WASHINGTON >> Killing Osama bin Laden was a big victory for the U.S., but how exactly the raid went down is another story — and another, and another.
Over two days, the White House has offered contradictory versions of events, including misidentifying which of bin Laden’s sons was killed and wrongly saying bin Laden’s wife died in gunfire, as it tries to sort through what the president’s press secretary called the "fog of combat" and produce an accurate account.
Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday that officials were trying to get information out as quickly as possible about the complex event witnessed by just a handful of people, and the story line was being corrected.
"We provided a great deal of information with great haste in order to inform you. … And obviously some of the information was, came in piece by piece and is being reviewed and updated and elaborated on," Carney said.
The contradictions and misstatements reflect the fact that even in the case of a highly successful and popular mission, the confusion inherent in a fast-paced, unpredictable military raid conducted under intense pressure in a foreign country does not lend itself immediately to a tidy story line, some experts said.
"People are demanding the equivalent of a movie, they want to know scene by scene the most trivial details. You’re in the middle of a combat operation," said Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"One of the things we all have to be careful about is the idea that you can suddenly rush to transparency and understanding in a matter of minutes or hours on the first day of an event like this."
The circumstances for the Navy SEALs involved hardly lent themselves to careful note-taking. One of their helicopters stalled even before they rushed bin Laden’s compound, entering different rooms from different angles, not knowing who they’d find and then, according to the White House, engaging in a firefight. Some of what happened during those 40 minutes in Abbottabad, Pakistan, may never be known.
Nevertheless, the contradictory statements seem certain to raise suspicions about the White House’s version of events, given that no independent account from another source is likely to emerge. The only non-U.S. witnesses to survive the raid are in Pakistani custody.
Some of the White House contradictions and corrections that have emerged so far:
—White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan told reporters Monday that bin Laden’s son Khalid was killed in the raid. When the White House released a transcript of Brennan’s briefing, the name had been corrected to that of another son, Hamza.
—Brennan said bin Laden’s wife died while shielding the terrorist leader from U.S. gunfire. Carney said Tuesday that the wife hadn’t died and was merely shot in the leg, although another woman did die. But it wasn’t clear that either of them was trying to shield bin Laden.
—Brennan and other officials suggested that bin Laden was holding a gun and even firing at U.S. forces. Carney said Tuesday that bin Laden was unarmed.
—Officials have offered varying accounts of how President Barack Obama and his team in the White House Situation Room were able to monitor the raid. Without providing details on the technology involved, Brennan said that "we were able to monitor in a real-time basis the progress of the operation from its commencement to its time on target to the extraction of the remains and to then the egress off of the target."
CIA Director Leon Panetta told PBS on Tuesday that "Once those teams went into the compound, I can tell you that there was a time period of almost 20 or 25 minutes that we really didn’t know just exactly what was going on."
—The night of the raid, administration officials held a telephone briefing for reporters. "During the raid, we lost one helicopter due to mechanical failure," one of the administration officials said. Later in the same call, another official contradicted that: "We didn’t say it was mechanical."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, clarified Tuesday that the explanation was more technical: The air temperature in the compound was hotter than expected and the helicopter was too heavy to stay aloft under that condition.