WASHINGTON, May 3 (UPI) -- President Obama said the U.S. commando raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed was the singularly most important day of his presidency.
Obama, during an interview Wednesday with NBC, said the decision to carry out the raid on the al-Qaida founder's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was one he had to make alone.
"I did choose the risk," Obama said. "The reason I was willing to make that decision of sending in our SEALs to try to capture or kill bin Laden rather than to take some other options was ultimately because I had 100 percent faith in the Navy SEALs themselves."
Obama said Operation Neptune's Spear was a closely held plan that only a "a handful of staff in the White House" knew about. He said he didn't share news of the mission's launch with his staff or even his wife.
"Even a breath of this in the press could have chased bin Laden away," Obama said. "We didn't know at that point whether there might be underground tunnels coming out of that compound that would allow him to escape."
The CIA identified someone living in a home in Abbottabad, which Obama said was "a 50/50 proposition as to whether this was actually bin Laden."
A dress rehearsal of the raid developed by Adm. William McRaven (then commander of Joint Special Operations) was conducted April 21, 2011, in the Nevada dessert, said retired Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"When I actually went to the rehearsal and watched it at night at a place where they built a compound just like Abbottabad and watched it in execution, that just gave me great confidence that they could execute this," Mullen told NBC.
Obama said the Situation Room held its collective breath when one of the helicopters crashed in route to the compound, but McRaven "did not miss a beat" in his play-by-play from Afghanistan.
Once the commandos breached the compound, Obama said the next 40 minutes were "the longest 40 minutes of my life."
While the team had a plan for taking bin Laden alive, Obama said the national security team didn't think the al-Qaida leader was "going to be giving himself up in that way … and that there was a strong possibility that he would end up being killed if in fact he was in the compound."
As the SEALs moved about, the national security team in Washington listened for "Geronimo," the code name for bin Laden.
Equally tense was getting the SEALs and bin Laden's body to safety.
Obama told NBC he called former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush once the raid was over.
"I think it was an important symbol of who we are as a people," he said. "We get into these partisan fights, administrations come and go, but there's a certain continuity about who we are and what we care about and what our values are."
When the SEAL team was safely in Afghanistan, photos were transmitted to the president and his team as photographic proof bin Laden was dead.
"I think it's wrong to say that I did a high five," he said, "because you have a picture of a dead body and, you know, there's I think regardless of who it is, you always have to be sober about death. But understanding the satisfaction for the American people, what it would mean for 9/11 families, what it would mean for the children of folks who died in the [World Trade Center] Twin Towers who never got to know their parents, I think there was a deep-seated satisfaction for the country at that moment."
Obama and the others in the Situation Room weren't prepared for the reaction to bin Laden's death, several people told NBC.
"The thing that surprised me that night and I don't think we had planned for was the public reaction," national security adviser Tom Donilon said. "We walked out and we could hear the noise and I remember very clearly turning to whoever was walking next to me saying, 'What is that?'"
Secretary of State Clinton described it as an "astonishing moment."
"We could hear this roar. We had no idea what it was," she said. "Then all of a sudden we were able to decipher, 'USA, USA.'"
The full impact of the mission didn't settle in until a few days later when he met the SEALs who had carried out the operation, Obama said.
"They presented me with the flag that had gone on that mission, signed by all of them on the back and I think it's fair to say that will probably be the most important possession that I leave with from this presidency," he said.