WASHINGTON — On Monday, the Obama administration said Osama bin Laden had been killed after a firefight with Navy SEAL commandos, and that he had used his wife as a human shield. On Tuesday, the administration said that bin Laden was not armed at all, and that his wife had not been a shield but had rushed her husband’s assaulter and was shot in the leg.
On Wednesday, the administration backtracked again. This time it downgraded its initial accounts of a firefight that raged throughout the raid to gunshots fired only at the beginning of the nearly 40-minute operation by bin Laden’s courier, who was quickly dispatched by the commandos.
In the view of officials from past and present presidencies, it was a classic collision of a White House desire to promote a stunning national security triumph — and feed a ravenous media — while collecting facts from a chaotic military operation on the other side of the world. At the same time, White House officials worked hard to use the facts of the raid to diminish bin Laden’s legacy.
“There has never been any intent to deceive or dramatize,” a military official said Thursday, asking that he not be named because of ground rules imposed by the Department of Defense. “Everything we put out we really believed to be true at the time.”
Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said that as more and more members of the 79-member assault team were debriefed after the raid, revisions inevitably occurred.
“It was the middle of the night, it was a hectic operation in a foreign country, there was gunfire, so people’s accounts are clarified over time with more interviews,” Vietor said. “What we did was make as much information available to you guys as quickly as we could, and correct mistakes as quickly as we could.”
But the shifting narrative may have undermined the accomplishments of the SEAL team and raised suspicions, particularly in the Arab world, that the U.S. might be trying to conceal some of the facts of the operation, including that bin Laden was unarmed.
“It’s had a hugely negative impact,” said Ahmed Rashid, a journalist and author who is an expert on the Taliban and radical Islamism. White House officials “were overexcited, obviously,” Rashid said.
“Liberal Muslims who are very sympathetic to the death of bin Laden really don’t know what to think,” he said. “The American story is very confused.”
From Europe, even the archbishop of Canterbury weighed in. At a news briefing Thursday, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams said that the killing of an unarmed man left him “uncomfortable” and that “the different versions of events that have emerged in recent days have not done a great deal to help.”
Many of the discrepancies at the White House came from the man who has been part of the bin Laden hunt for 15 years, John Brennan, the president’s chief counterterrorism adviser.