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Five myths about the bin Laden raid

By Mark Bowden,

by Mark Bowden Osama bin Laden is dead, but he remains alive in the rhetoric of both political parties. On the campaign trail, President Obama has been touting bin Laden’s death as one of his singular achievements. Challenger Mitt Romney has suggested that credit belongs instead to “military and intelligence professionals.” The raid could come up again at Monday’s presidential debate on foreign policy. Here’s a recap of what happened that day — and what didn’t.

1. The decision to launch the raid was a close call.

Not really. The idea that Obama bucked the counsel of his key advisers in ordering the Navy SEAL assault on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan apparently arose from reports of the spirited discussions the president held in the weeks before the raid. Vice President Biden’s national security adviser, Tony Blinken, was quoted by CNN as saying: “First, we [didn’t] know for sure bin Laden [was] there; the evidence [was] circumstantial. Second, most of his most senior advisers had recommended a different course of action.”

By the time of their final meeting three days before the raid, nearly all the principals favored sending in the SEALs, according to interviews I conducted. The biggest exception was Biden, who wanted more time to make certain bin Laden was present. However, the president had accepted months earlier that the chance that the al-Qaeda chief was at the compound was essentially 50-50.

Obama’s advisers did provide him alternatives to a direct assault. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, James Cartwright, favored launching a small missile from a drone at “the Pacer” — their term for the tall man who was often seen walking within the compound walls. This carried a greater risk of missing the target but a much lower risk than sending a SEAL team into Pakistan. Gates later changed his mind about the drone strike, but by that time Obama had authorized the raid.

Support for the raid also went well beyond the principals and included the CIA, National Counterterrorism Center officials and the National Security Council staff.

2. Obama called off the raid several times.

This claim was reported by Richard Miniterin his book published this summer, “Leading From Behind.” It apparently appeals to those who see the president as a closet pacifist, but it contradicts every account by the principals involved, many of whom I interviewed. It also contradicts the timeline for mission preparation.

Adm. Bill McRaven, then the Joint Special Operations Commandchief, who was in charge of the raid, gave Obama a fully formed plan in March 2011 and pointed toward the end of April, the next moonless nights over Abbottabad, as the first optimal opportunity to launch. The raid took place on May 2.

3. The SEAL team engaged in a lengthy firefight.

A major exaggeration. It derives from the statements of Obama administration officials who spoke to the news media before being fully briefed on the details of the raid. “It was a firefight,” White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said later that day, explaining why bin Laden was not captured.

But the SEAL team encountered only a single burst of inaccurate fire, evidently from Ibrahim Ahmed Saeed, the courier who inadvertently led U.S. forces to bin Laden. The burst occurred as the team first approached the compound. The team returned fire, killing Saeed. The only other shots were fired by SEALs as they went room to room, killing Saeed’s brother and his wife, bin Laden’s son, and bin Laden himself.

It should be noted that having encountered that initial fire, the team members had to assume that the compound’s other occupants were armed and likely to shoot at them, even though this did not happen.

4. Bin Laden lived in luxury.

This myth comes from statements by Brennan, the counterterrorism adviser, in the days after the raid. He denigrated bin Laden as a hypocrite and described him as living in “luxury.”

Bin Laden was a fanatic and a mass murderer, but no one could accuse him of being addicted to the good life. True, his compound and its main three-story house were large compared with others in the neighborhood — but they housed three families, including eight adults and a dozen or more children.

Nor were they in any way lavish. Bin Laden was a determined ascetic who refused such modern conveniences as refrigeration and air conditioning, even as he lived in some of the warmest climates on Earth. For his final five years, he hid with three of his wives and a number of children in the cramped upper two floors of the Abbottabad house, leaving only to pace in the garden. It was more like imprisonment than high living.

5. The Obama team has eagerly leaked secrets about the raid to reporters.

I wish. This charge has been leveled by political opponents apparently looking to muddy one of Obama’s unalloyed successes. In a July speech, Romney accused the administration of leaking secret information about the raid and said that such security breaches were “contemptible” and betrayed “our national interest.”

The charge is certainly untrue in my case. I worked hard to get close to the story and would have welcomed a leak. In the first days after the raid, White House staff members responded to a flood of questions about the mission — and in some cases got things wrong — but none of what they said revealed secrets. Someone with close knowledge of the raid did speak with Nicholas Schmidle of the New Yorker for his detailed account of the assault, but Schmidle has not revealed his source.

There have also been claims of cooperation with filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow in creating her yet-to-be-released movie version, “Zero Dark Thirty.” But with me, the White House declined to make any effort to encourage those in the military or the intelligence community to talk. White House staffers spoke to me about the decision-making process but offered only guarded accounts of what they learned while monitoring the raid from the Situation Room.

The single biggest leak has come from a former Navy SEAL who has dubbed himself “Mark Owen” and whose book on the raid, “No Easy Day,” has topped bestseller lists for weeks. He was not authorized to tell his story; the Pentagon has said it may take legal action against him. While his account is the most detailed published so far, Owen has argued that he has disclosed no secrets.

Obama hardly rushed to help me, and to my knowledge he has spoken to no other print journalist. He agreed to answer my questions almost a year after my initial request, and spoke only about how he arrived at the order to launch the raid and dealt with its repercussions.

If some in the White House had the urge to do the political equivalent of an end zone celebration after the attack, wiser voices evidently prevailed.

outlook@washpost.com

Mark Bowden is the author of numerous books, including “Black Hawk Down.” He is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair and the Atlantic’s national correspondent. A longer version of this article was published online this past week by Foreign Policy.

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