WASHINGTON — The Obama administration presented new details Monday about the death of Osama bin Laden, portraying the leader of al-Qaida as a reclusive figure who had lived in relative luxury and whose final moments had finally exposed his cowardice.
As Americans solemnly remembered those killed at bin Laden's command, senior administration officials sought to turn their tactical military victory into a moral one by undermining the heroic image he had long cultivated among his followers. They stressed that he had been discovered not in a remote cave, but in a mansion in a wealthy Pakistani city. They also suggested that, as he tried to escape U.S. special operations forces, he may have used one of his wives as a shield.
"Here is bin Laden, who has been calling for these attacks, living in this million-dollar-plus compound, living in an area that is far removed from the front, hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield," John Brennan, President Barack Obama's deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism, told reporters at the White House. "I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years."
Brennan later allowed that it was not clear "whether or not bin Laden or the son or whatever put her there or she put herself there."
Administration officials continued releasing select details of the raid that killed bin Laden — conducted in the predawn hours in Abbottabad, deep inside Pakistan — as part of their argument that U.S. forces had acted appropriately in violating an ally's sovereignty in pursuit of the terrorist leader.
The operation drew praise from across the political spectrum, as Republicans and Democrats hailed bin Laden's killing as a fitting coda to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Even the administration's harshest critics, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, offered their congratulations.
The CIA was poring over confiscated hard drives, DVDs and other documents looking for inside information on al-Qaida, including clues that might lead to his presumed successor, Ayman al-Zawahri.
A U.S. official said bin Laden was far from alone in the compound. The official told the Associated Press that 23 children and nine women were in the compound. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence, said the women and children were turned over to Pakistani authorities.
U.S. officials conceded the risk of renewed attack after bin Laden's death. The terrorists "almost certainly will attempt to avenge" bin Laden's death, CIA director Leon Panetta wrote in a memo that congratulated the agency for its role in the operation.
The Department of Homeland Security warned that bin Laden's death was likely to provide motivation for attacks from "homegrown violent extremists."
The administration's effort to gain a public relations advantage from bin Laden's death is consistent with Obama's larger effort to mend U.S. relations with the Muslim world, which is undergoing political change in the Arab Middle East and North Africa.
Obama has said that largely peaceful demonstrations — which have toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt while shaking several others — have had little to do with bin Laden's darker calls for violent revolt against pro-Western governments.
In a White House appearance with war veterans, Obama celebrated the raid on the compound where bin Laden spent the final years of his life.
"I think we can all agree this is a good day for America," the president said. "Our country has kept its commitment to see that justice is done. The world is safer. It is a better place because of the death of Osama bin Laden."
Obama will visit the ground zero site in New York on Thursday to mark bin Laden's death.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.