One Last Battle: Spinning Bin Laden's Legacy Almost as important as finding and killing the al-Qaida leader was what came afterward: telling the story of the operation in such a way that U.S. interests were advanced. Strategic communication efforts have not always been handled all that skillfully, and managing this story was no exception.
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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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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

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: 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: 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: 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.

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.

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.

JOHN BRENNAN: 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: 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.

SIMON: 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.

BEN RHODES: 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: 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.

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: Tom Gjelten, NPR News Washington.

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