kottke.org posts about Osama bin Laden

How Osama bin Laden really diedMay 10 2015

Seymour Hersh, writing for the London Review of Books, says that the American account of how Osama bin Laden was located, captured, and killed is not entirely true. In particular, he alleges that bin Laden was being held in Pakistan since 2006 and that members of the Pakistani military knew of and supported the raid.

It's been four years since a group of US Navy Seals assassinated Osama bin Laden in a night raid on a high-walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The killing was the high point of Obama's first term, and a major factor in his re-election. The White House still maintains that the mission was an all-American affair, and that the senior generals of Pakistan's army and Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) were not told of the raid in advance. This is false, as are many other elements of the Obama administration's account. The White House's story might have been written by Lewis Carroll: would bin Laden, target of a massive international manhunt, really decide that a resort town forty miles from Islamabad would be the safest place to live and command al-Qaida's operations? He was hiding in the open. So America said.

And the plan all along was to kill bin Laden...the Pakistanis insisted on it.

It was clear to all by this point, the retired official said, that bin Laden would not survive: 'Pasha told us at a meeting in April that he could not risk leaving bin Laden in the compound now that we know he's there. Too many people in the Pakistani chain of command know about the mission. He and Kayani had to tell the whole story to the directors of the air defence command and to a few local commanders.

'Of course the guys knew the target was bin Laden and he was there under Pakistani control,' the retired official said. 'Otherwise, they would not have done the mission without air cover. It was clearly and absolutely a premeditated murder.' A former Seal commander, who has led and participated in dozens of similar missions over the past decade, assured me that 'we were not going to keep bin Laden alive - to allow the terrorist to live. By law, we know what we're doing inside Pakistan is a homicide. We've come to grips with that. Each one of us, when we do these missions, say to ourselves, "Let's face it. We're going to commit a murder."' The White House's initial account claimed that bin Laden had been brandishing a weapon; the story was aimed at deflecting those who questioned the legality of the US administration's targeted assassination programme. The US has consistently maintained, despite widely reported remarks by people involved with the mission, that bin Laden would have been taken alive if he had immediately surrendered.

Hersh is a regular contributor to the New Yorker -- he broke the Abu Ghraib story in the pages of the magazine -- so I wonder why this story didn't appear there? Perhaps because it goes against the grain of their own reporting on the subject?

Update: Max Fisher writes in Vox that Hersh's story has many problems -- inconsistencies and thin sourcing to start -- and is indicative of Hersh's "slide off the rails" from investigative journalism to conspiracy theories.

On Sunday, the legendary investigative journalist Seymour Hersh finally released a story that he has been rumored to have been working on for years: the truth about the killing of Osama bin Laden. According to Hersh's 10,000-word story in the London Review of Books, the official history of bin Laden's death -- in which the US tracked him to a compound in Abottabad, Pakistan; killed him a secret raid that infuriated Pakistan; and then buried him at sea --- is a lie.

Hersh's story is amazing to read, alleging a vast American-Pakistani conspiracy to stage the raid and even to fake high-level diplomatic incidents as a sort of cover. But his allegations are largely supported only by two sources, neither of whom has direct knowledge of what happened, both of whom are retired, and one of whom is anonymous. The story is riven with internal contradictions and inconsistencies.

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.

The single source for most of the juiciest details in the piece was the most glaring issue. My Spidey Sense started tingling as I read the latter third...it sounded like Hersh was quoting some dude in a bar who "had a friend who told me this story". I wonder how much of this was fact-checked and corroborated?

And on Hersh's affiliation with the New Yorker, they repeatedly rejected the story:

(Indeed, when I first heard about Hersh's bin Laden story a few years from a New Yorker editor -- the magazine, the editor said, had rejected it repeatedly, to the point of creating bad blood between Hersh and editor-in-chief David Remnick -- this was the version Hersh was said to favor.)

If you look at Hersh's page at the NYer, his contributions have dropped off. His only piece in the past two years was a revisiting of his earlier reporting on My Lai. (via @tskjockey)

Update: From Gabriel Sherman at New York Magazine, Why Seymour Hersh's 'Alternative' bin Laden History Did Not Appear in The New Yorker.

When I spoke to Hersh earlier today, it was clear that there is tension. Hersh told me that he published the piece in the LRB because Remnick was not interested in having him write a magazine piece on the bin Laden raid. Hersh explained that, days after the May 2, 2011 SEAL operation, he told Remnick that his intelligence sources were saying Obama's account was fiction. "I knew right away that there were problems with the story," Hersh told me. "I just happen to have sources. I'm sorry, but I do." Hersh told Remnick he wanted to write a piece for the magazine.

"David said, 'Do a blog,'" Hersh recalled. "I said, 'I don't want to do a blog.' It's about money. I get paid a lot more writing a piece for The New Yorker [magazine] ... I'm old and cranky." (Remnick declined to comment).

Through reporting of its own, NBC News has confirmed parts of Hersh's story.

The NBC News sources who confirm that a Pakistani intelligence official became a "walk in" asset include the special operations officer and a CIA officer who had served in Pakistan. These two sources and a third source, a very senior former U.S. intelligence official, also say that elements of the ISI were aware of bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad. The former official was emphatic about the ISI's awareness, saying twice, "They knew."

R.J. Hillhouse claims she should get credit for breaking this story because of two pieces she wrote in 2011, using information from "clearly different" sources.

How the US killed bin LadenAug 26 2011

Fantastic account by Nicholas Schmidle in the New Yorker about how the US located and subsequently killed Osama bin Laden in his Abbottabad safehouse.

One month before the 2008 Presidential election, Obama, then a senator from Illinois, squared off in a debate against John McCain in an arena at Belmont University, in Nashville. A woman in the audience asked Obama if he would be willing to pursue Al Qaeda leaders inside Pakistan, even if that meant invading an ally nation. He replied, “If we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable, or unwilling, to take them out, then I think that we have to act and we will take them out. We will kill bin Laden. We will crush Al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national-security priority.” McCain, who often criticized Obama for his naïveté on foreign-policy matters, characterized the promise as foolish, saying, “I’m not going to telegraph my punches.”

Update: There has been some question over the authenticity of this story.

Schmidle says he wasn't able to interview any of the 23 Navy SEALs involved in the mission itself. Instead, he said, he relied on the accounts of others who had debriefed the men.

But a casual reader of the article wouldn't know that; neither the article nor an editor's note describes the sourcing for parts of the story. Schmidle, in fact, piles up so many details about some of the men, such as their thoughts at various times, that the article leaves a strong impression that he spoke with them directly.

The SEALs, he writes of the raid's climactic moment, "instantly sensed that it was Crankshaft," the mission's name for bin Laden, implying that the SEALs themselves had conveyed this impression to him.

Although calling it a conspiracy probably goes a little too far...mentioning the JFK assassination when writing of the US government is like Godwin's law in online discussions. (thx, everyone)

Bin Laden's hard driveMay 03 2011

Among the many good reasons the US didn't just bomb suburban Abbottabad was the chance the leader of al Qaeda's house might contain something useful:

The special operations forces grabbed personal computers, thumb drives and electronic equipment during the lightning raid that killed bin Laden, officials told POLITICO.

"They cleaned it out," one official said. "Can you imagine what's on Osama bin Laden's hard drive?"

Twitter comedian PourMeCoffee had no problem imagining:

They seized Osama's hard drive - mostly unfinished raps he was working on and videos of him skateboarding around compound.

But I don't think you can discount Xeni Jardin's take:

Here's a crazy thought: what if there is no cache of OBL devices, and this is disinformation spread to destabilize what remains of Al Qaeda morale?

Gotcha!

The limits of crowdsMay 02 2011

I was asleep last night when news leaked that Osama bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan. I woke up shortly after President Obama's speech, caught the news on Twitter, wrote a few things, read some blog posts, and tried to fall asleep.

When I woke up this morning, I had a note from Jason in my inbox:

Re: bin Laden, if you want to blog about him all day, go ahead. If you don't want to mention him at all, that's fine too.

I definitely don't want to write about bin Laden all day. Here's what I wrote last night. (It's in a Storify thread, so you need to have JavaScript on to read it.)

I also watched Alexis Madrigal's video of and reflections on the after-midnight crowd gathered outside of the White House:

The area directly in front of the White House was a mob scene. Women sat on shoulders waving flags. Everyone held their cameras aloft and tried to capture the magic. A man next to me said, "It's like a Who concert or something." But there was no band, no focal point to the celebration. No one had anything to wait for, and yet, it seemed that everyone was waiting for something. Where were you supposed to look? What were you supposed to do? Who was running this thing?

Maybe for that reason, the roving television cameras seemed best at structuring the crowd's attention for short periods. Whenever they flipped on, a crowd would swarm in front of them like fans of the Duke Blue Devils basketball team...

Everyone seemed to be confusing the occasion with other times that they'd been in large crowds of like-minded individuals. On a half-dozen occasions, different Washington Capitals hockey fans started the "C-A-P-S, Caps, Caps, Caps" chant.

There are two things I think that it's easy to forget:

  1. A crowd of people gathered together in public is a kind of media.
  2. Twitter is also a crowd of people gathered together in public.

And this is what media does: it squeezes your toothpaste through its tube. This is what big crowds do: they turn into crowd events.

Think about how big sports events actually usually wind up getting celebrated in this country: people are so excited about something big that's happened that they go out into the street, and once they're in the street, they start walking together, and before you know it, people have flipped over cars and set things on fire.

I'm not a psychiatrist or an apologist for stupidity, but I have to think the two things are related.

This guy -- this son-of-a-bitch who murdered thousands of people here ten years ago and helped murder many more all around the world -- has us so twisted up that we do not know how to feel about him, or ourselves, at all.

And our inability to come together, and to talk about that, which was already latent in the way our media work, and all the more amplified by what ten years of this twisting and torturing, and being twisted into torture and then lying about torture, only makes it worse.

I hope we can exorcise this man, his damage, and the damage he helped incite us to, from our lives. I have to hope that we have enough strength left in our democracy to do that. I have to have faith that the future will be better than today. And I have to have charity enough to forgive -- to feel something more than anger or irony or judgment, and to just finally give those things away.

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