Yesterday, it was widely reported that bin Laden “resisted” his capture and “engaged in a firefight” with U.S. forces (leaving most people, including me, to say that his killing was legally justified because he was using force). It was also repeatedly claimed that bin Laden used a women — his wife — as a human shield to protect himself, and that she was killed as a result. That image — of a cowardly through violent-to-the-end bin Laden — framed virtually every media narrative of the event all over the globe. And it came from many government officials, principally Obama’s top counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan.
Those claims have turned out to be utterly false. From TPM today:
It was a fitting end for the America’s most wanted man. As President Barack Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan told it, a cowardly Osama bin Laden used his own wife as a human shield in his final moments. Except that apparently wasn’t what happened at all.
Hours later, other administration officials were clarifying Brennan’s account. Turns out the woman that was killed on the compound wasn’t bin Laden’s wife. Bin Laden may have not even been using a human shield. And he might not have even been holding a gun.
Politico’s Josh Gerstein adds: “The White House backed away Monday evening from key details in its narrative about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, including claims by senior U.S. officials that the Al Qaeda leader had a weapon and may have fired it during a gun battle with U.S. forces.” Gerstein added: “a senior White House official said bin Laden was not armed when he was killed.”
Glenn and I had a back and forth about this yesterday on the twitter tubes, and to me, the two important takeaways from this are:
1.) I think comparing this to Tillman and Lynch is inaccurate, because here we have a case of the WH putting out statements, and as soon as they realize they are wrong, walking them back. Not so with those other two cases. Hell, we still don’t know with certainty what happened to Tillman, and never will. And the guy who helped cover it all up, McChrystal, wasn’t undone by his dishonesty, but by a case of Bud Light Lime. Don’t get me wrong, I think anyone in a leadership position in the military who admits to liking Bud Light Lime should be fired, and immediately. But these scenarios are not the same.
2.) Once again, members of the media will simply uncritically repeat anything they are told. The human shield story reeked of bullshit the moment it came out, yet the media repeated it anyway and that will help frame the perception of this mission in perpetuity.
Personally, I’m not convinced there was anything intentionally nefarious done by the WH. As I joked yesterday, the reason initial reports are called initial reports is because later reports often correct and clarify the situation and what has transpired. This doesn’t mean I think the folks on the ground lied to the WH, it doesn’t mean that I think that the WH intentionally polished the stories, it means that there is a lot of shit going on in operations like this. Add in all the chaos, all the radio chatter, the excitement of maybe finally getting bin Laden, the concerns for the troop, the haziness of any combat situation, the media crush and demand to know WHAT HAPPENED, the downed chopper, etc., and you have a situation in which a lot of things can get garbled. Initial reports will be wrong.
But, you say, how could the “Osama used a human shield story” pop up? Well, pretty easy:
On the human shield question, he said at least two women in the compound, including a wife of bin Laden, “certainly resisted and they put themselves against the assaulters.”
“Whether or not they were trying to shield or whether they were trying to attack is still unclear,” Brennan said.
Carney later gave reporters a step-by-step description of the assault that also changed the initial details.
“On the first floor of bin Laden’s building, two al Qaeda couriers were killed along with a woman who was killed in crossfire,” Carney said. “Bin Laden and his family were found on the second and third floor of the building.”
Carney noted “there was concern that bin Laden would oppose the capture operation … and indeed he did resist.”
“In the room with bin Laden, a woman, rather bin Laden’s wife, rushed the U.S. assaulter and was shot in the leg but not killed,” Carney said. “Bin Laden was then shot and killed. He was not armed.”
Carney provided no further details on how bin Laden resisted. A U.S. official speaking on condition of not being identified told CNN on Tuesday that bin Laden was shot when he made a threatening move.
When asked if bin Laden tried to grab a weapon or physically attack a commando, the official would only say: “He didn’t hold up his hands and surrender.”
Earlier CNN reports, which I can no longer quote because they have been edited, stated that a human shield incident occurred in the courtyard, and did not involve Osama but another member of the compound using the women. I can see that easily beinggarbled into Osama using human shields. Clearly that is no longer operative, which makes you wonder- WHAT IS CNN HIDING?
Seriously, though, these things happen fast and furious, and information gets garbled. DDAY has a great piece up on all the initial reports that have since been corrected. The WH was not watching this action unfold on a helmet cam, they were watching Leon Panetta give play-by-play. Add in the fact that this happened thousands of miles away, you had a bunch of excited troops with conflicting reports, it is quite easy to see how initial stuff got wrong.
What is important to me is that the WH seems, at this point, to be acting in good faith, immediately correcting the record when they know better. That’s the test for the WH.