By Joshua Holland
The Obama administration deftly shaped the media coverage of its prized kill by detailing a picture-perfect, morally unambiguous special forces operation, which culminated in the death of Osama bin Laden. Most of the details of that narrative have now unravelled, but the conventional wisdom that the tale established remains. As Glenn Greenwald put it, that’s par for the course: “the narrative is set forever by first-day government falsehoods uncritically amplified by establishment media outlets, which endure no matter how definitively they are disproven in subsequent days.”
In his address to the American people, and in subsequent media briefings by senior officials, we were told that a small force of as many as 25 Navy Seals stormed the compound with orders to take bin Laden alive, if possible. White House spokesman Jay Carney said that once inside the compound, they came under heavy fire and “were engaged in a firefight throughout the operation.”
The SEALs killed Osama bin Laden’s son when he lunged for them on a staircase, and finally encountered their quarry in a bedroom, where, after taking a woman believed to be his wife as a human shield, bin Laden died in a vicious fire-fight. The operation, Obama said, was carried out “with extraordinary courage and capability.”
As the week wore on, all of these details were “revised,” and the administration claims that the initial, improbably clean account of what happened was merely a product of the “fog of war.” And, as Salon’sJustin Elliott notes, “despite the major misstatements by the administration on perhaps the biggest story of the year, the media has largely taken a deferential stance” to that position.
Let’s look at what has changed since that first draft of history was written by the administration.
1. No Firefight
John Brennan, White House security adviser, initially told reporters that bin Laden “was engaged in a firefight with those that entered the area of the house he was in.” But on Wednesday, unnamed “administration officials” told NBC that only one person fired on U.S. troops from an adjacent guest house, and once they entered the main residence the “resistance” we were told they faced “never materialized.”
The compound was cleared quickly, said the officials, and rather than a 40-minute firefight, the commandoes spent most of their time there gathering computer hard drives and other potential sources of intelligence.
2. No Human Shields
A senior defense official at the Pentagon told reporters that bin Laden and other combatants “certainly did use women as shields.” Jay Carney “revised” that part of the narrative, saying, “a woman, rather, bin Laden’s wife, rushed the U.S. assaulter and was shot in the leg but not killed.”
3. Kill Team?
Bin Laden’s daughter alleges that the special forces operators first captured bin Laden and then executed him, though that story hasn’t been confirmed. But (yet another) unnamed administration official told Reuters that the team “was under orders to kill the al Qaeda mastermind, not capture him.”
Attorney General Eric Holder claimed that the killing was an act of “self-defense,” but the account given by another official to NBC appears consistent with the idea that they were ordered to kill the terrorist leader.
After entering the bedroom where bin Laden was holed up and shooting a woman in the leg, “without hesitation, the same commando turned his gun on bin Laden, standing in what appeared to be pajamas, and fire two quick shots, one to the chest and one to the head.” There were reports of weapons in the bedroom, but bin Laden was “unarmed at the time he was shot.” When asked if the al Qaeda leader had said anything to the operators, CIA chief Leon Panetta told PBS’ Jim Lehrer, “To be frank, I don’t think he had a lot of time to say anything.” Reposted by