May 4, 2011

U.S. alters account of terrorist killing

The White House says he was unarmed and didn't hide behind a female 'human shield,' but was shot when he resisted capture.


WASHINGTON - The White House retreated Tuesday from its most provocative assertions about the operation to kill Osama bin Laden, acknowledging that the al-Qaida leader was neither armed nor hiding behind a female "human shield" when U.S. commandos fatally shot him during a predawn raid.

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The Time magazine special issue set to hit newsstands Thursday will have the fourth cover in Time’s history to feature the red “X.” Others showed Adolf Hitler on May 7, 1945, Saddam Hussein on April 21, 2003, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi on June 19, 2006.

The Associated Press/Time

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Local residents and news media gather Tuesday at the compound and house, on right, of Osama bin Laden after authorities allowed people to approach the perimeter of the property in Abbottabad, Pakistan. White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said the U.S. already was scouring through items seized in the raid, including computers, DVDs and documents. There was “more than we were expecting to find,” said a U.S. intelligence official who insisted on not being named. “There’s written material, pictures – there’s all kinds of stuff.”

The Associated Press

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The disclosures put the Obama administration on the defensive about whether it had exaggerated elements of earlier accounts for propaganda gain. At the same time, additional details surfaced Tuesday that depict a mission launched amid far greater political and operational uncertainty than had been revealed.

CIA Director Leon Panetta, who supervised the operation, said in interviews that U.S. intelligence agencies never had photographs or other proof that bin Laden was living at the compound in Pakistan that was targeted. Panetta told Time magazine that analysts were only 60 percent to 80 percent confident that bin Laden would be found.

"We never had direct evidence that he in fact had ever been there or was located there," Panetta said in a separate interview with "PBS NewsHour." "The reality was that we could have gone in there and not found bin Laden at all."

President Obama nevertheless approved the operation, Panetta and other U.S. officials said, because there was little chance of obtaining more definitive intelligence on bin Laden's location, which had amounted to a guessing game for the better part of 10 years.

U.S. commandos left with not only bin Laden's body, but also a cache of computers and other material found at the compound, "more than we were expecting to find," said a U.S. intelligence official, who like others discussed operational details on the condition of anonymity.

"There's written material, pictures -- there's all kinds of stuff," the official said. The material, portions of which appear to have been bin Laden's personal property, were being shipped to CIA headquarters in Virginia for analysis. Some digital files were transmitted electronically.

The backpedaling on the narrative of the operation created an awkward moment for the Obama administration in what has otherwise been an overwhelmingly positive week. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, chided the White House for appearing to exploit bin Laden's demise.

"I think we can get in trouble if people try to misuse this for political or propaganda gains," Rogers said in a telephone interview. "I don't think that's going to be helpful at the end of the day."

White House spokesman Jay Carney attributed the missteps to the administration's "great haste" in trying to share details even while operational updates were still pouring in. He and other officials stressed that the White House corrected the inaccuracies voluntarily as the quality of the information improved.

Other officials attributed some of the confusion to conflicting information in field reports assembled by military officials still trying to document the details of a complex and chaotic operation that unfolded in 40 minutes in the Pakistani garrison city of Abbottabad.

The account that Carney presented differed in key respects from one that White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan provided the previous day. Brennan spoke mockingly of bin Laden's behavior, saying the al-Qaida leader had cowered behind his wife in the lavish hideout before being shot in an intense gunfire exchange.

"He was engaged in a firefight with those that entered," Brennan said, adding that bin Laden had been "hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield."

Brennan said it was unclear whether bin Laden had actually fired a weapon. "Whether or not he got off any rounds, I, quite frankly, don't know," he said. He also said it was possible that the woman in the line of fire, "presumed to be his wife," may have been acting of her own will.

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