Two teams were on standby during raid on Osama compound
President Barack Obama insisted that the assault force hunting down Osama bin Laden last week be large enough to fight its way out of Pakistan if confronted by hostile local police officers and troops, senior administration and military officials said on Monday.
In revealing additional details about planning for the mission, senior officials said two teams of specialists were on standby: One to bury Osama if he was killed, and a second composed of lawyers, interrogators and translators in case he was captured alive. That team was set to meet aboard a Navy ship, mostly likely the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson in the North Arabian Sea.
Mr. Obama's decision to increase the size of the force sent into Pakistan shows that he was willing to risk a military confrontation with a close ally in order to capture or kill the leader of the al-Qaeda.
Such a fight would have set off an even larger breach with the Pakistanis than has taken place since officials in Islamabad learned that helicopters filled with members of a Navy Seals team had flown undetected into one of their cities, and burst into a compound where Osama was hiding.
One senior Obama administration official, pressed on the rules of engagement for one of the riskiest clandestine operations attempted by the CIA and the military's Joint Special Operations Command in many years, said: “Their instructions were to avoid any confrontation if at all possible. But if they had to return fire to get out, they were authorised to do it.”
The planning also illustrates how little the administration trusted the Pakistanis as they set up their operation. They also rejected a proposal to bring the Pakistanis in on the mission.
Under the original plan, two assault helicopters were going to stay on the Afghanistan side of the border waiting for a call if they were needed. But the aircraft would have been about 90 minutes away from the Osama compound.
About 10 days before the raid, Mr. Obama reviewed the plans and pressed his commanders whether they were bringing along enough forces to fight their way out if the Pakistanis arrived on the scene and attempted to interfere with the operation.
That resulted in the decision to send two more helicopters carrying additional troops. These followed the two lead Black Hawk helicopters that carried the actual assault team. While there was no confrontation with the Pakistanis, one of those backup helicopters was ultimately brought in to the scene of the raid when a Black Hawk was damaged while making a hard landing
“Some people may have assumed we could talk our way out a jam, but given our difficult relationship with Pakistan right now, the President did not want to leave anything to chance,” said one senior administration official, who like others would not be quoted by name describing details of the secret mission. “He wanted extra forces if they were necessary.”
With tensions between the United States and Pakistan escalating since the raid, U.S. officials on Monday sought to tamp down the divisions and pointed to some encouraging developments.
A U.S. official said U.S. investigators would soon be allowed to interview Osama's three widows now being held by Pakistani authorities, a demand that Mr. Obama's National Security Adviser Tom Donilon made on television talk shows Sunday.
U.S. officials say the widows, as well as a review of the trove of documents and other data the Seals team collected from the raid, could reveal important details, not only about Osama's life and activities since fleeing into Pakistan from Afghanistan in 2001, but also information about al-Qaeda plots, personnel and planning.
“We believe that it is very important to maintain the cooperative relationship with Pakistan precisely because it's in our national security interest to do so,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
Mending the rupture
In an effort to help mend the latest rupture in relations, CIA director Leon E. Panetta will meet soon with his counterpart, Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, head of the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI, “to discuss the way forward in the common fight against the al-Qaeda,” a U.S. official said.
On Sunday, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called Pakistan army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
In planning for the possible capture of Osama, officials decided they would bring him aboard a Navy ship to preclude battles over jurisdiction.
The plan, officials said, was to do an initial interrogation for any information that might prevent a pending attack or identify the location of other al-Qaeda leaders.
“There was a heck of a lot of planning that went into this for almost any and all contingencies, including capture,” one senior administration official said.
In the end, the team organised to handle his death was called in. It did a quick forensics study of the body, washed it and buried it at sea.
But the officials acknowledged that the mission always was weighted toward killing, given the possibility that Osama would be armed or wearing an explosive vest. — New York Times News Service