When you're dealing with the assassination of the world's most-wanted criminal, you might want to actually know what you're talking about. In the space of 36 hours, the official story on what happened to Osama bin Laden has gone from "he went down guns blazing and taking hostages" to "basically we shot him."
The first report on how Osama died came from Barack Obama. In his statement announcing the death, he said, "a small team of Americans carried out the operation.... After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body."
That was true! But within hours, anonymous senior administration officials briefing reporters in a Sunday night conference call changed that characterization—asked precisely how bin Laden was killed, an administration official answered: "As the President said this evening, bin Laden was killed in a firefight as our operators came onto the compound." In the same call, officials raised for the first time the charge that someone at the compound was using a woman as a human shield: "One woman was killed when she was used as a shield by a male combatant."
By the next day, based on briefings and interviews, reporters had assembled the official narrative: Osama bin Laden died while returning U.S. fire. He attempted to use his wife, who also died, as a human shield. Politico's Josh Gerstein has assembled the evidence: Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan told reporters yesterday that bin Laden "was engaged in a firefight with those that entered the area of the house he was in." He also said that the woman who died in the raid was bin Laden's wife, and that bin Laden's son Khalid was killed. Another Pentagon official told reporters yesterday that bin Laden was "firing behind her" when he was killed.
None of which was true. As the White House acknowledged today in a new "narrative" to set the record straight, bin Laden's wife survived the raid (she was shot in the leg) and was not used as a human shield (she rushed at troops as they entered the room). The bin Laden son who was killed was named Hamza (as Gerstein notes, the White House simply adjusted the official transcript of Brennan's remarks so that it appeared he said the correct name). And most puzzlingly, bin Laden was unarmed when he was shot. According to all the tick-tock accounts of the raid, bin Laden was the final occupant of the compound to be confronted—the rest of the place was cleared. So it's not entirely clear how he came to be shot. Being shot after a firefight and being shot during one are very different things. "Resistance does not require a firearm," said White House spokesman Jay Carney, cryptically. An anonymous source told Fox News that bin Laden was shot after appearing to reach for a gun.
It turns out the White House didn't even know what it knew about the raid. Brennan claimed in a web chat with New York Times readers yesterday that the White House had "real-time visibility" of the raid's progress and had the "ability to actually track it on an ongoing basis." Not so much. CIA director Leon Panetta told PBS's NewsHour that there were "20 to 25 minutes" when commandos were inside the residence "where we really didn't know just exactly what was going on." They still don't!
[Photo of Abbottabad compound via AP. Photo of Carney via Getty Images]