John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, told reporters Monday the president and other advisers gathered Sunday afternoon before the operation got started in Pakistan "and we were able to monitor in a real-time basis the progress of the operation from its commencement to its time on target to the extraction of the remains and to then the egress off of the target."
"It was probably one of the most anxiety-filled periods of time, I think, in the lives of the people who were assembled here yesterday," Brennan said. "The minutes passed like days. And the president was very concerned about the security of our personnel. That was what was on his mind throughout. And we wanted to make sure that we were able to get through this and accomplish the mission."
Brennan described a tense situation marked by periods of silence with "a lot of people holding their breath." There was, he said, "a tremendous sigh of relief that what we believed and who we believed was in that compound actually was in that compound and was found."
Asked if the president was able to see what was happening at the compound where the al-Qaida leader was killed by Navy SEALs, Brennan declined to provide details.
"We were able to monitor the situation in real time and were able to have regular updates and to ensure that we had real-time visibility into the progress of the operation," he said. "I'm not going to go into details about what type of visuals we had or what type of feeds that were there, but it was -- it gave us the ability to actually track it on an ongoing basis."
He gave a similar answer when asked if those in the room could hear shots being fired.
But Brennan did give an indication some sort of visual contact was maintained when he talked about one U.S. helicopter that was damaged and had to be destroyed.
"They were able to conduct the operation as they were preparing to do," he said. "But seeing that helicopter in a place and in a condition that it wasn't supposed to be, I think that was one -- at least for me, and I know for the other people in the room -- was the concern we had that now we're having to go to the contingency plan. And thankfully, they were as able to carry out that contingency plan as they were the initial plan."
When it became absolutely clear the mission was a success and the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States was dead, what did the president say, Brennan was asked.
At the White House Monday night, Obama spoke as members of Congress -- including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. -- gathered for a bipartisan congressional dinner. Noting that the dinner had been scheduled for weeks "because I thought it would be a good opportunity for leaders of both parties and their spouses to spend some time together outside of politics."
"And tonight seems like an especially fitting occasion to do this," he said.
After observing that Republicans and Democrats have their disagreements, Obama was interrupted by sustained applause when he spoke of the capture and death of bin Laden. Referring to public celebration of the news late Sunday, he said "I think we experienced the same sense of unity that prevailed" following the 9/11 attacks.
"We were reminded again that there is a pride in what this nation stands for, and what we can achieve, that runs far deeper than party, far deeper than politics," he said.
"I want to again recognize the heroes who carried out this incredibly dangerous mission, as well as all the military and counter-terrorism professionals who made the mission possible. I also want to thank the members of Congress from both parties who have given extraordinary support to our military and our intelligence officials."
Obama said the death of bin Laden was once of "several moments … this year that have brought us together as an American family, whether it was the tragedy in Tucson or, most recently, our unified response to the terrible storms that have taken place in the South."
Earlier Monday, the White House released a list of world leaders Obama has spoke with by telephone who have "expressed their congratulations" on the operation that resulted in bin Laden's death. The list includes the leaders of Mexico, Great Britain, Germany, France and Israel.