The killing was the high point of Obama's first term, and a major factor in his re-election. The White House still maintains that the mission was an all-American affair, and that the senior generals of Pakistan's army and Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) were not told of the raid in advance.
This is false, as are many other elements of the Obama administration's account.
White House photo-op of Situation Room
during operation to assassinate Osama bin Laden
The White House's story might have been written by Lewis Carroll:
He was hiding in the open. So America
This remains the White House position despite an array of reports that have raised questions, including one by Carlotta Gall in the New York Times Magazine of 19 March 2014.
Gall, who spent 12 years as the Times correspondent in Afghanistan, wrote that she'd been told by a 'Pakistani official' that Pasha had known before the raid that bin Laden was in Abbottabad.
The story was denied by US and Pakistani officials, and went no further. In his book Pakistan: Before and after Osama (2012), Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Centre for Research and Security Studies, a think tank in Islamabad, wrote that he'd spoken to four undercover intelligence officers who - reflecting a widely held local view - asserted that the Pakistani military must have had knowledge of the operation.
The issue was raised again in February, when a retired general, Asad Durrani, who was head of the ISI in the early 1990s, told an al-Jazeera interviewer that it was 'quite possible' that the senior officers of the ISI did not know where bin Laden had been hiding,
This spring I contacted Durrani and told him in detail what I had learned about the bin Laden assault from American sources:
As a former ISI head, he said, he had
been told shortly after the raid by 'people in the "strategic
community" who would know' that there had been an informant who
had alerted the US to bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad, and that
after his killing the US's betrayed promises left Kayani and Pasha
Two other US sources, who had access to corroborating information, have been longtime consultants to the Special Operations Command.
I also received information from inside Pakistan about widespread dismay among the senior ISI and military leadership - echoed later by Durrani - over Obama's decision to go public immediately with news of bin Laden's death.
The White House did not respond to
requests for comment.
In August 2010 a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer approached Jonathan Bank, then the CIA's station chief at the US embassy in Islamabad. He offered to tell the CIA where to find bin Laden in return for the reward that Washington had offered in 2001.
Walk-ins are assumed by the CIA to be unreliable, and the response from the agency's headquarters was to fly in a polygraph team.
The walk-in passed the test.
The US initially kept what it knew from the Pakistanis.
The compound was put under satellite surveillance.
The CIA rented a house in Abbottabad to use as a forward observation base and staffed it with Pakistani employees and foreign nationals. Later on, the base would serve as a contact point with the ISI; it attracted little attention because Abbottabad is a holiday spot full of houses rented on short leases.
A psychological profile of the informant was prepared. (The informant and his family were smuggled out of Pakistan and relocated in the Washington area. He is now a consultant for the CIA.)
In October, Obama was briefed on the intelligence.
His response was cautious, the retired official said.
The immediate goal of the CIA leadership and the Joint Special Operations Command was to get Obama's support.
They believed they would get this if
they got DNA evidence, and if they could assure him that a night
assault of the compound would carry no risk. The only way to
accomplish both things, the retired official said, 'was to get the
Pakistanis on board'.
The walk-in had told the US that bin Laden had lived undetected from 2001 to 2006 with some of his wives and children in the Hindu Kush mountains, and that,
(Reports after the raid placed him elsewhere in Pakistan during this period.)
Bank was also told by the walk-in that bin Laden was very ill, and that early on in his confinement at Abbottabad, the ISI had ordered Amir Aziz, a doctor and a major in the Pakistani army, to move nearby to provide treatment.
He added that there were also under-the-table personal 'incentives' that were financed by off-the-books Pentagon contingency funds.
A worrying factor at this early point, according to the retired official, was Saudi Arabia, which had been financing bin Laden's upkeep since his seizure by the Pakistanis.
Despite their constant public feuding, American and Pakistani military and intelligence services have worked together closely for decades on counterterrorism in South Asia.
Both services often find it useful to engage in public feuds 'to cover their asses', as the retired official put it, but they continually share intelligence used for drone attacks, and co-operate on covert operations. At the same time, it's understood in Washington that elements of the ISI believe that maintaining a relationship with the Taliban leadership inside Afghanistan is essential to national security.
The ISI's strategic aim is to balance
Indian influence in Kabul; the Taliban is also seen in Pakistan as a
source of jihadist shock troops who would back Pakistan against
India in a confrontation over Kashmir.
The US looked the other way when Pakistan began building its weapons system in the 1970s and it's widely believed it now has more than a hundred nuclear warheads. It's understood in Washington that US security depends on the maintenance of strong military and intelligence ties to Pakistan.
The belief is mirrored in Pakistan.
Like all CIA station chiefs, Bank was working undercover, but that ended in early December 2010 when he was publicly accused of murder in a criminal complaint filed in Islamabad by Karim Khan, a Pakistani journalist whose son and brother, according to local news reports, had been killed by a US drone strike.
Allowing Bank to be named was a violation of diplomatic protocol on the part of the Pakistani authorities, and it brought a wave of unwanted publicity.
Bank was ordered to leave Pakistan by the CIA, whose officials subsequently told the Associated Press he was transferred because of concerns for his safety. The New York Times reported that there was 'strong suspicion' the ISI had played a role in leaking Bank's name to Khan.
There was speculation that he was outed as payback for the publication in a New York lawsuit a month earlier of the names of ISI chiefs in connection with the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008. But there was a collateral reason, the retired official said, for the CIA's willingness to send Bank back to America.
The Pakistanis needed cover in case their co-operation with the Americans in getting rid of bin Laden became known.
The Pakistanis could say:
Abbottabad is less than 15 minutes by helicopter from Tarbela Ghazi, an important base for ISI covert operations and the facility where those who guard Pakistan's nuclear weapons arsenal are trained.
The risks for Obama were high at this early stage, especially because there was a troubling precedent:
That failure was a factor in Jimmy Carter's loss to Ronald Reagan.
Obama's worries were realistic, the retired official said.
After all, as the retired official said,
Obama was anxious for reassurance that the US was going to get the right man.
The proof was to come in the form of bin Laden's DNA. The planners turned for help to Kayani and Pasha, who asked Aziz to obtain the specimens. Soon after the raid the press found out that Aziz had been living in a house near the bin Laden compound: local reporters discovered his name in Urdu on a plate on the door.
Pakistani officials denied that Aziz had any connection to bin Laden, but the retired official told me that Aziz had been rewarded with a share of the $25 million reward the US had put up because the DNA sample had showed conclusively that it was bin Laden in Abbottabad.
(In his subsequent testimony to a
Pakistani commission investigating the bin Laden raid, Aziz said
that he had witnessed the attack on Abbottabad, but had no knowledge
of who was living in the compound and had been ordered by a superior
officer to stay away from the scene.)
The agreement was struck by the end of January 2011, and Joint Special Operations Command prepared a list of questions to be answered by the Pakistanis:
The Pakistanis agreed to permit a four-man American cell - a Navy Seal, a CIA case officer and two communications specialists - to set up a liaison office at Tarbela Ghazi for the coming assault.
By then, the military had constructed a
mock-up of the compound in Abbottabad at a secret former nuclear
test site in Nevada, and an elite Seal team had begun rehearsing for
In April 2011 Pasha met the CIA director, Leon Panetta, at agency headquarters.
At one point that spring, Pasha offered the Americans a blunt explanation of the reason Pakistan kept bin Laden's capture a secret, and why it was imperative for the ISI role to remain secret:
At one of his meetings with Panetta, according to the retired official and a source within the CIA, Pasha was asked by a senior CIA official whether he saw himself as acting in essence as an agent for al-Qaida and the Taliban.
The message, as the CIA saw it, according to the retired official, was that Kayani and Pasha viewed bin Laden,
A Pakistani with close ties to the senior leadership of the ISI told me that,
The Pakistani said that Pasha's visit also resulted in a commitment from the US to give Pakistan 'a freer hand' in Afghanistan as it began its military draw-down there.
The American cell at Tarbela Ghazi was charged with coordinating communications between the ISI, the senior US officers at their command post in Afghanistan, and the two Black Hawk helicopters; the goal was to ensure that no stray Pakistani fighter plane on border patrol spotted the intruders and took action to stop them.
The initial plan said that news of the raid shouldn't be announced straightaway.
All units in the Joint Special Operations Command operate under stringent secrecy and the JSOC leadership believed, as did Kayani and Pasha, that the killing of bin Laden would not be made public for as long as seven days, maybe longer.
Then a carefully constructed cover story would be issued:
The Americans who planned the mission assured Kayani and Pasha that their co-operation would never be made public.
It was understood by all that if the
Pakistani role became known, there would be violent protests - bin
Laden was considered a hero by many Pakistanis - and Pasha and
Kayani and their families would be in danger, and the Pakistani army
A former Seal commander, who has led and participated in dozens of similar missions over the past decade, assured me that,
The White House's initial account claimed that bin Laden had been brandishing a weapon; the story was aimed at deflecting those who questioned the legality of the US administration's targeted assassination program.
The US has consistently maintained,
despite widely reported remarks by people involved with the mission,
that bin Laden would have been taken alive if he had immediately
They were under orders to leave as soon as they heard the rotors of the US helicopters. The town was dark: the electricity supply had been cut off on the orders of the ISI hours before the raid began. One of the Black Hawks crashed inside the walls of the compound, injuring many on board.
The cockpit of the crashed Black Hawk, with its communication and navigational gear, had to be destroyed by concussion grenades, and this would create a series of explosions and a fire visible for miles.
Two Chinook helicopters had flown from Afghanistan to a nearby Pakistani intelligence base to provide logistical support, and one of them was immediately dispatched to Abbottabad.
But because the helicopter had been equipped with a bladder loaded with extra fuel for the two Black Hawks, it first had to be reconfigured as a troop carrier. The crash of the Black Hawk and the need to fly in a replacement were nerve-wracking and time-consuming setbacks, but the Seals continued with their mission.
There was no firefight as they moved into the compound; the ISI guards had gone.
Had there been any opposition, the team would have been highly vulnerable.
Instead, the retired official said, an ISI liaison officer flying with the Seals guided them into the darkened house and up a staircase to bin Laden's quarters.
The Seals had been warned by the Pakistanis that heavy steel doors blocked the stairwell on the first and second-floor landings; bin Laden's rooms were on the third floor. The Seal squad used explosives to blow the doors open, without injuring anyone. One of bin Laden's wives was screaming hysterically and a bullet - perhaps a stray round - struck her knee.
Aside from those that hit bin Laden, no other shots were fired. (The Obama administration's account would hold otherwise.)
Some of the Seals were appalled later at the White House's initial insistence that they had shot bin Laden in self-defence, the retired official said.
The later White House claim that only one or two bullets were fired into his head was 'bullshit', the retired official said.
After they killed bin Laden,
Bin Laden's wives and children were left for the ISI to interrogate and relocate.
On a normal assault mission, the retired official said, there would be no waiting around if a chopper went down.
Pasha and Kayani had delivered on all
Bin Laden's body was presumed to be on its way to Afghanistan. Should Obama stand by the agreement with Kayani and Pasha and pretend a week or so later that bin Laden had been killed in a drone attack in the mountains, or should he go public immediately?
The downed helicopter made it easy for Obama's political advisers to urge the latter plan. The explosion and fireball would be impossible to hide, and word of what had happened was bound to leak.
Obama had to 'get out in front of the
story' before someone in the Pentagon did: waiting would diminish
the political impact.
In his memoir, Duty, Gates did not mask his anger:
Obama's speech was put together in a rush, the retired official said, and was viewed by his advisers as a political document, not a message that needed to be submitted for clearance to the national security bureaucracy.
This series of self-serving and inaccurate statements would create chaos in the weeks following.
Obama said that his administration had discovered that bin Laden was in Pakistan through 'a possible lead' the previous August; to many in the CIA the statement suggested a specific event, such as a walk-in. The remark led to a new cover story claiming that the CIA's brilliant analysts had unmasked a courier network handling bin Laden's continuing flow of operational orders to al-Qaida.
Obama also praised 'a small team of Americans' for their care in avoiding civilian deaths and said:
Two more details now had to be supplied for the cover story:
Obama went on to praise the Pakistanis:
That statement risked exposing Kayani and Pasha.
The White House's solution was to ignore what Obama had said and order anyone talking to the press to insist that the Pakistanis had played no role in killing bin Laden. Obama left the clear impression that he and his advisers hadn't known for sure that bin Laden was in Abbottabad, but only had information 'about the possibility'.
This led first to the story that the Seals had determined they'd killed the right man by having a six-foot-tall Seal lie next to the corpse for comparison (bin Laden was known to be six foot four); and then to the claim that a DNA test had been performed on the corpse and demonstrated conclusively that the Seals had killed bin Laden.
But, according to the retired official,
it wasn't clear from the Seals' early reports whether all of bin
Laden's body, or any of it, made it back to Afghanistan.
There was a legitimate reason for some
deception: the role of the Pakistani walk-in had to be protected.
Reporters were told that a team of specially assembled CIA and National Security Agency analysts had traced the courier to a highly secure million-dollar compound in Abbottabad.
After months of observation, the American intelligence community had 'high confidence' that a high-value target was living in the compound, and it was,
The US assault team ran into a firefight on entering the compound and three adult males - two of them believed to be the couriers - were slain, along with bin Laden.
Asked if bin Laden had defended himself, one of the briefers said yes:
The next day John Brennan, then Obama's senior adviser for counterterrorism, had the task of talking up Obama's valor while trying to smooth over the misstatements in his speech.
He provided a more detailed but equally misleading account of the raid and its planning. Speaking on the record, which he rarely does, Brennan said that the mission was carried out by a group of Navy Seals who had been instructed to take bin Laden alive, if possible.
He said the US had no information suggesting that anyone in the Pakistani government or military knew bin Laden's whereabouts:
He emphasized the courage of Obama's decision to order the strike, and said that the White House had no information 'that confirmed that bin Laden was at the compound' before the raid began.
Obama, he said,
Brennan increased the number killed by
the Seals inside the compound to five: bin Laden, a courier, his
brother, a bin Laden son, and one of the women said to be shielding
Gates also objected to the idea, pushed by Brennan and Leon Panetta, that US intelligence had learned of bin Laden's whereabouts from information acquired by waterboarding and other forms of torture.
At the time, there was still talk in Washington about the possible prosecution of CIA agents who had conducted torture.
There was fear in Special Operations, the retired official said, that,
The White House's solution was to silence the Seals.
On 5 May, every member of the Seal hit team - they had returned to their base in southern Virginia - and some members of the Joint Special Operations Command leadership were presented with a nondisclosure form drafted by the White House's legal office.
It promised civil penalties and a lawsuit for anyone who discussed the mission, in public or private.
But most of them kept quiet, as did Admiral William McRaven, who was then in charge of JSOC.
Within days, some of the early exaggerations and distortions had become obvious and the Pentagon issued a series of clarifying statements.
No, bin Laden was not armed when he was
shot and killed. And no, bin Laden did not use one of his wives as a
shield. The press by and large accepted the explanation that the
errors were the inevitable by-product of the White House's desire to
accommodate reporters frantic for details of the mission.
Only two Seals have made any public statement:
Both men had resigned from the navy; both had fired at bin Laden.
Their accounts contradicted each other on many details, but their stories generally supported the White House version, especially when it came to the need to kill or be killed as the Seals fought their way to bin Laden.
O'Neill even told Fox News that he and his fellow Seals thought 'We were going to die.'
But the retired official told me that in their initial debriefings the Seals made no mention of a firefight, or indeed of any opposition.
The drama and danger portrayed by Bissonnette and O'Neill met a deep-seated need, the retired official said:
There was another reason to claim there had been a firefight inside the compound, the retired official said: to avoid the inevitable question that would arise from an uncontested assault.
Where were bin Laden's guards? Surely, the most sought-after terrorist in the world would have around-the-clock protection.
(Two days after the raid, Reuters
published photographs of three dead men that it said it had
purchased from an ISI official. Two of the men were later identified
by an ISI spokesman as being the alleged courier and his brother.)
Snippets from one of the videos showed a solitary bin Laden looking wan and wrapped in a blanket, watching what appeared to be a video of himself on television.
An unnamed official told reporters that the raid produced a,
The official said the material showed that bin Laden,
The information was so vital, he added, that the administration was setting up an inter-agency task force to process it:
These claims were fabrications: there wasn't much activity for bin Laden to exercise command and control over.
The retired intelligence official said that the CIA's internal reporting shows that since bin Laden moved to Abbottabad in 2006 only a handful of terrorist attacks could be linked to the remnants of bin Laden's al-Qaida.
The retired official said that most of the materials from Abbottabad were turned over to the US by the Pakistanis, who later razed the building.
The ISI took responsibility for the wives and children of bin Laden, none of whom was made available to the US for questioning.
In July 2011, the Washington Post published what purported to be a summary of some of these materials.
The story's contradictions were glaring. It said the documents had resulted in more than four hundred intelligence reports within six weeks; it warned of unspecified al-Qaida plots; and it mentioned arrests of suspects,
The Post didn't identify the suspects or reconcile that detail with the administration's previous assertions that the Abbottabad compound had no internet connection.
Despite their claims that the documents had produced hundreds of reports, the Post also quoted officials saying that their main value wasn't the actionable intelligence they contained, but that they enabled,
In May 2012, the Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point, a private research group, released translations it had made under a federal government contract of 175 pages of bin Laden documents.
Reporters found none of the drama that had been touted in the days after the raid.
Patrick Cockburn wrote about the contrast between the administration's initial claims that bin Laden was the,
The retired official disputed the authenticity of the West Point materials:
Aziz was released, but the retired official said that US intelligence was unable to learn who leaked the highly classified information about his involvement with the mission.
Officials in Washington decided they,
A sacrificial lamb was needed, and the one chosen was Shakil Afridi, a 48-year-old Pakistani doctor and sometime CIA asset, who had been arrested by the Pakistanis in late May and accused of assisting the agency.
It was soon reported that the CIA had organized a fake vaccination program in Abbottabad with Afridi's help in a failed attempt to obtain bin Laden's DNA. Afridi's legitimate medical operation was run independently of local health authorities, was well financed and offered free vaccinations against hepatitis B.
Posters advertising the program were displayed throughout the area.
Afridi was later accused of treason and
sentenced to 33 years in prison because of his ties to an extremist.
News of the CIA-sponsored program created widespread anger in
Pakistan, and led to the cancellation of other international
vaccination programs that were now seen as cover for American
Afridi made no attempt to obtain DNA from the residents of the bin Laden compound.
The report that he did so was a hurriedly put together 'CIA cover story creating "facts"' in a clumsy attempt to protect Aziz and his real mission.
Afridi's conviction was overturned, but
he remains in prison on a murder charge.
The statement created a problem. In the initial plan it was to be announced a week or so after the fact that bin Laden was killed in a drone strike somewhere in the mountains on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border and that his remains had been identified by DNA testing.
But with Obama's announcement of his killing by the Seals everyone now expected a body to be produced.
Instead, reporters were told that bin Laden's body had been flown by the Seals to an American military airfield in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, and then straight to the USS Carl Vinson, a supercarrier on routine patrol in the North Arabian Sea. Bin Laden had then been buried at sea, just hours after his death.
The press corps's only skeptical moments at John Brennan's briefing on 2 May were to do with the burial.
The questions were short, to the point, and rarely answered.
When this last question was asked, Jay Carney, Obama's press secretary, came to Brennan's rescue:
He said 'appropriate specialists and experts' were consulted, and that the US military was fully capable of carrying out the burial 'consistent with Islamic law'.
Brennan didn't mention that Muslim law
calls for the burial service to be conducted in the presence of an
imam, and there was no suggestion that one happened to be on board
the Carl Vinson.
Further procedures necessary for a Muslim burial were performed on the carrier, he wrote,
Bowden described the photos:
The mortal remains of Osama bin Laden
were gone for good.
Bowden's statement adds to the questions about the alleged burial at sea, which has provoked a flood of Freedom of Information Act requests, most of which produced no information.
One of them sought access to the photographs.
The Pentagon responded that a search of all available records had found no evidence that any photographs had been taken of the burial. Requests on other issues related to the raid were equally unproductive. The reason for the lack of response became clear after the Pentagon held an inquiry into allegations that the Obama administration had provided access to classified materials to the makers of the film Zero Dark Thirty.
The Pentagon report, which was put
online in June 2013, noted that Admiral McRaven had ordered the
files on the raid to be deleted from all military computers and
moved to the CIA, where they would be shielded from FOIA requests by
the agency's 'operational exemption'.
Logs are sacrosanct in the navy, and
separate ones are kept for air operations, the deck, the engineering
department, the medical office, and for command information and
control. They show the sequence of events day by day aboard the
ship; if there has been a burial at sea aboard the Carl Vinson, it
would have been recorded.
The carrier concluded its six-month deployment in June 2011. When the ship docked at its home base in Coronado, California, Rear Admiral Samuel Perez, commander of the Carl Vinson carrier strike group, told reporters that the crew had been ordered not to talk about the burial.
Captain Bruce Lindsey, skipper of the Carl Vinson, told reporters he was unable to discuss it.
Cameron Short, one of the crew of the Carl Vinson, told the Commercial-News of Danville, Illinois, that the crew had not been told anything about the burial.
The Pentagon did release a series of emails to the Associated Press. In one of them, Rear Admiral Charles Gaouette reported that the service followed 'traditional procedures for Islamic burial', and said none of the sailors on board had been permitted to observe the proceedings.
But there was no indication of who
washed and wrapped the body, or of which Arabic speaker conducted
One consultant told me that bin Laden's remains were photographed and identified after being flown back to Afghanistan.
The consultant added:
The second consultant agreed that there had been 'no burial at sea'.
He added that,
Early this year, speaking again to the second consultant, I returned to the burial at sea.
The consultant laughed and said:
The retired official said there had been another complication: some members of the Seal team had bragged to colleagues and others that they had torn bin Laden's body to pieces with rifle fire.
The remains, including his head, which had only a few bullet holes in it, were thrown into a body bag and, during the helicopter flight back to Jalalabad, some body parts were tossed out over the Hindu Kush mountains - or so the Seals claimed.
At the time, the retired official said, the Seals did not think their mission would be made public by Obama within a few hours:
The retired official said that if the
Seals' first accounts are to be believed, there wouldn't have been
much left of bin Laden to put into the sea in any case.
Generals Pasha and Kayani have retired
and both are reported to be under investigation for corruption
during their time in office.
The report led to international headlines about brutality and waterboarding, along with gruesome details about rectal feeding tubes, ice baths and threats to rape or murder family members of detainees who were believed to be withholding information.
Despite the bad publicity, the report was a victory for the CIA. Its major finding - that the use of torture didn't lead to discovering the truth - had already been the subject of public debate for more than a decade. Another key finding - that the torture conducted was more brutal than Congress had been told - was risible, given the extent of public reporting and published exposés by former interrogators and retired CIA officers.
The report depicted tortures that were obviously contrary to international law as violations of rules or 'inappropriate activities' or, in some cases, 'management failures'.
Whether the actions described constitute
war crimes was not discussed, and the report did not suggest that
any of the CIA interrogators or their superiors should be
investigated for criminal activity. The agency faced no meaningful
consequences as a result of the report.
The main theme of the committee's 499-page executive summary is that the CIA lied systematically about the effectiveness of its torture program in gaining intelligence that would stop future terrorist attacks in the US.
The lies included some vital details about the uncovering of an al-Qaida operative called Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, who was said to be the key al-Qaida courier, and the subsequent tracking of him to Abbottabad in early 2011.
The agency's alleged intelligence,
patience and skill in finding al-Kuwaiti became legend after it was
dramatized in Zero Dark Thirty.
In 2005 an internal CIA report on the hunt for bin Laden noted that,
A CIA cable a year later stated that,
The report also highlighted several
instances of CIA officers, including Panetta, making false
statements to Congress and the public about the value of 'enhanced
interrogation techniques' in the search for bin Laden's couriers.
His principled stand on behalf of the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran says much, as does his decision to operate without the support of the conservative Republicans in Congress.
High-level lying nevertheless remains the modus operandi of US policy, along with secret prisons, drone attacks, Special Forces night raids, bypassing the chain of command, and cutting out those who might say no.