In the midst of celebrating America’s victory over Osama bin Laden, the general public may have missed the fact that the government’s story has already changed a couple of times since the announcement of his death was made on Monday.
But now that people are starting to question how legal the raid was and the media is starting to pay attention to some of those discrepancies, the government is starting to cop preemptive pleas.
In the view of officials from past and present presidencies, it was a classic collision of a White House desire to promote a stunning national security triumph — and feed a ravenous media — while collecting facts from a chaotic military operation on the other side of the world. At the same time, White House officials worked hard to use the facts of the raid to diminish Bin Laden’s legacy.
“There has never been any intent to deceive or dramatize,” a military official said Thursday, asking that he not be named because of ground rules imposed by the Department of Defense. “Everything we put out we really believed to be true at the time.”
Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said that as more and more members of the 79-member assault team were debriefed after the raid, revisions inevitably occurred.
“It was the middle of the night, it was a hectic operation in a foreign country, there was gunfire, so people’s accounts are clarified over time with more interviews,” Mr. Vietor said. “What we did was make as much information available to you guys as quickly as we could, and correct mistakes as quickly as we could.”
Some of the discrepancies include reports that bin Laden used his wife as a human shield, whether or not he was armed at the time of the raid, and the value of the “million dollar” house he was living in.
“It’s had a hugely negative impact,” said Ahmed Rashid, a journalist and author who is an expert on the Taliban and radical Islamism. White House officials “were overexcited, obviously,” Mr. Rashid said.
“Liberal Muslims who are very sympathetic to the death of Bin Laden really don’t know what to think,” he said. “The American story is very confused.”
From Europe, even the archbishop of Canterbury weighed in. At a news briefing on Thursday, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams said that the killing of an unarmed man left him “uncomfortable” and that “the different versions of events that have emerged in recent days have not done a great deal to help.”