So Did Bin Laden Have a Gun, or Didn't He?

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 5 2011 9:19 AM

So Did Bin Laden Have a Gun, or Didn't He?

We can all agree that the story of the raid on OBL's compound has changed as the people responsible have been debriefed. One detail -- whether the order was to kill OBL, or capture him if possible -- is pretty vital and still unclear. The argument over whether OBL was armed, though, is less complicated when you look at what's been said every day.

So: Here's the changing story. Barack Obama, May 1:

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.

That was followed by a conference call with "senior administration officials," May 2:

Q Was bin Laden involved in firing himself or defending himself?  And then any chronology of the raid itself?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He did resist the assault force. And he was killed in a firefight.

The official is slippery, but it's the reporter, not the official, who mentions OBL with a weapon.

This was followed by the briefing by John Brennan, May 2:

BRENNAN: The concern was that bin Laden would oppose any type of capture operation. Indeed, he did. It was a firefight. He, therefore, was killed in that firefight and that’s when the remains were removed...

Q: You said that Osama bin Laden was actually involved in the firefight, and we had — it has been reported that he reached for a weapon. Did he get his hand on a gun and did he fire himself?

BRENNAN: He was engaged in a firefight with those that entered the area of the house he was in. And whether or not he got off any rounds, I quite frankly don’t know.

There we go. Brennan leaves the implication out there that OBL at least tried to get a gun.

The team methodically cleared the compound moving from room to room in an operation lasting nearly 40 minutes. They were engaged in a firefight throughout the operation and Osama Bin Laden was killed by the assaulting force... On the first floor of bin Laden’s building, two Al Qaeda couriers were killed along with a woman who was killed in cross-fire.  Bin Laden and his family were found on the second and third floor of the building.  There was concern that bin Laden would oppose the capture operation and indeed he resisted.

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. Bin Laden was then shot and killed. He was not armed.

New York Times , evening of May 4. Source: "Administration officials."

"They were in a threatening and hostile environment the entire time," one American official said.

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. Then, as they made their way up the stairs of the house, officials said they killed Bin Laden’s son Khalid as he lunged toward the Seal team.

When the commandos reached the top floor, they entered a room and saw Osama bin Laden with an AK-47 and a Makarov pistol in arm’s reach. They shot and killed him, as well as wounding a woman with him.

What changed in three days? It depends how you define the "firefight." There was a firefight at the start, but the confrontation between the commandos and OBL was one-sided -- they were shooting, OBL and the woman weren't. The "weapon" part of the story has changed slightly, and if you graphed it it would be a sine wave. We went from no details about OBL, to a detail about OBL at least trying to get a gun, to a detail about OBL not having a gun, to a detail about OBL being within reach of a gun.

Alright, then. Everybody clear?

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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