Osama bin Laden is still dead. But beyond stating the obvious, virtually nothing that the Obama administration has said about the run up to the assassination of the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, the circumstances surrounding his death and its immediate aftermath is accurate, according to a fascinating but frustrating new exposé by Seymour Hersh.
"The Killing of Osama bin Laden" a 10,300-word takeout published in the London Review of Books on Sunday, peels away layers of back-channel diplomatic intrigue only hinted at in official pronouncements and news accounts about the May 2, 2011 climax to the massive international manhunt for world's most wanted terrorist. In doing so, Hersh provides a fascinating big-picture perspective filled with gritty detail, but he frustrates because while some of his conclusions in making the argument that "the White House's story [about bin Laden] might have been written by Lewis Carroll" have the ring of truth, others seem far-fetched.
The White House has dismissed Hersh's story as
"baseless," specifically his assertion that the administration collaborated with Pakistani officials. "The notion that the operation that killed Osama bin Laden was anything but a unilateral U.S. mission is patently false," White House National Security spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
The much-lauded Hersh (photo, right) is the finest and one of the most prolific investigative reporters of modern times, so anything under his byline is worth taking seriously and this investigation certainly is. Criticism of his heavy reliance on anonymous sources over the years has seemed like so many sour grapes to this observer. That so noted, to its detriment the bin Laden story is very thinly sourced with Hersh's big and repeatedly cited go-to guy an unnamed but very well-connected "retired senior intelligence official" on which, it seems to me, he relies far too much with too little corroboration.
But then it does seem to me that the man who broke the My Lai Massacre and Abu Ghraib stories, among many other high-impact investigations, hasn't been fully on his game for some time and isn't here. This may explain why The New Yorker, where his exposés have appeared since 1993, is said to have taken a pass on this one because it didn't hold up to the magazine's legendarily tough scrutiny, while some observers assert that a British journalist specializing in military intelligence broke key aspects of a story Hersh claims to be his own in 2011.
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Hersh could not have chosen an investigative challenge with a more complicated back story -- the deeply complex historic relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan and their governments and intelligence services, which has grown more complicated still since President George W. Bush declared a global War on Terror following the September 11, 2001, bin Laden-masterminded and Al Qaeda-implemented attacks on the American homeland.
As friends of America go, Pakistan has been the most two-faced and duplicitous "ally" in that war. (Saudi Arabia is a close second.) Pakistan has sucked up tens of billions of dollars in military and other U.S. aid while coddling Al Qaeda and more recently the Taliban, and providing a safe haven for bin Laden, who "was hiding in plain sight," as the White House put it, with several of his wives, other family members and gofers in a walled and fortified compound in the resort town of Abottabad, less than two miles the Pakistani version of West Point and 40 miles from the capital of Islamabad. That is until it was expedient for the Pakistanis to sell out the terrorist leader.
Hersh asserts that "the most blatant lie" perpetuated by the White House was asserting that the U.S. went it alone in taking out bin Laden, whereas what really happened was that the Pakistani intelligence service captured bin Laden in 2006 and and brokered his fate to the U.S. in return for military aid and off-the-books favors to key Pakistani government players.
Hersh writes 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 Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI)– were well in the loop on the clandestine Navy Seal-led mission to take out bin Laden, who Hersh's source says had been held by the ISI in the Abbotabad compound since 2006, with Saudi Arabia paying for the upkeep of this exiled Saudi citizen, and had made sure that the two Blackhawk helicopters delivering the Seals to their target could cross Pakistani airspace without being tracked or engaged.
Furthermore, Hersh writes, "the CIA did not learn of bin Laden’s whereabouts by tracking his couriers, as the White House has claimed . . . but from a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer who betrayed the secret in return for much of the $25 million reward offered by the U.S."
Hersh writes that Asad Durrani, who was head of the ISI in the early 1990s, has told an Al-Jazeera interviewer that it was "quite possible" that senior ISI officers did not know where bin Laden had been hiding, "but it was more probable that they did [know]. And the idea was that, at the right time, his location would be revealed. And the right time would have been when you can get the necessary quid pro quo -- if you have someone like Osama bin Laden, you are not going to simply hand him over to the United States."
That quid pro quo was reached, according to Hersh, at a time when the U.S. was reducing the flow of U.S. aid in an effort to get the Pakistanis to play ball on bin Laden, with an agreement between the Pentagon and its Joint Special Operations Command and Pakistani bigs.
Under the agreement, Hersh writes, Pakistan would play ball in return for the aid tap being reopened and an understanding that news of the raid "shouldn't be announced straightaway. . . . the JSOC leadership believed, as did Kayani and Pasha, that the killing of bin Laden would not be made public for as long as seven days, maybe longer. Then a carefully constructed cover story would be issued: Obama would announce that DNA analysis confirmed that bin Laden had been killed in a drone raid in the Hindu Kush [mountains], on Afghanistan’s side of the border. The Americans who planned the mission assured Kayani and Pasha that their co-operation would never be made public. It was understood by all that if the Pakistani role became known, there would be violent protests -- bin Laden was considered a hero by many Pakistanis -- and Pasha and Kayani and their families would be in danger, and the Pakistani army publicly disgraced."
If this deal is to be believed, then the U.S. betrayed the Pakistanis big time as Obama, anxious to milk the biggest foreign success of his presidency, a success that help insure his 2012 re-election, went public with the news that bin Laden had been killed within hours of the mission being completed. The decision to renege on the deal was made when it was learned that one of the two Blackhawks had crashed at the compound, a decision Hersh writes left Obama's top generals angry and Defense Secretary Robert Gates apoplectic with rage.
Hersh writes that because "the explosion and fireball would be impossible to hide, and word of what had happened was bound to leak, Obama had to get out in front of the story before someone in the Pentagon did. Waiting would diminish the political impact. . . . Obama’s speech was put together in a rush and was viewed by his advisers as a political document, not a message that needed to be submitted for clearance to the national security bureaucracy."
In what Hersh calls "political theater designed to burnish Obama's military credentials . . . the self-serving and inaccurate statements would create chaos in the weeks following, including the assertion that Pakistan had cooperated and the CIA's 'brilliant analysts' had unmasked a courier network handling bin Laden's continuing flow of operational orders to Al Qaeda."
That statement, of course, risked exposing Kayani and Pasha, so the White House's solution was to ignore what the president had said and order anyone talking to the press to insist that the Pakistanis had played no role in killing bin Laden.
"Obama left the clear impression that he and his advisers hadn't known for sure that bin Laden was in Abbottabad, but only had information about the possibility," Hersh writes. "This led first to the story that the Seals had determined they'd killed the right man by having a six-foot-tall Seal lie next to the corpse for comparison (bin Laden was known to be six foot four); and then to the claim that a DNA test had been performed on the corpse and demonstrated conclusively that the Seals had killed bin Laden."
Hersh's account begins to fray at this point because he appears to be cherry picking aspects of the complex relationship between U.S. and Pakistani intelligence to bolster his version of events, and I find it difficult to beieve his contention that the U.S. shared precise operational details of the raid with its Pakistani counterparts.
He himself notes that Kayani and Pasha continued to insist they were unaware of bin Laden's whereabouts as late as late autumn of 2010, or about six months before the raid. I am skeptical that that was even true of Kayani, who after all ran the Pakistani army, but it is unbelievable in the case of Pasha. As head of the ISI, Pasha not only would have known that bin Laden was being held under a kind of house arrest by his own men, but that a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer -- a "walk-in" in spy parlance -- had told the CIA station chief in Islamabad in August 2010, as Hersh himself relates, that bin Laden had lived undetected from 2001 to 2006 in the Hindu Kush, and that "the ISI got to him by paying some of the local tribal people to betray him."
The other big lies told by the White House and CIA, at its behest, according to Hersh, are the contention that bin Laden would have been taken alive if he had immediately surrendered, that his body was flown to Afghanistan and then disposed of at sea according to proper Islamic religious custom, and that he remained in operational control of Al Qaeda to the end.
The rules of engagement were that if bin Laden put up any opposition the Seals were authorized to take lethal action. But if they suspected he might have some means of opposition, like an explosive vest under his robe, they could also kill him. "So here's this guy in a mystery robe and they shot him. It's not because he was reaching for a weapon. The rules gave them absolute authority to kill the guy. The later White House claim that only one or two bullets were fired into his head was 'bullshit,' the retired senior official said. The squad came through the door and obliterated him. As the Seals say, 'We kicked his ass and took his gas.' "
Nevertheless, the fiction endures that the Seals had to fight their way in, whereas the reality is that other than the Seals, no shots were fired, according to Hersh.
He notes that only two Seals have spoken publicly: No Easy Day, a first-hand account of the raid by Matt Bissonnette (photo, above left), was published in September 2012, and two years later Rob O'Neill (photo, above right) was interviewed by Fox News. Both had fired at bin Laden and both had resigned from the Navy. "Their accounts contradicted each other on many details," Hersh writes, "but their stories generally supported the White House version, especially when it came to the need to kill or be killed . . . O'Neill even told Fox News that he and his fellow Seals thought 'We were going to die. The more we trained on it, the more we realized . . . this is going to be a one-way mission.' "
Hersh writes that in their initial debriefings, the Seals made no mention of a firefight or any kind of opposition. "The drama and danger portrayed by Bissonnette and O'Neill met a deep-seated need, the retired official said: 'Seals cannot live with the fact that they killed bin Laden totally unopposed, and so there has to be an account of their courage in the face of danger. The guys are going to sit around the bar and say it was an easy day? That’s not going to happen.' "
(O'Neill told Fox News this week that he thought Hersh's account “was a joke . . . For someone who wasn’t there to say stuff that I saw happen . . . it’s a comedy.” The former Seal took particular issue with Hersh’s allegation that there was no firefight.)
According to the retired official, it wasn’t clear from the Seals' early reports whether all of bin Laden’s body, or any of it, made it back to Afghanistan, and the source asserts that "during the helicopter flight back to Jalalabad [in Afghanistan] some body parts were tossed out over the Hindu Kush mountains."
Obama stated in his hastily arranged speech that Seals "took custody of his body," but Hersh notes that statement created a problem since the initial plan was to announce in a week or so that bin Laden was killed in a drone strike somewhere in the mountains and that his remains had been identified by DNA testing.
"Everyone now expected a body to be produced," Hersh writes. Instead, reporters were told that bin Laden’s body had been flown by the Seals to an American military airfield in Jalalabad . . . and then straight to the USS Carl Vinson, a supercarrier on patrol in the North Arabian Sea. Bin Laden had then been buried at sea, just hours after his death.
The press corps's only skeptical moments at a White House briefing led by CIA Director John Brennan later on the day of Obama's speech had to do with the burial.
"The questions were short, to the point, and rarely answered," Hersh writes. " 'When was the decision made that he would be buried at sea if killed?' 'Was this part of the plan all along?' 'Can you just tell us why that was a good idea, John?' 'Did you consult a Muslim expert on that?' 'Is there a visual recording of this burial?' When this last question was asked, Jay Carney, Obama's press secretary, came to Brennan's rescue: "We’ve got to give other people a chance here."
Meanwhile, the CIA asserted that a cache of valuable documents showing that bin Laden was still running the Al Qaeda show was seized in the compound.
"These claims were fabrications: there wasn’t much activity for bin Laden to exercise command and control over," Hersh writes. "The retired intelligence official said that the CIA's internal reporting shows that since bin Laden moved to Abbottabad in 2006 only a handful of terrorist attacks could be linked to the remnants of bin Laden's Al Qaeda."* * * * *
Hersh's exposés are routinely criticized, typically a mix of indignity from officials who feel they have been wronged and huffing and puffing from media mavens who can barely conceal their jealousy. That comes with the territory, but the bin Laden story blowback has been especially ferocious, which tells me Hersh is really onto something.
"The core problem with Seymour Hersh is that he relies entirely upon cranks [like the oft-quoted retired senior intelligence official] as his sources," writes one indignant maven, Slate's James Kirchick. "Cranks are an archetype of the intelligence world. Imagine a cross between Connie Sachs (the reclusive, eccentric, spinster Kremlinologist from John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and Ron Paul, and you have an idea of the sort of person I’m talking about."
But look no further than Carlotta Gall (photo, above), who has covered Afghanistan and Pakistan for the New York Times for 12 years to validate the overall conclusion of Hersh's story because there is no other reporter more thoroughly versed on bin Laden's death. Kirchick, by comparison, is a babe in the woods.
"From the moment it was announced to the public, the tale of how Osama bin Laden met his death in a Pakistani hill town in May 2011 has been a changeable feast," Gall writes in corroborating Hersh's overall assertion regarding Pakistani involvement. "On this count, my own reporting tracks with Hersh's."
Gall does add that Hersh's claim that evidence retrieved during the raid was less significant than has been asserted "rings less true to me. But he has raised the need for more openness from the Obama administration about what was found there."
Hersh himself brushed off the criticisms.
"If I worried about the reaction to what I write, I’d be frozen," he said. Hersh said that journalists "should be very skeptical of someone who says what goes against what every newspaper and magazine believed. You're not doing your job if you say, 'Oh, it must be true.' "
My own frustrations with the story aside, as well as concern over the thin sourcing, it does have one thing going for it beyond Gall's endorsement and Hersh's own record of many more investigative hits than misses: How the White House and the Washington press corps seem to be in lockstep in agreeing that Hersh is a very naughty boy.
CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen's take rang especially hollow: "What's true in this story isn't new, and what's new in the story isn't true. I thought that was a pretty good way of describing why no one here is particularly concerned about it."
Spoken like a true skepticism-free insider.
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The Obama administration's obfuscations about the death of Osama bin Laden and the circumstances surrounding it seem minor compared to the massive cover-up of the 9/11 attacks and the circumstances surrounding that enormous event orchestrated by the Bush administration and a compliant Congress. Meanwhile, my thoughts on a 2009 Hersh story on whether Vice President Cheney had his own assassination squad.