How Modern Family Almost Saved Osama bin Laden

Getty Images
Getty Images / Getty Images

On May 1, 2011, President Obama spoke at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. His poker face onstage hid a very big secret—the biggest he’d ever known. At most, a half-dozen guests knew what the president did: that seventy-nine members of three U.S. Joint Special Operations Command task forces were in the final stages of preparation for a raid in the picturesque town of Abbottabad, Pakistan. The commandos would be storming a compound that housed a man called “the Pacer” by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. (Other intelligence analysts called him “Cakebread.” Some SEALs informally called the man “Bert.” As the mission’s target, he was designated “Jackpot,” though he was officially codenamed “Crankshaft.”) The target, of course, was Osama bin Laden.

That no one at the dinner leaked the secret is remarkable for several reasons. In Washington, carefully leveraged secrets can elevate one’s status in social circles. A year before, by way of WikiLeaks, the government sustained the most substantial loss of secrets in American history. And the whole purpose of the Correspondents’ Dinner is for journalists to ferret confidential information out of their dinner guests. (A few of the more egotistical journalists brought celebrities. The smarter ones invited people with security clearances.)

But there was a close call that night concerning the raid. William Daley, the White House chief of staff, was a guest of ABC News, as was actor Eric Stonestreet, who won an Emmy for his starring role as Cameron Tucker on the television comedy Modern Family. Stonestreet had apparently arranged for a tour of the White House that next day but was suddenly told that it was canceled. Over salad, Stonestreet turned to Daley and asked, “So I was wondering. Was there any reason they canceled my tour?”

George Stephanopoulos’s head swung around, and he caught Daley’s eye. “You got anything going on there, Bill?” Stephanopoulos asked. A veteran of the Clinton administration, Stephanopoulos knows how the White House works.

Daley began to sweat, by his own recollection, and blurted out an excuse. “It’s something to do with the plumbing.” He added, “You know what, Eric? Stop by Monday and I will personally give you the tour myself.”

That answer satisfied Stonestreet, and more importantly, Stephanopoulos, who returned to his original conversation. Had a journalist at the dinner pried a little harder and made a few calls, the secret might well have leaked, and front pages the next morning would have told a very different story.

Adapted from Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry, by Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady.