WASHINGTON — U.S. commandos who attacked Osama bin Laden's compound were operating under rules of engagement that all but assured the al-Qaida leader would be killed, officials acknowledged as they backed away from their initial account that bin Laden had been armed and used a woman as a human shield.
After saying Monday that the American operatives who raided the compound had orders to capture bin Laden if he gave himself up, U.S. officials on Tuesday disclosed 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," White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan said on Fox television, and if U.S. troops "were confident of that in terms of his not having an IED (improvised explosive device) on his body, his not having some type of hidden weapon or whatever."
Added a senior congressional aide briefed on the rules of engagement: "He would have had to have been naked for them to allow him to surrender."
Once troops exchanged fire with bin Laden allies living in the compound — three men were killed, in addition to the al-Qaida leader — the chances of a surrender were almost nil, experts say.
The surrender issue was one of several on which administration officials shifted ground. At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney read a Pentagon "narrative" of the tense minutes at the compound in Abbottabad that he said was intended to correct information that had been released "in great haste" by Brennan the day before. Brennan had said bin Laden was armed, "engaged in a firefight" with U.S. forces and shielded himself behind a woman.
"In the room with bin Laden, a woman — bin Laden's wife — rushed the U.S. assaulter and was shot in the leg but not killed," Carney said. "Bin Laden was then shot and killed. He was not armed."
CIA Director Leon Panetta said in an interview on PBS television Tuesday that he did not believe bin Laden had a chance to speak before he was shot in the face and killed.
"To be frank, I don't think he had a lot of time to say anything," Panetta said.
Nonetheless, officials strongly defended the decision to shoot. "The right of self-defense is never denied," said a Special Forces officer interviewed by telephone who was not authorized to speak publicly.
"If anyone feels in any way that there is a hostile threat in a case like this — it can be a movement, or a failure to follow commands — deadly force will be authorized. It's a judgment call. And these assaulters are some of the finest most highly trained in discriminate shooting. They train for hostage rescue."
Daughter saw killing
Separately, Pakistani officials in Abbottabad 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, said an official with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency. He spoke only on condition of anonymity.
"We have no independent confirmation of Osama bin Laden being there or dying there, except what we got from the daughter," the official said, adding that those left behind said that bin Laden had been there for some months.
Carney also said officials were still weighing the release of a "gruesome" photograph of a dead bin Laden. Officials understand that some people will not believe bin Laden is dead without seeing the photograph, but they are concerned about the "sensitivity" of the image.
He added that the White House stood by its claim on Monday that bin Laden had resisted capture, but said that "resistance does not require a firearm."
One of the other people killed in the raid is believed to be bin Laden's son and the other two dead men were described as brothers who are the listed owners of the compound, one of whom was the al-Qaida courier who unwittingly led the CIA to bin Laden. The dead woman is the wife of the courier, U.S. officials said.
Officials said they left the other residents, mostly women and children, at the compound.
Problems with capture
If bin Laden had been taken alive it would have posed myriad complications.
The U.S. likely would have faced questions about the legality of having snatched a prisoner from a sovereign country without that country's permission and whether to treat him as an enemy combatant or pursue a criminal prosecution.
Panetta told Congress last month that bin Laden probably would have been taken first to Bagram air base in Afghanistan and then Guantanamo, an uncomfortable chain of events for an administration that promised to close Guantanamo. And any legal proceeding, whether criminal or military, would have afforded the world's most famous terrorist leader a global platform.
U.S. officials also disclosed new details of bin Laden's activities while hiding in his Abbottabad compound. Bin Laden was removed from day-to-day operations of the terrorist network he had founded. But he continued to secretly send strategic guidance to affiliate groups scattered around the globe, the officials said.
The messages probably were designed to silence restive factions within the affiliates who wanted to join forces with local insurgencies against governments.