, you know, friends with some of the folks in the agencies who became our internal advocates. So there were people who, for a variety of reasons thought, this story should be told the 9/11 Museum is the place to tell it, and I, Person X, who have access to the process, who understand what’s being asked for, who know the people who are involved in making these decisions, I am going to be the internal advocate for this project inside my agency. I don’t think this happens, really, if we don’t have a handful of those key people. I can’t thank them personally, well, I thank them personally, but I can’t thank them publicly, for exactly the same reasons that I’ve described in the beginning of this story. But that really is the key doing this, because they all are knit into this story together. They know one another, they trust one another. They work together. And they would vouch for us with some of the other folks who may have retired or whatever it was, Would you be willing to sit down for an interview with them? And that’s how the process really unfolded.

Jessica Chen 14:45

To pick up where Cliff leaves off. You know, now you have all these relationships, all of these advocates and what sometimes feels like a landslide of connections of details, of stories to tell. I think Cliff and I both have kind of threads in the story that we felt very personally convicted to bring to light. You know, there, there are some things that are explained that that I think I’d leave it to Cliff to kind of flesh out in more detail that have never been kind of discussed publicly before. But I think for me, you know, something that was incredibly important when evaluating how to take all of this material and put it in a film, which, although it’s, it’s a full-length film, felt a little short at the end, because we’re trying to stuff so much stuff into it. For me, it was really understanding how can we convey the humanity and the human cost at every step in the story. So the film opens, really, with an understanding of 9/11, and the human loss on 9/11. And then you go through a hunt that is marked by people who are incredibly human. I hope we’ve captured them, kind of their frustration, but also their commitment, and even their human sacrifice in terms of seeing this through policymakers, when they’re discussing the hunt, the odds that Cliff described earlier, really thinking about the people who are going to be doing this and what they’re putting, those people in that situation that they’re asking them to expose themselves to, and then the military members who take on kind of the risk and see the mission through. And so I think, because of all the interviews with so many generous, unseen individuals, we’re able to kind of get a sense of the people that the real people who kind of were involved in the story, and I hope we’ve done a good job and kind of lending some some of their personalities to tell the story.

Hope Hodge Seck 16:31

Man, I can’t wait to see it. What sorts of things are easier to understand and analyze and contextualize, with the benefit of 10 years of hindsight?

Clifford Chanin 16:44

Well, I do think there was an awareness in the community at large, that one of the failures of 9/11 was the lack of communication across agencies, and between the intelligence and the military world. And they tried to fix that right away. And because of, you know, tradition and culture, and just the different approaches, that wasn’t an easy fix. But once we were fighting in Afghanistan, and then in Iraq, it was something they realized, you just had to do it, because you were losing service members on the battlefield there. And there was always a sense that al-Qaida was still out there, bin Laden was still out there, and didn’t know what they were planning. But you knew they were planning something, and so you know, that prospect of another catastrophe, or simply not doing enough to protect American military personnel on the battlefield, that really broke down a lot of barriers. And it’s a remarkable story, because, you know, the techniques, the practices that were sort of implemented over years before the raid in Pakistan, were the very same techniques and practices that were applied to solve this problem of what’s going on in that compound. And so even though it was from the distance factor, and from the political factor of going into an allied sovereign nation without their permission, and conducting a military operation, in the heart of a populated area, the people who knew how to do this, were confident that they could do it, and they had done things like this enough and work together enough that, you know, it was more complicated, certainly, and more risky because of the factors involved. But you know, as one of the SEALs says in one of the interviews, that a raid is a raid is a raid. You know, we know how to do this. It’s really, you know, a remarkable piece. And the aviation piece of this is also something that — the whole mission was about four hours. Forty minutes of that mission, were on the ground, which means more than three hours, the operators were basically passengers on what one of the SEALs called a ginormous bus. And so the success of the mission is in the hands of the pilots, and how they conduct themselves and how they’re prepared for this and what they know about the conditions that they’re flying in all of this interaction. And all of the key actors had worked with one another on other missions before they knew one another, they trusted one another. And so again, that period, through war, of really developing expertise and trust, I think it was key to what would ultimately happen and what the U.S. military has learned about how to conduct these kinds of operations.

Hope Hodge Seck 19:41

To build on that, are there indicators that events would play out differently if they happen today? You talked about the need to communicate better. I know that’s not a problem that probably will ever be fully solved.

Clifford Chanin 19:57

You know, the thing that The experts always say is that the threat changes. And so 9/11 was a product of al-Qaida, which was at that point, a structured administrated centralized organization, with, for a terrorist group, you know, reasonably efficient command and control. The years since have seen that central structure come under enormous pressure and break in many ways. But the threat has splintered into other groups that may be connected with al-Qaida or not, may have been inspired by al-Qaida may have said al-Qaida didn’t go far enough, as the Islamic State did. Or that you might have these so called “lone actor” terrorists who radicalize online or through personal contacts with people and decide on their own as some ideologists of the Jihad have urged them, just to attack people where you can. I mean, we don’t want to have a centralized structure anymore, or we can’t sustain a centralized structure anymore. But it doesn’t change what the mission needs to be. That threat changes. Therefore, how we study it, how we understand it has to change, and how we respond to it has to change.

Hope Hodge Seck 21:09

One aspect of the way the story is told, and you’ve already referred to this, is there are these educational materials for high schoolers to discuss 911 and the hunt for bin Laden and Operation Neptune Spear. Today’s high schoolers obviously have no memory of 9/11, which is a little bit shocking for older Millennials like me to contemplate. And in fact, there are even soldiers and Marines and service members who have deployed to Afghanistan with no memory of 9/11, which is the nexus for the start of this war. Why was it so important to provide an entry point for high schoolers into this material?

Jessica Chen 21:51

For me, I think so much of and I’m also speaking from an older Millennial perspective, but our department or my department in the museum is focused on education. And I lean on my colleagues and their expertise to work specifically with students. But I think all of us on the education team feel really strongly that the world that we live in today is shaped so much by the events of 9/11 and the events that followed, I think it’s important to contextualize it because we understand that the leadership lessons, the incredible stories of courage and of commitment, that they have resonances with what is going on in the world today. And I think that trying to engage students, and trying to kind of connect them with the importance of understanding our shared history is just so, so important and so central, as they think about, you know, where they’re going to be in the next 10 years.

Clifford Chanin 22:43

You know, this is the 10th anniversary of the bin Laden raid, but it’s also the 20th anniversary, this September, of 9/11. Twenty years is the span of a generation. Think about it. I mean, nobody who’s in high school was even born when 9/11 happened. And if you’re in college, you may have been born, but you were a year or two old and you’re not going to remember it. And so it’s a funny thing that happens with history and a museum like ours. When we started this project, and I go way back to, I wasn’t in junior high school when this happened. So the thought was, well, everybody knows this story. So you know, what’s going to make our presentation of the story compelling? Well, 20 years pass, and that assumption is completely out the window. Not everybody knows this story. In fact, every day, more people don’t know this story. And so the challenge for the museum of telling this story, and as Jess says, explaining just how significant this moment in history was, and continues to be. Now that becomes, I think, frankly, more than we imagined it 15 years ago, that becomes central to the mission of our current-day museum and will only grow in importance every day. I mean, think about, it’s not just the attack and the vulnerability. It’s the response of this country. I mean, I don’t know if you guys remember. But, you know, this country came together across all divides, across all barriers, I mean, all the things we’re struggling with as a society today, were wiped away by the common solidarity and feeling that service was spontaneously the outcome of Americans reactions to 9/11. Not just Americans, people around the world. If we’re thinking about where we are today, look back and ask the question, what was it that gave us this kind of resilience and solidarity 20 years ago? What’s missing? What can we do about it now? Because it’s better to be like that than it is to be at each other’s throats. And so, you know, that’s how the mission of the museum evolves. It’s always rooted in 9/11 and telling that story, but there’s no fixed point where you can say Hey, okay, this is over, let’s turn the page. It just doesn’t happen like that.

Hope Hodge Seck 25:04

I have one final question that I hope that both of you will answer in your own way. What larger story do you think all the events that you cover in this documentary, and the accompanying presentation, tell us about America?

Jessica Chen 25:19

I think, you know, going back to personal experience again, and also I was on the West Coast when 9/11 happened, and now have spent most of my adult life on the East Coast. So I consider myself a New Yorker. But I think the breadth of characters of people who undertake this work is pretty remarkable, you know, something that I can say without necessarily speaking to specific identities, but the the number of women who are involved in this work and who take on, you know, risk and responsibility. I’m hopeful that, that when people watch this film, that they’re going to see something in it that reminds them of themselves and where they they are in life and how they can contribute to society, but can also just recognize the importance of working together. And this is just to kind of pick up on what Cliff was just saying, that almost everybody who we interviewed for this film, mentioned, at some point in their interview, just looking back and thinking how remarkable it is when everybody learns how to place trust in one another when everyone works together, when everyone is committed to a common purpose. And I think that obviously can be applied into situations that are not exactly like this, but even the environments that all of us work in and live in. That’s kind of that that’s where I where I land on the film.

Clifford Chanin 26:34

Yeah, I agree. You know, as we’ve gotten to know some of the folks involved, it’s very obvious that they disagree about things, they don’t all see the world the same way. And yet, when they were required to do something for the common good, the only factor was how to succeed in doing that task. Everything else was secondary. And it’s been my good fortune to see some of those relationships in action, to see how they relate to one another, in spite of whatever other differences that are much, much smaller in importance than the things they have in common. But in spite of their differences, there is a sense of mutual recognition in the idea that they went through this together, they took the risks together, they understood that the most important thing in these circumstances is to be able to count on the other person you’re working with, regardless of anything else. And every one of them came through for everybody else when they needed to. That’s just a remarkable story. And it is really what it is to offer the best of your service on behalf of your country. And really on behalf of the common humanity that you know, you share with everyone else who’s involved in this. And of course, for the families of the 9/11 victims, for the victims themselves who were killed. I mean, that focal point of the mission, never faltered through the hunt, when they weren’t finding anybody when they didn’t know where to look. All of that drove them onward to this, you know, remarkable, remarkable success story.

Hope Hodge Seck 28:21

Well, thank you both so much for being here today. This documentary, as you said, comes out May 2, what are the different ways that people can watch?

Clifford Chanin 28:29

Well, the History Channel is going to be premiering it through their your cable provider. As of May 3, it’s available through histories, website and digital platforms. And you have to sign on with your cable login information. And it’s also available for sale through various streaming partners that provide History Channel broadcasts

Hope Hodge Seck 28:54

Fantastic. Thank you so much for your time.

Clifford Chanin 28:57

Thanks, Hope.

Jessica Chen 28:58

Thank you.

Hope Hodge Seck 29:08

Thanks for joining us for this special episode of Left of Boom. I’d love to hear your thoughts on “The Hunt for Bin Laden.” Send me an email at podcast@military.com and let me know what you think of the documentary and presentation. You can also pitch me ideas for future shows while you’re at it. If you’re not subscribed to the podcast, please go ahead and do it now so you don’t miss a future episode. And leave us a rating and review to so other people can find us. And remember that you can get all the news and information you need about your military community every day at Military.com.

This article originally appeared on Military.com. Follow @militarydotcom on Twitter.

Do Not Sell My Personal Information