Osama bin Laden was not even hours dead when the partisan posturing, spin, and misinformation began to saturate television and computer screens. Sarah Palin may have taken the cake by accusing President Obama, who had just authorized a covert raid deep into Pakistan that ended with the death of public enemy No. 1 and without the loss of a single American life, of "pussyfooting."
But there's been plenty of spin, myth, and disinformation to go around. For instance:
1. Pakistan raided bin Laden's house before.
Shortly after the US gave its first briefings on how it had tracked bin Laden to his sprawling, fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan officials began to make the case that they didn't know he was there. Sure, an outsider might think that the security cameras, barbed wire, and 7-foot walls even on a third floor balcony were a little bit suspicious, as was the total absence of telephone or Internet lines to the house, but who could have thought that bin Laden would be so wily as to hide out just a few blocks away from the country's most prestigious military academy? And, come on, if we were hiding bin Laden, would we be so dumb as to place him in the middle of a garrison town crawling with retired officers and active members of ISI military intelligence? As Jon Stewart ably pointed out on The Daily Show a few nights ago, the argument seems to be that Pakistani intelligence is far too smart to have hidden bin Laden in Abbottabad, where he appears to have lived for six years, but far too dumb to find him there.
Abbottabad has been known to harbor Al Qaeda affiliates in the past. Indonesian jihadi Umar Patek was caught in the city earlier this year, and former Pakistani President Pervez Musharaf wrote in his memoirs that senior Al Qaeda member Abu Faraj al-Libi had multiple safe-houses in the town that were uncovered around 2004. That nugget was seized on by the Pakistani intelligence official this week, though thanks to the good work of Reuters, to embarrassing effect. The official told Reuters that one of the Libi safe-houses may have in fact been the one that bin Laden later inhabited, his point apparently being that Pakistan was actively looking for Al Qaeda figures in the area, and just got unlucky in this instance. Leaving aside the question of why the ISI would end surveillance of a known Al Qaeda safe-house, Reuters came up with a more troubling fact about this narrative: The house bin Laden died in didn't exist in 2004. The link above contains before and after satellite photos.
Nevertheless, the "fact" that bin Laden's home had been "previously raided" has appeared in multiple news stories.
2. Bin Laden cowered behind his wife.
I was on vacation when bin Laden's death was announced (indeed, still am, sort of). But the claims coming from first unnamed "sources" and then from Obama aide John Brennan that bin Laden, in his final moments, cowered behind a defenseless woman and forced her to act as a human shield, really shouldn't have passed anyone's smell test. Sure, we've all seen it dozens of times before: The villain, finally cornered, loses all bravado and honor and tries to force his own wife or girlfriend to take the bullet meant for him. But where we've seen it is in B movies and television shows. In real life, America's enemies rarely act so cartoonishly.
Brennan's account: "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. I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years."
The US has since walked back almost every one of the claims Brennan made. White House spokesman Jay Carney explained that while a woman was killed in the assault, it was on the first floor, apparently in the crossfire. Bin Laden was found in a bedroom in the second floor with one of his wives, who was shot in the leg as she charged at the commandos. There was no cowering or otherwise use of anyone as a human shield. Mr. Carney attributed the mistaken original narrative to "fog of war."
Perhaps. But the US has been locked in a propaganda war with Al Qaeda and others for years, and would like nothing more than to convince bin Laden's supporters that he was a coward who deliberately put an unarmed women in harm's way in his final moments. Reporters should have been much less credulous in reporting this claim, tailor-made to serve US interests. (This paper was as guilty as anyone: "Bin Laden wives found in compound, one used as human shield" was the headline of a very popular story).
As for the rest? The compound may be worth $1 million, but it surely doesn't seem luxurious from pictures. It appears bin Laden never even went outside for fear of US surveillance.
3. The CIA trained Al Qaeda
The CIA invented Al Qaeda. Trained it, funded it, then it turned on its master. This old chestnut is almost as old as Al Qaeda itself. Bin Laden's death has breathed new life into it. Take left-wing activist and filmmaker Michael Moore who wrote in a tweet on May 2: "The monster we created -- yes, WE-in the 1980s by ARMING, FUNDING &TRAINING in the art of terror against the USSR, finally had to be put down." While it's hard to argue against the logical power of all CAPS or against a man with 800,000 Twitter followers, allow me to try.
The simple fact is this: The CIA did not invent, finance, or otherwise train Al Qaeda. Charlie Wilson and Osama bin Laden never sat down in a Texas hot tub to discuss the future of Afghanistan. And the mujahideen that the United States did finance in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union were, by and large, the ones who lost to the Taliban and its Al Qaeda ally in the Afghan civil war that followed. Bin Laden's anti-American opinions were already well-formed by the time he arrived in Peshawar, Pakistan, in the 1980s to help fund the mujahideen. He was a bearer of largesse, not a recipient, and he directed his cash toward Islamist groups that the US generally avoided, like that of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf.
Of course, there is a kernel of truth to this canard. Did some American money end up in Al Qaeda fellow-travelers' pockets? Certainly possible. The US provided money to Pakistan, and the ISI in those years was certainly dealing with the Afghan Arabs. But that would be the extent of it.
4. Torture saved the day
This is a very odd one. The Monitor has covered this well in the past day or so both here and here. The "debate" is over whether simulated drowning, stress positions, and other torture techniques used by the US government during the Bush Administration helped lead to bin Laden. Many Bush era officials are crowing that the "harsh interrogation" was critical to finding bin Laden.
For instance John Yoo, the Bush justice department staffer who famously wrote memos justifying the use of simulated drowning on prisoners, wrote in a Wall Street Journal column that it was "President George W. Bush, not his successor, (who) constructed the interrogation and warrantless surveillance programs that produce this week’s actionable intelligence." Yoo's evidence for this assertion? He doesn't provide any.
The truth? Well, an important early leads did come form Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the former head of operations for Al Qaeda. Some months after Mr. Mohammed's simulated drowning sessions, or waterboarding, ended, he gave up the nicknames of some of bin Laden's couriers during a standard interrogation. Years of work on those nicknames eventually helped lead to bin Laden's location. Did Mohammed's past experience of torture set the stage for his later admission? Well, one could make that argument. But it appears telling that the useful information came long after his waterboarding had ended, not during.