The Navy SEALs knew their mission was to kill the al Qaeda leader, not take him alive
In the weeks before President Obama ordered Navy SEALs into Pakistan in pursuit of Osama bin Laden, administration officials weighed using American warplanes to obliterate the terror mastermind's fortified compound from the sky or sending commandos on a high-risk mission to assault the structure from the ground.
But there's one option the administration appears to have never seriously considered: taking bin Laden alive.
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In an important new detail about Sunday's raid, the White House disclosed on Tuesday that bin Laden was unarmed when the SEALs shot him in the head and chest, killing him instantly. The administration said that bin Laden resisted capture, but hasn't suggested in any of its public comments that the SEALs were in any immediate danger when they opened fire on him during their assault on his compound in an affluent Islamabad suburb of Abbottabad.
The SEALs' decision to fatally shoot bin Laden -- even though he didn't have a weapon - wasn't an accident. The administration had made clear to the military's clandestine Joint Special Operations Command that it wanted bin Laden dead, according to a senior U.S. official with knowledge of the discussions. A high-ranking military officer briefed on the assault said the SEALs knew their mission was not to take him alive.
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Publicly, the White House insists it was prepared to capture bin Laden if he tried to surrender, a possibility senior officials described as remote. John Brennan, the administration's top counterterrorism official, told reporters on Monday if "we had the opportunity to take him alive, we would have done that." A senior intelligence official echoed that sentiment in an interview on Tuesday, telling National Journal that if bin Laden "had indicated surrender, he would have been captured."
But bin Laden didn't appear to have been given a chance to surrender himself to the SEALs.
"To be frank, I don't think he had a lot of time to say anything," CIA Director Leon Panetta said in an interview airing on PBS NewsHour.
U.S. officials have described a chaotic scene inside the sprawling compound as the SEALs fought running gun battles with militants. When commandos reached the room were bin Laden had been sleeping, they made a quick decision to kill him.
"It was a firefight going up that compound. By the time they got to the third floor and found bin Laden, I think this was all split-second action on the part of the SEALs," Panetta said in the PBS interview.
The administration had both practical and moral reasons for wanting the al-Qaida leader dead. Few individuals have been responsible for the deaths of more American civilians than bin Laden, who had orchestrated the September 11 attacks as well as a variety of smaller deadly strikes against American targets. For many at the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency who had spent nearly a decade hunting bin Laden, killing the militant was a necessary and justified act of vengeance.
Capturing bin Laden alive would have also presented the administration with an array of nettlesome legal and political challenges. The White House would have needed to decide where to imprison him, how harshly to interrogate him about potential new attacks, and how - and when - to put him on trial for the killings of the thousands of Americans who died at his direction.