The death of Osama bin Laden and the reputation of Seymour Hersh

Just over a week ago Seymour Hersh, the investigative journalist who brought us the story of the My Lai massacre and the Abu Ghraib scandal, published a 10000 word story – in the London Review of Books – about what really happened in Abbottabad the day Osama bin Laden died. If Hersh’s claims are to be believed, then the official story of bin Laden’s death – that his location was discovered through the use of torture… Sorry, enhanced interrogation and he was then killed whilst trying to be taken alive by Navy Seals – is not just false, but the result of a massive conspiracy to cover up how the US found bin Laden and what really happened afterwards.

Elements of the official story of bin Laden’s death have been treated as suspicious from the off; no one seemed to be convinced, for example, that bin Laden was buried at sea. It seemed such an obvious fabrication that many have wondered why the US continued to maintain it. Yet, whilst many of us thought the real story of Osama bin Laden’s death was more complicated than what we had been told, not many of us thought the story was almost completely a fabrication. Yes, there were conspiracy theories about it (including reports that bin Laden had died earlier), but few of us thought that the official theory might turn out to be a false narrative.

Hersh’s story changes that, if we believe his sources. To my mind the biggest part of the story isn’t the possibility that Washington concocted an elaborate cover story for what should have been a simple assassination mission, but, rather, the story of how the US claimed they found bin Laden: the enhanced interrogation of a courier.

The CIA’s enhanced1 interrogation programme had little going for it, but part of the narrative of its necessity, post the Senate report which condemned all aspects of it, was that it helped them get to bin Laden. Yet, if Hersh’s story is to be believed, it didn’t. There was no courier, just someone in Pakistani intelligence who happily handed over the location of bin Laden for a large part of $25 million. If Hersh’s story is true, then the CIA’s one card to justify torture – it got us bin Laden – goes out the window. You can kind of see why elements of the intelligence community might want to stop that particular story from becoming part of the accepted wisdom.

So, what to think of “The Killing of Osama bin Laden”? Whilst there has been a lot of debunking of Hersh’s story all over the (mostly) American press, the article most people cite approvingly (when nodding their heads and saying “Well, it’s a bit of a conspiracy theory, isn’t it?”) is Max Fisher’s piece at Vox. Fisher summarises Hersh’s story thusly:

The truth, Hersh says, is that Pakistani intelligence services captured bin Laden in 2006 and kept him locked up with support from Saudi Arabia, using him as leverage against al-Qaeda. In 2010, Pakistan agreed to sell bin Laden to the US for increased military aid and a “freer hand in Afghanistan.” Rather than kill him or hand him over discreetly, Hersh says the Pakistanis insisted on staging an elaborate American “raid” with Pakistani support.

According to Hersh’s story, Navy SEALs met no resistance at Abbottabad and were escorted by a Pakistani intelligence officer to bin Laden’s bedroom, where they killed him. Bin Laden’s body was “torn apart with rifle fire” and pieces of the corpse “tossed out over the Hindu Kush mountains” by Navy SEALs during the flight home (no reason is given for this action). There was no burial at sea because “there wouldn’t have been much left of bin Laden to put into the sea in any case.”

In this telling, the yearslong breakdown in US-Pakistan relations, which had enormous ramifications for both Pakistan and the war in Afghanistan, was all staged to divert attention from the truth of bin Laden’s killing. The treasure trove of intelligence secured from bin Laden’s compound, Hersh adds, was manufactured to provide evidence after the fact.

Fisher’s piece is a criticism of both Hersh and Hersh’s story. Fisher’s criticisms centre on Hersh’s use of anonymous sources, the numerous contradictions Fisher thinks are in the piece… And because Hersh has become a bit of a conspiracy theorist in recent years. The later claim is interesting because all of Hersh’s previous big stories have been called conspiracy theories by the authorities. Fisher acknowledges this particular fact of illustrious Hersh’s career and sidesteps it. Rather, Fisher is concerned with reports that Hersh has, among other things, recently accused the American Military-Industrial Complex as being run by Opus Dei and the Knights of Malta; Fisher wants us to think that Hersh has recently become fond of unwarranted conspiracy theories based upon elements of his ideology, rather than from a careful appraisal of the evidence.

The claim the US military is beholden to Catholic fraternal orders does seem like an odd claim. Fisher might be right to think that some of Hersh’s recent views have a more complex origin than careful investigative journalism. However, let’s leave Opus Dei and the Knights of Malta to one side, and focus on the other, more salient objections to Hersh’s story. No matter Hersh’s belief in other conspiracy theories, we can still assess the evidence for this particular conspiracy theory about the real story behind the death of Osama bin Laden.

Hersh has been criticised for his use of unnamed sources. This seems to be an interesting and new standard on which to judge investigative journalism. Journalists use unnamed and anonymous sources all the time when reporting and so attacking Hersh’s story for using them is somewhat odd. Then again, this fits into what I consider to be a curious double-standard when it comes to talk of conspiracy theories; as soon as something is labelled a conspiracy theory the burden of proof gets shifted on to the conspiracy theorist no matter the evidence. Yet in cases like this, you can expect sources to want to remain anonymous. Let’s face it; unless you are a disgraced general, leaking classified information – even information would shows the public have been misled or lied to – gets you a fair amount of time in chokey. As such, it’s to be expected that a) such leaks would like to be kept anonymous and b) someone like Hersh would want to protect his sources from being identified.

Probably a better criticism is Hersh’s reliance on two sources. However, whilst the story of what is meant to have really happened to bin Laden comes, for the most part, from one person (with another basically nodding their head in agreement), Hersh also claims that other sources he spoke to confirmed this partiuclar version of events. Hersh also has support from other journalists who have looked into the raids, like Carlotta Gall, for example. Gall in particular claims to have spoken with high-ranking personnel in Pakistani who told her, independently of Hersh’s story, the same kind of details Hersh’s narrative relies upon, and there also seems to be confirmation of details of Hersh’s narrative coming out of Pakistan itself.

Fisher claim that Hersh’s story is filled with internal contradictions. However, Greg Grandin, for one, takes Fisher’s to task over this. Grandin points out that people are failing to distinguish between actual contradictions in Hersh’s story, and their own notions of how they think intelligence agencies should run. Grandin’s contention is Hersh’s story contradicts Fisher’s take on intelligence operations, rather than the reality of what might have happened.

So, while it is true that Hersh’s story, if true, means US/Pakistan relations were weird in the build up and aftermath of bin Laden’s death, the US purposefully damaged its relations with a foreign nation, lied to its own public and that the security apparatus of two states engaged in quite disturbing behaviour. However, the right response to those allegations is not “It cannot be true!” but “Is it true?” Dismissing Hersh’s story on the back of it being improbable to one’s own views is the wrong move. This is especially the case here, because no matter what we think of Hersh’s recent output, he’s made what seemed like implauslbe claims in the past which have, nonetheless, been vindicated. Who would have thought that American soldiers loved torturing people and taking selfies with their victims, for example?2

Now, some of Hersh’s critics have dismissed his story by asking something like “How could the Obama Administration keep such a story secret, and for so long?” (which is a way of saying “The claim of conspiracy is too implausible!”) Trevor Timm’s response – and surely it is the right one – is to quote Daniel Ellsberg (of “The Pentagon Papers” fame) and point out that the line “Washington is bad at keeping secrets” is a lovely story the Press and Public tell each other. However, it simply isn’t true. From the NSA’s bulk collection policy to those pesky WMDs in Iraq, Washington has managed to keep secrets from the Public and Press for long periods of time, and involved hundreds, if not thousands, of people in the process. Sure, there were leaks eventually, but the standard response to those leaks look amazingly like the response to Hersh’s claim; deny, obfuscate, deny, deny!

All-in-all, I’m not sure what to think of “The Killing of Osama bin Laden”. Parts of it ring true and parts of it, if we accept Hersh’s claims, make for a pretty weird state of affairs. I am, however, happy to say that I am fascinated by just how strong the pushback has been. On the face it, Hersh’s story does not look to be one we can easily dismiss, and for that reason we should be carefully investigating his claims, not attacking the messenger. Josh and meself will be discussing this story on this week’s episode of “The Podcaster’s Guide to the Conspiracy”, so I guess I’ll have a more informed opinion on the issues surrounding “The Killing of Osama bin Laden” later this week.

Stay tuned!

References:

Fisher, Max. “The many problems with Seymour Hersh’s Osama bin Laden conspiracy theory”, Vox, May 11, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/5/11/8584473/seymour-hersh-osama-bin-laden

Gall, Carlotta. “The Detail in Seymour Hersh’s Bin Laden Story That Rings True”, The New York Times Magazine, May 12, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/12/magazine/the-detail-in-seymour-hershs-bin-laden-story-that-rings-true.html?nytmobile=0&_r=0

Grandin, Greg. “It’s a Conspiracy! How to Discredit Seymour Hersh”, The Nation, May 12, 2015, http://m.thenation.com/blog/207001-its-conspiracy-how-discredit-seymour-hersh

Hersh, Seymour M. “The Killing of Osama bin Laden”, The London Review of Books, May, 2015 http://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n10/seymour-m-hersh/the-killing-of-osama-bin-laden

Mir, Amir. “Brig Usman Khalid informed CIA of Osama’s presence in Abbottabad”. The News, May 12, 2015, http://www.thenews.com.pk/Todays-News-2-317717-Brig-Usman-Khalid-informed-CIA-of-Osamas-presence-in-Abbottabad

Timm, Trevor. “The media’s reaction to Seymour Hersh’s bin Laden scoop has been disgraceful”, Columbia Journalism Review, May 15, 2015, http://www.cjr.org/analysis/seymour_hersh_osama_bin_laden.php

Notes

  1. Not enchanted, despite autocorrect thinking better of it.
  2. Well, actually, lots of people, particularly the kind of people who study the psychology of soldiers in wartime.

About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.