WASHINGTON – U.S. commandos who attacked Osama bin Laden’s compound were operating under rules of engagement that all but assured the al-Qaida leader would be killed, officials acknowledged as they backed away from their initial account that bin Laden had been armed and used a woman as a human shield.
After saying Monday that the American operatives who raided the compound had orders to capture bin Laden if he gave himself up, U.S. officials on Tuesday disclosed an important qualifier: the assault force was told to accept a surrender only if they could be sure he didn’t have a bomb hidden under his clothing and posed no other danger.
Bin Laden could have surrendered only “if he did not pose any type of threat whatsoever,” White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan said on Fox television, and if U.S. troops “were confident of that in terms of his not having an IED (improvised explosives device) on his body, his not having some type of hidden weapon or whatever.”
Added a senior congressional aide briefed on the rules of engagement: “He would have had to have been naked for them to allow him to surrender.”
Once troops exchanged fire with bin Laden allies living in the compound – three men were killed, in addition to the al-Qaida leader – the chances of a surrender were almost nil, experts say.
The surrender issue was one of several on which administration officials shifted ground. At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney read a Pentagon “narrative” of the tense minutes at the compound in Abbottabad that he said was intended to correct information that had been released “in great haste” by Brennan the day before.
Brennan had said bin Laden was armed, “engaged in a firefight” with U.S. forces and shielded himself behind a woman.
“In the room with bin Laden, a woman – bin Laden’s wife – rushed the U.S. assaulter and was shot in the leg but not killed,” Carney said. “Bin Laden was then shot and killed. He was not armed.”
CIA Director Leon Panetta said in an interview on PBS television Tuesday that he did not believe bin Laden had a chance to speak before he was shot in the face and killed.
“To be frank, I don’t think he had a lot of time to say anything,” Panetta said.
Nonetheless, officials strongly defended the decision to shoot. “The right of self-defense is never denied,” said a Special Forces officer.
“If anyone feels in any way that there is a hostile threat in a case like this – it can be a movement, or a failure to follow commands – deadly force will be authorized. It’s a judgment call. And these assaulters are some of the finest most highly-trained in discriminate shooting. They train for hostage rescue.”
The CIA has had grim experience with concealed suicide vests: In December 2009, a Jordanian doctor the CIA believed was their agent blew himself up with a vest, killing seven CIA officers who had come to greet him at a base in Khost, Afghanistan.
Carney also said officials were still mulling the release of a “gruesome” photograph of a dead bin Laden. Officials understand that some people will not believe bin Laden is dead without seeing the photograph, but they are concerned about the “sensitivity” of the image.
He added that the White House stood by its claim on Monday that bin Laden had resisted capture, but said that “resistance does not require a firearm.”
Asked how the White House had gotten the initial story wrong, Carney said that government officials had been rushing to release information about a complex, fast-moving operation.
“We provided a great deal of information in great haste in order to inform you, and through you the American public, about the operation and how it transpired,” he said. “And obviously some of the information came in piece by piece and is being reviewed and updated and elaborated on.”