Biden’s new account of bin Laden raid puts him in the right — and Hillary on the fence

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Olivier Knox
·Chief Washington Correspondent
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Vice President Joe Biden participates in a tribute to former Vice President Walter Mondale on Oct. 20 at George Washington University. (Photo: Molly Riley/AP)

Vice President Joe Biden said Tuesday for the first time that he had privately urged President Obama to order the raid that killed Osama bin Laden — a new account contradicting his prior public claim to have opposed the audacious May 2011 operation.

Biden, speaking at a George Washington University forum on the vice presidency, also seemed to undercut Hillary Clinton’s contention in her memoirs that she had unequivocally backed the raid.

The vice president’s remarks came amid fevered speculation that he could soon announce whether he will jump into the 2016 White House race. Having opposed the bin Laden raid could be a political liability if he seeks the top job.

On Tuesday, Biden described a tense White House meeting in which Obama asked his top advisers for their opinions on whether or not to order the operation, weighing uncertain intelligence and the risks associated with entering Pakistani airspace uninvited.

“Everybody went around the room, and there were only two people who were definitive,” Biden said. Leon Panetta, the CIA director at the time, “said, ‘Go,’” while then-Defense Secretary Bob Gates “said, ‘Don’t go.’” Clinton, in this account, would have been among those on the fence.

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In this May 2011 image released and digitally altered by the White House to diffuse the paper in front of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, President Obama, Vice President Biden and members of the national security team receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the White House’s Situation Room. (Photo: The White House/Pete Souza)

Biden said he raised a third option. “I said, ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I think we should make one more pass’” with an unmanned aerial vehicle to be sure the al-Qaida leader was at the target site. But that wasn’t his real preference, he told the forum. Moments after the meeting wrapped up, and he and Obama were alone, “I told him my opinion, that I thought he should go, but to follow his own instincts,” the vice president said. “I never, on a difficult issue, never say what I think finally until I go up in the Oval with him alone.”

That’s not how Biden had previously recalled the advice he gave. In January 2012, at a Democratic retreat, he explicitly described how he opposed the raid in that same meeting.

“Every single person in that room hedged their bet except Leon Panetta. Leon said, ‘Go,’” Biden said.

“[Obama] got to me. He said, ‘Joe, what do you think?’ And I said, ‘You know, I didn’t know we had so many economists around the table.’ I said, ‘We owe the man a direct answer. Mr. President, my suggestion is, don’t go. We have to do two more things to see if he’s there,’” Biden said at the time.

The vice president’s new account seems to put him at odds with Clinton’s version of the internal debate over the raid. In her 2014 memoir, “Hard Choices,” she wrote that Biden and Gates opposed the operation but she supported it.

“I respected Bob’s and Joe’s concerns about the risk of a raid,” she wrote, “but I came to the conclusion that the intelligence was convincing and that the risks were outweighed by the benefits of success.”

Clinton has also reportedly knocked Biden in private for opposing the raid.

Shortly after Biden’s remarks at the 2012 Democratic retreat, White House spokesman Jay Carney — who had previously served in that capacity for the vice president — said Biden was “speaking accurately” when he described himself as opposing the operation.

In a May 2012 appearance on “Meet the Press,” Biden described his private conversation with Obama differently.

“I said, ‘Follow your instincts, Mr. President. Your instincts have been close to unerring. Follow your instincts.’ I wanted him to take one more day to do one more test to see if he was there,” Biden said in that interview.

And no less an authority than Obama himself has cast Biden as more of a critic of the raid than a supporter. In his third debate with Mitt Romney, the president noted his rival’s public opposition to a unilateral raid to get bin Laden without Pakistan’s acquiescence.

“Even some in my own party, including my current vice president, had the same critique as you did,” Obama said.