May 4th, 2011


The link between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein

'We got him,' President Obama is reported to have said on hearing of the death of Osama Bin Laden.

Was this a conscious reference to the words of Paul Bremmer, announcing in December 2003 the capture of Saddam Hussein

The previous administration in the United States were keen to make us believe in a link between their two enemies. There was - but not in the way they wanted us to think.

Both events were massive news stories, bringing challenges for those in Washington charged with managing the news.  There are differences in the way that has been done so far. Saddam Hussein's capture was not officially announced for around nineteen hours. He was caught at around 2000 on the evening of Saturday December 13th, but the capture was only confirmed at a news conference at 1500 the next day. In addition to the 'Ladies and gentlemen, we got him!' line, there were also pictures of the former Iraqi leader undergoing a medical examination. The killing of bin Laden seems to have been announced almost immediately.

The BBC reports this morning, 'US officials are discussing how and when to release pictures of Bin Laden's body to counter conspiracy theories that he did not die.'  Like Al-Qaeda without Osama bin Laden, the conspiracy theories will go on, pictures or no. Surely the real audience the US administration is trying to impress is a domestic political one. The celebrations in the early hours of Monday morning seem to show that they are convinced.

There is an important difference in the coverage of the capture of Saddam Hussein and the killing of Osama bin Laden. That difference is  that no one is suggesting now that bin Laden's death will bring an end to the attacks which he led and inspired.  When Saddam Hussein was dragged from his underground hideout, it was different. Then, there was a sense that this was a moment of unquestionable triumph. As Peter Maass noted recently in the New Yorker,  'In reality, the war was just getting underway.' He was writing about the pulling down of Saddam Hussein's statue the previous spring but the point, I think, is the same.

The issue for the reporting of events such as these is that there is never a second source. The news managers in the White House or the Pentagon have it largely their own way. Provided they do their job competently enough, they should be able structure the story as they want it to be without fear of contradiction. 

Still, there is contradiction. The front page of the  Daily Telegraph's print edition today accuses the White House of backtracking 'on how bin Laden died'. They, and other papers, point to the way the story has changed - specifically, the admission that Osama bin Laden was not armed when he was found.  There are echoes of the changing story of the death last year in Afghanistan of the British aid worker, Linda Norgrove.

Why the need to admit that the original version of the story of bin Laden's death was, as the Telegraph says, 'riddled with errors'?  It may be that today government and military spin doctors live in greater fear of being found out.

When I was reporting for the BBC from Baghdad at the time of the capture of Saddam Hussein, there were hours of rumours before the news was officially announced. The Coalition Provisional Authority obviously felt they could afford to wait until the time of their choosing to present the news (1500 in Baghdad; 1200 in London; 0700 in Washington). Perhaps officials no longer feel so comfortably in control. Technology continues to change the way international reporting works. There were no hours of hearing rumours and waiting this time. I learned of Osama bin Laden's death from an AP news alert sent straight to my phone. If the White House had not been the source, presumably someone else soon would have.