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Russ Baker: Who—And What—Are Behind The “Official History” Of The Bin Laden Raid?

August 18, 2011

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When you look closely, nothing seems right about what will surely become the accepted account of the raid that nailed America’s enemy number one. And then things get even weirder…

By **Russ Baker**

By arrangement with WhoWhatWhy.Com.

The establishment media just keep getting worse. They’re further and further from good, tough investigative journalism, and more prone to be pawns in complicated games that affect the public interest in untold ways. A significant recent example is the New Yorker’s vaunted August 8 exclusive on the vanquishing of Osama bin Laden.

The piece, trumpeted as the most detailed account to date of the May 1 raid in Abbottabad Pakistan, was an instant hit. “Got the chills half dozen times reading @NewYorker killing bin Laden tick tock… exquisite journalism,” tweeted the digital director of the PBS show Frontline. The author, freelancer Nicholas Schmidle, was quickly featured on the Charlie Rose show, an influential determiner of “chattering class” opinion. Other news outlets rushed to praise the story as “exhaustive,” “utterly compelling,” and on and on.

To be sure, it is the kind of granular, heroic story that the public loves, that generates follow-up bestsellers and movie options. The takedown even has a Hollywood-esque code name: “Operation Neptune’s Spear.”

Here’s the introduction to the mission commander, full of minute details that help give it a ring of authenticity and the most intimate reportorial access:

“James, a broad-chested man in his late thirties, does not have the lithe swimmer’s frame that one might expect of a SEAL—he is built more like a discus thrower. That night, he wore a shirt and trousers in Desert Digital Camouflage, and carried a silenced Sig Sauer P226 pistol, along with extra ammunition; a CamelBak, for hydration; and gel shots, for endurance. He held a short-barrel, silenced M4 rifle. (Others SEALs had chosen the Heckler & Koch MP7.) A “blowout kit,” for treating field trauma, was tucked into the small of James’s back. Stuffed into one of his pockets was a laminated gridded map of the compound. In another pocket was a booklet with photographs and physical descriptions of the people suspected of being inside. He wore a noise-cancelling headset, which blocked out nearly everything besides his heartbeat.”

On and on went the “tick-tock.” Yet as Paul Farhi, a Washington Post reporter, noted, that narrative was misleading in the extreme, because the New Yorker reporter never actually spoke to James—nor to a single one of James’s fellow SEALs (who have never been identified or photographed—even from behind—to protect their identity.) Instead, every word of Schmidle’s narrative was provided to him by people who were not present at the raid. Complains Farhi:

“…a casual reader of the article wouldn’t know that; neither the article nor an editor’s note describes the sourcing for parts of the story. Schmidle, in fact, piles up so many details about some of the men, such as their thoughts at various times, that the article leaves a strong impression that he spoke with them directly.”

That didn’t trouble New Yorker editor David Remnick, according to Farhi:

“Remnick says he’s satisfied with the accuracy of the account. ‘The sources spoke to our fact-checkers,’ he said. ‘I know who they are.’”

But we don’t.

On a story of this gravity, should we automatically join in with the huzzahs because it has the imprimatur of America’’ most respected magazine? Or would we be wise to approach it with caution?


Most of us are not the trusting naïfs we once were. And with good reason.

The list of consequential events packaged for us by media and Hollywood in unsatisfactory ways continues to grow. It starts, certainly, with the official version of the JFK assassination, widely discredited yet still carried forward by most major media organizations. More and more people realize that the heroic Woodward & Bernstein story of Nixon’s demise is deeply problematical.

And untold millions don’t think we’ve heard the real (or at least complete) story of the phenomenal, complex success of those 19 hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001. Skeptics now include former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke, who recently speculated that the hijackers may have been able to enter the U.S. and move freely precisely because American intelligence hoped to recruit them as double agents—and that an ongoing cover-up is designed to hide this. And then, of course, there are the Pentagon’s account of the heroic rescue of Jessica Lynch in Iraq, which turned out to be a hoax, and the Pentagon’s fabricated account of the heroic battle death of former NFL player Pat Tillman in Afghanistan, who turned out to be a victim of friendly fire. These are just a few from scores of examples of deceit perpetrated upon the American people. Hardly the kind of track record to inspire confidence in official explanations with the imprimatur of the military and the CIA.

The minutes did not pass like days. Bin Laden was not armed, and did not take cover behind a woman. And the commandoes most certainly were not on the ground for 40 minutes.

Whatever one thinks of these other matters, we’re certainly now at a point where we ought to be prudent in embracing authorized accounts of the latest seismic event: the dramatic end to one of America’s most reviled and storied nemeses.

The bin Laden raid presents us with every reason to be cautious. The government’s initial claims about what transpired at that house in Abbottabad have changed, then changed again, with no proper explanation of the discrepancies. Even making allowances for human error in such shifting accounts, almost every aspect of what we were told requires a willing suspension of disbelief—from the manner of Osama’s death and burial to the purported pornography found at the site.

Clarke’s theory will seem less outrageous later, as we explore Saudi intelligence’s crucial, and bizarre, role at the end of bin Laden’s life—working directly with the man who now holds Clarke’s job.

Add to all of this the discovery that the reporter providing this newest account wasn’t even allowed to talk to any raid participants—and the magazine’s lack of candor on this point—and you’ve got an almost unassailable case for treating the New Yorker story with extreme caution.


We might begin by asking the question: Who provided the New Yorker with its exclusive, and what was their agenda in doing so? To try and sort out Schmidle’s sources, I read through the piece carefully several times.

One person who spoke to the reporter, and who is identified by name is John O. Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser. Brennan is quoted directly, briefly, near the top, describing to Schmidle pre-raid debate over whether such an operation would be a success or failure:

“John Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, told me that the President’s advisers began an ‘interrogation of the data, to see if, by that interrogation, you’re going to disprove the theory that bin Laden was there.’”

The mere fact of Schmidle’s reliance on Brennan at all should send up a flare for the cautious reader. After all, that’s the very same Brennan who was the principal source of incorrect details in the hours and days after the raid. These included the claim that the SEALs encountered substantial armed resistance, not least from bin Laden himself; that it took them an astounding 40 minutes to get to bin Laden, and that the White House got to hear the soldiers’ conversations in real time.

Here’s a Washington Post account from Brennan published on May 3, less than 48 hours after the raid:

“Half an hour had passed on the ground, but the American commandos raiding Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani hideaway had yet to find their long-sought target.

“…The commandos swept methodically through the compound’s main building, clearing one room and then another as they made their way to the upper floors where they expected to find bin Laden. As they did so, Obama administration officials in the White House Situation Room listened to the SEAL team’s conversations over secure lines.

“‘The minutes passed like days,’ said John O. Brennan, the administration’s chief counterterrorism adviser. ‘It was probably one of the most anxiety-filled periods of time, I think, in the lives of the people who were assembled.’

“Finally, shortly before 2 a.m. in Pakistan, the commandos burst into an upstairs room.Inside, an armed bin Laden took cover behind a woman, Brennan said. With a burst of gunfire, one of the longest and costliest manhunts in modern history was over.

“‘The commandos moved inside, and finally reached bin Laden’s upstairs living quarters after nearly 40 minutes on the ground.”

Almost all that turns out to be hogwash—according to the new account produced by the New Yorker three months later. An account that, again, it seems, comes courtesy of Brennan. The minutes did not pass like days. Bin Laden was not armed, and did not take cover behind a woman. And the commandoes most certainly were not on the ground for 40 minutes. Some of them were up the stairs to the higher floors almost in a flash, and it didn’t take long for them to run into and kill bin Laden.

For another take, consider this account from NBC News’ Pentagon correspondent—also reported the week after the raid—two days after Brennan told the Washington Post a completely different story. This one appears to be based on a briefing from military officials who would have been likely to have good knowledge of the operational details:

“According to the officials’ account, as the first SEAL team moved into the compound, they took small-arms fire from the guest house in the compound. The SEALs returned fire, killing bin Laden’s courier and the courier’s wife, who died in the crossfire. It was the only time the SEALs were shot at.

“The second SEAL team entered the first floor of the main residence and could see a man standing in the dark with one hand behind his back. Fearing he was hiding a weapon, the SEALs shot and killed the lone man, who turned out to be unarmed.

“As the U.S. commandos moved through the house, they found several stashes of weapons and barricades, as if the residents were prepared for a violent and lengthy standoff—which never materialized.

“The SEALs then made their way up a staircase, where they ran into one of bin Laden’s sons. The Americans immediately shot and killed the 19-year-old son, who was also unarmed, according to the officials.

“Hearing the shots, bin Laden peered over the railing from the floor above. The SEALs fired but missed bin Laden, who ducked back into his bedroom. As the SEALs stormed up the stairs, two young girls ran from the room.

“One SEAL scooped them up and carried them out of harm’s way. The other two commandos stormed into bin Laden’s bedroom. One of bin Laden’s wives rushed toward the Navy SEAL, who shot her in the leg.

“Then, without hesitation, the same commando turned his gun on bin Laden, standing in what appeared to be pajamas, and fired two quick shots, one to the chest and one to the head. Although there were weapons in that bedroom, bin Laden was also unarmed when he was shot.

“Instead of a chaotic firefight, the U.S. officials said, the American commando assault was a precision operation, with SEALs moving carefully through the compound, room to room, floor to floor.

“In fact, most of the operation was spent in what the military calls ‘exploiting the site,’ gathering up the computers, hard drives, cellphones and files that could provide valuable intelligence on al-Qaida operatives and potential operations worldwide.

“The U.S. officials describing the operation said the SEALs carefully gathered up 22 women and children to ensure they were not harmed. Some of the women were put in ‘flexi-cuffs’ the plastic straps used to bind someone’s hands at the wrists, and left them for Pakistani security forces to discover.”


Given that Brennan’s initial version of the raid was strikingly erroneous, his later account to the New Yorker is suspect as well. So who else besides Brennan might have been Schmidle’s sources? At one point in his piece, he cites an unnamed counterterrorism official:

“A senior counterterrorism official who visited the JSOC redoubt described it as an enclave of unusual secrecy and discretion. ‘Everything they were working on was closely held,’ the official said.”

Later, that same unnamed counterterrorism official is again cited, this time seeming to continue Brennan’s narrative of the meeting before the raid, in which participants disagreed on the likely success of such a mission:

“That day in Washington, Panetta convened more than a dozen senior C.I.A. officials and analysts for a final preparatory meeting. Panetta asked the participants, one by one, to declare how confident they were that bin Laden was inside the Abbottabad compound. The counterterrorism official told me that the percentages ‘ranged from forty per cent to ninety or ninety-five per cent,’ and added, ‘This was a circumstantial case.’”

From the story’s construction, one could reasonably conclude that the unnamed counterterrorism official is indeed still just Brennan. If not, who could it be? How many different white House counterterrorism officials would have debriefed the SEALs, if indeed that is even their role? How many would have been privy to that planning meeting? And how many different officials would have gotten authorization to sum up the events of that important day for this New Yorker writer? Also, it’s an old journalistic trick to quote the same source, on and off the record—thereby giving the source extra cover when discussing particularly delicate matters.

It’s relevant to note that Brennan is not only a career CIA officer (they say no one ever really leaves the Agency, no matter their new title) but one with a lot of baggage.

So, we don’t know whether the article was based on anything more than Brennan, under marching orders to clean up the conflicting accounts he originally put out.

UNEXPLAINED DISPUTES

It’s curious that the source chooses to emphasize the fundamental disagreement over whether the raid was a good idea. Presumably, there was a purpose in emphasizing this, but the New Yorker’s “tick-tock,” which is very light on analysis or context, doesn’t tell us what it was. It may have been intended to show Obama as brave, inclined toward big risks (thereby running counter to his reputation)—we can only guess.

This internal discord will get the attention of anyone who remembers all the assertions from intelligence officials over the years that bin Laden was almost certainly already dead—either of natural causes or killed at some previous time.

Here’s a bit more from the New Yorker on officials’ doubts going into the raid:

“Several analysts from the National Counterterrorism Center were invited to critique the C.I.A.’s analysis; their confidence in the intelligence ranged between forty and sixty per cent. The center’s director, Michael Leiter, said that it would be preferable to wait for stronger confirmation of bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad.”

Those doubts are particularly interesting for several reasons: the CIA has had a long history of disputes between its covert action wing, which tends to advocate activity, and its analysis section, historically prone to caution. The action wing also has a history of publicizing its being right—when it could purport to be right—and covering up its failures. So when an insider chooses to make public these disagreements, we should be willing to consider motives.

This dispute can also be seen as an intriguing prologue to the rush to dump bin Laden’s body and not provide proof to the public that it was indeed bin Laden. What if it wasn’t bin Laden that they killed? Would the government announce that after such a high-stakes operation? (“While we thought he’d be there, we accidentally killed someone else instead”? Seems unlikely.)


Now, let us go to the next antechamber of this warren of shadowy entities and unstated agendas.

Who exactly wanted bin Laden shot rather than taken alive and interrogated—and why? There’s been much discussion about the purported reasons for terminating him on sight, but the fact remains that he would have been a source of tremendous intelligence of real value to the safety of Americans and others.

Yet, early in the piece, Schmidle writes:

“If all went according to plan, the SEALs would drop from the helicopters into the compound, overpower bin Laden’s guards, shoot and kill him at close range, and then take the corpse back to Afghanistan.”

That was the plan? Whose plan? We’ve never been explicitly told by the White House that such a decision had been made. In fact, we’d previously been informed that the president was glad to have the master plotter taken alive if he was unarmed and did not resist. So, that’s a huge and problematical discrepancy that is only heightened by Schmidle’s misleadingly matter-of-fact treatment of the matter.

GET ME RIYADH

If the justification for killing Osama presented in the New Yorker warrants concern, the account of how—and why—they disposed of his body ought to send alarm bells clanging.

At the time of the raid, the decision to hastily dump Osama’s body in the ocean rather than make it available for authoritative forensic examination was a highly controversial one—that only led to more speculation that the White House was hiding something. The justifications, including not wanting to bury him on land for fear of creating a shrine, were almost laughable.

So what do we learn about this from the New Yorker? It’s truly bizarre: the SEALS themselves made the decision. That’s strange enough. But then we learn that Brennan took it upon himself to verify that was the right decision. How did he do this? Not by speaking with the president or top military, diplomatic or legal brass. No, he called some foreigners—get ready—the Saudis, who told him that dumping at sea sounded like a good plan.

Here’s Schmidle’s account:

“All along, the SEALs had planned to dump bin Laden’s corpse into the sea—a blunt way of ending the bin Laden myth. They had successfully pulled off a similar scheme before. During a DEVGRU helicopter raid inside Somalia in September, 2009, SEALs had killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, one of East Africa’s top Al Qaeda leaders; Nabhan’s corpse was then flown to a ship in the Indian Ocean, given proper Muslim rites, and thrown overboard. Before taking that step for bin Laden, however, John Brennan made a call. Brennan, who had been a C.I.A. station chief in Riyadh, phoned a former counterpart in Saudi intelligence. Brennan told the man what had occurred in Abbottabad and informed him of the plan to deposit bin Laden’s remains at sea. As Brennan knew, bin Laden’s relatives were still a prominent family in the Kingdom, and Osama had once been a Saudi citizen. Did the Saudi government have any interest in taking the body? ‘Your plan sounds like a good one,’ the Saudi replied.”

Let’s consider this. The most wanted man in the world; substantive professional doubts about whether the man in the Abbottabad house is him; tremendous public doubts about whether it could even be him; the most important operation of the Obama presidency; yet the decision about what to do with the body is left to low-level operatives. Keep in mind SEALs are trained to follow orders given by others. They’re expected to apply what they know to unexpected scenarios that come up, but the key strategic decisions—arrived at in advance—are not theirs to make.

Even more strange that Brennan would discuss this with a foreign power. And not just any foreign power, but the regime that is inextricably linked with the domestically-influential family of bin Laden—and home to many of the hijackers who worked for him.

Is it just me, or does this sound preposterous? Obama’s Homeland Security and Counterterrorism adviser is just winging it with key aspects of one of America’s most important, complex and risky operations? And the Saudi government is the one deciding to discard the remains of a man from one of Saudi Arabia’s most powerful families, before the public could receive proper proof of the identity of the body? A regime with a great deal at stake and perhaps plenty to hide.

Also please consider this important caveat: The claim that the body had already been positively identified via DNA has been disputed by a DNA expert who said that insufficient time had elapsed before the sea burial to complete such tests.

The line about Brennan himself having been a former CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia is just sort of dropped in there. No recognition of what it means that a person of that background was put into that position after 9/11, no recognition that a person of that background and those fraught personal connections is controlling this narrative. He’s not just a “counterterrorism expert”—he is a longtime member of an agency whose mandate includes the frequent use of disinformation. And one who has his own historic direct links to the Saudi regime, a key and problematical player in the larger chess game playing out.

It’s relevant to note that Brennan is not only a career CIA officer (they say no one ever really leaves the Agency, no matter their new title) but one with a lot of baggage. He was deputy director of the CIA at the time of the 9/11 attacks. He was an adviser to Obama’s presidential campaign, after which Obama initially planned to name him CIA director. That appointment was pulled, in part due to criticism from human rights advocates over statements he had made in support of sending terrorism suspects to countries where they might be tortured.

The tales of internal intrigue that we do not hear would begin to provide us with the real narratives that are not ours to have.

Of course, there could have been other sources besides Brennan. In addition to the unnamed “counterterrorism official” previously cited, the New Yorker mentions a “special operations officer,” as in:

“…according to a special-operations officer who is deeply familiar with the bin Laden raid.”

Subsequent quotes from him indicate that this had to be a supervisory special ops officer. His comments are surprising:

“‘This wasn’t a hard op,’ the special-operations officer told me. ‘It would be like hitting a target in McLean’—the upscale Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C.

Whoops! Here’s a Special Ops guy saying the Special Ops raid was actually no big deal! Shouldn’t that, if a valid assessment, get more attention? Especially given the endless praise and frequent statements of how difficult the operation was. I mean, the toughness and diciness of the Abbottabad mission is the prime reason we want to read the New Yorker’s account in the first place!

To further underline the point, consider that this fellow is not alone in his assessment:

“In the months after the raid, the media have frequently suggested that the Abbottabad operation was as challenging as Operation Eagle Claw and the ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident, but the senior Defense Department official told me that ‘this was not one of three missions.’ … He likened the routine of evening raids to ‘mowing the lawn.’”

Why would a person overseeing an operation like this deflate the bubble of adoration? It doesn’t seem helpful to the interests of Special Operations—and it doesn’t seem credible, either. So there’s presumably a reason that this person is—again speaking to the New Yorker after this important exclusive has been carefully considered and strategized. We just don’t know what it is, and the magazine doesn’t even bother to wonder.


Most of the other sources seem to play bit roles. One is “a senior adviser to the President” whose only comment is that Obama decided not to trust the Pakistanis with advance notice of the raid—which we already knew. Another—named—source is Ben Rhodes, a deputy national-security adviser, who does not evince any intimate knowledge of the raid itself.

The New Yorker also includes a few other officials who brief Schmidle on general background, like a “senior defense department official” explaining the overall relationship between Special Operations and CIA personnel, and a named former CIA counsel explaining that the Abottabad raid amounted to “a complete incorporation of JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] into a C.I.A. operation.”

That’s only slipped into the article, but it is perhaps one of the most important aspects of the piece, along with a brief mention of the way in which former Iraq/Afghan commander General David Petraeus has gone to CIA while CIA director Panetta has been made Defense Secretary.

This may sound too technical for your taste, but the takeaway point is that fundamental realignments are afoot in that vast, massively-funded, powerful and secretive part of the U.S. government that is treated by the corporate press almost as if it does not exist. The tales of internal intrigue that we do not hear would begin to provide us with the real narratives that are not ours to have.

In the New Yorker piece, we do learn lots of things we did not know before—for example, that Special Ops considered tunneling in or coming in by foot rather than helicopter. We learn that CIA director Robert Gates wanted to drop massive bombs on the house. General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shared that view—Cartwright is one of the few who is directly identified as a source for Schmidle. That’s important stuff, and worth more than brief mention. And, once again, we need more effort to try and understand why we are being told these things.

________________________________________________________________________

By arrangement with WhoWhatWhy.Com.

Russ Baker is an award-winning investigative reporter and the founder and editor-in-chief of WhoWhatWhy.

  Noam Chomsky: My Reaction to Osama bin Laden’s Death: How would we react if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic? More
 
  Joshua Holland: Was the Killing of Osama bin Laden Legal?: We don’t know whether the administration ordered the Al Qaeda leader killed, but that hasn’t stopped an acrimonious debate. More
     
  Tom Engelhardt: Osama bin Laden’s American Legacy: It’s time to stop celebrating and go back to Kansas. More
 
  Himanshu Suri: Post-9/11 All Over Again: The Hate-Mongers Who Bombarded the Internet After Osama bin Laden’s Death: How racism against Middle Eastern and South Asian people in America is still as alive as ever. More


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