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Gunfight at Abbottabad: Dismantling the Myth of an American Hero

Inter Press Service

In Hollywood Westerns, the sheriff engages in a shootout with bad guys and wins. Such was the story of Wyatt Earp, who killed rustlers in the "Gunfight at OK Corral". Then there is the American cowboy, represented by John Wayne – tall, handsome, Anglo-Saxon – who rides into town whistling before he dispatches the "bad guys" sometimes represented by "Indians" like Geronimo, the Apache, who supposedly terrorised innocent settlers.

Into that tradition, late on the night of May 1, stepped President Barack Obama, with a tale of a 40-minute gun battle that he personally monitored from the White House (complete with a photo of his national security team at work), to take out the world's most dangerous terrorist who used his own wife as a human shield. The bad guy was hiding out in a fortified million-dollar mansion in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where the "good guys" had no choice but to kill him.

"Justice has been done," said Obama in his midnight address. His lurid tale of a team of new American heroes was backed up by his team.

"He (Osama) was engaged in a firefight with those that entered the area of the house he was in," said John Brennan, White House security adviser. "It was a firefight. He, therefore, was killed in that firefight."

In reality, historians are still debating whether Wyatt Earp was a heroic lawman or settling a personal feud in the town of Tombstone, Arizona. Many cowboys were either poor blacks or Mexican, not daredevil fighters. And Geronimo came from a long tribal history of defending his people against Spanish settlers, Mexican and U.S. soldiers who were stealing the land of the Chiricahua Apache.

Like the story of Wyatt Earp, John Wayne and Geronimo, the facts behind Sunday's gunfight at Abbottabad are dubious at best or simply untrue. What makes matters worse is that numerous laws and human rights rules were broken. Finally, the operation to kill Osama bin Laden shows a complete failure in the fabled intelligence apparatus in the U.S.

Jay Carney, the president's spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday, "We provided a great deal of information with great haste in order to inform you … and obviously some of the information came in piece by piece and is being reviewed and updated and elaborated on."

The house that Osama bin Laden lived in was downgraded from a million-dollar mansion to a value of 250,000 dollars after inquiries by reporters from local property dealers. The latest property records, unearthed by the Associated Press news agency, show that the land was actually bought for just 48,000 dollars.

The White House has backtracked on the gun battle, stating that only one of Bin Laden's men fired a gun from an adjoining house. The "wife" who was used as a "human shield" turned out to be neither Bin Laden's wife nor a human shield, nor did she die.

The famous photograph of Obama watching the raid live in the White House turns out to be suspect also since the video transmission of the raid failed. CIA director Leon Panetta told PBS television, "Once those teams went into the compound, I can tell you that there was a time period of almost 20 or 25 minutes that we really didn't know just exactly what was going on."

While the story has unraveled, serious questions are starting to be raised about the legal nature of the killing. And that's not to mention the repeated flouting of international law by the White House in ordering deadly military operations inside Pakistan, a country with which it has not declared war.

Amnesty International senior director Claudio Cordone said in a statement, "Given that bin Laden was not armed, it is not clear how he resisted arrest and whether an attempt was made to capture him rather than kill him."

Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights called for a "full disclosure of the accurate facts" on the operation. "The United Nations condemns terrorism but it also has basic rules of how counter-terrorism activity has to be carried out. It has to be in compliance with international law."

Even religious leaders have weighed in. Dr Rowan Williams, the head of the Anglican church, told the Telegraph newspaper in Britain: "The killing of an unarmed man is always going to leave a very uncomfortable feeling because it does not look as if justice is seen to be done."

Some have condemned Obama outright. Geoffrey Robertson, a human rights lawyer in Britain, told the BBC that Obama's claim that justice was done "is a total misuse of language".

"This is the justice of the Red Queen: sentence first, trial later," he said, in a reference to "Alice in Wonderland".

Yet perhaps the biggest question of all is why it took U.S. intelligence almost 10 years to track down their quarry when he was apparently living under their noses for roughly half of that, in a compound next to a premier Pakistani military academy with no security other than a couple of guns.

Either the Pakistanis fooled the U.S. military, or neither the CIA nor Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence agency had any idea, suggesting that the 54-year-old man on dialysis outwitted them.

The answer to the question, unfortunately, lies deep under the Arabian Sea where the U.S. dumped the body of Bin Laden, since the U.S. claims to have killed what could have been their biggest information source in a decade.

There are several survivors who could help shed light. But not one of them is in U.S. hands. Amal Ahmed Abdulfattah, the youngest of bin Laden's three wives, has already told Pakistani interrogators details of Bin Laden's final years.

No matter. CIA officials are already spinning new tales for the U.S. media, based on documents and data they claim to have captured. "He (Osama) wasn't just a figurehead," one U.S. official told The New York Times on condition of anonymity. "He continued to plot and plan, to come up with ideas about targets and to communicate those ideas to other senior Qaeda leaders."

Like the story of the fish that got away, there is no proof of any of the new allegations. But like Wyatt Earp, the story of the gunfight at Abbotabad is sure to be coming to a movie theatre near you.

Pratap Chatterjee is a visiting fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington DC specialising in fraud, waste and abuse in government procurement.

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