Seymour Hersh’s alternative account of the death of Osama Bin Laden in the London Review of Books has been met with intense scrutiny.
Hersh’s piece, which alleges that nearly every aspect of the US government’s narrative of Bin Laden’s death was fabricated in order to cover a secret deal between the US and Pakistan and advance president Barack Obama’s reelection efforts, contains no documentary evidence and largely depends on the corroboration of a Pakistani intelligence official of dubious credibility.
Hersh’s description of Bin Laden’s death has little apparent basis in established fact, as least as it’s understood outside of Hersh’s mostly anonymous sourcing. The story could be safely ignored if it weren’t the work of one of the most legendary journalists of the past 50 years, the winner of five Polk Awards and the reporter responsible for breaking both the Mai Lai massacre and the Abu Graihb prison abuse scandal.
But Hersh’s stature doesn’t just lend an odor of credibility to his report — it also threatens to turn his story into a reference point for future discussions of the Bin Laden raid and the events surrounding the Al Qaeda chief’s death.
That would be a worrying development. Hersh’s description of the Bin Laden raid strains credulity, but his reporting, and a lot of the attention that’s being heaped upon it, is rooted in a very real issue: There are aspects of the narrative around Bin Laden’s death that are legitimately questionable.
Hersh’s account exploits these still-lingering questions about the raid and the Obama administration’s handling of Bin Laden’s death. But weaknesses of Hersh’s story don’t mean those questions aren’t worth asking.
Here are three big ones — along with how Hersh’s account distorts them.
Why did the Obama administration’s release such a detailed version of events?
Hersh’s piece claims that the administration narrative is problematic because it isn’t true. In reality, it may be problematic for exactly the opposite reason.
In February of 2012, former US Navy Seal Leif Babin wrote a Wall Street Journal opinion piece criticising the Obama administration for revealing extensive operational details of SEAL missions in its public discussion of the Bin Laden raid.
“[V]irtually every detail of the bin Laden raid has appeared in news outlets across the globe — from the name of the highly classified unit to how the US gathered intelligence, how many raiders were involved, how they entered the grounds, what aircraft they used, and how they moved through the compound,” Babin wrote. “Such details were highly contained within the military and not shared even through classified channels. Yet now they are available to anyone with the click of a mouse.”
The US intelligence community also exploited the Bin Laden raid in order to rehabilitate its public image after a decade of controversy over interrogation and surveillance techniques, most notably by leaking classified information about the raid to the filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty, a decision that triggered an inspector general’s investigation and Congressional inquires.
In an effort to bolster the Obama administration’s national security bona fides and elevate the reputation of US Special Forces and the CIA — both cornerstones of the administration’s “small footprint” anti-terror policies — the US government divulged highly sensitive information about US special operations and intelligence activities.
It’s legitimate to ask how much of the story of the Bin Laden raid should have been made public and when, as well as whether the administration’s rollout had any impact on US national security.
What was in the Abbottabad documents?
Hersh’s article claims that there was little of interest in the stash of documents removed from Bin Laden’s compound and even implies that the documents don’t actually exist: “The guys just stuffed some books and papers they found in [Bin Laden’s] room in their backpacks,” an unnamed former US intelligence official told Hersh. As the retired official notes, the SEALS “were not intelligence experts gathering information inside that house.”
The documents’ non-existence is crucial to Hersh’s version of events. Hersh claims that Bin Laden was being kept prisoner by Pakistani intelligence in Abbottabad and that the CIA found Bin Laden because of a walk-in at the US embassy in Islamabad and not through tracking Bin Laden’s courier to his compound.
If a large volume of documents of intelligence value really were found in Abbottabad, it supports the administration claim that Bin Laden was still coordinating Al Qaeda activities while bolstering the idea that it was contact with the outside world that gave away Bin Laden’s location.
There are questions surrounding the Abbottabad documents, but they’re almost exactly the opposite of the ones that Hersh raises. A massive cache of documents was in fact found, and the few that have been published have offered valuable insight into Bin Laden’s evolving vision for global jihad and the Al Qaeda network more generally.
But the majority of the relatively small number of documents that have been made public have only found daylight through protracted legal processes. Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies and a leading expert on the Abbottabad cache, believes some of the documents are being withheld as part of an effort to validate the Obama administration’s counter-terror policies and to prove that both Bin Laden and Al Qaeda central were on the verge of defeat.
“The White House cherry-picked documents that were released to the public and the documents they did cherry-pick for release don’t support the analysis that Bin Laden was delusional or out of the game,” Joscelyn told Business Insider.
The Abbottabad documents are still a question-mark related to the raid. But that’s because they do exist and have “been politicized,” as Joscelyn puts it — not because their existence was somehow fabricated.
What role did Pakistan’s play?
One of the most glaring analytical leaps in Hersh’s story is that it treats the Pakistani intelligence services as a monolith.
In Hersh’s telling, Pakistani intelligence is an apparatus in which something as major as the sheltering of Bin Laden would have to be known throughout the entire chain of command, an assessment that assumes it’s even the sort of institution in which the notion of a singular “chain of command” is valid and accurate.
But that’s not the case. From the weeks after the raid, there have been reports that officials inside the Pakistani state knew of Bin Laden’s whereabouts. A March 2014 article in the New York Times magazine revealed the existence of a “Bin Laden desk” within Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI).
As Joscelyn explained to Business Insider, jihadists who were especially close with the ISI were also in constant contact with Bin Laden and his associates: “There were proxies of the Pakistani state who were close with Bin Laden and communicating with him up until his time of death,” says Joscelyn.
These reports don’t fully explain who knew about Bin Laden’s location within Pakistan’s vast, highly opaque and compartmentalized intelligence services, or whose protection the Al Qaeda chief was living under.
They don’t conclusively settle the issue of what, if anything, the US knew or currently knows about Pakistani officials’ sheltering of Bin Laden. It still isn’t know what if any advanced notice the ISI may have been given about the raid — and what segment of the ISI would even have received such a warning.
These questions may eventually be answered. But Hersh’s article didn’t settle them.
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