During a thirty-five year career in policing, especially during the eighteen year period that I served as police chief of two large American cities, I learned a hard lesson: the first reports from your command staff during controversial actions are sure to contain a number of factual errors. They may be unintentional, minor, or important mistakes or omissions, but if reported prematurely they will prove damaging to your credibility. No matter how great the pressure to release favorable reports of the incident, the boss must stand firm until reassured that he has accurate information to release.
Police chiefs lose their jobs when they ignore these rules. More importantly, in the killing of America’s Number One Enemy, the terrorist Osama bin Laden, Our Commander-in Chief President Obama and the courageous commandos who succeeded in the high risk raid in Pakistan that killed bin Laden deserve the highest praise. The president risked his presidency and the troops voluntarily risked their lives and freedom by willingly taking military action in a foreign land without the approval of the sovereign government.
Unfortunately, the well-deserved praise the president and the commandos deserve has been marred by the amateurish blundering and conflicting statements of our top government officials, who should know better. The initial reports from the White House Press Secretary, the Director of the CIA, the White House Counter-Terrorism Adviser and others, created a picture of a raid on a heavily guarded compound, a forty minute firefight, and an armed bin Laden using a woman as a shield. Then, after a period of delays, various other versions were advanced. Bin Laden didn’t actually use a woman as a shield. Bin Laden hadn’t actually fired on the Seals. Bin Laden really hadn’t pointed a firearm at the troops. In fact, bin Laden hadn’t actually had a firearm on his person, but bin Laden had “resisted”. Yet there was an omission as to how he might have resisted. A puzzling statement that the Navy Seals firing the fatal two shots had somehow gotten visual ID before shooting bin Laden went unexplained. The question arises as to how one had enough time to get a visual confirmation of identity, but not enough time to observe that bin Laden wasn’t holding a firearm. There are plausible explanations, but a wiser course for those offering statements would have been to avoid overstating the case until they had more facts.
Finally, veils of secrecy were incrementally lifted in succeeding days. Bin Laden’s body had been photographed, the head of the CIA said, and the picture would eventually (soon) be released. Alas, a day later the President announced that he would not release pictures of the body. Top advisers then pronounced that a photo identification was not needed, that DNA evidence proved beyond a doubt that it was bin Laden, and made the false statement that “everybody” knew he was dead. The next day, it was disclosed that we did not actually possess a sample of bin Laden’s DNA, but that of his relatives was just as good.
Confronted with media questions as to whether the raid had been approved by the Pakistani government, the administration again offered confusing and conflicting accounts. The President implied that the Pakistani government had been aware and helpful in supplying intelligence in the raid. Others in the administration argued that the two American helicopters had actually taken off from a Pakistani air base. But, at the present time, spokesmen for Pakistan adamantly deny this and maintain that the raid was a unilateral attack on their sovereignty. The Director of the CIA, on the other hand, bluntly said that Pakistan hadn’t been notified because someone would have warned bin Laden. Other top officials fed the media the idea that the compound where bin Laden “lived” was so large and luxurious in a populated area that Pakistan must have been sheltering him. Already there are conflicting reports raising doubts as to just how much time bin Laden spent in the residence.
On Thursday May 5, 2011, the Associated Press reported that only one of the five people killed by the Navy Seals was an armed man who had been in a guest cottage, not the main house, and that he had been killed during the first minutes of the engagement, and no further shots were fired at the SEALS. Apparently, there had been no forty-minute firefight. In sharp contrast, White House spokesman Jay
Carney had told the press that, “There were many people that were armed…. There was a firefight. We expected a great deal of resistance and were met with a great deal of resistance.” Another senior American official claimed three days earlier than the AP story, “For most of the period there, there was a brief firefight.” Other senior officials stated that Osama bin Laden had been killed lunging for a weapon. Initially, the White House Counterterrorism Adviser had falsely reported that Osama bin Laden had taken part in the shootout which it is now known never took place. Once again, accusations of incompetence will shadow this administration.
Had my spokespeople made similar statements during my days as police chief, I would have put my house up for sale and packed my bags. Tragically, the commendable results of the president’s, the CIA’s, and the Navy Seals’ actions in ridding the world of a fanatical mass murderer are now being overshadowed due to the blunders of top officials who are supposed to win international and domestic support for our country’s war against terrorism.
General Colin Powell, more than a decade ago during the war to free Kuwait, reminded us, “A soldier’s duty during war is to kill the enemy.” President Obama and our military fulfilled their duty relative to Osama bin Laden. Actions taken during the war on terrorism cannot be judged under the same standards we apply to police agencies.