Saturday, May 07, 2011

US flip-flops create confusion over raid

Osama said to have 'resisted capture'
Killed in a 'firefight', implying he was armed
Said he used wife as 'human shield', killing her

Osama said to have been unarmed
Wife reported to have rushed at his attacker. She was then shot in the leg

No firefight. Gunshots fired only at beginning of raid after Osama's courier opened fire
WASHINGTON: On Monday, the Obama administration said Osama bin Laden had been killed after a firefight with United States Navy Seal commandos, and that he had used his wife as a human shield.

On Tuesday, the administration said that Osama was not armed at all, and that his wife had not been a shield but had rushed at her husband's assaulter and was shot in the leg.

On Wednesday, the administration backtracked again.

This time it downgraded its initial accounts of a firefight that raged throughout the raid to gunshots fired only at the beginning of the nearly 40-minute operation by Osama's courier, who was quickly dispatched by the commandos.

What happened?

In the view of officials from past and present presidencies, it was a classic collision of a White House desire to promote a stunning national security triumph - and feed a ravenous media - while collecting facts from a chaotic military operation on the other side of the world.

At the same time, White House officials worked hard to use the facts of the raid to diminish Osama's legacy.

'There has never been any intent to deceive or dramatise,' a military official said on Thursday, asking that he not be named.

'Everything we put out we really believed to be true at the time.'

Mr Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said that as more and more members of the 79-member assault team were debriefed after the raid, revisions inevitably occurred.

'It was the middle of the night, it was a hectic operation in a foreign country, there was gunfire, so people's accounts are clarified over time with more interviews,' Mr Vietor said.

'What we did was make as much information available to you guys as quickly as we could, and correct mistakes as quickly as we could.'

But the shifting narrative may have undermined the accomplishments of the Seal team and raised suspicions, particularly in the Arab world, that the US might be trying to conceal some of the facts of the operation, including that Osama was unarmed.

'It's had a hugely negative impact,' said Mr Ahmed Rashid, a journalist and author who is an expert on the Taleban and radical Islamism. White House officials 'were overexcited, obviously', he said.

'Liberal Muslims who are very sympathetic to the death of bin Laden really don't know what to think,' he said. 'The American story is very confused.'

From Europe, even Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams weighed in.

At a news briefing on Thursday, he said that the killing of an unarmed man left him 'uncomfortable' and that 'the different versions of events that have emerged in recent days have not done a great deal to help'.

Many of the discrepancies at the White House came from the man who has been part of the Osama hunt for 15 years, Mr John Brennan, President Barack Obama's chief counter-terrorism adviser.

'Here is bin Laden, who has been calling for these attacks, living in this million-dollar-plus compound, living in an area that is far removed from the front, hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield,' Mr Brennan said at a White House briefing on Monday. 'I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years.'

The White House recanted Mr Brennan's assertions about the human shield the next day, and media accounts later suggested that the US$1 million (S$1.2 million) price put on Osama's compound in the affluent hamlet of Abbottabad was highly generous.

The administration stuck with the number, but The Associated Press has reported that the four original plots of land that were joined to create the compound were bought for US$48,000 in 2004 and 2005.

Administration officials said they felt an obligation to the media and the public to put out information about the raid after the President's speech late on Sunday night that announced Osama's killing.

They said they were also eager to get the facts out before the Pakistanis and that country's powerful spy agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, offered their own facts and interpretation of events.

'Do we think it's a good thing for the ISI to be the first ones out of the box?' an administration official asked rhetorically, alluding to the belief among administration officials that some elements of the ISI may have ties to Osama and the Afghan Taleban.

But the people who had the best information about the raid, the Seal members, did not undergo detailed debriefings until after they flew back to the US, a congressional official said.

As the official told it, the Seal commandos returned to their base, went to sleep, were woken up on Tuesday morning - and then the extensive debriefings began.

It is unclear whether the early information about the raid came from quick conversations with the Seal members, their commanders or other people involved. But administration officials said on Thursday that everyone in the US government - in the White House, the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency - was working off the same sheet of information.

Public affairs professionals from previous administrations in Washington were generally sympathetic.

'They were in a tough spot,' said Ms Victoria Clarke, a Pentagon spokesman from president George W. Bush's first term.

'First reports are always wrong. It's a fundamental truth in military affairs.'