In the hours after the stunning killing of Osama bin Laden, the White House was quick to offer up the riveting details of the operation, including a movie-worthy denoument in which the terrorist leader, ensconced in a mansion, grabs one of his wives and uses her as a human shield against the American forces.
Much of that has proven to be false, and new details drip, drip, drip out about what really happened. Administration officials say the evolving account is the unfortunate and inevitable by-product of the “fog of war” and their admirable haste to get information out to the public. Critics see everything from spin to lying. Whatever the case, the story has changed. That isn't helping the administration as it celebrates an accomplishment and tries to leverage its success in Pakistan into victories on other fronts from beating back al-Qaida to beating back the Republican budget plan.
The contradictions in the administration's story are myriad. Senior administration officials reported a 40-minute operation in which they suggested that Navy SEALs spent much of it engaged by enemy gunfire. They described Osama bin Laden using a woman as a “human shield.” And John Brennan, the president’s top counterterrorism adviser, even suggested the day after the operation that the Qaida leader died a cowardly death, while hiding in a $1 million compound as his terrorist brethren live in austere conditions.
Some initial details have withstood scrutiny: The White House has acknowledged that bin Laden was not armed, though sources tell National Journal that there was an AK-47 and pistol in his room. Others have not: The White House says that bin Laden’s wife was wounded when rushing a U.S. service member, but officials are no longer calling her a “human shield.”
Some have been wildly off the mark: The New York Times reported on Thursday that the firefight wasn't much of a fight at all—with the only shots fired by those in the compound coming at the beginning of the operation and from one only one gunman. The Times report comes as property records reviewed by the Associated Press show that the property, far from being the luxurious manse first described by the White House, was only worth $48,000 when it was purchased in pieces in 2004 and 2005.
It was troubling enough that the White House story kept changing, but now the White House has decided not to issue any more information about the operation--leaving the contradictions standing and doubts about its credibility roiling. The newfound silence has left the administration vulnerable to pointed criticism that its original presentation was not only wrong but prevarication.
White House press secretary Jay Carney announced on Wednesday that the administration would give no new details about the mission. He stood by that decision on Thursday, declining to comment on reports that the operation was not the intense firefight that administration officials initially reported.
“We're still in a process of gathering all the facts of that operation,” Carney said. “And the broader point here is that a group of extraordinary U.S. personnel flew into a foreign country at the dead of night and executed a mission and achieved a goal -- executed a mission flawlessly and achieved a goal that had eluded the United States of America for almost 10 years."
But adding to suspicions about the operation is the president's decision not to release photos of the slain bin Laden. The president said he made the decision out of concern that the gruesome photos could inflame resentment in the Muslim world and would be tantamount, as he told 60 Minutes to boastfully "spiking the football." Whatever the merits of the decision, it added to the contradictory quality of the administration's story. Earlier in the week, CIA Director Leon Panetta had asserted in an interview with Brian Williams of NBC News that photos of bin Laden would eventually be released.
“Between John Brennan’s comments and Leon Panetta’s statement that the photo would be released—they lost control,” says Steve Clemons, a foreign-policy analyst at the liberal-leaning New America Foundation. “It’s unbelievable.”
To be sure, Obama’s decision to withhold the photos was widely supported by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, but Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., an influential voice on military issues, offered the counterpoint that showing the photos would quiet any conspiracy theorists who say bin Laden is still alive. The conspiracy theories may get less circulation now that al-Qaida itself has confirmed bin Laden's death.
Perhaps more puzzling is the administration’s decision to withhold release of photos of the U.S. military’s sea burial of bin Laden. Obama administration officials stressed they followed Islamic traditions for burying the dead, when they laid bin Laden to rest.
There’s no love lost for bin Laden in much of the Muslim world, whose onetime popularity in some circles could be attributed to antipathy toward the United States over the war in Iraq and U.S. policy toward Israel. But demonstrating that Americans care about Muslim values, by burying one of America’s most ferocious enemies with Islamic traditions, far from inciting anti-American resentments, could have been a conciliatory gesture.
“When President Obama announced he got bin Laden, he also announced that this has never been about or against Islam,” said Mahmoud Hamalawy, a producer for the Arab satellite network Al Jazeera. “I think showing those pictures would go a long way in proving that in the Arab world.”
James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that he was perplexed that the White House decision to release so many details of the operation immediately after announcing bid Laden’s killing.
But he said it's even more baffling that the White House is so slow to set straight a muddled narrative.
“I understand the motivation to twist the knife and try to portray bin Laden as a coward,” Phillips said. “But the truth is undermining the credibility of the administration and whatever narrative they put forward in the future.”
This article appears in the May 6, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.