"A lot of things that seem simple aren't so simple": Seymour Hersh on the untold story of Osama bin Laden killing and the way Washington -- and the media -- really work

SALON EXCLUSIVE: The great investigative reporter on how he unraveled a counter-narrative of the Bin Laden mystery

Published May 2, 2016 9:59AM (EDT)

Seymour Hersh        (Reuters/Fadi Al-assaad)
Seymour Hersh (Reuters/Fadi Al-assaad)

Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh broke the story of the My Lai massacre in 1969. He was the first to report the atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison, back in 2004.

Hersh’s most recent break threatens to blur the boundary between investigative reporting and conspiracy theory. The story, published last May in the London Review of Books, alleges that Pakistan caught Osama bin Laden years ago and then kept him under house arrest in Abbottabad. Eventually, Hersh writes, a walk-in leaked bin Laden’s whereabouts to the CIA. The SEAL raid that killed bin Laden was military theater, staged in cooperation with the Pakistani government.

This story contradicts government accounts, as well as with the exhaustive reporting of Mark Bowden, whom I interviewed for Salon earlier this year. (Hersh and Bowden speak highly of one another). In the unstable postmodern game of who the hell should I trust?, the fallout from Hersh’s story offers an especially vexing tableau. There have been the condemnations from prominent writers like Bowden, and scathing takedowns in Slate and Politico—but also sympathetic coverage in the New York Times Magazine, and some corroborating details from veteran Times Afghanistan correspondent Carlotta Gall and from NBC News.

Earlier this month, Verso Press released a collection of Hersh’s journalism titled “The Killing of Osama Bin Laden.” The book includes some of Hersh’s recent reporting on Syria, as well as a reprint of the LRB piece on bin Laden.

I met Hersh at his office, a two-room suite in Washington, D.C. Hersh’s desk is covered with stacks of file folders, each jammed with printouts and notes on yellow legal paper, and indexed with a system of his own devising. When I walked into the room, he was sock-footed and tousle-haired. Now 79 years old, Hersh is discursive, intense, erudite, and disarmingly casual. It is hard to imagine him ever sleeping.

Over the course of 90 minutes, we spoke about the bin Laden assassination, that time Hersh yelled at a reporter from Slate, and why he thinks of himself as a kind of public defender.

So, when it comes to politics, I’m a pretty normal citizen: I follow the news, I read a lot. But what do I actually know about my government?

You know what the New York Times and Washington Post tell you. You do that narrative. You don’t care that much about television because they’re not going to tell you anything that isn’t boilerplate.

The Times will sometimes really surprise you doing good stuff. They did a wonderful piece in February on Libya. It was different when I was there. The Times was the only game in town, but when I wrote stuff for the New York Times, I mean “boom”—domestic spying, CIA and Kissinger stuff—it was like super power.

[Hersh gets up from his desk and walks me over to a U.S. government memo about him. It’s framed and hanging on the wall of his reception room. He begins to read it out loud.]

 “He will not put an end to his campaign. You’re his ultimate target.” Larry Eagleburger wrote this. He's very funny, droll guy. [Hersh continues reading from the memo] "What represents the truth”—get these next lines—“as they know it." [laughs]

Only Larry would do that. He's just very funny. "As they know it." Of course, because that just means the truth, there is no truth.

Wait, there is no truth?

There are 50 versions of truth.

So how do you parse them?

What you have now, you have the Internet, which is wonderful, because what does it do? The Internet opens up Europe to you.

So: I do this story, bin Laden comes up, I hear a couple of things. I'm not skeptical. They killed him, great! They got him, they tell the story, and I know the White House controls the agenda for those next three days. If you follow the story day by day, they had to disavow stuff, which is a little edgy, but in the fog of war...

So what am I? I'm a counter-narrative guy. I've written a lot about Pakistan. Four things happened within days: one, I get a call from a very prominent editor of a major newspaper [in Europe], and he says "I want you to look into that story." And I said "Why?" And he said "There's something wrong with this story."

Where was his hunch coming from?

I don't know. I'm going to London. That's why I'm being a little coy. He's now in a bigger position than he was then, he's a very eminent guy.

[Hersh pulls out a piece of paper and sketches a map of Pakistan]

Here’s Islamabad. Here's a black base that they have, that we used to work at. Here's a major regiment. Here's the West Point [of Pakistan]. Over here is a big air base. And there's another black site, so in the middle of all this [is Abbottabad, where Bin Laden was hiding].

He was the No. 1 target and they offered a $25 million reward for him. So he's going to go live his life undercover there. What? In a house, in a compound? In the open? What? Doesn't make sense.

You can hide just about anywhere, though.

You can hide in the open. But that's really pushing it.

It’s true, that would have been a tricky spot for a fugitive.

It's 30 miles from a base the CIA shares with ISI [Pakistani intelligence]. It's just a hard sell.

By the next day, people are calling up. Joe Biden's a good old guy. He's the kind of guy, a lot of people have a cell phone and call up Joe. Somebody [in media] had called him up and said "Great fucking job, you got the fucker, way to go!" Biden calls back and leaves a message. I heard some of it. He says "Oh yeah, it's great, and let me tell you something. If you think this guy is some social worker who works something on the South Side, let me tell you Gates didn't want to go, and we drove it up Gates' ass. We just stuck it to him." Woah, that's interesting…I didn't know there was that much tension between the two. Gates is a pretty low-key guy.

[Hersh talks a bit about his previous reporting in Pakistan for The New Yorker].

I know people, I got an email [from someone in Pakistan] on the 1st, 2nd June, saying "You better check this out. This only happened because of us. You crazy?” Long email. It was somebody I'd dealt with before.

This was a source from one of those earlier stories?

Yeah, obviously.

I only mention Gates to tell you, not that he was a source for this story, but that he was somebody I could take seriously. Gates knows stuff. He wasn't mad [at the White House] because they mentioned the Delta Force was there. He was mad because they screwed [General Ashfaq Parvez] Kayani and [General Ahmed Shuja] Pasha. The two leading generals, the people with who we depend on. We need them to keep us informed of what's going on. We want to make sure that Pakistan trusts us.

So you go to meet with this source.

I meet with this source. You see these? [Hersh gestures to his desk]. None of these interviews are on a computer, and they haven't been since 9/11.

Why am I doing it this way? Because somebody told me after 9/11 that they changed the rules on interception. Same story that [Jim] Risen wrote about four years later. I didn't know Jim, he got much more information that I did. My guy said, "Don't put anything in a computer. Write in a computer and see a source, but don't put the name of a source in the computer." So I have all this stuff.

You have stacks.

Anyway, I talked to an American, it's enough to get going. I would never claim I talked to one of the guys on the mission. The guys on the mission talked to everybody, they have cousins, they have brothers. SEALS are like brothers.

Honor culture.

There you go. So I talked to people I know in the SEAL community: turkey shoot, just a sitting duck. Just a fucking hit. They went and hit. Nobody was supposed to know anything about it.

Why bin Laden would want to go in the middle of the hottest zones. He's going to go there? By choice? Within 20 clicks of the most secret places that have total air coverage and you know, total coverage of any intercepts, I'm talking about communication stuff.

And also the story that one chopper crashed and burned, and the fire department didn't come, and the police department didn't come, and nobody knows nothing.

[We talk for a while about Russia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan]

Pakistan ISI helps us in the Afghan war. One thing we know and the Paks know is by middle '75, India's going nuclear. Pakistan wasn't nuclear till about '85, '86. [After India goes nuclear,] Paks start to panic. Fuck. They got nukes, in Delhi.

Which is very close to the border.

It's an hour flight. And so what happens is, they need radar. They need a good radar system.

I'm not a genius, but I go looking through contracts for radar. They build an audible-3D system. Audible means you can't erase an image. That's interesting. That the only way you cannot detect—this is a 999 million dollar radar system that we built for them—Raytheon, an American company.

In the '80s

I don't think it's online until the '90s. And it's a great system, and it's clear to me, and I've been told this after I wrote this story, the only way they could keep from not seeing us, is they had to turn off the system. I had an American say to me, "For Pakistanis to turn off the system, given their fear of a first strike from India, would be like if the height a Cold War [we shut down] NORAD."

They shut down the radar, because they couldn't have it seen that's how we did it. That's my belief. I didn't write that because I didn't know it then, but I know it now.

So you start doing the story. It's not so hard. I diminished it by saying counternarrative, it's counter-truth. But it's not a narrative, it's a story. So I know I'm into something. And then I just spent a lot of time doing it. And it took a long time to get it done.

There’s been a lot of skepticism about the sheer amount of cover-up that would be required to pull something like this off.

It's always easy to get rid of a source, by saying “Anonymous sources!”

Well, yeah: a few anonymous sources versus a lot of on-record sources—

—with the understanding being that anybody who would talk about this, not being anonymous, would be jailed. Obama was one of the most vigorous guys cracking down on people talking. So the incentive to not be—

The incentive has to exist in Pakistan too, though, not just in the United States.

Oh, it's worse in Pakistan. Are you kidding? I can't even begin to hint at what I got from Pakistan. Are you fucking kidding me?

You know the Mahler story in the New York Times? The Washington bureau went nuts about it and wrote letters: "The worst thing we've ever seen in 30 years. We have the story and only one story exists, the one we wrote in the first week." Good reporters wrote it. One of the reporters was a first-rate guy saying, "It's the worst thing I've ever seen in 30 years."

You're gonna say the only history that exists is the history that took place in the first five days? There's no other history? That's what they were saying.

But the degree to which you are overturning the narrative is almost unprecedented.

But the point is, you can make any argument you want, but they made the argument that "there's no more story after we did it." That's the argument they were making: "We have the story, there can't be anything more."

That's the way I read it, anyway. It seemed to be a very narrow gauge about why people write history books. There's always more.

People have said that you're off your rocker.

Slate did a bunch of stuff, I think they wrote five pieces.

You yelled at an interviewer from Slate. Isaac Chotiner.

I did yell at him. He got to me because his great uncle was a guy named Murray Chotiner, who was a great dirty inside guy from Richard Nixon. I said, "You're not related to Murray Chotiner, right?" He said, "Yeah, that's my uncle." I said, "Oh man, I gotta talk to you." So we talked on the phone. It was a terrible day, one of these days I was getting 50 calls. It was very funny. I was off the wall, but I didn't know he was taping it.

I was surprised by the rage that came across. It made you seem nervous.

Really? Most people saw it as funny. I was just being funny. It wasn't rage, I was having fun torturing the guy. He was a neocon. He kept on wanting me to say something I wasn't going to say. He kept on saying that I published [the story] in London because the standards are lower, when they're not.

I wasn't mad at him at all. I was having fun with him. You wouldn't believe how many people wrote me and said, "Way to go, finally somebody did it."

I got the same vibe listening to your interview with “On the Media.”



I don't know. Do you see rage now?

No. You don’t seem angry at all.

Maybe you can just read what you want into it. But I'm not even mad at Mark [Bowden]. He's entitled to say what he says.

Bowden argues that the scale of the cover-up that you're alleging is so far beyond anything else that's ever been uncovered that it defies credulity.

You think My Lai was something they were talking about? [Laughs]

My Lai seems different. There was concrete evidence. It's possible the Bin Laden story will never be fully understood.

You mean there were bodies. You could find the bodies. But you have no idea how that was hidden for a year and a half.

But the number of people who were involved in the Bin Laden assassination—how many people would need to have been quiet for this to work?

Let me tell you something. There was a story in the Washington Post recently about "eyewash" [a CIA program in which employees receive false information about sensitive operations].

You have people who are working with couriers, and you have a walk-in you have to protect. So when the story comes out, you tell the people, "You guys really deserve credit. You did it. It was your lead that got it." It's anything but inconsistent that you would have people inside actually believing something that wasn't true.

And let me give you an analogy why. Do you know how many people work for the NSA? At least 20,000, but I think it's closer to 40,000. Let's say only 10 percent of the NSA people knew that this stuff was going on after 9/11. So you're talking about 4,000 people.

So 12 years later, one guy, Edward Snowden, goes public about stuff that's heinous. That they're actually listening to everybody when they're telling us they're not. When he does do it, how many other have backed him up?

So you're telling me a conspiracy can't take place? If there's 4,000 people, 3,999 who knew about it didn't talk.

It feels like there's something different about this sort of bureaucratic acculturation, though.

Well, what else is this? You're talking about the same thing.

The Bin Laden assassination seems like a single incident in which either X happened or Y. That’s different from this bureaucratic machine at the NSA, that acculturates people to these unlawful roles.

You don't tell people about walk-ins. You have to construct a way [to explain how] you know how bin Laden was there. You have to construct it. There are two reasons here. Why not make it look like you found a courier and through extreme interrogation, as in “Zero Dark Thirty”? It justifies it.

Eyewash. It's OK to let the bunch of people down below think they did it. You can bring the press to them, you can bring the Hollywood people to them and have interviews and say, "Yes, we tracked him and we're so proud of what we did."

What makes you think that the American and Pakistani governments are smart enough to pull off this cover-up?

It's not that they're so smart. It's that the press doesn't read. They don't read before they write.

Public defenders keep the police away from you. They go into court as your guy, and they make the police produce a case and have evidence. Maybe that's the way I look at what I do. Let them know that there's some standard. They can't just get away with saying anything they feel like saying. Somebody's gonna give them a counterargument.

I'm just not doing it to be belligerent. This will make me think about it. This will make me talk to people. Because there's another side. It can't be that simple. Is it conspiracy? I don't think so.

Are there cases where it is that simple?

I'll give you an example. We dropped two nuclear bombs. Have we resolved it yet? Did we do it because of Russia? Gar Alperovitz would tell you that. He's not a fool. He's written two book on why we did it.

Why would you drop a second one? A lot of things that seem simple aren't so simple.

By Michael Schulson

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Cia Editor's Picks Mark Bowden My Lai New York Times Osama Bin Laden Robert Gates Seymour Hersh Slate