Moral Low Ground


Seymour Hersh: Obama Lied about Osama bin Laden Raid

The US national security team, led by President Barack Obama, monitors in real-time the raid on the Abbottabad, Pakistan compound housing al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, May 1, 2011. (White House photo)

The US national security team, led by President Barack Obama, monitors in real-time the raid on the Abbottabad, Pakistan compound housing al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, May 1, 2011. (White House photo)

Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has published a 10,000-word exposé accusing the Obama administration of lying about the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the US military mission to assassinate the al-Qaeda leader in Pakistan.

“It’s been four years since a group of US Navy Seals assassinated Osama bin Laden in a night raid on a high-walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan,” Hersh’s article, published in the London Review of Books, begins. “The killing was the high point of Obama’s first term, and a major factor in his re-election. The White House still maintains that the mission was an all-American affair, and that the senior generals of Pakistan’s army and Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) were not told of the raid in advance. This is false, as are many other elements of the Obama administration’s account.”

“The most blatant lie was that Pakistan’s two most senior military leaders—General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of the army staff, and General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, director general of the ISI—were never informed of the US mission,” Hersh wrote, claiming that top Pakistani military officials knew about the operation and provided key assistance.

Hersh’s article also refutes Obama’s claim that bin Laden was located partially by tracking his personal messenger. According to the report, a former Pakistani intelligence officer tracked down the al-Qaeda leader in return for the lion’s share of a $25 million US bounty.

Another explosive accusation in Hersh’s article is that bin Laden wasn’t ‘hiding in plain sight’ at the Abbottabad compound, but was actually effectively held prisoner there by the ISI.

The article also casts doubt on the Obama administration’s account of the actual assassination of bin Laden, claiming there was no firefight inside the compound and that bin Laden was not armed when he was shot dead by a US Navy SEAL. An unnamed retired American official also refuted the administration claim that a veritable treasure trove of intelligence was recovered from bin Laden’s computer and documents, calling this a “hoax” perpetrated to give the false impression the terrorist leader was still operationally important.

Asad Durrani, a former ISI chief, corroborated much of what Hersh reported in the article.

“For a long time people have stopped trusting what comes out about bin Laden from the official mouths,” Durrani told Hersh. “People like to be told the truth, and what you’ve told me is essentially what I have heard from former colleagues who have been on a fact-finding mission since this episode.”

The Obama administration rejected the findings of Hersh’s latest investigation.

“There are too many inaccuracies and baseless assertions in this piece to fact check each one,” White House National Security Council spokesman Ned Price told The Hill. “The notion that the operation that killed Osama bin Laden was anything but a unilateral US mission is patently false,” said Price, who called the raid a “US operation through and through.”

Hersh’s report relies heavily on information from a single, anonymous source, a practice for which he has been criticized in the past. In a 2004 Telegraph review of Hersh’s Chain of Command: The Road From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, Amir Taheri expressed skepticism about the reliability, and even existence, of the reporter’s anonymous sources.

“As soon as he has made an assertion he cites a ‘source’ to back it. In every case this is either an unnamed former official or an unidentified secret document passed to Hersh in unknown circumstances,” wrote Taheri. “By my count Hersh has anonymous ‘sources’ inside 30 foreign governments and virtually every department of the US government.”

Responding to a New Yorker article in which Hersh accused the Bush administration of planning an attack on Iran and regime change in the Islamic Republic, Pentagon spokesman Bryan G. Whitman said “this reporter has a solid and well-earned reputation for making dramatic assertions based on thinly sourced, unverifiable anonymous sources.”

But New Yorker editor David Remnick has said he knows the identities of all Hersh’s anonymous sources.

“I know every single source that is in his pieces,” Remnick told the Columbia Journalism Review in 2003. “Every ‘retired intelligence officer,’ every general with reason to know, and all those phrases that one has to use, alas, by necessity, I say, ‘Who is it? What’s his interest?’ We talk it through.”

On Monday, Hersh defended his report, telling CNN, “I’ve been around a long time, I understand the consequences of saying what I’m saying.”

“I’m waiting for the White House to deny the story,” he said. Hersh also refuted the accusation that he relied too heavily on a single anonymous source.

“I don’t think that’s correct to say one anonymous source,” he argued. “The story says clearly that I was able to vet and verify information with others in the community. It’s very tough for guys still inside to get quoted extensively.”

Over the course of his 56-year journalism career, Hersh, who is 78 years old, revealed the My Lai massacre, the deceptions leading up to the 2003 Iraq war, the extent of US torture in Iraq and American covert operations and war plans targeting Iran. He won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 1970 for exposing the March 1968 massacre of hundreds of innocent Vietnamese civilians by American troops at My Lai and the subsequent US cover-up.

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