By Joshua Holland
The Obama administration deftly shaped the media coverage of its prized kill by detailing a picture-perfect, morally unambiguous special forces operation, which culminated in the death of Osama bin Laden. Most of the details of that narrative have now unravelled, but the conventional wisdom that the tale established remains. As Glenn Greenwald put it, that’s par for the course: “the narrative is set forever by first-day government falsehoods uncritically amplified by establishment media outlets, which endure no matter how definitively they are disproven in subsequent days.”
In his address to the American people, and in subsequent media briefings by senior officials, we were told that a small force of as many as 25 Navy Seals stormed the compound with orders to take bin Laden alive, if possible. White House spokesman Jay Carney said that once inside the compound, they came under heavy fire and “were engaged in a firefight throughout the operation.” The SEALs killed Osama bin Laden’s son when he lunged for them on a staircase, and finally encountered their quarry in a bedroom, where, after taking a woman believed to be his wife as a human shield, bin Laden died in a vicious fire-fight. The operation, Obama said, was carried out “with extraordinary courage and capability.”
As the week wore on, all of these details were “revised,” and the administration claims that the initial, improbably clean account of what happened was merely a product of the “fog of war.” And, as Salon’s Justin Elliott notes, “despite the major misstatements by the administration on perhaps the biggest story of the year, the media has largely taken a deferential stance” to that position.
Let’s look at what has changed since that first draft of history was written by the administration.
1. No Firefight
John Brennan, White House security adviser, initially told reporters that bin Laden “was engaged in a firefight with those that entered the area of the house he was in.” But on Wednesday, unnamed “administration officials” told NBC that only one person fired on U.S. troops from an adjacent guest house, and once they entered the main residence the “resistance” we were told they faced “never materialized.”
The compound was cleared quickly, said the officials, and rather than a 40-minute firefight, the commandoes spent most of their time there gathering computer hard drives and other potential sources of intelligence.
2. No Human Shields
A senior defense official at the Pentagon told reporters that bin Laden and other combatants “certainly did use women as shields.” Jay Carney “revised” that part of the narrative, saying, “a woman, rather, bin Laden’s wife, rushed the U.S. assaulter and was shot in the leg but not killed.”
3. Kill Team?
Bin Laden’s daughter alleges that the special forces operators first captured bin Laden and then executed him, though that story hasn’t been confirmed. But (yet another) unnamed administration official told Reuters that the team “was under orders to kill the al Qaeda mastermind,not capture him.”
Attorney General Eric Holder claimed that the killing was an act of “self-defense,” but the account given by another official to NBC appearsconsistent with the idea that they were ordered to kill the terrorist leader. After entering the bedroom where bin Laden was holed up and shooting a woman in the leg, “without hesitation, the same commando turned his gun on bin Laden, standing in what appeared to be pajamas, and fire two quick shots, one to the chest and one to the head.” There were reports of weapons in the bedroom, but bin Laden was “unarmed at the time he was shot.” When asked if the al Qaeda leader had said anything to the operators, CIA chief Leon Panetta told PBS’ Jim Lehrer, “To be frank, I don’t think he had a lot of time to say anything.”
4. Larger Force
According to the New York Times, the team comprised 79 special forces operators and a dog, 3 times the number of troops originally reported. This is relevant to the question of whether they could have taken bin Laden alive had that been their goal. As David Dayen noted, “the SEALs were well-trained and had the element of surprise, and this overmatched their foes, who were not plentiful – there was not a phalanx of bodyguards protecting the al Qaeda leader.”
5. No “Picture-Perfect” Operation
According to the Associated Press, “Navy SEALs carried out what those involved call a textbook military operation that killed the world’s mostwanted man, Osama bin Laden.” It’s an odd assertion, given that the raid appears to have resulted in a coveted, highly classified technologyfalling into the hands of a rival state.
ABC reports that one of the four helicopters used in the raid was damaged and destroyed by the SEAL team. But the parts left behind in thecompound revealed a “top secret, never-before-seen stealth-modified helicopter” that had previously only been “rumored to exist.” According to the report, “photographs emerged of large sections being taken from the crash site under a tarp,” and former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke “said U.S. officials may have reason to worry about where those parts end up.”
“There are probably people in the Pentagon tonight who are very concerned that pieces of the helicopter may be, even now, on their way to China, because we know that China is trying to make stealth aircraft,” he said. The Chinese military is known to have a close relationship with the Pakistani military.
6. Not Living in Luxury
On Monday, defense officials told reporters that bin Laden was holed up in a million-dollar compound and wondered what other terrorists might make of the situation “when they see that their leader was living, relatively speaking, high on the hog.”
I fell for this one myself, writing on Monday that “bin Laden was livingin the lap of luxury among our allies, not in either of the countries we’ve invaded and occupied since 9/11.” But according to The Guardian, “local estimates suggest the house is worth $250,000.”
Footage from inside the compound shows little sign of luxury. Cooking equipment was shown on the floor, the decor seemed shabby, medicines were left on a shelf with no cabinet and the pantry seemed rudimentary. The paint was peeling outside the building and there was no sign of air-conditioning.
7. White House Wasn’t Watching the Whole Operation Unfold
On Monday, John Brennan said, “We were able to monitor in a real-time basis the progress of the operation from its commencement to its time ontarget to the extraction of the remains and to then the egress off of the target.” This gave way to the now iconic40of Obama, Hillary Clinton, and others watching intensely from the White House situation room. But the next day, CIA Director Leon Panetta told PBS, “Once those teams went into the compound, I can tell you that there was a time period of almost 20 or 25 minutes that we really didn’t know just exactly what was going on. There were some very tense moments as we werewaiting for information.”
Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet. He is the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything else theRight Doesn’t Want You to Know About Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America).
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