By MARK LANDLER and HELENE COOPER
Published: May 3, 2011
WASHINGTON — Osama bin Laden was not carrying a weapon when he was killed by American troops in a fortified house in Pakistan, the White House said Tuesday, as it revised its initial account of the nighttime raid.
Jewel Samad/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, answered reporters’ questions on Tuesday about the details surrounding the death of Osama bin Laden. More Photos »
Times Topic: The Death of Osama bin Laden
Members of a Navy Seals team burst in on Bin Laden in the compound where he was hiding and shot him in a room on an upper floor, after a fierce gun battle with other operatives of Al Qaeda on the first floor.
Bin Laden’s wife, who was with him in the room, “rushed the U.S. assaulter and was shot in the leg but not killed,” said the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, reading from the brief account, which was provided by the Defense Department. “Bin Laden was then shot and killed. He was not armed.”
Mr. Carney said that Bin Laden’s lack of a weapon did not mean he was ready to surrender, and he and other officials reiterated that this was a violent scene, that there was heavy fire from others in the house, and that the commandos did not know whether the occupants were wearing suicide belts or other explosives.
Still, the account diverged in some ways from one given Monday by the president’s chief counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan. He had said Bin Laden was “engaged in a firefight with those that entered the area of the house he was in,” adding, “whether or not he got off any rounds, I frankly don’t know.”
Mr. Brennan also said then that Bin Laden used his wife as a “human shield.” But officials now say that the death of another woman in the crossfire on another floor led them to draw that false conclusion.
White House officials said the discrepancies resulted from their haste to provide details about a chaotic, fast-moving military operation to an intensely interested American public. As more of the assault team’s 79 members were debriefed, and their accounts were crosschecked with those of other team members, there were bound to be changes in the account, these officials said.
But the episode also reveals the pressures as the White House, intent on telling a dramatic story about a successful operation, sought to manage a 24-hour news media ravenous for immediate and vivid details. Even as Mr. Brennan was giving his account on Monday, other officials began clarifying parts of the story for reporters.
On Tuesday, one issue officials were wrestling with was whether to release a photo of Bin Laden’s body.
Several experts on the rules of engagement in combat said that in a raid on a target as dangerous as Bin Laden, the Navy Seals team would be justified to open fire at the slightest commotion when they burst into a room.
“If he were surrendering, or knocked out and unconscious on the ground, that would raise serious questions,” said John B. Bellinger III, legal counsel at the National Security Council and State Department in the Bush administration.
“But this is a guy who’s extremely dangerous,” he said. “If he’s nodding at someone in the hall, or rushing to the bookcase or you think he’s wearing a suicide vest, you’re on solid ground to kill him.”
Other experts noted that the members of the Navy Seals faced difficult conditions, moving through dim rooms under gunfire, and needing to make a split-second judgment about whether Bin Laden posed a threat.
“They say he was unarmed now, but did the Seals know he was unarmed?” said Scott L. Silliman, an expert on wartime legal doctrine at Duke University Law School. “It was in the dark. They were wearing goggles.”
At the United Nations, questions arose about the killing. The organization’s senior human rights official, Navi Pillay, called for more details.
While noting that Bin Laden was a dangerous man, she said any operation against him should have been done legally.
During Monday’s briefing, Mr. Brennan said President Obama put a premium on protecting the commandos in the operation, saying that “we were not going to give Bin Laden or any of his cohorts the opportunity to carry out lethal fire on our forces.”
None were harmed, though there was a tense moment when one of the two helicopters suffered a mechanical failure and was destroyed by the commandos.
Despite expecting Bin Laden to put up a fight, Mr. Brennan said the assault team had made contingency plans for capturing, rather than killing him. “If we had the opportunity to take Bin Laden alive, if he didn’t present any threat, the individuals involved were able and prepared to do that,” he said.
Still, Mr. Brennan was eager to draw larger lessons from what he said was Bin Laden’s use of his wife as a shield.
“Here is Bin Laden, who has been calling for these attacks, living in this million-dollar-plus compound, living in an area that is far removed from the front, hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield,” he said. “I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years.”
Leon E. Panetta, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said in an interview with NBC News on Tuesday that the troops’ orders were to kill Bin Laden. “But it was also, as part of their rules of engagement, if he suddenly put up his hands and offered to be captured, then they would have the opportunity, obviously, to capture him,” he said.
Some of the confusion in the accounts of the raid stemmed from the difference in time zones. Bin Laden had actually been killed early Monday by Pakistan time, not late on Sunday as had been initially reported.
Meanwhile, the White House continued to grapple with the question of whether to release the photo of the dead Bin Laden, or other documentary evidence. Administration officials said that they are trying to determine whether the visceral desire among Americans — and some skeptics — to see proof outweighs the potential that such images might further inflame Bin Laden’s disciples.
The photo, taken after Bin Laden was killed, clearly identifies the Qaeda leader, according to one official who has viewed it. “It looks like him, covered in blood with a hole in his head,” the official said.
White House officials say they are still deciding what to do, although one official said that they were leaning toward releasing the photo. Mr. Panetta told NBC News that he did not think “there was any question that ultimately a photograph would be presented to the public.”
Scott Shane contributed reporting from Washington, and Neil MacFarquhar from New York.