Separating Fact From Fiction In Seymour Hersh’s Bin Laden Story

Seymour Hersh’s account of the Bin Laden killing
challenged virtually the entire established narrative, so it was inevitable that it would be challenged. But in addition to the expected challenges from the government, other investigative reporters also kicked some damning holes in Hersh’s account. It was published in the London Review of Books, rather than the New Yorker, Hersh’s main outlet since the 70s. Which was either because it couldn’t stand up to the New Yorker’s fact checking (doubtful) or because the New Yorker already had a Bin Laden story that hewed much more closely to the government version (much more likely).

While much of Hersh’s account has been disputed (which you would expect), it should be noted that parts of Hersh’s account have been backed up by other outlets. Specifically, the part of the story where Pakistan knew Osama was hiding in Abbottobad. From NBC:

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.”

This contradicts the official account of it being a unilateral US mission, and dampens the importance of the courier story and Ahmad Al-Kuwaiti that makes up a big part of the Zero Dark Thirty narrative (on which the CIA collaborated). That said, “the ISI knew Bin Laden was there” is also a far cry from the ISI keeping Osama on house arrest as a bargaining chip since 2006, with financial support from the Saudis like Hersh’s story claimed. That Pakistan, or at least a significant number in the ISI, knew Bin Laden was there, was far and away the easiest to believe of Hersh’s story.

A Pakistani report goes so far as identifying the supposed “walk-in asset” who, according to Hersh, told the CIA where Osama was hiding.

Well-informed intelligence circles in the garrison town of Rawalpindi concede that the vital information about the bin Laden compound was actually provided to the Americans by none other than an ISI official – Brigadier Usman Khalid. The retired Brigadier, who has already been granted American citizenship along with his entire family members, persuaded Dr Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani physician, to conduct a fake polio campaign in the Bilal Town area of Abbottabad to help the Central Intelligence Agency hunt down Osama.

For his part, CNN’s Peter Bergen, who wrote his own Bin Laden book, Manhunt, called Hersh’s account “a farrago of nonsense,” and while I’m inclined to be mistrustful of a guy who uses the word “farrago” (Jesus, dude, put down the Thesaurus), he makes a number of crucial, damning points. To me, the most far-fetched part of Hersh’s account was the idea that out of ten or forty Navy SEALs or however many would’ve had to know about it in order to carry out the raid, not one, some God-and-Texas loving good old boy, say, would’ve come forward to contradict the Obama account they knew to be a lie. On that score, Bergen writes:

Let’s start with the claim that the only shots fired at the Abbottabad compound were the ones that killed bin Laden. That ignores the fact that two SEALs on the mission, Matt Bissonnette, author of “No Easy Day,” and Robert O’Neill have publicly said that there were a number of other people killed that night, including bin Laden’s two bodyguards, one of his sons and one of the bodyguard’s wives. Their account is supplemented by many other U.S. officials who have spoken on the record to myself or to other journalists.

I was the only outsider to visit the Abbottabad compound where bin Laden lived before the Pakistani military demolished it. The compound was trashed, littered almost everywhere with broken glass and several areas of it were sprayed with bullet holes where the SEALS had fired at members of bin Laden’s entourage and family, or in one case exchanged fire with one of his bodyguards. The evidence at the compound showed that many bullets were fired the night of bin Laden’s death.

In Hersh’s account, the execution was a relatively clean affair, where Bin Laden was the only one killed, and one of his wives was hit with a stray bullet in the knee. In order to square Hersh’s account with Bergen’s, we’d need to believe that the SEALs 1. had a consistent cover story. 2. that they shot up the house to create supporting evidence, and 3. stuck to that cover story for four years. Possible, I suppose, but not exactly probable.

That the ISI might’ve known about the raid and taken a hands-off approach, on the other hand, is still reasonably likely:

When I emailed Durrani [Assad Durrani, ISI chief in the 90s quoted in Hersh’s story] after the Hersh piece appeared, Durrani said he had “no evidence of any kind” that the ISI knew that bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad but he still could “make an assessment that this could be plausible.” This is hardly a strong endorsement of one of the principal claims of Hersh’s piece.

Durrani added that he believed that the bin Laden “operation could not have been carried out without our cooperation.” This glosses over the fact that the SEALs were flying in stealth helicopters through blind spots in Pakistan’s radar defense and the Pakistani air force had virtually no capacity to fly at night when the raid took place, so in fact the bin Laden raid was relatively easily accomplished without Pakistani cooperation, according to multiple U.S. officials with knowledge of the bin Laden operation. [CNN]

So, this one is basically American officials’ word against Pakistani officials’ word, both with an inherent motive of self-flattery motives (and beliefs, probably). Even money there. And just because the US could have done it without cooperation doesn’t mean they did.

Which leaves us with… was the Bin Laden killing carried out with sketchy, political motives? Almost certainly. But if the public doesn’t care about extra-legal executive branch assassinations when it’s drone strikes killing civilians, you can pretty much guarantee they aren’t going to care when it’s Navy SEALs shooting Osama Bin Laden.