When Seymour Hersh is right, he’s really right. His incredible reporting unearthed the My Lai massacre in 1969, causing seismic tremors for the U.S. military that would reverberate for decades. Thirty-five years later, Hersh’s patient detective work uncovered the detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib, changing not just how U.S. forces treated detainees in the field but also how the U.S. military managed detention operations at Guantánamo Bay. These meticulously researched and reported pieces altered the course of American policy during two major wars, and set a gold standard for what investigative national security journalism can (and should) be.
Unfortunately, Hersh’s latest dispatch in the London Review of Books falls far short of this mark. In a piece published Sunday, Hersh asserts that the official story of how U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden in May 2011 was one, big, bright shining lie, shielded up until now by the hyperclassification surrounding the mission and a desire to protect America’s secret partners in Pakistan. To make these fantastic allegations, Hersh relies on a coterie of Pakistani sources, mostly retired from that country’s military or intelligence agencies, as well as a handful of anonymous U.S. officials or consultants. The shallow sourcing alone makes Hersh’s article suspicious. The convenient overlap between certain Pakistani interests and the truths revealed by Hersh cast doubt on the piece too, especially in the absence of more solid sourcing. Many of the actual details in the piece, such as the reported obliteration of Bin Laden’s corpse by gunfire, shred any remaining credibility the article might have. Little wonder the CIA told the Washington Post the report was “utter nonsense,” and a White House official said it had “too many inaccuracies and baseless assertions” to respond to each one.
According to Hersh, “[t]he most blatant lie” told about the U.S. raid to kill Bin Laden was Pakistan’s reported lack of knowledge about the whole thing. According to the former head of Pakistan’s intelligence service, whom Hersh interviewed on the record, Pakistan’s top leaders supposedly knew of the raid beforehand, and even played a central role in pulling it off.
Not surprisingly given his Pakistani sources, Hersh’s version of truth aligns conveniently with Pakistani interests, particularly those of Pakistani generals anxious to make themselves look less impotent after the U.S. raid. In the U.S. version that has been told many times since 2011, Pakistan’s military fell asleep at the switch multiple times, allowing Bin Laden to live near Pakistan’s version of West Point, and allowing U.S. forces to conduct a lethal raid on their territory. In Hersh’s telling, Pakistani leaders look calculating, wise, and gifted at manipulating their American patrons.
First, Pakistan’s generals showed foresight by detaining Bin Laden and keeping him under house arrest. Then these generals showed cunning and skill by keeping this fact secret for years, both from the United States and from the Taliban and al-Qaida. Finally, when a Pakistani officer betrayed Bin Laden’s whereabouts to the United States, according to Hersh, Pakistan’s generals orchestrated the raid as a way of eliminating the problem while maintaining access to critical U.S. military and foreign assistance. (Bravo, Islamabad!)
Hersh claims he learned the official line was a lie first from anonymous U.S. sources, including “a retired senior intelligence official who was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad,” as well as two “longtime consultants to the Special Operations Command.” Hersh’s language indicates these individuals (assuming they are individuals and not composites invented to further disguise the identity of his sources) are at least two degrees of separation from the small teams in the Defense Department and CIA who led the operation. Further, Hersh describes a kind of omniscience for his retired intelligence official source that almost never occurs in practice.
With the exception of some very top agency leaders, security compartmentalization would likely preclude the same person from knowing about the early intelligence gathered about Bin Laden’s whereabouts, the operations to confirm his location, the political dealings with Pakistan’s leadership, and the mission to capture or kill Bin Laden. It’s possible (but very unlikely) a crusty old intelligence officer would pick up details here and there at headquarters, or in the Islamabad station. But what is unlikely for a senior intelligence official would be virtually impossible for contractors or consultants supporting the Defense Department’s special operations forces, subject to legal and contractual firewalls governing their work and access to classified information, let alone classified information about another agency.
Many of the specific facts reported by Hersh leap from the story as too fabulous to believe. Perhaps the most incredible of these is the extent of coordination between the United States and Pakistan regarding the precise operational details of the raid. Fewer secrets are more closely held by the U.S. military than the details of combat missions—who will go, when, and by what means to attack a given target. And yet, according to Hersh, a cell manned by the U.S. military and the CIA inside of Pakistan shared these details with Pakistan’s military during the raid so its army and air defense forces could be turned away while it was happening. Given the reluctance of U.S. forces to share these details with even closer allies, the distrust between the U.S. and Pakistani military, and the enormous risk involved with this mission, this allegation stands out as too hard to believe.
Other pieces of reporting strike similarly discordant notes. Hersh characterizes the mission as an “assassination” and says the team understood it to be homicide when they executed it. He quotes a former Navy SEAL commander who says, “We know what we’re doing inside Pakistan is a homicide. We’ve come to grips with that. Each one of us, when we do these missions, say to ourselves, ‘Let’s face it. We’re going to commit a murder.’”
It’s hard to imagine these words being spoken by a Navy SEAL who had led dozens of such raids. U.S. troops now go through many hours of legal training, and their missions are subject to so much legal scrutiny—ironically, in large part because of the internal change catalyzed by Hersh’s revelations of the My Lai massacre, which gave rise to the Defense Department’s law of war program. The work of killing in close combat is grim, dirty, serious business, but no professional soldier or special operator I’ve ever encountered has described it as “murder.”
Other allegations stand out as problematic, too. Hersh writes of a special “nondisclosure form drafted by the White House’s legal office [that] promised civil penalties and a lawsuit for anyone who discussed the mission, in public or private.” According to an unnamed former U.S. intelligence official, this was done to silence the SEAL community as to what really happened on the mission. However, there are many more plausible explanations, rooted in the realities of the military and intelligence bureaucracy.
After the raid, the Pentagon moved its files on the raid to the CIA, as Hersh himself reports later in his piece. In doing so, the government likely changed the classification regime for the information relating to the raid, requiring some or all of the SEALs privy to these details to sign a new “Sensitive Compartmented Information Nondisclosure Statement.” It’s true these agreements contain strict rules regarding public release of classified information, including potential civil penalties (something former Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette learned the hard way when he published a book about the raid). But it’s an incredible (and unsupported) leap of logic to say these forms were specially modified by the White House to prevent special operations personnel from telling the real story of Abbottabad. (Regardless, the forms haven’t worked that well, as illustrated by the blockbuster book and movie depicting the raid that were aided by current and former military personnel.)
Hersh also describes the climactic moment of the Abbottabad raid as somewhat less triumphant than any previous account. By the time of the raid, Hersh reports, Bin Laden was “an invalid” and “a cripple.” When Navy SEALs reached Bin Laden’s room on the third floor, Hersh reports they “faced an unarmed elderly civilian” and “obliterated him” with small arms fire that had “torn Bin Laden’s body to pieces with rifle fire.”
While such a thing is technically possible, it’s extremely unlikely given the precision techniques SEALs typically use to kill targets, and the close quarters of the room where they found Bin Laden. Hersh goes on to dispute the fact that Bin Laden was then buried at sea, suggesting that his body may have been thrown out of the SEALs’ helicopter on the way out of Pakistan, and that the entire burial at sea was concocted as a cover story. This too goes too far, reflecting a more vivid imagination that sees secrets in the shadow of truth, where no reporting or evidence exists.
If the facts were as Hersh reported, they probably would have come out by now, either from one of the Navy SEALs who has already gone public, or another who felt he had the story of a lifetime to share. Conspiracies like the one Hersh describes rarely occur in fact because they are simply too hard for a complex, diverse, dispersed, multilayered organization like the U.S. government to pull off. Hersh should know this, too.