POLITICS
05/02/2011 04:23 pm ET | Updated Jul 02, 2011

John Brennan: We Would Have Taken Osama Bin Laden Alive [UPDATE]

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said Monday that U.S. military operatives were prepared to capture Osama bin Laden alive but were "absolutely" ready to kill him when he fought back.

"If we had the opportunity to take him alive, we would have done that," Brennan said during an uncharacteristically candid exchange with reporters at a White House briefing.

Intelligence officials and Obama “extensively” discussed the prospect of capturing bin Laden alive during the U.S. military raid on his compound Sunday, Brennan said, but were “certainly were planning for the possibility … that he would likely resist arrest.” In the end, the al Qaeda leader fought back and was “therefore killed in a firefight,” Brennan said.

The bottom line, said Brennan, was that “we were not going to put our people at risk.”

Brennan painted a dark scene of bin Laden's final moments. He said the al Qaeda leader used one of his wives as a human shield while he was being shot at. “From a visual perspective, here is bin Laden ... living in this million dollar-plus compound ... 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," Brennan said. "Looking at what bin Laden was doing hiding there while he’s putting other people out there to carry out attacks again just speaks to, I think, the nature of the individual he was."

[UPDATE: Administration officials retreated late Monday from Brennan's claim that one of bin Laden's wives had served as a human shield or that bin Laden himself had been firing back at U.S. forces.]

Brennan declined to say whether bin Laden went down shooting, but an AP report cites an official familiar with the military operation indicating that bin Laden fired on U.S. forces.

Questions remain as to how the fallen al Qaeda leader was able to stay in one place for so long -- he was known to switch locations every few months, but he remained at the luxury compound outside of Islamabad for as long as six years -- and how much information Pakistani officials had concerning his whereabouts. Brennan said U.S. intelligence officials are talking with Pakistani officials “on a regular basis now” to learn more about how bin Laden went undetected.

“We are pursuing all leads in this issue,” he said. “It’s inconceivable that bin Laden did not have a support system in the country that allowed him to remain there for an extended period of time. I am not going to speculate about what type of support he might have had on an official basis inside of Pakistan."

Brennan described a “very tense” scene at the White House on Sunday, where Obama and intelligence officials gathered to monitor the military operation in real time. He wouldn’t say whether or not they watched a video feed of the attack.

The time between the beginning of the attack and confirmation that bin Laden was presumably killed was “probably one of the most anxiety-filed periods of time” for those assembled, Brennan said. “The president was very concerned about the security of our personnel. That is what was on his mind throughout.”

In the lead-up to the attack, Brennan said officials did not have 100 percent confirmation that bin Laden was at the compound. Given that uncertainty, Brennan said Obama's decision to authorize the attack based on the growing pool of intelligence they did have "was one of the most gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory."

Asked about the president’s reaction to the news of bin Laden being killed, Brennan said only, “We got him.”

Brennan noted that U.S. officials had consulted with experts on Islam to ensure that, if bin Laden were killed, his remains would be buried in strict accordance with Islamic requirements. One of those stipulations meant the body needed to buried within 24 hours. He said officials are still mulling whether to release photos of bin Laden’s final moments. The most important thing, he said, is to protect sources that may be used in the future.

Ultimately, bin Laden’s death is “a strategic blow to al Qaeda,” Brennan said, but “not necessarily sufficient to lead to its demise.” He compared the group to "a mortally wounded tiger that may still have some life in it." Still, he painted a picture of a faltering terrorist organization with a weakened leadership.

“I think you’re going to see them start eating themselves from within more and more,” said Brennan.