Hersh’s bomb shell, shook the world. After all, he was the man who broke the Mai Lai massacre in 1969, in which American troops killed hundreds of Vietnamese civilians and the Abu Ghraib scandal in 2004.
Instead of investigating the extent of Pakistan’s cooperation with the US in the killing of Osama, Hersh plods on with his narrative which rests on flimsy evidence.
High-level lying remains the modus operandi of US policy,” writes legendary investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in his 10,000-word essay, which was published on May 10 in the London Review of Books. Not every day would you find a multiple Pulitzer-winning journalist accusing the US president of lies and deceit. In his essay “The Killing of Osama bin Laden”, Hersh has done precisely that, arguing that the truth about the bin Laden assassination operation was far from what the US government had told the world.
The official story says the US intelligence agencies painstakingly and persistently tailed possible leads about Osama, tracked a courier who carried messages to and from the terrorist mastermind, identified his location as Abbottabad in Pakistan, kept it a secret, sent in a SEAL team, killed Osama when he tried to resist, buried him at sea and confiscated the documents left by him.
However, according to Hersh, Osama was a prisoner of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency since 2006, which kept him in a safe house close to the Pakistan Military Academy, as a bargaining chip to gain upper hand in its ties with the US. Saudi Arabia picked up the tab for his upkeep. Hersh says the US learned about Osama’s whereabouts from a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer, later identified by Pakistani newspaper The News as Brigadier Usman Khalid. He walked into the US embassy in Islamabad one day and offered to reveal the hideout of Osama in return for the $25 million reward the US had put on Osama. After confirming the veracity of his claims Khalid and his family were spirited out to the US, the reward was paid and he is now said to be a consultant with the CIA.
The US, Hersh writes, confronted Pakistan with this info and threatened with dire consequences if it did not cooperate. The Pakistanis agreed and, according to Hersh, asked the Americans to stage an elaborate raid to avoid public backlash. Two of Pakistan’s top generals, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the former army chief, and Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the director of the ISI, had prior knowledge of the raid. The deal was to wait for a few days and then announce that Osama was killed near the Afghan border in an American drone strike. President Obama, who was mounting his re-election bid, saw a huge political opportunity and broke the deal, going public moments after Osama’s death. This betrayal, says Hersh, was the reason behind the rapidly deteriorating ties between the US and Pakistan since the Abbottabad raid.
Hersh says the navy SEALs met no resistance during their mission because of Pakistani cooperation. He says a Pakistani intelligence officer led them to Osama’s room. Later, the SEALS tore apart Osama’s body with gunfire and pieces of his dead body were “tossed out over the Hindu Kush mountains”. By the time they returned to their base in Afghanistan, not much of the body was left. Hersh says the story about the burial at sea, which was performed from the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, was another lie as “there wouldn’t have been much left of bin Laden to put into the sea”. Finally, Hersh says the news about the US confiscating a “treasure trove” of details, from documents and electronic devices found in the Osama hideout was also a big lie, fabricated to make the story sound credible.
Hersh’s bomb shell, shook the world. After all, he was the man who broke the Mai Lai massacre in 1969, in which American troops killed hundreds of Vietnamese civilians and the Abu Ghraib scandal in 2004. While most analysts punched holes in his narrative, there were a few who said Hersh had a point. Prominent among them is Carlotta Gall, who was The New York Times correspondent in Afghanistan for 12 years. She says a high-level member of the Pakistani intelligence told her that the ISI had been hiding Osama and ran a desk specifically to handle him as an intelligence asset. She also says Hersh’s account of the event answers one of the questions which has been nagging her for quite some time. Although a helicopter carrying the SEALs crashed in Abbottabad, police or army did not turn up. Local police officials later told her that people who lived nearby informed them about the crash, but army commanders had asked the police to stand down. Surprisingly, the army turned up only after the SEALS left, more than 40 minutes after they had landed. However, instead of investigating the extent of Pakistan’s cooperation with the US in the killing of Osama, Hersh plods on with his narrative which rests on flimsy evidence. The biggest drawback of the story is its lack of corroborative sources. The major source of the story is a retired senior intelligence official “who was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad”, while the sole named source is Asad Durrani, who headed the ISI from 1990 to 1992. Durrani, however, does not confirm any of Hersh’s allegations.
Second, it is too far fetched to believe that the US and Pakistan enacted such an enormous charade involving hundreds of operatives and kept all the secrets for so long without a leak. A simpler way would have been to kill Osama and hand over his dead body to the Americans in Afghanistan, without any of the risks of the SEAL attack. The CIA and the ISI have enough number of assassins who specialise in such tasks. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that the Pakistan army would have agreed to this as it meant its complete humiliation. Third, it is difficult to digest the fact that the Saudis were bankrolling the expenses incurred in keeping Osama safe. There is no love lost between the Saudi royal family and Osama, who was even stripped of his nationality. “For Hersh’s theory to work, the enmity between the Saudis and bin Laden, dating back some 25 years, has to have been an intricate piece of performance art, carefully scripted by both parties—with the collusion of successive American administrations,” says James Kirchik.
Fourth, Hersh’s charges about the ‘manufactured evidences’ confiscated from Osama’s hideout remains unconvincing for two reasons. One, Osama’s deputy Ayman Al Zawahiri had gone on record accepting the authenticity of the material. It is unlikely that he would be covering up for the US and Pakistan, his sworn enemies. Moreover, Alexander Otte, an FBI operative who had received the intelligence material, testified under oath before a federal court about its authenticity and listed in detail the nature and numbers of the documents. It is highly unlikely that the president or any senior official will force a senior FBI operative to perjure himself and face consequences.
Finally, there is nothing to support Hersh’s argument that the SEALS fired into and tore Osama’s body into pieces and that it was not buried at sea. On the other hand, Otte had given sworn testimony about receiving the body and there is no good reason to suspect him of lying.
The story has met with an expected denial from the US government. “There are too many inaccuracies and baseless assertions in this piece to fact-check each one,” said White House spokesman Ned Price. Most news media, too, shared the opinion of the White House. Support for Hersh’s views have been largely absent. Back in January 2011, Hersh delivered a lecture at the Doha campus of Georgetown University. In the lecture, he said the senior leadership of the US military were members of the Knights of Malta and the Opus Dei, who were trying to bring Christianity to the Middle East and convert mosques into cathedrals. No wonder his take on the killing of Osama bin Laden has not found too many takers.