Some might argue that knowing exactly how Osama bin Laden was killed really doesn’t matter. Some might even argue that he is still alive, which, if nothing else, would demonstrate the persistence of urban legends relating to conspiracies allegedly involving the U.S. government. JFK’s assassination has the grassy knoll and second gunman, plus Mafia, CIA, and Cuban connections as well as a possible Vietnamese angle. 9/11 had the mystery of the collapse of Building 7. More recently still, the Texas State Guard was mobilized to monitor a military training exercise because it was rumored to be a ploy to impose martial law. Demonizing Washington as one large conspiracy is good business all around.
The death of bin Laden has been memorialized by a CIA-sponsored film “Zero Dark Thirty” and a book by Peter Bergen, by numerous White House leaks and press releases, and by memoranda of participants, including the CIA’s female officer who tracked bin Laden and the Navy SEAL who allegedly fired the fatal shots. The most recent contribution to the oeuvre is an account by the former CIA Deputy Director and torture apologist Michael Morell, The Great War of Our Time: the CIA’s Fight against Terrorism from al-Qai’da to ISIS.
Inevitably, great stories that don’t quite hang together are often revised as memory grows weak and, in the manner of Rashomon, frequently take on the coloration of where the narrator was sitting when events unfolded. And then there are the skeptics, who focus on the inconsistencies and pull together their own explanations. A number of articles and blogs have questioned details of the standard narrative on bin Laden. One compelling account by R.J. Hillhouse in August 2011 challenged central aspects of the prevailing story, and there has been corroborative reporting from highly respected New York Times correspondent Carlotta Gall.
A more recent skeptic about bin Laden is America’s top investigative reporter, Seymour Hersh. In a lengthy article published in the current London Review of Books, Hersh provides a fascinating narrative regarding the killing of bin Laden, which contradicts the account provided by the government. A White House spokesman immediately weighed in to describe Hersh’s account as “baseless,” while Morell has called it “all wrong” and Bergen has dubbed it a “farrago of nonsense.”
Sy Hersh believes the official account, that bin Laden was discovered in Abbottabad after one of his couriers was tracked, is wrong. Instead, he claims, the source of the information was a Pakistani intelligence officer who was paid as much as $25 million. Hersh also claims that the heads of the Pakistani Army and its intelligence service (ISI) knew about the raid in advance and were able to facilitate the U.S. incursion. A Pakistani intelligence officer participated in the operation after a Pakistani army doctor obtained DNA evidence proving the presence of bin Laden, convincing the White House to authorize the attack. The Obama administration, however, claims that the assault was completely unilateral and Pakistan knew nothing about it.
The Hersh account also states that bin Laden had been under house arrest by the Pakistani intelligence service for five years and was unarmed when the U.S. team arrived with instructions from Washington to kill him. His stay in Pakistan was being secretly funded by the Saudi government, which did not want him released. There was no shooting apart from that done by the Navy SEALs. An after-the-fact cover story prepared by the White House and Pakistani officials, that bin Laden had been killed in a drone strike in Afghanistan, was abandoned when Obama, for various reasons, decided to instead go public on the night of the killing, betraying the trust of the Pakistani generals.
The Hersh account and the government response together raise a number of questions which can be examined based on plausibility of the respective accounts and the possible security considerations that might have influenced an official narrative that milked the event for political gain while also protecting sources and methods. Interestingly, NBC News came out with its own report one day after Hersh’s article was published, confirming it from its own sources that a Pakistani official “helped the U.S. find Osama bin Laden, not a courier.” The article, subsequently retracted, also cited a New York Times Magazine report by Carlotta Gall that the Pakistani intelligence service ISI actually had a special desk tasked with hiding bin Laden.
For what it’s worth, I have known Sy Hersh for more than 15 years and have a great deal of respect for him as a journalist. I am aware of how carefully he vets his information, using multiple sourcing for many of his articles, and I also know that he has a network of high-level contacts in key positions scattered throughout the defense, intelligence, and national security communities. For this article he cites three anonymous U.S. special ops and intelligence sources, three named Pakistani sources, and a number of unnamed Pakistanis. I think I know the identities of at least two of his American sources, both of whom are reliable and have access, while one of his other anonymous sources might well be Jonathan Bank, the former CIA station chief in Islamabad. If Sy says that someone revealed something to him either on background or anonymously, I am sure that he accurately conveys what was said, though that does not necessarily rule out the possibility that the source might be intentionally misleading him or somehow be mistaken.
Against that, the government has hardly been a reliable source of accurate information, even regarding this past weekend’s Delta Force raid in Syria in which the Pentagon account and the report of a British monitoring group vary considerably. Some of those who are most aggressively attacking Hersh know nothing about the death of bin Laden except what the White House and its various spokesmen have provided. Several have a vested interest in parroting the official line, to include books they want to sell and white lies they would prefer remain somewhere in the shadows. Nevertheless, the bin Laden killing was a story that benefited the White House politically, making it important to get the details right lest it be discredited from the get-go.
Hersh’s first assertion, that the source of the information was a Pakistani intelligence officer who walked-in with the information is quite plausible and it actually makes more sense than the courier story, which is inconsistent in terms of who, what, when, and where. Walk-ins are mistrusted, but they also provide many breakthroughs in intelligence operations. In this case, the walk-in passed a polygraph examination and provided significant corroborating information. If the man was indeed paid and he wished to keep the connection secret, a cover story would be needed to explain how the U.S. came by the information. That is where the courier story would come in.
The presumed role of the Pakistani intelligence officer leads naturally to the plausible assumption that Pakistan had bin Laden under control as a prisoner. Among retired intelligence officers that I know no one believes that the Pakistanis were unaware of bin Laden’s presence among them though there are varying degrees of disagreement regarding exactly why he was being held and what Islamabad intended to do with him. Some speculate, as Hersh asserts, that the Paks were seeking a mechanism both to get rid of bin Laden and obtain a satisfactory quid pro quo for turning him over to Washington. Per Hersh, they considered bin Laden a “resource” to be cashed in at the right time, which makes sense.
That several senior Pakistani military officers were informed of the impending raid is also not exactly surprising. The billions that Washington has provided to the Pakistani military was largely controlled by the head of the army and the chief of ISI. That did not exactly make them paid agents of the United States, but it certainly would create a compelling self-interest in keeping the relationship functional. They could be relied upon to be discreet and they were certainly well-placed enough to mitigate the risk to incoming American helicopters if called upon to do so.
Hersh notes that due to the delay caused by the crashed helicopter the SEAL team was on the ground for 40 minutes “waiting for the bus” without any police, military, or fire department response to the noise and explosions. The public lighting in that area had also been turned off. And, indeed, the White House could still claim that it was a wholly U.S. operation because the civilian government in Islamabad, out of the loop on what was occurring, could plausibly deny any deal with Washington. Hersh notes that in Obama’s press conference on the killing, the president nevertheless acknowledged that the “counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding,” a statement that may have been true enough but also exposed the assistance that had been received and put at risk the generals who had cooperated.
And then there is the Saudi role. Hersh claims that Riyadh was footing the bill for holding bin Laden because they did not want him to reveal to the Americans what he knew about Saudi funding of al-Qaeda. The Pakistanis for their part wanted bin Laden dead as part of the deal so he would not talk about their holding him for five years without revealing that fact to Washington.
Other claims by Sy Hersh include his debunking of the “garbage bags of computers and storage devices” seized by the team, used to support the contention that bin Laden was still in charge of a vast terrorist network. But there is little evidence to suggest that anything at all was picked up during the raid. Documents turned over by the Pakistanis afterwards were examined but found to be useful mostly for background on al-Qaeda.
Concerning the firefight that may not have occurred, the government account started with a claim that bin Laden was armed and resisted using his wife as a shield, a wild west fantasy concocted by then-White House terrorism chief John Brennan, but it eventually conceded that the terrorist leader was unarmed and alone. In the initial debriefing the SEAL team reportedly did not mention any resistance in the compound. The military participants in the raid were subsequently forced to sign nondisclosure forms threatening civil penalties and a lawsuit for anyone who discussed the operation either publicly or privately.
Finally, what happened to bin Laden’s body? The original plan was to wait a week and announce that bin Laden had been literally blown to bits by drone, but that was preempted by President Obama, who saw an opportunity to score some political points. There is no evidence that bin Laden was buried at sea, as was alleged, no photos, no eyewitness testimony by sailors on board the USS Carl Vinson, and no ship’s log confirming the burial. Two of Hersh’s sources are convinced the burial never took place and that what remained after being torn apart by bullets was instead turned over to the CIA for disposal. They regard the burial at sea as a poorly designed cover story to get rid of the body and avoid any embarrassing questions over possible misidentification.
So what do I think is true? I believe that a walk-in Pakistani intelligence officer provided the information on bin Laden and that the Pakistanis were indeed holding him under house arrest, possibly with the connivance of the Saudis. I am not completely convinced that senior Pakistani generals colluded with the U.S. in the attack, though Hersh makes a carefully nuanced case and Obama’s indiscreet comment is suggestive. I do not believe any material of serious intelligence value was collected from the site and I think accounts of the shootout were exaggerated. The burial at sea does indeed appear to be a quickly contrived cover story. And yes, I do think Osama bin Laden is dead.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.