White House goes silent on bin Laden raid

May 4, 2011

President Obama ruled out publicly releasing photographs of the deceased Osama bin Laden on Wednesday, and White House officials said they would give no new details about the raid on his compound in Pakistan, an information clampdown that followed fitful attempts to craft a riveting narrative about the killing of al-Qaeda’s leader.

Obama said his decision not to release the photos — described by others as extremely gory depictions of a bloodied bin Laden — was an effort to prevent a global backlash.

“It’s important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence or as a propaganda tool,” Obama said in an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes.” “That’s not who we are. We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.”

The move appeared to contradict CIA Director Leon Panetta’s assertion Tuesday that the photos would eventually be made public, suggesting a split among the president’s top aides, and it drew swift criticism from some Republicans. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) called withholding the photographs a “mistake,” saying it will “unnecessarily prolong” questions about whether the al-Qaeda founder really died.

Just days after one of the most heralded covert actions in U.S. history, the White House found itself struggling to tell the story of the dramatic raid and having to justify the legal basis for it.

The conundrum mirrored problems that the Obama administration has had communicating its national security approach in the past. From the immediate aftermath of an attempted airliner bombing on Dec. 25, 2009, to the early management of the H1N1 flu crisis, the White House has repeatedly labored to prove its command of inflammatory facts during fast-moving events.

This time, officials backed away from several of the most provocative elements disclosed in the first 24 hours. Bin Laden was not “killed in a firefight,” and he did not use his wife as a “human shield,” as originally claimed. White House officials volunteered the corrections, saying the errors were caused by haste as investigators debriefed the Navy SEALs thousands of miles away and officials attempted to brief reporters in real time.

A $1 million compound?

Further questions about the original story surfaced as well. A White House claim that the compound was worth $1 million appeared to be contradicted by property records showing that the land was worth $48,000 when it was purchased in stages in 2004 and 2005, according to the Associated Press.

Administration officials insisted that the $1 million price tag was arrived at through careful analysis and was not inflated. “Abbottabad is a relatively affluent city in Pakistan, and the value of the compound was determined after thorough and rigorous analysis of real estate values there,” a U.S. intelligence official said, referring to the military city where the hideout is situated. “The compound sits on a large plot of land, which also adds to the compound’s value.”

Another official said the three-story structure where bin Laden lived should be included as part of the price estimate, although videos of the building have not indicated that there was anything lavish about it, beyond its extensive security. Nonetheless, White House officials maintained that it is best described as a “mansion” and said the underlying facts about bin Laden’s lifestyle remained true.

“Nothing about the broader point about bin Laden is inaccurate,” said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor. “He is someone who has been sitting comfortably in a home in a suburb while he counseled others to engage in fights. I don’t know what’s not true about that fundamental point.”

Several lawmakers and aides on Capitol Hill expressed astonishment that even in killing the world’s most notorious terrorist, the White House undermined its triumph.

“Why didn’t they just say, ‘I don’t know?’ ” Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.) asked of details that were later corrected. “It goes back to a group of inexperienced people who really don’t know what they’re doing or talking about and yet giving answers.” He added: “What they should say is ‘I don’t know,’ as opposed to trying to shape or craft what they think is a politically expedient answer.”

But other Republicans defended the White House, including Rep. Dan Lungren (Calif.), chairman of the Committee on House Administration. He said that he had seen “nothing publicly or privately to suggest they’re trying to hide anything or trying to alter perceptions other than what actually happened.”

“The only problem I see is they attempted to brief the world in detail before they had an opportunity to fully debrief the troops involved,” Lungren said. “If they look back on it, I think they’d probably say they should’ve waited to have a full debriefing from our military personnel who carried out the mission. But I don’t see any indication that there’s anything untoward, or that they’re trying to hide anything or they were trying to orchestrate anything.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House intelligence committee, said he approved of Obama’s decision not to release the photos. “Conspiracy theorists around the world will just claim the photos are doctored anyway, and there is a real risk that releasing the photos will only serve to inflame public opinion in the Middle East,” Rogers said.

Obama told CBS that his defense secretary and secretary of state advised against releasing the photos. “Given the graphic nature of these photos, it would create some national security risk — and I’ve discussed this with Bob Gates and Hillary Clinton and my intelligence teams, and they all agree,” Obama said.

A senior defense official confirmed the advice from Gates. “His recommendation was to not release the photographs,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the administration’s internal deliberations.

Correcting their errors

Indeed, White House officials said repeatedly that their goal was to keep the public apprised of a compelling operation that was relevant to millions of Americans touched by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

At the same time, they said that failing to quickly assert a story line about bin Laden’s demise could have led to an information vacuum, allowing his radical followers to claim him as a martyr. And unlike prominent incidents during the George W. Bush administration, including the exaggerated rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch and the false account of who killed Army Ranger Cpl. Pat Tillman, Obama advisers moved swiftly to correct their own mistakes.

Some of the errors were minor. The raid was initially described as having taken place on Sunday; it in fact occurred in the early hours of Monday, using local time in Pakistan. A clerical error led to a mistake in the official transcript identifying which of bin Laden’s sons was killed, following a briefing Monday by White House counterterrorism chief John O. Brennan.

During the telephone briefing that senior advisers gave reporters late Sunday night, one official said the United States had “lost one helicopter due to mechanical failure” during the raid. In response to a question about the helicopter a few minutes later, another official asserted: “We didn’t say it was mechanical.”

By Wednesday, administration officials were choosing their words much more carefully. “We’ve been as forthcoming with facts as we can be,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney. “A lot of information came out quickly. When we needed to clarify some of the information that we had, as more information came in, we’ve provided that. But in terms of further details of the operation, you know, I don’t have any for you.”

Carney said the administration is “at a point where we need to be mindful of the necessity to protect our ability in the future to go after other bad guys, perhaps in the same way we went after this one.”

Staff writers Greg Miller and Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.

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