No Easy Day, the new book about the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, contradicts the official account of his death in ways that highlight the Obama administration's ambiguous approach to terrorists, who are either criminals, enemies, or both, depending on circumstances and political convenience. The book's pseudonymous author, Mark Owen—a Navy SEAL whom military officials have identified as Matt Bissonnette, 36, of Wrangell, Alaska—reports that Bin Laden was shot in the head as he peeked out of his bedroom doorway at the SEAL team ascending the stairs to the top floor of his house in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The New York Times, which obtained a copy of the book yesterday, describes what Bissonnette says happened next:
[Bissonnette] said he was directly behind the "point man," or lead commando, as the SEALs followed Bin Laden into the room, where they found him on the floor at the foot of his bed with "blood and brains spilled out of the side of his skull," and two women wailing over his body, which was "still twitching and convulsing."
The author said he and another member then trained their weapons on Bin Laden's chest and fired several rounds, until he was motionless. The SEALs later found two unloaded weapons—an AK-47 rifle and a Makarov pistol—near the bedroom door.
In the administration's version of events, the lead commando's shot in the stairwell missed, and the SEALs confronted Bin Laden in the bedroom, killing him with one shot to the chest and another above the left eye.
The new book's account, if true, raises the question of whether Bin Laden posed a clear threat in his death throes.
Military officials have said that the SEALs made split-second decisions, fearing that Bin Laden, though unarmed, could have exploded a suicide vest or other booby trap. Critics, however, say that while the military has described the raid as a "kill or capture" mission, there was virtually no chance the SEALS would bring Bin Laden back alive.
As I pointed out after the raid, these details matter under the laws of war, which the Obama administration says apply to members and supporters of Al Qaeda, because soldiers are not supposed to shoot an enemy combatant who is trying to surrender or kill him after he has been captured (or, per Bissonnette's account, incapacitated). Shooting him is justified only if he poses a threat to his captors. At the same time, since President Obama (like his predecessor) views the whole world as the battlefield in the war on terrorism, he could have avoided such questions (while raising others about collateral damage) simply by dropping a bomb on Bin Laden's house. That is the sort of solution Obama has favored for other people identified as terrorists (including U.S. citizens), on the theory that they represent an imminent threat to American lives and that capturing them is impractical.
Yet the administration's rhetoric suggests Bin Laden was killed not because it was the only way to eliminate the threat he posed (whether to the SEALs or to Americans generally) but because he had it coming. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor refers to the raid as "the night that justice was brought to Osama bin Laden," which suggests a summary execution rather than an act of self-defense. When it comes to suspected terrorists who are blown up by missiles fired from unmanned aircraft, the administration argues that it is not depriving them of life without due process because it follows certain procedures, confined to the executive branch, before approving these extrajudicial killings. The Bin Laden raid, because it was more up close and personal, clarified what that means in practice: I got yer due process right here. BLAM BLAM.