عنوان البريد الإلكتروني هذا محمي من روبوتات السبام. يجب عليك تفعيل الجافاسكربت لرؤيته.

كانت النكتة الخليجية تمشي بطيئة في الهواتف المحمولة، تحبس السخرية والتصورات النمطية المكتومة وهي تحاول ان ترسم المفارقة بين بن لادن وأهل السودان.وهي أن سودانيين انضموا للقاعدة فقالوا لبن لادن اتركنا في الخلايا النائمة.هذه الصورة النمطية للشخصية السودانية وربطها بالكسل كما كشفت الباحثة زينب الفاضل عباس في دراستها الاكاديمية عن الشخصية السودانية في الإعلام العربي تكشف عن سذاجة عقل صانعها لأنها تداري بعض عجزه وضعفه وهو يخفف من غلواء قصوره بإصطناع صورة نمطية للآخر حتي يري نفسه في مرآة التاريخ صائلا بالعنتريات التي ما قتلت يوما ذبابة.

كانت لهذه الصورة النمطية أصداءا بعيدا في غور الأحداث حيث كان المسئول السوداني رفيع المستوي يغوص في عميقا في مقعده والصالة المتسعة تقدم عرضا للفيلم الأمريكي ( زيرو دارك ثيرتي) الذي يحكي قصة مقتل بن لادن في ابود اباد بباكستان. كانت هوليوود تقدم هذا الفيلم كأزهي ما تكون تجليات البطولة في لبوسها الأمريكي،لأن موظفة صغيرة في طاقم وكالة المخابرات المركزية تعمل في دائرة التحليل والمتابعة هي التي اصطادت بن لادن وحددت موقعه بدقة، وكانت الممثلة جسيكا جاستيان التي لعبت دور البطولة وشخصية ضابطة التحليل في الفليم قد جسدت بتكثيف درامي اعلي مراقي التضحية والمهنية في عملها، وهي تتعقب بن لادن وتربط الإحداث وتفك العقد والخيوط حتي اهتدت الي مخبئه. وخرج بعض المعلقين في الصحف ووسائل الإعلام الأمريكية ليؤكدوا قدرة الجندر في اختراق حجب المنظمات الإرهابية لأن النساء مغرمات بتعقب التفاصيل والإهتمام بالأشياء الصغيرة. كأن رسالة الفيلم المبطنة تقول ان بن لادن هزمته أمرأة.

قبل هذه الأحداث بسنوات كان ميتنر مدير تحرير صحيفة الواشنطون تايمز يسترجي كبار المسئولين في الخرطوم لتزويده ببعض تفاصيل الإتصالات مع الأجهزة الأمريكية لمنع وقوع هجمات إرهابية.وعندما خرج كتابه الشهير للعلن (إضاعة بن لادن) خصص فصلا كاملا عن محاولات السودان مد يد العون للأجهزة الأمريكية المختلفة لكفكفة جماح الإرهاب ومنع وقوع مزيد من الهجمات.تضمن الكتاب وثيقة مخطوطة باليد تعرض استعداد السودان للتواصل البناء مع المسئولين عن مكافحة الإرهاب،ونسبة لطبيعة التسييس الحاد في عمل وكالة المخابرات المركزية وخضوعها لرغبات الجهاز التفيذي فقد اختار مخططو السياسة في السودان التوجه للتعاون مع مكتب التحقيقات الفيدرالي (أف بي آي) لمهنيته العالية وبعده عن النفوذ السياسي.كان عرض السودان بسيطا وشافيا: دعوه يعمل في السودان وسنراقبه ونرصد نشاطه لأنه مشغول بالتجارة ولا يفكر في الأعمال الجهادية. أو دعوه يعود من حيث اتي مع اصدار عفو عنه، أو أن نسلمه الي واشنطون.

كان الموقف دراميا والفريق الفاتح عروة مبعوث حكومة السودان في النصف الثاني من عقد التسعين من القرن الماضي يذهب الي ضاحية روزلن بفرجينيا ويصعد الي غرفة نائية في فندق شهير في قلب المدينة، وهناك يجد السفير ديفيد شن نائب مساعد وزير الخارجية للشئون الأفريقية وسفير واشنطون الأسبق لدي أديس أبابا. كان ديفيد شن قد خدم في سفارة الولايات المتحدة في الخرطوم قبل اكثر من عقدين من الزمان عندما كان في درجة السكرتير الثاني، وحضر الي جانبه بعض الشخصيات مجهولة الهوية. كان ديفيد شن يصف وجه الفاتح عروة بأنه مثل لاعب البوكر الماهر لا يبدي أي تعبيرات تكشف عن موقفه وخلجات نفسه. وتفاجيء ديفيد شن بالفاتح عروة وهو يقول له نحن علي استعداد لتسليمكم الرجل،فأضطرب القوم وتلعثموا وقالوا نحن غير مخولين بالرد علي هذا العرض المفاجيء.

وفي الجولة الثانية من المفاوضات عاد ذات الفريق دون ان يكون معهم السفير ديفيد شن لينقلوا رفض الإدارة الأمريكية لعرض السودان بتسليم بن لادن. نصح المستشارون القانونيون في الإدارة وزارة الخارجية ووكالة المخابرات المركزية رفض الطلب لعدم وجود مسوغ قانوني للقبض عليه لأنه حتي ذلك الوقت لم يكن بن لادن قد ارتكب أي جرائم او هجمات ارهابية ضد الولايات المتحدة. فخرج الفاتح عروة مبتسما لأنه كان يعرف رد الإدارة الأمريكية مسبقا.

مع تناثر غبار سقوط البرجين التوأمين في نيويورك عام 2001 كانت قناة السي أن أن تجري مقابلة توفرت فيها كل عناصر الإثارة والدراما الإعلامية. كان الصحفي ديفيد روس محرر مجلة (الفانيتي فير) يتحدث بهدوء وهو يستعرض كتاب ميتنر ويعرض وثائقه وهو يقول لسوزان رايس داخل الأستديو أن الإدارة الديمقراطية برئاسة كلنتون رفضت عرض السودان بتسليم بن لادن. وكان الجدل محتدما في واشنطون بين الجمهوريين والديمقراطيين، حيث أراد الجمهوريون ان يحملوا الرئيس كلينتون فشل استراتيجيه لمحاربة الإرهاب، وحاول الديمقراطيون ان يؤكدوا أن أحداث 11 سبتمبر هي قصور مريع في سياسات وتدابير الرئيس بوش لحماية الأمن القومي الأمريكي.

أنكرت سوزان رايس أتهامات الصحفي ديفيد روس وكانت في ذلك الوقت تعمل في معهد كارنيغي بعد فوز الرئيس بوش، وقالت أنها كانت مساعدة وزير الخارجية للشئون الأفريقية وان السودان لم يعرض قط علي إدارة الرئيس كلنتون أي شيء بخصوص تسليم بن لادن.

أتصل وزير الخارجية حينها الدكتور مصطفي عثمان في احدي زياراته الي واشنطون بسوزان رايس بعد فوز الجمهوريين بقيادة بوش، وعرض عليها تعاون الحزب الديمقراطي لدعم عملية السلام في السودان بعد خروجه من الحكم لصلاته القوية بجون قرنق وقيادة الحركة الشعبية. كان رد سوزان رايس مختصرا جدا أوقفوا الحملة الإعلامية علينا وسنفكر في التعاون معكم في قضايا السلام.

كانت اجابة سوزان رايس تنم عن مررات فشل متتالية لسياسات الرئيس كلنتون في أفريقيا، فقد فشل في وقف الإبادة الجماعية في بوروندا ورواندا، حتي خرجت البروفيسور سيمانثا بور مندوبة واشنطون لدي الأمم المتحدة بكتابها الشهير (مشكلة من الجحيم)، وفشل التدخل العسكري الأمريكي في الصومال فخرجت هوليوود بفيلم شهير اوضح عجز الإدارة وحمل اسم (بلاك هووك داون). وجاء الفشل الأكبر في جنوب السودان، حيث عجزت إدارة كلنتون في دفع الطرفين للتوصل الي تسوية سلمية مقبولة. كانت سوزان رايس ترد علي وزير الخارجية مصطفي عثمان عبر الهاتف وهي تتذكر تماما اصرارها العنيد علي نقل المفاوضات الي واشنطون قبل نهاية فترة الرئيس كلنتون ببضعة شهور مقابل اسقاط اسم السودان من قائمة الدول الراعية للإرهاب. والسبب هو أن سوزان رايس تريد ان تكلل فترة الرئيس كلنتون بنصر ملموس في أفريقيا بعد فشل ذريع في رواندا والصومال، وكانت قضية جنوب السودان تبدو حينها كثمرة سياسية ناضجة يمكن قطافها بثمن بخس.

لم يخيب الرئيس كلنتون ظن مستضيفيه في ملبورن بأستراليا وهو يلقي محاضرة بعد تركه مقعد الرئاسة بسنوات وهو يقول إن أكبر أخطاء رئاسته هو انه رفض عرض السودان بالقبض علي بن لادن. وذهب هذا الإعتراف موثقا في ارشيف صحيفة الواشنطون بوست.

جاء رد الخرطوم دون تردد برفض العرض الأمريكي نقل المفاوضات الي واشنطون مقابل اسقاط اسم السودان من القائمة، وكان شرح الدكتور مصطفي عثمان حينها وافيا وهو يقول إن أمريكا طرف غير محايد في الصراع لذا لن يغامر السودان بوضع كل أهم قضية سياسية له في السلة الأمريكية. لم تكتفي سوزان رايس بذلك بل قدمت مقترحا بعد ذلك لإدارة الرئيس بوش بضرب حصار بحري علي بورتسودان لخنق الإقتصاد السوداني لتعذر انشاء منطقة عازلة للطيران في دارفور.

وعندما عادت سوزان رايس مكللة بتيجان النصر مع الرئيس باراك أوباما في منصبي مندوبة أمريكا لدي الأمم المتحدة وكذلك مستشارة الأمن القومي لم تنس تاريخ مرارتها القديم مع السودان. وعندما جاءت ضمن وفد مجلس الأمن في مطلع العام 2011 زارت خلسة معسكر لتدريب أفراد الشرطة في جوبا وقالت بأعلي صوتها مخاطبة الجنود، هل أنتم جاهزون لحماية دولتكم الجديدة، وكان الرد هستيريا نعم قادرون. كان ذلك أكبر خرق للبرتوكول الدبلوماسي حين كان الهتاف يعلو في سماء جوبا والإستفتاء يجثم في صدر التاريخ علي بعد مواقيت معلومة من الزمان وحصيد الهشيم تذروه رياح البهتان والأمل.

كانت الباخرة تمخر عباب النيل قبالة مرسي وزارة الخارجية وجميع اعضاء مجلس الأمن يلبون دعوة وزير الخارجية حينها علي كرتي، أخرجت رايس من حقيبتها الكاميرا الشخصية والتقت صورة لمجري النيل قبالة المقرن وشمس الاصيل تنحدر مع الغروب وهي تقول لمن يجاورها سأهدي هذا الصورة لزوجي وأبنائي بنيويورك لأنها أخر صورة للسودان الموحد.

قريب من ذلك الزمان وفي مكان ما في العاصمة الأريترية أسمر كان الشاب النحيل يمضي رويدا قبالة الباب الحديدي الضخم، وهو يهمس لحارس البوابة بأنه يريد الحديث مع القنصل الأمريكي لأن لديه معلومات هامة يريد أن يدلي بها. وبعد تردد وفحص سمح لذلك الشاب بالدخول. فتم استجوابه لمدة اربعة اسابيع ومن ثم تم تحويله الي قاعدة عسكرية لواشنطون في ألمانيا لمواصلة تقييم ما يحمله من معلومات. وبعد شهور قليلة انتهي الأمر بذلك الشاب الي بروكلن بنيويورك.كان جمال الفضل قد عمل مع بن لادن لبعض الوقت في شركته، وقرر لأسباب كثيرة منها اختفاء اموال من الشركة ان يسلم نفسه للسلطات الأمريكية عسي أن تسفيد مما يحمله من معلومات. اخضعت السلطات الأمريكية جمال الفضل لبرنامج حماية الشهود فتم استخراج مستندات جديدة وتغيير اسمه وهويته، وفي وقت وجيز استطاع جمال الفضل أن يقدم صورة متكاملة لعمل تلك المنظمة منذ أن عمل معها في افغانستان. احتفي المستشارون القانونيون في الوكالات المتخصصة بالمعلومات التي قدمها جمال الفضل، وتم وفقا لذلك تحرير اول ادعاء قانوني ضد بن لادن في المحاكم الأمريكية، ولفت جمال الفضل أنظار المدعين للأصول الفكرية للعنف مشيرا الي مركزية فقه بن تيمية في تفريخ ظاهرة الإرهاب حسب قوله.

لم تقف الدراما عند هذا الحد بل تفاقم الأمر بعد أن قام مصدر سوداني غير معلن بتزويد مكتب التحقيقات الفيدرالي بمزاعم ان السودان ارسل مجموعة لإغتيال مستشار الرئيس كلنتون لمكافحة الإرهاب انتوني ليك. وسرعان ما تم اخفاء انتوني ليك في بيت الضيافة بواشنطون (بلير هاوس) لعدة اشهر. وبعد شكوك مستمرة تم اخضاع هذه الشخصية السودانية الغامضة لجهاز كشف الكذب فسقط سقوطا مريعا عدة مرات.فقامت وكالة المخابرات المركزية علي الفور بأعدام أكثر من مائة تقرير عن السودان من سجلاتها لأنها كاذبة ومضللة.

أرتفعت اصوات خلف ستار المسرح تنتقد الحكومة السودانية وانها قدمت ارتالا من المعلومات لمكافحة الإرهاب دون ثمن بل أتهمها البعض بأنها تورطت في العمالة للمشروع الأمريكي. جاء صوت الفريق صلاح قوش بعد ترجله عن المنصب من أمام ستارة المسرح ليقول أن تعاون السودان نابع من موقف اصيل وقناعة راسخة لمحاربة الإرهاب كما أن التعاون الفني وتبادل المعلومات وقي السودان من شر أن يتهم أو أن تتخذ ضده اجراءات عسكرية في ظل هوجة الاسد الجريح، وظل سجل السودان رغم المزاعم والإتهامات ناصعا من درن التورط في مغامرات يائسة تعارض الرشد والقيم المعلنة.

اشتعل الجدل مجددا في واشنطون هذا الأسبوع وأربعة من مستشاري وزارة العدل الأمريكية قدموا رواية كاملة حول نوعية الإستشارات والنصائح التي قدموها للإدارة الأمريكية وهي تخطط للهجوم علي منزل بن لادن في أبود أباد بباكستان، وذلك وسط شكوك كبيرة في الرواية الرسمية حول كيفية اغتيال بن لادن.

درج الصحفي الأمريكي الكبير سيمور هيرش صاحب السجل الضخم علي احراج الإدارات كل حين و كشف الأكاذيب والأحابيل السياسية خاصة في مناطق الصراعات التي تتورط فيها أمريكا.حيث كشف انحرافات حرب فيتنام، كما كشف التعذيب في سجن أبوغريب بالعراق. وظل هيرش ينشر تحقيقاته الإستقصائية في مجلة(ذي نيويوركر). لكن المجلة التي درجت علي نشر تحقيقاته الإستقصائية لعشرات السنين ترفض لأول مرة نشر تحقيقه الشهير عن مقتل بن لادن. فيعبر بتحقيقه الأطلنطي وينشره في بريطانيا في مجلة (لندن بوك ريفيو) بدلا عن صحف ومجلات أمريكا. لأنه يقول كلمة واحدة وهي أن إدارة الرئيس أوباما كاذبة وأن بن لادن لم تقتله فرقة (سيل) السرية وهي تقتحم سماوات باكستان بالمروحيات والطائرات، ولكنها كانت عملية تسليم وتسلم.

كنت أريد أن أهمس في أذن ذلك المسئول رفيع المستوي أن ما شاهده في فيلم (دارك ثيرتي) ودراما البطولة الأمريكية وانتصار تلك الفتاة الصغيرة في المؤسسة المخابراتية الشهيرة علي بن لادن لأنها كانت حاذقة في التفاصيل والشجاعة والأداء المهني الرفيع والذكاء، هذه الراوية اصبحت محلل شكوك كبيرة، وذلك ما سنضعه في مجهر التحليل مع سيمور هيرش في الحلقة القادمة من هذا المقال.

 

 

 

CNN)Last week the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story headlined, "What Do We Really Know about Osama bin Laden's Death?"
In the story, Times reporter Jonathan Mahler asserted that it was "impossible to know what was true and what wasn't" about the saga of the hunt for bin Laden and his death in Pakistan, a story that he asserted is now "floating somewhere between fact and mythology."
Mahler wrote at length about investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, who authored a piece in May in the London Review of Books asserting that every element of the story of the hunt for bin Laden and his death that has been widely and exhaustively reported was false. Hersh maintained that the 2011 raid on the compound where bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan was not a firefight involving U.S. Navy SEALs, but instead was a piece of theater in which Pakistani officials gave bin Laden to the SEALs so that he could be executed.

Peter Bergen
In Hersh's account, Obama and many of his senior advisers have for the past four years been spinning a dense web of lies about the hunt for bin Laden. Those advisers included then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who may well be the next president of the United States.
If that were true, wouldn't the Times' own reporters who have been covering Clinton aggressively about her private computer server be all over this? And wouldn't her Republican critics in Congress, who have for the past year and half been examining the attack in Benghazi ad nauseam, also be all over it? But, strangely, this hasn't happened.
Veteran Washington Post national security reporter Greg Miller tore Mahler's story apart. So too did Mark Bowden, who is the dean of American reporters covering U.S. special operations forces. So too did this reporter, who has written four books about bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
In a piece headlined, "What do we know about Osama bin Laden's death? Quite a lot, actually," Miller nicely summarized the case against both Mahler and Hersh:
"There is remarkable agreement across antagonistic governments, credit-hungry security agencies and fiercely competitive news organizations on the most salient facts: that bin Laden was killed in a raid by U.S. Special Operations forces conducted without the cooperation or awareness of the Pakistani government after a decade-long CIA manhunt."
Reporters at the Times who cover national security and foreign affairs protested Mahler's story as damaging the credibility of the newspaper, as it contradicts many thousands of words of the Times' own reporting about the hunt for bin Laden.
Eric Schmitt, a national security reporter in the Times' Washington bureau who shared in a 2009 Pulitzer for his coverage of Pakistan, told the Times' public editor, Margaret Sullivan, that he agreed with the three articles that criticized Mahler's story. Schmitt also told her: "This article has struck a nerve among national security and foreign policy reporters at The New York Times, and elsewhere, like few I've seen in my three-plus decades at the paper."
In a conference call with aggrieved reporters and editors on Monday, the executive editor of the Times, Dean Baquet, said that critics of Mahler's story were wrong because it wasn't a national security story per se, but rather "it was a media story ... a very good one."
Baquet also told the Times' public editor, "This is a story that's been told from so many perspectives that it's hard for Americans to get straight what happened." The perspectives Baquet went on to cite were Hersh's reporting and the film "Zero Dark Thirty," which he said was "full off inaccuracies."
"Zero Dark Thirty" is a movie, which is, yes, replete with inaccuracies, not least that a young CIA analyst played by Jessica Chastain is portrayed as the only U.S. government employee who really wanted to find bin Laden.
Next Baquet will be gravely informing Times' readers that "The Sound of Music" isn't an accurate account of Hitler's seizure of Austria, or that "Mary Poppins" isn't an accurate portrayal of how domestic servants lived in early-20th-century London.

9 photos: Osama bin Laden's compound
Baquet's defense of Mahler's story -- that it is a "very good" piece of media criticism -- is baloney. And surely Baquet -- who has had a well-regarded career as the editor of both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times -- knows it deep down. A serious piece of media criticism would have taken Hersh's piece apart; the many holes in his narrative are contradicted by dozens of on-the-record accounts of key players, from the SEALs on the ground in Pakistan to the Cabinet officers in the Situation Room. Hersh instead relied on a single unnamed source for his alternative narrative.
Imagine for a minute that Mahler's 7,500-word cover story about the hunt for bin Laden was about the media coverage of climate change, and that it featured mostly the work of a climate-change denialist. Imagine also that the piece asserted that the evidence that human actions are causing climate change lay somewhere "between fact and mythology." That is hardly a piece that would be published by the Columbia Journalism Review, is it?
Mahler rose to his own defense with a slight rebuttal that made no mention of Hersh and his theories, but it noted that Vice President Joe Biden earlier this week had amended his story about the advice he gave Obama about whether to authorize the bin Laden raid, and this purportedly showed how much was still unsettled about the history of the hunt for al-Qaeda's leader.
Biden and Obama have both previously publicly said that Biden advised againstthe bin Laden raid. In Biden's new account, he said he told Obama "I thought he should go but to follow his own instincts."
This would be, as Mahler himself concedes, a "minor" change in the overall history of the raid. But even so, for someone who supposedly is bringing a critical lens to the bin Laden story, Mahler is as credulous about Biden's new account as he was about Hersh's.
Biden's new account came before he announced that he wasn't running for president. The vice president also claimed that no one other than CIA director Leon Panetta advised Obama to do the raid. In fact, Clinton also gave a green light to the raid, and surely Biden was aware that his bad advice, against her good advice, put him at a disadvantage in a potential run for president.
According to multiple officials who were present at the final National Security Council meeting to determine whether to authorize the raid, Biden said, "We need greater certainty that bin Laden is there ... Mr. President, my suggestion is: Don't go." By contrast, Clinton said, "It's a very close call, but I would say: Do the raid."
History can, of course, be revised based on new accounts that emerge (which happens all the time) but those changes need to be based on credible evidence, which Hersh hasn't provided.
Mahler and his editors at the New York Times Magazine seem to have embraced the postmodern view that instead of practicing journalism or history in which you do the best to ferret out the truth, you only have competing "narratives" like Hersh's, each of which is worthy of serious attention. This is the kind of thing you might be taught in an undergrad course in literary theory, but is hardly what you expect from the "newspaper of record."
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The Killing of Osama bin Laden
Seymour M. Hersh
It’s been four years since a group of US Navy Seals assassinated Osama bin Laden in a night raid on a high-walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The killing was the high point of Obama’s first term, and a major factor in his re-election. The White House still maintains that the mission was an all-American affair, and that the senior generals of Pakistan’s army and Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) were not told of the raid in advance. This is false, as are many other elements of the Obama administration’s account. The White House’s story might have been written by Lewis Carroll: would bin Laden, target of a massive international manhunt, really decide that a resort town forty miles from Islamabad would be the safest place to live and command al-Qaida’s operations? He was hiding in the open. So America said.
The most blatant lie was that Pakistan’s two most senior military leaders – General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of the army staff, and General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, director general of the ISI – were never informed of the US mission. This remains the White House position despite an array of reports that have raised questions, including one by Carlotta Gall in the New York Times Magazine of 19 March 2014. Gall, who spent 12 years as the Timescorrespondent in Afghanistan, wrote that she’d been told by a ‘Pakistani official’ that Pasha had known before the raid that bin Laden was in Abbottabad. The story was denied by US and Pakistani officials, and went no further. In his book Pakistan: Before and after Osama (2012), Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Centre for Research and Security Studies, a think tank in Islamabad, wrote that he’d spoken to four undercover intelligence officers who – reflecting a widely held local view – asserted that the Pakistani military must have had knowledge of the operation. The issue was raised again in February, when a retired general, Asad Durrani, who was head of the ISI in the early 1990s, told an al-Jazeera interviewer that it was ‘quite possible’ that the senior officers of the ISI did not know where bin Laden had been hiding, ‘but it was more probable that they did [know]. And the idea was that, at the right time, his location would be revealed. And the right time would have been when you can get the necessary quid pro quo – if you have someone like Osama bin Laden, you are not going to simply hand him over to the United States.’
This spring I contacted Durrani and told him in detail what I had learned about the bin Laden assault from American sources: that bin Laden had been a prisoner of the ISI at the Abbottabad compound since 2006; that Kayani and Pasha knew of the raid in advance and had made sure that the two helicopters delivering the Seals to Abbottabad could cross Pakistani airspace without triggering any alarms; that the CIA did not learn of bin Laden’s whereabouts by tracking his couriers, as the White House has claimed since May 2011, but from a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer who betrayed the secret in return for much of the $25 million reward offered by the US, and that, while Obama did order the raid and the Seal team did carry it out, many other aspects of the administration’s account were false.
‘When your version comes out – if you do it – people in Pakistan will be tremendously grateful,’ Durrani told me. ‘For a long time people have stopped trusting what comes out about bin Laden from the official mouths. There will be some negative political comment and some anger, but people like to be told the truth, and what you’ve told me is essentially what I have heard from former colleagues who have been on a fact-finding mission since this episode.’ As a former ISI head, he said, he had been told shortly after the raid by ‘people in the “strategic community” who would know’ that there had been an informant who had alerted the US to bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad, and that after his killing the US’s betrayed promises left Kayani and Pasha exposed.
The major US source for the account that follows is a retired senior intelligence official who was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. He also was privy to many aspects of the Seals’ training for the raid, and to the various after-action reports. Two other US sources, who had access to corroborating information, have been longtime consultants to the Special Operations Command. I also received information from inside Pakistan about widespread dismay among the senior ISI and military leadership – echoed later by Durrani – over Obama’s decision to go public immediately with news of bin Laden’s death. The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
*
It began with a walk-in. In August 2010 a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer approached Jonathan Bank, then the CIA’s station chief at the US embassy in Islamabad. He offered to tell the CIA where to find bin Laden in return for the reward that Washington had offered in 2001. Walk-ins are assumed by the CIA to be unreliable, and the response from the agency’s headquarters was to fly in a polygraph team. The walk-in passed the test. ‘So now we’ve got a lead on bin Laden living in a compound in Abbottabad, but how do we really know who it is?’ was the CIA’s worry at the time, the retired senior US intelligence official told me.
The US initially kept what it knew from the Pakistanis. ‘The fear was that if the existence of the source was made known, the Pakistanis themselves would move bin Laden to another location. So only a very small number of people were read into the source and his story,’ the retired official said. ‘The CIA’s first goal was to check out the quality of the informant’s information.’ The compound was put under satellite surveillance. The CIA rented a house in Abbottabad to use as a forward observation base and staffed it with Pakistani employees and foreign nationals. Later on, the base would serve as a contact point with the ISI; it attracted little attention because Abbottabad is a holiday spot full of houses rented on short leases. A psychological profile of the informant was prepared. (The informant and his family were smuggled out of Pakistan and relocated in the Washington area. He is now a consultant for the CIA.)
‘By October the military and intelligence community were discussing the possible military options. Do we drop a bunker buster on the compound or take him out with a drone strike? Perhaps send someone to kill him, single assassin style? But then we’d have no proof of who he was,’ the retired official said. ‘We could see some guy is walking around at night, but we have no intercepts because there’s no commo coming from the compound.’
In October, Obama was briefed on the intelligence. His response was cautious, the retired official said. ‘It just made no sense that bin Laden was living in Abbottabad. It was just too crazy. The president’s position was emphatic: “Don’t talk to me about this any more unless you have proof that it really is bin Laden.”’ The immediate goal of the CIA leadership and the Joint Special Operations Command was to get Obama’s support. They believed they would get this if they got DNA evidence, and if they could assure him that a night assault of the compound would carry no risk. The only way to accomplish both things, the retired official said, ‘was to get the Pakistanis on board’.
During the late autumn of 2010, the US continued to keep quiet about the walk-in, and Kayani and Pasha continued to insist to their American counterparts that they had no information about bin Laden’s whereabouts. ‘The next step was to figure out how to ease Kayani and Pasha into it – to tell them that we’ve got intelligence showing that there is a high-value target in the compound, and to ask them what they know about the target,’ the retired official said. ‘The compound was not an armed enclave – no machine guns around, because it was under ISI control.’ The walk-in had told the US that bin Laden had lived undetected from 2001 to 2006 with some of his wives and children in the Hindu Kush mountains, and that ‘the ISI got to him by paying some of the local tribal people to betray him.’ (Reports after the raid placed him elsewhere in Pakistan during this period.) Bank was also told by the walk-in that bin Laden was very ill, and that early on in his confinement at Abbottabad, the ISI had ordered Amir Aziz, a doctor and a major in the Pakistani army, to move nearby to provide treatment. ‘The truth is that bin Laden was an invalid, but we cannot say that,’ the retired official said. ‘“You mean you guys shot a cripple? Who was about to grab his AK-47?”’
‘It didn’t take long to get the co-operation we needed, because the Pakistanis wanted to ensure the continued release of American military aid, a good percentage of which was anti-terrorism funding that finances personal security, such as bullet-proof limousines and security guards and housing for the ISI leadership,’ the retired official said. He added that there were also under-the-table personal ‘incentives’ that were financed by off-the-books Pentagon contingency funds. ‘The intelligence community knew what the Pakistanis needed to agree – there was the carrot. And they chose the carrot. It was a win-win. We also did a little blackmail. We told them we would leak the fact that you’ve got bin Laden in your backyard. We knew their friends and enemies’ – the Taliban and jihadist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan – ‘would not like it.’
A worrying factor at this early point, according to the retired official, was Saudi Arabia, which had been financing bin Laden’s upkeep since his seizure by the Pakistanis. ‘The Saudis didn’t want bin Laden’s presence revealed to us because he was a Saudi, and so they told the Pakistanis to keep him out of the picture. The Saudis feared if we knew we would pressure the Pakistanis to let bin Laden start talking to us about what the Saudis had been doing with al-Qaida. And they were dropping money – lots of it. The Pakistanis, in turn, were concerned that the Saudis might spill the beans about their control of bin Laden. The fear was that if the US found out about bin Laden from Riyadh, all hell would break out. The Americans learning about bin Laden’s imprisonment from a walk-in was not the worst thing.’
Despite their constant public feuding, American and Pakistani military and intelligence services have worked together closely for decades on counterterrorism in South Asia. Both services often find it useful to engage in public feuds ‘to cover their asses’, as the retired official put it, but they continually share intelligence used for drone attacks, and co-operate on covert operations. At the same time, it’s understood in Washington that elements of the ISI believe that maintaining a relationship with the Taliban leadership inside Afghanistan is essential to national security. The ISI’s strategic aim is to balance Indian influence in Kabul; the Taliban is also seen in Pakistan as a source of jihadist shock troops who would back Pakistan against India in a confrontation over Kashmir.
Adding to the tension was the Pakistani nuclear arsenal, often depicted in the Western press as an ‘Islamic bomb’ that might be transferred by Pakistan to an embattled nation in the Middle East in the event of a crisis with Israel. The US looked the other way when Pakistan began building its weapons system in the 1970s and it’s widely believed it now has more than a hundred nuclear warheads. It’s understood in Washington that US security depends on the maintenance of strong military and intelligence ties to Pakistan. The belief is mirrored in Pakistan.
‘The Pakistani army sees itself as family,’ the retired official said. ‘Officers call soldiers their sons and all officers are “brothers”. The attitude is different in the American military. The senior Pakistani officers believe they are the elite and have got to look out for all of the people, as keepers of the flame against Muslim fundamentalism. The Pakistanis also know that their trump card against aggression from India is a strong relationship with the United States. They will never cut their person-to-person ties with us.’
Like all CIA station chiefs, Bank was working undercover, but that ended in early December 2010 when he was publicly accused of murder in a criminal complaint filed in Islamabad by Karim Khan, a Pakistani journalist whose son and brother, according to local news reports, had been killed by a US drone strike. Allowing Bank to be named was a violation of diplomatic protocol on the part of the Pakistani authorities, and it brought a wave of unwanted publicity. Bank was ordered to leave Pakistan by the CIA, whose officials subsequently told the Associated Press he was transferred because of concerns for his safety. The New York Times reported that there was ‘strong suspicion’ the ISI had played a role in leaking Bank’s name to Khan. There was speculation that he was outed as payback for the publication in a New York lawsuit a month earlier of the names of ISI chiefs in connection with the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008. But there was a collateral reason, the retired official said, for the CIA’s willingness to send Bank back to America. The Pakistanis needed cover in case their co-operation with the Americans in getting rid of bin Laden became known. The Pakistanis could say: “You’re talking about me? We just kicked out your station chief.”’
*
The bin Laden compound was less than two miles from the Pakistan Military Academy, and a Pakistani army combat battalion headquarters was another mile or so away. Abbottabad is less than 15 minutes by helicopter from Tarbela Ghazi, an important base for ISI covert operations and the facility where those who guard Pakistan’s nuclear weapons arsenal are trained. ‘Ghazi is why the ISI put bin Laden in Abbottabad in the first place,’ the retired official said, ‘to keep him under constant supervision.’
The risks for Obama were high at this early stage, especially because there was a troubling precedent: the failed 1980 attempt to rescue the American hostages in Tehran. That failure was a factor in Jimmy Carter’s loss to Ronald Reagan. Obama’s worries were realistic, the retired official said. ‘Was bin Laden ever there? Was the whole story a product of Pakistani deception? What about political blowback in case of failure?’ After all, as the retired official said, ‘If the mission fails, Obama’s just a black Jimmy Carter and it’s all over for re-election.’
Obama was anxious for reassurance that the US was going to get the right man. The proof was to come in the form of bin Laden’s DNA. The planners turned for help to Kayani and Pasha, who asked Aziz to obtain the specimens. Soon after the raid the press found out that Aziz had been living in a house near the bin Laden compound: local reporters discovered his name in Urdu on a plate on the door. Pakistani officials denied that Aziz had any connection to bin Laden, but the retired official told me that Aziz had been rewarded with a share of the $25 million reward the US had put up because the DNA sample had showed conclusively that it was bin Laden in Abbottabad. (In his subsequent testimony to a Pakistani commission investigating the bin Laden raid, Aziz said that he had witnessed the attack on Abbottabad, but had no knowledge of who was living in the compound and had been ordered by a superior officer to stay away from the scene.)
Bargaining continued over the way the mission would be executed. ‘Kayani eventually tells us yes, but he says you can’t have a big strike force. You have to come in lean and mean. And you have to kill him, or there is no deal,’ the retired official said. The agreement was struck by the end of January 2011, and Joint Special Operations Command prepared a list of questions to be answered by the Pakistanis: ‘How can we be assured of no outside intervention? What are the defences inside the compound and its exact dimensions? Where are bin Laden’s rooms and exactly how big are they? How many steps in the stairway? Where are the doors to his rooms, and are they reinforced with steel? How thick?’ The Pakistanis agreed to permit a four-man American cell – a Navy Seal, a CIA case officer and two communications specialists – to set up a liaison office at Tarbela Ghazi for the coming assault. By then, the military had constructed a mock-up of the compound in Abbottabad at a secret former nuclear test site in Nevada, and an elite Seal team had begun rehearsing for the attack.
The US had begun to cut back on aid to Pakistan – to ‘turn off the spigot’, in the retired official’s words. The provision of 18 new F-16 fighter aircraft was delayed, and under-the-table cash payments to the senior leaders were suspended. In April 2011 Pasha met the CIA director, Leon Panetta, at agency headquarters. ‘Pasha got a commitment that the United States would turn the money back on, and we got a guarantee that there would be no Pakistani opposition during the mission,’ the retired official said. ‘Pasha also insisted that Washington stop complaining about Pakistan’s lack of co-operation with the American war on terrorism.’ At one point that spring, Pasha offered the Americans a blunt explanation of the reason Pakistan kept bin Laden’s capture a secret, and why it was imperative for the ISI role to remain secret: ‘We needed a hostage to keep tabs on al-Qaida and the Taliban,’ Pasha said, according to the retired official. ‘The ISI was using bin Laden as leverage against Taliban and al-Qaida activities inside Afghanistan and Pakistan. They let the Taliban and al-Qaida leadership know that if they ran operations that clashed with the interests of the ISI, they would turn bin Laden over to us. So if it became known that the Pakistanis had worked with us to get bin Laden at Abbottabad, there would be hell to pay.’
At one of his meetings with Panetta, according to the retired official and a source within the CIA, Pasha was asked by a senior CIA official whether he saw himself as acting in essence as an agent for al-Qaida and the Taliban. ‘He answered no, but said the ISI needed to have some control.’ The message, as the CIA saw it, according to the retired official, was that Kayani and Pasha viewed bin Laden ‘as a resource, and they were more interested in their [own] survival than they were in the United States’.
A Pakistani with close ties to the senior leadership of the ISI told me that ‘there was a deal with your top guys. We were very reluctant, but it had to be done – not because of personal enrichment, but because all of the American aid programmes would be cut off. Your guys said we will starve you out if you don’t do it, and the okay was given while Pasha was in Washington. The deal was not only to keep the taps open, but Pasha was told there would be more goodies for us.’ The Pakistani said that Pasha’s visit also resulted in a commitment from the US to give Pakistan ‘a freer hand’ in Afghanistan as it began its military draw-down there. ‘And so our top dogs justified the deal by saying this is for our country.’
*
Pasha and Kayani were responsible for ensuring that Pakistan’s army and air defence command would not track or engage with the US helicopters used on the mission. The American cell at Tarbela Ghazi was charged with co-ordinating communications between the ISI, the senior US officers at their command post in Afghanistan, and the two Black Hawk helicopters; the goal was to ensure that no stray Pakistani fighter plane on border patrol spotted the intruders and took action to stop them. The initial plan said that news of the raid shouldn’t be announced straightaway. All units in the Joint Special Operations Command operate under stringent secrecy and the JSOC leadership believed, as did Kayani and Pasha, that the killing of bin Laden would not be made public for as long as seven days, maybe longer. Then a carefully constructed cover story would be issued: Obama would announce that DNA analysis confirmed that bin Laden had been killed in a drone raid in the Hindu Kush, on Afghanistan’s side of the border. The Americans who planned the mission assured Kayani and Pasha that their co-operation would never be made public. It was understood by all that if the Pakistani role became known, there would be violent protests – bin Laden was considered a hero by many Pakistanis – and Pasha and Kayani and their families would be in danger, and the Pakistani army publicly disgraced.
It was clear to all by this point, the retired official said, that bin Laden would not survive: ‘Pasha told us at a meeting in April that he could not risk leaving bin Laden in the compound now that we know he’s there. Too many people in the Pakistani chain of command know about the mission. He and Kayani had to tell the whole story to the directors of the air defence command and to a few local commanders.
‘Of course the guys knew the target was bin Laden and he was there under Pakistani control,’ the retired official said. ‘Otherwise, they would not have done the mission without air cover. It was clearly and absolutely a premeditated murder.’ A former Seal commander, who has led and participated in dozens of similar missions over the past decade, assured me that ‘we were not going to keep bin Laden alive – to allow the terrorist to live. By law, we know what we’re doing inside Pakistan is a homicide. We’ve come to grips with that. Each one of us, when we do these missions, say to ourselves, “Let’s face it. We’re going to commit a murder.”’ The White House’s initial account claimed that bin Laden had been brandishing a weapon; the story was aimed at deflecting those who questioned the legality of the US administration’s targeted assassination programme. The US has consistently maintained, despite widely reported remarks by people involved with the mission, that bin Laden would have been taken alive if he had immediately surrendered.
*
At the Abbottabad compound ISI guards were posted around the clock to keep watch over bin Laden and his wives and children. They were under orders to leave as soon as they heard the rotors of the US helicopters. The town was dark: the electricity supply had been cut off on the orders of the ISI hours before the raid began. One of the Black Hawks crashed inside the walls of the compound, injuring many on board. ‘The guys knew the TOT [time on target] had to be tight because they would wake up the whole town going in,’ the retired official said. The cockpit of the crashed Black Hawk, with its communication and navigational gear, had to be destroyed by concussion grenades, and this would create a series of explosions and a fire visible for miles. Two Chinook helicopters had flown from Afghanistan to a nearby Pakistani intelligence base to provide logistical support, and one of them was immediately dispatched to Abbottabad. But because the helicopter had been equipped with a bladder loaded with extra fuel for the two Black Hawks, it first had to be reconfigured as a troop carrier. The crash of the Black Hawk and the need to fly in a replacement were nerve-wracking and time-consuming setbacks, but the Seals continued with their mission. There was no firefight as they moved into the compound; the ISI guards had gone. ‘Everyone in Pakistan has a gun and high-profile, wealthy folks like those who live in Abbottabad have armed bodyguards, and yet there were no weapons in the compound,’ the retired official pointed out. Had there been any opposition, the team would have been highly vulnerable. Instead, the retired official said, an ISI liaison officer flying with the Seals guided them into the darkened house and up a staircase to bin Laden’s quarters. The Seals had been warned by the Pakistanis that heavy steel doors blocked the stairwell on the first and second-floor landings; bin Laden’s rooms were on the third floor. The Seal squad used explosives to blow the doors open, without injuring anyone. One of bin Laden’s wives was screaming hysterically and a bullet – perhaps a stray round – struck her knee. Aside from those that hit bin Laden, no other shots were fired. (The Obama administration’s account would hold otherwise.)
‘They knew where the target was – third floor, second door on the right,’ the retired official said. ‘Go straight there. Osama was cowering and retreated into the bedroom. Two shooters followed him and opened up. Very simple, very straightforward, very professional hit.’ Some of the Seals were appalled later at the White House’s initial insistence that they had shot bin Laden in self-defence, the retired official said. ‘Six of the Seals’ finest, most experienced NCOs, faced with an unarmed elderly civilian, had to kill him in self-defence? The house was shabby and bin Laden was living in a cell with bars on the window and barbed wire on the roof. The rules of engagement were that if bin Laden put up any opposition they were authorised to take lethal action. But if they suspected he might have some means of opposition, like an explosive vest under his robe, they could also kill him. So here’s this guy in a mystery robe and they shot him. It’s not because he was reaching for a weapon. The rules gave them absolute authority to kill the guy.’ The later White House claim that only one or two bullets were fired into his head was ‘bullshit’, the retired official said. ‘The squad came through the door and obliterated him. As the Seals say, “We kicked his ass and took his gas.”’
After they killed bin Laden, ‘the Seals were just there, some with physical injuries from the crash, waiting for the relief chopper,’ the retired official said. ‘Twenty tense minutes. The Black Hawk is still burning. There are no city lights. No electricity. No police. No fire trucks. They have no prisoners.’ Bin Laden’s wives and children were left for the ISI to interrogate and relocate. ‘Despite all the talk,’ the retired official continued, there were ‘no garbage bags full of computers and storage devices. The guys just stuffed some books and papers they found in his room in their backpacks. The Seals weren’t there because they thought bin Laden was running a command centre for al-Qaida operations, as the White House would later tell the media. And they were not intelligence experts gathering information inside that house.’
On a normal assault mission, the retired official said, there would be no waiting around if a chopper went down. ‘The Seals would have finished the mission, thrown off their guns and gear, and jammed into the remaining Black Hawk and di-di-maued’ – Vietnamese slang for leaving in a rush – ‘out of there, with guys hanging out of the doors. They would not have blown the chopper – no commo gear is worth a dozen lives – unless they knew they were safe. Instead they stood around outside the compound, waiting for the bus to arrive.’ Pasha and Kayani had delivered on all their promises.
*
The backroom argument inside the White House began as soon as it was clear that the mission had succeeded. Bin Laden’s body was presumed to be on its way to Afghanistan. Should Obama stand by the agreement with Kayani and Pasha and pretend a week or so later that bin Laden had been killed in a drone attack in the mountains, or should he go public immediately? The downed helicopter made it easy for Obama’s political advisers to urge the latter plan. The explosion and fireball would be impossible to hide, and word of what had happened was bound to leak. Obama had to ‘get out in front of the story’ before someone in the Pentagon did: waiting would diminish the political impact.
Not everyone agreed. Robert Gates, the secretary of defence, was the most outspoken of those who insisted that the agreements with Pakistan had to be honoured. In his memoir, Duty, Gates did not mask his anger:
Before we broke up and the president headed upstairs to tell the American people what had just happened, I reminded everyone that the techniques, tactics and procedures the Seals had used in the bin Laden operation were used every night in Afghanistan … it was therefore essential that we agree not to release any operational details of the raid. That we killed him, I said, is all we needed to say. Everybody in that room agreed to keep mum on details. That commitment lasted about five hours. The initial leaks came from the White House and CIA. They just couldn’t wait to brag and to claim credit. The facts were often wrong … Nonetheless the information just kept pouring out. I was outraged and at one point, told [the national security adviser, Tom] Donilon, ‘Why doesn’t everybody just shut the fuck up?’ To no avail.
Obama’s speech was put together in a rush, the retired official said, and was viewed by his advisers as a political document, not a message that needed to be submitted for clearance to the national security bureaucracy. This series of self-serving and inaccurate statements would create chaos in the weeks following. Obama said that his administration had discovered that bin Laden was in Pakistan through ‘a possible lead’ the previous August; to many in the CIA the statement suggested a specific event, such as a walk-in. The remark led to a new cover story claiming that the CIA’s brilliant analysts had unmasked a courier network handling bin Laden’s continuing flow of operational orders to al-Qaida. Obama also praised ‘a small team of Americans’ for their care in avoiding civilian deaths and said: ‘After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.’ Two more details now had to be supplied for the cover story: a description of the firefight that never happened, and a story about what happened to the corpse. Obama went on to praise the Pakistanis: ‘It’s important to note that our counterterrorism co-operation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding.’ That statement risked exposing Kayani and Pasha. The White House’s solution was to ignore what Obama had said and order anyone talking to the press to insist that the Pakistanis had played no role in killing bin Laden. Obama left the clear impression that he and his advisers hadn’t known for sure that bin Laden was in Abbottabad, but only had information ‘about the possibility’. This led first to the story that the Seals had determined they’d killed the right man by having a six-foot-tall Seal lie next to the corpse for comparison (bin Laden was known to be six foot four); and then to the claim that a DNA test had been performed on the corpse and demonstrated conclusively that the Seals had killed bin Laden. But, according to the retired official, it wasn’t clear from the Seals’ early reports whether all of bin Laden’s body, or any of it, made it back to Afghanistan.
Gates wasn’t the only official who was distressed by Obama’s decision to speak without clearing his remarks in advance, the retired official said, ‘but he was the only one protesting. Obama didn’t just double-cross Gates, he double-crossed everyone. This was not the fog of war. The fact that there was an agreement with the Pakistanis and no contingency analysis of what was to be disclosed if something went wrong – that wasn’t even discussed. And once it went wrong, they had to make up a new cover story on the fly.’ There was a legitimate reason for some deception: the role of the Pakistani walk-in had to be protected.
The White House press corps was told in a briefing shortly after Obama’s announcement that the death of bin Laden was ‘the culmination of years of careful and highly advanced intelligence work’ that focused on tracking a group of couriers, including one who was known to be close to bin Laden. Reporters were told that a team of specially assembled CIA and National Security Agency analysts had traced the courier to a highly secure million-dollar compound in Abbottabad. After months of observation, the American intelligence community had ‘high confidence’ that a high-value target was living in the compound, and it was ‘assessed that there was a strong probability that [it] was Osama bin Laden’. The US assault team ran into a firefight on entering the compound and three adult males – two of them believed to be the couriers – were slain, along with bin Laden. Asked if bin Laden had defended himself, one of the briefers said yes: ‘He did resist the assault force. And he was killed in a firefight.’
The next day John Brennan, then Obama’s senior adviser for counterterrorism, had the task of talking up Obama’s valour while trying to smooth over the misstatements in his speech. He provided a more detailed but equally misleading account of the raid and its planning. Speaking on the record, which he rarely does, Brennan said that the mission was carried out by a group of Navy Seals who had been instructed to take bin Laden alive, if possible. He said the US had no information suggesting that anyone in the Pakistani government or military knew bin Laden’s whereabouts: ‘We didn’t contact the Pakistanis until after all of our people, all of our aircraft were out of Pakistani airspace.’ He emphasised the courage of Obama’s decision to order the strike, and said that the White House had no information ‘that confirmed that bin Laden was at the compound’ before the raid began. Obama, he said, ‘made what I believe was one of the gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory’. Brennan increased the number killed by the Seals inside the compound to five: bin Laden, a courier, his brother, a bin Laden son, and one of the women said to be shielding bin Laden.
Asked whether bin Laden had fired on the Seals, as some reporters had been told, Brennan repeated what would become a White House mantra: ‘He was engaged in a firefight with those that entered the area of the house he was in. And whether or not he got off any rounds, I quite frankly don’t know … Here is bin Laden, who has been calling for these attacks … living in an area that is far removed from the front, hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield … [It] just speaks to I think the nature of the individual he was.’
Gates also objected to the idea, pushed by Brennan and Leon Panetta, that US intelligence had learned of bin Laden’s whereabouts from information acquired by waterboarding and other forms of torture. ‘All of this is going on as the Seals are flying home from their mission. The agency guys know the whole story,’ the retired official said. ‘It was a group of annuitants who did it.’ (Annuitants are retired CIA officers who remain active on contract.) ‘They had been called in by some of the mission planners in the agency to help with the cover story. So the old-timers come in and say why not admit that we got some of the information about bin Laden from enhanced interrogation?’ At the time, there was still talk in Washington about the possible prosecution of CIA agents who had conducted torture.
‘Gates told them this was not going to work,’ the retired official said. ‘He was never on the team. He knew at the eleventh hour of his career not to be a party to this nonsense. But State, the agency and the Pentagon had bought in on the cover story. None of the Seals thought that Obama was going to get on national TV and announce the raid. The Special Forces command was apoplectic. They prided themselves on keeping operational security.’ There was fear in Special Operations, the retired official said, that ‘if the true story of the missions leaked out, the White House bureaucracy was going to blame it on the Seals.’
The White House’s solution was to silence the Seals. On 5 May, every member of the Seal hit team – they had returned to their base in southern Virginia – and some members of the Joint Special Operations Command leadership were presented with a nondisclosure form drafted by the White House’s legal office; it promised civil penalties and a lawsuit for anyone who discussed the mission, in public or private. ‘The Seals were not happy,’ the retired official said. But most of them kept quiet, as did Admiral William McRaven, who was then in charge of JSOC. ‘McRaven was apoplectic. He knew he was fucked by the White House, but he’s a dyed-in-the-wool Seal, and not then a political operator, and he knew there’s no glory in blowing the whistle on the president. When Obama went public with bin Laden’s death, everyone had to scramble around for a new story that made sense, and the planners were stuck holding the bag.’
Within days, some of the early exaggerations and distortions had become obvious and the Pentagon issued a series of clarifying statements. No, bin Laden was not armed when he was shot and killed. And no, bin Laden did not use one of his wives as a shield. The press by and large accepted the explanation that the errors were the inevitable by-product of the White House’s desire to accommodate reporters frantic for details of the mission.
One lie that has endured is that the Seals had to fight their way to their target. Only two Seals have made any public statement: No Easy Day, a first-hand account of the raid by Matt Bissonnette, was published in September 2012; and two years later Rob O’Neill was interviewed by Fox News. Both men had resigned from the navy; both had fired at bin Laden. Their accounts contradicted each other on many details, but their stories generally supported the White House version, especially when it came to the need to kill or be killed as the Seals fought their way to bin Laden. O’Neill even told Fox News that he and his fellow Seals thought ‘We were going to die.’ ‘The more we trained on it, the more we realised … this is going to be a one-way mission.’
But the retired official told me that in their initial debriefings the Seals made no mention of a firefight, or indeed of any opposition. The drama and danger portrayed by Bissonnette and O’Neill met a deep-seated need, the retired official said: ‘Seals cannot live with the fact that they killed bin Laden totally unopposed, and so there has to be an account of their courage in the face of danger. The guys are going to sit around the bar and say it was an easy day? That’s not going to happen.’
There was another reason to claim there had been a firefight inside the compound, the retired official said: to avoid the inevitable question that would arise from an uncontested assault. Where were bin Laden’s guards? Surely, the most sought-after terrorist in the world would have around-the-clock protection. ‘And one of those killed had to be the courier, because he didn’t exist and we couldn’t produce him. The Pakistanis had no choice but to play along with it.’ (Two days after the raid, Reuters published photographs of three dead men that it said it had purchased from an ISI official. Two of the men were later identified by an ISI spokesman as being the alleged courier and his brother.)
*
Five days after the raid the Pentagon press corps was provided with a series of videotapes that were said by US officials to have been taken from a large collection the Seals had removed from the compound, along with as many as 15 computers. Snippets from one of the videos showed a solitary bin Laden looking wan and wrapped in a blanket, watching what appeared to be a video of himself on television. An unnamed official told reporters that the raid produced a ‘treasure trove … the single largest collection of senior terrorist materials ever’, which would provide vital insights into al-Qaida’s plans. The official said the material showed that bin Laden ‘remained an active leader in al-Qaida, providing strategic, operational and tactical instructions to the group … He was far from a figurehead [and] continued to direct even tactical details of the group’s management and to encourage plotting’ from what was described as a command-and-control centre in Abbottabad. ‘He was an active player, making the recent operation even more essential for our nation’s security,’ the official said. The information was so vital, he added, that the administration was setting up an inter-agency task force to process it: ‘He was not simply someone who was penning al-Qaida strategy. He was throwing operational ideas out there and he was also specifically directing other al-Qaida members.’
These claims were fabrications: there wasn’t much activity for bin Laden to exercise command and control over. The retired intelligence official said that the CIA’s internal reporting shows that since bin Laden moved to Abbottabad in 2006 only a handful of terrorist attacks could be linked to the remnants of bin Laden’s al-Qaida. ‘We were told at first,’ the retired official said, ‘that the Seals produced garbage bags of stuff and that the community is generating daily intelligence reports out of this stuff. And then we were told that the community is gathering everything together and needs to translate it. But nothing has come of it. Every single thing they have created turns out not to be true. It’s a great hoax – like the Piltdown man.’ The retired official said that most of the materials from Abbottabad were turned over to the US by the Pakistanis, who later razed the building. The ISI took responsibility for the wives and children of bin Laden, none of whom was made available to the US for questioning.
‘Why create the treasure trove story?’ the retired official said. ‘The White House had to give the impression that bin Laden was still operationally important. Otherwise, why kill him? A cover story was created – that there was a network of couriers coming and going with memory sticks and instructions. All to show that bin Laden remained important.’
In July 2011, the Washington Post published what purported to be a summary of some of these materials. The story’s contradictions were glaring. It said the documents had resulted in more than four hundred intelligence reports within six weeks; it warned of unspecified al-Qaida plots; and it mentioned arrests of suspects ‘who are named or described in emails that bin Laden received’. The Post didn’t identify the suspects or reconcile that detail with the administration’s previous assertions that the Abbottabad compound had no internet connection. Despite their claims that the documents had produced hundreds of reports, the Post also quoted officials saying that their main value wasn’t the actionable intelligence they contained, but that they enabled ‘analysts to construct a more comprehensive portrait of al-Qaida’.
In May 2012, the Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point, a private research group, released translations it had made under a federal government contract of 175 pages of bin Laden documents. Reporters found none of the drama that had been touted in the days after the raid. Patrick Cockburn wrote about the contrast between the administration’s initial claims that bin Laden was the ‘spider at the centre of a conspiratorial web’ and what the translations actually showed: that bin Laden was ‘delusional’ and had ‘limited contact with the outside world outside his compound’.
The retired official disputed the authenticity of the West Point materials: ‘There is no linkage between these documents and the counterterrorism centre at the agency. No intelligence community analysis. When was the last time the CIA: 1) announced it had a significant intelligence find; 2) revealed the source; 3) described the method for processing the materials; 4) revealed the time-line for production; 5) described by whom and where the analysis was taking place, and 6) published the sensitive results before the information had been acted on? No agency professional would support this fairy tale.’
*
In June 2011, it was reported in the New York Times, the Washington Post and all over the Pakistani press that Amir Aziz had been held for questioning in Pakistan; he was, it was said, a CIA informant who had been spying on the comings and goings at the bin Laden compound. Aziz was released, but the retired official said that US intelligence was unable to learn who leaked the highly classified information about his involvement with the mission. Officials in Washington decided they ‘could not take a chance that Aziz’s role in obtaining bin Laden’s DNA also would become known’. A sacrificial lamb was needed, and the one chosen was Shakil Afridi, a 48-year-old Pakistani doctor and sometime CIA asset, who had been arrested by the Pakistanis in late May and accused of assisting the agency. ‘We went to the Pakistanis and said go after Afridi,’ the retired official said. ‘We had to cover the whole issue of how we got the DNA.’ It was soon reported that the CIA had organised a fake vaccination programme in Abbottabad with Afridi’s help in a failed attempt to obtain bin Laden’s DNA. Afridi’s legitimate medical operation was run independently of local health authorities, was well financed and offered free vaccinations against hepatitis B. Posters advertising the programme were displayed throughout the area. Afridi was later accused of treason and sentenced to 33 years in prison because of his ties to an extremist. News of the CIA-sponsored programme created widespread anger in Pakistan, and led to the cancellation of other international vaccination programmes that were now seen as cover for American spying.
The retired official said that Afridi had been recruited long before the bin Laden mission as part of a separate intelligence effort to get information about suspected terrorists in Abbottabad and the surrounding area. ‘The plan was to use vaccinations as a way to get the blood of terrorism suspects in the villages.’ Afridi made no attempt to obtain DNA from the residents of the bin Laden compound. The report that he did so was a hurriedly put together ‘CIA cover story creating “facts”’ in a clumsy attempt to protect Aziz and his real mission. ‘Now we have the consequences,’ the retired official said. ‘A great humanitarian project to do something meaningful for the peasants has been compromised as a cynical hoax.’ Afridi’s conviction was overturned, but he remains in prison on a murder charge.
*
In his address announcing the raid, Obama said that after killing bin Laden the Seals ‘took custody of his body’. The statement created a problem. In the initial plan it was to be announced a week or so after the fact that bin Laden was killed in a drone strike somewhere in the mountains on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border and that his remains had been identified by DNA testing. But with Obama’s announcement of his killing by the Seals everyone now expected a body to be produced. Instead, reporters were told that bin Laden’s body had been flown by the Seals to an American military airfield in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, and then straight to the USS Carl Vinson, a supercarrier on routine patrol in the North Arabian Sea. Bin Laden had then been buried at sea, just hours after his death. The press corps’s only sceptical moments at John Brennan’s briefing on 2 May were to do with the burial. The questions were short, to the point, and rarely answered. ‘When was the decision made that he would be buried at sea if killed?’ ‘Was this part of the plan all along?’ ‘Can you just tell us why that was a good idea?’ ‘John, did you consult a Muslim expert on that?’ ‘Is there a visual recording of this burial?’ When this last question was asked, Jay Carney, Obama’s press secretary, came to Brennan’s rescue: ‘We’ve got to give other people a chance here.’
‘We thought the best way to ensure that his body was given an appropriate Islamic burial,’ Brennan said, ‘was to take those actions that would allow us to do that burial at sea.’ He said ‘appropriate specialists and experts’ were consulted, and that the US military was fully capable of carrying out the burial ‘consistent with Islamic law’. Brennan didn’t mention that Muslim law calls for the burial service to be conducted in the presence of an imam, and there was no suggestion that one happened to be on board the Carl Vinson.
In a reconstruction of the bin Laden operation for Vanity Fair, Mark Bowden, who spoke to many senior administration officials, wrote that bin Laden’s body was cleaned and photographed at Jalalabad. Further procedures necessary for a Muslim burial were performed on the carrier, he wrote, ‘with bin Laden’s body being washed again and wrapped in a white shroud. A navy photographer recorded the burial in full sunlight, Monday morning, May 2.’ Bowden described the photos:
One frame shows the body wrapped in a weighted shroud. The next shows it lying diagonally on a chute, feet overboard. In the next frame the body is hitting the water. In the next it is visible just below the surface, ripples spreading outward. In the last frame there are only circular ripples on the surface. The mortal remains of Osama bin Laden were gone for good.
Bowden was careful not to claim that he had actually seen the photographs he described, and he recently told me he hadn’t seen them: ‘I’m always disappointed when I can’t look at something myself, but I spoke with someone I trusted who said he had seen them himself and described them in detail.’ Bowden’s statement adds to the questions about the alleged burial at sea, which has provoked a flood of Freedom of Information Act requests, most of which produced no information. One of them sought access to the photographs. The Pentagon responded that a search of all available records had found no evidence that any photographs had been taken of the burial. Requests on other issues related to the raid were equally unproductive. The reason for the lack of response became clear after the Pentagon held an inquiry into allegations that the Obama administration had provided access to classified materials to the makers of the film Zero Dark Thirty. The Pentagon report, which was put online in June 2013, noted that Admiral McRaven had ordered the files on the raid to be deleted from all military computers and moved to the CIA, where they would be shielded from FOIA requests by the agency’s ‘operational exemption’.
McRaven’s action meant that outsiders could not get access to the Carl Vinson’s unclassified logs. Logs are sacrosanct in the navy, and separate ones are kept for air operations, the deck, the engineering department, the medical office, and for command information and control. They show the sequence of events day by day aboard the ship; if there has been a burial at sea aboard the Carl Vinson, it would have been recorded.
There wasn’t any gossip about a burial among the Carl Vinson’s sailors. The carrier concluded its six-month deployment in June 2011. When the ship docked at its home base in Coronado, California, Rear Admiral Samuel Perez, commander of the Carl Vinson carrier strike group, told reporters that the crew had been ordered not to talk about the burial. Captain Bruce Lindsey, skipper of the Carl Vinson, told reporters he was unable to discuss it. Cameron Short, one of the crew of the Carl Vinson, told the Commercial-News of Danville, Illinois, that the crew had not been told anything about the burial. ‘All he knows is what he’s seen on the news,’ the newspaper reported.
The Pentagon did release a series of emails to the Associated Press. In one of them, Rear Admiral Charles Gaouette reported that the service followed ‘traditional procedures for Islamic burial’, and said none of the sailors on board had been permitted to observe the proceedings. But there was no indication of who washed and wrapped the body, or of which Arabic speaker conducted the service.
Within weeks of the raid, I had been told by two longtime consultants to Special Operations Command, who have access to current intelligence, that the funeral aboard the Carl Vinson didn’t take place. One consultant told me that bin Laden’s remains were photographed and identified after being flown back to Afghanistan. The consultant added: ‘At that point, the CIA took control of the body. The cover story was that it had been flown to the Carl Vinson.’ The second consultant agreed that there had been ‘no burial at sea’. He added that ‘the killing of bin Laden was political theatre designed to burnish Obama’s military credentials … The Seals should have expected the political grandstanding. It’s irresistible to a politician. Bin Laden became a working asset.’ Early this year, speaking again to the second consultant, I returned to the burial at sea. The consultant laughed and said: ‘You mean, he didn’t make it to the water?’
The retired official said there had been another complication: some members of the Seal team had bragged to colleagues and others that they had torn bin Laden’s body to pieces with rifle fire. The remains, including his head, which had only a few bullet holes in it, were thrown into a body bag and, during the helicopter flight back to Jalalabad, some body parts were tossed out over the Hindu Kush mountains – or so the Seals claimed. At the time, the retired official said, the Seals did not think their mission would be made public by Obama within a few hours: ‘If the president had gone ahead with the cover story, there would have been no need to have a funeral within hours of the killing. Once the cover story was blown, and the death was made public, the White House had a serious “Where’s the body?” problem. The world knew US forces had killed bin Laden in Abbottabad. Panic city. What to do? We need a “functional body” because we have to be able to say we identified bin Laden via a DNA analysis. It would be navy officers who came up with the “burial at sea” idea. Perfect. No body. Honourable burial following sharia law. Burial is made public in great detail, but Freedom of Information documents confirming the burial are denied for reasons of “national security”. It’s the classic unravelling of a poorly constructed cover story – it solves an immediate problem but, given the slightest inspection, there is no back-up support. There never was a plan, initially, to take the body to sea, and no burial of bin Laden at sea took place.’ The retired official said that if the Seals’ first accounts are to be believed, there wouldn’t have been much left of bin Laden to put into the sea in any case.
*
It was inevitable that the Obama administration’s lies, misstatements and betrayals would create a backlash. ‘We’ve had a four-year lapse in co-operation,’ the retired official said. ‘It’s taken that long for the Pakistanis to trust us again in the military-to-military counterterrorism relationship – while terrorism was rising all over the world … They felt Obama sold them down the river. They’re just now coming back because the threat from Isis, which is now showing up there, is a lot greater and the bin Laden event is far enough away to enable someone like General Durrani to come out and talk about it.’ Generals Pasha and Kayani have retired and both are reported to be under investigation for corruption during their time in office.
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s long-delayed report on CIA torture, released last December, documented repeated instances of official lying, and suggested that the CIA’s knowledge of bin Laden’s courier was sketchy at best and predated its use of waterboarding and other forms of torture. The report led to international headlines about brutality and waterboarding, along with gruesome details about rectal feeding tubes, ice baths and threats to rape or murder family members of detainees who were believed to be withholding information. Despite the bad publicity, the report was a victory for the CIA. Its major finding – that the use of torture didn’t lead to discovering the truth – had already been the subject of public debate for more than a decade. Another key finding – that the torture conducted was more brutal than Congress had been told – was risible, given the extent of public reporting and published exposés by former interrogators and retired CIA officers. The report depicted tortures that were obviously contrary to international law as violations of rules or ‘inappropriate activities’ or, in some cases, ‘management failures’. Whether the actions described constitute war crimes was not discussed, and the report did not suggest that any of the CIA interrogators or their superiors should be investigated for criminal activity. The agency faced no meaningful consequences as a result of the report.
The retired official told me that the CIA leadership had become experts in derailing serious threats from Congress: ‘They create something that is horrible but not that bad. Give them something that sounds terrible. “Oh my God, we were shoving food up a prisoner’s ass!” Meanwhile, they’re not telling the committee about murders, other war crimes, and secret prisons like we still have in Diego Garcia. The goal also was to stall it as long as possible, which they did.’
The main theme of the committee’s 499-page executive summary is that the CIA lied systematically about the effectiveness of its torture programme in gaining intelligence that would stop future terrorist attacks in the US. The lies included some vital details about the uncovering of an al-Qaida operative called Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, who was said to be the key al-Qaida courier, and the subsequent tracking of him to Abbottabad in early 2011. The agency’s alleged intelligence, patience and skill in finding al-Kuwaiti became legend after it was dramatised in Zero Dark Thirty.
The Senate report repeatedly raised questions about the quality and reliability of the CIA’s intelligence about al-Kuwaiti. In 2005 an internal CIA report on the hunt for bin Laden noted that ‘detainees provide few actionable leads, and we have to consider the possibility that they are creating fictitious characters to distract us or to absolve themselves of direct knowledge about bin Ladin [sic].’ A CIA cable a year later stated that ‘we have had no success in eliciting actionable intelligence on bin Laden’s location from any detainees.’ The report also highlighted several instances of CIA officers, including Panetta, making false statements to Congress and the public about the value of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ in the search for bin Laden’s couriers.
Obama today is not facing re-election as he was in the spring of 2011. His principled stand on behalf of the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran says much, as does his decision to operate without the support of the conservative Republicans in Congress. High-level lying nevertheless remains the modus operandi of US policy, along with secret prisons, drone attacks, Special Forces night raids, bypassing the chain of command, and cutting out those who might say no.
Vol. 37 No. 10 · 21 May 2015 » Seymour M. Hersh » The Killing of Osama bin Laden
pages 3-12 | 10356 words
Letters
Vol. 37 No. 11 · 4 June 2015
The allegations in Seymour M. Hersh’s article about the killing of bin Laden have received official denials and journalistic gasps similar to those that greeted his 1974 reporting on the CIA’s MH-CHAOS domestic spying programme and the revelations in his 1983 book The Price of Power about Henry Kissinger’s masterminding of the carpet-bombing of Cambodia and hiding it from the US Congress (LRB, 21 May). I suppose that’s no surprise. I’m curious to see whether the embarrassing admissions that followed and confirmed those stories arrive too. In the meantime the CIA has put out a variety of documents including a list of the books on bin Laden’s shelves. It turns out he preferred Bob Woodward to Seymour Hersh.
Colin Leonard
London NW2
ark Bowden was watching a ballgame — the Phillies versus the Mets — on the night of May 1, 2011, when the network cut away to President Obama in the East Room of the White House. “Tonight,” the president said, ‘‘I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children.’’
Five minutes or so after the president wrapped up his brief remarks, as thousands of Americans gathered in front of the White House and at ground zero chanting ‘‘U-S-A! U-S-A!’’ Bowden’s cellphone rang. It was Mike Stenson, the president of Jerry Bruckheimer Films. Bowden had worked with Bruckheimer on the film adaptation of his 1999 best seller, ‘‘Black Hawk Down.’’
‘‘Mike said, ‘Look, Mark, Jerry wants to make a movie about this bin Laden thing, and he wants to put together all of the people who made ‘Black Hawk Down,’ ’’ Bowden told me over lunch recently. ‘‘ ‘He wants to know: Would you be willing to write the script?’ ’’
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Bowden said absolutely, count him in.
He quickly reached out to Jay Carney, Obama’s press secretary at the time, to ask for an interview with the president. Bowden was friendly with Carney from a profile he wrote of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. for The Atlantic. Still, he was surprised to hear back from him almost right away. It was an encouraging response, especially given the deluge of requests Bowden knew the president must be receiving. Carney said that he couldn’t make any promises but that he would definitely advocate on his behalf.
The next day, Stenson called back: Bruckheimer had changed his mind.
Bowden considered for a second and decided he would write a book instead. In some ways, it was a perfect match of author and subject. Bowden specializes in chronicling covert operations. In addition to ‘‘Black Hawk Down,’’ which told the story of a 1993 raid in Somalia by U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force teams that went disastrously awry, he has written books about the failed mission to rescue the American hostages in Iran in 1980 and the long manhunt for the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.
His method in those books was to combine exhaustive reporting with vivid storytelling. It helps that Bowden tends to write about historical events a long time after they take place. People are typically eager to sit down with him, and they are usually able to speak freely. One interview subject leads to another, who leads to another, and so on. It’s a process that can take years.
The bin Laden book proved to be a very different sort of undertaking. Bowden was trying to tell the story just months after it happened. And only a small number of people — a handful of senior administration and military officials and the Navy SEALs who carried out the operation — had been privy to the events of that evening. There was virtually no paper trail for Bowden to follow; the government had classified all the documents relating to the raid, including the record of the C.I.A.’s search for bin Laden. Bowden had to request interviews through official administration channels and hope for the best.
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His book, ‘‘The Finish,’’ was published in the fall of 2012, and the story it tells is one that is by now familiar. The C.I.A., working in the shadows for many years, had identified a courier whom agency officers eventually traced to a large compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Agents studied this compound for months via distant satellite cameras but couldn’t be certain that bin Laden was inside. If he was — a 55/45 percent proposition, Obama said later — the president did not want to let him slip away. The safe play was to reduce the compound to dust with a bomb or missiles, but this would risk civilian casualties and also make it impossible to verify the kill with any certainty. Obama instead sent in a team of 23 Navy SEALs in two Black Hawk helicopters. The whole mission almost fell apart when one of the helicopters had to crash-land near an animal pen inside the compound. But the SEALs adapted on the fly and were soon making their assault, breaching gates and doors with C-4 charges and, eventually, killing their target. Before leaving, they blew up the damaged Black Hawk. As they flew off, a giant fire raged inside the compound. The Pakistani government was none the wiser until the SEALs were long gone.
This irresistible story would be told in many different forms in the months and years that followed. Bowden’s was one of several books, but there were also countless newspaper articles, magazine features, television news programs and ultimately the 2012 movie ‘‘Zero Dark Thirty,’’ which billed itself as the narrative of ‘‘the Greatest Manhunt in History.’’ In this sense, the killing of bin Laden was not only a victory for the U.S. military but also for the American storytelling machine, which kicked into high gear pretty much the moment the terrorist leader’s dead body hit the floor.
Last spring, Bowden got another unexpected call on his cellphone. He was on his way home to Pennsylvania from a meeting in New York with his publisher about his next book, the story of the Battle of Hue in the Vietnam War. On the other end of the line was Seymour Hersh, the investigative reporter.
Hersh was calling to ask about the photographs of bin Laden’s burial at sea — carried out, the U.S. government said, in accordance with Islamic custom — that Bowden had described in detail at the end of ‘‘The Finish,’’ as well as in an adaptation from the book that appeared in Vanity Fair. ‘‘One frame shows the body wrapped in a weighted shroud,’’ Bowden had written. ‘‘The next shows it lying diagonally on a chute, feet overboard. In the next frame, the body is hitting the water. In the next it is visible just below the surface, ripples spreading outward. In the last frame there are only circular ripples on the surface. The mortal remains of Osama bin Laden were gone for good.’’
Hersh wanted to know: Had Bowden actually seen those photos?
Bowden told Hersh that he had not. He explained that they were described to him by someone who had.
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Hersh said the photographs didn’t exist. Indeed, he went on, the entire narrative of how the United States hunted down and killed bin Laden was a fabrication. He told Bowden that he was getting ready to publish the real story of what happened in Abbottabad.
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Bowden said he found Hersh’s claims hard to believe. Hersh tried to sympathize. ‘‘Nobody likes to get played,’’ he said, adding that he meant no offense.
‘‘I said, ‘No offense taken,’ ’’ Bowden recalled. ‘‘I told him that he was, after all, Seymour Hersh, and that he ought to do whatever he thought best. But that in this case, I feared he was mistaken.’’
It’s hard to overstate the degree to which the killing of Osama bin Laden transformed American politics. From a purely practical standpoint, it enabled Obama to recast himself as a bold leader, as opposed to an overly cautious one, in advance of his 2012 re-election campaign. This had an undeniable impact on the outcome of that election. (‘‘Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive,’’ Joe Biden was fond of boasting on the campaign trail.) Strategically, the death of bin Laden allowed Obama to declare victory over Al Qaeda, giving him the cover he needed to begin phasing U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. And it almost single-handedly redeemed the C.I.A., turning a decade-long failure of intelligence into one of the greatest triumphs in the history of the agency.
But bin Laden’s death had an even greater effect on the American psyche. Symbolically, it brought a badly wanted moment of moral clarity, of unambiguous American valor, to a murky war defined by ethical compromise and even at times by collective shame. It completed the historical arc of the 9/11 attacks. The ghastly image of collapsing towers that had been fixed in our collective minds for years was dislodged by one of Obama and his senior advisers huddled tensely around a table in the White House Situation Room, watching closely as justice was finally brought to the perpetrator.
The first dramatic reconstruction of the raid itself — ‘‘Getting bin Laden: What Happened That Night in Abbottabad’’ — was written by a freelancer named Nicholas Schmidle and published in The New Yorker just three months after the operation. The son of a Marine general, Schmidle spent a couple of years in Pakistan and has written on counterterrorism for many publications, including this magazine. His New Yorker story was a cinematic account of military daring, sweeping but also granular in its detail, from the ‘‘metallic cough of rounds being chambered’’ inside the two Black Hawks as the SEALs approached the compound, to the mud that ‘‘sucked at their boots’’ when they hit the ground. One of the SEALs who shot bin Laden, Matt Bissonnette, added a more personal dimension to the story a year later in a best-selling book, ‘‘No Easy Day.’’ Bowden focused on Washington, taking readers inside the White House as the president navigated what would become a defining moment of his presidency. And then there was ‘‘Zero Dark Thirty,’’ which chronicled the often barbaric C.I.A. interrogations that the agency said helped lead the United States to bin Laden’s compound.
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The official narrative of the hunt for and killing of bin Laden at first seemed like a clear portrait, but in effect it was more like a composite sketch from multiple perspectives: the Pentagon, the White House and the C.I.A. And when you studied that sketch a little more closely, not everything looked quite right. Almost immediately, the administration had to correct some of the most significant details of the raid. Bin Laden had not been ‘‘engaged in a firefight,’’ as the deputy national-security adviser, John Brennan, initially told reporters; he’d been unarmed. Nor had he used one of his wives as a human shield. The president and his senior advisers hadn’t been watching a ‘‘live feed’’ of the raid in the Situation Room; the operation had not been captured on helmet-cams. But there were also some more unsettling questions about how the whole story had been constructed. Schmidle acknowledged after his article was published that he had never actually spoken with any of the 23 SEALs. Some details of Bissonnette’s account of the raid contradicted those of another ex-SEAL, Robert O’Neill, who claimed in Esquire and on Fox News to have fired the fatal bullet. Public officials with security clearances told reporters that the torture scenes that were so realistically depicted in ‘‘Zero Dark Thirty’’ had not in fact played any role in helping us find bin Laden.
Then there was the sheer improbability of the story, which asked us to believe that Obama sent 23 SEALs on a seemingly suicidal mission, invading Pakistani air space without air or ground cover, fast-roping into a compound that, if it even contained bin Laden, by all rights should have been heavily guarded. And according to the official line, all of this was done without any sort of cooperation or even assurances from the Pakistani military or intelligence service. How likely was that? Abbottabad is basically a garrison town; the conspicuously large bin Laden compound — three stories, encircled by an 18-foot-high concrete wall topped with barbed wire — was less than two miles from Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point. And what about the local police? Were they really unaware that an enormous American helicopter had crash-landed in their neighborhood? And why were we learning so much about a covert raid by a secret special-operations unit in the first place?
American history is filled with war stories that subsequently unraveled. Consider the Bush administration’s false claims about Saddam Hussein’s supposed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Or the imagined attack on a U.S. vessel in the Gulf of Tonkin. During the Bay of Pigs, the government inflated the number of fighters it dispatched to Cuba in hopes of encouraging local citizens to rise up and join them. When the operation failed, the government quickly deflated the number, claiming that it hadn’t been an invasion at all but rather a modest attempt to deliver supplies to local guerrillas. More recently, the Army reported that the ex-N.F.L. safety Pat Tillman was killed by enemy fire, rather than acknowledging that he was accidentally shot in the head by a machine-gunner from his own unit.
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These false stories couldn’t have reached the public without the help of the media. Reporters don’t just find facts; they look for narratives. And an appealing narrative can exert a powerful gravitational pull that winds up bending facts in its direction. During the Iraq war, reporters informed us that a mob of jubilant Iraqis toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square. Never mind that there were so few local people trying to pull the statue down that they needed the help of a U.S. military crane. Reporters also built Pvt. Jessica Lynch into a war hero who had resisted her captors during an ambush in Iraq, when in fact her weapon had jammed and she remained in her Humvee. In an Op-Ed essay in The Times about the Lynch story in 2003, it was Bowden himself who explained this phenomenon as ‘‘the tendency to weave what little we know into a familiar shape — often one resembling the narrative arc of a film.’’
Was the story of Osama bin Laden’s death yet another example of American mythmaking? Had Bowden and, for that matter, all of us been seduced by a narrative that was manufactured expressly for our benefit? Or were these questions themselves just paranoid?
‘‘The story stunk from Day 1,’’ Hersh told me. It was a miserably hot summer day in Washington, and we were sitting in his office, a two-room suite in an anonymous office complex near Dupont Circle, where Hersh works alone. There’s no nameplate on the door; the walls of the anteroom are crowded with journalism awards. ‘‘I have a lot of fun here,’’ he said, amid the clutter of cardboard boxes and precariously stacked books. ‘‘I can do whatever I want.’’
Within days of the bin Laden raid, Hersh told me, ‘‘I knew there was a big story there.’’ He spent the next four years, on and off, trying to get it. What he wound up publishing, this May in The London Review of Books, was no incremental effort to poke a few holes in the administration’s story. It was a 10,000-word refutation of the entire official narrative, sourced largely to a retired U.S. senior intelligence official, with corroboration from two ‘‘longtime consultants to the Special Operations Command.’’ Hersh confidently walked readers through an alternate version of all the familiar plot points in a dispassionate, just-the-facts tone, turning a story of patient perseverance, careful planning and derring-do into one of luck (good and bad), damage control and opportunism.
Hersh, who is 78, was reluctant to cooperate when I told him that I was interested in writing about his article. (‘‘I’ve gotta bunch of problems with your request,’’ his first email to me began.) He wanted me to follow up on his reporting instead and suggested that I might start by looking into Pakistan’s radar system, which he said was far too sophisticated to allow two U.S. helicopters to enter the country’s airspace undetected. (‘‘Those dimwitted third-world guys just can’t get anything right,’’ he wrote sarcastically, meaning of course the Pakistanis would have been aware of two military helicopters flying into the heart of their country.) Hersh, who worked at The New York Times for seven years in the 1970s, didn’t think the paper would allow me to take his claims seriously. ‘‘If you did so,’’ he wrote, ‘‘you better be sure not to let your wife start the car for the next few months.’’ But after a little prodding, he relented and spent the better part of a day with me, describing his reporting as thoroughly as he felt he could without compromising his sources.
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Hersh’s most consequential claim was about how bin Laden was found in the first place. It was not years of painstaking intelligence-gathering, he wrote, that led the United States to the courier and, ultimately, to bin Laden. Instead, the location was revealed by a ‘‘walk-in’’ — a retired Pakistani intelligence officer who was after the $25 million reward that the United States had promised anyone who helped locate him. For that matter, bin Laden was hardly ‘‘in hiding’’ at all; his compound in Abbottabad was actually a safe house, maintained by the Pakistani intelligence service. When the United States confronted Pakistani intelligence officials with this information, Hersh wrote, they eventually acknowledged it was true and even conceded to provide a DNA sample to prove it.
According to Hersh’s version, then, the daring raid wasn’t especially daring. The Pakistanis allowed the U.S. helicopters into their airspace and cleared out the guards at the compound before the SEALs arrived. Hersh’s sources told him the United States and Pakistani intelligence officials agreed that Obama would wait a week before announcing that bin Laden had been killed in a ‘‘drone strike somewhere in the mountains on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border.’’ But the president was forced to go public right away, because the crash and subsequent destruction of the Black Hawk — among the rare facts in the official story that Hersh does not dispute — were going to make it impossible to keep the operation under wraps.
As if those assertions weren’t significant enough, Hersh went on to make some even wilder claims. He wrote, for instance, that bin Laden had not been given a proper Islamic burial at sea; the SEALs threw his remains out of their helicopter. He claimed not just that the Pakistanis had seized bin Laden in 2006, but that Saudi Arabia had paid for his upkeep in the years that followed, and that the United States had instructed Pakistan to arrest an innocent man who was a sometime C.I.A. asset as the fall guy for the major in the Pakistani Army who had collected bin Laden’s DNA sample.
What was perhaps most shocking of all, though, was that this elaborate narrative was being unspooled not by some basement autodidact but by one of America’s greatest investigative reporters, the man who exposed the massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians in the village of My Lai (1969), who revealed a clandestine C.I.A. program to spy on antiwar dissidents (1974) and who detailed the shocking story of the abuses at Abu Ghraib (2004). Could the bin Laden article be another major Hersh scoop?
‘‘It’s always possible,’’ Bowden told me. ‘‘But given the sheer number of people I talked to from different parts of government, for a lie to have been that carefully orchestrated and sustained to me gets into faked-moon-landing territory.’’ Other reporters have been less generous still. ‘‘What’s true in the story isn’t new, and what’s new in the story isn’t true,’’ said Peter Bergen of CNN, who wrote his own best-selling account of the hunting and killing of bin Laden, ‘‘Manhunt.’’ And government officials were least receptive of all. Josh Earnest, then the White House spokesman, said Hersh’s ‘‘story is riddled with inaccuracies and outright falsehoods.’’ Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said it was ‘‘largely a fabrication.’’ (There were ‘‘too many inaccuracies to even bother going through them line by line.’’) The administration pretty much left it at that, though some of Hersh’s critics have pointed to classified documents made public by Edward Snowden revealing a long history of C.I.A. surveillance of the Abbottabad compound as proof that its location hadn’t simply been revealed by a walk-in.
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This sort of reception is nothing new for Hersh. A Pentagon spokesman at the time of Abu Ghraib, Lawrence Di Rita, described one of his many (now unchallenged) articles for The New Yorker on the scandal as ‘‘the most hysterical piece of journalist malpractice I have ever observed.’’ Still, Hersh got worked up in some of the interviews he gave after the publication of the bin Laden piece. ‘‘I don’t care if you don’t like my story!’’ he told a public-radio host during one grilling. ‘‘I don’t care!’’ But with time, his petulance cooled into a kind of amusement. ‘‘High-camp’’ was one adjective he used to describe the administration’s version of the events.
At one point in our conversation, I reminded Hersh that I wasn’t going to offer a definitive judgment on what happened. I didn’t want to reinterview the administration officials who had already given their accounts of the events to other journalists. I saw this as more of a media story, a case study in how constructed narratives become accepted truth. This felt like a cop-out to him, as he explained in a long email the next day. He said that I was sidestepping the real issue, that I was ‘‘turning this into a ‘he-said, she-said’ dilemma,’’ instead of coming to my own conclusion about whose version was right. It was then that he introduced an even more disturbing notion: What if no one’s version could be trusted?
‘‘Of course there is no reason for you or any other journalist to take what was said to me by unnamed sources at face value,’’ Hersh wrote. ‘‘But it is my view that there also is no reason for journalists to take at face value what a White House or administration spokesman said on or off the record in the aftermath or during a crisis.’’
For those in and around the news business, the fact that Hersh’s report appeared in The London Review of Books and not The New Yorker, his usual outlet, was a story in its own right, one that hasn’t been told in full before. (Editors and reporters may not be as secretive as intelligence officials, but they like to keep a tight lid on their operational details, too.)
A week or so after the raid, Hersh called The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick. In 2009, Hersh wrote a story for the magazine about the growing concern among U.S. officials that Pakistan’s large nuclear arsenal could fall into the hands of extremists inside the country’s military. Now he let Remnick know that two of his sources — one in Pakistan, the other in Washington — were telling him something else: The administration was lying about the bin Laden operation.
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One of The New Yorker’s staff writers, Dexter Filkins, was already planning a trip to Pakistan for a different assignment. It is rare, but not unprecedented, for The New Yorker to run double-bylined articles, and the magazine decided to pursue one. It paired Filkins with Hersh, asking Filkins to report the Pakistani side — in particular, the notion that Pakistan had secretly cooperated with the United States — while Hersh would keep following leads from Washington. But Filkins, who covered Afghanistan and Pakistan for The Times before moving to The New Yorker, spent about a week running the tip by sources inside the Pakistani government and military with little success.
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‘‘It wasn’t even that I was getting angry denials,’’ Filkins told me. ‘‘I was getting blank stares.’’ Filkins said the mood on the ground completely contradicted Hersh’s claim; the Pakistani military seemed humiliated about having been kept in the dark by the Americans. Remnick told him to move on. He ended up writing about a Pakistani journalist who was murdered, probably by the country’s intelligence service, the I.S.I., after detailing the links between Islamist militants and the Pakistani military.
In the meantime, The New Yorker published Schmidle’s account of the bin Laden raid, and, soon after, brought Schmidle on as a staff writer. (In an email, Schmidle told me his subsequent reporting has only confirmed his initial account. Regarding the possibility ‘‘that some inside the Pakistani military or intelligence services knew that bin Laden was living in that house, I think it’s entirely plausible, though I’ve not seen any proof,’’ he wrote.)
Hersh plowed ahead by himself, working his sources, trying to flesh out his counternarrative. Three years later he sent a draft to The New Yorker. After reading it a few times, Remnick told Hersh that he didn’t think he had the story nailed down. He suggested that Hersh continue his reporting and see where it took him. Instead, Hersh gave the story to The London Review of Books.
Hersh has never been on The New Yorker’s staff, preferring to remain a freelancer. But he has strong ties to the magazine. He published his first article there in 1971 and has written hundreds of thousands of words for the magazine since then, including, most recently, an essay about visiting My Lai with his family that was published only weeks before his London Review of Books article on bin Laden. (His son Joshua, now a reporter for Buzzfeed, was a New Yorker fact-checker for many years.) Remnick has published some of Hersh’s most provocative articles and, for that matter, plenty of other major national-security stories that the government would have preferred to keep buried.
But the bin Laden report wasn’t the first one by Hersh that Remnick rejected because he considered the sourcing too thin. In 2013 and 2014, he passed on two Hersh articles about a deadly sarin gas attack in Syria, each of which claimed the attack was not launched by the Assad regime, the presumed culprit, but by Syrian rebels, in collaboration with the Turkish government. Those articles also landed in The London Review of Books. Like the bin Laden article, each was widely questioned upon publication, with critics arguing that the once-legendary reporter was increasingly favoring provocation over rigor. (Hersh still stands by both stories.)
The media would certainly have treated Hersh’s bin Laden story differently if it had been published in The New Yorker, which is highly regarded for its thorough review process. But Hersh insists that the L.R.B. was just as thorough, if not more so. His editor, Christian Lorentzen, told me that three fact-checkers worked on the bin Laden article, and he also spoke directly to Hersh’s key sources, including the retired American intelligence official identified in the article as the ‘‘major U.S. source for the account.’’
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Even if the fact-checking process at The London Review of Books was as thorough as Hersh and the magazine say, we are still left trusting his unnamed sources. Should we? Hersh’s first Abu Ghraib article was based on an internal Army report, but many of the most important revelations in his work come from midlevel bureaucrats, ambassadors, C.I.A. station chiefs and four-star generals whose identities are known to only his editors and fact-checkers. The promise of anonymity is an essential tool for reporters. It changed the course of history (in Watergate, most prominently) and helped make Hersh’s illustrious career. But it also invariably leaves doubts about the motivation of the sources and thus their credibility.
Hersh’s instincts — to him, every story stinks from Day 1 — have served him well. But there are inherent perils in making a career of digging up the government’s deepest secrets. National-security reporters are almost never present at the events in question, and they are usually working without photos or documents, too. Their hardest facts consist almost entirely of what (unnamed) people say. It is a bedrock value of journalism that reporters must never get facts wrong, but faithfully reproducing what people tell you is just the beginning. You have to also decide which facts and which voices to include and how best to assemble this material into an accurate, coherent narrative: a story. In making these judgments, even the best might miss a nuance or choose the wrong fact or facts to emphasize. As Steve Coll, a New Yorker staff writer and the dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, told me, ‘‘You’d want an investigative reporter’s reputation to not be 100 percent right all of the time, but to be mostly right, to be directionally right.’’
Hersh may have been the first journalist to write that a secret informant had steered the United States to bin Laden’s compound, but he was by no means the only one who had heard this rumor. Coll was another. ‘‘In my case, it was described to me as a specific Pakistani officer in the intelligence service,’’ Coll, the author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the C.I.A. and Afghanistan, told me one afternoon in his office at Columbia. ‘‘I even had a name that I’ve been working on for four years.’’
Intuitively, the notion of a walk-in makes sense. Secret informants have led the United States to virtually every high-value terrorist target tracked to Pakistan, including Ramzi Yousef, the first World Trade Center bomber, and Mir Aimal Kansi, who killed two C.I.A. employees in an attack on Langley in 1993. ‘‘The idea that the C.I.A. stitched this together, and torture worked and they found the car and they found the courier, then they found the license plate and they followed it to the house — that had always seemed to those of us on the beat like it was very elaborate,’’ Coll said.
But Coll has never been able to confirm the tipper story. The closest he came was a conversation with an American intelligence officer who had worked with the man said to have been the informant. ‘‘I said, ‘Do you know this guy?’ ’’ Coll recalled. ‘‘He said: ‘Yeah, I do know him. I used to work very closely with him.’ I said, ‘Is this bio that I’ve been given accurate?’ He said, ‘Yeah, it’s accurate.’ I said, ‘I’ve been told he took the $25 million and is in witness protection.’ He paused, and he said, ‘Hmm, that’s the sort of thing he would do.’ ’’
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From the beginning, it seemed hard to believe that high-level Pakistani officials weren’t aware of bin Laden’s presence in their country; several U.S. officials even publicly said as much in the aftermath of the raid. Pakistan conducted its own secret investigation into the matter, which was leaked to Al Jazeera in 2013. The Abbottabad Commission Report, as it was known, found no evidence that Pakistan was harboring bin Laden. Instead, it concluded that the world’s most wanted man was able to move freely around the country for nine years because of widespread incompetence among military and intelligence authorities.
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Recent Comments
liz
October 19, 2015

Facts matter and this article is coming up short. You're better than this NYT
tim tuttle
October 19, 2015

Ahh, yes we do know the truth,,,three Navy SEALS have written about first hand accounts. I'm going to trust the guys who were there on the...
RCT
October 19, 2015

I think that both Bowden and Hirsch may be correct, but that neither may have the whole story. The two accounts are not contradictory....
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The most detailed exploration of the question of Pakistani complicity in sheltering bin Laden appeared in this magazine in March 2014. It came from a book written by a Times correspondent, Carlotta Gall, who reported that a source inside the I.S.I. told her that Pakistan’s intelligence service ran a special desk assigned to handle bin Laden. ‘‘The desk was wholly deniable by virtually everyone at the I.S.I. — such is how supersecret intelligence units operate — but the top military bosses knew about it, I was told,’’ Gall wrote.
More controversial is Hersh’s claim that Pakistan knew in advance about the SEAL team raid and allowed it to proceed, even helped facilitate it. This is the starkest departure from the standard story as it was reported previously. Logically, it would require us to accept that the U.S. government trusted the Pakistanis to help it kill bin Laden, and that the humiliation that Pakistan’s military and intelligence reportedly felt in the aftermath of the raid was either a ruse or the product of some even deeper U.S.-Pakistani intrigue. Is there any evidence to support this claim or, really, anything we can latch onto beyond Hersh’s unnamed sources?
Eleven days after the raid, an unbylined story appeared on GlobalPost, an American website specializing in foreign reporting. The dateline was Abbottabad; the story was headlined: ‘‘Bin Laden Raid: Neighbors Say Pakistan Knew.’’ A half-dozen people who lived near bin Laden’s compound told the reporter that plainclothes security personnel — ‘‘either Pakistani intelligence or military officers’’ — knocked on their doors a couple of hours before the raid and instructed them to turn the lights off and remain indoors until further notice. Some local people also told the reporter that they were directed not to speak to the media, especially the foreign media.
When I contacted the chief executive of GlobalPost, Philip Balboni, he told me he considered trying to aggressively publicize this narrative when he first posted it. ‘‘[B]ut that would have required resources that we did not possess at the time, and the information against it was so overwhelming that even we had to wonder if our sources were right,’’ he wrote me in an email.
Balboni put me in touch with the reporter, Aamir Latif, a 41-year-old Pakistani journalist. Latif, a former foreign correspondent for U.S. News and World Report, told me that he traveled to Abbottabad the day after bin Laden was killed and reported there for a couple of days. I asked him if he still believed that there was some level of Pakistani awareness of the raid. ‘‘Not awareness,’’ he answered instantly. ‘‘There was coordination and cooperation.’’
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The investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. Credit Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

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Latif, who kept his name off the original post because of the sensitivity of the subject in Pakistan, said that people in the area told him that they heard the U.S. helicopters and that surely the Pakistani military had, too: ‘‘The whole country was awake, only the Pakistani Army was asleep? What does that suggest to you?’’ Gall has also written that bin Laden’s neighbors heard the explosions at the compound and contacted the local police, but that army commanders told the police to stand down and leave the response to the military. The SEALs were on the ground for 40 minutes, but the Pakistani Army didn’t arrive until after they had left.
Gall’s best guess (and she emphasizes that it is just a guess) is that the United States alerted Pakistan to the bin Laden operation at the 11th hour. ‘‘I have no proof, but the more I think about it and the more I talk to Pakistani friends, the more I think it’s probably true that Kayani and Pasha were in on it,’’ Gall told me, referring to Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who was then the chief of the army staff, and Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, then the director general of the I.S.I. As for killing bin Laden, she said: ‘‘The scenario I imagine is that the Americans watched him and tracked him and never told the Pakistanis because they didn’t trust them, but when they decided to go ahead with the raid, I think they might have gone to Kayani and Pasha and said, ‘We’re going in, and don’t you dare shoot down our helicopters or else.’ ’’ (I should note that not every national-security reporter, including some at The Times, agrees with Gall about the likelihood of high-level Pakistani complicity in either harboring bin Laden or helping kill him.)
Following Gall’s scenario to its logical conclusion, Pakistan would have faced an unappealing choice after the raid: acknowledge that it had cooperated and risk angering hard-liners for betraying bin Laden and abetting a U.S. military operation on Pakistani soil, or plead ignorance and incompetence.
‘‘The Pakistanis often fall back on, ‘We were incompetent,’ ’’ Gall said. ‘‘They don’t want their countrymen to know what they’re playing at. They fear there will be a backlash.’’
Where does the official bin Laden story stand now? For many, it exists in a kind of liminal state, floating somewhere between fact and mythology. The writing of history is a process, and this story still seems to have a long way to go before the government’s narrative can be accepted as true, or rejected as false.
‘‘It’s all sort of hokey, the whole thing,’’ Robert Baer, a longtime C.I.A. case officer in the Middle East (and the inspiration for the George Clooney character in the movie ‘‘Syriana’’) told me of the government’s version of the events. ‘‘I’ve never seen a White House take that kind of risk. Did the president just wake up one morning and say, ‘Let’s put my presidency on the line right before an election?’ This guy is too smart to put 23 SEALs in harm’s way in a Hollywood-like assassination. He’s too smart.’’ Still, none of Baer’s old friends inside or outside the agency have challenged the administration’s account.
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Over time, many of Hersh’s claims could be proved right. What then? We may be justifiably outraged. Pakistan, our putative ally in the war on terror and the beneficiary of billions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer aid, would have provided refuge to our greatest enemy — the author of the very act that prompted us to invade Afghanistan. The audacious raid on bin Laden’s compound, our greatest victory in the war on terror, would have been little more than ‘‘a turkey shoot’’ (Hersh’s phrase). Above all, our government would have lied to us.
But should we really be shocked by such a revelation? After all, it would barely register on a scale of government secrecy and deception that includes, in recent years alone, the N.S.A.’s covert wiretapping program and the C.I.A.’s off-the-books network of ‘‘black site’’ prisons. ‘‘White House public-affairs people are not historians, they are not scholars, they are not even journalists,’’ Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, told me. ‘‘They are representing a political entity inside the United States government. Telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth is not their job, and even if it were their job, they would not necessarily be able to do it.’’
Hersh’s version doesn’t require us to believe in the possibility of a governmentwide conspiracy. Myths can be projected through an uncoordinated effort with a variety of people really just doing their jobs. Of course, when enough people are obscuring the truth, the results can seem, well, conspiratorial. Hersh is fond of pointing out that thousands of government employees and contractors presumably knew about the N.S.A.’s wiretapping, but only one, Edward Snowden, came forward.
We can go a step further: The more sensitive the subject, the more likely the government will be to feed us untruths. Consider our relationship with Pakistan, which Obama clearly had on his mind in the aftermath of the raid. In his address to the nation, Obama expressed his gratitude: ‘‘Over the years, I’ve repeatedly made clear that we would take action within Pakistan if we knew where bin Laden was. That is what we’ve done. But it’s important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding.’’
Either the line in Obama’s statement wasn’t truthful or the administration’s subsequent disavowal of it wasn’t. But in either case, it’s hard to imagine that telling the whole truth was more important to Obama, or should have been more important, than managing America’s relationship with this unstable ally.
There’s simply no reason to expect the whole truth from the government about the killing of bin Laden. If a tipper led the United States to his compound in Abbottabad, the administration could never say so without putting that individual’s life at risk and making it virtually impossible for the C.I.A. to recruit informants in the future. If Pakistan didn’t want us to acknowledge its cooperation with the raid, we wouldn’t, for fear of igniting the militant backlash Gall mentioned. Hersh himself has written — in The New Yorker — that there is a credible danger of extremists inside Pakistan’s military staging a coup and taking control of its large stockpile of nuclear weapons.
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Reporters like to think of themselves as empiricists, but journalism is a soft science. Absent documentation, the grail of national-security reporting, they are only as good as their sources and their deductive reasoning. But what happens when different sources offer different accounts and deductive reasoning can be used to advance any number of contradictory arguments? How do we square Latif’s reporting in Abbottabad and Baer’s skepticism with the official story that Bowden and many others heard?
‘‘As a reporter in this world,’’ Bowden told me, ‘‘you have to always allow for the possibility that you are being lied to, you hope for good reason.’’
We may already know far more about the bin Laden raid than we were ever supposed to. In his 2014 memoir ‘‘Duty,’’ the former secretary of defense, Robert M. Gates, wrote that everyone who gathered in the White House Situation Room on the night of the raid had agreed to ‘‘keep mum on the details.’’ ‘‘That commitment lasted about five hours,’’ he added, pointing his finger directly at the White House and the C.I.A: ‘‘They just couldn’t wait to brag and to claim credit.’’
The problem is that amid all of this bragging, it became impossible to know what was true and what wasn’t. Recall ‘‘Zero Dark Thirty,’’ which grossed $130 million at the box office and was in many ways the dominant narrative of the killing of bin Laden. The filmmakers, in numerous interviews, went out of their way to promote their access to government and military sources: The opening credits announced that the film was based on ‘‘firsthand accounts of actual events.’’ And, as a trove of documents made public via the Freedom of Information Act amply demonstrated, the C.I.A. eagerly cooperated with the filmmakers, arranging for the writer and director to meet with numerous analysts and officers who were identified as being involved in the hunt for bin Laden. The director, Kathryn Bigelow, has described the film as ‘‘the first rough cut of history.’’
This was a story that was so good it didn’t need to be fictionalized, or so it seemed. It began with a series of C.I.A.-led torture sessions, which the movie suggested provided the crucial break in the hunt for bin Laden. Only they didn’t, at least according to a report conducted over the course of many years by the Senate Intelligence Committee (and others with access to classified information). Senator Dianne Feinstein, who oversaw the report as the committee’s chairwoman, said she walked out of a screening of the film. ‘‘I couldn’t handle it,’’ she said. ‘‘Because it’s so false.’’ The filmmakers’ intent had presumably been to tell a nuanced story — the ugly truth of how we found bin Laden — but in so doing, they seem to have perpetuated a lie.
It’s not that the truth about bin Laden’s death is unknowable; it’s that we don’t know it. And we can’t necessarily console ourselves with the hope that we will have more answers any time soon; to this day, the final volume of the C.I.A.’s official history of the Bay of Pigs remains classified. We don’t know what happened more than a half-century ago, much less in 2011.
There are different ways to control a narrative. There’s the old-fashioned way: Classify documents that you don’t want seen and, as Gates said, ‘‘keep mum on the details.’’ But there’s also the more modern, social-media-savvy approach: Tell the story you want them to believe. Silence is one way to keep a secret. Talking is another. And they are not mutually exclusive.
‘‘I love the notion that the government isn’t riddled with secrecy,’’ Hersh told me toward the end of our long day together. ‘‘Are you kidding me? They keep more secrets than you can possibly think. There’s stuff going on right now that I know about — amazing stuff that’s going on. I’ll write about it when I can. There’s stuff going out right now, amazing stuff in the Middle East. Are you kidding me? Of course there is. Of course there is.’’
Jonathan Mahler writes about the media for The New York Times and is a longtime contributor to the magazine.
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