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Updating the Narrative: Osama bin Laden's Death Updating the Narrative: Osama bin Laden's Death

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White House / White House

Updating the Narrative: Osama bin Laden's Death

Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan addresses the media the day after Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan.(Chet Susslin)

photo of Rebecca Kaplan
May 5, 2011

Carney on bin Laden Death Details: Even I'm Confused

As White House spokesman Jay Carney is quick to tell reporters, the process of declassifying information about the U.S. military team that assaulted Osama bin Laden’s compound--the “most highly classified operation this government has taken in many, many years,” he said--is a difficult and often frustrating process. Which means that the narrative that has flowed from top U.S. officials to reporters has sometimes been incomplete, ambiguous, or incorrect. Here is a collection of some of the statements that have been circulating that require clarification.

  • “[Bin Laden] was engaged in a firefight with those that entered the area of the house he was in.  And whether or not he got off any rounds, I quite frankly don’t know.” This statement by Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan at Monday’s press briefing at the White House left unanswered one of the biggest questions of the operation: Was bin Laden armed? Brennan’s answer implied that he was, but at Tuesday’s briefing, Carney settled the debate: “He was not armed,” he said, in a scripted narrative written by the Defense Department. Bin Laden did “resist” U.S. forces, Carney said. He declined to elaborate beyond saying that “resistance does not require a firearm.”
  • “There was a female who was, in fact, in the line of fire that reportedly was used as a shield to shield bin Laden from the incoming fire,” Brennan told reporters at the Monday briefing. His statement was further backed up by a senior Defense official, who told reporters at a Defense Department briefing that, “One woman, who was used as a human shield by one of the four military-age males on the compound, was killed; he was firing behind her.” The White House started to backtrack on this report Monday night, and by Tuesday, it was debunked by Carney’s statement. There was a woman on the first floor of the compound who was killed “in the cross fire,” he said.
  • The woman who was killed was bin Laden’s wife, and she had been used as a shield.This information also came out of Brennan’s briefing on Monday, and was also clarified by Carney’s narrative on Tuesday: “In the room with bin Laden, a woman, bin Laden's wife, rushed the assaulter and was shot in the leg but not killed.” The woman who was killed was not with bin Laden, and she was killed in the cross fire of a firefight.
  • Bin Laden's son Khalid was killed. At Monday’s briefing, Brennan said it was the al-Qaida leader's son Khalid who was killed; by the time the White House released a transcript of the briefing a few hours later, it had been altered to say that bin Laden's son Hamza was killed. The White House did not return calls for comment on whether Brennan misspoke or had received incorrect information. (UPDATE: Carney said in Wednesday's briefing that it was Khalid who was killed. The transcript of the briefing provided afterward was incorrect).
  • Bin Laden was shot twice in the head. Many news reports said that bin Laden was shot twice in the head. But a senior intelligence official clarified to National Journal that he was shot once in the head and once in the chest.
  • “[U.S. forces] were engaged in a firefight throughout the operation.” Carney read this statement, prepared by the Pentagon, in Tuesday’s press briefing, suggesting that the Navy SEALs who entered bin Laden’s compound faced fire for much of the 40 minutes during which they were in the building. But according to a New York Times story out Thursday morning, the exchange of fire may have been more one-sided than that. A senior administration official told the Times that the forces only took fire at the very beginning of the operation from courier Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.

White House Briefing May 3, 2011

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