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The new story of the death of Osama bin Laden

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
February 12, 2013 -- Updated 2118 GMT (0518 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Esquire published interview with ex-Navy SEAL who says he shot bin Laden
  • Peter Bergen: His account differs from another SEAL who wrote bestseller "No Easy Day"
  • He says "the Shooter" gave an account that matches physical evidence on the scene
  • Shooter left military before he became eligible for pension

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad," and a director at the New America Foundation.

(CNN) -- On Monday Esquire magazine published a massive profile of the Navy SEAL who says he shot Osama bin Laden.

Weighing in at some 15,000 words, the story does not identify the killer of al Qaeda's leader by his real name and refers to him only as "the Shooter."

Clearly the Shooter wanted to maintain something of the code of silence that is pervasive among the covert warriors of SEAL Team 6, the unit that mounted the bin Laden operation.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

What do we learn from the Shooter's story? Most critically that the Shooter says he killed bin Laden with two shots at close range as he stood in his third floor bedroom in the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he had been hiding for more than five years.

This account differs in a crucial respect from the book "No Easy Day" by Mark Owen, a SEAL who also was on the bin Laden raid. (Mark Owen is a pseudonym; he was quickly revealed to be Matt Bissonnette.)

In "No Easy Day," a runaway bestseller that has stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for the past 22 weeks, Bissonnette writes that the SEALs were 15 minutes into the Abbottabad mission when the point man spotted a male poking his head out of a third floor bedroom.

He wrote that the point man shot at the mysterious male, and when the SEALs went inside the third floor bedroom they found him lying on the floor in his death throes. Bissonnette and another SEAL quickly finished him off with several more rounds.

The dead man was bin Laden.

'Nightmare' at home for SEAL who shot Osama bin Laden

It's a much less heroic story than that of the Shooter, who says he encountered bin Laden face-to-face in the bedroom. The Shooter says he saw that bin Laden's gun was within easy reach, and it was only then that he fired the shots that killed him.

Who killed Osama bin Laden?

The Shooter's version of bin Laden's death matches closely the accounts by reporters who have written most authoritatively about it.

It also matches what I saw when I was the only outside observer allowed inside the Abbottabad compound before it was demolished in late February 2012.

Accompanied by Pakistani military officers, I examined the bedroom where bin Laden died. The officers showed me a large patch of dark, congealed blood on the low ceiling.

It is consistent with the Shooter's account of firing two rounds at the head of a "surprisingly tall terrorist" while he was standing up. This evidence tends to undercut Bissonnette's version of bin Laden's death.

That said, it is worth noting that the night of bin Laden's death was a very confusing one.

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As soon as the operation in Abbottabad had started one of the two Black Hawk helicopters crashed. There was a brief but intense firefight with Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, bin Laden's courier. The SEALs also shot and killed the courier's brother, sister-in-law and bin Laden's son Khalid.

All this took place in less than 15 minutes on a night when there was no moon and the electricity in the compound and surrounding neighborhood had been turned off. The SEALs were wearing night vision goggles that bathed the compound in a murky, pixilated glow.

It was a confusing situation, and that helps explain why Bissonnette's account differs from that of the Shooter.

In fact, Bissonnette's account virtually eliminates what the Esquire profile asserts is the Shooter's "central role in bin Laden's death."

Navy Seals: A battle for the conscience

"I don't know why he'd do that," the Shooter told Esquire.

We keep learning more about the hunt for and the death of Osama bin Laden, but it is a complex story, and, in common with many important historical events, the full facts will take many years to emerge.

The Shooter's account in Esquire is important to help us understand what happened that night, as is Bissonnette's account.

A good deal of the Esquire piece concerns the Shooter's worries about his future now that he has left the military.

"When he leaves after sixteen years in the Navy, his body filled with scar tissue, arthritis, tendonitis, eye damage, and blown disks, here is what he gets from his employer and a grateful nation: Nothing. No pension, no health care, and no protection for himself or his family."

In fact, pretty much any veteran who leaves before 20 years of service is not going to be eligible for a pension.

So should the Shooter be treated any differently? Indeed, should other members of key Special Operations units like SEAL Team 6 or the Army's Delta Force who have been at war almost continuously since the 9/11 attacks be given greater benefits given the inordinate amount of combat they have seen?

It's an idea that may be worth exploring for those who have seen extensive combat, but the fact is that once you start making such exceptions, the floodgates will open. After more than a decade of war, many veterans in conventional military units would also qualify for such preferential treatment.

In a time of budget crisis and large cuts at the Pentagon it is hard to make such a case. After all, what about the thousands of Marines who have also been fighting for many years in tough places like Anbar in western Iraq and Helmand in southern Afghanistan? Should they get a cushy early retirement deal, too?

If the Shooter had wanted to get the full benefits that follow 20 years of service he had a choice: Stay in for another four years to qualify for the pension he clearly deserves.

It's a choice he didn't make.

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