It might seem churlish to second-guess a military operation that removed a master terrorist from the face of the Earth. But conflicting statements from the White House about whether Osama bin Laden was armed during the raid on his compound raise the question of whether the United States ever intended to do anything other than kill him, and if not, whether we should find that troubling.
In his statement to the nation Sunday, President Obama said Bin Laden was killed after a firefight, the implication being that he exchanged gunfire with American commandos. Speaking on Monday, John Brennan, Obama's counter-terrorism advisor, echoed those remarks and said: "Whether or not he got off any rounds, I frankly don't know." Then, on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney backtracked, revealing that Bin Laden was in fact unarmed when he was killed.
Some officials insist that capture was a possibility. On Wednesday, Carney said the commandos were told to be prepared to accept Bin Laden's surrender. A spokesman for the National Security Council said there were contingency plans to transport him to a naval vessel and begin interrogation. But other officials say that though capturing Bin Laden alive was always a possibility, self-defense was defined broadly. They told The Times: "The assault force was told to accept a surrender only if it could be sure he didn't have a bomb hidden under his clothing and posed no other danger." A congressional aide briefed on the rules of engagement said that Bin Laden "would have had to be naked for them to allow him to surrender."