Seymour Hersh and the 'truth' behind the Osama bin Laden raid

Sadly only speculation, much of it making little sense, and unnamed sources who wouldn't seem to be in a position to know.

Courtesy of Pete Souza/White House/Reuters/File
US President Barack Obama (2nd l.) and Vice President Joe Biden (l.) and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (seated, 2nd r.), along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011.

Seymour Hersh, considered by many to be a legendary investigative journalist, has been a big name in the business for more than 40 years.

But of late he's fallen far short of the commanding heights of his exposure of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, or the Abu Ghraib torture scandal in 2004. In recent years, gripping reads about elaborate conspiracies relying on unnamed "former intelligence officials" and the like have been his stock in trade – and have not been either duplicated by other journalists or ultimately confirmed. The New Yorker, which has a strong reputation for fact checking and where he remains on the masthead, has not published his investigative work in more than three years.

His latest bombshell falls within his more recent tradition. In it, he lays out an elaborate conspiracy between the Obama administration and the Pakistani military to stage the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011 and lie to the world about how it happened. The piece ran in the London Review of Books, which has published his more extravagant claims in recent years.

The summary of his 9,994 word story is this: The Obama administration, the CIA, US Special Operations Command, and other parts of the US government have told a long series of lies about the death of Bin Laden. In Mr. Hersh's telling, they carried out a dangerous raid to kill bin Laden and lied that Pakistan didn't know about it, all in order to help Pakistan's military rulers avoid the public embarrassment of admitting they'd been harboring the Al Qaeda leader instead of killing and capturing him themselves.

His assertions are based largely on the claims of a person described only as by Hersh as a "retired senior intelligence official who was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in [the Pakistani city of] Abbottabad" and his own communications with Asad Durrani, a Pakistani intelligence general who retired in 1992. There is also a "Pakistani with close ties to the senior leadership of [military intelligence]."

His claims don't make sense given the political risks of the operation for Obama, Pakistan's then-President Asif Zardari, and Pakistani's generals themselves. And if there was a stitch-up between Obama and Pakistan, there were far easier ways to carry out the killing of bin Laden – ones not involving a crashed helicopter (which miraculously didn't lead to any loss of life), SEALs put at risk of death, and a vast number of people in on the lie. The motive for taking the more complicated and dangerous route for all concerned is not explained by Hersh.

Right at the front, there are significant leaps of internal logic to the piece. In the second paragraph he writes that "the most blatant lie" about the US Special Operations Forces raid on bin Laden's Abbottabad compound "was that Pakistan’s two most senior military leaders – General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of the army staff, and General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, director general of the ISI – were never informed of the US mission."

The evidence in that paragraph to back up this claim? A 2014 article by the New York Times Carlotta Gall in which an unidentified "Pakistani official" told her that Gen. Pasha was personally aware the former Al Qaeda leader was living in Abbottabad; a 2012 book by Imtiaz Gul in which he wrote that four Pakistani intelligence officers assessed that Islamabad "must have" known about the raid ahead of time; and an interview General Durrani gave to Al Jazeera earlier this year, in which he said it was "probable" that Pakistani military intelligence knew where bin Laden was and were waiting for the right moment to tell the US about it in exchange for money or other advantage.

There are a lot of problems with Mr. Hersh's use of these claims. Most glaring is that all three of these bits of "evidence" are acknowledged to be the speculation of the sources, not knowledge. And in none of them do they say that the US and Pakistan planned the bin Laden raid together. Lots of people who've followed the story, me included, find it hard to believe that bin Laden wasn't receiving some kind of protection from Pakistan's military intelligence. But the gulf between "opinion" and "knowledge" is often vast.

So why bring it up at all?

The only reason I can come up with is to bolster Hersh's scoop – which rests almost entirely on his unnamed secret source, whose motives and allegiances readers are given no hints of.

The reasoning behind this vast conspiracy? A quid pro quo:

A Pakistani with close ties to the senior leadership of the ISI told me that ‘there was a deal with your top guys. We were very reluctant, but it had to be done – not because of personal enrichment, but because all of the American aid programmes would be cut off. Your guys said we will starve you out if you don’t do it, and the okay was given while Pasha was in Washington. The deal was not only to keep the taps open, but Pasha was told there would be more goodies for us.’ The Pakistani said that Pasha’s visit also resulted in a commitment from the US to give Pakistan ‘a freer hand’ in Afghanistan as it began its military draw-down there. ‘And so our top dogs justified the deal by saying this is for our country.’

If that was the deal, Pakistan was stiffed. US military aid to Pakistan has been cut since (largely because of the understandable fury that bin Laden had lived in a major military garrison town in Pakistan for years), and US anger over Pakistani support for the Taliban in Afghanistan has grown and become far more public than it has been since the war began there in 2002.

And why carry it out that way at all? If Pakistan wanted to make a deal with the US, they could have secretly killed bin Laden and provided proof, or handed him over. Instead they preferred a US raid, that hundreds of people would have known about, that would make its military look ineffectual and the US a power that can blithely step on Pakistani sovereignty, instead? Why on earth?

It mostly gets worse from there. The alleged vast array of useful documents obtained from bin Laden's compound, and fed into the US intelligence analysis system since? They must all be fakes – since bin Laden is said to have been under complete Pakistani control since 2005. A lot of busy bees must have been at work at Langley and elsewhere to produce these forgeries – something that you'd think would offend the sensibilities of one or two patriotic spooks.

Bin Laden's body "torn to pieces" by rifle fire, the bits bagged up, and thrown like confetti by the Seals "over the Hindu Khush" as they made their helicopter escape? I've seen a fair few corpses made by rifle fire; I've yet to seen one torn to pieces.

Or the revelation of the identity of Islamabad CIA station chief Jonathan Bank in the Pakistan press, amid a lawsuit accusing him of murder in 2010 and that saw him flee the country? In Hersh's telling, Bank's tale was designed to create distance between the US and Pakistan so if the vast bin Laden conspiracy came to light, they'd have evidence of bad ties with the Americans. Evidence worse than having harbored bin Laden for years?

I can't prove the extravagant claims in Hersh's piece aren't true, of course. Perhaps someday evidence of this multinational, multi-agency conspiracy with unclear benefit to anyone involved will come to light.

But consider his other recent exposés.

In 2011 he said that most of the leaders of the Joint Special Operations Command are members of either the Knights of Malta or Opus Dei. In 2012 he wrote that the the US had trained in Nevada members of a group on the State Department terrorist list to destabilize Iran. For the London Review of Books in 2013, he wrote that the likely culprit in the sarin nerve agent attack on rebel sympathizers in the Syrian town of Ghouta was not the government, but the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. In 2014 in the same publication, he said that the Turkish government, a US NATO ally, provided the sarin to the Al Qaeda affiliate and carried out the killings to falsely implicate Bashar al-Assad. The key source in that story? A "former senior US intelligence official."

All of these tales have either been completely unconfirmable or, as in the case of the sarin attack, crumbled upon examination.

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