FOR years he was a ghost. Then, suddenly, a corpse. On the night of May 1, 2011, President Barack Obama announced that US forces had located and killed Osama Bin Laden at a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. More of the details emerged in later statements from the White House, Pentagon and CIA, some of them contradictory.
There had been a firefight. No, there hadn’t. Bin Laden was armed. No, he wasn’t. He used one of his wives as a human shield. No, he didn’t. Certain journalists helped shape the facts, as presented by official sources, into a cleaner narrative that we might call the Zero Dark Thirty version, after the high-profile movie largely adapted from Mark Bowden’s 2012 book The Finish, a page-turning, screenplay-ready account of the operation.
The gist was this: using methods that did not preclude “enhanced interrogation”, the CIA had identified a key al-Qaeda courier, and tracked him to Bin Laden’s hiding place. A SEAL team was covertly dispatched to apprehend the latter if possible. Encountering resistance, they shot dead several combatants, including the courier, his brother, and Bin Laden himself, whose body was then buried at sea, off the deck of the USS Carl Vinson.
Two years later came an alternate version, in the form of a long article by veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. Originally published in the London Review of Books, that piece is now collected in this slim volume with a couple of Hersh’s earlier LRB stories, all refuting the Obama-approved draft of recent history.
And if the myth so quickly spun around Bin Laden’s death always seemed a little too neat, too satisfying, the counter-myth is grim, prosaic, uncinematic. Hersh has his own sources, mostly unnamed. And according to them: Bin Laden was effectively a prisoner of the Pakistani Army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) at the time of the raid.
He’d been captured in 2006 – betrayed by tribal allies – and kept under close watch in Abbottabad, two miles from the local military academy. The CIA only learned of his whereabouts from a Pakistani official who volunteered the information for $25 million in reward money. The “courier” never existed; a character conjured after the fact to cover up that tip-off. And the raid was conducted with the full knowledge and cooperation of top generals Ashfaq Kayani and Ahmed Pasha, who were forced to play dumb when Obama reneged on the original plan to keep the operation quiet and pretend later that Bin Laden had been killed in a drone strike. (Hard-liners within Pakistan would be outraged if it came out that the army and ISI had allowed the US to execute Bin Laden on their soil.)
There was never any intention of taking him alive, nor enough left of his remains to bury at sea. The killing itself was a “turkey shoot”, writes Hersh – the SEALs were led straight to their target and blasted him to pieces, keeping only a few body parts to drop from a helicopter over the Hindu Kush mountains. The author goes on to suggest that SEAL team members Mark Bissonnette and Rob O’Neill played up the danger of their mission to justify the cold-blooded murder of an ageing, unarmed invalid, as Bin Laden is portrayed here.
Which is to say, there’s a fair bit of speculation behind Hersh’s version of events, a wealth of largely anecdotal evidence, and a heavy reliance on the word of one “retired senior intelligence official”, whose testimony is assumed to be more reliable than any of Mark Bowden’s sources. To Hersh, any writer or reader who takes their government on trust is a sucker by definition. In his experience, the truth is more likely to reside in what they’re not saying, what they don’t want us to know.
This is the reporter who exposed US culpability for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, and more recently the systematic abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. So when Colonel Steve Warren of the Pentagon calls Hersh’s Bin Laden thesis “largely a fabrication”, who are we supposed to believe? It’s not as if we can see the documentary evidence – all files and photos relating to the raid were deleted from military computers and sealed by the CIA under “operational exemption” from the terms of the Freedom of Information Act.
So, your response to this book may well depend on your politics and worldview, not to mention your impressions of the outgoing American President – the Democrat, the technocrat, the nominally unwarlike leader who favours managed retreat from Middle Eastern flashpoints while deploying drones all over the region and backing such dubious allies as Turkey’s Recep Erdogan. “Hope” and “change” are just words, Hersh reminds us.
His reading of recent foreign policy renders Barack Obama as no less capable of brutal calculation or prone to institutional delusion than the worst of his predecessors, from George W Bush to Richard M Nixon. Obama and his cabinet – including Hillary Clinton – “couldn’t wait to brag” about killing Bin Laden, wrote then-Secretary of Defence Robert Gates in his own later memoir with a note of disgust.
Certainly, the assassination bolstered the president’s credibility with many hawkish doubters, and helped secure his reelection. And if Hersh is even half-right on this, then we believers in transparency, due process and rule of law shouldn’t kid ourselves that these last eight years have been that much cleaner or brighter than the darkness that’s likely to follow under Clinton or, for pity’s sake, Trump.