Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh is pushing back against critics of his controversial story claiming the White House lied about key details of the Osama bin Laden raid.
When reached at home by Business Insider on Monday afternoon, Hersh addressed some of the criticisms of his reporting, which have centered around his reliance on anonymous sources and an apparent lack of documentary evidence for his claims. In the story, Hersh alleges the US government’s narrative of the death of Osama Bin Laden was in fact an elaborate cover story meant to conceal Pakistan’s relationship with the Al Qaeda leader and to yield maximum political payoff for Obama in the runup to the 2012 election season.
Hersh defended his reporting methods. When asked about his decision to base some of his reporting on two unnamed consultants with US Special Operations Command, Hersh said he was being held to an unfair standard over his use of these kinds of anonymous sources.
“It’s really an attack-the-messenger,” Hersh said. “Every day in the newspaper, how many anonymous-sourced stories do you read? Dozens of them.” In Hersh’s view, “that doesn’t diminish the credibility” of a journalist or a source: “That’s just the way it is.”
He also strongly defended his leading named source, Asad Durrani, the head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency in the 1990s. In the opening paragraphs of Hersh’s piece, Durrani corroborates Hersh’s account of bin Laden’s death.
The article suggests Durrani would have had knowledge of the article’s assertions relating to Pakistan’s relationship with the Al Qaeda leader. According to Hersh’s reporting, ISI nabbed bin Laden in 2006 and held him captive to use him as leverage against Taliban and Al Qaeda activities in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“I consider him to be a credible source because he was a former director of the ISI who asked a lot of questions and knew a lot about what was happening on the inside,” Hersh told us.
Hersh cited Durrani’s deep involvement in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and said that he is still active in diplomacy with India. “I’ve known him for years. He was involved in some very sensitive stuff.”
“He’s a grownup,” Hersh says. “I’ve known him a long time.”
In Hersh’s view, Durrani is also a man of conscience, someone willing to risk his own safety to expose his government’s activities. “He’s got to stay in Pakistan, he’s got to stay with his buddies,” Hersh says. “But he had the courage to say, this is what it is.”
A former ISI director is both a promising and potentially hazardous source for a story like Hersh’s.
While Durrani was in a position of power, he was also embedded within a deeply opaque intelligence agency with ties to jihadist groups and a difficult-to-place role in Pakistani domestic politics. As Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies told Business Insider, “there are multiple parts to the Pakistani intelligence services. It’s a wheels-within-wheels type of situation. Parts of it have cooperated with the US and parts of it haven’t.”
Christine Fair, a professor at Georgetown University and a leading authority on Pakistan’s security and intelligence apparatus, gave a blunt assessment of Durrani’s credibility: “Durrani has been delusional for years now and so far out of the loop that to cite him is as a pivotal source is reckless enthusiasm,” Fair told Business Insider by email.
Asked about the White House’s firm rebuke of his reporting, Hersh said that he expected the pushback. “The White House is a political institution,” Hersh said. “Of course they want to manipulate the press. That’s just normal.”
Hersh says the presidency has been out to distort public narratives of major events for as long as he’s been an investigative reporter.
“The White House doesn’t like adverse stories that are contrary to what they want the public to believe,” Hersh says. “It’s always going to be that way. I don’t think there’s anything remarkably different now [compared to the Vietnam era].”
Hersh may be correct that there is nothing inherently wrong with anonymous sourcing. And the White House certainly promulgates its own version of major global events, with the help of a classification system that gives it an immeasurable advantage in moulding public narratives about national security issues.
The issue is whether criticism of this specific piece is itself tied to any active US government effort to twist the truth of the bin Laden death, or whether criticism of anonymous sourcing and other reporting methods is in fact appropriate in the case of this specific story.
Hersh expressed frustration with journalists who have focused on the story as a “media” story while ignoring its alarming conclusions about the supposed conduct of the Obama administration.
At the outset of the conversation, Hersh asked why Business Insider was even interested in talking to him, and wondered, with teasing irony, if we planned on asking “whether [the story] is true.” It was the kind of question he had heard a wearying number of times over the course of a storied career. The veracity of his own reporting was a topic that only seemed to exasperate him.
“You’re talking about someone who was a freelance reporter in 1969 and wrote about massacring hundreds of people in Vietnam for an anti-war news agency,” Hersh said. “My God, you don’t think I had trouble then?”
He’s irritated at what he sees as a public obsession with where and how his bin Laden report had been published. “It’s not a press story, it’s a story about what the government does,” Hersh said. “If the questions are about the press, I can’t help you.”
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