A week after U.S. commandos killed Osama bin Laden in a raid on his hideout in Pakistan, questions about the event linger – and not only among conspiracy theorists.
A series of changes to the administration’s initial account about the daring mission has posed some questions. At an early briefing, officials said bin Laden fired at the U.S. team; now, they say the Al Qaeda chief never picked up a weapon. The White House claimed the commandos were in a running gun battle “throughout” the 40-minute operation; now, officials say only one man in the compound fired, and he was shot dead early in the mission.
As officials walked back their initial narrative, an operation that had seemed nearly flawless produced two days of unflattering headlines.
“They did rush to explain the situation before a debrief of the members of the unit,” said former CIA counterterrorism chief Vincent Cannistraro. “They keep saying ‘fog of war,’ but that’s always the case in every operation. There was too much eagerness to get the story out, and they made mistakes, clearly.”
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney read a statement revising Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan’s account of the raid. Then officials became nearly mute.
During Thursday’s gaggle aboard Air Force One, Carney referred reporters to the Pentagon for further clarifications or questions about the raid. But defense officials – for the third day in a row – canceled the usual off-camera morning gaggle.
Here’s a look at some of the remaining mysteries surrounding the death of bin Laden:
What kind of helicopters were used, and why did one go down?
The official explanation on this conflicted from the outset. During the administration’s first background briefing early Monday morning, one official said a helicopter was lost “due to mechanical failure” and blown up by the U.S. team. Minutes later, however, an official on the call insisted: “We didn’t say it was mechanical.”
Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, said Thursday the helicopter damaged when it hit the compound’s wall was heavily loaded and lost lift because of a change in air temperature. “It was not a mechanical failure,” he said.
One reason for the skittishness about discussing the helicopters is now becoming clear: They were stealthy choppers not known to be used in the field.
“It’s evidently a previously undisclosed stealth helicopter,” said John Pike of Globalsecurity.org. He cited photos of portions of the chopper that show a cover over the tail rotor – likely part of a system designed to minimize sound as well as the craft’s appearance on radar.
While the team blew up the helicopter and any sensitive electronics on board, the end of the chopper’s tail went over the compound’s fence and appeared largely intact.
McKeon said his understanding from talks with military officials was that nothing of intelligence value was left behind. “I got no sense from the military that they had any concerns about it,” he said.
TV news videos show the wreckage being trucked away by Pakistani authorities. Analysts say China would love to have a look at stealthy fabric that covered parts of the chopper, as well as the tail assembly.
“I am sure our friends, the Chinese, would like to get ahold of it, and I’m sure somebody in Pakistan would like to satisfy their curiosity on the subject,” Pike said.
Did a firefight continue through most of the raid or not?
When Carney read the prepared statement Tuesday to correct earlier details about the raid, he said the U.S. special operations members were under attack from the time they landed until they departed. “They were engaged in a firefight throughout the operation,” Carney said.
Also Tuesday, CIA Director Leon Panetta said the shooting continued as the commandos headed to bin Laden’s room on the third floor of a house in the compound. “There were some firefights that were going on as these guys were making their way up the staircase of that compound,” he told PBS’s “NewsHour.”
However, The New York Times reported in Thursday’s paper that only the first man the team encountered fired on them. “He was the only one who got off a shot,” a U.S. official told POLITICO. The official said the U.S. forces continued shooting as the team came across two other men, one who had his hands behind his back and was near an AK-47 and another coming downstairs. “Shooting isn’t the only way to be threatening,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“At close quarters like that, a firefight is not going to last any extended period of time,” Pike said.
The Washington Post gave new details Thursday night about bin Laden’s last moments. It said that when U.S. forces discovered the Al Qaeda leader in the doorway of his room on the third floor, he turned and retreated, and was then shot twice. A U.S. official briefed on the operation told the Post that bin Laden’s retreat was viewed as resistance: “”You don’t know why he’s retreating, what he’s doing when he goes back in there. Is he getting a weapon? Does he have a [suicide] vest?”
Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Thursday that U.S. forces found a pistol and AK-47 in bin Laden’s room.
Unnamed Pakistani security officials said Thursday that their investigation had concluded that nobody in the compound fired on the U.S. team. “The people inside the house were unarmed. There was no resistance,” one official told Reuters. “It was cold-blooded,” another official told the news agency. Pakistani authorities are reported to have interviewed women and children from the compound, but it’s unclear how security officials there have a definitive assessment of an operation they were unaware of at the time.
Were CIA operatives directly involved?
Yes, Cannistraro said: “It was a mixed group. There were some CIA personnel there. They needed a couple of specialists that were not necessarily military.”
It’s unclear exactly what CIA officers would have done, but Cannistraro said forensics are a strong possibility. Facial recognition technology and fast DNA matching are areas of CIA expertise.
Prior to the raid, the CIA established a safe house nearby for a small team of spies who conducted surveillance on the compound for several months, the Post story said. The surveillance at the secret facility relied on Pakistani informants and other sources to piece together an understanding of the occupants in the compound and their daily lives, the Post reported.
Was bin Laden on dialysis?
During nearly a decade that bin Laden spent in hiding, one persistent story was that he took dialysis, which requires a steady stream of medical supplies and well-maintained equipment. Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf told CNN in 2002 that he thought bin Laden was dead of kidney failure.
Obviously, bin Laden lived until Sunday – and there have been no reports of any unusual medical equipment, dialysis or diabetic supplies in his home.
ABC said video it obtained of what appears to have been bin Laden’s room shows “petroleum jelly, eye drops, olive oil, sunflower oil, an antiseptic and a nasal spray.”
“It was a myth from the very beginning,” Cannistraro said of the dialysis stories. “He was poisoned at one point by Saudi intelligence, which gave him kidney failure temporarily. But he was treated for it, and he never required dialysis.”
Why did the U.S. Navy SEALs take a dog along?
The U.S. Army at one time used canines to exploit “Arab fear of dogs,” as one general put it in a 2003 memo – a practice that may have been derived from Muslim teachings that dogs are unclean.
But experts on intelligence and special operations say the dog in Sunday’s mission was most likely there for another reason: to protect the Navy SEALs by sniffing for explosives on bin Laden, on his cohorts or in the compound. Photos of special operations training in the U.S. show dogs preparing to rappel from helicopters, as the SEALs are believed to have done.
“The whole place could have had booby traps. They could have kicked down a door and everything could have blown up,” Cannistraro said. “It’s good to have some help from four-legged friends.”