WASHINGTON (AFP) – The White House on Wednesday declined to shed more light on the special forces operation that killed Osama bin Laden, a day after it was forced to correct explosive details of the undercover raid.
Adjustments to the story, which began to be told late on Sunday, have seen the narrative embroidered with corrections and new details and left a sheaf of unanswered questions.
On Wednesday, however, the White House and the Pentagon called a halt to the disclosures, saying operational techniques that might be used in future raids needed to be protected.
“We have gotten to the point where we cannot cross lines,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. “We’ve gone to the limit of our ability to do that and still maintain some of the things we need to maintain and be kept secret.”
Factual errors concerning some of the most explosive details of the raid related by top officials on Monday had to be publicly fixed.
At first, the White House said that bin Laden was armed when he was shot dead in his compound in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad, not far from Islamabad.
But a day later, Carney corrected the account, saying the terror chief was unarmed when gunned down by a Navy SEAL. The disclosure raised doubts about the US assurances that they were ready to take bin Laden alive.
On Monday, John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s counter-terror chief, said that bin Laden’s wife had died after being used as a human shield in the attack, implying a cowardly act of self-defense by the the Al-Qaeda leader.
Officials soon rowed back from that story too and Carney provided a new version of events on Tuesday, indicating that bin Laden’s wife had voluntarily rushed a Navy SEAL confronting her husband and was injured but still alive.
“On the first floor of bin Laden’s building, two Al-Qaeda couriers were killed along with a woman who was killed in cross-fire,” he said.
“Bin Laden and his family were found on the second and third floor of the building. There was concern that bin Laden would oppose the capture operation and indeed he resisted.
“In the room with bin Laden, a woman — bin Laden’s wife — rushed the US assaulter and was shot in the leg but not killed. Bin Laden was then shot and killed. He was not armed.”
There have been differing accounts also over a fifth fatality in the raid, originally said to be bin Laden’s son.
Carney’s account Tuesday notably did not mention the death of a bin Laden son. Pressed again on Wednesday, he would not confirm it and referred the matter to the Pentagon, but the defense department was not answering either.
The White House spokesman did say that earlier confusion over which of bin Laden’s adult sons had possibly been killed — Hamza or Khalid — had been down to a transcription error.
Carney, who admitted at one point that even he was “getting confused,” put the errors down to the “fog of war” and argued that the administration had been keen to get out as much information as soon as it could.
Another official agreed to speak about the changing story on condition of anonymity, saying that the administration did not regret quickly releasing details, which later needed to be corrected.
“There was a demand for information for one of the most impactful stories… we took an extra step to declassify the most sensitive operation in the US government to meet that demand,” the official said.
“Do you want information. Or do you want it faster — these things always get revised. It was a good faith effort to information in a timely way.”
The administration position won support from Senator John McCain, Obama’s vanquished Republican opponent in the 2008 election, who said the changing timeline and story of the raid had no impact on US credibility.
“No, I’m not worried about it, and anything that anybody tries to detract from what they were able to accomplish is frankly, missing the big picture.”