The Pall of Confusion Surrounding bin Laden’s Death

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The 1970 classic

Even when the U.S. government feels like bragging about a military success, it takes several days for the most elementary outline to surface. Now, imagine it’s a secret raid involving sensitive sources and methods that the U.S. doesn’t want to divulge. Pile on top of that a senior White House official a little too eager to spin a yarn of brave U.S. troops taking on a crafty but craven enemy, and you have what we now have: a war of facts over bin Laden’s death (or was it bin Laden?).

The first point is that initial reporting of military operations is always half wrong. Commanders and briefers know that A and C happened, so they deduce that B must have happened, but often it didn’t. But they report B happened only to have to take it back a day later, which sows confusion into the story line. When this happens several times in a single operation, befuddlement beckons.

This ball of confusion, as the Temptations put it, is compounded when the government decides to release only slivers of information. That’s why for the past several days there have been conflicting reports over what kind of helicopters were used on the mission, where they landed, how many troops were involved, and what kind of support they had circling above.

There are good reasons to keep such details secret, but it leads to Pentagon officials and others offering their best guesses as to what happened. Reporters don’t like to quote guesses, so, using journalistic alchemy, they often become facts…that turn out to be wrong. The papers have been full of conflicting accounts since Operation Off Osama went down. The Associated Press had the latest version Wednesday — the SEALs shot bin Laden after it looked as if he were reaching for a weapon.

Then there’s White House homeland security chief John Brennan. He briefed reporters on Monday. Across the river, Pentagon and intelligence officials also spoke to the press. Those folks spoke only on background — no names or cameras permitted — while Brennan went before the lenses and microphones at the White House podium. While the backgrounding officials filled in some blanks in the narrative, they took care to avoid saying too much.

“I’m not going to provide those operational details,” one Pentagon briefer explained. When reporters persisted, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell jumped in — on the record — to referee. “If the point of this discussion is to try to go into operational details of this mission,” he said, “it’s going to be a very short discussion.”

Basically, the Pentagon was looking to put out a storyline that made the SEALs and intelligence forces look good. Nothing wrong with that — they deserve huzzahs. But operational details, as Morrell called them, are like facts: Ronald Reagan called them “stubborn things” because they’re immutable and can’t be massaged into something else. So a fact-free briefing serves the Administration — it gets to tell the part of the story it wants out. It also serves the press — it gets to tell (at least part of) the story.

Did U.S. intelligence actually ever see bin Laden in the months it was monitoring his compound? “We’re not going to get into the specifics at this point about that,” the intelligence briefer said.

Did the SEALs build a fake compound to prepare for their mission? “I don’t want to get into the details,” the Pentagon official said.

Can you confirm that SEALs were involved? “Not going to comment on units or numbers.”

Did bin Laden use a woman as a human shield in his final moments? “We’re not going to get into that kind of detail,” the intelligence briefer said. “That would go to the operational specifics.” Well, if the spooks wouldn’t talk about the human shield, would the Pentagon. Nope, Morrell said. “We concur” with the intel folks, he said.

Apparently, you had to go to the White House, where Brennan was briefing reporters, for those kinds of juicy operational details. His on-the-record answers were far more detailed than those given at the Pentagon. And, a couple of key ones were also wrong.

Did bin Laden put up a fight? “He 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’d — quite frankly don’t know,” Brennan said. “Engaged in a firefight” and “whether or not he got off any rounds” — plainly bin Laden was armed.

Did he use a woman as a shield? “Here is bin Laden…hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield…just speaks to, I think, the nature of the individual he was,” Brennan said. He also referred to “the woman presumed to be his wife who was shielding bin Laden.” It’s a great detail. But why is Brennan stretching the story to try to make bin Laden look even worse? He can’t be any worse. Even if the detail is accurate, it’s gratuitous — the man ordered the deaths of nearly 3,000 people on 9/11. When I was a kid, this was called “piling on” and was frowned upon by grownups.

Within hours, Brennan’s story line started falling apart. Amid the exaggerations and the swirl of questions they triggered, the White House had the Pentagon draft an official “narrative of events” that White House press secretary — and former Time colleague — Jay Carney read at Tuesday’s briefing.

“In the room with bin Laden, a women –- bin Laden’s wife –-rushed the U.S. assaulter and was shot in the leg but not killed,” the narrative reads. “Bin Laden was then shot and killed. He was not armed.”

Carney noted these kinds of things happen in violent, fast-moving events. “We provided a great deal of information, with great haste, in order to inform you — and through you, the American public — about the operation and how it transpired and the events that took place there in Pakistan,” he said. “Obviously some of the information came in piece by piece and is being reviewed and updated and elaborated on.”

Then, like a buzz saw, the questions resumed. “Resistance does not require a firearm,” Carney parried in response to a question about why an unarmed bin Laden was shot. “Don’t want to venture a guess,” he said as reporters pressed for blueprint-like specifics on bin Laden’s final moments. “I always find it better not to do that.” Undeterred, reporters pelted him with questions until he surrendered. “Let me stop. Let me stop,” he said. “Even I’m getting confused.”