David Dayen Tuesday May 3, 2011 6:10 am
The story of the frantic raid on the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad has
evolved over the past 24 hours. What was a very crisp narrative full of
interesting details has not held up. Here are a few examples:
• Initially, the story went that a woman was used as a human shield and
was killed in the firefight. Then counterterrorism aide John Brennan
asserted that bin Laden was the one who held the woman, his wife, as a
human shield. Now that story has
changed. The dead woman was not bin
Laden’s wife, and he did not hold the woman in front of his body in a
futile attempt to save his life. Bin Laden’s wife was on site, but she
was merely injured in the raid.
• Initially, officials said bin Laden participated in the firefight. Now,
they say that
he did not have a weapon in his hand, so
he could not return fire. Also, the position of the bullets has moved;
rather than two shots to the head, it was one to the head and another to
• Early reports stated that acts of torture yielded the key intelligence
– the nom de guerre of the top bin Laden courier – that eventually led
the Navy SEAL unit to Abbottabad. But
Don Rumsfeld himself asserted that the
information did not come from anything but normal interrogation, and if
you don’t believe him, the
new timeline corroborates that the intel
on the courier came well after Khalid Skeikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj
al-Libi were subjected to torture. In fact, the CIA abandoned the torture
techniques used before the courier information was elicited. And the New
York Times says
it was not KSM and al-Libi who gave up
the courier’s name, Maulawi Abd al-Khaliq Jan. Other prisoners told
interrogators the name, and KSM and al-Libi’s denial of having heard of
the name gave them confidence that it was correct. CBS says
exactly the opposite.
• Initially, the story was that one of the helicopters made a soft
landing before the raid began, as it
malfunctioned. Now the story is that the
after the raid and could not take off.
splits the difference – saying that the
helicopter took fire after the SEALs rapelled into the compound, and then
made a hard landing, from which it could not be resuscitated. No other
story mentions incoming fire on the helicopters.
• The official story remains that, while Pakistan aided the US in the
intelligence-gathering phase of the operation, they were not informed
about the mission and the breach of their airspace. And President Asif
confirmed that in an op-ed in the
Washington Post Monday. But other Pakistani sources
claimed the mission was a joint US-Pakistan
operation, particularly with respect to the intelligence,
casting doubt on the official story. The truth will be nearly impossible
to determine on that one.
• The principals in the Situation Room did not watch video of the event
as it unfolded. They watched
Leon Panetta narrating the events from
CIA headquarters in Langley.
• For all the talk of the efficacy of torture or interrogation or NSA
wiretapping, the fact that
Pakistani locals working for the CIA found the
courier and got his license plate seems to have been the most
crucial piece of information. However, other reports claim
it was satellite phone calls that drew
the intelligence operatives to Abbottabad.
• While there was no phone or Internet in the compound, there apparently
was a satellite dish, and bin Laden had
at least one satellite phone.
• Multiple reports say that bin Laden had 30 to 40 bodyguards at his
compound, yet the mission lasted just 40 minutes and only a handful of
people were killed, with no bodyguards left behind.
I haven’t read every single account of the incident. And some of this is
due to the filter of a human being reconstructing events and perhaps
getting some things wrong. But on a number of fronts, some crucial pieces
of information have varied. Whether or not bin Laden was armed matters to
whether the SEALs actually had orders to bring him into custody if
possible or not (that’s another piece of info that has varied). Whether
or not Pakistan was involved and informed of the operation is crucial to
the future of the US-Pakistan relationship (it makes no sense that they
wouldn’t have known, as I have written
repeatedly). It makes the cover story
about Pakistan scrambling fighter jets but the helicopters somehow
getting away sound ludicrous. The different stories about interrogation
play against a backdrop of a renewed – and ridiculous – debate about the
efficacy of torture.
I don’t expect pinpoint accuracy on the narrative from everyone, but I
expect a slightly better lining up of the stories than what we’ve seen.
This doesn’t call into question the entire operation, but it does have
implications across a wide range of issues.