White House fumbles getting its Osama bin Laden story straight
Two days after the US President Barack Obama's triumphal announcement that Osama bin Laden was dead, the White House was grappling with a serious credibility problem: Questions and contradictions are mounting about the how and why US elite SEALs killed the most wanted man in the world at his mansion in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 2. New information proving the first stories wrong comes not just from a defensive Pakistan government but also from US officials.
Dismissing the conflicting disclosures as "artificial stories" and "conspiracy theories" won't wash – not just in the US but in Arab and Muslim countries after Washington was forced to retract data the president's adviser on terrorism John Brennan put before the media on Tuesday. It was admitted tardily that bin Laden was not armed when he was killed, there was no firefight in the Abbottabad villa and his wife was not used as a human shield.
Pakistani sources challenged other parts of the original narrative and Wednesday, May 4, the dead terrorist's daughter told Al Arabiya TV most damagingly that her father was captured alive and then shot by US forces.
Even before that, amid rising demands for evidence that Osama bin Laden was dead, White House spokesman Jay Carney confessed Tuesday night: "Even I'm getting confused."
And no wonder. Monday, in his first statement on the operation, Obama stated: "And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice." Was he talking about a targeted assassination?
Brennan later said that in the firefight in the terrorist's bedroom he had been asked to surrender and was shot dead when he did not answer. Another US spokesman said the SEALs were ready to take him alive.
Other US sources described the shooting as happening quickly – "in the blink of an eye," said one. The Republican leader Mitt Romney remarked: "Osama bin Laden took one in the eye."
His daughter's evidence contradicted this jumble of American versions. Even though she must have had a Pakistani green light for the Al Arabiya interview, her testimony cannot be lightly dismissed because she was present and shot in the leg (later correction: she was not injured) before being taken into Pakistani custody. Her version makes it look as though US troops executed her father in cold blood.
The backlash from her testimony will not do much good to the delicate relations between the Obama administration and Muslim rulers like Saudi King Abdullah which are already tested to the limit over US involvement in the Egyptian uprising and Libyan war.
Pakistani leaders are caught awkwardly between an effort to clear their intelligence service ISI of American accusations of collusion in concealing the al Qaeda leader's presence in its midst, and domestic opinion, which is outraged by their government's suspected connivance with Washington to betray a Muslim figure and permit American forces to violate sovereign territory.
Reporters in Islamabad heard from the Pakistani foreign secretary Salman Bashir Wednesday, May 4: "We had indicated this complex (in Abbottabad) as far back as 2009 as a possible place," after sighting suspected terrorist movements on the property. It was not known at the time that bin Laden was hiding there and there were millions of other suspect locations, he said.
Bashir also hit out at former CIA Director Leon Panetta's comments that informing Islamabad in advance about the raid had been ruled out as "worrying."
These comments are just the start of the war of words building up between the Zardari-Ghilani government and the Obama administration. Islamabad has one major advantage: The inmates of the Abbottabad villa and the injured persons present when bin Laden was killed are in Pakistani custody, some in military hospitals. They can be produced whenever necessary to rebut Arab and Muslim criticism of Pakistan's conduct and fend off any attempts to undermine its ties with the Taliban, which has already vowed to avenge Osama bin Laden's death in Pakistan and Afghanistan and outside those countries.
This verbal war will make further inroads on the Obama White House's credibility.