Seymour Hersh’s Osama Bin Laden Claims Don’t Pass The Smell Test
Seymour Hersh is out with a conspiracy theory about the death of Osama bin Laden that just doesn't make sense.
Seymour Hersh, the noted investigative journalist who has been behind breaking stories such as the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War and the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners are Abu Gharib during the Iraq War, is out with a story about the May 2011 raid that ended in the death of Osama bin Laden that essentially says the Obama Administration has been lying about how bin Laden was located and killed all along:
WASHINGTON — Four years after a Navy SEAL team killed Osama bin Laden in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, lingering questions remain about the raid and what led up to it. Now, in a 10,000-word article in The London Review of Books, the journalist Seymour M. Hersh challenges nearly every facet of the semiofficial narrative that has emerged over the years, alleging a vast cover-up that involves hundreds, possibly thousands, of people and goes all the way to President Obama himself.
On Monday, the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, said the article is “riddled with inaccuracies and outright falsehoods.”
The gist of Mr. Hersh’s report is that Pakistan harbored Bin Laden for years with money paid by Saudi Arabia. Once the United States found out the Pakistanis had Bin Laden, Mr. Hersh writes, it offered Pakistan’s generals a choice: Help the United States kill him or watch billions of dollars in American aid disappear. The Americans and the Pakistanis then worked together to plot the raid, Mr. Hersh writes.
In its bold claims, Mr. Hersh’s article, relying largely on anonymous sources, pairs plausible alternatives to the details about the raid presented by the administration with a number of much more questionable claims.
Were it not for the byline of Mr. Hersh, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who first gained notice more than 45 years ago for exposing the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, the story would likely have been readily dismissed and gained little attention.
In one conceivable episode, Mr. Hersh writes that American intelligence officials were alerted to Bin Laden’s whereabouts by a Pakistani military officer who walked into the United States Embassy in Islamabad and was subsequently paid a reward and moved by the C.I.A. to the United States. The account told by the Obama administration after the raid — that the C.I.A. tracked down Bin Laden through the work of dogged analysts — was a ruse intended to protect the real informant, according to Mr. Hersh.
It is a deception that the C.I.A. has employed before, claiming for years that it discovered that one of its own, Aldrich H. Ames, was passing intelligence to the Soviet Union through the work of a team of analysts. The truth that eventually emerged was that crucial evidence against Mr. Ames came from a Soviet spy working for the C.I.A.
Yet other claims by Mr. Hersh would have required a cover-up extending from top American, Pakistani and Saudi officials down to midlevel bureaucrats.
One example is Mr. Hersh’s claim, based on anonymous sources, that administration officials were lying when they said the SEAL team recovered a trove of intelligence from Bin Laden’s compound.
If he is right, that means the United States knowingly allowed an F.B.I. agent to perjure himself at a federal trial of a member of Al Qaeda in New York in February. In his testimony, the agent described in detail how he received computers, hard drives, documents and other material from the SEAL team members immediately after they landed at a base in Afghanistan. He then spent 17 hours cataloging the material before it was put on a plane back to the United States.
The detail, if manufactured, is stunning: The agent, Alexander Otte, listed the types of materials he had received, including the size of some of the digital storage devices recovered (a two-gigabyte micro-SD card, a four-gigabyte thumb drive), and even the brands of the devices (Sony and Kingston).
Mr. Otte also testified that he saw the body of Bin Laden, which Mr. Hersh reported had been largely dismembered by gunfire during the raid. The SEAL team members then threw some body parts out of the helicopters on the way back to Afghanistan, Mr. Hersh writes, though he did report that Bin Laden’s head was largely intact.
Mr. Otte, in his testimony, offered a very different account: Asked if the SEAL team members had a body with them, he said, “It was the body of Osama bin Laden.” At no point did he describe the body as being in pieces or having been decapitated.
Mr. Hersh is standing by his article. In a brief telephone interview on Monday, he said, “You can have your skepticism.”
Hersh’s actual report is far too long to excerpt here, so if you’re at all interested in finding out what he’s saying, you can read it for yourself. Suffice it to say, though, that, as described above, he tells a story of the location and death of Osama bin Laden that is far, far different from everything that has been reported for the past four years, and which seems to contradict both testimony given under oath by Federal officials and actual physical evidence such as the helicopter that crashed in the courtyard of the building where bin Laden was found. Perhaps the most difficult thing about Hersh’s narrative, though, is that it’s entirely unclear what the point of it all would be. He doesn’t really provide any explanation for why the Obama Administration and Pakistan would both lie about all of this in the manner that they did. Indeed, if certain parts of what Hersh is reporting are true, such as the alleged cooperation by Pakistan in all of this, one would think that this is something that the parties would want to reveal to the public if only to ease over tensions between the two nations that developed when it became apparent that the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks was essentially hiding in plain sight within sight of Pakistan’s premier military academy. Another problem with Hersh’s narrative is the fact that, like many conspiracy theories, it makes presumptions about the government that don’t seem to comport with reality. In order to pull off deceptions like the ones Hersh’s is talking about here, one would need a level of competence and the ability to keep secrets that the Federal Government simply has not demonstrated very much. Taken together, all of this means that it’s best to take Hersh’s claims with a grain of salt.
This is exactly what the national media seems to be doing.
The Wall Street Journal’s Michael Kugelman, for example, cites three reasons why Hersh’s claims should be viewed skeptically:
1. Sourcing. This article takes the practice of anonymous attribution to a new level. Mr. Hersh’s 10,356-word account is based nearly exclusively on a handful of unnamed sources-which can’t be fact-checked-and mainly one retired U.S. intelligence official. One of the only named sources is Asad Durrani, a former director of Pakistani intelligence in the early 1990s. In an Al Jazeera interview this year, Mr. Durrani insinuated that Pakistani intelligence knew about Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. But Mr. Durrani retired more than 20 years ago. Even in a country where retired security establishment figures retain influence and access, such a long separation from public service suggests that Mr. Durrani is not the most plugged-in source.
2. Quotations. Mr. Hersh’s account features voluminous, sometimes paragraphs-long quotations. Some are suspect for logical reasons; among theskepticism expressed online, for example, was a point on social media that the way in which a “former Seal commander” reportedly spoke about SEAL missions is unrealistic. Other remarks appear absurd or, at the least, ill-informed. The retired U.S. intelligence official says that Pakistani military officers believe they are the “keepers of the flame against Muslim fundamentalism.” Based on what I’ve observed as an analyst of Pakistan, I would argue that it’s more accurate to say the Pakistani military is a keeper of the flame of fundamentalism, thanks to its associations with militant groups.
3. U.S.-Pakistan Relations. In early 2011, U.S.-Pakistan relations were in deep crisisthanks in part to Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor who was arrested after killing two people at a crowded intersection in Lahore. According to Mr. Hersh, at that point the CIA and Pakistani intelligence were closely cooperating and jointly planning the raid on the Bin Laden compound. He writes that the retired U.S. intelligence source said that a Pakistani intelligence “liaison officer” flew with the SEALS on the night of the raid. Unless the crisis in relations was an elaborate cover, it beggars belief to assume such close intelligence cooperation.
Joshua Keating at Slate picks apart Hersh’s narrative, and points out that it isn’t very different from claims that we’ve heard in the past that have largely been debunked:
Besides being illogical, Hersh’s version of events is not new. A very similar theory, including, including the ISI walk-in, the Saudis paying off the Pakistanis to hold Bin Laden, and the drone strike cover story was published in 2011 on the blog of security analyst, novelist and ex-smuggler Raelynn Hillhouse. Hillhouse, most of whose writing focuses on private military contractors, cited “sources in the intelligence community.” If her source wasn’t the same one who spoke with Hersh, they were telling a remarkably similar story, though Hersh’s version is fleshed out with a lot more details than Hillhouse’s skeletal blog post. (Update, May 8, 2015: Hillhouse has responded to Hersh’s article calling it “either plagiarism or unoriginal.”)
Hillhouse’s claim didn’t get much coverage other than an article in the Telegraph by Pakistan correspondent Rob Crilly, who didn’t exactly endorse her premise. (Crilly blasted Hersh’s article yesterday, calling it “utterly devoid of facts” and likely to appeal to the “soft minded.”
To bolster his account, Hersh prominently features the endorsement of retired Pakistani Gen. Asad Durrani, who has claimed without much evidence for some time now that the ISI was sheltering Bin Laden. But Durrani hasn’t been in the ISI since 1993 and there’s little reason to think he’s either particularly plugged in or an objective source.
Perhaps the most thorough refutation of Hersh’s reporting here, though, comes from Max Fisher at Vox that I recommend reading in its entirety. In the end, though, Fisher makes a point that I think is particularly relevant here:
As time goes on, Hersh’s stories seem to become more spectacular, more thinly sourced, and more difficult to square with reality as we know it. Perhaps one day they will all be vindicated: the Opus Dei special forces cabal, the terrorist training in Nevada, the American plan to nuke Iran, the Turkish false flag in Syria, even the American-Pakistani bin Laden ruse.
Maybe there really is a vast shadow world of complex and diabolical conspiracies, executed brilliantly by international networks of government masterminds. And maybe Hersh and his handful of anonymous former senior officials really are alone in glimpsing this world and its terrifying secrets. Or maybe there’s a simpler explanation.
This isn’t the first time that Hersh has published reporting making wild claims about American military and foreign policy. We saw similar things dating all the way back to the first Bush Administration and continuing through the Clinton years, George W. Bush’s Administration, and now the Obama Administration. There’s no denying that in the past Hersh has done a spectacular job at uncovering important stories and nothing can take that away from him. Lately, though, he seems to have gone deeply down into rabbit holes that never seem to pan out. One suspects that’s exactly what will happen here. As Fisher puts it, perhaps Hersh will be proven right in the end, but it’s going to require a lot more evidence than he’s presented so far.