Freelance journalist scores coup with account of bin Laden raid

August 2, 2011

It’s a remarkable story about a remarkable episode. Three months after Navy SEALs raided Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan and killed the terrorist leader, the New Yorker magazine has a gripping account packed with new and compelling details.

The mission’s planners considered tunneling into the compound but abandoned the idea early on because of the high water table surrounding the area, writes Washington journalist Nicholas Schmidle in “Getting bin Laden.” President Obama and his advisers never saw what happened inside the house in which bin Laden was killed; the only live feed of the raid was from a drone circling overhead. Afterward, Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, offered bin Laden’s body to the government of Saudi Arabia for burial; he was rebuffed, and the body was dumped into the Arabian Sea.

And despite speculation and conflicting reports from U.S. officials, Schmidle leaves no doubt about what the SEALs had in mind when they entered bin Laden’s complex. “There was never any question of detaining or capturing him,” an unnamed Special Operations officer told him. “It wasn’t a split-second decision. No one wanted detainees.”

In all, the story is something of a coup for Schmidle, a 32-year-old freelance journalist who grew up in Manassas and attended local schools (Osbourne Park High, James Madison University and American University). It was also familiar territory for him: Schmidle and his wife lived in Pakistan between 2006 and 2008, when he was kicked out of the country after writing a piece for the New York Times magazine that included interviews with pro-Taliban leaders operating in Pakistan’s restive tribal areas. In 2010, he published a book about his experiences in Pakistan, “To Live or to Perish Forever.”

Schmidle was working on a different article for the New Yorker when news of the bin Laden raid broke May 1. He discussed writing a reconstruction of the raid with his immediate editor, Daniel Zalewski, who took the idea to David Remnick, the New Yorker’s top editor. Remnick agreed to shelve the other story and go full speed ahead: “It doesn’t take a very intelligent editor to know that’s the story we had to do,” he said Tuesday.

As Schmidle describes it, the story was built on about two dozen interviews, including with Brennan and other senior officials. “It’s a circuitous process,” Schmidle said. “One source was willing to share something that gets a second source to talk. That opens up a third source. And then you go back to the first source.”

Determining what wasn’t true was just as important as what was, he says. A TV report that the SEALs wore helmet cams during their assault, for example, turns out to have been wrong.

Schmidle says he wasn’t able to interview any of the 23 Navy SEALs involved in the mission itself. Instead, he said, he relied on the accounts of others who had debriefed the men.

But a casual reader of the article wouldn’t know that; neither the article nor an editor’s note describes the sourcing for parts of the story. Schmidle, in fact, piles up so many details about some of the men, such as their thoughts at various times, that the article leaves a strong impression that he spoke with them directly.

The SEALs, he writes of the raid’s climactic moment, “instantly sensed that it was Crankshaft,” the mission’s name for bin Laden, implying that the SEALs themselves had conveyed this impression to him.

He also writes that the raiders “were further jostled by the awareness that they were possibly minutes away from ending the costliest manhunt in American history; as a result, some of their recollections — on which this account is based — may be imprecise and, thus, subject to dispute.”

Except that the account was based not on their recollections but on the recollections of people who spoke to the SEALs.

Remnick says he’s satisfied with the accuracy of the account. “The sources spoke to our fact-checkers,” he said. “I know who they are. Those are the rules of the road around here. We have the time to do this. There isn’t always time” for publications with shorter deadlines to do the same checking.

Schmidle, meanwhile, says he’s received positive feedback from his sources and others familiar with the raid since the article was published. Among the satisfied customers: Schmidle’s father, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Robert E. Schmidle Jr., the deputy commander of the U.S. Cyber Command.

“He knew I was working on it,” the younger Schmidle says, “but we both decided it was best not to discuss it in advance. We wanted to maintain distinct lines of operation.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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