In the weeks leading up to the death of Osama bin Laden, Barack Obama’s administration ordered American lawyers to clear the top-secret US Navy Seals raid under international law, it has emerged.
Four White House lawyers worked under intense security measures to deal with all possible outcomes of the 2011 operation, allowing the US to send soldiers into Pakistan without its consent, delay telling Congress, kill the al-Qaeda leader and bury him at sea.
The secret machinations are being revealed by New York Times Washington correspondent, Charlie Savage, in his new book Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency.
Ahead of its publication next week, he released excerpts in the newspaper naming the lawyers involved as Stephen W Preston, Mary B DeRosa, the National Security Council’s legal advisor Jeh C Johnson, the Pentagon general counsel; and then-Rear Admiral James W Crawford III, the Joint Chiefs of Staff legal adviser.
Mr Savage reports that they worked in secrecy and were not allowed to consult aides or even the Attorney General as they used secure laptops and had hand-delivered memos by trusted couriers.
After a proposal to bomb Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad was rejected because of civilian casualties – even though lawyers had cleared “collateral damage” as lawful Mr Preston offered the National Security Council the option of a drone strike or operation by American forces.
Video: Barack Obama announced Osama bin Laden's death
Mr Johnson reportedly wrote a memo on violating Pakistani sovereignty, deciding that a military incursion would be lawful because of an exception for situations in which a government is “unwilling or unable” to suppress a threat to others emanating from its soil.
The lawyers also agreed that it would be legal to enter with the aim of killing Bin Laden, in a memo written by Ms DeRosa, as long as he did not surrender.
The Navy Seal Team 6 member who shot Bin Laden, Matt Bissonnette, wrote in his biography that a Washington lawyer told troops: “If he is naked with his hands up, you’re not going to engage him.”
Fellow Seal Rob O'Neill, who also claims to have fired the fatal shot, told Fox News that they had no intention of capturing the al-Qaeda leader alive.
It was also decided that the US could lawfully bury Bin Laden at sea, to avoid letting his grave become a jihadist shrine, as long as Saudi Arabia declined an offer to take his remains, which they did.
Mr Savage, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting, interviewed more than 150 current and former officials for the his book, which covers national security policies under President Obama.
Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency will be published on 3 November in the US.