Seymour Hersh is a respected, old school investigative journalist who won a Pulitzer for exposing the My Lai massacre in 1968 and multiple national magazine awards. This weekend he published a new 10,000-word investigative report on the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the gist of which is that Bin Laden wasn’t so much in hiding, as previously reported, but being held on house arrest by Pakistani security services (the ISI) when he was killed. Hersh alleges, among other things, that the US discovered him not through years of intelligence work with the break being the identification of his courier, but through a tip from an ISI-connected Pakistani looking to collect the $25 million reward. And that the raid was a kill mission from the start, carried out with the full cooperation of the ISI.
Here are a couple of the key passages. First, the nature of it being a joint operation, rather than an all-American affair, as previously claimed:
This spring I contacted Durrani [head of the ISI in the 90s] and told him in detail what I had learned about the bin Laden assault from American sources: that bin Laden had been a prisoner of the ISI at the Abbottabad compound since 2006; that Kayani and Pasha [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 ISI] knew of the raid in advance and had made sure that the two helicopters delivering the Seals to Abbottabad could cross Pakistani airspace without triggering any alarms; that the CIA did not learn of bin Laden’s whereabouts by tracking his couriers, as the White House has claimed since May 2011, but from a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer who betrayed the secret in return for much of the $25 million reward offered by the US, and that, while Obama did order the raid and the Seal team did carry it out, many other aspects of the administration’s account were false.
On it being a kill mission from the start:
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.
On there being no resistance at the compound (according to Hersh, the ISI guards protecting the compound simply left as soon as they heard helicopter rotors).
There was no firefight as they moved into the compound; the ISI guards had gone. ‘Everyone in Pakistan has a gun and high-profile, wealthy folks like those who live in Abbottabad have armed bodyguards, and yet there were no weapons in the compound,’ the retired official pointed out. Had there been any opposition, the team would have been highly vulnerable. Instead, the retired official said, an ISI liaison officer flying with the Seals guided them into the darkened house and up a staircase to bin Laden’s quarters. The Seals had been warned by the Pakistanis that heavy steel doors blocked the stairwell on the first and second-floor landings; bin Laden’s rooms were on the third floor. The Seal squad used explosives to blow the doors open, without injuring anyone. One of bin Laden’s wives was screaming hysterically and a bullet – perhaps a stray round – struck her knee. Aside from those that hit bin Laden, no other shots were fired. (The Obama administration’s account would hold otherwise.)
‘They knew where the target was – third floor, second door on the right,’ the retired official said. ‘Go straight there. Osama was cowering and retreated into the bedroom. Two shooters followed him and opened up. Very simple, very straightforward, very professional hit.’
On Bin Laden being more or less a sad, sickly, isolated old man, rather than a valuable target that could provide insight into Al Qaeda’s inner workings:
‘Despite all the talk,’ the retired official continued, there were ‘no garbage bags full of computers and storage devices. The guys just stuffed some books and papers they found in his room in their backpacks. The Seals weren’t there because they thought bin Laden was running a command centre for al-Qaida operations, as the White House would later tell the media. And they were not intelligence experts gathering information inside that house.’
At that point, Hersh says, the plan was for the Obama administration to claim Bin Laden had been killed in a drone attack in the Hindu Kush mountains. But because they had crashed a helicopter during a raid, they assumed word would eventually leak, and so the White House and the CIA “couldn’t wait to brag and to claim credit,” according to Robert Gates, whose memoir Hersh quotes.
Two additional points of particular importance, are that, according to Hersh, the Seals actually killed only Bin Laden, instead of the five people reported, and that the information leading to the raid was obtained through the ISI, not through waterboarding detainees.
Obama, said [John Brennan, then Obama’s senior adviser for counterterrorism] ‘made what I believe was one of the gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory’. Brennan increased the number killed by the Seals inside the compound to five: bin Laden, a courier, his brother, a bin Laden son, and one of the women said to be shielding bin Laden.
Gates also objected to the idea, pushed by Brennan and Leon Panetta, that US intelligence had learned of bin Laden’s whereabouts from information acquired by waterboarding and other forms of torture. ‘All of this is going on as the Seals are flying home from their mission. The agency guys know the whole story,’ the retired official said. ‘It was a group of annuitants who did it.’ (Annuitants are retired CIA officers who remain active on contract.) ‘They had been called in by some of the mission planners in the agency to help with the cover story. So the old-timers come in and say why not admit that we got some of the information about bin Laden from enhanced interrogation?’ At the time, there was still talk in Washington about the possible prosecution of CIA agents who had conducted torture.
Not surprisingly, the White House disagrees with the account. From CNN:
“There are too many inaccuracies and baseless assertions in this piece to fact check each one,” White House National Security spokesman Ned Price said in a statement to reporters.
He took aim specifically at journalist Seymour Hersh’s assertion that the administration collaborated with Pakistani officials to kill the al Qaeda leader, saying that “the notion that the operation that killed Usama Bin Ladin was anything but a unilateral U.S. mission is patently false.”
“As we said at the time, knowledge of this operation was confined to a very small circle of senior U.S. officials. The President decided early on not to inform any other government, including the Pakistani Government, which was not notified until after the raid had occurred,” Price said.
Obviously, it’s hard for any of us without direct knowledge of what happened to determine who’s telling the truth. But at least part of Hersh’s account, that Bin Laden was a sad, sickly old man living in house arrest, and not a terror mastermind still controlling Al-Qaeda through a network of couriers, does jibe with other accounts of Bin Laden as increasingly isolated from Al Qaeda and reduced mostly to writing chastising letters [from the piece: “Patrick Cockburn wrote about the contrast between the administration’s initial claims that bin Laden was the ‘spider at the centre of a conspiratorial web’ and what the translations actually showed: that bin Laden was ‘delusional’ and had ‘limited contact with the outside world outside his compound’.”]. It also jibes with a long history of the CIA trying to paint themselves as much smarter and more effective than they are.
The harder parts to believe are that the Seals directly involved with the raid were able to maintain a fairly consistent fiction for four years. I mean, really? Half of them have written books. Or that the ISI just let Seals come in and murder their prisoner. It’s hard to believe word wouldn’t have leaked with so many people involved in a lie. This is just a guess, but it seems reasonable to think that the Zero Dark Thirty account is based on a lot of self-serving CIA lies, and Hersh’s account is based on a lot of self-serving ISI lies. I imagine the truth is somewhere in between.
Now, can we get a verdict on whether a sexy redhead ever cussed out her boss while spitting everywhere and dropping “Mullah Crackadullah?” Seems plausible.