Journalist Seymour Hersh attends Al Jazeera Forum "Media and the Middle East - Beyond the Headlines" in Doha April 1, 2007. REUTERS/Fadi Al-Assaad (QATAR) (Fadi Al-assaad)

Seymour Hersh vs. Judy Miller: The truth about Bin Laden's death -- and the anonymous government sources The New York Times is delighted to print as "truth"

Desperate rush to discredit Osama bin Laden bombshell perfectly sums up the media's slavish relationship with power


Patrick L. Smith
May 12, 2015 12:30AM (UTC)

Well, well. Another grand American narrative, brimming with the triumphalist heroism of people we put into uniforms, melts like ice cream in the summer sun. No more credit to the commander-in-chief for the stealthy, nerves-of-steel manhunt and point-blank murder of Osama bin Laden back in 2011. It turns out to have been a matter of bribes, intelligence feeds, a stage-set raid, American betrayals—but of course—and last-minute chaos in Washington as to which concocted tale of derring-do would shine brightest in the light.

Let us console ourselves with the thought that the operation was a crime under international law anyway.

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News of this latest myth-spinning chicanery comes to us from the inimitable Seymour Hersh, whose intricately detailed and carefully reasoned account was published Sunday in the London Review of Books. It is first-rate craft, one of Hersh’s better explorations into the reality that is like our air: We breathe it but cannot see it. Read Hersh’s piece here. Remarkable stuff—which is why our most powerful media will aim to discredit it.

It seems that square-jawed Navy SEALs with those high-tech night goggles that practically starred in “Zero Dark Thirty,” Hollywood’s post-event propaganda film, were more or less led to bin Laden’s door. All they had to do was kick it down and negotiate with extreme prejudice, as the CIA used to describe these things.

High Pakistani intelligence and military officers did the work, as Hersh reports. They had had bin Laden under house arrest in Abbottabad, a hill station favored by the military since the British Raj, for five years before they agreed to let the Americans “find” him. This was part of an elaborate deal struck after apparently extended talks.

“The idea was that, at the right time, his location would be revealed,” Asad Durrani, the former head of ISI, the Pakistani intelligence agency and one of Hersh’s better sources, explained in an earlier interview. “And the right time would have been when you can get the necessary quid pro quo—if you have someone like Osama bin Laden, you are not going to simply hand him over to the United States.”

Washington’s quid for Pakistan’s quo were assurances of continuing military and counterterrorism aid and “under-the-table personal ‘incentives,’” meaning bribes, as described by one Hersh’s American sources. This was a top intelligence officer, now out of the game, who was privy to the early intel putting bin Laden in Abbotabad.

All this got under way in 2010, when a former ISI officer, also senior, told the CIA station chief in Islamabad, Jonathan Bank, that he could lead the Americans to bin Laden in exchange for the $25 million reward George “Dead or Alive” Bush offered after the September 2001 attacks. So proceeded the horse-trading, after the ISI man was polygraphed in situ and passed.

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Unless you inhabit the innermost circles on the dark side, you did not know any of this before the LRB published on Sunday. “The most blatant lie,” Hersh writes near the top, and he is going to tell us about many, “was that Pakistan’s two most senior military leaders—General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of the army staff, and General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, director-general of the ISI—were never informed of the U.S. mission.”

Altogether, Hersh’s piece is wildly at variance with the official accounting of the events surrounding bin Laden’s assassination, and you are made of some other stuff if the enormity of the Obama administration’ conjuring does not leave you astonished. I love Hersh’s nod in this direction in his extended lead: “The White House’s story might have been written by Lewis Carroll,” he writes.

A ruse this elaborate and ambitious begets the same kind of reporting, and Hersh has been extremely careful to note all the markers on his trail. The piece is 10,000 words and does its work. The remarkable intimacy Hersh achieves with reconstructed events and motivations speaks well enough for itself.

It is implicitly an immense challenge to anyone who reads it. By my count Hersh faces us with two fundamental questions. One, do we accept his rendering of what happened as against what most of us thought to be approximately true and, either way, why? Two, what is the deeper significance of this story—and by extension all others in Hersh’s clipping books?

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These two questions meet at the horizon. Let us proceed in that direction.

Hersh is one of those people who spend years becoming famous overnight. He was a journalist seven years before his sensational unearthing of the Mai Lai massacre in 1969 shot him out of a cannon. And from the first, this: Hersh seems always to have understood the work to require heavy trafficking in falsehoods.

“The only thing I can tell you is that there’s an awful lot of good people in the government, believe it or not—an awful lot of people who don’t like lying,” Hersh said in an interview some years ago. “A lot of people in the military who get up to high positions and can’t stand what they had to do to get there and try to stop what they’re doing. A lot of people in the intelligence community that, you know…”

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Then he added: “And it’s the lying that’s the vehicle for me. The other vehicle also the generic notion of counter-narrative.”

Hersh’s corner of the profession thus leads him to some extremely dark corners. To readers this means one thing above others: When he re-emerges to speak to us do we believe what he says? He is, after all, describing things we cannot make out even in outline.

I do. This is based on the record, in part. When Hersh says he has seen a secret document he does not have in his files and cannot show us, or recounts a conversation that was not recorded, I say, It’s a special kind of reporting. The record is good and, second factor, the narrative rendered holds.

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One example will do, this since I began this column. In August 2013, Washington was aflame with the dead certainty that Bashar al-Assad had sent chemical weapons into a Damascus suburb. Admittedly, the story line was a sieve, as noted at the time: U.N. weapons inspectors had arrived in the Syrian capital the day of the attack; Syrian rebels, desperate to pull Obama over his “red line,” had a motive magnitudes more obvious than any Assad may have had.

But it was Hersh who traced the bouncing ball all the way back to Gaddafi’s captured arsenals in Libya and followed it through the U.S. “consulate” in Benghazi, then on to Turkey and a chemical lab in the English countryside, where the fraud was proven. A dozen unexplained things immediately fell into place.

Hersh’s critics have grown to number many, a point I will return to momentarily. They almost invariably go for the sourcing question: The source are unnamed, they are formerly or now-retired whatevers, where is the documentary proof, everyone is off the record and so on. It is a point on which Hersh seems vulnerable, but I stay with “seems.”

It is a point on which Hersh seems vulnerable, but I stay with “seems.” And note as you peruse all the critical challenges: They rest on one, count it, one source—the administration, of course. Never mind a used car: I would not buy any account of anything Americans do abroad from these people.

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My view: One always questions sources—you better if you want to get through an edition of the New York Times sensibly. Two words on this point: Judith Miller.

But Hersh’s work may make him nearly unique. In the end you are questioning him: It is he who is reliable or not, given how deep he goes beneath the floorboards. There is a take it or leave it aspect, maybe. I have already offered my answer. If I stop trusting Hersh I should stop reading Hersh.

As to the critics, they are like bees building a nest since the LRB published the bin Laden piece. There are the usual charges of problematic sources, and on this point Hersh’s latest is nickel-plated in my judgment. He almost certainly anticipated the incoming artillery.

The other charge is that Hersh’s account is illogical. To connect all the dots in his accounting of events, he posits all sorts of “false flags” and counterintuitive tactics. This is so on the surface, but we must never forget the vast proportion of events now shrouded in secrecy.

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Here are three examples drawn from an especially aroused critique published Monday:

• “Why would the Pakistanis insist on a fake raid that would humiliate their country and the very military and intelligence leaders who supposedly instigated it?” The question is addressed and answered in the piece.

• “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?” Ditto.

• “Why would the U.S. need to construct a massive double of the Abbottabad compound for special forces to train in, if the real compound were going to be totally unguarded and there would be no firefight? So grasping amateurs will write Doubting Thomas paragraphs such as this. To state the obvious, the potential for mishap in the bin Laden raid was vast.

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More obviously still, if you hold the plans of our policy cliques to any standard of logic, then you do not remember or never read of Castro’s exploding cigar, Allen Dulles’ porn film starring a Sukarno lookalike, the Omega campaign against Nasser or any number of other items in Washington’s museum of Rube Goldbergs. To an extent, Hersh trades in the policy elite’s irrationality as well as its lies.

From the same critique of Hersh’s bin Laden piece: “If it seems like worryingly little evidence for a story that accuses hundreds of people across three governments of staging a massive international hoax that has gone on for years, then you are not alone.”

I must be alone, as I worry not at all about the evidence. Be this as it may, this assertion brings us to our second question. What is the story beneath the story here? What is truly at issue as Hersh’s critics emerge in force, as they have in a matter of hours?

On the LRB’s web page where Hersh’s piece is carried, there is a very brief italic biography. “Seymour Hersh is writing an alternative history of the war on terror.” This is all it says. The reference is to a book in progress, but it answers our question aptly.

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An alternative history is exactly what Hersh has been constructing for the past 14 years—in the Iran pieces, the Syria pieces and all the others. And most Americans—the pith of the matter—are simply not ready for any such thing.

Hersh is not a scholar—and well done on this point, Sy—but he has been writing alternative history, arguably, his whole career. His My Lai piece appeared when many of us were ready to hear the worst about Vietnam. So with some of his other work.

Not so now: We post-September 11 Americans are psychologically dependent on a narrative we guard against all assaults. We think John Wayne triumphalism will save us, but not so again: It will destroy us if we do not drop it. The bin Laden fable Obama told after the deed was done is quintessential American mythology in every element of it. To say things were otherwise is to belch in chapel.

Hersh seems to be gradually taking a place next to people such as Stephen F. Cohen, the now-besieged Russianist interviewed recently in this space: Decades of good work and honors are rubbished because they tell the wrong story. I have sympathy but no pity. It is a disgrace, but in my expectation this is going to be a very hallowed hall before long.

It is our media that are out front in blasting Hersh’s new piece. This is natural. The White House got around to denying Hersh’s report at noon Monday, but the media are as exposed as the administration as you read through these 10,000 words, and they will be ever more vicious in their defenses on these matters, I predict.

This point is worth a book, but I will scribble a too-simple exec summary.

Since the Bush II years, when (in my view) the “American century” came to an end, the elite of Washington has gradually constructed a version of reality so elaborate now that it amounts to a parallel universe. Remember Karl Rove’s “We create reality?”

Remember Guy Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle”? The French “68er” was prescient: We live in one. He meant a created reality.

As argued here and elsewhere, the media have made the wrong choice these past 14 years: They chose to reproduce the spectacle rather than pierce it. They invite us now to live according to Reaganist-Clintonist-Barack Obama Thought, as I call it. Counter it with factual realities and… well, Steve Cohen and Sy Hersh can finish the sentence better than I.

The interview with Hersh cited earlier came from the Columbia Journalism Review, an august defender of the press more or less as we have it. The entrance hall to its building up at the university is plastered with quotations from Pulitzer in bronze. Curious thought: The exchange was reverentially published April 1. Would CJR do so again?

I end with Hersh verbatim.

From the CJR interview, this:

And there are counter-narratives to stories. And the problem is, you get to a place like The New York Times, and I saw it from the inside, where it’s all about access. So you trade, in effect—not everybody, but too many reporters—they could trade, I could almost argue, their integrity for the access. Their curiosity, let’s put it in an easier way.

And this:

The mainstream press is driving itself out of business and it’s probably going to be O.K., because some of the younger stuff, once they get their feet on the ground and get a little more money, a little more success, a little more security, and a little more confidence, they’ll fill the gap.

And here is Hersh finishing up in the LRB this week:

Obama today is not facing re-election as he was in the spring of 2011. His principled stand on behalf of the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran says much, as does his decision to operate without the support of the conservative Republicans in Congress. High-level lying nevertheless remains the modus operandi of U.S. policy, along with secret prisons, drone attacks, Special Forces night raids, bypassing the chain of command, and cutting out those who might say no.

Good kicker, Sy. Take a slide.


Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

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