Trump said recently that he did not notify Congress that the raid on ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was ongoing because Trump feared a leak from Congress. So he only notified Congress after the US troops had egressed from that mission.

Is this unusual though? Did Obama notify Congress that the bin Laden raid was ongoing?

  • Can you identify the committee chairs under Obama at the time?
    – user9790
    Oct 27, 2019 at 18:14
  • 4
    The very unusual bit was telling the Russians first.
    – Schwern
    Oct 29, 2019 at 3:04
  • 1
    @Schwern it was in Russian airspace. According to the military, they only informed Russia and Turkey that they'd be in that airspace (so don't shoot us), nothing about the objective or target.
    – gormadoc
    Nov 1, 2019 at 15:49

3 Answers 3


Well, Congress was notified of the impending raid, but by the CIA, and apparently without White House permission. The DOJ for example (including the AG) was not notified until after the fact. Four CIA and Pentagon lawyers were basically the legal team consulted beforehand, and they advised not notifying Congress of the pending/ongoing operation. But it turned out, Congress had been notified without White House permission by the CIA.

Mr. Preston wrote a memo addressing when the administration had to alert congressional leaders under a statute governing covert actions. Given the circumstances, the lawyers decided that the administration would be legally justified in delaying notification until after the raid. But then they learned that the C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta, had already briefed several top lawmakers about Abbottabad without White House permission.

(From NYT.)

However it's not clear just from that what level of notification was provided. I.e. it's not clear if the actual timing was revealed when the raid was to start or had started.

Feinstein who was then on the Senate Intelligence committee confirmed this in general terms, but again details of what she knew and when are lacking:

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee:”Bin Laden is responsible for the attacks of 9/11 and has been the head of al-Qa’ida and inspirational leader of extremism for more than a decade. His death presents an opportunity for a new and better day if the will is there. I truly hope this will be a turning point in our efforts to defeat global terrorism. ... I was notified on Sunday of the strike and have been briefed in the past about intelligence on bin Laden’s whereabouts. It has been a very impressive CIA operation and they deserve praise.”

"Sunday" was May 1, 2011, but with the time difference between US and Pakistan it's hard to tell when she was told what just from that.

CNN summarizes the events in an article today as

Before the Osama bin Laden raid, key members of Congress knew about surveillance of the al Qaeda leader and knew something might be coming, but did not know specific details as the raid was happening.

CNN links to a rather lengthy CRS document in support of that. I haven't gone through all of it, but obvious bit regarding notification(s) is this

The chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence committees have stated that they were briefed on OBL’s whereabouts during the past few months including, according to Representative Mike Rogers, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, some details regarding the Abbottabad compound. The Senate Majority Leader, Senator Harry Reid, has also indicated that he had been briefed on the plans to confirm OBL’s location and take action. Chariman Rogers indicated that the entire “Gang of Eight” had been briefed on the plans although not all were briefed at the same time. The Gang of Eight refers to the eight Members of Congress (the Speaker, House Minority Leader, the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders, and the chairmen and ranking members of the two intelligence committees) who, by statute, must be advised of Presidential Findings of covert actions (along with other members of the congressional leadership as may be included by the President). A finding is an official determination by the President that a specific covert action is in the national interest. A covert action is an activity to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad where the role of the U.S. will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly. In a PBS News Hour interview on May 3, CIA Director Leon Panetta stated, “this was what’s called a ‘Title 50’ operation, which is a covert operation, and it comes directly from the President of the United States who made the decision to conduct this operation in a covert way.” He added that, consistent with Title 50, he commanded the mission but it was carried out by Vice Admiral William McRaven, the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command. For additional background on covert action notification issues, see CRS Report R40691, Sensitive Covert Action Notifications: Oversight Options for Congress.

So there is some legal justification/requirement for what Panetta did in terms of notifications.

The same document raises these questions (but as far as I can tell doesn't answer them):

  • In retrospect, was congressional notification overly restrictive? When was the written Presidential Finding (required by 50 USC 413b(a)(1)) reported to the several members of the Gang of Eight? Has the written Finding now been shared with all members of the two intelligence committees?

  • Did the operation necessarily constitute a cover[t] action? Could it have been considered a traditional military activity? Was the role of the CIA Director essential to carrying out the operation? Could it have been carried out by the Secretary of Defense? Other than the role of Director Panetta what was the contribution of CIA officials to carrying out the raid?

  • Should there be statutory provisions requiring that the Armed Services committees (or their respective leaderships) be advised of activities such as the Abbottabad raid?

I'm guessing those questions have remained somewhat unresolved. Almost certainly there has been no substantive change on the last one.

  • I'm not sure that Panetta jumping the gun because he assumed it was the normal process is the same as saying that the White House did not intend to inform Congress. The lawyers had put together a memo stating that it could be justified. They were not asked to come up with legal justification for not informing Congress. Your answer makes it seem like the Obama administration had made the decision to withhold from Congress, but then someone screwed up. Oct 28, 2019 at 23:40
  • You might want to read that CRS document, it cites the federal statutes that mandate Congressional notification, and that it needs to be done before the covert action is carried out, to the degree possible. Oct 28, 2019 at 23:55
  • @PoloHoleSet: added the most obvious stuff from the CRS doc.
    – Fizz
    Oct 29, 2019 at 0:05
  • Very nice. That first paragraph still needs some cleaning up, IMO. As I mentioned, the team of lawyers did not make a recommendation that Congress not be notified. They wrote a memo stating that it could, potentially, be legally justified. Their work seemed to be to lay out what the viable legal options were, and which options were not legally justifiable, not to make recommendations. Also, not sure about how not informing DOJ, a department in the Executive Branch of the administration relates to Congressional notification or lack thereof. Oct 29, 2019 at 0:10
  • 2
    @PoloHoleSet: Are we reading the same NYT quote? It seems clear to me the four lawyers advised delaying as long as possible. "Given the circumstances, the lawyers decided that the administration would be legally justified in delaying notification until after the raid."
    – Fizz
    Oct 29, 2019 at 0:12

According to the Washington Post:

Obama called Bush and former president Bill Clinton, as well as senior congressional leaders, before announcing bin Laden’s death to the nation.

This would suggest that Congress was not informed in advance of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

  • 10
    Not necessarily. They could have told Congress “we’re starting a raid on where we think Bin Laden is” and then called later to say “yeah, he was there and we got him”
    – divibisan
    Oct 27, 2019 at 18:11
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    Bush was called after the raid, but apparently before the announcement. See e.g. abcnews.go.com/Politics/…
    – Sjoerd
    Oct 27, 2019 at 20:36
  • No, it wouldn't. Especially since the top two ranking members of the House and Senate from each party, as well as the top two ranking members on the Intelligence Committees in the House and Senate were informed ahead of time. Oct 28, 2019 at 23:41

Under the War Powers Resolution, the President may only commit military resources to an armed conflict without approval of Congress if such an action " in case of a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces."

The Act requires that for all armed conflicts not authorized by Congress, the President must notify Congress within 48 hours of the start of the armed conflict and must withdraw from the conflict after 60 days unless Congress issues a delectation of war or a statutory action. In both cases, the President notified Congress within the 48 hour window (both informed the public in general within the same day, and presumably after the raid's conclusion. The CIA pre-raid call does not fulfill this requirement as the President is the Commander and Chief and thus the responsive member of the chain of command per this Law.

The law places no limit to warn Congress prior to engaging in armed conflict and Trump did inform both majority and minority leaders when prior to the attack when he fired missiles at a Syrian Air Base responsible for a chemical attack.

  • How does this relate to the question on the bin Laden raid? I can see the relevance of the law but you don't seem to mention if / how the raid in question complied with that law.
    – JJJ
    Nov 1, 2019 at 20:12

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