The story of the frantic raid on the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad has evolved over the past 24 hours. What was a very crisp narrative full of interesting details has not held up. Here are a few examples:
• Initially, the story went that a woman was used as a human shield and was killed in the firefight. Then counterterrorism aide John Brennan asserted that bin Laden was the one who held the woman, his wife, as a human shield. Now that story has changed. The dead woman was not bin Laden’s wife, and he did not hold the woman in front of his body in a futile attempt to save his life. Bin Laden’s wife was on site, but she was merely injured in the raid.
• Initially, officials said bin Laden participated in the firefight. Now, they say that he did not have a weapon in his hand, so he could not return fire. Also, the position of the bullets has moved; rather than two shots to the head, it was one to the head and another to the chest.
• Early reports stated that acts of torture yielded the key intelligence – the nom de guerre of the top bin Laden courier – that eventually led the Navy SEAL unit to Abbottabad. But Don Rumsfeld himself asserted that the information did not come from anything but normal interrogation, and if you don’t believe him, the new timeline corroborates that the intel on the courier came well after Khalid Skeikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libi were subjected to torture. In fact, the CIA abandoned the torture techniques used before the courier information was elicited. And the New York Times says it was not KSM and al-Libi who gave up the courier’s name, Maulawi Abd al-Khaliq Jan. Other prisoners told interrogators the name, and KSM and al-Libi’s denial of having heard of the name gave them confidence that it was correct. CBS says exactly the opposite.
• Initially, the story was that one of the helicopters made a soft landing before the raid began, as it malfunctioned. Now the story is that the helicopter malfunctioned after the raid and could not take off. CBS’ report splits the difference – saying that the helicopter took fire after the SEALs rapelled into the compound, and then made a hard landing, from which it could not be resuscitated. No other story mentions incoming fire on the helicopters.
• The official story remains that, while Pakistan aided the US in the intelligence-gathering phase of the operation, they were not informed about the mission and the breach of their airspace. And President Asif Ali Zardari confirmed that in an op-ed in the Washington Post Monday. But other Pakistani sources claimed the mission was a joint US-Pakistan operation, particularly with respect to the intelligence, casting doubt on the official story. The truth will be nearly impossible to determine on that one.
• The principals in the Situation Room did not watch video of the event as it unfolded. They watched Leon Panetta narrating the events from CIA headquarters in Langley.
• For all the talk of the efficacy of torture or interrogation or NSA wiretapping, the fact that Pakistani locals working for the CIA found the courier and got his license plate seems to have been the most crucial piece of information. However, other reports claim it was satellite phone calls that drew the intelligence operatives to Abbottabad.
• While there was no phone or Internet in the compound, there apparently was a satellite dish, and bin Laden had at least one satellite phone.
• Multiple reports say that bin Laden had 30 to 40 bodyguards at his compound, yet the mission lasted just 40 minutes and only a handful of people were killed, with no bodyguards left behind.
I haven’t read every single account of the incident. And some of this is due to the filter of a human being reconstructing events and perhaps getting some things wrong. But on a number of fronts, some crucial pieces of information have varied. Whether or not bin Laden was armed matters to whether the SEALs actually had orders to bring him into custody if possible or not (that’s another piece of info that has varied). Whether or not Pakistan was involved and informed of the operation is crucial to the future of the US-Pakistan relationship (it makes no sense that they wouldn’t have known, as I have written repeatedly). It makes the cover story about Pakistan scrambling fighter jets but the helicopters somehow getting away sound ludicrous. The different stories about interrogation play against a backdrop of a renewed – and ridiculous – debate about the efficacy of torture.
I don’t expect pinpoint accuracy on the narrative from everyone, but I expect a slightly better lining up of the stories than what we’ve seen. This doesn’t call into question the entire operation, but it does have implications across a wide range of issues.