Sy Hersh’s latest expose: Did Obama mislead about bin Laden’s killing?

By Christopher B. Daly

Before deciding that veteran investigative reporter Sy Hersh has become the crazy uncle of American journalism, it might be worth considering whether he might be right about the bin Laden killing.

Earlier this week, Hersh unloaded a 10,000-word alternative history of the 2011 raid on that compound in

White House photo, by Pete Souza.

White House photo, by Pete Souza.

Abbottabad, Pakistan. In the official version, a U.S. Navy Seal team risked their lives in a dangerous raid into hostile territory to swoop in, find bin Laden, and (when he made a false move) execute him. It was a major gung-ho moment for the Obama national security team. Even conservatives briefly had to salute the president for having the nerve to order the raid.

Now comes Hersh, the fabled investigator who first came to prominence in 1969 when he broke the My Lai massacre scandal, who says he was dubious from the outset about the Obama team’s story. Hersh argues that his reporting points in another direction. He asserts that bin Laden was effectively in the custody of Pakistan’s intelligence service and that the Pakistani military agreed to stand aside while the Seals pulled off the fatal raid.

The Obama administration quickly pushed back. So did some American journalists, such as Peter Bergen of CNN.

Then came a second wave of articles covering the controversy, raising such questions as: if Hersh’s story is so great, why wasn’t it published in The New Yorker (which is Hersh’s institutional home base)? Here’s a version by the always interesting Gabriel Sherman in New York mag. The most disappointing point raised in Sherman’s fine piece was the no-comment by David Remnick, the top editor of The New Yorker. (Come on, David.)

Before coming to any conclusions, everyone should settle in and prepare to do a lot of reading. I would also recommend paying particular attention to someone who really knows what she’s talking about: Carlotta Gall, who was the New York Times‘ bureau chief in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2013. During those dozen years, she too was on the trail of bin Laden, and she followed leads into the lawless “tribal areas” between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Fearless, tough-minded, and thoroughly empirical, Gall is skeptical about the Hersh’s story but points out that it tracks some of the rumors, leads, and facts that she heard while in the region. In a piece for the Times magazine posted yesterday, Gall wrote that she “would not dismiss the claims immediately.”

Here she is talking to John Hockenberry today on his NPR show “The Takeaway.”

And an update: TNR offers an explanation for why Hersh is so isolated in this instance.

To step back a bit, here’s my view about Sy Hersh: he is a national treasure. Even when he gets things wrong (as he sometimes has over the decades), Hersh performs two important public services:

1. Never trust the official version.

2. When in doubt, dig in and do your own reporting.


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3 responses to “Sy Hersh’s latest expose: Did Obama mislead about bin Laden’s killing?

  1. David

    It is important to note that all Gail collaborates is a rumor of a Pakistani informer and that it seems odd to her that the Pakistani military was so late in arriving at the compound. This is only slightly more supportive of Hersh’s claims than noting he spells “Pakistan” correctly.

    There is a vast gulf between thinking a Pakistani provided key information and Hersh’s claim of a vast, prolonged Pakistani/American/Saudi conspiracy–did Aldrich Ames providing information to the Soviets prove an American/Soviet conspiracy or was it just espionage as usual? Did any reader of this blog not wonder before bin Laden’s killing if the Pakistanis were shielding him? Did anyone not think the US was seeking Pakistanis who would reveal what Pakistan knew?

    Similarly, anyone who has watched the Pakistani military in action would have little trouble believing they would be slow to respond.

    Pakistan was horribly embarrassed that the SEALs came and left without the Pakistanis being told or detecting the stealth helicopters–and if Pakistan did not know Bin Laden was so close to a major military base, that would also be humiliating. It should come as no surprise that Pakistanis consequently spread rumors of Pakistani agreement, rather than incompetence.

    Hersh’s story relies so much on an unnamed source and the Oliver Stone theory that vast conspiracies can last decades with no one grabbing the millions and the fame that would come from exposing it that it should be read with great skepticism.


  2. But shouldn’t the official white house account also be read with great skepticism? Hersh indicates his sources at the beginning of his piece, and they include intelligence from within Pakistani and US intelligence sources, plus by now several additional news sources have confirmed his piece in key ways. Let’s concentrate on one detail. Why were local police told to stand by after neighbors reported helicopter crash and the accompanying disturbance in the compound? Why did that Pakistani military not arrive at the compound until after the Seals left? And how long were the Seals at that compound dealing with the crashed helicopter, etc.? The answer here is forty minutes. And no presence of Pakistani enforcers during that time? Instead of the quick dance around and glib dismissals why don’t we talk specifically about details such as this?


    • David

      Leaving aside the misconception that it has been confirmed in “key ways”, what factual basis do you have for insisting the Pakistani military normally would have needed less than 40 minutes to respond in the middle of the night? How speedy was their response to the recent bus hijacking in Karachi? Did the much longer than 40 minute response by the Indian military to the Mumbai terrorist attacks indicate that they were complicit? Did the lapses by the Secret Service which allowed Hinckley to shoot Reagan mean they conspired with Hinckley?

      Those who spin conspiracy fantasies always insist that the same government agencies they routinely otherwise fault for incompetence are incapable of making errors when needed to support a conspiracy theory. Thus we have had the same CIA which was horribly inept at assassinating Castro, finding the many Soviet spies on its own payroll and predicting the fall of the Shah and the Soviet Union being routinely called capable of pulling off the assassination of JFK and keeping it a secret for half a century. With the “9/11 was an inside job” and “Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya” movements fading, a new one was sure to fall on fertile ground and here it is.

      Of course, if this fantasy were true, any principled or greedy whistleblower or opponent of Obama/Pakistan/Saudi Arabia with a job in the military, intelligence services or Congress–or, in the case of Putin, Assange, Snowden, Netanyahu, North Korea, China, Iran or others, access to sophisticated hackers–could have long ago found documentary proof of which would have allowed them to reap havoc on their enemies and/or millions, but let’s not let reality rear its ugly head.

      In closing, why would the Republican Senate and House Committee chairs desperate to tarnish Hillary Clinton over Benghazi not would want to be able to absolutely destroy her with this much more grievous sin?


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