WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama insisted that the assault force hunting down Osama bin Laden last week be large enough to fight its way out of Pakistan if confronted by hostile local police officers and troops, senior administration and military officials said Monday.
In revealing additional details about planning for the mission, senior officials also said that two teams of specialists were on standby: one to bury bin Laden if he was killed, and a second composed of lawyers, interrogators, and translators in case he was captured alive. That team was set to meet aboard a Navy ship, mostly likely the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson in the North Arabian Sea.
Obama’s decision to increase the size of the force sent into Pakistan shows that he was willing to risk a military confrontation with a close ally in order to capture or kill the leader of al-Qaida.
Such a fight would have set off an even larger breach with the Pakistanis than has taken place since officials in Islamabad learned that helicopters filled with members of a Navy Seals team had flown undetected into one of their cities, and burst into a compound where bin Laden was hiding.
One senior Obama administration official, pressed on the rules of engagement for one of the riskiest clandestine operations attempted by the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command in many years, said: “Their instructions were to avoid any confrontation if at all possible. But if they had to return fire to get out, they were authorized to do it.”