By Raza Rumi
15 May 2015
Senior journalist Seymour Hersh’s explosive account of the hunt and killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan has stirred a major controversy on the nature and dynamics of US-Pak partnership in the war on terror. The White House has rejected the report that has “too many inaccuracies and baseless assertions”. An unnamed CIA official termed Hersh’s story as “utter nonsense” adding that Hersh’s story has “too many inaccuracies and baseless assertions.” A wide array of opinion in media has also questioned the story, its sources; and the conclusions that Hersh draws. Peter Bergen, national security analyst at CNN, went on to term it “a farrago of nonsense”. But, what is so controversial about it?
Hersh’s 10,000 words long report for the London Review of Books highlights that the US government has been misinforming its public and the world at large. The White House account was more of a cover-up to what actually transpired before OBL was killed in Operation Neptune Spear. Similarly, Hersh also disproves the thesis that Pakistan’s government more importantly its military branch had no idea of OBL’s presence in Abbottabad and that the US operation was done without the active assistance of Pakistani state.
According to Hersh, Bin Laden had been under house arrest organized by Pakistani intelligence officials for years. His presence in Pakistan was a bargaining leverage with Taliban and Al Qaeda networks. A “former senior Pakistani intelligence officer” informed US authorities on bin Laden’s whereabouts and not through the official story of tracking OBL’s couriers. Even the more popular story of Dr Shakeel Afridi, a CIA asset facilitating the DNA tests of OBL is false, he says. That account was also a cover up for protecting the identity of another Army Doctor Major Amir Aziz who confirmed bin Laden’s DNA.
Perhaps the most startling assertion by Hersh is that operation Neptune Spear was done with the prior knowledge of Pakistani state authorities that chose to look the other way. And not unlike the past, the US authorities employed military aid as a lever to gain Pakistan’s cooperation in the process. Hersh claims that it was part of a ‘secret deal’ between Pakistani and the US officials. However, he doesn’t provide details of that covert understanding.
According to Hersh, the Navy SEAL team was given directions not to take Bin Laden alive. The official story of OBL’s “burial at sea” was made up to deal with the question of what had happened to his body — which, according to Hersh, was maimed and later dumped from a helicopter in the Hindu Kush mountains.
It’s not the first time Hersh has called into doubt the official story about how the US killed OBL. In a 2013 interview with the Guardian, Hersh called it “one big lie.” At that time he stated that he was writing a book and a chapter focuses on the operation that led to the raid that killed OBL. Moreover, he also questioned the credibility of the inquiry report by the Pakistani government and alleged that had ‘considerable American input’.
According to Hersh, Generals “Pasha and Kayani were responsible for ensuring that Pakistan’s Army and air defence command would not track or engage with the US helicopters used on the mission.”
The story also claims that “Americans who planned the mission assured Kayani and Pasha that their cooperation would never be made public. It was understood by all that if the Pakistani role became known, there would be violent protests – bin Laden was considered a hero by many Pakistanis – and Pasha and Kayani and their families would be in danger, and the Pakistani Army publicly disgraced.”
OBL’s death will remain a mystery as the competing claims and narratives are difficult to ascertain. Hersh has used anonymous sources within the US and one named source, Gen Asad Durrani, a former ISI chief.
In the US media, Hersh’s story has attracted headlines and re-opened the debate on the issue. Peter Bergen of CNN and author of ‘Manhunt’ emailed Gen Durrani after reading Hersh’s story found out that Durrani had “no evidence of any kind” that the ISI knew where OBL was hiding. However, Durrani said it was “plausible” and the “operation could not have been carried out without our cooperation.” Peter Bergen, who had visited the OBL compound in Abbottabad, contends that he saw walls sprayed with bullet holes and the testimonies of the two members of the navy SEALS team attest that there was firing during the operation.
Max Fisher, of the Vox, disputed the claim of OBL being maimed and stated that it was not possible to turn body of a 6 feet, 4 inch man with bullets on a chopper ride and then throw away the pieces. Fisher also questioned Hersh’s sources and pointed out the “internal contradictions” and “inconsistencies.” Fisher asked if there was a secret deal between US and Pakistan then why the two countries remained at loggerheads for years after the raid. Fisher also said that the New Yorker, where Seymour Hersh is a regular contributor did not print this story.
Jack Shafer of Politico magazine was equally skeptical and the title of his comment said it all: “Sy Hersh, Lost in a Wilderness of Mirrors.” Matthew Rosenberg pointed in his report for NYT: “Mr Hersh’s story would probably have gained much less traction had it not been for the often contradictory details presented by the Obama administration after the raid, and the questions about it that remain unanswered.”
Hersh’s account has led to further news build-up. NBC quoting two intelligence sources confirmed a ‘walk-in’ asset, a former Pakistani intelligence officer’ leaked the whereabouts of OBL. These sources also claimed that some people within ISI knew where OBL was prior to the raid. However, NBC stopped short of contradicting the official version of the OBL raid. However, later on NBC backtracked and said that according to its sources though Pakistani asset was vital, he didn’t lead CIA to the whereabouts of OBL. Carlotta Gall of New York Times confirmed parts of the story as Hersh’s report corroborates assertions made in her 2014 book that Pakistani military knew about OBL’s whereabouts, but she is not certain whether there was cooperation or not.
Two former senior Pakistan military officials talking to AFP have confirmed that a ‘defector’ from country’s intelligence agency did assist the US but denied that there was cooperation. The News has even named the ‘walk-in’ as Brigadier Usman Khalid. And it should not be forgotten that President Obama in his speech after the OBL raid had said: “our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding.”
Seymour Hersh is a legendary investigative journalist. He first revealed the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam in 1969, and broke stories on the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Corey Pein, investigative reporter, defended Hersh’s account of US operation as showing “a complete cock-up” on the part of US administration. Pein said Hersh’s story was “not a conspiracy theory. It’s a bread-and-butter journalistic expose. That is, until someone proves otherwise.”
When I asked journalist and author Myra Mcdonald, she termed Hersh’s version and previous accounts as “unsatisfying and full of inconsistencies.” She added, “we may never know the truth, just as we don’t know what caused Gen Zia’s plane to crash in 1988. This new Hersh story, however, gives us a bit more material to work with and deserves to be examined closely.”
In any case, Hersh’s story refutes the charge of incompetence on the Pakistan military. However, it opens up new questions about the nature and extent of Pakistani state’s involvement in liquidating an erstwhile asset through murky intelligence operations.