Seymour Hersh’s Bombshell

There are a number of startling revelations in Seymour Hersh’s latest report in the London Review of Books. Hersh’s claims not only challenge the established narrative of how the US located and killed Osama bin Laden (OBL) but also reveal Pakistani intelligence and Saudi complicity in keeping the al-Qaeda leader under house arrest in Abbottabad. According to Hersh’s account:

  • Osama bin Laden was being kept in Abbottabad by the Pakistani intelligence agency (ISI) and his “upkeep” was being paid for by Saudi Arabia. The head of Pakistan’s ISI General Pasha told the US that OBL was being held as “leverage against Taliban and al-Qaeda activities.”
  • US learned OBL’s location from “a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer” who, in August 2010, approached Jonathan Banks, the CIA station chief in Islamabad. He “offered to tell the CIA where to find bin Laden in return for the reward that Washington had offered in 2001.” The administration claim that the CIA learned OBL’s location by tracking his courier was false.
  • The raid that killed bin Laden was staged by the US military and ISI: “an ISI liaison officer flying with the Seals guided them into the darkened house and up a staircase to bin Laden’s quarters.” Pakistan agreed to the raid after “a little blackmail” and “because the Pakistanis wanted to ensure the continued release of American military aid.” Pakistan was also promised “a freer hand” in Afghanistan.
  • After the crash of a Navy SEAL helicopter the Obama administration abandoned its plan to claim that bin Laden had been killed in a drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Immediately going public with the story was seen as a betrayal by Pakistan.

The report is attributed to a single “retired senior intelligence official” with some knowledge of “initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad.” This source was also “privy to many aspects of the Seals’ training for the raid” and to various “after-action reports.” Two other American sources had “access to corroborating information.”

There were always reasons to doubt the official narrative of the search for bin Laden. Hersh’s story not only rejects the official narrative but offers an alternative one, and it is by no means clear that his account is any more accurate.

Some of Hersh’s claims have surfaced before. The Intercept reported that a former professor, R.J. Hillhouse, made “the same main assertions” in 2011, relying on different sources. Carlotta Gall, the former Afghanistan-Pakistan correspondent for the New York Times, wrote that her own reporting “tracks with Hersh’s” based on claims she had made in her book last year. Gall reported that ISI had been hiding OBL and the CIA learned his location from an ISI informant. Her source was “a high-level member of the Pakistani intelligence service.” (Pakistani intelligence officials had earlier rejected Gall’s claims) A Macleans correspondent also recently wrote that a mid-level Lashkar-e-Tayyaba militant had told him in November 2009 that ISI was holding OBL in Abbottabad. Lashkar-e-Tayyaba itself is closely linked to Pakistan’s intelligence agency.

The British-Pakistani writer Tariq Ali was perhaps the first to cite an anonymous source suggesting OBL was being held by the ISI. In his 2009 book The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power, Ali reported the following conversation with a senior Pakistani intelligence officer:

‘Is OBL still alive?’
He didn’t reply.
‘When you don’t reply,’ I said, ‘I’ll assume the answer is yes.’
I repeated the question. He didn’t reply.
‘Do you know where he is?’
He burst out laughing.
‘I don’t, and even if I did, do you think I’d tell you?’
‘No, but I thought I’d ask anyway. Does anyone else know where he is?’
He shrugged his shoulders.
I insisted: ‘Nothing in our wonderful country is ever a secret. Someone must know.’
‘Three people know. Possibly four. You can guess who they are.’
I could. ‘And Washington?’
‘They don’t want him alive.’
‘And your boys can’t kill him?’
‘Listen friend, why should we kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?’

Ali wrote a day after the raid that OBL’s location “could only have come from the ISI and, if this is the case, which I’m convinced it is, then General Kayani, the military boss of the country, must have green-lighted the decision.” Two days later he cited “reliable sources in Pakistan” suggesting “the army had no prior knowledge” of the raid. This seems to have changed Ali’s mind about Pakistan’s involvement: “If the Pakistani army or intelligence were involved,” he wrote, “they could have easily moved the final showdown to a less embarrassing location – the mountains in Waziristan, for instance.”

As for the informant, according to intelligence sources cited by NBC News, a “Pakistani intelligence asset provided vital information in the hunt for bin Laden” but “he did not provide the location of the al Qaeda leader’s Abottabad.” AFP also reported that “a defector from Pakistani intelligence assisted the US in its hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Based on interviews with two “former senior Pakistani military officials,” the report “denied the two countries had officially worked together.” Three days after the raid that killed bin Laden, Guardian’s Declan Walsh had already reported that “a Pakistani working for the CIA” was instrumental in locating OBL’s courier which would lead the CIA to the Abbottabad compound.

A few days after Hersh’s story was first published, veteran Pakistani reporter Amir Mir revealed the name of the ISI informant. Brigadier Usman Khalid had provided the CIA with “vital information about the bin Laden compound” in exchange for the $25 million bounty according to Mir. Hersh’s source claimed that the informant and his family “were smuggled out of Pakistan and relocated in the Washington area” where he became “a consultant for the CIA.” Brigadier Khalid, however, had died in London two years ago.

Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US at the time, flatly rejects Hersh’s claim that Pakistani military and intelligence was sheltering OBL and aided the US in the raid to kill him. He reports that both General Pasha, head of the ISI, and General Kayani, head of the military, “were embarrassed, both over bin Laden having being found in Pakistan and the U.S. taking place raid without knowledge or approval.” Karen DeYoung, Washington Post’s diplomatic correspondent, had previously claimed that “US intelligence had taped the conversations with General Kayani and General Pasha when they were told of the Abbottabad raid” and “they were not only surprised about the raid, but also that [bin Laden] was there.”

There are other reasons to doubt the claim that ISI was holding OBL. According to documents from bin Laden’s compound, he had “discussed making a deal with Pakistan in which Al Qaeda would refrain from attacking the country in exchange for protection inside Pakistan.” This obviously implies that he did not already have such protection from Pakistan’s military and intelligence agency. If he was in fact being held by ISI, it seems highly unlikely that they would have allowed him to entertain guests. A senior Taliban commander (“who for years has provided information that proved reliable”) claimed that he not only met OBL in Abbottabad but the al-Qaeda leader “also received occasional visits from Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and Arab fund raisers.” According to the Taliban commander, bin Laden had “chosen to live in Abbottabad just because he considered it such an ‘unexpected’ place for him to hole up.”

Hersh refuses to engage with any of this. In fact he does not even bother to cite publicly available information that supports certain aspects of his account. A cellphone, for example, linking Osama bin Laden to an ISI-supported militant group, Harakat-al-Mujahideen. In tracing the calls on the cellphone, US analysts “determined that Harakat commanders had called Pakistani intelligence officials.” The same report in the New York Times cited former CIA officer in Pakistan, Art Keller, saying “he had heard rumors after he left Pakistan in 2007 that Harakat was providing ‘background’ assistance with logistics in moving and maintaining the Qaeda leader in Pakistan.” Hersh does not cite this report, and there may be a reason why. The cellphone in question belonged to bin Laden’s courier, the one who, according to Hersh’s source, didn’t exist.

There are many discrepancies which militate against a certain belief in any of Hersh’s claims. It seems likely that there was an ISI informant; whether he knew OBL’s location is not clear. It is not apparent either that Pakistan’s military and intelligence agency were holding bin Laden or that they participated in the raid that killed him, given the harsh criticism they were certain to face after the raid. Hersh’s account of the killing of Osama bin Laden cites a single anonymous source to corroborate a few claims which have previously been made and makes no attempt to engage with conflicting evidence. Nor does Hersh make any meaningful effort to engage with questions raised by his report. This is hardly a bombshell. A member of Pakistan’s Abbottabad Commission, formed to investigate the raid that killed bin Laden, had the most succinct response to Hersh’s report: “Anything is possible, but there is no evidence to prove the revelations.”

It is unfortunate that Hersh’s critics have made Hersh the story while his defenders have been content lambasting the media reaction to his report. The story itself is lost between the two camps. One article labeled anyone who had even remotely questioned Hersh’s version of events a “lapdog,” a list that included Max Fisher, Peter Bergen, and Matthieu Aikins. This may not be Aikins’ preferred company, given his last two major reports were on the narco state in Afghanistan and possible war crimes committed by Shiite militias in Iraq. If he is in fact a “lapdog” then he is an extremely unreliable one. But facts have already ceased to matter. All that matters now is ideological fealty.