We killed bin Laden

Published Sep. 8, 2012

It was inevitable that one of the men on the Osama bin Laden mission would eventually write a book. After all, we live in an open society. Anyone involved in this historymaking mission would want to set the record straight about what exactly happened — given some of the nonsense that has been written about it.

No Easy Day, the account by the pseudonymous Mark Owen — one of the SEALs on the mission whose real name has been revealed to be Matt Bissonnette — fits almost exactly with my own understanding of the operation, based on being the only outside observer allowed inside the bin Laden compound before it was demolished and interviewing dozens of American officials familiar with the details of the operation, as well as interviews with Pakistani officials who investigated the aftermath of the raid. The title of Owen's book comes from a piece of Navy SEAL lore that "the only easy day was yesterday."

The readers who are lining up to buy No Easy Day want to know exactly what happened the night bin Laden was killed and what it felt like to be on that mission. Owen and his co-author, Kevin Maurer, do not disappoint. They take the reader on a roller-coaster ride, opening the book with Owen on the Black Hawk helicopter that crashed within the first seconds of the SEAL team's arrival at bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The heart of the book is the four weeks or so leading up to that moment and the 40 minutes that followed it as the SEALs recovered from what could have been a crippling blow to the mission.

Owen says that the plan was for one Black Hawk to hover over bin Laden's third-floor bedroom at the compound. Some SEALs would then fast-rope onto the roof of the bedroom and surprise al-Qaida's leader while he slept. The SEALs practiced this on a replica of bin Laden's residence made from plywood, shipping containers and chain-link fencing that was assembled in the pine forests of North Carolina, but they had no intelligence about what the interiors of the compound would look like.

At one point, the SEALs asked a lawyer who was attending the rehearsals if the bin Laden operation was an assassination mission. The lawyer replied that "if he is naked with his hands up, you're not going to engage him. ... You will detain him."

After landing in the compound in the controlled helicopter crash, the SEALs were 15 minutes into the mission and hadn't yet found bin Laden. Then the "point man" spotted a man poking his head out a room on the third floor. He shot at him. The SEALs moved slowly toward this room and inside found a man lying on the floor in his death throes. Owen and another SEAL finished him off with a few more rounds.

This contradicts previous accounts that bin Laden was shot by the SEALs inside his bedroom. This version of events indicates that there was little real effort to capture bin Laden, despite the admonition of the lawyer to the SEALs that detaining bin Laden was definitely an option. The raid commander "Jay" called his boss, Adm. William McRaven, on satellite radio, saying, "For God and country. I pass Geronimo. . . . Geronimo EKIA."

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"Geronimo" was the code name for bin Laden, and "EKIA" stands for "enemy killed in action." Owen found bin Laden's guns in his bedroom, an AK-47 and a Makarov pistol. The chambers of both guns were empty. "He," Owen reflects, "hadn't even prepared a defense."

If you want to find out what really happened that night in Abbottabad, buy Owen's book.

Peter Bergen is the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden From 9/11 to Abbottabad."

© 2012 Washington Post Co.