Thursday, May 5, 2011

Editorial: Spinning bin Laden

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Journalists usually learn early in their careers, often through bitter experience, not to venture beyond what they can confirm. So often, things that seem true turn out not to be true at all, and the result is an embarrassing retraction — not unlike the one the White House made Tuesday when it revised its initial account of the killing of Osama bin Laden.

  • Counterterrorism czar John Brennan

    By Carolyn Kaster, AP

    Counterterrorism czar John Brennan

By Carolyn Kaster, AP

Counterterrorism czar John Brennan

Counterterrorism adviser John Brennan initially told reporters that bin Laden was armed— "engaged in a firefight" — and using a woman as a shield.

Then the facts got in the way. White House spokesman Jay Carney acknowledged Tuesday that bin Laden wasn't armed. And there was no human shield. In this latest account, one of bin Laden's wives ran at the Americans and was shot and wounded.

The kindest gloss to put on this is that the initial information was fragmentary and confusing. Less charitably, Brennan couldn't resist going beyond the facts to spin bin Laden as a coward tarnishing a success story that needed no embellishment.

In either event, the important thing is that the White House quickly corrected the record.

In situations like these, it's tempting to stick with the more attractive storyline, as the Pentagon did when Army Ranger and former NFL player Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004. For months, military officials stuck to the lie that Tillman had died heroically at the hands of the enemy.


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The collapse of the coverup was a blow to the Pentagon's credibility. Ultimately, the truth will out, a lesson the administration appears to have grasped after Brennan's unforced error.

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