Archive for the ‘osama bin laden’ Tag
Why so quiet here on the blog the last couple months? As many of you know, in September I started a new gig at Mother Jones. That’s keeping me pretty busy these days, but I’ll continue to post here from time to time. You can also follow my work over there. Some recent pieces include: my further reporting on the strangely inconsistent accounts of how the US military killed Osama bin Laden; how the hacks behind Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government website got caught making a big blunder on climate change and wouldn’t cop to it; and how Breitbart and other right-wingers apparently became obsessed with raunchy jokes about Occupy Wall Street. I also edited and produced multimedia for a major investigative project about Texas criminal justice gone horribly wrong. The story, “No Country for Innocent Men,” was written by the great Beth Schwartzapfel, and you should go read it now. (Also watch the video, read the prisoners’ letters, and peruse the interactive map.) It is emotionally searing and deeply informative.
September also marked the end of the two-year Knight News Challenge grant that funded MediaBugs. The error-reporting service remains fully operational; my project partner Scott Rosenberg (who is now the executive editor of Grist) and I are continuing to run it on a volunteer basis. We had a number of great successes with MediaBugs in the first two years of the project — as well as some frustrations and failures. In January we’ll detail those in a report that we’re planning to publish on the MediaBugs blog. Transparency is a cornerstone of the project, and we believe there is value, both for our media colleagues and the news-consuming public, in sharing what we’ve learned. I’ll also re-post the report here.
As always, thanks for reading — and more to come soon, both here and over at MoJo!
[This post has been revised and expanded several times since initial publication; see updates below.]
You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to be still scratching your head about the end of Osama bin Laden. Between the Obama administration and major US media, the story of the Navy SEALs’ mission in Abbottabad has never seemed quite straight, tilting toward the political or fantastical more than the cohesive. In some respects that’s unsurprising for one of the most important and highly classified military missions in modern memory — one whose outcome, many would argue, is all that really matters. But as America prepares to reflect on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, it’s worth considering how the tales have been told, and where history begins to bleed into mythology. After several months of revised accounts and inside scoops, we still have a conspicuously muddled picture of bin Laden’s killing.
Lots of praise flowed earlier this month for Nicholas Schmidle’s riveting account in the New Yorker of the SEALs’ raid on bin Laden’s compound. It added many vivid details to what was publicly known about the killing of America’s arch-nemesis that fateful morning in early May. But Schmidle’s exquisitely crafted reconstruction also contradicted previous reporting elsewhere, and sparked some intriguing questions of its own.
It underscored what we still don’t really know about the operation. Schmidle’s depiction of the tense scene in the White House Situation Room, as President Obama and his top advisers monitored the action with the help of a military drone, included a notable refutation. The SEALs converged at the ground floor of bin Laden’s house and began to enter, Schmidle reported, but:
What happened next is not precisely clear. “I can tell you that there was a time period of almost twenty to twenty-five minutes where we really didn’t know just exactly what was going on,” [CIA chief Leon] Panetta said later, on “PBS NewsHour.” Until this moment, the operation had been monitored by dozens of defense, intelligence, and Administration officials watching the drone’s video feed. The SEALs were not wearing helmet cams, contrary to a widely cited report by CBS.
Schmidle was referring to a May 12 story by veteran CBS News national security correspondent David Martin headlined, “SEAL helmet cams recorded entire bin Laden raid.”
The contradiction has big implications. Martin’s own story was in part a response to the famously mutating account from the Obama White House in the days following the mission. The administration had attributed its multiple revisions to “the fog of war” after backtracking from claims that bin Laden had engaged the SEALs in a firefight and used his wife as a human shield. Martin’s piece stated he was putting forth “a new picture of what really happened” in Abbottabad; he reported that “the 40 minutes it took to kill bin Laden and scoop his archives into garbage bags were all recorded by tiny helmet cameras worn by each of the 25 SEALs. Officials reviewing those videos are still reconstructing a more accurate version of what happened.”
Such footage obviously could go a long way toward a precise account. According to Schmidle’s New Yorker piece, though, it doesn’t exist.
There are other glaring discrepancies between the New Yorker and CBS News reports concerning the climax of the raid. In Schmidle’s version, the encounter involved two of bin Laden’s wives, and one SEAL firing the kill shots:
The Americans hurried toward the bedroom door. The first SEAL pushed it open. Two of bin Laden’s wives had placed themselves in front of him. Amal al-Fatah, bin Laden’s fifth wife, was screaming in Arabic. She motioned as if she were going to charge; the SEAL lowered his sights and shot her once, in the calf. Fearing that one or both women were wearing suicide jackets, he stepped forward, wrapped them in a bear hug, and drove them aside….
A second SEAL stepped into the room and trained the infrared laser of his M4 on bin Laden’s chest. The Al Qaeda chief, who was wearing a tan shalwar kameez and a prayer cap on his head, froze; he was unarmed…. Nine years, seven months, and twenty days after September 11th, an American was a trigger pull from ending bin Laden’s life. The first round, a 5.56-mm. bullet, struck bin Laden in the chest. As he fell backward, the SEAL fired a second round into his head, just above his left eye.
But in Martin’s version, the encounter involved bin Laden’s “daughters” as well as one of his wives — and not one, but two SEALs firing the kill shots:
The SEALs first saw bin Laden when he came out on the third floor landing. They fired, but missed. He retreated to his bedroom, and the first SEAL through the door grabbed bin Laden’s daughters and pulled them aside.
When the second SEAL entered, bin Laden’s wife rushed forward at him — or perhaps was pushed by bin Laden. The SEAL shoved her aside and shot bin Laden in the chest. A third seal shot him in the head.
What’s going on here? Martin’s piece for CBS aired nearly two weeks after the raid; presumably the US government had its story straight by then. (The Guardian’s roundup of White House revisions linked above was published on May 4.) Martin provides scant information about his sourcing. If his piece has turned out to contain inaccuracies, to date CBS News has given no indication.
It is also possible that Schmidle’s piece contains inaccuracies, although it is more deeply reported and goes further in describing its sources. They include Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, and perhaps most significantly, “a special-operations officer deeply familiar with the bin Laden raid.”
Still, Schmidle wasn’t able to interview any of the Navy SEALs directly involved in the mission, despite that his piece seemed to suggest he had. Instead, Schmidle told the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi, he relied on the accounts of others who had debriefed the men.
Schmidle wrote conspicuously of the SEALs’ perspective during the raid: “None of them had any previous knowledge of the house’s floor plan, and they were further jostled by the awareness that they were possibly minutes away from ending the costliest manhunt in American history; as a result, some of their recollections — on which this account is based — may be imprecise and, thus, subject to dispute.”
From fraught US-Pakistan relations to conspiracy theories to partisan politics, it’s an understatement to say that there is keen interest in knowing exactly how the killing of bin Laden went down. Faulty reporting may be to blame for standing in the way. Alternatively, the mind doesn’t require much bending to imagine why military, CIA or White House officials might have been happy at various turns to help muddle the story. A certain degree of imprecision or misdirection can serve the side of secrecy. Perhaps at a time when the White House declined, amid much clamor, to release photos of bin Laden’s corpse, it was useful to let the world know that it also had video footage of the whole operation. Perhaps at some later point it was useful to quash the idea that the US government had lots of raw footage with which it might address questions about the circumstances and legality of bin Laden’s killing.
Whatever the case, one of two stories from major American media outlets is flat-out wrong on a significant piece of information about the raid. (As well as on some other details, it seems.) It may be that a precise account of the historic military mission will elude us for a long time, just as its target so famously did.
How many SEALs? (Update, Aug. 4)
Looking back over the CBS News piece again, I spotted another discrepancy: Martin reported that 25 SEALs stormed bin Laden’s compound; Schmidle’s New Yorker piece says there were 23 SEALs directly in on the raid. (Plus a Pakistani-American translator and a now legendary Belgian Malinois.)
Also, it’s worth noting how central the helmet cam information was to Martin’s story; the video version of it opened with a “CBS news animation” showing them:
I’ve also now filed an error report about this at MediaBugs, seeking a response from CBS News. I don’t have enough information to know whether their story is inaccurate, but it seems fair to say that the overall picture here suggests the onus is on CBS to corroborate their story.
Lack of disclosure (Update 2, Aug. 4)
In a guest post at Registan.net, Georgetown professor C. Christine Fair raises some provocative questions about Schmidle’s New Yorker piece, including about its sourcing. She is not the only one rebuking the magazine for failing to disclose clearly that Schmidle did not talk to any of the SEALs who raided the bin Laden compound. (That lack of disclosure apparently prompted an error and correction on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”) Fair wonders about how certain details in the story, and the fact that Schmidle’s father is the deputy commander of the US Cyber Command, might play across the Muslim world. Though I don’t necessarily share her conclusions, the post is interesting and worth a read.
“An administration puff piece” (Update 3, Aug. 10)
Marcy Wheeler has a rundown on Schmidle’s sourcing. She suggests that Obama senior advisers Brennan and Rhodes may have served as anonymous sources for the piece as well as named ones. (Not an uncommon practice in the journalism field, in my experience.) Thus, she argues, Schmidle’s piece deserves greater scrutiny in light of the “war on leaks” conducted under Obama. “This story is so thinly veiled an administration puff piece,” Wheeler says, “it ought to attract as much attention for the sheer hypocrisy about secrecy it demonstrates as it will for the heroism such hypocrisy attempts to portray.”
A Hollywood conspiracy (Update 4, Aug. 11)
Rep. Peter King, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has called for an investigation into alleged collaboration between the Obama administration and filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal (of “The Hurt Locker” fame) for a forthcoming movie about the bin Laden takedown. Reportedly due for release in October 2012, just before the next presidential election, the movie project “belies a desire of transparency in favor of a cinematographic view of history,” according to King. The White House says King’s take is “ridiculous.” The story here seems to be opposition party politics layered on top of presidential politics layered on top of a Hollywood production — with the finer facts of bin Laden’s demise buried somewhere beneath.
Seeking clarification (Update 5, Aug. 15)
I’ve reached out to Nicholas Schmidle by email asking if he can offer any additional information regarding the helmet cam issue. (His New Yorker piece says nothing about his sourcing on that particular point.) I’ve also contacted CBS News about it and am in the process of looking for a more direct way to reach David Martin.
More details that don’t add up (Update 6, Aug. 26)
For more on this story, read my piece over at Mother Jones, which includes further examples of conflicting details from news reports on the bin Laden mission.
[Post updated below through May 10.]
In my view there’s a clear and compelling reason why the United States should release an image of Osama bin Laden’s corpse. It has little to do with nutty conspiracy theories, which were a consideration in the White House decision not to “spike the football.” For most of the world already, the fact of bin Laden’s killing is indeed unimpeachable. (One reason why President Obama deserves huge credit for what many view as his very “gutsy” call on the Navy Seals operation.) Even if bin Laden’s body had been displayed for a month in Mecca prior to disposal, there would still be crazies in the Arab world and beyond convinced of some grand, evil scheme. (“A fraudulent corpse delivered by the Mossad, CIA and George Soros!” Etc.)
More importantly the White House is wary of inflaming Muslim opinion against the U.S. But from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo to the Koran-burning pastor in Florida to U.S. military atrocities in Afghanistan, the case of inflammation is already chronic. It’s a problem not easily controlled, let alone alleviated. I’m not sure I see how visual evidence of bin Laden’s death, even if pretty gruesome, adds significantly to it.
Proof isn’t the key point. (Nor is jingoism.) The reason to release the photo is the tremendous value of destroying, with vivid finality, bin Laden’s potent mythological image. Yes, the devotees of his jihad will promote the whole martyr thing. But they’re already doing that anyway.
Those who’ve studied bin Laden’s journey know how incredibly important his carefully tended cult of personality has been to his cause. Lawrence Wright documented this exhaustively in his masterful tome, The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. In the decade since 9/11, bin Laden’s successful evasion of the mightiest military in the world fed his symbolic power and the inspiration of his followers. It gave him a kind of metaphysical strength and credibility far greater than any cries of martyrdom now can. If his killing at the hands of the U.S. military was indeed a “decapitation” of Al Qaeda, then once that killing is in clear view bin Laden’s death cult also loses its heart.
No doubt a gruesome image would stir strong emotions around the world. But anger at the U.S. would be affected minimally and ephemerally, I think, discounting those already stewing in the radical margins. The narrative benefits of the publicity would be greater. Especially, as Steve Clemons suggests, if the White House were to release images simultaneously of bin Laden’s “respectful” burial at sea.
UPDATED 5/5/11: An opinion piece today from the International Herald Tribune, “The Death of an Icon,” goes to the heart of my thinking on this issue. “Osama bin Laden, the visual icon of terrorism in our fear-driven age, is gone,” writes Columbia history professor Richard Bulliet. “No one can replace him.”
He explains in detail why bin Laden “was unquestionably the master recruiter” for Al Qaeda:
Compared with the two-dozen jihadist videotapes I analyzed in connection with police investigations in 2002-2003, Bin Laden’s propaganda stands out. Not only does it present a plausible argument for jihad against the West, but his visual presence and calm voiceovers convey an aura of authority and leadership even though his name is never mentioned.
His screen presence also far outshadows that of other jihadist leaders. Where they are strident, or ranting, or dull, he is calm and articulate. Where they come across as one-note preachers or pedantic classroom teachers, he appears as a fully formed individual. Comfortable in the mosque, on the battlefield, at the training camp, or in a poetry recital.
One cannot mourn the death of a man who planned or inspired so many atrocities. But we should recognize that his bigger-than-life iconic presence was the heart and soul of jihadist Islam.
Read the whole piece — essential analysis on the meaning and impact of bin Laden’s end.
Also see Deborah Copaken Cogan, who suggests that “to sanitize photos is to distort history.”
UPDATED 5/10/11: The Associated Press is pursuing the bin Laden images with a Freedom of Information Act request. The AP cites Obama’s campaign vow to make his administration “the most transparent government in U.S. history” and points to the muddled narrative surrounding bin Laden’s killing, which has been revised multiple times by the White House. Says AP senior editor Michael Oreskes about the visual evidence of bin Laden’s death: “This information is important for the historical record.”
MoJo’s Michael Mechanic has pulled together how eight newspapers captured the defining moments of Osama bin Laden’s mortal entanglement with America. From the Gray Lady to the tabloids, it’s interesting to look through these juxtaposed front pages and reflect on all that transpired in the decade between:
(The Examiner’s awkward ad on May 2 is also evocative of historic changes — those roiling the news biz. Though I’m not totally sure about the tabloids, until a couple years ago the front pages were sacrosanct.) Check out the rest of the images here.
It’s rare for a top U.S. military commander in a war zone to be relieved of duty before his tour is even halfway complete, but that’s precisely what occurred Monday, in what the Washington Post described as “a hastily convened” Pentagon news conference. Gen. David McKiernan, the commander on his way out, just last week sought to persuade reporters that recent U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan were not responsible for numerous civilian deaths. Turns out they were responsible for at least some of the deaths. (It remains unclear whether insurgents also were responsible for some.) Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave only a vague explanation for McKiernan’s ouster, citing the need for “fresh thinking” and “fresh eyes on the problem” of seven years and counting. Whatever the specific reasons, the unusual shakeup makes clear that behind the scenes there are serious doubts about current U.S. strategy.
The prolific bombing component of it, however, appears to remain intact. Despite outcry over a long-term pattern of civilian casualties, including from Afghanistan’s own leader Hamid Karzai, President Obama’s National Security Advisor James L. Jones said on Sunday that the U.S. has no intention of ceasing air strikes.
If the recent trend is any indication, in the days to come Afghanistan can expect to be hit with an awful lot of U.S. firepower from above. As the Navy Times reported last week:
Air Force, Navy and other coalition warplanes dropped a record number of bombs in Afghanistan during April, Air Forces Central figures show. In the past month, warplanes released 438 bombs, the most ever.
April also marked the fourth consecutive month that the number of bombs dropped rose, after a decline starting last July. The munitions were released during 2,110 close-air support sorties.
The actual number of airstrikes was higher because the AFCent numbers don’t include attacks by helicopters and special operations gunships. The numbers also don’t include strafing runs or launches of small missiles.
The announcement of Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal to replace McKiernan would seem to indicate a rising emphasis on unconventional warfare. McChrystal is credited as the architect of successful special operations tactics in Iraq, including the storied operation that killed terrorist kingpin Abu Zarqawi in 2006. (See this captivating account of the mission by Mark Bowden that appeared in The Atlantic.) The problem of course is that in Afghanistan the U.S. is confronting an elusive enemy in far more forbidding terrain.
Congress, it seems, has plenty to ponder this week as it considers plowing additional stockpiles of money into a long war with no end in sight.
I’ve been thinking about the economic crisis as a rising national security danger since sometime back in December, and I’m sure I haven’t been alone, even though scant attention has been paid in the mainstream media — until now. It’s only an odd coincidence that the same day earlier this week that I was suggesting we’d soon be hearing more from President Obama’s intelligence chief on the matter, Dennis C. Blair was in fact on Capitol Hill sounding the alarm. The global economic crisis now represents the top security threat to the United States, he told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday.
“Roughly a quarter of the countries in the world have already experienced low-level instability such as government changes because of the current slowdown,” Blair said. (That would be nearly 50 countries. Including Iceland, whose government collapsed three weeks ago.) Blair further warned of the kind of “high levels of violent extremism” seen in the 1920s and 1930s if the economic crisis persists beyond 2009.
The fears have now reached the front page of Sunday’s New York Times: “Unemployment Surges Around the World, Threatening Stability.” The trio of images above the fold are a quick world tour of worker displacement and unrest, from Bejing to Reykjavik to Santiago, where street graffiti declares “unemployment is humiliation.”
Just one glaring manifestation of a troubling global trend.