By MARK MAZZETTI/The New York Times
Praising them for what he called “one of the greatest intelligence successes in American history,” President Obama told a jubilant crowd at the Central Intelligence Agency on Friday that the tracking and killing of Osama bin Laden was a crucial milestone in the larger American war to “defeat al Qaeda.”
The president addressed nearly 1,000 clandestine operatives, intelligence analysts and senior administration officials packed into the marble lobby at C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va., thanking them for persevering for years in the frustrating hunt for the world’s most wanted terrorist.
“I have never been more proud or more confident in you than I am today,” Mr. Obama said.
The mood at the event appeared equal parts joy and relief, as the C.I.A. was in charge of capturing or killing Bin Laden but often found itself chasing shadows, with sometimes deadly consequences.
Mr. Obama spoke in front of a wall with a carved bank of stars representing spy agency officers killed while carrying out secret missions overseas. Seven of the stars memorialize the operatives killed at a remote base in Afghanistan in December 2009 when a double agent, a Jordanian doctor who the C.I.A. had hoped might lead it to Bin Laden’s top deputy, detonated an explosive vest.
It was last August when the C.I.A. located the house Bin Laden had hidden in for years. C.I.A. agents had tracked the terror chief’s trusted courier to Abbottabad, a middle-class hamlet in Pakistan, and in the ensuing months American intelligence agencies watched the compound with high-tech satellites, drone aircraft and human spotters hiding near the sprawling compound.
Even after months of surveillance, American intelligence officials were still not certain that Bin Laden was hiding there when Mr. Obama ordered a group of Navy Seals to fly into Pakistan from a base in Afghanistan and storm the compound.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Obama traveled to Fort Campbell, Ky., to meet with the Seal members who carried out the raid.
On Friday, the president paid special attention to the “heavy burden” of secret intelligence work and the spies who are the first to be blamed for failure, he said, and the “last to get credit” for success.
And Mr. Obama said that the operation to track and kill Bin Laden over the last year was successful for something else, something rare in Washington.
“We kept it a secret,” he said.
The crowd erupted.