While other journalists rushed to debunk Seymour Hersh's claims about the Bin Laden raid, Carlotta Gall of the New York Timeswrote this week that at least one detail of his story rings true to her. As a reporter in Pakistan in 2011 she too had heard about a walk-in informant who had information about the Abbottabad compound, but wasn't able to confirm the story until Hersh published his account. Gall talks to Bob about why Hersh's report is intriguing even if she's not necessarily sold on the full narrative, and how it opens the door to more questions.
Bob Garfield: This is On The Media I'm Bob Garfield. While others rushed to dismissed Hersh's reporting on the Bin Laden raid, Carlotta Gall of the New York Times published a piece in the Times magazine online with the headline The detail in Seymour Hersh's Bin Laden Story that Rings True. That detail concerns the walk in military informant who Hersh says told of Bin Laden's presence in Abottabad. Carlotta Gall the 12 year veteran of the Afghan war is intrigued if not necessarily entirely sold on Hersh's narrative.
Carlotta Gall: It has some incredible claims in it so I think we all are pretty surprised.
Bob: When you say incredible do you mean as remarkable or not credible.
Carlotta: I think a bit of both. Even I can barely believe the sort of throwing body parts out of the helicopters on the way back over the Hindu kush. You know, this whole idea that the body was never buried at sea and we spent the last four years believing that was the case. and I think now we start to go through piece by piece what is believable and why and so I did at least the one detail that I knew something about and I had been following and wanting to write about for some time but waiting for that second source or a bit more corroboration.
Bob: You're speaking of the walk-in informant.
Carlotta: A lot of us have heard this: even from the beginning when Bin Laden was first killed there were these rumors going around that it was a brigadier in the Pakistani military or intelligence. And some people wrote about it but nobody could ever really pin it down. After my book came out last year I got a very strong tip from a source and so I'd been particularly thinking and working on this. And then I saw that Hersh had an american source and so that's what actually made me really sit up and notice.
Bob: On the subject of details there was one that Hersh evokes in his piece and that is the question of why at the time of the raid with explosions going on that the locals heard all the commotions and called the cops and the cops would've responded except that the military had told them to stand down which does suggest that the Pakistani government knew what was afoot and of course conflicts with everything we have been told officially. What to make of that?
Carlotta: I don't know if it happened I just have that nagging worrying issue in my head that's what the police told me the very next day. The military didn't turn up why were they so slow? What is the answer to that? But it's not a proof of anything. All I can really say is that Sey Hersh has suggested something which then I start thinking over and then I think well that would explain the one anomaly that I was always worrying about.
Bob: Apart from the few of the more lurid details were there anything substantive or fundamental to Hersh's story that you just dismissed out of hand that made you think as others have alleged that he's simply off the rails?
Carlotta: I would never say another journalist is off the rails, but there some things that I thought "no that's not quite right". One is that he writes Bin Laden was a prisoner, I see him as more being under protective custody. He didn't have armed guards, we know that. he was there with his sort of consent. This is another detail I sort of disagree with Hersh on: I understood her did leave the compound at time, he did have meetings with fellow *gehardies*. And I uncovered one incident in 2009 when he traveled quite far towards the Afghan border to meet with people. There were things like that that I didn't agree with. Now the issues like the body not being buried at sea I have no idea you know, I don't have any eyes on that at all, I haven't talked to anyone or got close to what happened. So there are things I just can't judge.
Bob: Uh, if you'll forgive the impertinence, Carlotta, it seems to me like you've buried the lead. because if what you've just said did true, we have been systematically lied to by a lot of people. The notion that Usama Bin Laden, the world's most hunted man, was hiding in plain view probably under the protection of the Pakistani government nominally our ally, conflicts with everything we have been told. Have we, and everyone else in the world, been sold a bill of goods?
Carlotta: To some extent yes. I divided into two things. There's clearly a protection of the story, of the walk-in you know, this man comes in he's then presumably taken to the states and given witness protection presumably under serious threat of Al-Qaeda and possibly his own government. We were told it was the hard work of CIA officers who tracked the career and found Bin Laden. That I can understand that the government lied to us, I don't like it but I can understand. I think you're right there is much greater and more troubling point that having found out that Bin Laden was there all this time kept under wraps by the Pakistani intelligence what does that say about this ally? I think it is very serious to just brush that under the carpet and that's what happened after Bin Laden was killed. The administration after leaking a few angry comments about "we didn't trust Pakistan" they then brushed it under the carpet and said there's no smoking gun.
Bob: You have told me about this source that you have on the walk-in and about your reservations about aspects of the narrative as spun by the administration and by the Pakistanis. Knowing that there is there there and yet you sat on the walk-in story. Why be silent and why end the silence now?
Carlotta: Well um I think it was my choice. I think I never actually took it to the Times. I'm now north Africa correspondent so I'm kind of busy in north Africa and so when I did learn about it my plan was to try and find another source to corroborate it which mean waiting until I had a chance to go to Washington or america and talk to people. It was on the back burner with me but i didn't feel I had enough to go with it on my own. Once of course Seymour Hersh comes out with it and he seems to have american and Pakistani conformation then I could say what I also had but I didn't feel I had enough, at the time, to come out with it on my own.
Bob: the back burner four years is a long time.
Carlotta: But I only learned it from a solid source last year. so I've been sitting on it, yes, for about a year. Perhaps my mistake I was being cautious I guess.
Bob: And Sey Hersh himself to read some of his accounts of his accounts you would think he was some sort of mad hatter. Maybe some of his reporting is right and some of it is wrong. In the ecosystem of finding out what the US government is up to and what the Pakistani government is up to, do we need someone like Sey in order to get the story moving. You know it moved you off of the back-burner finally. Is he indispensable in this process? Even if he doesn't have it quite right.
Carlotta: I think absolutely because the main thing that we do us journalists is raise questions you know we're not policy makers we just sort of put up the flag really and we know his track record is extraordinary even if some of it's wrong we can at least go over it and question it all again so I think thta's the job that journalists do and he does it par excellence.
Bob: Carlotta thank you.
Carlotta: Thank you very much.
Bob: Carlotta Gall of the New York Times covered Pakistan and Afghanistan for more than 12 years beginning in 2001. She's also author of the Wrong Enemy: America is Afghanistan 2001 to 2014.