WASHINGTON – Osama bin Laden was unarmed when Navy SEALs burst into his room and shot him to death, the White House said Tuesday, a change in the official account that raised questions about whether the U.S. ever planned to capture the terrorist leader alive.
The Obama administration was still debating whether to release gruesome images of bin Laden's corpse, balancing efforts to demonstrate to the world that he was dead against the risk that the images could provoke further anti-U.S. sentiment. But CIA Director Leon Panetta said a photograph would be released.
"I don't think there was any question that ultimately a photograph would be presented to the public," Panetta said in an interview with "NBC Nightly News." Asked again later by The Associated Press, he said, "I think it will."
Asked about the final confrontation with bin Laden, Panetta said: "I don't think he had a lot of time to say anything." The CIA chief told PBS NewsHour, "It was a firefight going up that compound. ... I think it - this was all split-second action on the part of the SEALs."
Panetta said that bin Laden made "some threatening moves that were made that clearly represented a clear threat to our guys. And that's the reason they fired."
The SEALs were back in the U.S. at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington for debriefing on the raid, lawmakers said after meeting with Panetta.
The question of how to present bin Laden's death to the world is a difficult balancing act for the White House. President Barack Obama told Americans that justice had been done, but the White House also declared that bin Laden's body was treated respectfully and sent to rest in a somber ceremony at sea.
Panetta underscored on Tuesday that Obama had given permission to kill the terror leader: "The authority here was to kill bin Laden," he said. "And obviously, under the rules of engagement, if he had in fact thrown up his hands, surrendered and didn't appear to be representing any kind of threat, then they were to capture him. But they had full authority to kill him."
For the long-term legacy of the most successful counterterrorism operation in U.S. history, the fact that bin Laden was unarmed is unlikely to matter much to the Americans he declared war against. President George W. Bush famously said he wanted bin Laden "dead or alive," and the CIA's top counterterrorism official once promised to bring bin Laden's head back on a stake.
Yet just 24 hours before the White House acknowledged that bin Laden had been unarmed, Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, said: "If we had the opportunity to take bin Laden alive, if he didn't present any threat, the individuals involved were able and prepared to do that."
Will it matter around the world? Some may try to make much of it in Pakistan and elsewhere.
"This country has gone through a lot of trauma in terms of violence, and whether or not he was armed is not going to make a difference to people who were happy to see the back of him," said Mosharraf Zaidi, a political analyst and columnist in Pakistan. "The majority have a mistrust of America and this will reinforce their mistrust of America."
Others may not even believe it.
"I think he was definitely armed and he was firing on U.S. commandos," said Hamid Mir, an anchor for Geo Television. "Osama told me many times that he will not surrender; he claimed that he will fight and I think he was fighting."