What do we really know about Osama bin Laden’s death?

Jonathan Mahler writes: It’s hard to overstate the degree to which the killing of Osama bin Laden transformed American politics. From a purely practical standpoint, it enabled Obama to recast himself as a bold leader, as opposed to an overly cautious one, in advance of his 2012 re-election campaign. This had an undeniable impact on the outcome of that election. (‘‘Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive,’’ Joe Biden was fond of boasting on the campaign trail.) Strategically, the death of bin Laden allowed Obama to declare victory over Al Qaeda, giving him the cover he needed to begin phasing U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. And it almost single-handedly redeemed the C.I.A., turning a decade-long failure of intelligence into one of the greatest triumphs in the history of the agency.

But bin Laden’s death had an even greater effect on the American psyche. Symbolically, it brought a badly wanted moment of moral clarity, of unambiguous American valor, to a murky war defined by ethical compromise and even at times by collective shame. It completed the historical arc of the 9/11 attacks. The ghastly image of collapsing towers that had been fixed in our collective minds for years was dislodged by one of Obama and his senior advisers huddled tensely around a table in the White House Situation Room, watching closely as justice was finally brought to the perpetrator.

The first dramatic reconstruction of the raid itself — “Getting bin Laden: What Happened That Night in Abbottabad” — was written by a freelancer named Nicholas Schmidle and published in The New Yorker just three months after the operation. The son of a Marine general, Schmidle spent a couple of years in Pakistan and has written on counterterrorism for many publications, including this magazine. His New Yorker story was a cinematic account of military daring, sweeping but also granular in its detail, from the ‘‘metallic cough of rounds being chambered’’ inside the two Black Hawks as the SEALs approached the compound, to the mud that ‘‘sucked at their boots’’ when they hit the ground. One of the SEALs who shot bin Laden, Matt Bissonnette, added a more personal dimension to the story a year later in a best-selling book, ‘‘No Easy Day.’’ [Mark] Bowden [in his book, “The Finish”] focused on Washington, taking readers inside the White House as the president navigated what would become a defining moment of his presidency. And then there was ‘‘Zero Dark Thirty,’’ which chronicled the often barbaric C.I.A. interrogations that the agency said helped lead the United States to bin Laden’s compound.

The official narrative of the hunt for and killing of bin Laden at first seemed like a clear portrait, but in effect it was more like a composite sketch from multiple perspectives: the Pentagon, the White House and the C.I.A. And when you studied that sketch a little more closely, not everything looked quite right. Almost immediately, the administration had to correct some of the most significant details of the raid. Bin Laden had not been ‘‘engaged in a firefight,’’ as the deputy national-security adviser, John Brennan, initially told reporters; he’d been unarmed. Nor had he used one of his wives as a human shield. The president and his senior advisers hadn’t been watching a ‘‘live feed’’ of the raid in the Situation Room; the operation had not been captured on helmet-cams. But there were also some more unsettling questions about how the whole story had been constructed. Schmidle acknowledged after his article was published that he had never actually spoken with any of the 23 SEALs. Some details of Bissonnette’s account of the raid contradicted those of another ex-SEAL, Robert O’Neill, who claimed in Esquire and on Fox News to have fired the fatal bullet. Public officials with security clearances told reporters that the torture scenes that were so realistically depicted in ‘‘Zero Dark Thirty’’ had not in fact played any role in helping us find bin Laden.

Then there was the sheer improbability of the story, which asked us to believe that Obama sent 23 SEALs on a seemingly suicidal mission, invading Pakistani air space without air or ground cover, fast-roping into a compound that, if it even contained bin Laden, by all rights should have been heavily guarded. And according to the official line, all of this was done without any sort of cooperation or even assurances from the Pakistani military or intelligence service. How likely was that? Abbottabad is basically a garrison town; the conspicuously large bin Laden compound — three stories, encircled by an 18-foot-high concrete wall topped with barbed wire — was less than two miles from Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point. And what about the local police? Were they really unaware that an enormous American helicopter had crash-landed in their neighborhood? And why were we learning so much about a covert raid by a secret special-operations unit in the first place?

American history is filled with war stories that subsequently unraveled. Consider the Bush administration’s false claims about Saddam Hussein’s supposed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Or the imagined attack on a U.S. vessel in the Gulf of Tonkin. During the Bay of Pigs, the government inflated the number of fighters it dispatched to Cuba in hopes of encouraging local citizens to rise up and join them. When the operation failed, the government quickly deflated the number, claiming that it hadn’t been an invasion at all but rather a modest attempt to deliver supplies to local guerrillas. More recently, the Army reported that the ex-N.F.L. safety Pat Tillman was killed by enemy fire, rather than acknowledging that he was accidentally shot in the head by a machine-gunner from his own unit.

These false stories couldn’t have reached the public without the help of the media. Reporters don’t just find facts; they look for narratives. And an appealing narrative can exert a powerful gravitational pull that winds up bending facts in its direction. [Continue reading…]

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