So is Sy Hersh’s story in the London Review of Books on the raid at Abbottabad in which Osama bin Laden was killed fiction? Is it old news, or even plagiarized? Is it true at all? Is it news at all? Or are a lot of people missing the point entirely?
The answer is that it depends… on what one is looking for in journalism, in what one calls journalism, and so on. Let’s dispose of the plagiarism one first. Raelynn Hillhouse did, indeed, write blog posts in 2011 calling into question the Administration’s story, and laying out a counternarrative that at the very least resembles that of Sy Hersh. She has accused him of doing either fiction or plagiarism. If he were doing fiction, then her own work, which she has presented as fact must be fiction; clearly she doesn’t think so and–whatever her politics–she has some serious journalistic and academic chops (“R.J. Hillhouse, a former professor, Fulbright fellow and novelist whose writing on intelligence and military outsourcing has appeared in the Washington Post and New York Times”). This claim of hers might be wrong, but it’s not fiction.
So is Hersh plagiarizing? Hillhouse states that “I trust my sources–which were clearly different than his.” If Hersh’s sources were different, then it’s clearly not plagiarism.
So, perhaps it’s old news, news that Hillhouse reported on her blog in 2011, but (according to The Intercept) that only made it to the New Zealand Herald. [It also made it into The Telegraph, but was not followed up on.] But if news never makes it out into the mainstream so that it can be discussed, can it be said to have been reported? The answer has to be “no.”
Next we get to the question of whether it is true. Here we have to be careful. The articles that I have read attacking Hersh’s reporting are problematic at best. One by Max Fisher, is filled with invective and largely devoted to attacking Hersh’s reporting on planning for an attack on Iran and chemical weapons in Syria. With regard to Abbottabad, it claims that Hersh alleges “a spectacular international conspiracy,” which is clearly false. Hersh is talking about an assassination conducted with maximum deniability and involving only a handful of players. International, yes. Spectacular, no. Nor a conspiracy: just the ordinary grubby dealings of an imperial state that can’t stop meddling.
If we focus on the few specifics that Fisher raises about Hersh’s reporting on the Abbottabad raid, the criticism comes down to this:
* “his allegations are largely supported only by two sources [ISI chief Asad Durani and a U.S. official], neither of whom has direct knowledge of what happened, both of whom are retired, and one of whom is anonymous”
* “His other two sources are anonymous ‘consultants’ who are vaguely described as insiders.”
Criticism of sourcing is fair. But, first, Fisher completely mischaracterized the latter two sources, who are very specifically described as “longtime consultants to the Special Operations Command.” That’s specific enough to Google and come up with an idea of what kind of person fits the description, like Colonel Jose Baez and Brian Hayes (not that either one is likely to be Hersh’s source).
Contrary to Fisher’s assertion, the retired intelligence official Hersh sourced seemed to have very direct knowledge of the “walk-in” who told the US about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad and about military discussions regarding the raid and about diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. This suggests he was at very high levels. Someone like Leon Panetta. Suppose, just for a moment, that Panetta was Hersh’s source. Would that change how people are reacting to the story?
There is at least one other CIA source in the story, used to corroborate the meeting with Pasha, that Fisher didn’t notice. Hersh also mentions one or more sources, “from inside Pakistan,” who might include “A Pakistani with close ties to the senior leadership of the ISI.”
So, is Hersh’s sourcing adequate? I don’t know. But Fisher apparently did not read Hersh closely enough to understand what it was.
Now, in addition, Fisher asks questions, like
* “Hersh’s entire narrative turns on a secret deal, in which the US promised Pakistan increased military aid and a “freer hand in Afghanistan.” In fact, the exact opposite of this occurred, with US military aid dropping and US-Pakistan cooperation in Afghanistan plummeting…”
* “Why, for example, would the Pakistanis insist on a fake raid that would humiliate their country and the very military and intelligence leaders who supposedly instigated it?”
* “why would Pakistan bother with the ostentatious fake raid at all, when anyone can imagine a dozen simpler, lower-risk, lower-cost ways to do this?”
* “why would the US cut a secret deal with Pakistan to allow that country a “freer hand” in Afghanistan”
To paraphrase Fisher, “raising questions about [Hersh’s] story is not the same as proving a spectacular [failure of journalism].” That anyone even regards these questions as logical inconsistencies makes one wring one’s hands about the capacity of journalists to analyze stories. Yet Joshua Keating not just bit, but swallowed Fisher’s screed whole. Again, there’s little that can even be addressed. For example, Keating says,
Hillhouse’s claim didn’t get much coverage other than an article in the Telegraph [in 2011] by Pakistan correspondent Rob Crilly, who didn’t exactly endorse her premise. (Crilly blasted Hersh’s article yesterday, calling it “utterly devoid of facts” and likely to appeal to the “soft minded.”
I read Crilly’s original piece. It may not endorse Hillhouse’s claims, but it doesn’t exactly discredit them either. If, as Crilly now says, the story is junk, why did Crilly publish his piece on 2011?
Keating says that Hersh’s article claims that,
… the documents seized from his compound were fabricated in order to make him appear to have been active up until his death.
This seems to be a hasty misreading of what Hersh said. What Hersh said was that
These claims [of bin Laden’s direct involvement in operations] were fabrications: there wasn’t much activity for bin Laden to exercise command and control over.
I don’t see where Hersh says that the documents were phony. However, his source asks some questions about 175 pages of documents that were released:
The retired official disputed the authen[ti]city of the West Point materials…
The questions that the source asks are good. Why are these documents being processed by a contractor with no CIA analysis and before the information contained in the documents could have been acted upon? It’s all very irregular.
Keating also says,
[NYT correspondent Carlotta] Gall concluded that at least some in the country’s spy service [ISI] knew where the terrorist mastermind was. But this is very different from Hersh’s much bolder assertion that the Pakistani agency was keeping him under house arrest and the whole raid was staged.
Keating links Carlotta Gall, who actually says:
Finally, on a winter evening in 2012, I got the confirmation I was looking for. According to one inside source, the ISI actually ran a special desk assigned to handle Bin Laden. It was operated independently, led by an officer who made his own decisions and did not report to a superior. He handled only one person: Bin Laden.
This is not the entire ISI, as Keating implies, but a small compartment within it. This is important, because it’s difficult to keep secrets that are widely held, but–as Iran-Contra demonstrated– easy to keep secrets that are closely held. It is entirely possible that we didn’t notify the Pakistani government of the raid, all the while being in close contact with elements of the ISI and the military.
As for bin Laden being under house arrest, what Gall (ibid) describes is even more disturbing:
Bin Laden did not rely only on correspondence. He occasionally traveled to meet aides and fellow militants, one Pakistani security official told me. “Osama was moving around,” he said, adding that he heard so from jihadi sources. “You cannot run a movement without contact with people.” Bin Laden traveled in plain sight, his convoys always knowingly waved through any security checkpoints.
In other words, the ISI had the capacity to control his movements. For a time, he was undoubtedly useful (Gall, ibid):
Bin Laden rejected Akhtar’s request for help and urged him and other militant groups not to fight Pakistan but to serve the greater cause — the jihad against America. He warned against fighting inside Pakistan because it would destroy their home base.
That must have been very convenient for the Pakistani government. However, at some point, regardless of how one thinks the raid happened, bin Laden’s worth to Pakistan diminished (as al Qaeda weakened and was displaced by the Taliban) or the risks he posed rose, as the Americans discovered his presence. At that point, Pakistan had to give him up. Is it so difficult to believe that Pakistan told the U.S., we won’t resist an assassination of bin Laden, as long as you make it look as if we were not responsible.
Is it difficult to believe that the crash of the helicopter made impossible the plan to grab bin Laden, send him out of town, and kill him under circumstances that wouldn’t look like the ISI had been hiding him and had also ratted him out?
And is it difficult to believe that then, when the Administration’s story made it clear not only that the ISI knew where bin Laden was but that they had also ratted him out, it created a serious rift between the US and Pakistan that resulted in a suspension of aid?
These are the kind of answers that seem pretty obvious to me, but not so much to Fisher.
Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the editors of the main English-language paper Dawn takes Hersh seriously.
Maybe Hersh is wrong. But I think that if one doesn’t enter the fray with a pre-determined conclusion in mind, what he has written is at least plausible.
And, I think that the most important part of the story hasn’t been recognized. For me, the basic story that the ISI knew where bin Laden was and to some degree stood aside for the US assassination was likely to be true from the start. But who among our leaders was lying, and to what degree? The answers Hersh gives are uncomfortable. I think that may be why so many people who know better are so exercised that they aren’t exercising judgment in examining the story.
Phillip Carter also challenges Hersh. Again, the article is marred by attitude:
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.
This is not refutation.
Pakistan’s military fell asleep at the switch multiple times, allowing Bin Laden to live near Pakistan’s version of West Point
Gall (see above) makes it clear that it wasn’t neglect, but collusion.
[His sources are]at least two degrees of separation from the small teams in the Defense Department and CIA who led the operation
This is a useful piece of information. However, if my guess that his main source is at the general level of Leon Panetta is correct, then it might be irrelevant.
[skipping over some]
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.
Journalists are trying without success to get the logs of the USS Carl Vinson:
Although the Obama administration has pledged to be the most transparent in American history, it is keeping a tight hold on materials related to the bin Laden raid. In a response to separate requests from the AP for information about the mission, the Defense Department said in March that it could not locate any photographs or video taken during the raid or showing bin Laden’s body. It also said it could not find any images of bin Laden’s body on the Vinson.
The Pentagon also said it could not find any death certificate, autopsy report or results of DNA identification tests for bin Laden, or any pre-raid materials discussing how the government planned to dispose of bin Laden’s body if he were killed.
The Defense Department also refused to confirm or deny the existence of helicopter maintenance logs and reports about the performance of military gear used in the raid. One of the stealth helicopters that carried the SEALs to Abbottabad crashed during the mission and its wreckage was left behind. People who lived near bin Laden’s compound took photos of the disabled chopper.
The AP is appealing the Defense Department’s decision
This is not helping Carter’s case.
Carlotta Gall has commented:
Among other things, Hersh contends that the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, Pakistan’s military-intelligence agency, held Bin Laden prisoner in the Abbottabad compound since 2006, and that “the C.I.A. did not learn of Bin Laden’s whereabouts by tracking his couriers, as the White House has claimed since May 2011, but from a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer who betrayed the secret in return for much of the $25 million reward offered by the U.S.”
On this count, my own reporting tracks with Hersh’s. Beginning in 2001, I spent nearly 12 years covering Pakistan and Afghanistan for The Times.
I do not recall ever corresponding with Hersh, but he is following up on a story that many of us assembled parts of.
I cannot confirm Hersh’s bolder claims — for example, that two of Pakistan’s top generals, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the former army chief, and Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the director of the ISI, had advance knowledge of the raid. But I would not necessarily dismiss the claims immediately. Hersh’s scenario explains one detail that has always nagged me about the night of Bin Laden’s death.
Hersh’s claim that there was little or no treasure trove of evidence retrieved from Bin Laden’s home rings less true to me.
I would guess that certain people are going to start walking back some of their more reckless comments.
Thanks to Jo6pac, the following post from Pat Lang’s shop, in which FB ali which used open source technique to try to flesh out Hillhouse’s post. It’s very interesting. An excerpt or two:
The Saudi motive behind this request [sanctuary for bin Laden in exchange for calling off al Qaeda from attacking Pakistan] presumably had to do with their internal imperatives. The bin Ladens are a very rich and influential family in Saudi Arabia. Osama and al Qaeda, and their goals, are supported by a large number of religious Saudis (even though the royal family considers them enemies). If bin Laden were to be hunted down and killed by the Americans in the tribal badlands of Pakistan, it would give the regime a black eye in the view of many of its people as well as being a serious blow to the bin Laden clan. It made sense to the Saudis to get Osama bin Laden into a safe hideout while at the same time neutralizing him as a functioning jihadi.
The cover story finally agreed upon was that the US had carried out a drone strike on the house (though none would in fact take place). This would account for the night-time explosions at the house, and, more importantly, provide an explanation to give to the Saudis for bin Laden’s sudden and unfortunate demise (his body having been almost obliterated by the bombs!). The US’s agreement was simply a ruse, however, in order to keep the Pakistanis cooperating; having rejected the drone option because it did not allow a definitive claim of the operation’s success, the US administration had no intention of going through with this cover story.
As for the fallout from the operation, it was, as expected, mainly on US-Pakistan relations. If the US had the intention of making it easier for the Pakistanis by fudging the site of the raid, the crashed helicopter’s tail sticking up from bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound ended that option. This stark evidence of the US incursion left the US with no option but to (in Hillhouse’s apt phrase) throw the Pakistanis under the bus.