The geopolitics of Seymour Hersh's Osama bin Laden story

Seymour Hersh's counter-narrative of the death of Osama bin Laden has put the White House on the defensive. But is there any truth to it?

Musadeq Sadeq/AP/File
Afghan newspapers in Kabul, Afghanistan headlining the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, May 3, 2011. The killing of Osama bin Laden, first presented as a moment of national unity by President Obama, has become something else: a political weapon. Mr. Obama's re-election campaign is portraying his risky decision to go after America's top enemy as a defining difference with his Republican presidential opponent, suggesting Mitt Romney might not have had the guts to order a mission that put lives and perhaps a presidency at stake.

Veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh thinks the official US account of the death of Osama bin Laden is full of lies. He’s written a lengthy piece in the London Review of Books detailing what he says is the truth. It’s quite a story.

According to Mr. Hersh, Mr. bin Laden was a Pakistani captive. A walk-in informer told the United States the Al Qaeda leader was in Pakistan – he wasn’t found by a heroic CIA effort. Under US pressure, Pakistan agreed to turn bin Laden over, but insisted on a staged Navy SEAL team “raid” to make things look good. In essence, bin Laden was assassinated, as he was the only person shot in the famous Abbottabad compound.

Bin Laden’s body wasn’t buried at sea. SEAL members threw parts from their helicopter over the Hindu Kush mountains. The cover story was going to involve OBL’s death in a fictitious drone strike, but President Obama rendered this inoperative by rushing to announce the terror leader’s demise a week earlier than US and Pakistani officials had planned.

Hersh doesn’t seem to have a lot of sources for all this. His story appears to be based largely on interviews with an anonymous retired US intelligence official who was “knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabadl”; several US CIA contractors; and Asad Durrani, a retired Pakistani general who was head of the Pakistani intelligence service in the early 1990s.

The White House has pushed back hard, saying Hersh’s story is false.

“There are too many inaccuracies and baseless assertions in this piece to fact check each one,” said White House spokesman Ned Price in a statement.

So did many other journalists. The initial reaction in the US media to the account was skeptical, despite Hersh’s famed past work, such as revelations about the US prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004.

For instance, Vox’s foreign policy expert Max Fisher pointed out a number of inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the story, such as the question of why an elaborate US “attack” was necessary at all.

“The story simply does not hold up to scrutiny – and, sadly, is in line with Hersh’s recent turn away from the investigative reporting that made him famous into unsubstantiated conspiracy theories,” writes Fisher.

That said, Hersh’s account purports to answer a basic question about the bin Laden raid that the official US government story really doesn’t, at least to the satisfaction of many Americans: What was the terror leader doing in Abbottabad in the first place?

Bin Laden was supposed to be in a cave somewhere along the Afghanistan border, not in a comfortable house in a vacation town, within a mile of a retirement village for military officers. In Hersh’s story, Mr. Obama’s initial reaction to the information that bin Laden was in Abbottabad was caution.

“It was just too crazy,” Hersh writes.

Pakistan has denied knowing that bin Laden was there. But The New York Times, among other publications, has uncovered evidence that Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency was aware of his presence.

Hersh claims explicitly what many suspect: the country’s powerful intelligence arm was controlling him. Bin Laden was a hostage used as a lever to influence Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, the writer claims.

Hersh’s account also makes Pakistan’s military seem more competent. In the US government version of the story, a SEAL team penetrated deep into the country, carried out a dangerous and important mission, and escaped successfully – barely raising an alarm. Their target was the most wanted man in the world, who was (allegedly) hiding right under Pakistan’s intelligence nose.

Perhaps that’s why some Pakistani media appear to put much more credence in Hersh’s story than their US counterparts. They’re emphasizing that Hersh’s reporting blames Obama for making Pakistan look like a villain in the case.

The B side of this is that Hersh’s account calls into question more than just Obama’s veracity. It also questions the honesty of the SEAL members who have written and talked about the raid, and CIA director John Brennan. Mr. Brennan, who was then assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, briefed the press on the record following the attack.

“We didn’t contact the Pakistanis until after all of our people, all of our aircraft were out of Pakistani airspace,” said Brennan at the time.

What to believe? Are Hersh’s sources just trying to make Pakistan, or the Pakistani military look better? That’s certainly possible, though it is not clear whether the named Pakistani retired official, General Durrani, is the main source of Hersh’s information or simply provided complementary evidence.

The greatest weakness of Hersh’s piece may be the sheer scale of the deception that would have been necessary for the US to promote a false story of the raid. That’s the problem with many conspiracy theories: They’re just too hard to carry out. Dozens of US officials would have had to mislead the public for years. Pakistan, too, would have had to keep the secret – until now.

And for what? Quartz writer Bobby Ghosh says that while Hersh’s piece may be sensational it never answers the one question that underlies all conspiracy theories: Why?

“Why would the Pakistanis ... and the Obama administration have played such an elaborate ruse on the world?” he writes.

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