Obama Team Bungles Osama Death Story and Photo

All went well with this operation until the center of the action moved to Washington.

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Three days after military personnel, armed with actionable intelligence, removed Osama bin Laden from planet Earth, the Obama administration made one thing, as the president might say, “clear.” In competence, professionalism, and training, its communication team is no match for this nation’s military and intelligence gathering agencies.

Offered as evidence are three remarkable displays of incompetence in as many days. First came the failure to get and relate a coherent story of bin Laden’s demise. Hours after President Obama delivered the best address of his presidency, his handlers and purported helpers put out the line that bin Laden put up a fight worthy of Ma Barker or Bonnie and Clyde. [See photos of reactions to Osama bin Laden's death.]

On Monday, John Brennan stood before cameras and microphones and declared that bin Laden had been “engaged in a firefight” with his pursuers. “Whether or not he got off any rounds, I frankly don’t know,” he added. He also said that bin Laden had used a woman as a “human shield.”

The next day, James Carney, the president’s press secretary, clarified what Brennan had said. In the second version, bin Laden was shot in a room on an upper floor of the compound where he was staying. His wife “rushed the U.S. assaulter and was shot in the leg but not killed.” Carney then announced that bin Laden was not armed. Version two was, in many ways, almost as spectacular than version one. The real story was in the strength of U.S. intelligence gathering, the valor of its fighting force, and how Obama comported himself as a competent commander in chief. In an instant, Carney’s clarifications appeared to diminish all this.

Why the discrepancy between the two accounts? According to unnamed White House officials, their own rush to get out details about a fast-moving military operation in the glare of a 24/7 media that has to be constantly fed. Never mind that in such sloppiness are sewn the seeds of future conspiracy theories. Muslim extremists will be portraying Obama as an assassin in days and years hence. Soon, supermarkets will soon be selling tabloids that proclaim that bin Laden was spotted in South America playing poker with Elvis, Marilyn, and JFK.

If Carney’s walking back of Brennan’s remarks did not put a damper on Obama’s moment of triumph, they certainly and suddenly put the administration on the defensive. Navi Pillay, the senior United Nations human rights official, perhaps testing the superpower status the administration all but gave her organization when it all but begged it to sanction U.S. participation in a “no fly zone” over Libya, wants to know whether the killing of bin Laden was “legal.” (The question comes from an entity that once put Libya on a panel investigating human rights abuses.) One can envision Muammar Qadhafi, who had to have been quaking in his boots after listening to Brennan, being counseled not to pick up firearms so that he might one day take Obama to court for attacking him. Practically unnoticed in all this administration double talk was Vice President Biden’s latest fumble. Contrary to Pentagon policy not to acknowledge that its personnel carry out executions of this kind, Biden twice in one day credited Navy SEALs for this one.

While White House officials were scrambling to find out what exactly took place in bin Laden’s Pakistan compound, other members of the administration debated in public and on television whether Obama should release the photographs of the deceased king of terrorists. Within the short space of 24 hours, they succeeded in making a president who was being universally praised for decisiveness, toughness, and courage, transformed back to the Obama of the healthcare and budgetary debates. That president, it will be recalled, appeared disengaged, indecisive, and weak-kneed throughout. And they pulled it off without the help of a single Republican[Vote now: Is Obama right not to release post-mortem Osama bin Laden photos?]

Finally, came the gratuitous and completely unnecessary insult to a former president, to whom Obama was especially gracious Sunday night. One of the panelists on Morning Joe related that her White House sources told her that Bush declined to join Obama for a wreath laying ceremony at Ground Zero in order to deprive his successor from making political capital out of bin Laden’s death. (How would Bush’s absence prevent that?) How many of these self-important gas bags, hoping to join similar panels after Obama hangs it up, were out of diapers when George H. W. Bush refused to travel to Germany to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall--or how he was criticized for staying away?

It is past time that the president put in place a communications team worthy not only of him, but also of the brave military and intelligence personnel, who put themselves at such risk to bring the mastermind of 9/11 to justice.  As is true of so much else, all went well with this operation until the center of the action moved to Washington. [See a slide show of six potential terrorist targets.]

The fighting force totaled 79 heroes. We may never know their names. Nor can we expect to see them on Morning Joe any time soon. But we are all in their debt. As another leader in another time and place would have said of them, “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.” They deserve better.

  • See photos of reactions to Osama bin Laden's death.
  • Vote now:Is Obama right not to release post-mortem Osama bin Laden photos?
  • See a transcript of Obama's speech on bin Laden death.
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  • Corrected on 05/05/11: The headline has been corrected from a previous version of this blog post.