President Obama and the national security state have reaped great political rewards from the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. It enabled him to run for re-election on the swagger of ordering a bold raid to do what his predecessor could not do. It enabled the CIA and the NSA to claim that their clever sleuthing was what enabled the US to locate bin Laden in Pakistan. It justified the use of torture by claiming that this was what got them vital information. And it enabled the US military and its much vaunted Special Forces to glory in successfully going in, carrying out a raid in a foreign country under the noses of that government, and then get out again without that country’s military being any the wiser. Even Obama’s political adversaries had no counter to vice-president Joe Biden’s boast during the 2012 campaign that it was thanks to Obama that “General Motors is alive and bin Laden is dead.”
But now veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has spoiled that story. In a blockbuster 10,000 word article in the London Review of Books, Hersh says that almost all the key elements of that story are false. Here are some of the highlights of that article.
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 most blatant lie was that 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 – were never informed of the US mission.
This spring I contacted [former head of the ISI Asad] Durrani 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 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.
During the late autumn of 2010, the US continued to keep quiet about the walk-in, and Kayani and Pasha continued to insist to their American counterparts that they had no information about bin Laden’s whereabouts. ‘The next step was to figure out how to ease Kayani and Pasha into it – to tell them that we’ve got intelligence showing that there is a high-value target in the compound, and to ask them what they know about the target,’ the retired official said. ‘The compound was not an armed enclave – no machine guns around, because it was under ISI control.’ The walk-in had told the US that bin Laden had lived undetected from 2001 to 2006 with some of his wives and children in the Hindu Kush mountains, and that ‘the ISI got to him by paying some of the local tribal people to betray him.’ (Reports after the raid placed him elsewhere in Pakistan during this period.) Bank was also told by the walk-in that bin Laden was very ill, and that early on in his confinement at Abbottabad, the ISI had ordered Amir Aziz, a doctor and a major in the Pakistani army, to move nearby to provide treatment. ‘The truth is that bin Laden was an invalid, but we cannot say that,’ the retired official said. ‘“You mean you guys shot a cripple? Who was about to grab his AK-47?”’
The bin Laden compound was less than two miles from the Pakistan Military Academy, and a Pakistani army combat battalion headquarters was another mile or so away. Abbottabad is less than 15 minutes by helicopter from Tarbela Ghazi, an important base for ISI covert operations and the facility where those who guard Pakistan’s nuclear weapons arsenal are trained. ‘Ghazi is why the ISI put bin Laden in Abbottabad in the first place,’ the retired official said, ‘to keep him under constant supervision.’
The Pakistanis agreed to permit a four-man American cell – a Navy Seal, a CIA case officer and two communications specialists – to set up a liaison office at Tarbela Ghazi for the coming assault.
Pasha and Kayani were responsible for ensuring that Pakistan’s army and air defence command would not track or engage with the US helicopters used on the mission. The American cell at Tarbela Ghazi was charged with co-ordinating communications between the ISI, the senior US officers at their command post in Afghanistan, and the two Black Hawk helicopters; the goal was to ensure that no stray Pakistani fighter plane on border patrol spotted the intruders and took action to stop them.
Hersh’s story goes into great detail about how the raid was carried out and it differs dramatically from the official version, especially that there was no big firefight, and how a story was concocted to try and explain the events.
Hersh’s story is a fascinating one, well worth reading, as it goes into detail about the story put out by Obama and his aides and all the holes in it. Is Hersh’s version the truth? I am in no position to judge except that given the choice between Hersh’s credibility and that of the US government, Hersh wins hands down.
What has been extremely interesting is the establishment media’s response to Hersh’s story. Usually when a reporter breaks a big story like this that exposes massive government wrongdoing and lying, the rest of the media scramble to find out more because such stories always have gaps that need filling. Except in two kinds of situations, when the establishment media is made to look bad for having missed something that was right under its own nose. It then tries to undermine the story and attack the reporter’s credibility and methods. These are the occasions when the news media’s close relationship with the national security state is most exposed.
One situation is when the story is broken by a previously unknown reporter in an smaller outlet, as was the case of San Jose Mercury-News reporter Gary Webb’s story of CIA involvement in facilitating the drug epidemic in America’s inner-cities as part of its support for the Nicaraguan contras. (I wrote about Webb and his story here and here.) In Webb’s case, they were successful in driving him out of journalism and he ended up committing suicide.
The other is when the news story exposes the fact that the establishment media has been suckered into swallowing hook, line, and sinker a government propaganda line in the service of American glorification and this is the case with the bin Laden story. The government even helped in creating and promoting a propaganda film Zero Dark Thirty that enabled it to get its version of the story even further imprinted into the public consciousness.
Like they did with Gary Webb before, the media has turned on Seymour Hersh with a fury, in a massive effort to discredit his story and him personally. Trevor Timm summarizes the effort under way to do just that. But unlike with Webb, Hersh is already famous, has a string of major stories to his credit (My Lai, CIA’s domestic spying in 1974, Abu Ghraib to name just a few), and has reached a stage in life where his journalistic record speaks for itself and he simply does not give a damn what others think and he has ridiculed his critics, such as in this this interview with Isaac Chottiner where he does not bother to hide his contempt for the interviewer and for the “dopey afternoon shows with that woman, what’s her name, the NBC woman who claims to have some knowledge of foreign policy” [Andrea Mitchell] whom he describes as “comical”.
Hersh was interviewed on On the Media and it gives a good overview of what his story is about and his response to the media critics. It is well worth listening to. If the embedded link below does not work, go here.
Here is a good video interview of Hersh by The Real News Network.