Osama bin Laden was not carrying a weapon when he was killed by U.S. troops in a fortified house in Pakistan, the White House said Tuesday, as it revised its initial account of the nighttime raid.
Members of a Navy SEALs team burst in on bin Laden in the compound where he was hiding and shot him in a room on the third floor, after a fierce gunbattle with other operatives of al-Qaida on the lower floors.
Bin Laden's wife, who was with him in the room, "rushed the U.S. assaulter and was shot in the leg but not killed," said White House spokesman Jay Carney, reading from the brief account that was provided by the Defense Department. "Bin Laden was then shot and killed. He was not armed."
Carney said that bin Laden's lack of a weapon did not mean he was ready to surrender, and he and other officials reiterated that this was a violent scene, that there was heavy fire from others in the house and that the soldiers did not know whether the occupants were wearing suicide belts or other explosives.
Still, the account diverged in some respects from one offered Monday by the president's chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan. He had said bin Laden was "engaged in a firefight with those that entered the area of the house he was in," adding, "whether or not he got off any rounds, I frankly don't know."
Brennan also said then that bin Laden used his wife as "human shield" to protect himself from gunfire. But officials now say that the death of another woman killed in the crossfire on another floor led them to draw that false conclusion.
White House officials said, according to the New York Times, that the discrepancies resulted from their haste to provide details about a chaotic, fast-moving military operation to an intensely interested public. As more troops from the 79-member assault team were debriefed, and their accounts were crosschecked with those of other team members, there were bound to be changes in the account, the report said.
Officials also acknowledged Tuesday that the commandos who attacked bin Laden's compound were operating under rules of engagement that all but assured the al-Qaida leader would be killed. The American operatives did have orders to capture bin Laden if he gave himself up, but with an important qualifier: The assault force was told to accept a surrender only if they could be sure he didn't have a bomb hidden under his clothing and posed no other danger.
Bin Laden could have surrendered only "if he did not pose any type of threat whatsoever," Brennan said on Fox television, and if U.S. troops "were confident of that in terms of his not having an IED (improvised explosives device) on his body, his not having some type of hidden weapon or whatever."
CIA director Leon Panetta, who supervised the operation, said in an interview on PBS television that the rules of engagement would have required U.S. forces to take bin Laden into custody if he had "thrown up his hands, surrendered and didn't appear to be representing any kind of threat."
But, he said, "I don't think he had a lot of time to say anything," adding that when the lead Navy SEAL reached the third-floor unit where bin Laden was located, "there were some threatening moves that were made … and that's the reason they fired."
Panetta also said the mission was launched amid far greater political and operational uncertainty than had been revealed.
He said in the PBS interview and others that U.S. intelligence agencies never had photographs or other proof that bin Laden was living at the compound. Panetta told Time magazine that analysts were only 60 to 80 percent confident bin Laden would be found.
"We never had direct evidence that he in fact had ever been there or was located there," Panetta said on PBS NewsHour. "The reality was that we could have gone in there and not found bin Laden at all."
President Barack Obama nevertheless approved the operation, Panetta and other U.S. officials said, because there was little chance of obtaining more definitive intelligence on bin Laden's location, which had amounted to a guessing game for the better part of 10 years.
Although the White House was connected to real-time information during the raid, Panetta told PBS, neither he nor Obama saw bin Laden's shooting as it happened. Instead, Panetta said, there was a 20- to 25-minute period as the raid was under way in which it was impossible to follow the exact developments. Not until Vice Adm. William McRaven, the head of the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command, notified Washington that he had heard the code word "Geronimo" did they know the forces had gotten to bin Laden.
After the raid, U.S. commandos carried out not only bin Laden's body but also a cache of computers and other material found at the compound, the Washington Post reported, citing a U.S. intelligence official. The Post quoted the official as saying there was written material and pictures and some material that could have been bin Laden's personal property.
Separately, McClatchy-Tribune news services reported that Pakistani officials in Abbottabad, the site of the raid, said Tuesday that bin Laden's young daughter, age 12 or 13, saw him being killed. She was one of eight or nine children and two women in the compound who were left behind after the raid, according to that report, which cited an official with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency.
Meanwhile, the White House continued to grapple with the question of whether to release the photo of the dead bin Laden, or other documentary evidence. Administration officials said they are trying to determine whether the visceral desire among Americans — and some skeptics — to see proof outweighs the potential that such images might further inflame bin Laden's disciples.
Several published reports said the photo, taken after bin Laden was killed, clearly identifies the al-Qaida leader.
"It's fair to say that it's a gruesome photograph," Carney, the White House spokesman, said. "I'll be candid. There are sensitivities here in terms of the appropriateness of releasing photographs of Osama bin Laden."
Panetta told NBC anchor Brian Williams that some photographic evidence will be made public.
"The government obviously has been talking about how best to do this, but I don't think there was any question that ultimately a photograph would be presented to the public," Panetta said in an interview broadcast Tuesday night.
Information from the New York Times, Washington Post and the McClatchy-Tribune news service was used in this report.