Administration officials say Hersh report is baseless.
On Monday, the White House rejected claims by famed journalist Seymour Hersh that it has engaged in a cover-up about the 2011 operation in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden, the former head of al Qaeda who helped plot 9/11.
Hersh, in a long and detailed article for the London Review of Books, presented an alternative account, based on anonymous sources, of how the raid unfolded. Hersh’s account contradicts almost every aspect of the official narrative, accusing Saudi Arabia and Pakistan of knowing about bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan, and claiming the Pakistani military played a role in the assassination mission, a fact that the US denies.
“The notion that the operation that killed [bin Laden] was anything but a unilateral U.S. mission is patently false,” said a spokesperson for the National Security Council. The spokesperson claimed “there are too many inaccuracies and baseless assertions in [Hersh’s] piece to fact-check each one” and added that “no one [at the White House] is particularly concerned about it.”
The White House says that the killing of bin Laden, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was the result of a covert assault by Navy SEALS carried out without the knowledge of Pakistani officials. It claims the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was able to locate bin Laden by tracking his courier, and that the terror chief was killed during a dramatic firefight. Ultimately, officials say bin Laden’s body was flown to Afghanistan and then taken aboard a US vessel to be buried at sea.
All of these details are refuted by Hersh’s story, which relies heavily on the testimony of one retired intelligence official. The knowledge of that official, however, has been called into question by major figures involved in the Abbottabad raid.
“The person obviously was not close to what happened,” Michael Morell, who was the CIA’s deputy director at the time of the raid, told CBS.
“The Pakistanis did not know,” said Morell. “The president made a decision not to tell the Pakistanis. The Pakistanis were furious with us. The president sent me to Pakistan after the raids to try to start smoothing things over.”
Hersh argues the official narrative about bin Laden’s killing is obviously false.
The Killing of Osama bin Laden, Seymour Hersh’s more than 10,000-word article for the London Review of Books, puts forth an alternative history to what he calls the “high point of Obama’s first term.” Hersh argues that the official narrative is obviously fictional and compares it to a fantasy “written by Lewis Carroll.”
“[W]ould 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?” Hersh wrote in his introduction, referring to bin Laden’s hideout, which was only two miles from the Pakistan Military Academy.
Hersh’s extremely detailed article goes on to dispute a number of key aspects of the Obama administration’s narrative. Its main source is a “retired senior intelligence official who was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad …was privy to many aspects of the Seals’ training for the raid, and to the various after-action reports.” The piece also cites “two other US sources, who had access to corroborating information [and] have been longtime consultants to the Special Operations Command.”
Hersh’s piece refers to other journalists, such as New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall, who have contradicted the official narrative. It also argues that Obama’s initial statements after the assault betrayed Pakistani cooperation.
Hersh’s reporting has won the Pulitzer Prize and helped uncover, among other scandals, the My Lai Massacre of the Vietnam War and the Abu Ghraib prison abuses during the Iraq War. He has continued to defend his journalism, noting the difficulty of acquiring reliable information on covert operations.
“It’s very tough for guys still inside to get quoted extensively,” Hersh told CNN after his bin Laden story was published. “There are other people who have retired with great information, so it’s much easier to quote some of them than somebody on active duty.”
As if to buttress Hersh’s point, a Virginia court on Monday sentenced Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA officer convicted of espionage for leaking details of an operation to The New York Times, to 42 months in prison.
Many outlets have questioned Hersh’s continued relevance in investigative journalism.
The US mainstream media has mostly been critical of Seymour Hersh’s account of the Osama bin Laden raid, which the New Yorker reportedly refused to publish. Major outlets have called the article too thinly sourced and characterized its famous author as a has-been of investigative journalism.
CNN quickly published an article that excoriated Hersh’s piece, referring to it as “a farrago of nonsense.” Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst, argued that Hersh’s claims, for example that US ally Saudi Arabia financed bin Laden’s upkeep in Pakistan, could be debunked by “common sense.”
“Common sense would also tell you,” Bergen wrote, “that if the Pakistanis were holding bin Laden and the U.S. government had found out this fact, the easiest path for both countries would not be to launch a U.S. military raid into Pakistan but would have been to hand bin Laden over quietly to the Americans.”
Max Fisher of Vox penned a similar response to Hersh, calling his story a “conspiracy theory” and questioning its sourcing. Fisher’s piece accuses Hersh of having “gone off the rails” in recent years, suggesting that his work has degenerated from top-notch investigative reporting to unsubstantiated paranoia.
Fisher points out that Hersh’s more questionable recent reports include the US planning “false flag” attacks to justify war with Iran and acquiescing to a move by Syrian rebels to use chemical weapons and frame President Bashar al Assad. Hersh also gave a speech in 2001 in which he indicated some US military leaders belonged to shadowy religious organizations.
“Maybe there really is a vast shadow world of complex and diabolical conspiracies executed brilliantly by international networks of government masterminds,” Fisher concluded facetiously. “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.”