The Obama administration has given CNN’s Peter Bergen unprecedented access to the White House for a special commemorating the fifth anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. Bergen wasn’t a random choice; he’s one of the only Western journalists to have met the al Qaeda leader when he was alive.
“We did not seek this out. [The White House] sought us out. They wanted to give the interview to me,” Bergen told TheWrap.
Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst who interviewed bin Laden back in 1997, one of only two interviews the terrorist mastermind ever granted to Western TV news organizations. “We Got Him,” the special that Obama hand-picked Bergen to host, airs tonight at 8 p.m. ET/ 5 PT.
When Bergen met the al Qaeda leader nearly 20 years ago, he didn’t know what to expect.
“I wasn’t very clear what he was going to look like. He was very tall. He spoke relatively quietly. I thought he might be a table-thumping revolutionary, but he carried himself like a cleric,” Bergen said. “He seemed very well informed and intelligent. The people around him hung on his every word.”
Bergen was blindfolded and brought to Afghanistan via Pakistan, driving through remote mountains and stripped of all equipment. Al Qaeda actually provided the camera that was used to film the interview and Bergen’s crew wasn’t allowed to bring anything along except the clothes they showed up wearing.
“He declared war on the United States during this interview, the first time he had done so to a Western audience,” Bergen said before explaining that he never thought the terrorist would be capable of a 9/11-type attack.
“It’s one thing to understand that they had a desire to attack the United States, but another thing to imagine what happened on 9/11,” Bergen said.
While meeting with bin Laden is obviously extremely rare, Bergen’s interview with President Obama was fairly unique itself. Bergen visited the White House last Thursday to tape tonight’s special.
“We sat down with President Obama in the situation room, which is highly unusual, to do an interview there,” he explained.
President Obama walked Bergen through the process by which he decided to authorize the raid, which ultimately led to bin Laden’s death. The president explained that multiple risks were involved, from SEALs getting captured to bin Laden not even being at the compound.
“It was obviously a risky decision that worked out well,” Bergen said.
After Obama chatted with Bergen in the main Situation Room, the two moved to its smaller version, where the infamous photo was taken of the president and his cabinet as they watched the raid unfold. Apparently, technical difficulties forced them to switch rooms on the night of the raid and Obama mimicked the situation, moving Bergen’s interview to the backup Situation Room.
“It’s a room that’s not larger than two or three closets,” Bergen said. “They crammed in there because in the main situation room they couldn’t see [live footage] of the raid. They were able to get a video feed in the smaller room.”
When they heard word bin Laden was killed in action, President Obama simply said, “We got him.”
Despite having met bin Laden in person, Bergen treated the raid as a typical news event.
“It’s not like I had a warm and fuzzy relationship with him,” he says.
Bergen probably feels a little warmer and fuzzier when it comes to Obama, calling the opportunity to produce this special “gratifying” and “amazing.”