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Was killing instead of capturing bin Laden the right call?

WASHINGTON -- As details surface about the mission earlier this week to find Osama bin Laden, one thing is clear: Capturing the long-sought terrorist mastermind alive might have been an option, but it wasn't a top priority.

WASHINGTON -- As details surface about the mission earlier this week to find Osama bin Laden, one thing is clear: Capturing the long-sought terrorist mastermind alive might have been an option, but it wasn't a top priority.

The Navy SEAL team that slipped into Pakistan and entered bin Laden's walled hideout put a bullet in his head and flew away in a helicopter with his corpse. He was buried at sea.

Experts were divided on whether that was the wiser course. The risks were high either way.

"The costs of capturing bin Laden, as opposed to killing him, were pretty stark," said Seth Jones, a counterinsurgency and counterterrorism specialist who's advised the military on Afghanistan. "It creates almost a desperate push (by his followers) to get him free. Then what do you do with him? Who tries him? Where do you keep him? What sort of justice do you put him through?

"It was probably wise to kill him right there."

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CIA Director Leon Panetta said this week that the SEAL team was authorized to kill bin Laden but could have taken him alive if the opportunity arose.

"But that opportunity never developed," he said.

U.S. officials have said that bin Laden was unarmed but had resisted in some unspecified manner.

"If he had run out of the compound with his hands held up, obviously it might have been different," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., a former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman. "The first thing you want to do is accomplish the mission: Take the head of the snake."

But several former members of the intelligence community and the military said that bin Laden was a potential gold mine of information. Imprisoned senior al-Qaeda leaders, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah, have provided useful information about terrorist links and activities, they said.

"Once a decision was made to put boots on the ground and put our guys deeply in harm's way, I believe it should have been a capture operation and not a kill operation," said Louis Tucker, a former SEAL and former minority staff director for the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Arthur Hulnick, a former analyst for the CIA, said killing bin Laden was "a lost opportunity" and could lead his followers to view him as a martyr. But after more than three decades in intelligence, Hulnick, who teaches at Boston University, said, "It's too bad it came about that way, but in the rush of things I am sure there was no time to sit around and decide."

Still, concerns about turning bin Laden into someone larger than life after his death might have influenced the thinking behind the mission's goal.

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Indeed, there's a cemetery in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where a number of al-Qaeda fighters were buried several years ago. It's since become a shrine for sympathizers.

As President Obama and his advisers weighed the risks of the bin Laden operation, the tactical hurdles of the mission, policy realities and political needs could have dictated that simply ending bin Laden's chapter in the war on terrorism was the best thing to do.

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