May 3, 2011 -- Osama bin Laden was not armed when he was shot and killed by U.S. Navy SEALs during a daring raid on his compound in Pakistan, the White House said today.
"We were prepared to capture him if that was possible," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. But even though bin Laden was not carrying a weapon, Carney said he had "resisted" and several people in the compound were armed and firing at the American special operators.
"Resistance does not require a firearm," Carney said.
When the SEALs entered the room in which bin Laden was hiding, his wife charged them and was shot in the leg, Carney said. Bin Laden was then shot in the chest and head.
"U.S. personnel on the ground handled themselves with the utmost professionalism," he said. "[Bin Laden] was killed in an operation because of the resistance they met."
The decision to kill, rather than capture, came from commanders on the ground, Carney said.
According to former White House counterterror advisor and ABC News consultant Richard Clarke, it's unlikely the SEALs ever planned to take bin Laden alive.
"I think it was the assumption all along that this was an assassination operation," Clarke said. "It's unpleasant to say that and there may be some lawyers that object and say that you have to contend that he was resisting arrest. But I don't think that at the operational level there was ever any desire to take him alive."
Officials initially said that bin Laden had been among several people in the compound who took up arms and engaged in a firefight with the SEALs.
President Obama's counterterror chief John Brennan also initially said that bin Laden used one of his wives as a human shield and the woman was killed in the gun battle. That has turned out to be incorrect and officials attributed the mistake to the confusion that usually accompanies a fast moving gun battle, or "the fog of war."
In a photograph released by the White House, the President and his top advisors – including a visibly tense Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – are shown watching a screen very intently in the White House Situation Room. What was on the screen at the time is not clear, but CIA Director Leon Panetta told the Public Broadcasting Service that Obama was not watching the Navy SEALs helmet-cam footage that showed the shots that took Osama down.
Like the White House's Situation Room, screens in both the Pentagon and the CIA were showing real-time footage of the compound – possibly footage from a circling drone -- creating not one, but three incredibly tense rooms in the highest echelons of U.S. security.
CIA Chief: 'There Were Some Very Tense Moments'
The operation began when two U.S. helicopters flew in low from Afghanistan and swept into the compound where bin Laden was thought to be hiding late Sunday night Pakistan time, or Sunday afternoon Washington time.
Two teams of SEALs slid down fast-ropes from the helicopters as soon as they were in position and stormed the compound. One of the helicopters stalled and made a hard landing just outside the walled compound before the SEALs stormed in. The Navy SEAL team on this mission was supported by helicopter pilots from the 160th Special Ops Air Regiment, part of the Joint Special Operations Command.
After what Carney called a "volatile" firefight, the SEALs killed bin Laden and at least four others with him. The SEALs alerted the White House through the cryptic phrase "Geronimo-E KIA" code. E stood for enemy and KIA for killed in action.
"Once those teams went into the compound, I can tell you that there was a time period of almost 20 or 25 minutes that we really didn't know just exactly what was going on. There were some very tense moments as we were waiting for information. But finally Adm. [William] McRaven came back and said he had picked up the word 'Geronimo,' which was the code word that represented they got bin Laden," Panetta told PBS.
The SEALs words, however, were not sufficient proof that the mastermind of the 9/11 terror attacks was finally dead. As the evidence piled up -- verbal ID, face recognition analysis and DNA matches -- the White House debate continued.
Obama ended the discussion with a terse, "We got him."
Before they left, the SEALs gathered a trove of evidence from among bin Laden's personal possessions, from computer hard drives to CDs and papers. U.S. intelligence analysts are expected to pore over the information in coming days, hoping to turn information kept by the al Qaeda leader against the entire terror network.
ABC News' Jake Tapper and Martha Raddatz contributed to this report.