New York — President Barack Obama joined survivors of the September 11 attacks at a Manhattan firehouse and at the former site of the World Trade Center on Thursday, days after American commandos killed the man behind that massacre.
Obama had lunch at the home of Engine Company 54, which lost 15 members in the collapse of the World Trade Center’s twin towers, and attended a wreath-laying ceremony at the site where the buildings stood until September 11, 2001.
The visit comes four days after the pre-dawn raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, whose followers turned hijacked jetliners filled with fuel and passengers into missiles aimed at New York and Washington. Nearly 3,000 people, including 343 New York firefighters, were killed in the attacks.
The U.S. Navy SEAL team that killed bin Laden in Pakistan “were doing it in the name of your brothers that were lost,” Obama told the firefighters.
“It’s some comfort, I hope, to all of you to know that when those guys took those extraordinary risks going into Pakistan, that they were doing it in part because of the sacrifices that were made in the States,” he said on his way into the firehouse.
Obama’s meetings with firefighters were private exchanges, during which the president sought to mark the end of the nearly decade-long manhunt. His visit to New York also included a moment of silence and a wreath-laying ceremony at ground zero, the former World Trade Center site, now being rebuilt.
“Coming by was really a spectacular thing, you know,” firefighter Joe Ceravolo told reporters after Obama’s visit. “We just wanted to tell him we thank him for what he did on Sunday, and all the troops and all. We want to let them know that we’re with them every step of the way, and God bless them. I mean, if it wasn’t for them, you know, we’d still be chasing this guy.”
Bin Laden was killed early Monday (Sunday afternoon ET) by gunshots to his chest and forehead, according to a U.S. official who has seen military reports about the raid. But the al Qaeda leader’s death leaves about 130,000 U.S. and allied troops in battle with his followers and his Taliban allies in Afghanistan, which hosted the terrorist movement before the 9/11 attacks.
Pakistan’s armed forces acknowledged intelligence “shortcomings” regarding bin Laden on Thursday, but warned that the U.S. raid that killed him has jeopardized its cooperation with American forces.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told CNN that “valuable information has been gleaned already” from the cache of electronic equipment and disks seized from bin Laden’s Pakistani compound during Monday’s raid. The official would not disclose any specifics or say whether the information regarded people or plots, but said government agencies are sifting through the material “aggressively.”
The cache included audio and video equipment, and the fact that bin Laden is believed to have been at the compound for years has led to the working assumption that makeshift production of al Qaeda tapes took place there, according to the official.
The haul included 10 hard drives, five computers and more than 100 storage devices, such as disks and thumb drives, a senior U.S. official told CNN. The commandos also recovered five cell phones, audio and video equipment, paper documents and five guns, including AK-47s and pistols, a U.S. official said.
In Rome, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said bin Laden’s killing “sent an unmistakable message about the strength of the resolve of the international community to stand against extremism and those who perpetuate it.” But, she added, “the battle to stop al Qaeda and its affiliates does not end with one death.”
“We have to renew our resolve and redouble our efforts not only in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, but around the world,” Clinton said. “Because it is especially important that there be no doubt that those who pursue a terrorist agenda — the criminals who indiscriminately murder innocent people — will be brought to justice.”
Clinton was among the top U.S. officials who monitored the progress of the assault on bin Laden’s compound from the White House Situation Room — “38 of the most tense minutes I have ever known,” she said.
The raid has turned an uncomfortable spotlight on Pakistan, where a walled compound with a three-story home had been built to house bin Laden in Abbottabad, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Islamabad and a short distance from a leading Pakistani military academy. U.S. officials have said Washington did not give Pakistan any notice of the planned assault, because they feared the word would leak.
Pakistan backed the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban’s rule over most of Afghanistan before 9/11. U.S. officials have warned that some elements of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency remain supportive of extremists, even as the country battles its own Taliban insurgency.
At the headquarters of Pakistan’s military on Thursday, armed forces chiefs issued a statement admitting that there had been “shortcomings in developing intelligence on the presence of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.” The statement said an investigation will be launched “into the circumstances that led to this situation,” but the service chiefs defended the ISI’s efforts in attacking al Qaeda leaders.
In addition, the army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, “made it very clear that any similar action, violating the sovereignty of Pakistan, will warrant a review on the level of military/intelligence cooperation with the United States,” the statement said. Pakistan has ordered U.S. military personnel on its territory drawn down to the “minimum essential” level in the wake of the assault that killed bin Laden, the statement said.
And Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir told reporters Thursday that any suggestion that the intelligence service or the government were covering for bin Laden “is absolutely wrong.” In fact, he said, the ISI alerted U.S. intelligence agencies to the presence of al Qaeda operatives in Abbottabad as early as 2004.
“I want you to know much of the media critique on the ISI is not only unwarranted, it cannot be validated by one solid argument,” Bashir said.
Clinton said the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is “not always an easy” one, but “it is a productive one for both of our countries.”
“We are going to continue to cooperate between our governments, our militaries, our law enforcement agencies — but most importantly between the American and Pakistani people, where we have made a commitment to helping them meet their needs and trying to establish a firmer foundation for their democracy,” she said.
But CIA Director Leon Panetta told U.S. lawmakers in a closed-door session Tuesday that Pakistani officials were either “involved or incompetent” in bin Laden’s case, and “neither is a good place to be.” And Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, warned that Pakistan has “fundamental problems” and the nuclear-armed South Asian nation “is doing a lot wrong.”
“There are people in Pakistan allied with us, and there are people in Pakistan allied with the terrorists,” Schumer said. “Our job is to strengthen the hand of those allied with us.”
New details of the raid continued to emerge Thursday. A senior U.S. official said when the Americans entered bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, they encountered initial heavy fire from one person on a lower floor, but the fighting tapered off as the SEALs killed the first four people they encountered.
In the initial hours after the president’s announcement of bin Laden’s death, U.S. officials described the fighting as intense and sustained — but the senior official said now that more reports have come back from the field, they have a better idea of what actually happened.
Officials have said bin Laden was killed at the end of the nearly 40-minute raid. And it appeared he had contingency plans while he stayed at the fenced compound.
He had 500 euros (about $745) in cash and two telephone numbers sewn into his clothing when he was killed, a congressional source present at a classified briefing on the operation told CNN Wednesday.
Bin Laden was shot twice — once in the chest and once in the forehead, just over the left eye. The head shot left his skull partially blown away, according to two sources who have seen a photograph of bin Laden’s body.
Because bin Laden was buried at sea, the Obama administration has been under pressure to release a photo as proof of death. But the president has decided not to make public photographs of his remains, telling CBS News, “We don’t need to spike the football.”
“That’s not who we are. We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies,” he said.
Obama noted that few credible people have questioned the death and that conspiracy theorists would not be satisfied with a photo, a senior Democratic official said. That position was supported by Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the official added.