It's the worst-kept secret in Washington that Navy SEAL special operators were the ones who assaulted Osama bin Laden's secret compound in Pakistan this week -- and yet you haven't heard any military officials say that on the record. What kind of helicopters did the troops use? You haven't heard any confirmation on that, either -- and the mysterious photos of the crashed helicopter make that even more confusing. (Why did that helo crash?) Was bin Laden armed? Did he use his wife as a "shield?" Yes, the White House first said. Now it says no to both. Officials first said bin Laden had been in his secret compound for five years. Then they said it was six.
In war, first reports are always subject to emendations and updates, but this week Washington has muddied what might have been a simple narrative by issuing all kinds of information officially and unofficially, deferring some questions, and refusing to answer others. One Pentagon source said this week that it was a "kill mission" -- that the SEALs were sent to Pakistan with orders to eliminate bin Laden no matter what. But White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan said the U.S. would have captured bin Laden alive, if there'd been the chance. So if, as the White House now says, bin Laden was unarmed when the SEALs burst into his room, and they had the presence of mind to shoot his wife to wound but not kill her, how did he "resist" in such a way as to justify being shot and killed? Did the SEALs resolve to take matters into their own hands?
No one is complaining that bin Laden is dead. But every time Washington has to change details about what happened, it damages its credibility on the whole story. And instead of continuing to feed the ravenous reporters clamoring for information, officials are starving them: The Pentagon today cancelled its regular briefing for the second day in a row, even as the White House refers some questions about the bin Laden story to the Defense Department.
The next major twist in this narrative will be how or whether the White House issues proof of bin Laden's death. Officials reportedly have photos and video of his burial at sea, as well as the already-infamous photo of his corpse. Even here there are conflicted reports: CIA director Leon Panetta said Tuesday he thinks bin Laden's picture will be made public, whereas the White House has been hesitant about committing to that.
What do you make of it all? Should the White House release bin Laden's picture or images of his burial, or should we start trying to move on?
Update: The White House has announced once and for all that it will not release bin Laden's photo. The image isn't a "trophy," President Obama told an interviewer on Wednesday; "That's not who we are." Is this the right decision?