United States

White lies

Print edition : June 12, 2015

President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden (left), along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House on May 1, 2011. Photo: REUTERS

The building in Abbotabad where bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy Seals. Photo: The New York Times

The investigative journalist Seymour Hersh takes apart several important pieces of the U.S. narrative on the death of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in Pakistan in 2011.

In early May, THE veteran investigati-ve journalist Seymour Hersh wrote a 10,000-word report in London Review of Books entitled “The Killing of Osama bin Laden”. The essay alleges that the narrative produced by the United States government on the events of May 2, 2011, is flawed. The fact of bin Laden’s death is not in contention. At least that is taken for granted. What is in doubt, Hersh argues in the report, is the manner in which the U.S. government found out about bin Laden’s presence in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad, the role of the Pakistani government in the U.S. operation, the way in which the U.S. Navy Seals killed bin Laden, and the manner in which his body was disposed of. The allegations are not all new. Many of them had circulated widely in Pakistan right after the operation. What gives them weight is that they come from a well-respected U.S. journalist and produced a denial from the White House.

What was the U.S. government’s story? The film Zero Dark Thirty (2012) closely reflects the official tale. Under torture, the film suggests, an associate of bin Laden led the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to the Al Qaeda courier network that kept bin Laden in operational control. The CIA followed the couriers until they found bin Laden in Abbottabad. A fake polio immunisation drive allowed the CIA to get the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) sample of bin Laden to confirm his identity. At this point, the White House authorised the Navy Seals to fly into Pakistan—without permission from the Pakistani military—and seize bin Laden. The raid went as planned although one of the two helicopters crashed in the compound. Bin Laden was killed in a firefight. His body was returned to Afghanistan, from where it was taken to USS Carl Vinson to be buried at sea. A trove of intelligence was found in bin Laden’s compound, which was turned over to the CIA.

Hersh disputes much of this story. He brings a tremendous amount of credibility to his assessment. Hersh as a reporter won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking the story about the My Lai (Vietnam) massacre by U.S. troops in 1969. Unlike many of his peers, he did not set down his notebook and take up the columnist’s pen; he continued doggedly to pursue the story in the trenches of the U.S. security state. Thirty-five years after My Lai, Hersh brought to light the torture by U.S. prison guards in Abu Ghraib (Iraq). In recent years, as Hersh has shone his torch at the operation of the U.S. security state, establishment media outlets in the U.S. have pilloried him as a “conspiracy theorist”. Rather than carefully go through the evidence that he is able to provide, the press has been overly hostile to his reports—whether on allegations that Turkey is in collusion with Islamist radicals and that these radicals might have used chemical weapons in Syria (“The Red Line and the Rat Line”, London Review of Books, April 17, 2014), or on the death of bin Laden.

One of the most frequent criticisms against Hersh is that he uses anonymous sources. This is certainly the case. Why do journalists like Hersh rely on anonymous sources? One of the reasons is that the U.S. government is ruthless in its treatment of whistle-blowers. The Barack Obama administration, more than any previous one, has used the Espionage Act against any government official who leaks information that is inconvenient to it. Most recently, Jeffrey Sterling, an undercover CIA officer, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for letting The New York Times reporter James Risen know about Operation Merlin—a covert campaign by the U.S. government to sell Iran flawed material for its nuclear programme. That Hersh uses anonymous sources is nothing new. Most articles on national security rely on “senior government officials” or a “senior White House official who is not authorised to speak publicly”. Such formal criticism of Hersh’s reporting is misplaced, or even malicious. What is most striking about the lack of interest in Hersh’s account is that it comes just months after the U.S. Congressional Report on the CIA’s use of torture (“America’s Shame”, Frontline, January 9). That report shows that the CIA tried to hide its operations even when its personnel knew that laws had been violated. Trust in government should have been rattled by the revelations in that report, if nothing else. Hersh’s report takes apart several important pieces of the White House narrative on the death of bin Laden. There are pieces of the story, such as the bits about bin Laden’s body and the intelligence gained from bin Laden’s compound, that are fascinating but perhaps not as explosive as the three questions: How did the U.S. learn that bin Laden was in Abbottabad? What did the Pakistani military know? Why did Obama betray the Pakistanis?

How did the U.S. learn about bin Laden’s presence?

The CIA torture report discounts the claim that it was through the torture of the Al Qaeda operative Hassan Ghul that the CIA learnt the name of bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti. It was clear within Pakistan’s salons that the U.S. did not learn of bin Laden’s presence through the courier network. That information came through an old-fashioned source: the walk-in.

The U.S. government had offered a $25 million bounty on bin Laden’s head. In 2010, Brigadier Usman Khalid, a former Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) official, met Jonathan Bank, the CIA station chief in Islamabad, and told him that since 2005 the Pakistanis had bin Laden in a safe house in Abbottabad not far from a massive military camp. Hersh’s claim, verified by the senior Pakistani journalist Amir Mir, was made by the former ISI chief, General Ziauddin Butt, in December 2011. Butt had said that it was Brigadier Ijaz Shah, at the behest of President Pervez Musharraf, who had organised bin Laden’s stay. The New York Times’ Kabul bureau chief, Carlotta Gall, made some of these astounding claims in a magazine article in December 2014. She quoted an anonymous Pakistani official as having told her that the ISI chief, Lt General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, “knew of bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad”. Carlotta Gall said she spent two years trying to piece together the story. Butt was the only person who said that Musharraf had hidden bin Laden. When the story broke, Butt claimed in the Pakistani press that he had been misunderstood. Later, Carlotta Gall said that she got confirmation that the ISI not only knew of bin Laden’s location but also had a “special desk assigned to handle bin Laden”. When she informed U.S. officials about this, they “told me that the information was consistent with their own conclusion”. When Hersh was attacked for making the claim that the U.S. knew about bin Laden, Carlotta Gall wrote in The Times in defence of his report. She is one of the few, and perhaps the most informed, journalists to defend Hersh.

Brigadier Khalid gave his information to the CIA, and the U.S. went to the Pakistani generals and offered them a deal—either they hand over bin Laden or the U.S. would cut off its substantial annual bursary to the military. Pakistan Army chief General Ashraf Kayani agreed, but on one condition: the U.S. could come in and take bin Laden but only claim a week later to have killed him by a drone strike. Pakistan stood down as U.S. helicopters came in from Afghanistan. Bin Laden was killed. The firefight alleged by the U.S. government was overblown. Neither bin Laden, nor his wives and associates put up much resistance. Bin Laden’s youngest wife, Amal, told The Telegraph’s Rob Crilly in 2013 that far from being a threat to the Navy Seals, “she flung herself at the commando, in a desperate attempt to snatch the rifle away”. She was shot in the knee. Bin Laden was shot in the forehead. The wives and children collected some trinkets and went into ISI custody.

Former Pakistan ambassador in the U.S. Husain Haqqani, now a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute (Washington, D.C.), denies that Pakistan knew of bin Laden’s presence or that it colluded in his capture. He repeats the claim that Pakistan’s western border has poor radar coverage and the U.S. simply flew out of its range. What he does not address is how the U.S. troops were able to conduct their raid within sight of a Pakistani military camp. An owner of a small coffee shop, Sohaib Athar, live-tweeted the entire attack, but no Pakistani police or military came to the scene. Haqqani says that he was not aware of any collusion. But he does not answer the basic questions of the irresolute police action in Abbottabad. The Abbottabad Commission Report, ordered by the Pakistan government, suggested that the events of May 2 showed the “complacency, ignorance, negligence, incompetence, irresponsibility and possibly worse at various levels inside and outside the government”. It is the last part, “possibly worse”, that allows Hersh’s narrative credibility (although Hersh does not use the Abbottabad Commission Report). No one has been able to show conclusively that Pakistan did not know of the U.S. operation. Much more will need to be investigated here.

Why did Obama betray the Pakistanis?

President Obama violated the deal with the Pakistanis, namely to announce a week later that bin Laden had been killed in a drone strike. He took credit for the death that very night and said that a Navy Seal raid inside Pakistan killed bin Laden. Hersh does not say why Obama did not wait for a week. One problem was that Sohaib Athar had already told the world about the raid, and the downed U.S. helicopter proved that he was not hallucinating. The cat had been released from the bag. It is also likely that Obama wanted to crown himself in glory before his re-election. Pakistan looked foolish, but it could not say anything. The deal could not be openly talked about. It would mean that Pakistan would have to admit that it had kept bin Laden secretly for five years, in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1267 and 1373.

Hersh alleges that Saudi Arabia paid for bin Laden’s accommodation. This is unverified but not improbable. More than anything, the Saudis wanted bin Laden silent, either under house arrest in Pakistan with no connection to the outside world, or dead. Their money got the former; the U.S. did the latter. The world did not get to hear of bin Laden’s account of who funded him and groomed him during the 1990s and early 2000s.

No one denies that bin Laden is dead. That Pakistan held him is one scandal. That the U.S. and Pakistan cooked up an operation is another. The fallout of this scandal is yet to come, and its depth is yet to be plumbed. Haqqani is not optimistic. “Both the people of Pakistan and the people of the United States would benefit from detailed answers to questions about bin Laden’s support network in Pakistan,” he writes. “But don’t hold your breath. It might not be in either Islamabad’s or Washington’s interest to wake sleeping dogs.”

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