Osama Bin Laden news reports: Read all you want, but read skeptically.

Media criticism.
May 2 2011 6:34 PM

How To Read the Bin Laden Coverage

Skeptically.

Elsewhere in Slate, Daniel Byman analyzes the future of al-Qaida after Osama Bin Laden, John Dickerson looks at Obama's secret meetings, and Annie Lowrey asks who might get the $25 million reward. Dahlia Lithwick says it's time to end the war on terror, Chris Beam explains the mood in Pakistan, and Dave Weigel looks at Congress' reaction. For the most up-to-date-coverage, visit the Slatest. Slate's complete coverage is rounded up here.

What really happened?
What really happened?

The snuffing of Osama Bin Laden has already filled the Snake River Canyon with a torrent of coverage from newspapers, the Web, and television. The news output will only expand in the coming days, and as it does, remain skeptical about it. As we know from the coverage of other major breaking-news events—the Mumbai massacre, the death of Pat Tillman, Hurricane Katrina, the rescue of Jessica Lynch, to cite just a few examples—the earliest coverage of a big story is rarely reliable.

I mean this as no criticism. I'm grateful to the reporters who are feeding our demand for Bin Laden news on extremely tight deadlines. But the fog of breaking news almost always cloaks the truth, especially when the deadline news event is a super-top-secret military operation conducted by commandos halfway around the world and the sources of the sexiest information go unnamed.

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The most detailed early pieces I read about the operation were Mike Allen's "Getting bin Laden: How the Mission Went Down" in Politico and Massimo Calabresi's "The CIA Gets a Rare Public Victory" in Time.

Politico collects a wealth of quotations from anonymous sources, but it never actually totals the sources up. Are there two or three or six or seven? It cites information from "a senior U.S. official," "a senior administration official" speaking on a midnight conference call, "an official" (several times), "the official," "officials," and refers to an official's email. The Time story is equally difficult to decode as it names no sources either, but it gives additional texture to the raid by transcribing about 750 words directly from what appears to be the briefing Politico attended.

All of the first-day stories teem with unchecked and uncheckable details, and many of them quarrel with one another. At some point, after reporters have time to independently report the events behind the raid, we'll have a verified picture of who did what when instead of the official versions we're reading and viewing today. Until then, it's caveat emptor for news consumers.

The Helicopters

Politico reports that the assault team completed its mission and then blew up the crippled helicopter that brought it to Bin Laden's compound, catching a ride home on "a reinforcement craft." This account implies that the raid was a two-helicopter mission.

The London Telegraphreports that one of four helicopters crashed and burned after it was "apparently hit by fire from the ground." The Telegraph's source is a Pakistani intelligence officer. The story concludes, "The helicopters took off from a Pakistani air base in the north of the country."

The Wall Street Journal reports, "Two American helicopters took part in the operation, the official said. One Pakistani helicopter involved in the raid crashed after it was hit by firing from militants."

A later Timepiece puts the total number of helicopters on the mission at four, with two making the assault and two waiting in reserve nearby. It states that "about two dozen" SEALs and CIA "enablers" participated in the raid and speculates that a winged-gunship like an AC-130 might have provided air cover. The helicopters were "most likely … specially-outfitted CH-47 and UH-60 choppers." The U.S. team destroyed its malfunctioning CH-47 at the site of the raid, Time adds.

The Atlanticsays the helicopters—which it does not enumerate—were "modified" MH-60s.

The New York Times reports that eyewitnesses "spotted three helicopters."

ABC News: "One of the U.S. helicopters, a CH47 Chinook, was damaged but not destroyed during the operation, and U.S. forces elected to destroy it themselves with explosives."

Did Pakistani Intelligence Help the Operation, Help Bin Laden, or Both?

ABC News reports that Pakistan intelligence says it was "involved in this operation." Fox News cites senior Obama administration officials who say the United States shared intelligence on the compound with no other country.

President Obama is oblique about U.S.-Pakistan teamwork, saying in his Sunday evening address, "Our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding."

Reuters: "[A]nalysts say, it would have been difficult for the U.S. Special Forces to act without some logistical military assistance on the ground."

U.S. counterterrorism chief John Brennan insisted at a briefing that Bin Laden must have had a "support system" in Pakistan. "I won't speculate on what type of support he would have had on an official basis, and we are talking to the Pakistanis right now," he added.

ABC News: "According to Pakistani officials, the operation was a joint U.S.-Pakistani operation, but U.S. officials said only U.S. personnel were involved in the raid." Also, Pakistani jets scrambled to intercept the helicopters, but the U.S. forces were "back inside Afghanistan before 6 p.m. Washington time."

CBS News: "They didn't even inform the Pakistani government that this was happening. The Pakistani government found out when things started going boom at this villa."

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