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 carried out 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 would discuss operational details only 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.