Veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh’s latest, a 10,000-word essay on the 2011 U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, has raised plenty of eyebrows since arriving Sunday on the London Review of Books’ website.
It claims that contrary to the official narrative presented by the White House at the time, the raid was a joint U.S.-Pakistani operation, staged with Pakistani consent as a cover for a deal in which that country “sold” the U.S. access to bin Laden.
The White House issued a statement Monday criticizing the article’s apparently countless “inaccuracies and baseless accusations,” and asserting that Pakistan “was not notified until after the raid had occurred.”
Here are some of Hersh’s most incendiary allegations, together with reasons to doubt his claims:
1. Pakistan set up bin Laden’s comfy Abbottabad compound
Much of Hersh’s reporting depends on an anonymous retired U.S. intelligence official, “who was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad,” the Pakistani town and site of bin Laden’s compound. The official confirms the claim, signed off on by a Pakistani named Asad Durrani, that the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency held bin Laden as a “prisoner” in Abbottabad since 2006.
Pakistan has been a key but not necessarily trustworthy partner in the U.S.’ fight against the Taliban, al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations. Its willingness to turn a blind eye to their operations in the country, just across the border from Afghanistan, remains a sticking point in the U.S.’ relationship with Pakistan. But if Hersh’s story holds up, it means that the ISI’s agents used bin Laden as a pawn to extract further concessions from the U.S.
2. Saudi Arabia ordered bin Laden dead, to hide its role in his survival
Hersh’s source also says that Saudi Arabia “had been financing bin Laden’s upkeep since his seizure by the Pakistanis,” presumably through bankrolling the alleged ISI operations to keep the compound secure. This fear is linked to bin Laden’s Saudi nationality — which Saudi Arabia had revoked in 1994. Persistent allegations, especially among conspiracy theorists, highlight the U.S.-backed Saudi bankrolling of the groups which gave rise to al-Qaida in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
But this line of reasoning extends the conjecture to the present day, an absurd claim considering the many millions of dollars that Saudi Arabia has spent, dating back years before the 9/11 attacks, to discredit and destroy al-Qaida ever since the group’s denunciations of the kingdom’s friendly relationship with the U.S. became a threat to Saudi hegemony and stability.
3. The only shots fired were the ones that killed bin Laden
According to Hersh, “There was no firefight” between the SEALs as they entered the bin Laden compound. They blew the stairwell doors open with explosives, but “[a]side from those that hit bin Laden, no other shots were fired.”
National security expert Peter Bergen has contradicted the claim as “a farrago of nonsense.” As one of the only people to visit the post-raid compound before its demolition, Bergen says that “several areas of it were sprayed with bullet holes where the SEALS had fired at members of bin Laden’s entourage and family.”
4. In exchange, Pakistan got “a freer hand” in Afghanistan
The article claims that the deal by which the U.S. gained access to the compound resulted in increased U.S. military aid to Pakistan and “a freer hand” in Afghanistan. The veracity of these claims is debatable, since the U.S. and Pakistan have both weakened their stances in Afghanistan in the years since 2011, and American monetary assistance to the country has dropped off as well. If anything, it seems likelier that a U.S.-led raid in Pakistan was symptomatic of a dysfunctional relationship between the two countries, which continues to this day.
5. SEALs needed the story for when they ‘sit around the bar’
Hersh’s anonymous retired official claims that among larger political and face-saving considerations, the raid’s epic narrative was crafted to suit the needs of the Navy SEALs who participated in the operation. His anonymous source insisted that there was “a deep-seated need” for a show of some resistance to prove American military mettle — they “cannot live with the fact that they killed bin Laden totally unopposed.” So the story popularized by films like Zero Dark Thirty, he says, was partly circulated with knowledge that “[t]he guys are going to sit around the bar” telling tales of their bravery.
6. Hersh’s credibility has collapsed in the last 10 years
Though his career included exposure such U.S. military secrets as the Vietnam War’s My Lai massacre and the mistreatment of detainees in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, Hersh’s last ten years have been marked by an increasing willingness to make farfetched claims about the U.S. security apparatus. In 2006, he claimed that George W. Bush had an imminent plan to bomb Iranian military targets and trigger regime change there. And in 2011, he made a speech claiming that there were indissoluble ties between top U.S. special forces leaders and Opus Dei, the Roman Catholic lay organization that author Dan Brown puts at the center of his sensationalistic novel The Da Vinci Code.
Max Fisher of Vox.com has called this slow movement into absurdity a “slide off the rails.” He also noted that The New Yorker, which has published Hersh’s exposés for years, “repeatedly” refused to print the bin Laden article over the course of several years.
7. People close to the story are shaking their heads
Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst whose work helped locate bin Laden, tweeted a link Monday to Fisher’s dissection of the story, using the online platform’s ultimate succinct stamp of approval: “THIS.” And as mentioned above, Peter Bergen, who conducted bin Laden’s first interview with Western media in 1997 and has written a book on the U.S. search for the terrorist mastermind, has called some of Hersh’s basic facts into question.
Initial responses to the article have been mostly incredulous and skeptical. But of course, the inherent problem with massive conspiracies is that, even with a few sources connecting the dots, they are ultimately impossible to conclusively disprove.
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