First Published: 2011-05-05


White House alters narrative of bin Laden raid


Factual errors over bin Laden operation force White House to double back and fix their story.


Middle East Online

By Stephen Collinson - WASHINGTON

A messy process of revision

Factual errors concerning some of the most explosive details of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden have forced the White House to double back and fix their story.

There is no groundswell of doubt about the broader credibility of the Obama administration's account of the audacious night-time swoop deep inside Pakistan, but the fog of war has led to a messy process of revision.

Adjustments to the story, which began to be told late on Sunday, have seen the narrative embroidered with new details and left a sheaf of unanswered questions about the circumstances and results of the raid.

On Monday, the White House said that bin Laden was armed when he was shot dead in his comfortable compound in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad, not far from Islamabad.

But a day later, White House spokesman Jay Carney corrected the account, saying the terror chief was unarmed when gunned down by a Navy SEAL, raising doubts about the US assurances that they were ready to take bin Laden alive.

On Monday, John Brennan, President Barack Obama's counter-terror chief, said that bin Laden's wife had died after being used as a human shield in the attack, implying a cowardly act of self-defense by the the Al-Qaeda leader.

Officials soon rowed back from that story too and Carney provided a new chronology on Tuesday, saying that bin Laden's wife had rushed a Navy SEAL officer confronting her husband, and had been shot in the leg but did not die.

"On the first floor of bin Laden’s building, two Al-Qaeda couriers were killed along with a woman who was killed in cross-fire," Carney said.

"Bin Laden and his family were found on the second and third floor of the building. There was concern that bin Laden would oppose the capture operation and indeed he resisted," he added.

"In the room with bin Laden, a women -- bin Laden's wife -- rushed the US assaulter and was shot in the leg but not killed. Bin Laden was then shot and killed. He was not armed."

There have also been differing accounts over which of bin Laden's adult sons was killed in the raid, Hamza of Khalid, and there is much unanswered speculation about what was done with his body.

Carney's account on Tuesday notably did not mention the death of a bin Laden son.

The White House spokesman, who admitted at one point that even he was "getting confused," put the errors down to the "fog of war" and argued that the administration had been keen to get out as much information as soon as it could.

Another official agreed to speak about the changing story on condition of anonymity, saying that the administration did not regret quickly releasing details, which later needed to be corrected.

The official said that in-depth debriefings of Navy SEALS in the mission were ongoing throughout Monday and Tuesday, and raised the need to correct some details of the missions.

"There was a demand for information for one of the most impactful stories... we took an extra step to declassify the most sensitive operation in the US government to meet that demand.

"Do you want information. Or do you want it faster -- these things always get revised. It was a good faith effort to information in a timely way."

The administration position won support from Senator John McCain, Obama's vanquished Republican opponent in the 2008 election, who said the changing timeline and story of the raid had no impact on US credibility.

"No, I'm not worried about it, and anything that anybody tries to detract from what they were able to accomplish is frankly, missing the big picture."


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