More Revisions to the Official Bin Laden Raid Story

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The narrative of the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound is getting another revamp, and this time, bin Laden's youngest wife doesn't get shot in the leg. On Tuesday, the CIA's top lawyer Stephen Preston gave a new account of the May 2011 mission in Pakistan in an address at Harvard Law School. It doesn't appear that the account was intended to shed new light on the raid, however, as Politico's Josh Gerstein points out, Preston "omitted a relevant part of that narrative." 

Previously, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney stated that bin Laden's youngest wife, Yemeni-born Amal al-Sadah, "rushed the U.S. assaulter and was shot in the leg but not killed," in those exact words. But in this week's account by Preston, it sounds as if al-Sadah came away unscathed by bullets. 

“The operation itself was a great triumph for our military,” said Preston, according to his prepared remarks. “There’s the guy first in the room with bin Laden. Charged by two young women. Trained to expect suicide bombers in these circumstances. He grabbed them, shoved them into a corner and threw himself on top of them, shielding them from the shooting [emphasis added] and shielding the guys behind him from the blast if they detonated. His quick thinking, and raw bravery, saved two lives that did not have to end that night."

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It's possible that the woman was shot in some unexpected way that wouldn't come out in this narrative. However, as Gerstein notes, "the phrase 'shielding them from the shooting' seems misleading, especially since the same Navy Seal whom Preston describes as leading that effort appears to be the one who shot the woman." Gerstein also confirmed the contents of the speech with CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood.

So why does this matter? To put this all in context, the reason that the story is being so heavily-scrutinized is two-fold. A) It's arguably the most important special ops mission in the last few decades; and, B) The official story has changed multiple times. To review:

  • Bin Laden had a gun Initially, White House readouts said the terrorist leader was armed when officials killed him. "He was not armed," spokesman Jay Carney said on May 3.
  • The SEALs had helmet cams. On May 12, CBS News veterean national security correspondent David Martin wrote the story "SEAL helmet cams recorded entire bin Laden raid." However, a longer report by Nicholas Schmidle in The New Yorker said that wasn't true.  "The SEALs were not wearing helmet cams, contrary to a widely cited report by CBS.
  • Bin Laden used his wives as human shields White House chief security adviser John Brennan said in May bin Laden's wife was "being used as a shield." Later, the story was corrected to say she actually rushed bin Laden.
  • Bin Laden lived in a $1 million mansion Defense officials initially told reporters bin Laden was "living high on the hog" and the compound was worth $1 million. Later, local estimates pegged it at $250,000. 
  • Bin Laden's son Khalid was killed during the raid In May, Brennan had said bin Laden's son Khalid was killed. That name was later changed to Hamza.
Of course, some of these discrepancies can be chalked up to the proverbial "fog of war," but as the story continues to change, it's getting harder and harder to know exactly what happened that night in Abbotabad.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.