Vice President Biden seemed to change his account on Tuesday of the role he played in the White House debate surrounding the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. This time he recalled telling President Obama that he strongly supported sending in a team of Navy SEALs into Pakistan to kill or capture the al-Qaeda leader.
“As we walked out of the room, walked upstairs, I told him my opinion: I thought he should go, but follow his own instincts,” Biden said Tuesday at a George Washington University forum.
With Biden mulling a run for the presidency, his latest account seems designed to buttress his qualifications to serve as commander-in-chief. But the vice president, who has a reputation as a voice of caution when it comes to committing American forces, seems to have contradicted his earlier memories of the final meeting before the bin Laden raid.
Biden’s revised account puts him in the same camp as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama’s former secretary of state and Biden’s chief rival if he runs, who has long said that she supported sending in special operations forces to raid bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in Pakistan.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest declined to answer questions about whether Biden had changed his story. “I’m going to leave the dissection and the oral history, if you will, of those days to those who were actually there,” Earnest said.
Former White House chief of staff Bill Daley backed up a key element of Biden’s account. “I think the way he articulated it was absolutely the truth. I was in the room and I saw him walk out with the president,” said Daley, who wasn’t part of their private, post-meeting conversation.
In 2012 remarks at a Democratic congressional retreat, Biden suggested that he had been against launching the raid until there was better intelligence about bin Laden’s whereabouts. “Every single person in that room hedged their bet except Leon Panetta,” Biden said, according to 2012 ABC News report. “He got to me. He said, ‘Joe, what do you think?’ And I said, ‘You know, I didn’t know we had so many economists around the table.’ I said, ‘We owe the man a direct answer. Mr. President, my suggestion is, don’t go. We have to do two more things to see if he’s there.'”
Biden gave a slightly fuzzier accounting to NBC News’s “Meet the Press” a few months later. The vice president recalled Obama taking a “roll call” of his top national security advisers: “The only guy who had a full-throated ‘ go, Mr. President,’ was Leon Panetta,” Biden told NBC. He said he held back his advice until he and the president were alone and then counseled: “Follow your instincts, Mr. President. Your instincts have been close to unerring; follow your instincts.”
Biden’s memory is directly at odds with at least one other account of the lead up to the historic raid. Then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates recalled the same meeting in his book, “Duty,” and described Biden as being staunchly opposed to launching the commandos. “Biden was against the operation,” Gates writes. “[Gen. James] Cartwright and I supported the drone option. Panetta was in favor of the raid. Everyone else acknowledged it was a close call but also supported the raid.”
A few pages prior, Gates said that he and Biden were the “two primary skeptics” of the raid.
In the past Obama has suggested that Biden opposed the raid. During his third presidential debate, Obama referred to Romney’s previously voiced skepticism about the raid. “Those decisions generally—generally are not poll-tested,” Obama said. “And even some in my own party, including my current vice president, had the same critique as you did.”