WASHINGTON — With Osama bin Laden dead and buried, U.S. officials are starting to explore the computer files, flash drives, DVDs and documents that U.S. commandos hauled out of his Pakistani compound hideaway, hopeful that the intelligence trove will yield insights that point the way to other al-Qaida leaders.
The Navy SEALS who staged the daring raid on bin Laden’s compound, now resting at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, also confiscated phone numbers from bin Laden’s body that could provide new leads for investigators.
The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., took note today of the small snippets of information that eventually paved a pathway to bin Laden, and expressed similar hopes for this new trove.
“Small pieces of information can be critically important,” Rogers said on ABC’s “Good Morning America. But he added: “I would be very cautious until we actually know what we have.” Rogers said it would be a big task to go through the cache, which includes encrypted materials and writings in Arabic.
The CIA has set up a task force to review the material from the highest level of al-Qaida’s leadership, providing a rare opportunity for U.S. intelligence. When a midlevel terrorist is captured, his bosses know exactly what information might be compromised and can change plans. When the boss is taken, everything might be compromised but nobody knows for sure.
Bin Laden’s hideout was in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad, the same city where Indonesian terror suspect Umar Patek was arrested in January.
Indonesian officials said Patek, who is suspected in the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people, was in Pakistan to meet with bin Laden when he was arrested. But a senior U.S. counterterrorism official said today that Patek’s visit to Abbottabad appeared to be coincidental, and there was no indication the two men met.
The White House on Tuesday gave a more complete picture of the assault — and corrected some key details from earlier official accounts.
White House officials initially suggested bin Laden had been holding a weapon and perhaps firing at U.S. forces. The corrected account raised questions about whether the Americans ever planned to take him alive, or simply were out to kill him.
Panetta told “PBS NewsHour” that bin Laden “made some threatening moves” that “represented a clear threat to our guys” but was not more specific about what the unarmed terrorist did as the commandos engaged others at the compound in a firefight and burst into their prey’s room.
“I don’t think he had a lot of time to say anything,” Panetta said. “It was a firefight going up that compound. … This was all split-second action on the part of the SEALs.”
Panetta underscored that Obama had given permission to kill the terrorist leader: “The authority here was to kill bin Laden,” he said. “And obviously, under the rules of engagement, if he had in fact thrown up his hands, surrendered and didn’t appear to be representing any kind of threat, then they were to capture him. But they had full authority to kill him.”
The revised account of bin Laden’s final moments was one of many official details that have changed since he was killed in the nighttime raid early Monday morning. Officials also incorrectly said bin Laden’s wife died in gunfire while serving as his human shield. That actually was the wife of a bin Laden aide, and she was just caught in crossfire, the White House said Tuesday.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney attributed those discrepancies to the fog of war, saying the information was coming in bit by bit and was still being reviewed. Nevertheless, the contradictory statements may raise suspicions about the White House’s version of events, given that no independent account from another source is likely to emerge. The only non-U.S. witnesses to survive the raid are in Pakistani custody.
Five people were killed in the raid, officials said: bin Laden; his son; his most trusted courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti; and al-Kuwaiti’s wife and brother. The latest White House account leaves open the question of whether there was any gunfire from bin Laden’s defenders in his room before the commandos shot him.
Obama prepared to visit New York City’s ground zero on Thursday to mark the end to one of history’s most intense manhunts and to remember anew the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks at the hands of bin Laden’s al-Qaida organization. He invited former President George W. Bush, who once famously said he wanted bin Laden “dead or alive,” to join him, but the former president declined.
In Washington, questions flew about whether Pakistan was complicit in protecting the mastermind of those attacks. Several Republicans and Democrats in Congress have raised the possibility of cutting off U.S. aid to Pakistan. The Pakistani government has denied suggestions that its security forces knew anything about bin Laden’s hideout or failed to spot suspicious signs in a city with a heavy military presence.
In a closed-door briefing for lawmakers Tuesday, Panetta said, “Pakistan was involved or incompetent,” a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting.
Pakistan on Tuesday criticized the American raid in its sovereign territory as “unauthorized unilateral action.”
That was a sharp contrast to the initial reaction from Pakistani officials: A US official said today the first reaction from the Pakistanis was to congratulate the United States for the Sunday operation. The sentiment came from Pakistani Army chief Ashfaq Kayani, when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen called him to inform him about the completed operation.
While tensions grew, efforts also were apparent to contain the damage in an important if checkered relationship. The Obama administration pushed back against the talk of punishing Pakistan. So did Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who said, “Having a robust partnership with Pakistan is critical to breaking the back of al-Qaida and the rest of them.”
And Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that despite difficult relations with Pakistan, “They have allowed us to pursue our drone program. We’ve taken out over 16 of the top 20 al-Qaida leaders because of that. That’s cooperation.”
Rogers called the failure to find bin Laden an embarrassment for Pakistan, but warned against cutting off aid, saying: “They need us and we need them. Frustrating? Absolutely. Are they going to be the best partners we’ve ever had? No.”
For the long-term legacy of the most successful counterterrorism operation in U.S. history, the fact that bin Laden was unarmed is unlikely to matter much to the Americans he declared war against. The CIA’s top counterterrorism official once promised to bring bin Laden’s head back on a stake.
Yet just 24 hours before the White House acknowledged that bin Laden had been unarmed, Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, said, “If we had the opportunity to take bin Laden alive, if he didn’t present any threat, the individuals involved were able and prepared to do that.”
Will it matter around the world? Some may try to make much of it in Pakistan and elsewhere.
“This country has gone through a lot of trauma in terms of violence, and whether or not he was armed is not going to make a difference to people who were happy to see the back of him,” said Mosharraf Zaidi, a political analyst and columnist in Pakistan. Yet, he said, “The majority have a mistrust of America, and this will reinforce their mistrust of America.”