Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Hersh on the end of Bin Laden

Seymour Hersh has a new investigative report out disputing the official "Zero Dark Thirty" version of Osama bin Laden's death: The Killing of Osama bin Laden.

Hersh's account, based largely on anonymous sources, challenges the official and popular account(s) in various ways, claiming:

  • Pakistani officials knew that Bin Laden was in Abbottabad, and were effectively holding him prisoner there.
  • Bin Laden was not playing any significant role in directing what was left of his Al Qaeda organization.
  • Assassinating Bin Laden rather than capturing him was always the aim of the mission.
  • The Pakistani government knew of the American raid in advance, approved of it and directly facilitated it.
  • The story that the Navy buried Bin Laden at sea is a dubious one at best; his body may have been shot to pieces by the Navy SEAL team.
  • Bin Laden did not pull a gun on his attackers.
  • There was no firefight at the Abbottabad compound.
  • The claim that the SEALS carried away large numbers of valuable documents both hardcopy and paper from the compound are false.

I don't take Seymour Hersh's reporting to be gospel. His book about John Kennedy's administration, The Dark Side of Camelot (1997), showed a surprising credulous attitude toward even some of the dubious tales about JFK's love life. Gary Wills opened his pungent review of the book by commenting, "I am ready to believe nine bad things about John Kennedy before breakfast—until Mr. Hersh adds a tenth, and that makes me begin wondering about the first nine." (A Second Assassination New York Review of Books 12/18/1997 issue)

But he's one of the most accomplished journalists out there and he has excellent sources on military and intelligence matters. So I pay attention to what he does report. And Hersh does have a good record in his War on Terror reporting.

The official Zero Dark Thirty version has been tattered for a while.

I never believed that Pakistan had no advance knowledge of the raid. And it makes sense that someone in the Pakistani ISI or military knew that OBL was staying there. Hersh's account is more plausible on those points, however much is eventually documented or not in the inevitable document leaks of the future. It's also easy to understand that for "reasons of state" both Pakistan and the US would need to deny the cooperation.

And there are several reasons the Obama Administration would need to push back on the notion that the goal was always to deliberately assassinate Osama rather than attempt to bring him before American justice in court.

The squabbling over who decided what to say in the aftermath of the raid and who should review it, etc., are a lot fuzzier. Bob Gates, for instance, who is cited in the piece, isn't exactly known for relentlessly telling the unvarnished truth. But patterns of obfuscation can also us tell a lot. And for researchers like Marcy Wheeler who follow domestic espionage issues, they can be important clues for future areas of research.

Cenk Uygur reports on the story here, Critics Attack Seymour Hersh After Bin Laden Raid Story Goes Public The Young Turks 05/12/2015:

Here are some of the additional stories that have come out in response to Hersh's article.

Jon Schwarz and Ryan Deereaux at Glenn Greenwald's First Look/Intercept shop, Author Reported Essentials of Hersh's Bin Laden Story in 2011 - With Seemingly Different Sources 05/11/2015. The reports to which the title refers are by political scientist R J Hillhouse posted on her blog, The Spy Who Billed Me, about Bin Laden Turned in by Informant -- Courier Was Cover Story 08/07/2011 and Questions Raised by Real Story of How US Found Bin Laden 08/11/2015.

Hillhouse did her first post at that blog since 2011 on 05/11/2015 after Hersh's story came out, Hersh Did Not Break Bin Laden Cover Up Story:

On August 7, 2011, I wrote, among other things:

  • The US cover story of how they found bin Laden was fiction
  • OBL was turned in by a walk-in informant, a mid-level ISI officer seeking to claim $25 million under the "Rewards for Justice" program.
  • The Pakistani Intelligence Service -- ISI -- was sheltering bin Laden
  • Saudi cash was financing the ISI operation keeping bin Laden captive
  • The US presented an ultimatum to Pakistan that they would lose US funding if they did not cooperate with a US operation against bin Laden
  • Pakistani generals Kiyani and Pasha were involved in the US operation that killed OBL
  • Pakistan pulled out its troops from the area of Abottabad to facilitate the American raid
  • The Obama administration betrayed the cooperating Pakistani officials
  • The Obama administration scrambled to explain the crashed helicopter when their original drone strike cover story collapsed

At the time, American media largely ignored the story which was picked up around the world, from London and Sydney, to Istanbul and Islamabad.

The Hersh story makes all of the points described in my 2011 pieces. The Spy Who Billed Me redux.

Digby, Bob Baer muses about Hersh Hullabaloo 05/12/2015

Liberal war-on-terror hawk Peter Bergen challenges Hersh's report in Was there a cover-up in bin Laden killing? CNN 05/11/2015.

Another highly critical piece against Hersh is The many problems with Seymour Hersh's Osama bin Laden conspiracy theory Vox 05/11/2015.

Charlie Pierce, The Bin Laden Raid: The Man Is Still Dead Esquire Politics Blog 05/11/2015. Pierce link to the articles in the two preceding links here and notes:

The strength of Hersh's report comes late in the piece, when he gets fairly deep in the weeds about how the CIA's story of its role in the mission has morphed over the years, and in putting what he alleges is the administration's deceit in the context of the "war" on terror, to which deceit has been fundamental since it was launched.

However, to me, anyway, Bergen seems to do better debunking Hersh's claims than Hersh does defending them. The idea that Saudi Arabia was footing the bills for bin Laden's exile seems less than plausible. I also don't think the president needed an imaginary military pageant surrounding the events to get re-elected, as one of Hersh's sources argues. I think the country would have taken "bin Laden Dead" as something of a foreign policy triumph no matter what the actual circumstances of his demise.

What's clear is that, in the war on terror, or whatever it is in which we've been engaged since we handed the military policy over to the spooks and thrown international crisis diplomacy into the vast, deep underbrush of myth and legend generated by the conjuring spells of the intelligence world, that we willingly surrendered self-government to magic and spellcraft. And Osama bin Laden is still dead, and his body is still at the bottom of the sea. Maybe. [my emphasis]
That bolded part about Saudi Arabia is eye-raising. But who knows? As Bob Baer suggests in the interview linked in Digby's piece above reminds us, Bin Laden may have been able to provide details about the 9/11 attacks that would be very embarrassing to both the Saudi monarchy and the Cheney-Bush Administration.

Peter Grier at the Christian Science Monitor expresses a skeptical take on Hersh's version in The geopolitics of Seymour Hersh's Osama bin Laden story 05/11/2015:

The greatest weakness of Hersh’s piece may be the sheer scale of the deception that would have been necessary for the US to promote a false story of the raid. That’s the problem with many conspiracy theories: They’re just too hard to carry out. Dozens of US officials would have had to mislead the public for years. Pakistan, too, would have had to keep the secret – until now.

And for what? Quartz writer Bobby Ghosh says that while Hersh’s piece may be sensational it never answers the one question that underlies all conspiracy theories: Why?

“Why would the Pakistanis ... and the Obama administration have played such an elaborate ruse on the world?”
Tagging this as a "conspiracy theory" is an ad hominem way to try to dismiss the report. But Hersh's report doesn't strike me as inherently implausible. The Taliban was Pakistan's ally and Bin Laden's was the Taliban's ally. Pakistan wants to keep Afghanistan as a "strategic depth" resource against India and they regard the current Afghan government as pro-India. So it's not at all strange that they might want to keep a resource like Bin Laden in their reserve. Hersh's own explanation that Pakistan wanted to use him as a bargaining chip with the US.

Also, the CIA and the military run high-security, secret operations all the time and all over the world. It doesn't strike me that the level of concealment he describes is inherently unbelievable.

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