To preface this, I’ve only read about half of Seymour Hersh’s report on the raid (or “raid”) that ended with the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, because a) it’s very long, plus b) its publication raised such a commotion online that the LRB’s website crashed for over an hour, both of which matter because c) I was cooking (I smoked brisket!) and entertaining most of the day yesterday.
What I’ve read so far is a real ripper, alleging that Bin Laden had actually been in Pakistani custody in Abbottabad since, and that the entire “raid” was a staged affair whereby the Pakistanis allowed the Americans to kill him in exchange for more military aid and less US meddling on Pakistani actions in Afghanistan. The problems with this account range from the readily explainable (cuts to US military aid immediately after the raid could easily have also been staged in order to make it look like the “raid” was real and that US-Pakistani relations had suffered because of it) to the fundamental (as far as it appears, Hersh’s entire case rests on one anonymous “retired senior intelligence official who was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad” (which is a lot of words to say “he’s heard some things secondhand”), a couple of other anonymous US “consultants,” plus one retired Pakistani ISI general, Assad Durrani, who seems to have corroborated some of what Hersh heard from other sources but didn’t offer much on his own, and Hersh’s own sense that the standard story of the Bin Laden killing doesn’t make any sense. This is not a particularly sound basis on which to rest a story like this.
However, this morning I have read a couple of attempts to take Hersh’s piece down, one from Max Fisher at Vox and the other, more seriously, from terrorism expert Peter Bergen at CNN. Fisher goes to some length to distinguish Hersh’s admittedly amazing work on My Lai and Abu Ghraib from his more recent stuff, which…well, which Fisher doesn’t like very much, I guess. Hersh’s stories about the role of Opus Dei in the US military, Washington’s alleged effort to train MEK terrorists at a base in Arizona, and the supposed rebel false flag gas attack in Ghouta, Syria, undoubtedly look off the wall (and at least Ghouta has been seriously challenged, though never really debunked so far as I know), but in some respects that’s the nature of investigative journalism. The idea that the US military was running a torture facility in the middle of Iraq probably struck lots of people as outrageous when Hersh reported it, but then came a flood of confirming details and now we know he was right. The absence (at least so far) of a similar flood of confirmation on these other stories doesn’t help Hersh’s case, but it doesn’t exactly prove that he’s wrong, either. Plus, nobody bats 1.000 in their career, so even if Hersh got those stories wrong that’s not in and of itself evidence that this story is wrong. Unless you believe that Hersh is on some kind of downward spiral into crazy conspiracy-mongering, which I grant you is a perfectly plausible scenario, past performance doesn’t necessarily indicate future performance.
Fisher also gets into some of the particular factual problems with the Bin Laden piece itself, but for that kind of criticism I’d go with Bergen (or for a first-person — though pretty fact-free — denial, try this interview with former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell in Politico). Suffice it to say, there are a lot of holes in Hersh’s story. As Bergen points out, Hersh’s allegation that the Saudis were paying for Bin Laden’s upkeep in Abbottabad is hard to understand without some more information. The whole decision to stage a raid (which would have been called a “drone strike” if one of the two helicopters hadn’t crashed) rather than just hand Bin Laden to the US is unusual, although a staged raid could have absolved the Pakistani government of complicity while giving the Americans the chance to justify killing Bin Laden outright (on the other hand, as Fisher points out in his piece, an actual drone strike could have accomplished the same ends and been a heck of a lot simpler). Bergen also goes into some detail about his own observations of Bin Laden’s compound (he writes that he was “the only outsider” who got to see the compound before the Pakistanis demolished it), which comports much more closely to the public story that there actually was a raid (involving the use of concussion grenades and the like) and a (admittedly very short) firefight than it does to the idea that the raid was staged and the SEALs just walked in and shot Bin Laden. It’s certainly possible that the US and Pakistanis could have mocked up damage to the compound to show Bergen (or Bergen could be lying about what he saw), but we’re firmly in “needs some corroborating evidence” territory there. There’s also the problem that Assad Durrani, Hersh’s sounding board, apparently admitted to Bergen that he has no evidence that any of Hersh’s story is true, but thinks it seems “plausible.”
What struck me about the reactions to Hersh’s piece, though, is that they go to some length to pick apart the inconsistencies in his alternative account, which is good, but at the same time mostly gloss over the inconsistencies that still remain in the official story. Chief among these is the inconsistency that seems to have animated Hersh’s piece (and that, to be fair, plenty of other reporters have examined since 2011): how could it be remotely plausible that the most wanted man in the world decided to hide away in the middle of the city that hosts the freaking Pakistani Military Academy? Doesn’t the notion that Bin Laden was actually in Pakistani custody (or at least that the Pakistanis knew he was there) make more sense? There’s also the decision to kill Bin Laden on site, which would seem to have been a waste of potential intelligence and has spawned a variety of stories about whether the aged Bin Laden picked up a gun to defend himself or could otherwise have been considered a threat. Admittedly, there are far simpler explanations as to why the US would have wanted Bin Laden dead on the spot, but it’s still a question that nobody seems to be interested in answering.
In short, absent a lot more evidence, Hersh’s piece is an interesting alternative scenario that doesn’t seriously undermine the official story. But his biggest critics should bear in mind that the official story’s holes are the reason why people like Hersh are still digging into this story in the first place.