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One Last Battle: Spinning Bin Laden's Legacy

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One Last Battle: Spinning Bin Laden's Legacy

One Last Battle: Spinning Bin Laden's Legacy

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The operation against Osama bin Laden was more than just a military raid, it was also an opportunity to attack his image and ideology. The war on al-Qaida is also in part a propaganda struggle aimed at changing attitudes in the Muslim world. Killing Osama bin Laden was not enough. Almost as important was telling the story of the operation in a way that advances U.S. interests. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN: In the time since bin Laden was killed, each day has brought a little more news about the operation. This week, we learned that a bin Laden diary found in his house showed he had differences with his followers over what targets should be hit. And U.S. officials anonymously told the Reuters news agency that pornography was found in bin Laden's compound.

Were those details leaked by U.S. officials anxious to discredit bin Laden's al-Qaida movement in the Muslim world? If so, it would be an example of what's called strategic communication - putting out news that furthers your cause.

Christopher Paul of the RAND Corporation:

Mr. CHRISTOPHER PAUL (Social Scientist, RAND Corporation): Strategic communication is a huge part of the bin Laden killing; taking advantage of that, getting the message out, framing it in the right way to get some benefit from it.

GJELTEN: If before his death bin Laden had lost some control over his followers, the al-Qaida movement could be in real turmoil now.

Michael Doran, who served under President Bush, says he'd be emphasizing that point if he were still in his old job as the Pentagon's strategic communications specialist.

Mr. MICHAEL DORAN: There's one main message that you want to hammer home at every opportunity, and that's basically al-Qaida is on the ropes. The organization is going down.

GJELTEN: The White House has in fact been making that point. Christopher Paul of RAND, who studies strategic communication efforts, says administration officials have generally risen to the strategic occasion in talking about bin Laden's death.

Mr. PAUL: They got a solid B or B+. They planned ahead, they did a lot of things right, they grappled with some hard issues, and there were a few things that didn't go perfectly.

GJELTEN: The most notable faux pas was on the day after the bin Laden raid, when White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan suggested that bin Laden, the jihadi hero, resided in a mansion and stood behind a woman as a shield when Navy SEALs came after him.

Mr. JOHN BRENNAN (White House Counterterrorism Adviser): Here is bin Laden, living in this million-dollar-plus compound in an area that is far removed from the front, hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield. I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years.

GJELTEN: U.S. officials later corrected their own narrative, saying bin Laden did not use a woman as a human shield. They did later put out a video of bin Laden sitting on his floor, wrapped in a blanket, watching himself on television. The idea there may have been to portray him as vain and obsessed with his own image.

But some pious Muslims may actually have seen him appearing humble, and Michael Doran points out that bin Laden's residence, if anything, appeared a bit shabby.

Mr. DORAN: It didn't look like a mansion. The pictures of him, the video of him in front of the television, didn't look like he was living in luxury. If you're inclined to follow bin Laden and to respect him, I don't think that anything that you saw there is going to make you not respect him.

GJELTEN: When government spokesmen exaggerate in their eagerness to score a propaganda point, their credibility suffers. Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, says the Obama Administration knows that, and he points out that any administration misstatements about the bin Laden raid were quickly corrected.

Mr. BEN RHODES (Deputy National Security Adviser): What was important in those initial days was getting the facts out and then insofar as they needed to be corrected, very forthrightly and immediately coming forward and saying, we've learned additional information. Here's what we understand the facts to be. As long as we are being consistently clear and factual, you can retain your credibility.

GJELTEN: Propaganda and spin are generally seen as efforts to manipulate or even deceive people. But in this media age, there is little disputing the notion that any organization - from Al-Qaida to the U.S. presidency - needs to have a message and put it out clearly.

Ben Rhodes says a strategic communications goal of the Obama administration has long been to challenge the al-Qaida argument that the United States is at war with Islam or the Muslim world.

Mr. RHODES: Around his death, I think we saw it as an important opportunity to say Osama bin Laden in many ways had already become irrelevant in parts of the region. His narrative of violent resistance and violent change had actually been eclipsed by the peaceful protests that we see in many parts of the Arab world.

GJELTEN: And that strategic message is one we'll likely hear next week, when President Obama makes a speech about recent developments in the Middle East.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News Washington.

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