WASHINGTON—On Monday, the Obama administration said that Osama bin Laden had been killed after a firefight with Navy Seal commandos, and that he had used his wife as a human shield. On Tuesday, the administration said that Bin Laden was not armed at all, and that his wife had not been a shield, but had rushed her husband’s assaulter and was shot in the leg.
On Wednesday, the administration backtracked again. This time it downgraded its initial accounts of a firefight that raged throughout the raid to gunshots fired only at the beginning of the nearly 40-minute operation by Bin Laden’s courier, who was quickly dispatched by the commandos.
In the view of officials from past and present presidencies, it was a classic collision of a White House desire to promote a stunning national security triumph—and feed a ravenous media—while collecting facts from a chaotic military operation on the other side of the world. At the same time, White House officials worked hard to use the facts of the raid to diminish Bin Laden’s legacy. [LA replies: “Classic collision”—hah. “Classic” means fitting a timeless or established pattern. There was nothing classic about the administration’s behavior in this affair. It was an unprecedented foul-up. To call this appalling mess “classic” is also a smear on all past administrations. With every breath they breathe, the Timesians seek to excuse the inexcusable when it comes from Obama. (Ok, that’s an overstatement. With every other breath they breath, they seek to excuse him.)]
“There has never been any intent to deceive or dramatize,” a military official said Thursday, asking that he not be named because of ground rules imposed by the Department of Defense. “Everything we put out we really believed to be true at the time.” [LA replies: How can you believe information that is patently incomplete? For example, the sneaky looking John Brennan said in his very long televised press conference on Monday, less than a day after the raid, that bin Laden had used his wife to protect himself. What did that mean? That he had physically grabbed her and held her in front of himself so that he could effect an escape from his captors, like in a movie? Try to picture the scene. Is it at all plausible? And where would he have escaped? My point is that the phrase, “He used his wife to protect himself,” lacks specificity and makes no sense on its own terms, and therefore there was obviously a need for more specific facts. But Brennan, trying absurdly to make himself look like a tough man, constructed on this non-specific and inadequate information a dramatic picture of bin Laden as a hypocritical coward who did not live up to his militaristic rhetoric. Yet the White House now says that “Everything we put out we really believed to be true at the time.” The fact is that all people, even the biggest liars, like, famously, former President Clinton, “believe” what they are saying in the moment they are saying it, but this does not mean that they are being honest and truthful.]
Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said that as more and more members of the 79-member assault team were debriefed after the raid, revisions inevitably occurred.
“It was the middle of the night, it was a hectic operation in a foreign country, there was gunfire, so people’s accounts are clarified over time with more interviews,” Mr. Vietor said. “What we did was make as much information available to you guys as quickly as we could, and correct mistakes as quickly as we could.” [LA replies: The problem is that there was no need to make “as much information available as quickly as possible.” The need, as I said yesterday, was for the White House people to get the information right before they spoke to the press. Also, as is indicated further down in the current article, the SEAL team members “did not undergo detailed debriefings until after they flew back to the United States…. the Seal commandos returned to their base, went to sleep, were woken up Tuesday morning—and then the extensive debriefings began.” Exactly as I have been saying in previous posts. The White House needed to wait for a day or two to get the facts straight before giving out any detailed information on what happened in the bin Laden compound.]
But the shifting narrative may have distracted from the accomplishments of the Seal team and raised suspicions, particularly in the Arab world, that the United States might be trying to conceal some of the facts of the operation, including that Bin Laden was unarmed.
“It’s had a hugely negative impact,” said Ahmed Rashid, a journalist and author who is an expert on the Taliban and radical Islamism. White House officials “were overexcited, obviously,” Mr. Rashid said.
“Liberal Muslims who are very sympathetic to the death of Bin Laden really don’t know what to think,” he said. “The American story is very confused.”
From Europe, even the archbishop of Canterbury weighed in. At a news briefing on Thursday, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams said that the killing of an unarmed man left him “uncomfortable” and that “the different versions of events that have emerged in recent days have not done a great deal to help.”
Many of the discrepancies at the White House came from the man who has been part of the Bin Laden hunt for 15 years, John O. Brennan, the president’s chief counterterrorism adviser.
“Here is Bin Laden, who has been calling for these attacks, living in this million-dollar-plus compound, living in an area that is far removed from the front, hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield,” Mr. Brennan said at a White House briefing on Monday. “I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years.”
The White House recanted Mr. Brennan’s assertions about the human shield the next day, and news media accounts later suggested that the $1 million price put on Bin Laden’s compound in the affluent hamlet of Abbottabad was highly generous. The administration stuck with the number, but The Associated Press has reported that the four original plots of land that were joined to create the compound were bought for $48,000 in 2004 and 2005.
Administration officials said they felt an obligation to the news media and the public to put out information about the raid after the president’s speech late Sunday night that announced Bin Laden’s killing. They said they were also eager to get the facts out before the Pakistanis and that country’s powerful spy agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, offered their own facts and interpretation of events.
“Do we think it’s a good thing for the ISI to be the first ones out of the box?” an administration official asked rhetorically, alluding to the belief among administration officials that some elements of the ISI may have ties to Bin Laden and the Afghan Taliban.
But the people who had the best information about the raid, the Seal members, did not undergo detailed debriefings until after they flew back to the United States, a Congressional official said. As the official told it, the Seal commandos returned to their base, went to sleep, were woken up Tuesday morning—and then the extensive debriefings began.
It is unclear whether the early information about the raid came from quick conversations with the Seal members, their commanders or other people involved. But administration officials said Thursday that everyone in the American government—in the White House, the Pentagon and the C.I.A.—was working off the same sheet of information.
Public affairs professionals from previous administrations in Washington were generally sympathetic. “They were in a tough spot,” said Victoria Clarke, a Pentagon spokeswoman from President George W. Bush’s first term. “First reports are always wrong. It’s a fundamental truth in military affairs.” [LA replies: No, they were not in a tough spot. All they had to say to the press on Sunday and Monday was, “We cannot give you detailed information on what happened in the raid until the SEALs are properly debriefed. The facts we have now are preliminary and incomplete. You don’t want incorrect information, do you?” As Timothy A. said in another entry, “The SEALs are expected to face down fanatical terrorists, but administration spokesmen can’t stand up to the press and tell them they’ll have to wait for a day or two?”]