In this episode of “Intelligence Matters,” host Michael Morell interviews Cliff Chanin, executive vice president and deputy director for museum programs at the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City about the exhibition, “Revealed: The Hunt for bin Laden.” Chanin and Morell take an audio tour of the exhibition, reviewing key artifacts and the stories behind them. Chanin explains how the museum worked with U.S. intelligence agencies and the military to tell the story of the years-long hunt for the world’s most wanted terrorist. HIGHLIGHTS: On experiencing the 9/11 Museum: “[P]eople always ask, ‘Isn’t it sad to be there?’ And certainly there are moments of great sadness in thinking about a particular aspect of the museum visit or an object or something like that. But, you know, one of the things I’ve learned is that the 9/11 experience, the event, the aftermath is really a reflection of the full range of human experience, sadness as a part of it. But so much else is as well. And I have seen all of those other things in relation to the sadness.” Effect of special artifacts: “You could see these folks who toil in anonymity, let us say, and all of a sudden you could see it striking them that they had contributed to this extraordinary historic moment. And I dare say they’re not necessarily front-line folks. And so where their contributions fit in may not always be clear or acknowledged, but I saw this with the model and with so many of the other objects.” Importance of remembering 9/11: “There’s a young generation 20 years ago, most of them were not born when 9/11 happened. And here they are inheriting a world that, to a very large degree, has been shaped by 9/11; the agencies and the military are continuing that mission and need young people to come in because they’re inspired to do so.” HIGHLIGHTS Download, rate and subscribe here: iTunes, Spotify and Stitcher. INTELLIGENCE MATTERS: CLIFFORD CHANIN PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS MICHAEL MORELL: OK, Cliff, thanks for joining us on Intelligence Matters. It is great to have you on the show. CLIFF CHANIN:Thank you, Michael. I’m a fan of the show and I really appreciate the opportunity to speak with you. MICHAEL MORELL: So, Cliff, everyone knows that we’re approaching the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks just about four months from now. But what some people might find a bit surprising is that we actually just passed the 10 year anniversary of the U.S. operation that brought Osama bin Laden to justice. In fact, for me, it just seems like yesterday. And we’re very lucky to have you with us today to talk about your exhibit on the bin Laden Operation. It’s titled Revealed: The Hunt for bin Laden. So I’m really looking forward to this discussion. So thank you for agreeing to do it. Before we dig into that, though, Cliff, I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about you. And the first one is, what brought you to the 9/11 Museum? CLIFF CHANIN: Well, that’s an interesting question. Thank you, Michael. I’m happy to sort of take this exhibition apart a little bit with you. I came to the museum really in its earliest days in May 2005. I had, in my years before coming to the museum, done two things which were very, very separate, but very oddly converged on 9/11. The first of those was as a program officer at the Rockefeller Foundation. All this is pre 9/11. I had developed a program on the Islamic revival around the world. And, you know, in the course of developing that program and making grants to organizations in different countries that were looking at this phenomenon, I traveled to many of these places. I became very, very familiar with the issues, the actors, and just what the nature of debate in many of these countries was. So I had that level of familiarity and experience. On top of that as a separate matter, I’d also developed an interest in the contemporary effects of mass violence in societies around the world, not just when it’s happening at that moment, but the history of such violence and how it’s manifested in contemporary societies, whether in public debates, whether in creative arts and so on and so forth. So, you know, those, as you might understand, are very, very different things. But 9/11 brought them together in a very, very strange way that at least in terms of my own personal experience, sort of connected things, that all of a sudden when you’re planning a museum, as the 9/11 Museum was in that early stage of planning, it turned out to be a very useful combination of things to sort of think through some of the most difficult problems of, ‘How do you actually memorialize this?’ How do you represent it in the contemporary moment? But thinking, of course, that this is a matter of history, increasingly so as time goes on. MICHAEL MORELL: So, Cliff, what is it like to work at the museum every day? And I really ask that in the context of, you know, for many people, it’s not an easy place to visit, you know, even for me, who spent so much time on this issue. I found it a tough place to visit. So what’s it like to work there? CLIFF CHANIN: Well, it’s really an extraordinary experience. And, you know, I’ve been on this since 2005. The museum opened in May 2014. So we’re now just not quite at our seventh anniversary. It’s in the middle of May. But, you know, people always ask, ‘Isn’t it sad to be there?’ And certainly there are moments of great sadness in thinking about a particular aspect of the museum visit or an object or something like that. But, you know, one of the things I’ve learned is that the 9/11 experience, the event, the aftermath is really a reflection of the full range of human experience; sadness is a part of it. But so much else is as well. And I have seen all of those other things in relation to the sadness. And so I’ve met extraordinary people, many of them your colleagues, for example, who have done extraordinary things because of 9/11, who were inspired by 9/11. And so the experience of being there is extraordinarily enriching. It’s something that almost a day doesn’t go by without something unexpected happening that taps very deeply into me, as a person, but not just to the sadness that the story very naturally evokes. MICHAEL MORELL: So the hunt for bin Laden exhibit itself, what inspired that? Tell us about the idea how long it took to go from idea to completion and opening and what that involved? CLIFF CHANIN: Well, we have a special exhibitions gallery at the museum, and we had opened a show which was based on artworks that were created in tribute to 9/11 by a range of artists. And, you know, this gallery is one of the few places in the museum that has changing exhibitions. We have another couple of smaller locations, but this is really the place where we get to develop new ideas and new exhibitions. And so, as I said, the museum opened in 2014. So this is already three years after Operation Neptune Spear. But as we were thinking about what our next project should be, it did seem like this was a really important part of the 9/11 story that had been told in part. But now the question that we asked ourselves was, ‘What can we bring to the table here in terms of expanding the story?’ And we opened the exhibition in November 2019. So I’m going back there in four years or so before that when the idea first arose, because, you know, the challenge in thinking about this was, technically speaking, the story is still classified. And while many of the leading public figures had spoken about it, written about it after the event in terms of dealing with the agencies that were involved and some of the people who were involved, that classification designation still applied. So we had to sort of reach out to a variety initially. On the intelligence side is where we concentrated because we wanted to tell really as full a story as we could. It wasn’t just about the culminating mission. It was about how you got to the point of deciding that you could send the SEALs into Pakistan. And so we had to approach a very wide range of agencies within the intelligence community and ask them, ‘This is what we’re planning to do. How should we go about doing this?’ — which is a very strange question from a curator’s point of view to be asking because we needed materials. And yet so many of these materials to show in the exhibition were not known to us. So how do we figure out what is going to be made available to us? It was a fascinating process. It had, you know, a bit more winding than a typical exhibition would be. But we had already established institutional relationships with a number of the agencies involved, and those relationships had nothing to do with this particular story. It was that even before the museum opened, the memorial opened on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. So we had already been receiving requests from military, law enforcement, intelligence agencies to bring groups to the museum. And at first we didn’t really fully understand what the intention behind those requests was. But very quickly, we understood that this was really about reconnecting the agencies and their members with the events of 9/11, which was transformative in the intelligence, military world. And so we began to create programs that were specifically tailored for these visits. These were public visits. These were visits of groups of CIA officers or Navy SEALs or whoever it was. And we began really programming around that. And through those programs, we had developed contacts. I think we had developed a level of mutual knowledge and trust. And it was really out of those early connections that we felt confident at least that we would get a hearing within the intelligence community about our interest in doing this. MICHAEL MORELL: So, Cliff, you said it opened in November of ’19, I assume it was closed for a period of time during the pandemic and that it just reopened. Is that right? CLIFF CHANIN: That’s right. We had a great response, I have to say, when we opened it in November 2019, attendance for this exhibition was beyond what we had anticipated. And then, as with everything else, we just stopped in our tracks. Museum closed in May 2019. The museum did reopen last September around the anniversary. And now because of the size of the gallery and our wanting to be sure of how we could manage visitors in the Special Exhibitions Gallery, the exhibition has reopened, Revealed: The hunt for bin Laden. So it is available for those who come to visit the museum. MICHAEL MORELL: That’s great. OK, so let’s talk about it in depth and, you know, feel free to take some time here. But just to kind of give people a sense of space, where is the exhibit relative to the rest of the museum? Where does it come in the flow of the entire museum? CLIFF CHANIN: So the museum overall is 110,000 square feet, most of it seven stories below ground at what we know as the bedrock level of the World Trade Center. That’s the original point of construction upwards into the sky. And so at that bedrock level, we have our exhibition about the history of 9/11. We have a special memorial exhibition. We have our education center. And we have very, very large spaces, including those that go all seven stories up to the roof that contain very, very large objects that recall the volume and scale of the World Trade Center. It’s in the footprint of the North Tower alongside the historical exhibition that you find the Special Exhibitions Gallery, which is about 3,000 square feet and which is the location for Revealed. MICHAEL MORELL: Great. Can you walk us through Revealed? Can you bring that to life for us? CLIFF CHANIN: So we try to think of this story in chapters. We’re in the 9/11 Museum, of course, and so we didn’t have to reiterate the story of 9/11 within the exhibition. We obviously had to understand that 9/11 was a critical moment in terms of the hunt for bin Laden. So we enter the exhibition in the pre 9/11 days and we try to get a sense of what the intelligence community was doing in relation to the threat that certainly was understood to be coming from bin Laden and al-Qaida, but wasn’t necessarily appreciated. That threat wasn’t across the full range of the government. And so we have a number of objects that were only recovered after the the war in Afghanistan began, when intelligence agencies began investigating some of the areas that al-Qaida had held. But that first gallery is really a look back to the pre-9/11 time. And interesting story about one of the objects there. We were talking with various intelligence agencies in the course of developing the exhibition. And at one point – in fact, the meetings with all the agencies always went the same way. We would go in and begin to talk about the points we were trying to make in the exhibition at one moment or another. And, you know, we were asking for things, but describing them vaguely because we didn’t know what there was. And you could always tell when you struck a chord because the people in the room were kind of looking at each other and you could see the eyes going back and forth. And I got to telling them, ‘Look, I know these meetings get much more interesting when we leave the room because, you know, we’d have these meetings; a couple of weeks later, people would come back to us and say, Well, what do you think about this object or that object?’ And in this first part of the exhibition, we have the object that really represents this story for me, because NGA had developed a model of the Tarnak Farms compound, which was where bin Laden and al-Qaida were located for a period just before 9/11. And they weren’t able initially to tell us about it. And, you know, NGA, which prides itself on its model making, then had to find it. And they were kind of embarrassed because they told us, ‘Well, we think we have this,’ but then they had to come back and say, ‘Well, we’re not sure we could find it.’ Eventually they did. And so this model of the Tarnak Farms complex is really at the center of this first part of the exhibition. And so they were a little bit embarrassed about it in the sense that I guess, model making is more elaborate or the other models were more developed than this one. But we absolutely loved it because it’s so much, you know, a working artifact, if you will. It was very clear from looking at it that it was created for a very, very specific purpose related to the hunt. And so we were thrilled to have it. So that’s really the first section of the exhibition. We go, of course, to the three al-Qaida attacks, the Embassy bombings, the USS Cole and of course, 9/11. But we move beyond that into the initial phases of the war in Afghanistan. And again, we had to decide, ‘Well, we’re not, you know, telling the story of the war in Afghanistan. So what do we do about that?’ And so we focused on, of course, the initial American arrivals, including Jawbreaker, the first American boots on the ground being CIA officers. But really, where we take the military piece of the story is to the Tora Bora complex in the White Mountains of Afghanistan, which is where the last known sighting of Osama bin Laden was. And so we move relatively quickly. We did have in this part of the exhibition, what I think of is an extraordinary loan from the CIA, which is the painting that is normally on display at CIA headquarters, known the painting is, as ‘Cast of a few, Courage of a Nation’ which shows some of those Jawbreaker officers on the ground in Afghanistan. So, you know, we try to get you to the point of we’re looking for somebody in a specific place. We sort of have an idea of how to look for him, whether or not we’re going to succeed is a different matter. But then, of course, he disappears and the question becomes, well, what happens next? MICHAEL MORELL: OK, Cliff, what’s next in the flow? CLIFF CHANIN: So the next part of the exhibition, really, it was the most challenging for us because the question became, you know, how do you indicate in physical objects and in the interviews -because the exhibition incorporates both physical artifacts, most of them borrowed, but also media pieces based on interviews we did with, of course, some of the key actors in this – but also some of the operators and analysts who were behind the scenes for all of this. And so, you know, we’re talking about what is essentially a 10 year period during which, for a large part of that 10 year period you’re looking, but you don’t really know what you’ve got and you’re not finding. And so how do you demonstrate that? We did that in a couple of ways. I think in terms of the interviews we had, including with folks who were still active within the intelligence community, they were able to explain to us in really clear but quite brilliant ways what the logic of the hunt was. So we weren’t really able to get kind of a history of all of the leads because a lot of that was classified. We weren’t necessarily able to give a history of who did what, when, because that too was classified. But we were able to track kind of a history of the logic of the hunt. And as it was described to us by one of your former colleagues, Michael, it really turned from a hunt for a location to a hunt for the few people who could be hiding bin Laden. And as we understood it, this really was a very, very important change in how the hunt was focused. And then, of course, you don’t have that many people who we would trust to hide him. And there aren’t all these places around the world. It really becomes focused in a very, very different way. And as you know well, intelligence agencies develop what they know of as a pattern of life. You know, what kind of characteristics should we be looking for in a potential location? What sort of characteristics should we be looking for in the people who are hiding him? And that really transformed, frankly, my understanding of what the hunt was. But it also gave us something to hold on to. In terms of moving the narrative forward. MICHAEL MORELL: Does the exhibit, Cliff, give a sense of when that happened and was it a kind of an instant thing or is it something that evolved over time? CLIFF CHANIN: My sense of it was, and I think you know the answer to this, but my sense of it was it evolved over time, that, yes, as one of your colleagues described it to me, you know, in the initial period after 9/11, you know, any lead got maximum attention. And basically you were running around all over the place just trying to make sure you didn’t miss a lead. And then there was a period of time where there weren’t that many leads, if any at all. And that dark time, as I understood it, was very usefully applied to rethinking the whole structure of the hunt and really beginning to dig in on the question of, ‘Let’s try to understand how he would be living and let’s try to understand who he would be relying on, who he’d be living with.’ And so that, I would guess, takes you through 2003, 2005, really almost up to the time that the lead to Abbottabad emerges. At least that’s my understanding of it. MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. Yeah. OK, fantastic. Keep going. This is wonderful. CLIFF CHANIN: You know, so we wanted to represent, you know, why is this so urgent still? So there are other attacks in Indonesia, in London, in Madrid, in Istanbul that are either inspired by bin Laden or carried out by al-Qaida. So the risk of not finding him was something we very much wanted to manifest. We had a missing wanted poster from Indonesia, from London, from the from the bombings. We wanted to show the kind of sweeping efforts that were being made by the military to gather materials that could be analyzed for intelligence value. So some of the things that were swept up in military raids, which then became the technique that Special Operations forces, alongside civilian intelligence analysts who’d gone forward to their bases, those were the kind of things that they were working together on. At this point, as we understood it, the military and intelligence communities really came together in a very different kind of way on the front lines to have these cascading raids that would generate materials that could be turned around very, very quickly in terms of breaking up the networks, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, that posed a threat to American forces. So we, in this section of the exhibition, we kind of look a bit at techniques and the way things were done that kind of honed the blade that when the lead to Abbottabad emerged, could be applied very, very directly and very precisely to that kind of target. MICHAEL MORELL: You know, one of the things that Bill McRaven told me once, the commander of Operation Neptune Spear, he told me, Had we not done all of those raids that we did over the years, the bin Laden operation probably wouldn’t have been possible. It really flowed from the trust that was created by those operations, right. To Abbottabad, that trust was so important between the intelligence community and the military. CLIFF CHANIN: It really became a very, very important part of the further development of this project because, you know, we had gathered so much material through the interviews, we realized we couldn’t tell the fuller story that we had, only in the exhibition. There’s only so much time that people are going to spend watching videos in the exhibition space. So we produced the documentary film, which has just been shown on the History Channel, and we added a number of really, really important interviews for that film. And what’s interesting in relation to the point you just made, we’re now talking with the military planners, with some of the operators, with some of the pilots on the mission. And so many of them said exactly what you just attributed to Admiral McRaven, which is, you know, the people who were, for example, the first military planners of this mission who were called in to the agency and said, ‘Here’s what we know. How do you figure to go about doing this?’ You know, they all commented on the people who were presenting this material to them, were known to them. They had worked together before on other things. They knew one another. They knew what their priorities were. They knew to trust each other. And so it really reinforces McRaven point, which is this method of operating so closely together on the front lines is is really just kind of essential to getting to the point where the enormous risk of flying into Pakistan for 169 miles, that enormous risk was something they were more confident taking, I believe, because they knew one another and they trusted one another. MICHAEL MORELL: OK, Cliff, let’s keep going through the exhibit. CLIFF CHANIN: So, of course, the critical moment, the turning point for the whole story is the lead to the courier. That brings them back to this mysterious compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. And, you know, the story basically has three acts. The first act is essentially the intelligence that develops this lead. The second act is the policymakers saying, including, of course, President Obama saying, ‘Well, let’s take this apart. Can we really act on this? And when they decide to act on it or at least consider it, how do you actually act on it? What do you do? How do you go after him?’ And so we pick up that debate about whether it should be a raid or whether it should be a stand off bombing. We pick up the debate within the Situation Room, within the agencies themselves about, you know, ‘Is this good enough? How can we make the lead better?’ And at a certain point, as Secretary, then, of Defense Gates says, you know, “This is as good as it’s going to be. It’s not going to be any better. So you’ve got to make your decision on this information.’ And, of course, we pick up the training of of the mission force as as developed by Admiral McRaven. And we’ve interviewed six of the operators from the mission, two of the pilots from the mission. And so just getting a sense of how the pieces were put together, leading, of course, to that extraordinarily dramatic moment where I believe it’s the final briefing and discussion at the White House on April 28th, 2011. The president says, ‘Thank you. I’m going to take this under advisement and make a decision within 24 hours.’ And so, you know, we tell that story in much more detail than I think has been known before. And it’s so interesting in my mind, sort of the human dimension of this. I mean, you know, we think of these our leaders as, you know, somehow omniscient or making decisions that have a degree of certainty to them. And one of the things that just came clear to me through this was just how serious this was at a decision-making level because of the consequences and you just couldn’t know how this was going to turn out, even though, as President Obama ultimately decided, he couldn’t turn away from the commitment he made to the families and not follow up on this lead by sending an assault force to the compound. It’s a very, very dramatic human story, and the different personalities of the leaders come through. I mean, Director Panetta, that very avuncular sort of open style that he has; President Obama, one of his advisers, says at one point, ‘You know, I’d never play poker with this guy because he’s impossible to read.’ Secretary Gates, who, you know, his humor comes out of this. But, he comes, I think, Michael, from your world originally in terms of intelligence analysis and his very, very sort of hard and fast way of looking at what’s in front of him. So you get these snippets of the personalities and how the personalities came together to debate, discuss and ultimately for the president to decide to go ahead. MICHAEL MORELL: So, Cliff, I would love to have you tell us about a couple of your favorite artifacts that are in the exhibit. CLIFF CHANIN: Well I’m very happy to do that. You know, it’s almost – not quite, but almost – like asking a parent who your favorite child is, because, you know, in this exhibition in particular, we didn’t know any of these materials before we got them. So each one feels like a triumph of some kind or another. But I do have to say that we were given the loan by NGA of the compound model that they developed and that was used for the briefings of the president that was used to sort of bring the SEALs in and tell them what their assignment was. And, you know, there’s another model at the CIA museum. But that is, you know, we had a moment where the model makers came up from Washington to see the model in the museum. And first off, while they were making the model, they had no idea what they were making a model of. So that was sort of a surprise to them when it turned out that this was sort of the most important special operations mission since the war, World War II. But they came to the museum and it was really just a great moment because, you know, you could see these folks who toil in anonymity, let us say, and all of a sudden you could see it striking them that they had contributed to this extraordinary historic moment. And I dare say they’re not necessarily front line folks. And so where their contributions fit in may not always be clear or acknowledged, but I saw this with the model and with so many of the other objects. When you put them in a museum, they are elevated into their place in history. And for the model makers to see it, it was just it was a great moment for me, getting that model when we got when Robert Cardillo, who was then Director of NGA, signed off on the loan of the model, it was for me as if we had been given the loan of the crown jewels from the Tower of London. I mean, this model is sort of the symbol of the entire mission in many ways. And so I realized, you know, we’re not in Kansas anymore when we got that sign off. And what accelerated through the process was the cooperation of the various agencies involved, whether on the intelligence side or on the military side. I said earlier that I think we had established a level of trust with them. But I think it’s also true that because the museum is what it is, because it represents the the the sentiment of the country around 9/11, I think they felt that we should be telling this story and also that the extraordinary work that was done to find him and to get him needed to be acknowledged publicly that, you know, within all the proper protocols and protections, that this was a story that the American public needed to know about because, you know, the work that is needed is ongoing. The threat continues. There’s a young generation 20 years ago, most of them were not born when 9/11 happened. And here they are inheriting a world that, to a very large degree, has been shaped by 9/11, the agencies and the military are continuing that mission and need young people to come in because they’re inspired to do so. And so having this story told publicly in a in an accessible venue, because the CIA museum does it, too. But that’s not the same thing. You know, I think that became of value to our partners in this exhibition as well. MICHAEL MORELL: So let me ask you another favorite child story, in addition to artifacts, you have immersive multimedia experiences in the exhibit. Can you talk about one or two of your favorites there? CLIFF CHANIN: Yeah, we have a very large projection, a screen that goes pretty much 30 feet across. And then we have basically five by five foot square table at about knee height. So these are not the typical monitors on a wall in the exhibition. That first panoramic projection takes us through the part of the story that really describes how you hunt for someone when you have no leads and he’s hiding from you. And so that sense of the scale of things and you’re able to really take it in in different angles and different ways, that I think is it works very well, I think. And then, of course, the projection downward onto this platform, which is next to the compound model. That projection tells the story of the raid in the voices of the operators who were carrying it out and the policymakers who were watching this happen and were basically an audience as helpless as any other audience would be, just waiting for the outcome of it. And there we have animations and we have, you know, just the movement of the operators through the compound. And I think both of those really captures something very, very — we know that we know the conclusion of the story. So the question is, how do you maintain the tension of the story? And I think our media producers really did that beautifully, particularly with the media piece on the raid itself. One other thing about that section of the exhibition; we were given the loan of objects that were brought back from the compound – a computer, a unit, a video camera that was found there, a wristwatch. So, you know, the idea that there’s a real person at the other end of this and real people are going out to get him because we have loans from the SEALs as well. I think that part of the exhibition really, really captures the human dimension of the story because, you know, obviously the heroism is the first headline in this. But, you know, these were actually, you know, individuals who were going far deep into harm’s way and they had thoughts about it in real time about the sacrifice that they were being asked to risk. It felt very powerful to me at the beginning of the exhibition, and it still does. MICHAEL MORELL: Cliff, let me just ask you one more question here. We’re running a little short on time, but just one more question. When the exhibit was open, you know, before it was closed by the pandemic, what did you notice about people’s reactions? CLIFF CHANIN: Well, the public really did stand in line to get into the gallery space. We, even before COVID, we were limiting the number of people because we wanted people to have enough time to see the exhibition. And it was clear that this was having an impact on them. And, you know, it’s a time where everybody pulls together as 9/11 was a time where everybody pulled together and the opportunity to dig into this extraordinary accomplishment, which really was a priority for the U.S. government for those 10 years between 9/11 and Neptune Spear, I think people really appreciated that. But I will tell you one more quick story, Michael. The preview of the exhibition – We did a reception at the museum where we were able to invite some of the folks who we’d interviewed, some of the folks who’d had a role in this. And we also invited many family members from the 9/11 community and at the request of the family members and also of the operators and the analysts who were there, we made some introductions and. I think you can imagine those were extraordinarily powerful, very, very emotional moments. And, you know, I know that the story of a couple of the analysts being introduced to the grandmother of the youngest 9/11 victim who got up out of her wheelchair to embrace them, I know that story made its way back to to the agency and to the most senior leadership of the agency. And, you know, we’re incredibly grateful for the cooperation and goodwill that allowed us to make the loans to get access to the interviews. It really didn’t have to happen, but we’re thrilled that it did. And I think I hope that the resulting exhibition sort of justifies those decisions to partner with the museum. MICHAEL MORELL: Cliff, thank you so much for sharing all of that with us. People obviously need to go see the exhibit, but thank you for joining us today and for taking the time. Thank you so much. CLIFF CHANIN: Thank you, Michael.