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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