Why an accurate US account of the bin Laden attack is so important

The fumbled recountings of the attack on the bin Laden compound undermine the operation itself and the credibility of the US government, analysts say. It also helped to fuel conspiracy theories.

By , Staff writer

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    Local Pakistani residents walk past graffiti, which people woke up to early this morning, on Friday, May 6, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, over a wall near the house, where Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was caught and killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
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The assault on Osama bin Laden's stronghold proved to be a tighter operation than the telling of it afterward – tarnishing aspects of an otherwise successful operation.

The mission, capping a drive launched by President Clinton in 1998 and revived by President Bush after the 9/11 attacks, was a success. It not only eradicated bin Laden, but it also appears to have produced significant new intelligence on terrorist networks. Remarkably, it was accomplished without security leaks, despite briefings with as many as 16 members of Congress.

But as happened after the 9/11 attacks, early official accounts of events on the ground turned out to be false or incomplete, fueling conspiracy theories and doubts that the Al Qaeda leader had, in fact, been killed.

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“The last thing we needed is to take an incident like this and turn it into something that becomes not believed or reinforces the sense that we don’t tell the truth,” says James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute. “The political consequences of this in Pakistan are going to be enormous, and the possible negatives have been compounded by the fact that we didn’t get the story right.”

White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said Monday that bin Laden had died in a firefight, “hiding behind women.” The White House clarified on Tuesday that bin Laden had not been armed and that he had not used women as a human shield.

CIA Director Leon Panetta said Tuesday he expected that the White House would release photographs of the slain Al Qaeda leader. President Obama said Wednesday that he would not.

“That’s not who we are,” he says in a yet-to-be-broadcast interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” according to the White House. “We don't need to spike the football. And I think that given the graphic nature of these photos, it would create some national security risk.”

By midweek, the president clamped down on further details on the mission, in a bid to get the story straight. Even questions such as why an operation targeting the world’s top terrorist was codenamed “Geronimo” – an issue taken up by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in a hearing on Thursday – went unanswered. The Pentagon told the panel that it does not comment on code names.

“I find the association of Geronimo with bin Laden to be highly inappropriate and culturally insensitive,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D) of New Mexico, who chaired the panel.

“Is it possible at this moment of national triumph that the deepest insult was not delivered upon Al Qaeda abroad but to a small population here at home?” said witness Charlene Teters, a professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M.

Some analysts chalk up the initial confusion in official accounts to the “fog of war.” “The White house was trying to be up front as quickly as they could,” says Paul Pillar, a former senior US intelligence official who is now at Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security. “In the early minutes after something like this, there’s going to be a lot of smoke and confusion.”

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, popularly known as the 9/11 commission, uncovered significant discrepancies in official accounts in the hours after the 9/11 attacks, especially concerning the response of the Pentagon and civilian leaders on the ground. Conflicting accounts ranged from how and when Pentagon fighters had been scrambled to whether a shootdown order had in fact been issued, fueling conspiracy theories that persist to this day that the government stood down in the face of a threat.

“President Obama deserves enormous amount of credit for being decisive in a very risky decision and, later, for correcting some not very credible statements by White House spokesmen,” says former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, who chaired the 9/11 commission.

White House press secretary Jay Carney chalks up misstatements to the nature of the mission and a rush to get out information about it. It is to the administration’s credit that “when we discovered that clarification was needed, we did put them out,” he told reporters on Thursday.

“They have created more headaches for themselves, some of which probably are inevitable,” says Norman Ornstein, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “There is going to be a huge demand and scramble to get details of this story out, once you know that bin Laden has been killed. But when you get out a story that is not quite accurate, you end up having to backfill and create a different narrative that creates more problems than your initial desire to get out the story solved."

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