This is how the United States got around a bunch of laws in order to 'legally' kill Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden
(Image credit: Getty Images/Staff)

It was up to four administration lawyers to navigate the legality of the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in May 2011 — which meant figuring out exceptions, loopholes, and parkour-like stunts around any and all legal obstacles, The New York Times reports. Among the lawyers' accomplishments: managing to justify the use of ground forces on Pakistani territory without first consulting with the country, okaying the lethal bin Laden operation without much room for considering capture, telling Congress about the raid after the fact, and burying bin Laden's body at sea.

According to the special report, the United States considered sending bin Laden to Guantánamo if he was captured alive, though capturing him alive was barely entertained as an option. An aerial attack on bin Laden's neighborhood, which would have destroyed any underground tunnels but also killed dozens of civilians, was also deemed lawful.

On the topic of violating Pakistani sovereignty, the Times reported that the lawyers exploited a rule allowing for military incursions when a government is "unwilling or unable" to squelch a threat. Some officials feared that Pakistani intelligence was aware of bin Laden's presence and that they might help him escape if they got wind of America's plans. However, the lawyers' ultimate decision that the raid was allowable wasn't made on concrete grounds: The law they exploited isn't accepted by many countries, and the United States didn't first ask Pakistan before deciding the country was "unwilling" and "unable."

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Likewise, although enemies of war are supposed to be buried according to their religious customs "if possible," the United States dodged burying bin Laden in the ground facing Mecca, as Muslim tradition requires, and buried him at sea to avoid the creation of an "Islamist shrine." The lawyers okayed the burial because Islam makes an exception for devotees who die at sea, which is when sea burials are allowed. However, Saudi Arabia —bin Laden's home nation — was first to be offered the body, which they turned down.

Read the full details of the full report in The New York Times.

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Jeva Lange

Jeva Lange was the executive editor at She formerly served as The Week's deputy editor and culture critic. She is also a contributor to Screen Slate, and her writing has appeared in The New York Daily News, The Awl, Vice, and Gothamist, among other publications. Jeva lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.