Bin Laden's killing: Firefights? Resistance? The real rule was to kill all the men.

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May 5 2011 12:24 PM

Their Fates Were SEALed

Forget the U.S. version of the Bin Laden raid. Any adult male found in the compound was a dead man.

Inside Osama Bin Laden's compound, where he was killed during a raid by U.S. special forces. Click image to expand.
Bin Laden's compound

As new details of the raid on Osama Bin Laden's Pakistan compound are reported, apparently based on accounts from the SEAL assault team, crucial elements of the initial U.S. story are being abandoned. Instead, the U.S. is justifying its shoot-to-kill decisions based on the team's state of mind.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

Here's what the latest reports indicate:

1. The only shots fired at the SEALs came from the guest house. NBC News, ABC News, the Associated Press, and the New York Times  are all reporting this. The compound had a main house and a guest house. Bin Laden's courier fired at the SEAL team from the guest house. Nobody in the main house fired a shot. These reports, based on U.S. sources, match a Reuters report that according to Pakistani officials, who have presumably interrogated the compound's other inhabitants, "The people inside the house were unarmed."

2. The shooting at U.S. personnel ended early in the raid. The new accounts agree on this point. Initial U.S. claims of an ongoing firefight throughout the raid seem to be discredited.

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3. Nobody in the main house was carrying a weapon. NBC News and the AP are explicit about this. Bin Laden is a more complicated case. More on that below.

In the absence of immediate, objective grounds for shooting to kill in the main house—armed occupants, gunfire from within, an ongoing firefight in the guest house—the U.S. is emphasizing background conditions that justified its shooting decisions. Specifically:

4. The initial gunfire from the guest house created a presumption of armed threat. The New York Times reports that according to administration officials, "because the Special Operations troops had been fired upon as soon as they touched down in the compound, they were under the assumption that everyone inside was armed." An officials tells the Times, "They were in a threatening and hostile environment the entire time."

5. Weapons found in the house reinforced the presumption of armed threat. NBC News reports: "As the U.S. commandos moved through the house, they found several stashes of weapons and barricades, as if the residents were prepared for a violent and lengthy standoff." ABC News adds:

That early gunfire indicated to the SEALs that they might expect further resistance. And they did find a small arsenal of weapons in the home. "We recovered three AK-47s and two pistols from the compound. They weren't storming a PTA meeting. They were storming into Osama Bin Laden's fortress hideout," said the same U.S. official.

6. The presumption of armed threat led the SEALs to perceive occupants as armed. According to NBC News, "The second SEAL team entered the first floor of the main residence and could see a man standing in the dark with one hand behind his back. Fearing he was hiding a weapon, the SEALs shot and killed the lone man, who turned out to be unarmed." The Times adds: "When the commandos moved into the main house, they saw the courier's brother, who they believed was preparing to fire a weapon. They shot and killed him."