On May 10th 2015, the London Review of books published a lengthy article by Seymour Hersh, which challenges the Obama administration’s account of the killing of Osama Bin Laden.
Essentially, Hersh claims that the administration’s account has been a pack of lies from start to finish. Given the magnitude of what Hersh is alleging, and Hersh’s own fame as an investigative journalist, this story was never going to go unnoticed – or unscrutinised.
There are already a whole host of articles seeking to ‘debunk’ Hersh’s story.
Max Fisher for Vox, Anthony Zurcher for the BBC and Peter Bergen for CNN being among the more widely shared attempts on social media.
Cory Pein has taken a closer look at Fisher’s piece here, and as usual when it comes to supposed ‘debunkings’ of Hersh’s reporting, has found it doesn’t substantively undermine Hersh’s story at all.
I’m going to take a quick look at Bergen’s attempted debunking, and outline why I think his article doesn’t really disprove anything Hersh has written either.
Bergen starts by describing Hersh’s story as ‘a farrago of nonsense that is contravened by a multitude of eyewitness accounts, inconvenient facts and simple common sense’.
So let’s just deal with some of Bergen’s objections on a case by case basis.
Hersh’s article suggests that, contrary to claims made by the Obama administration, there was no firefight between the Navy Seal team that was sent to kill Bin Laden, and the people within the Abbottabad compound. He writes that:
the retired official told me that in their initial debriefings the Seals made no mention of a firefight, or indeed of any opposition . . . 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.
So the firefight story was concocted to make it look like there was resistance to the raid, when in reality there wasn’t, because the ISI personnel guarding Bin Laden had been deliberately stood down before hand.
Bergen responds by writing that this claim:
ignores the fact that two SEALs on the mission, Matt Bissonnette, author of “No Easy Day,” and Robert O’Neill have publicly said that there were a number of other people killed that night, including bin Laden’s two bodyguards, one of his sons and one of the bodyguard’s wives.
But Hersh’s article actually deals with why Bissonnette and O’ Neill may not have been telling the whole truth, stating that:
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.’
At least in part then, those claims may just boil down down to good old fashioned military bravado. A desire to paint the mission as being harder, more thrilling and more glorious than it actually was – I mean, this kind of embellishment is hardly unheard of.
Just to be clear, I am not proposing that Bissonnette and O’Neill are definitely lying. Would I even dare? I’m just pointing out that this is one way of potentially explaining the discrepancy between their version of events, and Hersh’s version.
That said, there is actually some evidence in the public domain that O’Neill’s personal account of what happened may not be entirely truthful. For example, he told The Washington Post in November 2014 that:
“I rolled past him into the room, just inside the doorway,” O’Neill recalled. “There was bin Laden, standing there. He had his hands on a woman’s shoulders pushing her ahead.” . . .
. . . Bin Laden was “standing and moving,” thrusting one of his wives in front of him as if to use her as a shield.
But that Bin Laden had used one of his wives as a human shield is a claim that has long since been retracted by the Obama administration. Bergen himself mentions this in his article, when he writes:
White House officials initially made some false statements about the raid — for instance, that bin Laden was using his wives as human shields during the raid — but these were quickly corrected.
What Bergen doesn’t do, though, is point out that O’ Neill was still pushing this ‘wife as human shield’ claim as recently as 6 months ago. And perhaps he should have pointed that out.
Because if the ‘human shield’ aspect of O’Neill’s story isn’t true, then what else about it mightn’t be?
There’s also, of course, the possibility that O’Neill and Bissonnette are being less than forthright about what really happened that morning because they’re simply not allowed to be forthright.
Indeed, Hersh details in his article how all the Seals who participated in the raid signed:
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.
Could these particular Seals, for one reason or another, have been given permission to talk about the raid publically on condition that they don’t stray too far ‘off message’?
To back up the testimonies of O’Neill and Bissonnette, Bergen then adds that:
Their account is supplemented by many other U.S. officials who have spoken on the record to myself or to other journalists.
But the whole point of Hersh’s piece is that these officials are lying. Highlighting the claims of the very officials who are being accused of lying by Hersh, as evidence that they aren’t lying, is circular reasoning at best.
Bergen then provides what is perhaps his most convincing rebuttal of Hersh’s claim that there was no firefight within the Abbottabad compound on the morning of May 2nd. In 2012, Bergen had actually visited the compound himself, and writes:
I was the only outsider to visit the Abbottabad compound where bin Laden lived before the Pakistani military demolished it. The compound was trashed, littered almost everywhere with broken glass and several areas of it were sprayed with bullet holes where the SEALS had fired at members of bin Laden’s entourage and family, or in one case exchanged fire with one of his bodyguards. The evidence at the compound showed that many bullets were fired the night of bin Laden’s death.
I have no real reason to disbelieve Bergen here. However, I could point out that in the original account of his visit to the compound, published by CNN in 2012, he doesn’t once mention that he saw ‘several areas . . . sprayed with bullet holes’. Perhaps he has written about this elsewhere though, and even if he did see all those bullet holes, it’s not terminal for Hersh’s version of events.
Mainly because it doesn’t automatically follow that the bullet holes were made during the course of firefights on May 2nd. There are all manner of other explanations as to how they might have got there.
For example, Bergen writes in his 2012 account of the visit that he was accompanied by ‘ISI escorts’. Is it beyond the realms of possibility that they, or someone working with them, shot the place up before Bergen’s visit, precisely so as to give the impression of a firefight having taken place? And if you’re first response upon reading that is ‘No, not the ISI! They would never do such thing!’, then maybe you need to take a closer look at their history.
Again, i’m not saying this is definitely the case, or that it’s even likely. Rather, i’m just putting it out there as an alternative explanation for the alleged bullet holes.
Essentially then, Bergen’s evidence that there was indeed a firefight within the Abbottabad compound on the morning of May 2nd consists of:
1. The claims of two Navy Seals who participated in the raid, which are not necessarily reliable, and which have been shown to be unreliable in some respects.
2. The claims of U.S. officials, who have every reason to lie.
3. What he saw himself when he visited the compound.
But there are other explanations, by no means far fetched, which would allow Hersh’s version of events to hold up.
Another of Hersh’s claims is that Saudi Arabia:
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.
Bergen responds to this by arguing that:
Common sense would tell you that the idea that Saudi Arabia was paying for bin Laden’s expenses while he was living in Abbottabad is simply risible. Bin Laden’s principal goal was the overthrow of the Saudi royal family as a result of which his Saudi citizenship was revoked as far back as 1994.
For me, this is only ‘common sense’ if you take a binary, black and white view of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and ‘Al Qaeda’.
It’s true to say that Saudi Arabia revoked Bin Laden’s citizenship in 1994, and that ‘Al Qaeda’ had publicly declared their intent to overthrow the Saudi regime.
But there have also been numerous accusations and reports, from credible and mainstream sources, that the Saudi regime (or elements within it) maintained links to ‘Al Qaeda’ well beyond 1994, and may even have been implicated in the September 11th attacks. These reports refuse to go away, and persist to the present day.
So the idea that the Saudis didn’t want the U.S. to get ahold of Bin Laden, for fear of what he might tell them about their relationship to ‘Al Qaeda’ – past or present – is hardly outrageous.
And just because the Saudi regime and ‘Al Qaeda’ were sworn enemies in public, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they were sworn enemies always and everywhere. Just look at the relationship between the Pakistani state and ‘the Taliban’, for example: ostensibly on opposite sides of the ‘war on terror’, but it’s an open secret that they work together behind the scenes.
Again, i’m not saying Hersh is definitely right here, just that this aspect of his story isn’t as preposterous as Bergen would like people to believe.
Hersh claims that the U.S. government discovered that the Pakistani government was harbouring Bin Laden when:
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.
Once the U.S. had confirmed that it was indeed Bin Laden hiding in the Abbottabad compound, they informed the Pakistani government that they knew he was there, and used what was in effect bribery to get the Pakistanis to agree to a hit on the compound.
In response to this, Bergen points out that:
Common sense would also tell you that if the Pakistanis were holding bin Laden and the U.S. government had found out this fact, the easiest path for both countries would not be to launch a U.S. military raid into Pakistan but would have been to hand bin Laden over quietly to the Americans.
It’s worth pointing out that Hersh’s account of the so-called ‘walk-in’, and that some within the Pakistani government or intelligence services had known where Bin Laden was, has now been corroborated by NBC news
As to why Pakistan didn’t just hand Bin Laden over quietly: my immediate reaction to that was ‘Well, maybe the U.S. just didn’t want Bin Laden alive’.
Much easier to stick a bullet or a missile in his head than go through the rigmarole of a long, expensive and potentially embarrassing trial. But that’s just one explanation.
Hersh himself offered another in a recent interview he did about the article did with CNN’s Chris Cuomo.
Cuomo basically puts this same question to Hersh, to which Hersh responds:
First of all, Bin Laden is very popular inside of Pakistan. A majority of the unwashed, of the people there, most of the public, really respected and liked Bin Laden. Especially for sticking it in the eye of America. We’re not very popular in Pakistan.
That the U.S. is deeply unpopular in Pakistan, viewed unfavourably and seen as an enemy by most of the population, is totally uncontroversial. This is a claim which is constantly being borne out by opinion polls.
On the other hand, people might recoil when they see Hersh claiming that Bin Laden was ‘very popular’ among the Pakistani masses. However, there is also some polling evidence to suggest that this was once the case, although his popularity does seem to have declined significantly over the years.
In 2005, for example, a Pew survey found that 52% of Pakistanis had a favourable view of Bin Laden (this had dropped to 18% by 2010, or the year before Bin Laden was killed).
Hersh seems to be suggesting here that Pakistan didn’t want to be seen to be cooperating with the U.S. by handing Bin Laden over, for their own domestic political reasons. Namely, that it wouldn’t have played at all well among the population, especially among the more militant sections of it. Why stir up needless trouble if you can avoid it?
You can call bullshit on that claim if you want, and maybe this is one aspect of the story that does seem quite weak, and needs further clarifying by Hersh. Why wouldn’t Pakistan just hand him over to the U.S., either openly or covertly, to be disposed of as the U.S. saw fit?
But perhaps U.S. domestic considerations come into play here as well. A high profile commando raid or drone strike would do more to bolster Obama’s image as a credible military leader – the guy who ended Bin Laden! tough on terror, but smart with it! – than any of the other options available.
It’s called ‘propaganda’, and governments everywhere employ it extensively.
Bergen then asks what interest the U.S. would have in concealing the fact that they’d discovered Pakistan was detaining Bin Laden, writing:
Common sense would also tell you that if U.S. officials had found out that the Pakistani officials were hiding bin Laden there is no reason the Americans would have covered this up. After all, around the time of the bin Laden raid, relations between the United States and Pakistan were at an all-time low because the Pakistanis had recently imprisoned Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor who had killed two Pakistanis. What did U.S. officials have to lose by saying that bin Laden was being protected by the Pakistanis, if it were true?
This overlooks the fact that, even if relations between Pakistan and the U.S. at the time had become strained – at least in public – the U.S. still relied heavily on the cooperation of Pakistan to fight the war in Afghanistan. Especially in 2010/11, when Obama’s ‘surge’ into Afghanistan was in full swing.
Pakistan was one of the main U.S. military transit routes for getting supplies into Afghanistan, for example, and the C.I.A. drone assassination program relied heavily on leads from Pakistani intelligence. Naturally, Pakistani government officials decried these strikes in public, but behind the scenes they were supportive, as leaked diplomatic cables show.
Indeed, in March 2010, senior Obama administration officials like Hilary Clinton and Robert Gates were publically praising Pakistan’s ‘anti-terrorism’ efforts.
So while the relationship may have been strained, it certainly wasn’t dead in the water, or anything close to it.
But what if, in late 2010, the U.S. had come out and said ‘Oh, by the way. Our ally Pakistan has been shielding Osama Bin Laden, the Most Evil Man in the World, architect of 9/11, for the past 4 years’.
The public and media pressure to end all cooperation with Pakistan, to actively punish them even, would’ve been immense. And ending cooperation with Pakistan simply wasn’t and isn’t in the U.S.’s interests in this part of the world.
So it was concealed.
Again, i’m only speculating here, but then so is Bergen, and I don’t see why my speculation is any less valid than his.
And that’s pretty much Bergen’s whole case against Hersh’s story right there.
His attempt to prove that Hersh’s claims are a ‘farrago of nonsense’ relies on two main aspects.
Firstly, the claims of ‘U.S. officials’ and soldiers who took part in the raid on Abbottabad, and that their version of events contradicts Hersh’s version.
But I see no reason why we should accept their version at face value. ‘US officials’ can and do tell lies, and just because they say Hersh’s claims are ‘nonsense’, it doesn’t make it so. Ditto for the soldiers, whose testimonies may be unreliable for all sorts of reasons – and seemingly *are* unreliable in at least some respects.
Secondly, Bergen’s article relies on what he thinks ‘common sense’ should tell us about the nature of some of Hersh’s revelations.
But this ‘common sense’ approach is, in my opinion, based on a reductive view of international affairs.
A view where state and sub-state actors are either sworn enemies or allies, with no grey area in between; a view where appearances are never deceptive, and conventional wisdom is synonymous with the truth; and a view which itself omits inconvenient facts when they don’t fit the narrative.
This second aspect basically boils down to Bergen going ‘Well that doesn’t seem very likely, does it?’.
But if you look at Hersh’s claims from a slightly different angle, then most of them are at least plausible, for the reasons i’ve just given. I mean, it’s not ‘Elvis Runs a Fish Shop in Cleethorpes’ territory. You don’t even have to be convinced that he’s 100% correct to recognise that.
Bergen actually concedes this himself, when he writes:
All sorts of things are, of course, plausible, but in both journalism and in the writing of history one looks for evidence, not plausibility.
And I guess he just isn’t convinced by Hersh’s ‘evidence’ – although given he has a well earned reputation for defending the Obama administration at every turn, i’m not sure anything would convince him, beyond a frank admission of guilt from the President himself.
But suffice to say that he doesn’t come anywhere close to establishing that the story outlined by Hersh is a ‘farrago of nonsense’, no matter how many people want to believe otherwise.