All Those Operational Details the Obama Administration Gave About the bin Laden Raid? Maybe They Weren't Quite True.


What a difference a day makes. Yesterday: Obama administration officials said an armed Osama bin Laden was shot and killed in a firefight while using one of his wives as a human shield. The wife, we were told, was also killed in the process.

Today: Maybe bin Laden wasn't armed. Or using the woman as a human shield. And, well, she wasn't actually his wife. Also, um, she didn't die. But aside from that…

From The New York Times

The new Defense Department narrative released by the White House, and read at a White House news briefing on Tuesday, said that one of Bin Laden's wives was shot in the leg as she charged members of the commando team on the third floor of the compound.

"In the room with Bin Laden, a woman – Bin Laden's wife – rushed the U.S. assaulter and was shot in the leg but not killed," the brief statement said. "Bin Laden was then shot and killed. He was not armed."

Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, read the narrative in an attempt to correct statements by administration officials who had suggested that Bin Laden was armed during the raid.

Under questioning, Mr. Carney said that the White House stood by its claim on Monday that Bin Laden had resisted capture, but said that "resistance does not require a firearm." Mr. Carney said that the new narrative was the result of "fresh" information.

…On Monday, John O. Brennan, the top counterterrorism adviser to President Obama, said he believed that Bin Laden's wife had been killed while trying to shield the terror leader during the 40-minute raid.

But the narrative released Tuesday by Mr. Carney suggested that the woman who died in the raid was part of another family living at the compound. The narrative says that woman was shot and killed on the first floor, not the third floor, where Bin Laden was found and killed.

Let's assume, for the moment, that no bad faith was involved in the initial transmission of these unfortunate untruths, and that it was all a result of a misunderstanding, not a deliberate plan to spread a convenient story about bin Laden dying a particularly pathetic death. As anyone who's ever played a game of telephone knows, it's tough enough to get a bunch of people sitting in a room next to each other to keep a story straight; in the fog of kinetic military action, it's surely even tougher.

But that's the point: This sort of revision should be a reminder to anyone tempted to take the official story at face value before it's been independently reported and verified. It's easy to ignore the fact that the vast majority of the details reported about the raid came via the usually-talking-point-filled mouths of administration sources, not from firsthand accounts, independent reports, or documentation. All we know is what various senior officials said happened, not what actually happened. This is why it would be helpful for the administration to release documentation—images, video, audio, whatever—that can verify the official account of the raid. But so far, they're not even saying exactly how Obama and other White House officials tracked the operation's progress, only that they followed along in real time. 

The administration deserves a small amount of credit for willingly issuing what amounts to an embarrassing correction—but only a small amount. If you're going to stand in front of the world as senior representatives of the United States government and confidently assert that some historic event happened in some particular way, then you'd better be certain you've got your story straight. By failing to get basic who, what, and where information right the first time around, the administration has undermined its own credibility on what ought to have been a straightforward victory and arguably made it easier for the inevitable conspiracy theories to spread. Good for them for correcting their mistakes. But they should've gotten it right the first time around.