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Wanted: dead or alive

Shoot hits the target

JUST 24 hours after enduring George W Bush spouting guff about being "a wartime president" in his self-serving 9/11 interview, along came a documentary demonstrating what it's really like to make the toughest call of all in the toughest job of all.

In Bin Laden: Shoot to Kill -- erroneously billed in some listings yesterday as Bin Laden: Inside the War Room -- President Barack Obama recalled the moment he had to decide whether or not to send a team of Navy Seals into Pakistan to take down the most wanted man in the world.

A group of intelligence advisors felt there was a 70-80% probability that the tall figure, photographed by surveillance satellite inside a fortified compound in Abbottobad, was indeed Osama bin Laden.

A second group reckoned the probability was 40%. Obama decided "it was basically 50-50" and gave the word to go.

It was an extraordinarily ballsy decision that could have wrecked his presidency overnight and inflamed relations between America and Pakistan, which hadn't been told two Black Hawk stealth helicopters containing 23 Seals were about to fly below the radar into its air space.

As this superb, feature-length film showed, it also came at the end of an incredible intelligence operation. After a decade of fruitlessly searching for Bin Laden, CIA director Michael Hayden hit on the idea of concentrating on the al-Qaeda couriers who ferry information along a low-tech but highly effective network.

The couriers would often drive 100 miles or more to make a single mobile phone call and then destroy the SIM card. But in 2010, a key courier the White House had come to know as "the Kuwaiti" got sloppy.

A National Security Agency computer monitoring hundreds of known al-Qaeda numbers picked up a conversation between him and an associate, which eventually led them to the Abbottobad compound.

The surveillance operation often turned on the unlikeliest of details, such as cricket balls. It was noticed that whenever the local kids whacked a ball over the compound wall, it would be incinerated and a burly bodyguard would give the kids money to buy another -- which of course was duly hit over the wall again.

Shoot to Kill recreated the assault on the compound, and the moment when a Seal finally pulled the trigger on Bin Laden, with all the heart-pumping tension of a superior Hollywood action thriller.

"It was the longest 40 minutes of my life," said Obama.

But the film wasn't without flashes of humour. An aide recalled that on the day of the mission, a Sunday, the White House ordered in pizzas from several different outlets. Buying 40 from the same place might have looked a bit suspicious.

It also revealed that the Seals, though equipped with state of the art weaponry, forgot to bring along a tape measure, meaning the tallest of them had to lie on the floor alongside the 6ft 4ins Bin Laden's dead body to make sure they'd got their man.

Another charismatic African-American politician, Cory Booker, mayor of Newark in New Jersey, is at the heart of Brick City, a five-part series that I fear will slip under most viewers' and critics' radar as stealthily as a Black Hawk. That would be a shame, because this is a brilliant piece of television that restores the much-debased reputation of the observational documentary.

Brick City, which is already into a second, Emmy-winning series in America, follows the efforts of Booker and Newark's director of police, Garry McCarthy, as they try to reduce the crime rate and instil unity and spirit into the fractured populace.

Its gritty tone and sprawling cast of characters, which includes a female street gang member called Jayda, who's broken with convention by falling in love with a member of a rival gang, has prompted some to describe Brick City as a real-life version of The Wire. It's certainly every bit as compelling and addictive.