This week legendary investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published a 10,000-word account of the killing of Osama bin Laden in the London Review of Books. Hersh’s use of anonymous sources have led many to cast doubt on the assertions in the article, especially since it directly contradicts the White House narrative. Bob talks with Hersh about the swirling controversy.
Bob: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week. I'm Bob Garfield. If you've read any of the thousands of journalistic accounts, or only seen Zero Dark Thirty, you know how the 2011 Osama bin Laden raid came to pass. SEAL Team 6 took him out after the CIA sniffed him out.
Interrogator: When was the last time you saw bin Laden, huh?
Interrogator: You know, when you lie to me, I hurt you.
Bob: Or, maybe not. Over the weekend, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, he of My Lai, Abu Ghraib, and many other stunning exposés, broke another jaw-dropper. His 10,000 word piece in the London Review of Books alleged that the special forces operation that took bin Laden's life was not at all what we've been led to believe - by journalists or by the U.S. Government.
President Obama: A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.
Bob: No, says Hersh. No fire fight. They just shot him. Nor, he says, were bin Laden's whereabouts, in an Abbottabad, Pakistan compound, uncovered by a painstaking CIA stakeout of a courier. Rather, the Al-Qaeda leader was ratted out by a Pakistani military intelligence officer, who walked into the U.S. Embassy with a tip and walked out with a multi-million dollar reward. The informant, says Hersh, told the CIA that bin Laden had been essentially under house-arrest in Abbottabad for years. And, by the way, Saudi Arabia had been footing the bill. Another lie, Hersh maintains, is the Obama administration's claim that it acted without the knowledge of the Pakistanis. In fact, he says, Navy SEAL Team 6 was escorted through the compound by a Pakistani operative. Oh, and the body supposedly buried at sea, was tossed in chunks from a helicopter over the Afghan mountains. The White House thoroughly disputes Hersh's account. Hersh cites high-level sources, but apart from Pakistani General Asad Durrani, who retired from the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate in 1992, all of those sources are anonymous, and he relies heavily on just one unnamed official - one reason the big scoop has been met with some derision from other journalists. Jack Shafer in Politico said Hersh, quote "leads the reader into a wonderland of his own". Max Fisher, writing for Vox, says Hersh has gone off the rails - the sort of thing Hersh says he has been hearing for decades.
Hersh: You whippersnappers. You should have seen what happened after I wrote at the end of '74 on the, uh, CIA domestic spying. You know, that was a great story that led to the Church Committee. I was just wacked. Even when I did My Lai, oh my god.
Bob: Mhmm. Alright, now your piece is pretty thinly sourced. I mean it's very thinly sourced.
Hersh: Let me say this again. The stories I wrote about CIA domestic spying came primarily from one person. That's the way it works. This was at the New York Times. I then took that information to others and verified. Once you know something, you can get a lot of things verified. Same process, I would say this sourcing was no thinner than most of the stories I've written since 9/11 at the New Yorker and elsewhere.
Bob: What makes your narrative plausible is our understanding that what goes on between the United States and Pakistan's ISI, the security agency, is often a very shadowy double or triple game because of both conflicting and converging interests, from the Pentagon to the State Department to Pakistani political leaders facing domestic public opinion to the Taliban, you name it. But, Sy, those conditions are exactly what made somebody suggest that you are being played like a fiddle. How do you figure out how good this anonymous information is in that environment?
Hersh: Well, within days of that raid, I was hearing that there were a lot of problems from the Joint Special Operations Command point-of-view. I've been writing about JSOC for a long time, I know people there. I also independently got an email within three or four days from somebody I know in Pakistan - somebody I've dealt with, somebody who works in high international positions in international organizations, and above reproach. I also got information that actually matched what I was hearing in town at the same time. That's pretty solid.
Bob: I know how hard it is to keep a secret, and the narrative that you are spinning suggests that there are hundreds of people in the administration, in the military, and the security forces of two governments who were in on the conspiracy. It just strikes me as being on the face of it, unimaginable.
Hersh: Can I ask you a question? So how many people do you think it the American government, in the years 2001-2002-2003 leading up to the late-March attack on Iraq, knew that the government was misrepresenting the intelligence of a WMD? So if 30,000 employees of the NSA and god knows how many contractors - Snowden was a contractor - let's say another 20,000 contractors. So of 50,000 people in the NSA, let's say 10% of that...
Bob: Oh no, ok. I see where you're going with this. Touche. I take your point.
Hersh: One person only came out and said the constitution's being violated! Was that a greater secret do you think, a more important story than even the bin Laden thing, which was just an operational thing. I mean, one person only of, how many, 5-10,000? Snowden happened two years. The WMD happened ten years ago. We've demonstrated that you can cow the bureaucracy; you can cow people to an extraordinary length in this society. Ask me a good question. Here's a question you can ask me: Do I have any evidence that anything I say is true? Evidence.
Bob: Do you have any evidence that anything you say is true?
Hersh: I don't have a thing in writing that says anything. I haven't had for all my stories. It's easy when you have a document. In the story I did about Abu Ghraib I had an internal report that was devastating. And in the My Lai story when I was just a kid, I had seen a piece of paper I talked about that said he was accused, but I didn't have 'em. All those stories I was writing for the New Yorker after 9/11 were all done on the same, exactly the same basis as this story. One named source, something you verify. The people at the London Review know who my source is. They've talked to him. They've talked to him three times. The basic source.
Bob: I want to ask you about Asad Durrani, the retired intelligence figure. You hang your hat very much on what he has to tell you. But Peter Bergen of CNN went back to the same guy and he said, "Well, I have actually no evidence that Pakistan knew about bin Laden's whereabouts". "It's not implausible", he said, "but I have no evidence that we knew".
Hersh: I'll send you an email that Durrani wrote Bergen with a copy to me saying, "How dare you say that. You misquoted what I said." Bergen quoted him as saying he knew of no evidence, and what he said was something he else. He says, "I have no evidence". He doesn't have a document, but he was a four star general even though he didn't serve for years, he's still deeply involved in stuff. And he knew specifically, things about the walk-in, but he has no evidence, because nobody does.
Bob: Right, we're not talking about the walk-in by the military intelligence official. I thought Bergen was saying that Durrani denied having evidence of Pakistan's cooperation in the raid.
Hersh: He was not a player to it. He learned afterwards, as I assure you, all of the retired four star guys that used to run the ISA, that was a major, major issue for them, because when Obama went public and said, "We did it without any help, and the Pakistanis weren't involved, and we fooled them". And the critical thing you must know, you must tell your audience, the whole critical crux of the story was that he was supposed to wait seven to ten days and then say, "We killed him in a raid in the Hindu Kush mountains. We had a drone attack, and we went and did the post-strike look. We saw the body of a tall guy that looked like Bin Laden, took a picture, and we took his DNA, and by God we got him. You know, at that time, we were running about 8% popularity, America was, in Pakistan. Would've been all hell to pay for the army if they thought that the Pakistanis are actively involved. The fear of getting out that they killed him was just overwhelming for the Pakistanis. And Durrani knew enough about it to say categorically to me - he calls it a double-cross, we made it something lesser, because we didn't know, we couldn't, he agreed, knowing what was published in this piece, without everybody, every principal, seeing it.
Bob: I'm obliged to ask you one more question. This is the hard stuff...
Hersh: I'm glad. Go ahead.
Bob: At least in one of the headlines, it said that you are off-the-rails.
Bob: And I have to tell you, that a couple of your stories in the last few years, that I looked at, and you know, I kind of winced. Uh, concerning pending U.S. attack on Iran, about chemical weapons in Syria, and our supposed false-flag operation trying to deflect blame onto Assad when we knew that, according to your narrative, that Islamist forces were deploying these chemical weapons.
Hersh: I never said that I knew who did it. I just said that the evidence we had was much weaker than they're telling us. Period. I can't apologize for the way it was interpreted.
Bob: I guess what I'm saying is that this, the reaction to this story...
Hersh: I don't care...
Bob:...did not occur in a vacuum.
Hersh: I don't care if you don't like my stories!
Bob: I understand, but let me ask you the question. The reaction to this story did not happen in a vacuum. It happened in the context of observers seeing you on ever-thinner ice, sourcing ice, and wondering whether the boy is crying wolf because there's a wolf or because the boy is just seeing wolves, because that's what the boy is expected to do.
Hersh: Do you want my answer to that?
Bob: I do.
Hersh: Boo hoo. Just, boo hoo. Who cares? I write my stories. I'm not doing any different reporting than I did twenty years ago, and believe me, the criticism I had for some of those early stories was just as acute. You're just all forgetting it. It's always the same issue. He sees things under the wall, he doesn't have good sources. And you have a press committed to your narrative. And I do counternarratives. And that has a cost. But you know something? I've been around a long time. I still have my fastball. And I just have learned to pretty much ignore a lot of the critics. I have no idea what some the animus is about, but most of the animus about this one is simply that everybody in America, all the press - hook line and sinker for the story. They took it all. And whatever questions that were raised they shoved aside. You tell me the last time a group of SEALs flew into a strange country on a mission to hit somebody, two choppers full of twelve guys, no air cover. Do you remember, in the original plan, they were gonna repel and go down by rope into a courtyard? Are you kidding me? The electricity had been cut off for hours. The police had never showed up and the fire department showed up despite the fact one of the choppers crashed right outside the compound. They had to blow it up because of the communications gear and other stuff they had in it. So you had a big fire going, you had bombs going off. And nobody's bothering you. Why bin Laden would be living so close to a couple of Pakistani military bases with no significant backup, all those questions just disappeared. And that's lousy reporting.
Bob: Sy, I want to thank you.
Bob: Seymour Hersh's article "The Killing of Osama bin Laden" was published in the London Review of Books. You can find a longer version of this interview at our website, onthemedia.org, or by subscribing to our podcast.