Is the Bin Laden Interview Authentic?

We should at least ask.

On the evening of Sept. 11, Osama Bin Laden reportedly sent the following message to Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir, editor of the Urdu-language daily Ausaf: “I am not involved in these attacks, but I support them.” This went largely unmentioned in the Western media, presumably because there were doubts about the statement’s authenticity. Although Mir was a respected and influential journalist in Pakistan, there were questions about his credibility in the West. For one thing, Mir claimed to be Bin Laden’s authorized biographer. If Bin Laden really had chosen Mir to tell his story, that raised doubts about Mir’s independence. As late as Oct. 27, Mir was telling the Associated Press, “I still think [Bin Laden] isn’t involved in terrorism.” Could Americans really trust the word of a journalist who doubted Bin Laden’s involvement in the U.S. embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania; the attack on the USS Cole; the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center; and the destruction of those towers on Sept. 11? On Sept. 11, the apparent consensus in the U.S. media was that it couldn’t.

Since then, though, Mir has become a familiar face in the United States as a TV commentator on Bin Laden, demonstrating his bona fides by, among other things, questioning Bin Laden’s brains and charisma. (“I don’t think that he is a very intelligent person,” he told CNBC’s Keith Miller on Oct. 25. “He is full of hatred against Americans. … [H]e is not a good orator.”) By this week, when Mir published (in Ausaf and also the English-language newspaper Dawn) a new battlefield interview with Bin Laden that he claimed to have conducted on Nov. 8, almost no one in the Western press had the bad manners even to ask whether it could be authenticated.

Is the interview for real? Chatterbox cannot say. He certainly has no evidence to suggest that it’s a phony. CNN terrorism expert Peter Bergen, author of Holy War, Inc., an authoritative new book on Bin Laden, appears to think it’s legit; on CNN SundayNov. 11, he said that Mir’s description of being bundled in a blanket and driven in a Jeep five hours strongly resembled his own experience interviewing Bin Laden in 1997. (Mir is cited respectfully in Holy War.) Also on Nov. 11, CNN’s man in Islamabad, Nic Robertson, reported that he’d met with Mir and asked him to supply proof that he’d really met with Bin Laden:

He showed us photographs that he said were taken in the last few days during that meeting. He showed us the negatives. He showed us the stamps in his passport showing that he had left Pakistan, gone to Afghanistan in this time period, and he also played for us an audio tape. On that audio tape, he said the voices that we could hear speaking in Arabic were that of Osama bin Laden and his lieutenant Ayman Al Zawahiri. He said Mr. Dr. Zawahiri was the translator during that interview.

Robertson repeated these verifying details on CNN’s Reliable Sources, prompting host Howard Kurtz to comment, “So we’re reasonably certain that the interview took place.” It would have been more accurate for Kurtz to say, “So, there’s some interesting but non-conclusive evidence that the interview took place.” The negatives are the most persuasive piece of authentication, but they may merely indicate that this is an unusually sophisticated doctoring job. The audiotape (unlike the Al Jazeera videotapes of Bin Laden) would be easy to fake, and the passport stamps merely show that Mir has been to Afghanistan and back.

Is Mir’s account authentic? Again, Chatterbox doesn’t know. But he thinks two skeptical questions are worth raising.

Question 1: What was Bin Laden doing in the northern part of Afghanistan on Nov. 8?

Mir says that he doesn’t know where he was taken because he couldn’t see where he was being driven. But, he said Nov. 12 on Larry King Live,

[T]hat place where I interviewed him was much colder than Kabul. And I was hearing anti-aircraft gunfire. And I think this place was in the north of Afghanistan because the north is much colder than Kabul. And that place was much closer to the war front.

Mir added that he didn’t get the sense that this was Bin Laden’s “permanent hideout.” But if you were Bin Laden, would you have spent Nov. 8 in the path of the Northern Alliance, which took Mazar-e-Sharif on Nov. 9 and Kabul on Nov. 13? Probably not. More likely, you’d be deep in Taliban-controlled southern Afghanistan, which is where al-Qaida is said to maintain its operations.

Granted, Mir doesn’t say for sure that he was in northern Afghanistan. He says that’s just a guess. But Mir is obviously familiar with the region’s climate, and he obviously knows we know that. Mir also knows that anti-aircraft fire would be more likely in the north than in the south. If Mir were fabricating a story aimed in part at misdirecting U.S. military forces—and again, Chatterbox wants to emphasize that he has no actual evidence that this is so—he would probably try to persuade the Western press that Bin Laden is not in the south.

Question 2: Why the initial inconsistency about whether Bin Laden claims to have nukes?

In Dawn, Mir had Bin Laden claiming to have chemical and nuclear weapons. In Ausaf, the newspaper Mir actually edits, Mir left this headline-making revelation out (though he later put it into a second dispatch after the discrepancy had been noted). Time magazine speculated that Mir left it out because he was under pressure from the Pakistani government. But the second dispatch, as translated by the BBC on Nov. 12, freely quotes Bin Laden’s criticisms of Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf. (“The slogan motto of the Pakistan Army was faith, taqwa, extreme practice of Islam, and jihad in the way of Allah. But, Gen Pervez Musharraf has forgotten the slogan.”) Why would the Pakistani government allow Bin Laden to publish one and not the other? On CBS’s Live at Daybreak Nov. 12, Mir offered that because the interview was so long (supposedly it lasted two hours), “there [were] some sentences missing from the English version and some sentences were missing from the Urdu version.” But that explanation still doesn’t make clear why Mir would initially leave the hottest news out of his own paper.

Chatterbox doesn’t pretend to have proved that Mir’s Bin Laden interview is inauthentic. But these questions should at least compel journalists to acknowledge, when interviewing Mir or quoting from his Bin Laden piece, that the story’s authenticity cannot and should not be assumed.