The ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Saxby Chambliss, on Thursday questioned the Obama administration’s account of the Osama bin Laden raid, saying that CIA Director Leon Panetta gave him details on Sunday night that differed from what the president’s counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, offered to reporters Monday morning.
“I’ll be honest, when I heard John Brennan make his comments on Monday, I thought, 'Gee, that’s not exactly what I heard on Sunday night,’” Chambliss told National Journal in an interview.
Chambliss, who as ranking GOP member receives regular classified briefings, also added fresh details to the account of the raid and said he had no doubt the killing of bin Laden was justified. Based on the latest intelligence briefing he was given, Chambliss said, bin Laden was reacting rapidly when the Navy SEAL team approached his third-floor bedroom, poking his head out before he “ducked” back in. Chambliss said the U.S. commandos missed him the first time they fired at him.
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Brennan initially told reporters on Monday that bin Laden “was engaged in a firefight with those that entered the area of the house he was in” during the 40-minute attack by the SEALs. The next day, however, White House press secretary Jay Carney said bin Laden had not been armed. Brennan also said that bin Laden had “reportedly” used a woman to shield himself from the incoming fire, and he used that description to suggest that the al-Qaida chief was a coward who was “hiding behind women.” Brennan added: “I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years.”
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Carney, however, declined to endorse that account the next day, saying that the lone woman killed in the raid “might have been the one on the first floor who was caught in the crossfire. 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.” Another woman, believed to be bin Laden’s wife, was wounded in the leg when she rushed at members of the SEAL team.
Chambliss said he received a call from Panetta on Sunday night after the raid in which he was given somewhat different details that didn’t entirely square with Brennan’s account the following morning. “He said that initial reports were that there were women and children in the compound, but no women or children had been injured. It turned out we not only had one female dead but one injured, too,” he said. Panetta also “did not talk about whether he was armed or unarmed,” Chambliss said. “He did not know that detail at that time.”
Chambliss added: “That’s the kind confusion you would have naturally in a mission like this.” Even so, the senator said, “Twenty-four hours after it happened there should have been more clarification than what I heard coming out of Brennan.”
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said he had no comment on Chambliss’s remarks. The Obama administration has indicated it is not going to add more details to its account of the operation on Sunday.
Despite the discrepancies, Chambliss said he had no issues with the decision to kill bin Laden, based on a more recent briefing he had received from intelligence officials. Asked whether bin Laden had made any sudden move to provoke a reaction from the SEALs, Chambliss said, “The details of that are a little fuzzy right now. The last thing I’ve heard is, when the SEALs got to the third floor, bin Laden looked around the corner in the room that he was in, down the hallway where the SEALs were. They shot at him, missed him.... He went back in the room, and that’s when the SEALs rushed in and shot him the first time.” Asked whether bin Laden actually left the bedroom, and then went back in, Chambliss responded: “No, he just looked around the corner. That’s in the latest brief we got.”
Despite his background in intelligence, Chambliss was one of several GOP senators who admitted to being duped by the fake death photos of bin Laden that had been floating around the Internet and Capitol Hill.
Chambliss said that in any case, the takedown of bin Laden was lawful and legitimate, based on an executive order. “The order had been in existence since shortly after 9/11 that if you encounter bin Laden you’ve got the authority to kill him. And I hope that’s what the SEALs went in there to do. It was appropriate.” After 9/11, President George W. Bush signed secret executive orders authorizing kill-or-capture missions and Obama has not rescinded them.
Carney, in his news conference on Tuesday, insisted that bin Laden did “resist” U.S. forces. He declined to elaborate, except to say that “resistance does not require a firearm.”
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This article appears in the May 5, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.