Published May 06, 2011
From the very first moment the world learned that American forces had killed Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden, even the tiniest details from the momentous event have captivated the nation. Every single nugget of data has been the stuff of breaking news, handheld "alerts" and watercooler discussion, in a way the country has never previously witnessed.
No landmark event of the 20th century, from World Wars I and II to the Cuban missile crisis, from the moon landing to the fall of the Soviet Union – not even the attacks of September 11, 2001 -- have been as widely transmitted, reported on, written about, and talked about by as many people, across so many different platforms of communication, as the killing of bin Laden. Within days, it has become a singular event of the Information Age.
President Obama's decision to withhold the classified photographs and video associated with the mission has ironically served to deny this most modern of events one of the key ingredients present in virtually all other watershed news events in recent memory: pictures. We've had them from the Kennedy assassination and its Zapruder film to 9/11 and its camcorders. The Arab Spring comes via YouTube cell phone video, linked to from Twitter.
Indeed, in their sheer number of rate of disclosure, the details of the bin Laden mission have formed their own digital assault: They've poured forth virtually non-stop since the president finished speaking in the East Room of the White House, at 11:44 p.m. Eastern Time on Sunday night, May 1, nine minutes after he had begun.
The riotous cacophony of claims and counter-claims has emanated from official podiums and anonymous sources, reputable reporters and unknown websites, everything, it seems, equipped with a screen, a speaker, or a mouth. Yet so grandly cinematic is our collective vision of the heroism displayed by the U.S. Navy SEALs and intelligence operatives who pulled off this astonishing mission that we have hung on every word of their exploits. As TIME magazine's Michael Crowley tweeted on Tuesday: "Impossible to focus today: every 10 minutes some new fact comes along that would be the most interesting thing I've heard in a typical week."
The true irony is: From the first moments, a good number of the details about bin Laden's killing, on points large and small, have been wrong.
* * *
President Obama was the first senior U.S. official to disclose the operation, formally, in his East Room address. It was from his lips that we first heard that a "firefight" had taken place during the raid on bin Laden's fortified compound in Abbottabad.
The president's lone sentence describing what happened -- "After a firefight, they killed Usama bin Laden and took custody of his body" – did not specify whether the 9/11 mastermind had actually participated in the firefight; but it seemed to imply that he had.
In a conference call with reporters convened by the White House less than twenty minutes after Obama finished speaking, a trio of “senior administration officials” took things a few steps further. Asked if bin Laden was "involved in firing [a weapon] himself or defending himself," one of the briefers replied: "He did resist the assault force. And he was killed in a firefight."
That answer marked a significant elaboration on the president’s baseline narrative: Now bin Laden had perished not after a firefight, but in one. In addition to altering the timeline of events, this assertion also strongly implied that bin Laden had been an armed participant in the firefight.
Elsewhere in the transcript of the late-night call, presided over by National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, one of the senior officials brazenly mischaracterized what President Obama had told the nation. The briefer stated: “As the President said this evening, bin Laden was killed in a firefight as our operators came onto the compound.”
In fact, the president had told us only that bin Laden had been killed “after a firefight.” How long after the firefight? Was the lethal bullet the last shot fired in the exchange of gunfire? Or had the killing of bin Laden truly come after the firefight – by ten or fifteen minutes, or an hour or two? With reports still trickling in from Pakistan, the president’s studiedly vague formulation had wisely left all that unclear. Now his aides were committing him to a more distinct narrative.
Before wrapping up their conference call at 12:24 a.m. on Monday morning, May 2, one of the briefers added another detail that was to prove problematic. After noting the presence of “several” women and children at the scene, the senior official related: “One woman was killed when she was used as a shield by a male combatant.”
* * *
Amazingly, for those select Obama administration officials entrusted with the solemn duty of relating the official storyline of the great event to the news media, the next twelve hours – the critical first overnight period during which the Navy SEALs and their superiors were reporting back to Washington – produced not greater clarity about what had happened, but less.
At 11:30 a.m. on Monday morning, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell convened another press briefing, this one featuring “senior Defense officials” and, participating via conference call, “senior intelligence officials.” Here for the first time, the Obama administration advanced the notion that the “resistance” bin Laden had exhibited, against what the White House briefer had called “the assault force,” had come during this fabled firefight.
One reporter asked: “Last night, you said that he had resisted, but you didn't specify what the resistance was. What was the resistance that the American team met in that compound?” “The American team engaged in a firefight, and as indicated last night, Usama bin Laden did resist,” one of the senior Pentagon officers said. The implication was clear: that bin Laden had resisted during the firefight. To mention a firefight and then, in the next breath, the resistance of the central figure at the scene is effectively to link the one to the other.
This same official then elaborated on the statement made during the White House briefing about a woman having been killed “when she was used as a shield by a male combatant.” After scoffing at bin Laden’s luxury lifestyle compared to his surroundings, the Defense briefer picked up on this thread: “He and some other male combatants on the target appeared to use – certainly did use women as shields.”
Note here that the number of offenders has at least tripled, from solely bin Laden to “[bin Laden] and some other male combatants” – a formulation that suggests that at least three men demonstrated this particular brand of cowardice. Presumably, as well, bin Laden and his cohorts did not all hide behind the same woman; thus the briefer’s pluralized reference to “women.”
Note also the Pentagon officer’s mid-sentence recalibration, which saw him jettison the cautious construction “appeared to use…women as shields” for the ostentatiously more confident “certainly did use women as shields.” This certainty was to prove misplaced.
A few other discordant notes were struck before Morrell wrapped the group. One of the intelligence briefers, responding to a question about whether bin Laden died “peacefully” or “violently,” repeated his Pentagon colleague’s earlier line and answered somewhat impatiently: “He died during a firefight, Barbara.” A Pentagon official volunteered that “two women were wounded” in addition to the one killed. Finally, a DOD briefer provided the first estimate of how long the gunfire lasted. “[T]hrough most of the 40 minutes during which U.S. special operators were on the compound,” he said, “they were engaged in a firefight.”
Two hours later, the president’s Assistant for Homeland Security and Counter-Terrorism, John Brennan, joined White House Press Secretary Jay Carney in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, determined to add still greater detail to the administration’s narrative of the momentous event. Here the problems with that narrative were compounded.
Establishing his intimate level of familiarity with the details, Brennan described to the White House press corps how he, Obama, and the rest of the national security team had kept tabs on the action. “We were able to monitor the situation in real time and were able to have regular updates and to ensure that we had real-time visibility into the progress of the operation,” Brennan said. “I'm not going to go into details about what type of visuals we had or what type of feeds that were there, but it was -- it gave us the ability to actually track it on an ongoing basis.”
This tantalizing account of Brennan’s “real time” tracking of the SEALs, as they fought their way up to the third floor of the compound – bin Laden’s floor – imbued his other assertions with greater authority. The Al Qaeda chief, he said, “was engaged in a firefight with those that entered the area of the house,” and “was killed in that firefight.” The image of bin Laden going down in a hail of bullets, while firing off his own as-yet-unspecified weaponry, was now indelible.
Brennan also scorned the late terrorist for “hiding behind women who were put in front of him as shields” – evidence, to the White House’s eyes, of “how false [bin Laden’s] narrative has been over the years.”
Yet it was Brennan’s own narrative, of the last twenty-four hours, that was soon shown to be false.
* * *
The storyline came under attack the next day. “So Brennan in his briefing yesterday made a couple of, I guess, misstatements – or statements that later appeared to be somewhat incorrect,” began the first question at Carney’s televised press briefing. The reporter listed as false both the idea that bin Laden’s wife had been used as a shield – that anyone at all had been used as a shield – and also that bin Laden had been armed, and a participant in the firefight. “Are you guys in a fog of war in this,” Carney was asked, “or what gives?”
Still new to the job, Carney, a respected former TIME magazine Washington bureau chief, defended the administration’s record of disclosure on the story, even as he tacitly – though not explicitly – admitted that key parts of it had been wrong.
“[W]hat is true,” he began with a touch of defensiveness, “is that we provided a great deal of information with great haste in order to inform you and, through you, the American public about the operation and how it transpired…And obviously some of the information was -- came in piece by piece and is being reviewed and updated and elaborated on.”
Then Carney retreated to a prepared statement, drafted by officials at the Department of Defense, beyond which he would spend the rest of the briefing refusing to stray. “I have a narrative that I can provide to you on the raid itself,” he said. (Precisely because it emerged in such tangled form, the record of the bin Laden killing is replete with uses, by both officials and reporters alike, of the word “narrative.”)
What followed was an account of the mission, 349 words long (including Carney’s momentary stumbles), that comprised the most extensive chronicle of the events in Abbottabad yet offered. And it contained this crucial new detail: that bin Laden was “not armed.”
This opened up a world of new questions Carney did not want to have to face. “[I]f he didn’t have his hand on a gun, how was he resisting?” asked one member of the press corps. “I think resistance does not require a firearm,” Carney shot back. “But the information I gave you is what I can tell you about it. I’m sure more details will be provided as they come available.”
Still, Carney clung to the notion that the “volatile” firefight, which he said had comprised “a great deal of resistance,” had persisted “throughout the operation.” This left the impression that although bin Laden himself was unarmed, the shooting battle had taken place throughout the forty-minute duration of the raid.
Pursuing the question of how many women had been used as human shields, and which ones, the reporters bore in on the “discrepancy” in “the narrative.” Carney grew flustered and effectively called a time out. “I apologize,” he told reporters. “Even I’m getting confused.”
And it was at this point that the press secretary allowed himself to be bulled into doing something he had repeatedly vowed he wouldn’t: yielding information about the operation that had not been contained in the DOD “narrative.” “Bin Laden’s wife was unarmed as well?” a reporter asked. “That is my understanding,” Carney replied. The DOD account had not mentioned whether Mrs. Bin Laden was armed or not. Was anyone else in the room with bin Laden and his wife? “I don’t know that,” Carney admitted.
“In the narrative,” a reporter continued, “which of those women was being used a human shield, as Mr. Brennan suggested yesterday?” Here, at last, Carney acknowledged the haziness of “the narrative.” “[W]hat I would say about that is…to use your phrase, fog of war, fog of combat,” Carney said. “[T]here was a lot of information coming in. It is still unclear. The woman I believe you’re talking about might have been the one on the first floor who was caught in the crossfire [and killed]. Whether or not she was being used as a shield or trying to use herself as a shield or simply caught in crossfire is unclear. And we’re working on getting the details that we can.”
* * *
President Obama, meanwhile, had not proven entirely immune to the fog. His misstep came while he was addressing a bipartisan dinner with congressional leaders in the East Room on Monday night. The president introduced the subject of the week’s great accomplishment in the war on terror by mentioning the “sense of unity” that had prevailed in the country after Americans learned about the “operation that resulted in the capture and death of Usama bin Laden.”
Applause at that moment obscured the detail the president had let slip: that bin Laden had been subjected not only to death but also to “capture.” One of bin Laden’s daughters, only twelve years old, breathed further life into this notion when she told Al-Arabiya that U.S. forces had indeed captured her father, and shot him dead within the first few minutes of the raid. CIA officials soon waved reporters off the claim, dismissing Obama’s remark to the lawmakers as a simple misstatement.
By the following night, one of the heaviest hitters on the president’s national security team – CIA Director Leon Panetta – would join the fray, and add some final touches to the degree of confusion surrounding the raid and its aftermath.
The contributions to the confusion by Panetta, a savvy operator whose public service stretches back to the first term of the Nixon administration, were notable for their setting as much as their content. The CIA director, freshly nominated to succeed Robert Gates as defense secretary, spoke out as the first member of the national security team to consent to an extended sit-down interview. That format, unlike the helter-skelter of a conference call or a crowded briefing room, offers the questioner the opportunity for subtle and skilled follow-up, and therefore makes the interviewee more susceptible to errors of speech.
Panetta, in fact, conducted two extended sit-down interviews. The first was with PBS’ Jim Lehrer, who pressed for more information about how Obama and his aides were able to track the progress of the mission. “Did you have access to video of what was actually happening in the compound, et cetera?” asked Lehrer. “We had live-time intelligence information that we were dealing with,” Panetta replied cagily.
“Did you actually see Usama bin Laden get shot?” Lehrer followed up. “No,” Panetta answered. “No, not at all. We - you know, we had some observation of the approach there, but we did not have direct flow of information as to the actual conduct of the operation itself as they were going through the compound.”
Here was the first time any senior Obama aide admitted to being in the dark for some parts of the raid – to enjoying access to something less than what Brennan had described, with deliberate broadness, as “real-time visibility into the progress of the operation.”
Since Panetta had tracked events from a special command post at CIA headquarters in Langley, Lehrer pressed the issue still further. “So…did the president see the shots fired at Usama bin Laden?” the veteran newsman asked. “No,” Panetta answered again. “No, not at all….[W]e knew that the helicopters had - were on the ground, that the teams were going into the compound. And that was the kind of information that we were following. Once those teams went into the compound, I can tell you that there was a time period of almost twenty or twenty-five minutes where we - you know, we really didn't know just exactly what was going on.”
Again, this represented a stark contrast with Brennan’s description of the vantage point enjoyed by Obama and his aides. It was the counter-terrorism adviser who had assured the White House press corps, the day before, that while he couldn’t go into detail about “what type of visuals we had or what type of feeds that were there,” they did have “the ability to actually track it on an ongoing basis.” Now here on PBS was Panetta, the head of CIA, acknowledging that the president and his advisers had spent approximately 63 percent of the operation – the majority of it – in a state of ignorance where they “really didn't know just exactly what was going on.”
Panetta was the first official to disclose the number of Navy SEALs deployed in the mission – twenty-five – and also the first to refer to the exchange of gunfire in the plural. He told Lehrer “there were some firefights that were going on as these guys were making their way up the staircase in that compound.”
On NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, Panetta went a step further, venturing into territory no Obama aide had yet trodden: the question of whether any of the photographs of bin Laden’s corpse would be released. “I don't think there was any question that ultimately a photograph would be presented to the public,” Panetta told Williams, adding: “[W]e got Bin Laden and I think we have to reveal [that] to the rest of the world.”
* * *
Of course, President Obama would reach a contrary decision where the photographs were concerned, explaining to Steve Kroft of CBS’ “60 Minutes” on Wednesday – now it was the president himself who was braving the perils of the extended interview – that release of such grisly documents might endanger U.S. troops abroad. “[W]e don't need,” the commander-in-chief said, “to spike the football.”
That forced Carney, at the daily press briefing on May 4, to dodge some pointed questions about the CIA director:
QUESTION: So was [Panetta] misinformed, or was he overruled? And what --
MR. CARNEY: The decision -- a final decision had not been made.
QUESTION: So he spoke out of line, out of turn?
MR. CARNEY: The President made a decision. It was -- there are obviously arguments to be made on each side of this, but the final decision was not made until today.
QUESTION: So he was wrong?
MR. CARNEY: The final decision was not made until today.
As reporters worked government sources outside of those entrusted with briefing them, a fuller, more accurate picture of the raid began to emerge – albeit in piecemeal fashion, with reporters within and amongst different news organizations often contradicting one another.
Still, as the raid is now commonly understood to have transpired, the “firefight” that was said to have lasted for “most” of the forty-minute operation (as the senior DOD briefer alleged), or “throughout” it (as the statement that DOD prepared for Jay Carney stated), which was said to have persisted even as the SEALs “were making their way up the staircase in that compound” (as Leon Panetta told PBS), and which was believed to have “killed” bin Laden (as John Brennan claimed), was later revealed to have been, in fact, a volley of gunfire that erupted at the very outset of the raid; ended quickly; and involved only one resident of the compound: Abu Ahmed Al-Kuwaiti, the courier to bin Laden who was the first to confront the Navy SEALs. The Americans shot and killed Al-Kuwaiti, and a woman with him, in a guesthouse they had to traverse before reaching the main house, on whose third floor bin Laden himself awaited. After the shoot-out with Al-Kuwaiti, the U.S. forces were never fired upon again.
It was in the main house that the SEALs encountered Al-Kuwaiti’s brother, whom they shot and killed before he could reach a weapon; bin Laden’s adult son, Khaled, who lunged at them, and was also shot to death; and finally bin Laden himself, in the presence of his wife. She is said to rushed the assault team, at which point she was shot in the leg. Here, bin Laden was said to have exhibited the “resistance” officials had cited, later reported to have been a reach for one of two nearby weapons – an AK-47 assault rifle and a Russian-made 9 millimeter Makarov semi-automatic pistol – that led the Americans to shoot and kill him.
Citing two sources involved in the mission, Fox News has reported that bin Laden behaved in a “confused…scared…cowardly” manner, and that in a desperate bid to fend off the SEALs, he “shoved” his wife at them. This is what may have given rise to the notion that one or more women had been used as “shields” during the raid.
From a somewhat more official source – the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence committee – came still another version of events. Late Thursday, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) told reporters, in separate interviews with the Atlanta Journal Constitution and National Journal, that the SEALs had first fired on bin Laden when they saw him poke his head out of his room and observe them down the third-floor hallway. This first round of fire missed bin Laden, Chambliss said, adding that the SEALs fired again – and killed the Al Qaeda leader – once they reached his room and looked inside to see him near the two weapons.
Chambliss expressed irritation at the shifting “narrative” of the raid offered by the White House, the Pentagon, and CIA. “Every day it seems like somebody is having to straighten out some fact,” he told the AJC. “You’d think that twenty-four hours after the fact, they’d be able to ferret things out a little more.” He told NJ, more sharply: “Twenty-four hours after it happened there should have been more clarification than what I heard coming out of Brennan.”
* * *
On Thursday morning, May 5, as he and President Obama flew aboard Air Force One to Manhattan to commemorate the killing of bin Laden at Ground Zero, Carney again faced the news media. “Can you talk about the latest revision to the Sunday narrative,” asked one reporter, “that in fact it was not a 40-minute firefight, as White House officials had initially said?”
“I don't have any updates on the narrative,” Carney said wearily. He mounted another defense of his efforts to dispense information as quickly as he could, under trying circumstances – a process, he admitted, that had “resulted in the need to clarify some facts.” But Carney allowed as how it “is to our credit that when we discovered that clarification was needed we did put them [sic] out.“ But the White House has not clarified this point on the record, the reporter pressed. Carney, unwilling to be pushed into divulging information again, punted. “As I said yesterday, the Defense Department can take questions you have about further details on the mission or clarifications. We're still in a process of gathering all the facts of that operation.”
One individual who had stood where Carney was, had faced the intense pressure he was receiving from the relentless press corps, and who empathized with him now – without excusing the Obama administration for its flawed handling of the public disclosure of the mission – was Dana Perino, the last White House press secretary under President George W. Bush.
“In a crisis or an unfolding news situation, first reports are almost always wrong,” she explained in an interview with Fox News, where she is a contributor. “And you can understand when you get the tide of the media calls coming in and you want to provide information as quickly as possible. You want to be responsive and you want to frame the argument first. Sometimes though, if then you end up having to redefine that narrative, or correct things that you originally said, you end up sullying your original message. And I think that's what's happened to them.
“I am perplexed how they got so much wrong,” she added. “I don't think it takes away from their achievement. I think that criticism will be relatively short-lived. However, for those people who might be critics of the administration, or have a little bit of distrust for the stories that are coming out of the White House, this will feed that. And it doesn't help build credibility.”
Fox News' Anne Marie Riha and Steve Carlson contributed to this report.