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.)
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.”