Seymour Hersh: Obama lied about bin Laden raid

In a detailed report published in the London Review of Books yesterday, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh alleges that President Obama and his administration lied about the planning and nature of the raid that killed former al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

The 10,000 word report — based primarily on one anonymous source, a retired U.S. Intelligence official — alleges that bin Laden was captured by Pakistan in 2006 and held hostage by the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, in order to keep the Taliban and al-Qaeda in check. It further alleges that the CIA was given bin Laden’s location by a Pakistani walk-in informant looking for ransom money and not, as President Obama and his administration have claimed, via persistent tracking of a network of couriers and “enhanced interrogation techniques.” After the CIA learned of bin Laden’s whereabouts, they then used a combination of slowing down off-the-books security funding to the Pakistani military, along with threatening to leak bin Laden’s whereabouts, to ensure high-level Pakistani cooperation.

Hersh further alleges that American special forces conducted the raid with the knowledge and cooperation of Pakistan’s military, which both cleared the air for American helicopters to reach the Abbottabad compound and vacated the premises when they heard American forces arrive. It also describes bin Ladin as an “invalid,” and strongly disputes the claim that he attempted to defend himself during the raid — or that there was any resistance at all, for that matter. This contradicts the administration’s account of the story, in which Pakistan was notified of the raid after a “firefight” at the Abbottabad compound and after American forces had cleared Pakistani airspace.

Hersh also disputes the administration’s claims that bin Laden was killed via a surgical “double-tap” shooting, instead outlining how Navy SEALs bragged about riddling bin Laden’s body with bullets and even tossing some of his body parts out of the helicopter on the way back to base. He then builds off of those claims to further report that there was almost certainly no burial at sea, as the photos of the burial — photos that those who have reported on have not themselves seen —  reportedly show bin Laden’s body as being largely intact. Additionally, per Hersh, no one has been able to confirm any of the administration’s claims about the nature of the funeral (for instance, that there was an imam present in accordance with Islamic law) and no one on the USS Carl Vinson, the ship bin Laden was reportedly buried on, has any recollection of anything like a funeral taking place that day.

Perhaps most importantly, Hersh’s report describes how American and Pakistani officials struck a deal to tell a very different story than the one the American public was presented. Rather than a firefight in Abbottabad and subsequent burial at sea, the Obama administration was to wait for roughly one week after the raid before announcing that bin Laden had been killed in drone strike in Afghanistan. This agreement was necessary to secure Pakistani cooperation, as General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and General Ahmed Shuja Pasha (the army chief of staff and ISI director, respectively) did not want to admit to the public that Pakistan was in any way involved with the attack.

The fact that one of the two helicopters used to conduct the raid crashed, and was subsequently destroyed with concussion grenades, made the administration wary of waiting for a weak before releasing the story. Worried that news of bin Laden’s death would leak, they instead rushed to put together a new description of the events that was, as Hersh outlines, rife with contradictions.

The White House has, thus far, declined to comment on Hersh’s allegations.

To be clear, it’s a big if as to whether or not Hersh’s report is true, as it relies almost entirely on one anonymous source. This is likely why it appeared in the London Review of Books as opposed to The New Yorker, where Hersh previously served as a staff writer, or the New York Times, which has previously reported that Pakistan had prior knowledge of bin Laden’s location in Abbottabad. The last time he published an expose that made major allegations against the Obama administration — that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad may not have been responsible for Sarin gas attacks in the country — it was also in the London Review of Books. In that case, he published in the LRB because both The New Yorker and The Washington Post passed on the story. The Post’s explanation for not publishing his findings was that “the sourcing in the article did not meet the Post’s standards.” It’s entirely possible that this is also the case with regards to yesterday’s allegations:

(In the above tweet, “My Lai” refers to the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, in which US soldiers killed as many as 504 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians on March 16, 1968. Seymour Hersh broke the story.)

But assuming for the moment that Hersh’s story is entirely true — it does, after all, find plausible holes and eyebrow-raising contradictions in the Obama administration’s account of the events — it would change our entire understanding of the 2011 raid.

It would trade one illegal action for another. If Hersh’s story is true, the administration would not have violated Pakistan’s national sovereignty by conducting a military operation in their airspace and on their soil without their knowledge. However, it would have been carrying out a murder, as there were no weapons — to say nothing of a firefight — in the compound and bin Laden could not be said to have been acting in self-defense.

By Hersh’s account, the Pakistani military stipulated that bin Laden be killed instead of captured. As noted above, Pakistan did not want the world — in particular the Taliban, al Qaida and the Pakistani general public — to know about their cooperation with American forces. Both of these claims, directly contradict what CIA director John Brennan said following the raid: that SEALs were to have taken bin Laden alive if possible and that Pakistan knew nothing of the attack until after it had been carried out.

As Hersh notes, the Navy SEALs involved in the raid behaved as though they were not in danger. If they thought otherwise, they wouldn’t have waited over 20 minutes for a backup helicopter to arrive. They would have all piled into the one remaining functional helicopter and high-tailed it out of there. Hersh notes that the Pentagon made the SEALs sign nondisclosure forms when they returned to the United States.

Hersh’s allegations turning out to be true would also mean that the raid wasn’t “risky” or “gutsy,” as the administration has frequently described the decision, but rather that it was totally unnecessary and did more harm than good. Contrary to the CIA’s claims that a “treasure trove” of valuable intelligence was gathered at the Abbottabad compound, as bin Laden was planning and directing terror operations from his supposed plain-sight hideout, Hersh contests that bin Laden’s health was failing and that he held practically no sway in the organization he had previously led. He further alleges that the “intelligence” that the Navy SEALs gathered was in fact just random books and other household items that were later described as computers and other hardware. The Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point would later release details from the materials reportedly gathered at the Abbottabad compound, themselves containing nothing suggesting that bin Laden was the “spider at the center of a conspiratorial web,” as administration officials had claimed following the attack, but Hersh’s source disputes even these as contrived, asking Hersh:

When was the last time the CIA: 1) announced it had a significant intelligence find; 2) revealed the source; 3) described the method for processing the materials; 4) revealed the time-line for production; 5) described by whom and where the analysis was taking place, and 6) published the sensitive results before the information had been acted on? No agency professional would support this fairy tale.

By Hersh’s account, bin Laden no longer posed any threat to the United States’s security and his death did nothing to cripple al Qaida’s leadership. If he’s right, bin Laden’s death was purely symbolic.

It would also mean that the symbolic victory came with tangible costs that go beyond a downed Black Hawk helicopter. That President Obama ditched the agreed-upon backstory, announcing the raid the night it happened in a manner that made the Pakistani military look both ineffective and complicit, has reportedly put a strain on American-Pakistani relations to this day.

Hersh also also notes that the fake vaccination program conducted by the CIA in Abbottabad, which was supposedly conducted in a failed attempt to confirm bin Laden’s identity by getting his DNA, was itself fake — a coverup to hide how the CIA actually obtained bin Laden’s DNA (Pakistan supplied it). Prior reporting of the CIA-sponsored fake vaccination program had previously sparked widespread anger in the region, whose citizens remain suspicious of and resistant to legitimate vaccination programs for fear of being swept up in an American intelligence operation.

If what Hersh alleges is true, the raid to kill Osama bin Laden only makes sense if you think that the symbolism of his death justifies the compromises, lies and consequences associated with the manner in which his death was brought about. President Obama is certainly depicted as having thought so, and it was counted on the campaign trail as one of his signature foreign policy achievements.

If you don’t think so, however, it paints a picture of a President scrambling to get out in front of a story as his re-election bid was taking shape, and jumping at the chance to take extra credit for a foreign policy “victory” that more or less fell into his lap.

Either way, it would provide further evidence that “enhanced interrogation techniques” don’t enhance intelligence efforts and that, as Hersh concludes:

High-level lying nevertheless remains the modus operandi of US policy, along with secret prisons, drone attacks, Special Forces night raids, bypassing the chain of command, and cutting out those who might say no.

“Zero-Dark Thirty” would also be an even bigger load of government propaganda than it already is.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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25 Responses to “Seymour Hersh: Obama lied about bin Laden raid”

  1. RyansTake says:

    I don’t think it should be legal for public officials to outright lie to the public about matters of the state. Saying “no comment” or “we can’t discuss this” is fine… even if it happens a lot… but outright lying betrays any kind of trust in government.

    If this is true… wowzers. I dearly hope it’s wrong.

  2. billmichael says:

    There’s just too much that’s “funny” about the Bin Laden raid and the murder of Seal Team 6.
    You know it and I know it.
    Seymour Hersch speaks the truth.

  3. BeccaM says:

    I don’t mean to deride Hersh’s invaluable contributions to journalism over the decades. It’s just that particularly lately, he’s gotten weird.

    I think you’re awesome too, Mirth (((E))).

  4. mirth says:

    Well, Becca, this is another thing on which we disagree, but I still think you are awesome and I learn a great deal from your thread contributions.

  5. BeccaM says:

    Well, there’s “been had” and “wanted to be had.” From 2011 on, Hersh has been claiming there was a huge untold conspiracy about Bin Laden’s assassination, but you’re right — there’s just too much about what he’s claiming now that just doesn’t pass the sniff test.

  6. BeccaM says:

    What you deride as ‘ridiculousness’, I term ‘critique.’

    Hersh has often been criticized — especially in the last 10 years — for his reliance on anonymous sources and lack of hard evidence, as well as some truly kooky pronouncements.

    Seriously, even great men fall. Hersh would not be the first. And if you’d care for a sampling, just Google “Seymore Hersh” and “Opus Dei.”

  7. mirth says:

    There is no comparison between TV presenter Rachael Maddow (or Manning or Snowden) and the distinguished investigative journalist career of Seymour Hersh (which has won him a Pulitzer Prize, five George Polk Awards, two National Magazine Awards, and more than a dozen other prizes for investigative reporting including the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award) – first thing, let’s get that ridiculousness out of the way.

    I see ample reason for the sources to insist on anonymity and it was Hersh’s responsibility to respect and protect what was likely their personal safety concerns even if in doing it he risks doubts.

    Hersh suggests several why(s), but in this reporting his main purpose was the “what” and he clearly presented it.

    What purpose? What public good? We’ll have to wait for those answers, which is often the case for a breaking story.

    As to your accusations of “his preferred conspiracy theory” and “paranoid fun”…whew, I have nothing.

  8. BeccaM says:

    Oh I don’t know. Although he was absolutely spot-on with the Abu Ghraib reports, a lot of what’s followed has been increasingly bizarre and CT-ish. Like U.S. Special Forces being controlled by Opus Dei and/or the Knights of Malta, or that the chemical weapon attacks in Syria were a Turkish false flag op. Or his claims that the Dubya administration was about to nuke Iran or to launch a false flag op to trigger a war. None of which has borne up to scrutiny afterwards.

    A successful and truthful investigative piece will not only answer the question “Why?” but also provide a narrative that makes more sense than the official accounts. When Rachel Maddow put together her story about how much of what the Iraq war was about involved oil, she had tangible documentary evidence, as well as the fact her story made much more sense than the Dubya administration’s WMD claims.

    Almost none of what Hersh posits seems logical when considering that most people are motivated by what seems like what’s in their own best interests. The trouble with Hersh’s alternative narrative — one he seems to have latched onto as soon as the initial reports came out about Bin Laden’s assassination — is there are too many people doing things that are contrary to their own best interests. And far too many actual on-the-spot witnesses who could’ve corroborated things like Hersh’s claim there was no resistance at all at the Abbotabad compound or that the highly trained U.S. special forces amused themselves by throwing Bin Laden’s body parts out of the helicopter.

    He posits a conspiracy at the highest levels of the U.S., Pakistani, and Saudi governments to spin a false narrative…and all he has as evidence is two sources (one anonymous) and two who corroborated parts of the account?

    If the evidence is there, it will come out, eventually. In the case of Abu Ghraib, there were almost literal mountains of documentary evidence proving the allegations of torture were not only true, they’d been ordered at the highest levels. There were interviews with the participants. At the time, Hersh was able to produce this evidence — and he named names.

    This time? The ONLY name is that of a Pakistani official who retired more than two decades ago. The others are ciphers, with one retired U.S. intelligence official with a ludicrously improbable access to top-secret inside information — and an extremely loose sense of obligation to national security.

    Basically, the important question as always is “Why?” Not only to ask why all of the actors in Hersh’s account chose to act as they did before, during, and after the Bin Laden operation, but also why this particular anonymous source chose to go public with this alternative account.

    Whatever people might think, Manning blew the whistle because she believed the U.S. was engaging in war crimes against civilians. Snowden, because he believed the gov’t was spying on its citizens illegally. What purpose does this anonymous intelligence official’s alternative account serve? What public good? All it seems to do is make the heads of not one but three world governments look like nefarious dolts doing things that benefit none of them.

    Or is the simpler solution the one where Hersh already had his preferred conspiracy theory outcome in 2011, as soon as it happened, and he then spent the next four years looking for someone who’d join in on the paranoid fun.

  9. mirth says:

    The report does not say he relied on a single source. As this post states several times, the retired U.S. Intelligence official was his primary source.

    It’s Seymour Hersh. If it is proven that he was duped or that he is delusional or outright lying, so be it.
    But until then, I believe him.

  10. BeccaM says:

    Hersch has a reputation as being reliable himself…but one anonymous source? One retired U.S. intelligence official…who apparently had the highest levels of clearance and inclusion in information that, at that lofty perch, is usually highly compartmentalized and need-to-know? And two more anonymous corroborating contributors?

    The major US source for the account that follows is a retired senior intelligence official who was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. He also was privy to many aspects of the Seals’ training for the raid, and to the various after-action reports. Two other US sources, who had access to corroborating information, have been longtime consultants to the Special Operations Command. I also received information from inside Pakistan
    about widespread dismay among the senior ISI and military leadership – echoed later by Durrani – over Obama’s decision to go public immediately with news of bin Laden’s death. The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

    The White House has, by the way, subsequently commented by calling Hersh’s account ‘baseless’.

    We’re talking about someone who is claiming to have had access not to important parts of the picture, but to ALL of it. Up to and including what was going on in the White House?

    If such a person exists and his story is credible, he’s breaking a whole list of laws about revealing classified information — and he can’t even be claiming he’s doing it for any public good.

    Honestly, I smell the distinct whiff of a disgruntled Bushie wingnut holdover, spinning a yarn for political reasons.

    As ever, consider the motivation: What reason does this ‘retired intelligence official’ have for revealing this almost entirely alternative version of events — one which appears to have a specific narrative to make the Obama administration look bad, untrustworthy, and incompetent?

    For what it’s worth, another reporter — Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame — disgraced himself by swallowing whole the Bush administration’s lies about Iraq and WMDs.

    BTW, Vox has an account pretty much tearing Hersh’s story to shreds:

  11. 2patricius2 says:

    “One anonymous source.” Not a heck of a lot of weight to the claim.

  12. Indigo says:


  13. Dennis says:

    “It is clear, however, that if left unchecked, Saddam Hussein wiill continue to increase his capability to wage biological and chemical warfare and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons. Should he succeed in that endeavor, he could alter the political and security landscape of the Middle East which, as we know all too well, affects American security.”Sen. Hillary Clinton (D, NY), Oct 10, 2002

    You support her, though. How can that be, Quilla? Say it isn’t so, this teller of whoppers is being held up here at this blog as a paragon of virtue and truth.

  14. Hue-Man says:

    How much yellow cake was his single anonymous source offering to sell?

  15. Indigo says:

    “Alleges.” It’s probably true because the thesis of the argument is that Obama is not-one-of-us.
    Oh, myyy! More damned code!

  16. gratuitous says:

    Actually, no. While the FBI had bin Laden on their Most Wanted list, the crimes for which he was sought did not include the Sept. 11 attacks.

    It appears that once again, the United States has trimmed its constitutional obligations for the sake of expediency and political gain; for that reason alone, I lend Sy Hersh far more credence than anyone in a position of authority vis-a-vis the military.

  17. Quilla says:

    Um, let’s invade because weapons of mass destruction? Now THAT was whopper!

  18. 2karmanot says:

    Because Benghazi

  19. Houndentenor says:

    A single source? No corroboration? Seriously?

    That’s not journalism. Is there any actual journalism left? It doesn’t seem like it lately.

  20. The_Fixer says:

    I’ll reserve judgment on this until more is known.

    I’ve always respected Sy Hersh, but also know that even the best of them can get suckered (Dan Rather, anyone?).

    I suspect that, in the end, the truth will fall somewhere between the two stories.

  21. BillFromPA says:

    Despite Hersh’s rep, this has the feel of a WingNut conspiracy theory. The original narrative that we didn’t trust Pakistan with prior news of the raid makes perfect sense. The Idea that OBL was in custody since 2006 is ridiculous on its face, the notion that this kept terrorists in check is unbelievable. Sy’s been had..

  22. Peabody Nobis says:

    Big whoop…nobody cares how he died…only that he did,indeed, die.
    Besides, Hersh needs more than one anonymous source…

  23. FauxyVixen says:

    “By Hersh’s account, bin Laden no longer posed any threat to the United States’s security and his death did nothing to cripple al Qaida’s leadership. If he’s right, bin Laden’s death was purely symbolic.”

    Was Bin Laden no longer the FBI’s #1 Most Wanted for the largest terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil at the time of his death?

  24. Dennis says:

    Explains Hillary’s and O’s need to lie about the raid on the compound in Benghazi as anything but a planned terrorist strike. The whole ‘Al Qaeda is on the run’ narrative had been planned as a 2012 campaign banner years beforehand.

  25. Quilla says:

    Cherry tree? What cherry tree?

    Since when has the National Narrative NOT been a lie…?

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