"Either I am completely wrong, or he is completely wrong": Mark Bowden on Seymour Hersh, Osama bin Laden and America's new drone war

The author of "Black Hawk Down" and "Killing Pablo" talks El Chapo, death by drone and the truth about Bin Laden

Published February 13, 2016 2:30PM (EST)

Mark Bowden, Seymour Hersh (markbowdenbooks.com/Pascal Perich/Reuters/Fadi Al-Assaad)
Mark Bowden, Seymour Hersh (markbowdenbooks.com/Pascal Perich/Reuters/Fadi Al-Assaad)

There’s a terrific article in the journalist Mark Bowden’s new collection, "The Three Battles of Wanat," in which Bowden shadows the director of CBS’s coverage of NFL games. The director sits in a little trailer with 100 TV monitors, deciding when a game’s millions of viewers will see a shot of the field, or of the fans, or of any other view through any of the networks’ army of cameras. It’s the work of a high-tech, invisible impresario, who shapes the experience of a football game more than almost anyone else.

It’s also exactly the kind of subject that a writer like Bowden would pursue. Where other reporters write stories about offensive yards and touchdowns and personal rivalries—in other words, The Show—Bowden is curious about the world behind the scenes—the tools and operators who actually drive the action.

Bowden is an investigative journalist and a regular contributor to The Atlantic and Vanity Fair. His subjects are war, sports and politics, roughly in that order. He has written books about the drug lord Pablo Escobar, the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and the Philadelphia Eagles. His meticulous reconstruction of the Battle for Mogadishu, originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer as a 29-part series, was the basis for the film "Black Hawk Down."

As with football, so with war. Bowden is consistently curious about the anonymous, often invisible operators who power modern warfare—drone operators, intelligence agents, special forces teams. "The Three Battles of Wanat" includes pieces about the hunt for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the nature of drone warfare, and, in the title story, about one of America’s bloodiest encounters in Afghanistan and its long, tangled aftermath.

These subjects are fraught. Bowden tells a good story, but the moral questions are never far away, even as their answers are difficult to discern.

Over the phone, Bowden spoke with Salon about Seymour Hersh, the ethics of drones, and what it’s like to get a call from El Chapo’s lawyers.

Why do you write about war?

Because it’s a big part of modern life. When the Battle of Mogadishu occurred in 1993, it was really the first major episode of combat in my adult life. As a writer, as someone who was oriented towards understanding the role the United States plays in the world, that episode was a very important one to dissect and understand.

Do you think Americans’ perceptions of modern warfare match the reality?

Most people who are not involved in the military, their perception of war is shaped by books and movies—movies, primarily. Most of those films, up until fairly recent years, have depicted the way war was fought in the 20th century. War has evolved. I’ve written about it as it exists today. That means very precise applications of force, the growing capability of gathering intelligence and finding people, weaponry that’s extraordinarily precise, the use of drones.

We have developed, culturally, a sensibility that abhors the random bloodshed of conflict in the mid-20th century. We demand far more precise military strikes, and we avoid and decry the indiscriminate killing of innocent people. All of these things shape the way we fight, and I do believe we still, sadly, need to fight.

Is there a moral case to be made for surgical techniques like special ops raids and drone strikes?

Absolutely. I think, much as the Obama administration does, that if you are guided by the principles of a just war, you are drawn towards the use of force that is the most accurate, that is the least indiscriminate in killing civilians, and that is the most proportionate to the level of threat that’s posed. As awful as the idea of whacking somebody from a robot vehicle overhead is, [the drone] stacks up pretty well against the alternative.

I think part of the moral queasiness over drone use is that it’s personalized warfare. There’s a fine line between murder and war, and assassination seems to cross it.

I don’t think anybody in their right mind gets all excited and happy about the idea of going out and killing people, but I think that, sadly, it is necessary. If it’s going to be done, then I prefer it be done morally, with an understanding of what the basic concepts of just warfare are. I don’t really think, frankly, that people who criticize it across the board have thought about it very hard.

When you talk about the concept of just war, how are you approaching it? From the theological side? The legal side?

The moral side. If you accept the necessity of warfare, and you want your government, which represents you, to behave in a morally responsible way, the guidelines of just war are what you need. Other than embracing pacifism as a blanket refusal to use force under any circumstances, the only alternative for a moral human being is to attempt to live up to the principle of just warfare.

In an article about drones, you write “one of the things that nagged at the lance corporal… was that he had delivered his death blow without having seen any danger himself.” There’s this idea that even if the killing was justified, it felt unfair.

The idea of being able to strike a blow at a distance without exposing yourself to risk has been the principle behind the development of weaponry since David used the sling. The feelings that that lance corporal had are real, but I don’t think that they amount to an overriding moral crisis.

What if this massive, bureaucratic system of targeted killings can’t keep itself in line?

It’s a real danger, and it’s one that I spoke to the president about. He’s concerned about it. I think that his administration has wrestled with that and done a reasonably good job of limiting the number of strikes and setting up rules to make them more responsible.

But there is a real temptation. When you can use a weapon that doesn’t expose your troops to any danger, it makes it easier to decide to pull the trigger. But then look at the challenge posed by the use of nuclear weapons, or the tactics employed in World War II as aerial warfare took hold. Every new weapon system brings with it the potential to do great harm along with the potential to act responsibly.

Ultimately it’s human beings that decide these things, and there are people who have good motives and people who have bad motives. I think that one of the virtues of democracy is that we can debate these things, think about them and select, hopefully, people who will behave honorably.

That’s one of the virtues of democracy, sure. But one of the dangers of bureaucracy is that even people with good intentions can end up doing terrible things.

Without a doubt, and that’s happened throughout history. When we look back at the use of the drones in the later years of the Bush administration, I think you have an example of overenthusiasm.

Is targeting individuals actually a good approach? I’m thinking of El Chapo in Mexico, or even bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network. You can remove this individual, at great expense, but the larger problem won’t change because of it.

People do have a sense of justice in the world. In the case of someone like El Chapo or Pablo Escobar, you have individuals whose defiance of the law and decency basically threatened to undermine respect for law in a whole country. In those cases, arresting or killing individuals served a larger purpose than the specific problem of drug trafficking, or, in the case of Osama bin Laden, acts of terror.

You’re saying that the symbolic message does matter.

It does matter. People who hero-worshipped Pablo Escobar in Colombia and who saw him as a legitimate expression of public disillusionment or dissatisfaction with government, I think learned a lesson from [his] death. Certainly the drug kingpins did. At some basic level, the power of the state—especially a legitimate, popularly elected government—has to be respected, or your society completely breaks down.

Do you think that Sean Penn was right to pursue the El Chapo scoop?

Sure. Journalistically I think it’s a very defensible thing to have done.

I was approached by Chapo’s lawyers prior to his [first] arrest. Even then he was looking for someone to tell his story. Where I would part ways with Sean Penn is that when they approached me, I said, “If I were to interview him, he would have to understand that I’m going to write whatever I choose, and that he would have no control over the final product. If he wants to talk to me on that basis, I’ll do it.”

Of course, I didn’t hear from them again.

Wait, how do El Chapo’s lawyers reach out to someone? You just get a call?

The telephone rings, and somebody I’ve never talked to before introduces himself and says he’s a lawyer, and he works out in California. He’s calling representing the family of El Chapo and wanted to know if I would have any interest in sitting down and talking to him and writing something.

How do you feel about Rolling Stone giving El Chapo a final read of the Sean Penn piece?

I would defend Rolling Stone if they were very clear at the outset that he would not have veto power. I don’t have a deep objection to showing someone a story prior to publication, provided they understand that the final decision over what will be published will not be theirs.

As long as [Rolling Stone] made it clear that he would not have control over what they published, I don’t have any objection journalistically to their showing him beforehand what they were going to publish.

There is something fascinating about the drug lord in hiding, thinking about his legacy.

Yeah. I think probably—this is my speculation—he was anticipating that he was going to get caught at some point and go to trial, and [he was] trying to get his story out there to present a counternarrative. Someone was advising him that that would maybe be a good idea.

That makes sense. A Hollywood biopic probably wouldn’t hurt his case.

Well, I think his ego figures in too. Here’s a guy who came from nowhere and, much like Pablo Escobar, made himself one of the richest, most powerful people in his country. So, like a lot of people who have a lot of money, he thinks it makes him a superior human being.

I’m still surprised that they came to you.

I think they did because of my book "Killing Pablo." At one point I was contacted by the Escobar family to see if I would work with them on developing some kind of movie treatment of Pablo’s life, and I just remember telling whoever it was that called that I did not wish to be involved in any way with the Escobar family.

That would be a scary gig. It seems like Sean Penn will never have another night of total ease.

I don’t think he’s too worried. I’ll bet you he’s thrilled by all the attention he’s getting. He’s a famous leftist Hollywood star who dabbles in journalism, and somebody dropped a plum in his lap.

I want to ask you about investigative reporter Seymour Hersh and his version of the bin Laden raid. Hersh takes issue with your account of the raid, which corroborates the government’s story. He alleges that the raid was secretly carried out in collaboration with the Pakistani government, on a defenseless bin Laden.

Eight months after Hersh’s piece came out, is there any part of his story that you find convincing?

No, absolutely not. Either I am completely wrong, or he is completely wrong. I’m willing to entertain the possibility that I’m completely wrong, but you’re going to have to show me some piece of evidence.

Why do you think Hersh is wrong?

I spent more than a year talking to dozens of people who were directly involved in the effort to find and kill Osama bin Laden. All of those people—literally all of them—would have had to be lying to me for Seymour Hersh’s version of events to be true.

The fact that he has two anonymous sources, to me, is pathetic. You have everyone that I’ve spoken to, from the president of the United States to individuals who actually took part in the raid, versus somebody who claims on second or third hand, who doesn’t even identify themselves, that the versions of events that all of these people are telling are lies. It just defies credulity, to me.

Shortly after Hersh’s story came out, he was interviewed on “On the Media.” The host, Bob Garfield, asked how a cover-up this large could ever be possible. And Hersh said, look at the Snowden leaks. We have seen big coordinated government cover-ups before.

Nothing like this. Government officials have lied in the past. I don’t believe, though, that anyone has ever successfully shown that from the highest levels of government, a cover story or a false story was concocted that was later shown to be completely false.

Take one thing that Hersh claimed: that the body of Osama bin Laden was dismembered and thrown from a helicopter. Every person who was directly involved in planning, authorizing and carrying out that mission has confirmed that the body was buried at sea. One version of this is true and the other is false. How would a rational person decide which version of events is more likely to be true? Unless you have an inherent tendency to disbelieve anyone in a position of authority, there is no sane way, it seems to me, to choose the Hersh version of events over the official story.

As I said, I don’t know of another instance where the entire government—unless you don’t believe we landed on the moon—concocted a false narrative and sold it to the American people. You point it out to me if you can think of one.

So you think that Hersh has been taken in by a couple sources who have some other agenda?

Yeah, I think he has. If you read what Seymour has said, he disbelieved the official account right from the beginning. He’s operating from the perspective that he was being lied to, that we’re all being lied to. I think that is as foolish a way to start a work of journalism as it is to believe everything you’re told.

What is the healthy amount to assume that officials are lying?

I think it’s very important to have that assumption. In my experience, though, if government wants to keep something secret, they don’t talk about it unless they absolutely have to. That’s a perfectly natural human instinct. Why concoct a lie if no one’s asking the question? You don’t sit down and say, “Ok, let’s cook up a good story and sell it.” I don’t know of an instance of that happening.

The only defense against [misleading sources] is to talk to a lot of different people, try to find people who don’t share the same motivations as everyone else, look for narratives that are plausible but that contradict the official story. But there has to be some kind of compelling logic to explain why we’ve been misled.

Hersh argues that the CIA, Pakistani officials, Obama administration officals and the SEALs had aligned interests in supporting this particular narrative.

But they didn’t! Pakistan was deeply embarrassed by what happened, and furious. I spoke to the U.S. State Department’s liaison with the government of Pakistan. He said that in his memory of U.S. relations with Pakistan there had never been such a serious breach as there was over this.

In his counternarrative, Hersh argues that the Pakistanis had to pretend, in order to save face after being maneuvered into a weak position by the U.S. government.

Like we’ve been able to maneuver Pakistan to do whatever we want in modern times. It’s just preposterous. Even bin Laden’s family members were questioned about what happened on the night of that mission. To my knowledge, none of them have contradicted anything about the account. What would be their motive in supporting the concocted American version of events? To me it’s ridiculous that I’m spending even as much time as I am talking to you about this.

Why do people choose to believe counternarratives? Because there is a tremendous distrust of authority, which is part of the human condition. It is not an unhealthy part of the human condition. But I think the existence of the Internet and social media and the ability of every single person in the world, just about, to present their own alternative version of events and broadcast it to the world means that we have to become more careful in weighing the validity of information. That is a condition of modern life.

Are you concerned about the future of journalism? Is the Internet going to break the idea of the central narrative?

The good thing about the Internet is that it has broken down the model where we get all our information from just a few select sources. On the one hand, that [model] elevated the professionalism of reporting. But it was unhealthy, it seems to me, to have relatively few voices.

Those kinds of things have largely broken down, and as a result we get what you’re calling counternarrative. Basically anyone in their basement who wants to concoct an alternate theory, cherry-picking facts off of the Internet, can develop their own preposterous ideas and publish them to the world and develop a following.

The fact that Seymour’s alternate version of the raid that killed bin Laden came from him is the only reason it’s given any weight at all, and it’s kind of sad, because he has such a fine reputation as an investigative reporter. I think in this case he’s just mistaken.

In a personal essay about going to Catholic school, you write “the nuns taught us that the capacity for evil is real and present in this world, especially inside ourselves.” You’ve written about some very dark corners of human existence. How do you write about evil? Is that even how you think about your work?

I do. I’m working on a story right now that is maybe one of the most distilled, purest examples of evil that I have ever encountered. I think about it a lot. I do believe that the capacity for evil is in all of us, that we make moral choices always in our life. You ask yourself if your moral compass is strong enough to steer you if you were given the opportunity to do tremendous harm.

I’m a big believer in the importance of civilization and the rule of law. I think that those things exist to protect us from ourselves. Where the law breaks down and where there is no civilizing influence, you see the worst sorts of depredation.

I was about to say that there is something lawless about warfare, but maybe that’s not true. War has its own laws.

In the chaos of combat, individuals are afforded the opportunity of doing heinous things and getting away with them. And I think that it is the responsibility of the chain of command—a well-run, well-disciplined military—to prevent those kinds of things from happening.

If you turn hundreds of thousands of armed men loose, not all of those people are well intentioned. Some of them are going to do the wrong thing regardless of how you instruct them. So if you as a commander are not aggressively supervising and policing and punishing malfeasance, it will grow and get out of control. What happened at Abu Ghraib, it seems to me, was a perfect example of that. You had guards who were given power over inmates who they hated and distrusted, and they abused them. That is the most predictable scenario imaginable.

How does a writer approach evil?

I just think you write about the world as it is. I feel that the work that I’ve done throughout my life has been my own personal effort to better understand people and how and why things happen the way they do in the real world.

Are there things that still surprise you when you’re working on stories?

If you’re not surprised by anything in what you’re reporting, you probably haven’t done enough work.

By Michael Schulson

MORE FROM Michael Schulson

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