"You really believe this story? Osama Bin Laden?" asks Chris Pratt in the action movie version of the Zero Dark Thirty trailer that's been tearing up March Madness commercial breaks over the last week. And if you looked at the CNN.com homepage Tuesday night, the network was raising the question again, except this time, it wasn't just Hollywood's interpretation of real-life events. This was the counter-history of the news:
CNN is challenging last month's widely read exclusive account of Bin Laden's death by veteran investigative reporter Phil Bronstein in Esquire: "The Man Who Killed Osama bin Laden." Bronstein's story profiles "The Shooter," the member of Navy SEAL Team 6 who claims to have shot the world's most wanted man. It's a dramatic claim about a dramatic event, and the fact that conflicting accounts are emerging isn't a complete surprise. But the shadowy, sometimes schizophrenic and increasingly desperate struggle to figure out what really happened in Abbottabad the night of May 2, 2011, well, it's starting to get a little bit dirty.
Esquire and CNN are hardly alone in this struggle. The network is more or less ganging up against the magazine by joining SEAL Team 6 member Matt Bissonette, who wrote a best-selling book about the Bin Laden mission under the pen name Mark Owen, and SOFREP, a military blog run by former Navy SEAL Brandon Webb that recently contested the Shooter's account. These three are more or less calling Esquire's source a liar, claiming that he did not fire the fatal shots that killed Bin Laden, and some are even accusing the Shooter of seeking financial gain, despite the heavy layer of anonymity, claims of money troubles, and a pronounced sense of duty to remain anonymous that dominates the Esquire story.
The dispute revolves around that pivotal moment when the SEALs reached the top of the stairs and found Bin Laden standing in a bedroom. Esquire's Shooter claims to have been the second to reach the top of the stairs, when he saw Bin Laden reach for a gun and shot the terrorist twice while standing and once while on the ground. Shortly after CNN broke its story during its new Jake Tapper show late Tuesday afternoon, Esquire released a statement. "The Esquire article, 'The Shooter: The Man Who Killed Osama Bin Laden,' in the March 2013 issue, is based on information from numerous sources, including members of Seal Team 6 and the Shooter himself, as well as detailed descriptions of mission debriefs," it reads. "We stand by our story."
CNN's source, who was not on the mission, says that account is "complete B-S." The first guy up the stairs, commonly referred to as "the point man," shot Bin Laden twice in the head, then dove on a pair of women he thought might be wearing suicide bomber vests, he said. Two other SEALs then shot Bin Laden, while he was on the ground. Bin Laden did not reach for a gun, he said, and the Shooter is stealing credit from the real hero, the point man, who would never "in a million years" speak publicly about that night. We've included a side-by-side comparison of the accounts at the bottom of this post.
There are really two things going on here. On one hand, you've got the sources, a bunch of Navy SEAL Team 6 guys and others with knowledge of the mission who are speaking out of turn — SEAL Team 6 members are sworn to secrecy, even if CNN's source wasn't on the mission in question — and staking their claims to the narrative. Some of them, like Bissonette, are making a bundle of money off of their involvement. Others, like the Shooter, are struggling with post-military life. (At least, according to Esquire and members of the Senate he is. But even that conversation, about how the military treats its veterans after they come home, veered toward a bunch of weird talk about how human resources work at the Department of Veterans Affairs.) The whole affair is getting more gossipy with each new narrative in the mix, and it's uncomfortably competitive. You could also argue, for instance, that Bissonette stands to profit from making his version of the story into the most trusted version of the story, because that would inevitably help him sell books. Webb, the blogger behind SOFREP, has also written several books. But regardless of intentions, which are always hard to comprehend, there is in-fighting.
Then you have the media. With everyone from major Hollywood studios to publishing houses to magazines to international news networks now jousting over the right version of this story (not to mention the Senate over that damn movie), it's getting more and more convoluted and harder and harder to listen to. It's not supposed to be like this! The story of how this team of super soldiers flew into a heavily guarded compound in the middle of the night and took down the world's worst terrorist is supposed to be a story about a great American triumph. Instead, we're stuck with outlets reaching for angles, and conflicting reports leaving readers to piece together the details from various accounts like soggy pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
This is all to say that the struggle to find out who shot Osama Bin Laden is well beyond a simple fact-finding mission. It's instead turned into the stupid pissing match between multi-million dollar media companies and gossipy, potentially disgruntled Navy SEALs. And when the streams cross, it's the public that's getting wet.
See if you can spot the difference in the narratives. Esquire's reads:
I thought in that first instant how skinny he was, how tall and how short his beard was, all at once.…
I'm just looking at him from right here [he moves his hand out from his face about ten inches]. He's got a gun on a shelf right there, the short AK he's famous for. And he's moving forward. I don't know if she's got a vest and she's being pushed to martyr them both. He's got a gun within reach. He's a threat. I need to get a head shot so he won't have a chance to clack himself off [blow himself up].
In that second, I shot him, two times in the forehead. Bap! Bap! The second time as he's going down. He crumpled onto the floor in front of his bed and I hit him again, Bap! same place. That time I used my EOTech red-dot holo sight. He was dead. Not moving. His tongue was out. I watched him take his last breaths, just a reflex breath.
And CNN's challenge, which largely resembles Bissonette's, reads:
What actually happened the night of the raid, according to the SEAL Team 6 operator who I interviewed, is that the "point man" ran up the stairs to the top floor and shot bin Laden in the head when he saw what looked like bin Laden poking his head out his bedroom door. The shot gravely wounded al Qaeda's leader.
Having taken down bin Laden, the point man proceeded to rush two women he found in bin Laden's bedroom, gathering them in his arms to absorb the explosion in case they were wearing suicide vests, something that was a real concern of those who planned the raid.
Two more SEALs then entered bin Laden's bedroom and, seeing that al Qaeda's leader was lying mortally wounded on the floor, finished him off with shots to the chest.
Update, Monday, 9:25 a.m. Eastern: Esquire editor-in-chief David Granger has issued a response to the CNN story. The editor's note from Granger, which reaffirms that the magazine stands by its story, reads in part:
To be clear: Esquire and Phil Bronstein, the veteran journalist and writer of the story, object to CNN's report in the strongest possible terms. By stark contrast with Bronstein's thoroughgoing 15,000 word report, the CNN story constitutes a mere act of assertion. As far as can be gleaned from the report, it is based on the opinion of one current SEAL who was not on the bin Laden mission and who therefore could not have first-hand knowledge of it. It is little more than gossip. Esquire's story remains the most thoroughly reported account of the raid and of the death of Osama bin Laden.
There were 23 SEAL Team 6 members on the mission. The Shooter was without doubt one of them. Only two of the 23 were the first to arrive on the third floor of the residence, where bin Laden was killed. Multiple members of SEAL Team 6 confirmed that The Shooter was one of those two and reported to us that it was known within the unit that The Shooter had fired the fatal shots. Other individuals briefed on the mission confirmed this to us.