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Foggy White House Storytelling

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Killing Osama bin Laden was surprisingly easy. It was getting the story straight in the age of Twitter and CNN that proved a nearly impossible mission.

The meticulously planned assassination of bin Laden was so well executed that even a helicopter malfunction didn't throw the team off their game. Not a single Navy Seal was shot or even injured in a devilishly complicated operation.

But the guys in the White House in charge of the words couldn't shoot straight. They seemed to have no comprehensive narrative plan, no organized and orchestrated story for the biggest U.S. military success in decades.

As the contradictions and mistakes compounded, Jay Carney, the president's spokesman, blamed it on the "the fog of war." But this botched telling of a once-in-a-generation brilliant military triumph wasn't due to "war" or even the time pressures of the 24-hour news cycle and Twitter leaks.

At first, one would never have guessed this was a communications disaster in the making. Obama and his speechwriters began with a stroke of genius. Late Sunday night on May 1st, the president gave a brief, well-crafted speech about the killing of bin Laden within hours of his death. Just a few minutes long, it lent a sense of history to the momentous event, and wisely revealed few details on a clandestine military operation that had concluded only a few hours before.

Then all the president's men seemed to trip over themselves in getting the story wrong. "He [bin Laden] was engaged in a firefight with those that entered the area of the house he was in," John Brennan, the White House security adviser said on Monday afternoon, May 2nd. "And whether or not [bin Laden] he got off any rounds, I quite frankly don't know..." Brennan went on to assert that the terrorists had used "a female" to "shield bin Laden from the incoming fire." The national security adviser then concocted a fanciful story about what these supposed facts meant, saying bin Laden was living "in this million dollar compound," far from the front. "I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years..."

The trouble was that Brennan's overarching narrative -- painting bin Laden as a coward and phony -- was false. In reality events had not played out like an action thriller. Bin Laden was not armed when he was shot. The compound was no million-dollar property. And as for the supposed raging firefight, the Navy Seals only killed a single bin Laden associate and woman at the outset of the operation.

By Tuesday afternoon, Jay Carney, the president's spokesman was backpedaling, admitting that bin Laden was "not armed." Yet he continued with the factoid that "The team methodically cleared the compound in an operation lasting 40 minutes with a firefight throughout." By Wednesday, Carney issued a brand new revised story, concluding with the telling line, "That's the narrative that I can provide to you today."

What a concept: The "day's narrative." If only George Orwell was here to see this unfold.

I don't buy all the blathering about how the White House bungled this because of Twitter, the frantic pressure of the 24 hour news cycle and the "fog of war." That's a cover-up for a fundamental communications deficiency. Nor do I believe this was only about the intoxicating sway of politics. Storytelling in a crisis is hard. Nearly as hard as pulling off a brilliant commando style raid. No plan was in place to tell this story in stages. In other words, exercise restraint, and tell it with the bare minimum of facts that could be reliably known in the chaotic first hours. Then, create a process to establish and double check facts to help tell a larger, authentic narrative. And equally importantly, carefully vet storytellers who can be trusted to reliably broadcast the message.

Yes, it was a tricky story to get straight. The Pentagon didn't do Obama or the White House many favors. It seems no one bothered to get even an accurate preliminary briefing for two full days from the Navy Seals who actually carried out the raid. Reportedly after the mission they were promptly flown back to the U.S., returned to their base and allowed a well-deserved sleep before they were debriefed on Tuesday, May 3, 2011.

Military sources have argued the White House needed to get "the facts out" before the truth was clouded by contrary versions from the Pakistanis. Others have said the pressure to be fast meant they were bound to get the story wrong. "First reports are always wrong," Victoria Clarke, a former Pentagon spokeswoman told the New York Times. "It's a fundamental truth in military affairs."

Yet if errors are routine, why didn't the Pentagon and White House exhibit more caution? Journalists know that facts about complex events hidden from public view are notoriously hard to fact check. And exactly how did spreading misinformation help us counter any possible Pakistani story, let alone our credibility in the Middle East?

Clearly, the Pentagon and White House need a fact checking process and a BS detector. Factoids that magically fit a highly desired government narrative -- painting bin Laden as a coward living in a million dollar mansion -- shout exaggeration and spin.

The Associated Press, for instance, quickly reported that the four original plots of land for the compound had been bought for less than $50,000 total. Throughout the first days after the operation there was the sense that spokesman Carney and National Security expert Brennan were shooting from the hip, falling victim to wanting to say more than they knew for certain.

The tragedy is that the U.S. hype could have been avoided, and Obama, the Seals and the Pentagon could have had their triumph untainted. The Navy Seals left little to chance. They built a mirror version of the compound and practiced raids for months. Maybe next time the Pentagon and White House will practice not only with guns, but words.

This was a story that deserved to be told well from the start.

Jonathan Littman is the co-author of The Art of Innovation and Ten Faces of Innovation. A Contributing Editor at Playboy, he is the founder of Snowball Narrative.