WASHINGTON – The Americans who raided Osama bin Laden's lair met far less resistance than the Obama administration described in the aftermath. The commandos encountered gunshots from only one man, whom they quickly killed, before sweeping the house and shooting others, who were unarmed, a senior defense official said in the latest account.
In Thursday's revised telling, the Navy SEALs mounted a precision, floor-by-floor operation to find the al-Qaida leader and his protectors — but without the prolonged and intense firefight that officials had described for several days.
By any measure, the raid was fraught with risk, sensationally bold and a historic success. U.S. officials said some of the first information gleaned from the scene indicated that last year al-Qaida was considering attacking U.S. trains on the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. The officials said they had no recent intelligence indicating such a plot was active.
The compound raid netted a man who had been on the run for nearly a decade after his terrorist organization pulled off the devastating attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Even so, in the administration's haste to satisfy the world's hunger for details and eager to make the most of the moment, officials told a tale tarnished by discrepancies and apparent exaggeration.
Whether that matters to most Americans, gratified if not joyful that bin Laden is dead, is an open question. Republican House Speaker John Boehner, for one, shrugged off the backtracking to focus on the big picture: "I had a conversation with the president, and the president outlined to me the series of actions that occurred on Sunday evening. I have no doubt that Osama bin Laden is dead."
President Barack Obama's visit to New York's ground zero on Thursday was a somber and understated event, and he avoided mentioning bin Laden by name. A day earlier, he said the government would not release images of bin Laden's body, a decision taken in part to avoid the perception that America was crowing about killing him.
"We don't need to spike the football," Obama said. He plans to go to Fort Campbell, Ky., on Friday to meet aviators from the mission.
The senior defense official spoke to The Associated Press anonymously because he was not authorized to speak on the record. He said the sole bin Laden shooter in the Pakistan compound was killed in the early minutes of the commando operation, the latest of the details becoming clearer now that the Navy SEAL assault team has fully briefed officials.
As the raiders moved into the compound from helicopters, they were fired on by bin Laden's courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, who was in the guesthouse, the official said. The SEALs returned fire, and the courier was killed, along with a woman with him. The official said she was hit in the crossfire.
The Americans were never fired on again as they encountered and killed a man on the first floor of the main building and then bin Laden's son on a staircase, before arriving at bin Laden's room, the official said, revising an earlier account that the son was in the room with his father. Officials have said bin Laden was killed, shot in the chest and then the head, after he appeared to be lunging for a weapon.
White House and Defense Department and CIA officials through the week have offered varying and foggy versions of the operation, though the dominant focus was on a firefight that officials said consumed most of the 40 minutes on the ground after midnight Monday morning in Pakistan, Sunday in Washington.
"There were many other people who were armed ... in the compound," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday when asked if bin Laden was armed. "There was a firefight."
"We expected a great deal of resistance and were met with a great deal of resistance," he said.
"For most of the period there, there was a firefight," a senior defense official told Pentagon reporters in a briefing Monday.
White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan originally suggested bin Laden was among those who was armed.
"He was engaged in a firefight with those that entered the area of the house he was in," Brennan said Monday, before the administration announced bin Laden actually was unarmed although there were weapons in his room.
The success of the bin Laden raid gave the White House a spectacular story to offer without any need to dress it up.
The revelation on Thursday that the raid scooped up valuable intelligence was another positive note. A Homeland Security intelligence warning sent to law enforcement officials around the country said that as of February 2010, al-Qaida was considering tampering with an unspecified U.S. rail track so that a train would fall off at a valley or a bridge. The warning, marked for official use only, was obtained by The Associated Press.
Some of the inconsistencies in the U.S. accounts seemed designed to score extra propaganda points. Brennan, for one, using information that turned out to be flawed, portrayed bin Laden as a man "living in an area that is far removed from the front, hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield."
Officials soon dropped the contention that bin Laden tried to hide behind women. They said what really happened is that bin Laden's wife rushed the SEALs when they entered the room. They injured her with a shot in her calf.
The issue of who among the bin Laden group was armed can be a matter of interpretation. To a soldier — and particularly in the case of the SEALs confronting the world's most wanted terrorist — an empty-handed person with a weapon nearby can be considered an armed threat.
The gaps and flaws, while striking, do not seem to approach the level of exaggeration and error in some other cases, such as the 2003 capture and eventual rescue of a female Army supply clerk in Iraq at the outset of the war. Initial military accounts of Jessica Lynch's resistance to her captors were part of an effort to rally public support for the war, and were factually wrong.
It's taken as inevitable in military circles that initial reports of combat operations are almost always imperfect. Sometimes major details are wrong in the first telling, due either to misunderstandings or errors. As a result, the armed forces generally take the time necessary to double check key pieces of the story before making it public.
In the bin Laden case, the Pentagon was not the lead provider of information for an operation led by the CIA and followed in real time by the national security team and by Obama, who gave the order to proceed late last week. And the bin Laden killing stood head and shoulders above most other military operations in the demand for fast details.
The U.S. account of what happened inside bin Laden's Abbottabad compound is so far the only one most Americans have. Pakistan has custody of the people rounded up afterward, including more than two dozen children and women. Differing accounts purporting to be from witnesses have appeared in Pakistani and Arab media, and on the Internet.
Pakistan's army on Thursday called for cuts in the number of U.S. military personnel inside the country to protest the American raid, and threatened to cut cooperation with Washington if it stages more unilateral actions on its territory.
In the Pentagon's first on-the-record comment on the raid, defense policy chief Michele Flournoy said Thursday that the U.S. has no "definitive evidence" that Pakistan knew that the targeted compound was bin Laden's hideout. Regardless, the Pakistanis must now show convincingly their commitment to defeating al-Qaida, Flournoy said. Anything short of that, she said, will risk losing congressional support for continued U.S. financial aid to Islamabad.
Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, who supports withholding aid to Pakistan until it demonstrates such a commitment, was among those who found it hard to believe that authorities there were unaware of bin Laden's presence in a military town with a military academy.
"Bin Laden's hideaway was just a stone's throw from Pakistan's West Point," he said. "That's like John Dillinger living right down the street from the FBI and the FBI not knowing about it."
Once elements of the official version began changing, and in an effort to slow the demand for more details, White House press secretary Jay Carney referred reporters to the Pentagon for more information, even though the Pentagon had already said it would say no more. The Pentagon canceled its daily public press briefings each day this week.
"The nature of the mission, the nature of what happened Sunday, combined with the effort to get that information quickly, resulted in the need to clarify some facts," Carney said aboard Air Force One en route to New York. He said the administration should be given credit for correcting mistakes when it found them.
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata, Stephen Braun, Calvin Woodward, Adam Goldman and Eileen Sullivan in Washington and Chris Brummitt in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.