Osama bin Laden hid in his bedroom for at least 15 minutes as Navy SEALs battled their way through his Pakistani compound, making no attempt to arm himself before a U.S. commando shot him as he peeked from his doorway, according to the first published account by a participant in the now-famous raid on May 2, 2011.
The account, in a book by one of the SEAL team leaders, sheds new light on the al-Qaeda chief’s final moments. In the account, bin Laden appears neither to surrender nor to directly challenge the Special Forces troops who killed his son and two associates while working their way to his third-floor apartment. A White House narrative of the raid had acknowledged that bin Laden was unarmed when he was killed but suggested that he posed a threat to the U.S. commandos.
The depiction of an apparently passive bin Laden is among dozens of revelations in the book, “No Easy Day,” which chronicles the raid in minute and often harrowing detail, from the nearly disastrous helicopter crash in the opening seconds to the shots fired into bin Laden’s twitching body as he lay apparently dead from a gunshot wound to the temple.
The book also has provided fresh fodder for partisans in the long-simmering controversy over the Obama administration’s handling of the raid’s aftermath. Author Matt Bissonnette’s account, written without Pentagon or White House approval, is being published at a time when the administration is cracking down on unauthorized leaks while also fending off accusations that it sought to exploit the success of the raid by offering unusual access to filmmakers.
Republicans have sought to diminish President Obama’s most significant counterterrorism achievement by accusing the White House of selectively leaking details about the raid to ensure a favorable portrayal of the president. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has decried such leaks as “contemptible” and called for an independent investigation. The White House has denied authorizing the release of classified information for political gain.
Bissonnette, who retired last year, writes that the commandos knew that their successful mission would be exploited for political purposes. “We just got this guy re-elected,” Bissonnette quotes one of his SEAL comrades as saying of Obama in the hours after the team returned to its base in Afghanistan.
At the same time, Bissonnette credits Obama for having the courage to order the raid, and he describes being impressed by the president’s understated speech announcing the al-Qaeda leader’s death to the world. “None of us were huge fans of Obama,” Bissonnette writes in the book. “We respected him as the commander-in-chief of the military and for giving us the green light on the mission.”
In a “CBS Evening News” clip from a segment of “60 Minutes” scheduled to air Sunday, Bissonnette said the book was not intended to be political. “You know, if these crazies on either side of the aisle want to make it political, shame on them,” he said. “This is a book about September 11th and it needs to rest on September 11th, not be brought into the political arena.”
The book, which Bissonnette wrote under the pseudonym Mark Owen, is scheduled for publication next week. A copy was obtained by The Washington Post.
The book presents what is by far the most intimate account of the high-stakes assault on bin Laden’s hideout, from the weeks of training by the SEALs at a secret base in North Carolina to the team’s race to return to Afghanistan ahead of Pakistani military jets that were scrambled to intercept the intruders. It also provides fresh and often colorful details of a mission that has been reconstructed repeatedly over the past 16 months, from bin Laden’s personal grooming and housekeeping to the frantic efforts to verify the al-Qaeda leader’s identity as he lay in pool of blood near wailing and shell-shocked family members.
Bissonnette asserts in an author’s note that he revealed no classified information in the book. He says he took “great pains to protect the tactics, techniques and procedures” of U.S. Special Forces teams and to conceal the identities of his active-duty comrades.
Still, his decision to write an unauthorized account has drawn criticism from Pentagon officials who decried the break with a time-honored tradition of secrecy by the elite SEAL unit that carried out the raid. Officials were “livid” over the book when they learned of it, according to a military contractor who has worked for U.S. Special Operations Command and who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
But on Wednesday, as news media published the first excerpts from the book, such criticisms were conspicuously absent. Defense officials, who received a copy of the manuscript Saturday, declined to take issue with Bissonnette’s account and gave no signals that they intend to take punitive action against him. Unlike the CIA’s strict censorship requirements for its officers, the Navy has no rule requiring former service members to submit a book to authorities for pre-publication review.
Administration officials privately expressed surprise over details that they said contradicted official after-action reports about the raid. But a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council declined to challenge the author or his narrative. “As President Obama said on the night that justice was brought to Osama bin Laden, ‘We give thanks for the men who carried out this operation, for they exemplify the professionalism, patriotism and unparalleled courage of those who serve our country,’ ” said the spokesman, Tommy Vietor.
In the book, Bissonnette says he was motivated to write in part to clear up inaccuracies in official and published accounts of the raid. His version of events is largely consistent with the amended accounts offered by White House officials in the days after bin Laden’s death.
The author describes weeks of training, using elaborately produced, full-scale models of bin Laden’s compound. He describes seeing CIA surveillance video of a figure believed to be bin Laden — a man dubbed “the Pacer” because of his habitual strolls inside the compound’s high walls. A CIA officer assigned to the case assured the SEALs that she was “one hundred percent” certain that the mysterious stroller was bin Laden, though White House officials would later acknowledge doubts about whether the intelligence was reliable.
The question of whether the terrorist leader would be killed or captured came up in briefings, Bissonnette writes. At one point, a government lawyer — perhaps a White House or Defense Department official — makes clear that “this wasn’t an assassination,” the author says.
“If he is naked with his hands up, you’re not going to engage him,” Bissonnette quotes the lawyer saying. “I am not going to tell you how to do your job. What we’re saying is, if he does not pose a threat, you will detain him.”
But according to the book, the SEALs decided to take no chances as they confronted the dark-bearded man who peered at them from his doorway on the villa’s third floor. By then, the raid was 15 minutes old and the occupants of the house had long been alerted to the presence of the team after multiple shootouts and the explosions from door-breaching charges on the lower floors. Crouching a few feet behind the point man in the assault team, Bissonnette knew that his team could be walking into an ambush because bin Laden “had plenty of time to strap on a suicide vest or simply get his gun.”
The lead SEAL fired at the man, who disappeared into the dark room behind him. Cautiously entering the room with guns drawn, the SEALs saw bin Laden lying at the foot of a bed with two women standing over him. He had been shot in the head and blood was pooling beneath him.
Bissonnette and other SEALs fired more rounds into bin Laden’s chest to make certain he was dead. Only later, during a search of the room, did he discover a pair of guns on a shelf near the door where bin Laden had been standing. Both were empty, Bissonnette wrote.
“He hadn’t even prepared a defense,” the retired SEAL recalled. “He had no intention of fighting. He asked his followers for decades to wear suicide vests or fly planes into buildings, but he didn’t even pick up his weapon.”
Greg Miller, Dana Priest and Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.