What really happened on the night of Osama bin Laden’s death?
In The Killing of Osama bin Laden, Seymour Hersh offers a compelling alternative version to the details that led to bin Laden’s death. He also investigates unproven assertions justifying the US’s thus far disastrous involvement in the Syrian civil war. Truthout recently interviewed Hersh about the book.
Mark Karlin: I found your narrative based on research and informants very persuasive. Your version of how Osama bin Laden came to be killed was ridiculed by the White House, the intelligence communities and the military. Why do you think the mainstream press — and even The Guardian — marginalized your sourced account as conspiratorialist?
Seymour Hersh: The mainstream press relies on access. The reporters covering beats — most notably national security beats — must be able to get calls returned and interviews when needed. This does not mean that the reporters on those beats are incompetent or in the hands of the White House — it is just a fact of life that those who cross boundaries, as defined by the White House, do not get the same treatment as those who faithfully reflect the view of the President and his minions. It is especially so when it comes to crisis reporting — an airplane tragedy, a battlefield victory or defeat. Thus, the White House controlled all details of the story from the moment President Obama announced the kill, and it did all — as White Houses will — to glorify the President’s action and shape the story in ways that would help in Obama’s re-election the next year. The major media lined up for information and begged and pleaded for any scraps that could be labeled exclusive. Once the narrative was set, any significant change in the story had to be resisted by the White House, and especially by those who wrote the initial stories. The scapegoat in my revisionist approach to the bin Laden killing was my reliance on anonymous sources, as if anyone on the inside who deviated from the official script could survive in their job if their name became known. Most journalists, especially those in the Washington bureau of The New York Times, where I worked with a lot of prize-winning success in the 1970s, were especially angered at my reporting. Their position, in my view, defies common sense — their view was that there was nothing more to learn, even years later, about an event as dramatic and complicated as the bin Laden raid once the White House put an end to its forced feeding of the media.
Why did the White House and military fiction about how bin Laden was killed suit their purposes?
The propaganda goal was to show that it took enormous courage and superb judgment for Obama to take the chance and order the hit. If the mission had gone badly, the argument was, his re-election could be on the line. Another President, ala Jimmy Carter, who lost his re-election in the desert. It was a close call, so the White House said, because it was not clear that the person in the compound in Abbottabad actually was bin Laden. There were many senior people deeply involved in the planning for the raid who shared that view, essentially because the fact that the US, with high-level Pakistani help, had obtained a DNA sample from Bin Laden was a closely held secret. Yes, there was a risk of things going badly in the raid, but knowing without question that the target indeed was bin Laden, and that the Pakistani army and the intelligence service, the ISI, was working with us, diminished the danger.
The core of my criticism was based on the fact of that help, and the fact that it had been agreed, or understood, with the Pakistani leadership well before the raid itself, that the White House would wait at least one week after the secret raid to announce that bin Laden was dead. It was to be said then that bin Laden had been killed in an American drone attack somewhere in the mountains separating Pakistan and Afghanistan. The last-minute decision to ignore that understanding, and effectively double cross the Pakistani military and intelligence leadership, left the Pakistanis with no recourse but to go along with the White House’s story that two American special forces helicopters had evaded Pakistan’s sophisticated radar system (built with US dollars in return for Pakistani support for the American invasion of Afghanistan in 1979). Why was this such an important issue, and one that enraged some on the inside, including Robert Gates, the defense secretary? Because Pakistan had at the time more than one hundred nuclear weapons in its growing arsenal, and maintaining Pakistani confidence in US intentions and reliability is essential to our national security and world security. We do not want Pakistan to make a move with its nuclear arsenal without our knowledge and approval. It is one of the most serious, albeit highly secret, concerns of our national leaders.
Can you talk a bit about the murky role of Pakistan in relation to bin Laden and al-Qaeda?
Pakistan, despite its overt loyalty to the United States, went its own way, in what was perceived as its own national security issues, when it came to bin Laden. The Saudi jihadist leader had been arrested by the Pakistani ISI sometime in 2006, according to information provided to the CIA by a Pakistani military defector (whose reliability on other issues remains unclear). The Pakistani military and intelligence services have longstanding ties to Saudi Arabia — some senior Pakistani officers are known to have done sensitive police and intelligence work for the Saudis after their retirement. Pakistanis worked with al-Qaeda and some of the Taliban on behalf of the US in its initial invasion of Afghanistan — America was fighting a proxy war against Russia in that war — and the US-Pakistani ties remained close. America, in fact, looked the other way as Pakistan became a nuclear state in the late 1980s. I was told while researching the long article in my new book that Pakistan had been paid many millions by the Saudi leadership not to tell Washington about its capture of bin Laden. The assumption for such payments can only be that the Saudis did not want America to interrogate bin Laden about the 9/11 attacks, and that our Pakistani allies chose money over loyalty to us. It was a deeply distressing thought, given the nuclear stakes involved.
You also quote a source as claiming “that the CIA leadership had become experts in derailing serious threats from Congress.” How so?
It is a sad fact that the CIA did not merely undermine Congressional oversight in the Bush/Cheney years — it sabotaged them. Vice President Richard Cheney ran covert CIA and overt military operations abroad with no Congressional fundings, as required by the Constitution, and with no knowledge whatsoever, in many cases, by the relevant committees in the House and Senate. Congress was not a significant player as the White House responded to 9/11. The sad truth is that eight or 10 neoconservatives managed to overturn the Constitution with a minimum of Congressional and mainstream journalism dissent. Our Constitution is far more frail than one might think.
Can you summarize what is Turkey’s role in the ceaseless clash and bloodletting in Syria?
The Erdogan government was a covert supporter of the ISIS war against the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria for years, rearming ISIS fighters, buying seized Syrian oil from the ISIS at discount prices, and keeping the borders between Turkey and Syria, especially in Hakkari province, open for a steady stream of anti-Assad jihadists from around the world who wanted to join in the war against Syria. There also is evidence that some anti-Syrian factors in the United States have welcomed the Erdogan support or, at the least, looked away when necessary. Erdogan’s constantly expanding extremism and grab for power was ignored, more or less, by many in the mainstream US media until early this year, and President Obama, for reasons not known, has yet to fully share the intelligence about Erdogan’s political and religious obligations with the nation.
The irony, or tragedy, of Erdogan’s move to extremism is that throughout much of the last decade he was seen as being fully in the Ataturk tradition in Turkey — that of a strong leader with strong religious beliefs who made sure that his nation remained secular. That is no longer true, as the recent coup, and Erdogan’s extremist response to it, has made clear. Those called by Erdogan to go to the street and attack the army when the coup began to fail were not fighting in support of democracy, as widely reported at first, but as Islamists fighting a secular military.
Your book explores the infamous sarin attack that almost led to wholesale US military involvement in the intractable Syrian deadly scrum. What was wrong with the official US version concerning the perpetrators of the August 21, 2013, use of chemical weapons in Syria?
The critical issue [regarding] the August 20, 2013, sarin attack in a suburb of Damascus is that the US and its allies knew from highly classified CIA and allied intelligence reporting throughout the spring and summer of 2013, that the jihadist opposition to Assad (primarily al-Nusra) had the ability to manufacture a crude form of sarin and other gas warfare items. And yet, in the days after the August gas attack, the Obama administration focused its attention solely on the fact that the Syrian army was known to have a significant chemical warfare (CW) capability. The Syrian government became the only suspect, at a time when there were, at the minimum, two suspects. That was a fatal flaw. It also is so that the Syrian gas arsenal was not a secret, as many in the US insisted, but widely known for decades to exist.
The CW system had been generated by Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, who ran the nation for 20 years, as a deterrent to the known — if undeclared — Israeli nuclear arsenal. But the fact that Syria had a weapons capability did little to change the reality that Israeli nuclear weapons clearly would be dominant in any war. The Syrian system was seen after Hafez’s death in 2000, with young Bashar al-Assad now in charge, to be useless, expensive, and hard to maintain — and publicly complained about as such. I, in The New Yorker magazine, as had others, had written about the Syrian CW arsenal after the 9/11 attacks.
There was another consideration: Israel and the US had joined forces, initially in secret, to monitor all of the suspected CW storage depots scattered through Syria; there were more than 20 of them. Any effort to begin preparing for a CW warfare attack would immediately trigger alarms in the US and Israel, and the government in Tel Aviv would begin preparing for a pre-emptive air force attack. The joint US-Israeli system did not signal an alarm in the hours before or after the CW attack near Damascus — clear evidence that the attack could not have come from a Syrian CW facility. To this date, despite constant references by the media to the Syrian attack, there has been no specific evidence linking the Syrian version of sarin, whose sophisticated additives and chemical make-up is known to the West, to the far cruder sarin found at the site.