Bernie Sanders' golden bin Laden opportunity: Could the Seymour Hersh controversy shake up 2016?

Sanders is well positioned to challenge Clinton on foreign policy. But is Hersh's flawed report the way to do so?

Published May 13, 2015 4:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Evan Vucci)
(AP/Evan Vucci)

Bernie Sanders has just been handed a powerful new weapon in the unlikeliest of forms — a 10,356-word essay published on Sunday in the London Review of Books. Seymour Hersh’s article, “The Killing of Osama bin Laden,” purports to shred the Obama administration’s account of bin Laden’s assassination and expose a massive coverup at the highest reaches of the national security apparatus. But if used effectively, Hersh’s story could also serve to expose the deepest fissures in the Democratic ranks — and thus provide an opening for its upstart left-wing challenger.

How might Sanders respond to Hersh’s revelations? The Vermont senator could use the story to relentlessly hammer Hillary Clinton from the foreign policy left, driving the wedge that doomed Clinton against Barack Obama in 2008 and gave Howard Dean a grass-roots opening against John Kerry in 2004.

Hersh’s bombshell comes at an opportune moment for Sanders’ campaign. Clinton has been sating Democratic appetites on a range of issues, just recently moving to cover her left flank on economics, criminal justice reform and immigration. But as pointed out on Monday by Ezra Klein in Vox, Clinton will have much more difficulty preventing progressive criticism on one salient topic in particular: foreign policy.

“Clinton really is to the right of many liberals on foreign policy and civil liberties issues,” Klein writes. “She is significantly more hawkish than Sanders, or even Obama. She is more comfortable with — and cast more votes for — the post-9/11 security state than many in the Democratic Party. She has directly criticized the Obama administration’s refusal to get more deeply involved in Syria.”

Klein argues that this divide — between Clinton’s foreign policy views and that of the Democratic base — is real, and that it explains why Clinton is eager to embrace the narrative that she’s threatened by Elizabeth Warren. The thinking goes that if the Democratic primary can be about Clinton’s ability to pass a litmus test on economic issues, Klein explains, Clinton should be fine. But she’d be less likely to pass one on foreign policy.

And Hersh’s story has the potential to reverse Clinton’s attempts to minimize the role of international affairs in 2016. The piece is already being widely debated among the left vs. center-left lines you might expect. There are the grass-roots outlets that catapulted Dean to within reach of the nomination — the Daily Kos (the article “does appear very thoroughly sourced”), Democracy Now and the Intercept — that accept Hersh’s story as proof of the CIA lies. Then there’s the skeptical reaction to Hersh from center-left publications like New York magazine (“How Solid Is this Sy Hersh Story?”), the Washington Post and Slate.

This is a split that Sanders — and Sanders alone among presidential candidates — is poised to exploit. Sanders could go out tomorrow and say that, unlike certain unnamed competitors, he has consistently opposed foreign adventurism. He might call for some sort of independent or Senate investigation into what really happened and not even allude to Clinton; that would force Clinton to answer difficult questions, or at the very least draw a clear contrast between the two.

Clinton is not explicitly mentioned by Hersh’s report. But a full-frontal Sanders assault over Hersh’s allegations could put Clinton on the defensive: What did the State Department know about the role of ISI in the attack? Is Clinton sure that the Pakistanis had no foreknowledge of the bin Laden raid? These are not the kind of questions Clinton wants to be getting in her “town hall” meetings to turn into campaign slogans — or in a nationally televised debate several months from now.

Some might question the point of turning Hersh's report into a campaign issue. After all, this group could say, bin Laden is dead, the raid is over, and the new presidential campaign is not about Obama's term. But this would be a short-sighted way of thinking about both politics and policy, for two reasons: 1) Because it's crucial for Clinton to explain her position on the limits of American power (e.g., is lying about bin Laden's death justified?); and 2) because progressive voters have a right to know how their candidate really feels about these messy issues, and to see to what extent Clinton would challenge or blindly defend powerful military institutions as president.

It’s hard to argue Sanders would fail to find a receptive audience, at least on the left, or that seizing the issue in some abstract form would represent poor political judgment. The more difficult question is whether it’s the right thing for him to do. Hersh’s story makes grandiose claims, and — legendary reporter though he is — there’s not much by way of hard evidence to support those claims. The White House has swiftly rebuffed the allegations as preposterous, and Hersh’s story (as noted by many others) appears to be traced back to a single, retired, anonymous former U.S. intelligence official. Even an NBC News report that appeared to corroborate some of the most important portions of Hersh's story was later walked back.

At the same time, NBC News didn't fully walk back its reporting, and maintained that a so-called Pakistani "walk-in" provided crucial intelligence in the hunt for bin Laden. Additionally, in the New York Times, Carlotta Gall backed up Hersh's insistence that bin Laden's location was not ascertained by tracking couriers, as the government has long insisted. "My own reporting tracks with Hersh's," Gall wrote. This is what makes the call so difficult. Whatever the veracity of the specific details of Hersh's report, it nonetheless highlights all of the apparent contradictions and open questions that have swirled around the government's official bin Laden narrative from the very beginning. Hersh may be an imperfect messenger, but does that necessarily disqualify his larger point?

Unfortunately, it probably should, at least until we know more.

Sanders could try using the incident to highlight his differences with Clinton. As is often the case, however, the smart political move isn’t the moral one; if Sanders is as principled and detail-oriented as his supporters claim, he’ll resist the temptation to use the issue for political gain -- at least for now.

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is a recent Cornell graduate and the editor of the Ithaca Voice.

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