(PORTIONS OF THIS POST WERE ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN MAY 2015)
It is hard to overstate the extent to which the killing of Osama bin Laden transformed American politics. It enabled Barack Obama to recast himself as a bold leader, helped cement his 2012 re-election victory and gave him the cover he needed to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, while the apparent intelligence triumph redeemed the sullied reputation of the CIA. But the story of what really happened five years ago today when the massive international hunt for world's most wanted terrorist finally reached a bloody climax remains caught between competing and very different narratives -- that of the Obama administration and that of the skeptics, led by legendary investigative journalist Seymour Hersh.
I was heartened to hear that Jonathan Mahler had been assigned to write a story for The New York Times Magazine about the
narratives. It seemed that Mahler might shed enough new light to answer the question of which narrative was correct, or at least more correct given the complex web of events leading up to and following the Navy Seal raid on bin Laden's compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan on May 2, 2011, but the 7,500-word result of his labors published in October 2015 -- "What Do We Really Know About Osama bin Laden's Death?" -- disappoints.
Perhaps it was bound to do so. After all, Mahler is a media maven and not an investigative reporter, but it is striking that no one with whom he spoke budged about how they viewed the fascinating but frustrating exposé by Hersh.
"The Killing of Osama bin Laden" a takeout published in the London Review of Books in May 2015, peeled
away layers of back-channel diplomatic intrigue only hinted at in official pronouncements and news accounts about the takedown of bin Laden. Hersh provided a fascinating big-picture perspective filled with gritty detail, but he frustrated 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 Killing of Osama bin Laden, a book-length version of the story, was published last month.)
The White House 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," National Security spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
The much-lauded Hersh 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.
|BIN LADEN WATCHES A VIDEO AT HIS COMPOUND|
Nevertheless, the biggest reason that I remain convinced that Hersh's narrative is the more accurate of the two is the extent that the White House went to push back against his allegations, an effort that at times seem to border on the frenzied.
It released nearly 80 previously classified documents and other material seized from bin Laden's compound during the raid in May 2015. The Obama administration's claim that the document dump had nothing to do with the publication of Hersh's 10,300-word bombshell begs credulity and reinforces my view that he touched a nerve in the hypersensitive White House and got a lot more right than wrong -- notably that the Pakistani intelligence service assisted the U.S. in carrying out the raid and that the documents seized were of marginal value. True enough, but that falls far short of the administration's claim following the raid that it produced a "treasure trove . . . the single largest collection of senior terrorist materials ever," which would provide vital insights into Al Qaeda's plans.
More documents were released in March, including bin Laden's will and correspondence showing that he felt increasingly isolated, feared that he was being tracked, insights into his ongoing feud with the future Islamic State, and his plans to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2011 with a media blitz.
An unnamed administration official told reporters five days after the raid the seized material showed that bin Laden "remained an active leader in Al Qaeda, providing strategic, operational and tactical instructions to the group . . . He was far from a figurehead [and] continued to direct even tactical details of the group’s management and to encourage plotting’ from what was described as a command-and-control center in Abbottabad." But if the documents that were released are the best the White House could muster to make the case bin Laden remained a -- if not the -- mastermind, then Hersh's assertion in his exposé that "These claims were fabrications [because] there wasn’t much activity for bin Laden to exercise command and control over" withstood the Obama administration's counteroffensive.
But then it does seem to me that the man who broke the My Lai Massacre story (1969), the CIA domestic spying story (1974) and Abu Ghraib story (2004), 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, as apparently was the case with two other Hersh stories he submitted in 2013 and 2014. 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, but I can find no corroboration for that claim.
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. Hersh said in an interview last month that the Saudi government paid Pakistan "hundreds of millions" in hush money to not reveal bin Laden's whereabouts. That is until it was expedient 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 brokered his fate first to the Saudi government and then 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, 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. ("They just couldn't wait to brag and to claim credit," Gates wrote in Duty, his 2014 memoir.)
IN THE SITUATION ROOM
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 the White House claim of an enormous CIA intelligence coup was false since, according to Hersh, a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer -- a "walk-in" in spy parlance -- had told the CIA station chief in Islamabad in August 2010 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 -- and indeed his capture might have been a huge intelligence coup -- and 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.
Only two Seals have spoken publicly: No Easy Day, a first-hand account of the raid by Matt Bissonnette, was published in September 2012, and two years later Rob O'Neill 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.' "
MATT BISSONETTE AND ROB O'NEILL
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 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 according to Muslim custom just hours after his death. According to this account, the body had been cleansed, wrapped in a white sheet, and then placed in a weighted bag. A military officer read prepared religious remarks, which a native Arabic speaker translated, the body was placed on a flat board, and then tipped into the ocean.
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 types 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 media type, 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, 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."
News organizations bought into the White House narrative, there were few efforts to independently confirm or debunk the official line, and an attempt by The Associated Press and other media organizations to force the government to release physical proof of bin Laden's death under the Freedom of Information Act fizzled.
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.
Investgative ace Mark Bowden, author of Blackhawk Down and his own book on the hunt for bin Laden, says it's possible that there is a government-wide conspiracy to hide the true story, "But given the sheer number of people I talked to from different parts of government, for a lie to have been that carefully orchestrated and sustained to me gets into faked-moon-landing territory."
Not really, and Bowden should understand better than most people that his word is not necessarily the final one, yet he bristles at people who say he was too believing of the administration's bin Laden narrative in his own book, The Finish.
Hersh -- who says he admires Bowden, who says he admires Hersh -- has brushed off his critics.
"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.' "
Jonathan Mahler correctly notes in his Times Magazine takeout that Hersh's version doesn't hinge on a government-wide conspiracy.
"Myths can be projected through an uncoordinated effort with a variety of people really just doing their jobs," he writes. "Of course, when enough people are obscuring the truth, the results can seem, well, conspiratorial. Hersh is fond of pointing out that thousands of government employees and contractors presumably knew about the NSA's wiretapping, but only one, Edward Snowden, came forward."
Not surprisingly, both Peter Bergen of CNN and Mark Bowden felt aggrieved by Mahler's takeout, which Mahler duly noted in a follow-up piece.
Bowden, whom I know and have respected, risks being labeled a Washington stooge for writing at Vanity Fair's website that: "It's not often that the most distinguished journalistic institution in America wades so fully into the crackpot world of Internet theorizing, where all information, no matter its source, is weightless and equal."
Bowden has recently gotten dinged by more than The Times.
He writes in The Finish that Vice President Biden told Barack Obama in a war cabinet meeting: "Mr. President, my suggestion is, don't go." Bowden writes that Biden "felt strongly about it and never hesitated to disagree at meetings like this, something the president had encouraged him to do," but the veep himself undercut that account the other day in asserting that he told the president in private, after the war-cabinet meeting, that he should pursue the operation.
"As we walked out of the room and went upstairs, I told him my opinion, that I said that I thought he should go but to follow his own instincts," Biden said.
It is instructive to note that in an era of deep partisan rancor, there was nary a critical peep from Republicans typically critical of Barack Obama's every move when it came to the White House narrative of bin Laden's death, although there was some partisan grumbling over him being given a hasty burial at sea according to Muslim tradition. The muted response from Republicans may be because the assassination provided a sense of closure for many Americans 10 long years after the 9/11 attacks and even an obdurate GOP opposition understood that they needed to keep their distance. (Nor was there discussion as to whether the assassination was permitted under U.S. and international, and the administration's arguably shaky legal justification came to light only late last month.)
Meanwhile, the myth-making machine has feasted on the story with numerous Hollywood-esque narratives, including the 2012 movie Zero Dark Thirty, which propagated the lie that the use of torture led the CIA to bin Laden.
American history is filled with stories of great moment that turned out to be false, including the Bay of Pigs invasion, Gulf of Tonkin attack and Bush administration claims about Saddam Hussein's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Only a fraction of the true story of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon is known, and the Bush administration cover-up of why the attacks were carried out despite the White House, CIA and FBI being repeatedly warned of them still holds. Not only has the final word not come out about this malfeasance of enormous and arguably criminal proportions, hardly any word about it has.
So while the score was finally settled with Osama bin Laden, the entire affair still lacks that elusive moral clarity because the competing narratives are so different. True closure will not be attained until the real story and not the myth, as messy and inconvenient as the real truth may be, is known.