ublposterrawalpindi99Reporters have been racing to keep up with a curiously shifting narrative from U.S. officials about last week's daring raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Basic details have varied wildly. For instance, the New York Times initially reported that 79 U.S. Navy SEALs were involved in the raid. But a few days later, White House officials had whittled that number down to a vague "couple dozen" SEALs taking part. Likewise, some accounts of the action indicated that the mission made use of just two helicopters, while others put that number at four. Was there just one of bid Laden's many wives on hand during the raid at the Abbottabad compound--or were there three, as some reports indicated?
To complicate matters further, administration officials--citing the "fog of war"--revised some critical elements of the raid's official chronology, and their edited account dialed down the dramatic element of risk considerably. At first, for example, the White House said that an armed bin Laden had used his wife as a human shield during the raid, and that she had been killed in the firefight. Later, White House spokesman Jay Carney was forced to concede that this version of events was incorrect on all counts: bin Laden was not armed, he was not using his wife as a human shield, and bin Laden's wife had not been killed in the raid, but was shot in the leg; another woman--who was apparently married either to bin Laden's courier or to the courier's brother--was killed.
After last week's confusion, at least some basic answers are starting to emerge--together with a partial explanation of why the details seemed to vary so wildly.
But about 10 days before the raid, President Barack Obama himself decided that the United States should send a larger team into Pakistan as backup, in case they needed to fight their way out. So while two helicopters transporting the U.S. SEAL team performed the raid, they were accompanied by an additional two helicopters with additional U.S. commandos as back up.
The New York Times' David Sanger, Thom Shanker, and Eric Schmitt report:
In revealing additional details about planning for the mission, senior officials also said that two teams of specialists were on standby: One to bury Bin Laden if he was killed, and a second composed of lawyers, interrogators and translators in case he was captured alive. That team was set to meet aboard a Navy ship, most likely the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson in the North Arabian Sea [...]
Under the original plan, two assault helicopters were going to stay on the Afghanistan side of the border waiting for a call if they were needed. But the aircraft would have been about 90 minutes away from the Bin Laden compound.
About 10 days before the raid, Mr. Obama reviewed the plans and pressed his commanders as to whether they were taking along enough forces to fight their way out if the Pakistanis arrived on the scene and tried to interfere with the operation.
That resulted in the decision to send two more helicopters carrying additional troops. These followed the two lead Black Hawk helicopters that carried the actual assault team. While there was no confrontation with the Pakistanis, one of those backup helicopters was ultimately brought in to the scene of the raid when a Black Hawk was damaged while making a hard landing.
Time's Scherer published the gist of all this last Wednesday:
On Tuesday, White House officials began to offer more details on exactly how Obama had shaped the final assault plan. In particular, the President, they said, urged the Pentagon to revisit the number of helicopters it planned to bring into Pakistani airspace on the mission. One of those extra helicopters later played a role in the mission.
The president made his concerns known in a briefing about 10 days before the assault on the bin Laden compound. According to senior aides, Obama felt that the special operations COA, or course of action, was too risky. Under the COA at that time, only two helicopters would enter Pakistani airspace, leaving little backup if something went wrong. "I don't want you to plan for an option that doesn't allow you to fight your way out," the President told operational planners at the meeting, according to the notes of one participant.
So the plan was revised. Ultimately, four helicopters flew into Pakistani airspace, including two refueling helicopters that carried additional personnel. In the end, the extra forces didn't need to fight their way out of the compound, but a backup helicopter did play a key role in the operation. One of the two primary assault helicopters, an HH-60 Pave Hawk lost its lift, landed hard and had to be destroyed. The backup landed to lift its passengers to safety. "The President created the 'fight your way out' option," explained an administration official.
It's worth noting that both the Time and New York Times' accounts seem to reflect a concerted push by White House aides to ensure that Obama himself gets maximum credit for having played a hands-on role in operational decisions.
The Times and other media additionally report today that Pakistan has acceded to one key U.S. demand: that American investigators get access to three of bin Laden's widows who were detained by the Pakistanis after the U.S. raid.
CIA Director Leon Panetta also plans to meet soon with Pakistani spy chief Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, "to discuss the way forward in the common fight against al Qaeda," a U.S. official told the Times.
The plans for the spy chief powwow comes as key lawmakers are increasingly questioning the billions of dollars in aid the U.S. gives to Pakistan's security services.
Most notably, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca), the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence panel, told reporters Monday the U.S.-Pakistan relationship "makes less and less sense," Politico reported.
"Either we're going to be allies in fighting terror, or the relationship makes less and less sense to me," Feinstein told reporters outside the Senate chamber Monday, Politico wrote. "Everyone knew that bin Laden was the head of al Qaeda. Everybody knew that he was the leader of the attack on New York City. And to enable him to live in Pakistan in a military community for six years, I just don't believe it was done without some form of complicity."
(This is a September 1999 file photo of a poster of Osama bin Laden sold in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.: B.K. Bangash/AP Photo)