White House corrects narrative on bin Laden death; no human shield

The White House on Tuesday sought to clarify what actually happened when Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan on Sunday.

The day after White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan said bin Laden resisted capture and used his wife as a human shield during the firefight that killed him, the White House provided a different version of events.


Bin Laden was not armed and did not employ one of his wives as a human shield, the White House said Tuesday. The wife was not killed in the fight. 

Chalking Brennan’s misstatements up to the “fog of war, fog of combat,” White House spokesman Jay Carney offered what he called a more complete picture of what happened when a team of Navy SEALs took out bin Laden.

Carney said that when the SEALs reached the third floor of the compound where bin Laden was hiding, one of the al Qaeda leader’s wives did “rush” one of the U.S. “assaulters” and was shot in the leg.

Another woman, on the first floor of the compound, was shot and killed in the crossfire as SEALs battled two al Qaeda couriers.

Carney also clarified that bin Laden was not armed when he was shot twice by U.S. forces, once in the face and once in the chest.

But the White House continued to assert that bin Laden was killed because he was resisting capture, with Carney saying that “resistance does not require a firearm.”

“The U.S. personnel on the ground handled themselves with the utmost professionalism,” Carney said. “And [bin Laden] was killed in an operation because of the resistance that they met.”

Brennan raised a number of eyebrows on Monday when he told reporters at a White House briefing that bin Laden had used one of his wives as a shield. The comments played into a narrative describing bin Laden as a coward living in relative comfort in a wealthy Islamabad suburb, an image meant to contrast the image cultivated by al Qaeda of a revolutionary hero. 

“Thinking about that from a visual perspective, here is bin Laden, who has been calling for these attacks, living in this million-dollar-plus compound, living in an area that is far removed from the front, hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield,” Brennan said. “I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years.”

Carney defended Brennan, noting that the White House was providing a large amount of information at a rapid clip.

“We’ve made a great deal available to the public in remarkable time,” Carney said. “We’re talking about the most highly classified operation that this government has undertaken in many, many years, and the amount of information we’ve tried to provide to you in this short period of time is quite substantial.”

The flap over the raid’s details comes as administration officials are still trying to decide whether to release photos of bin Laden’s body as evidence of his death — which Carney described as “gruesome.” 

“I’ll be candid: There are sensitivities here in terms of the appropriateness of releasing photographs of Osama bin Laden and in the aftermath of this firefight,” Carney said. “And we’re making an evaluation about the need to do that because of the sensitivities involved.”

Carney disputed suggestions of a “roiling debate” within the White House about the release, but he acknowledged that the pictures of bin Laden “could be inflammatory.”

“We review this information and make this decision with the same calculation as we do so many things, which is what we’re trying to accomplish, and does it serve or in any way harm our interests,” Carney said. “And that is not just domestic, but globally.”

This story was originally posted at 3:44 p.m. and updated at 8:10 p.m.