Alone against Obama

The investigative journalist Seymour Hersh is accusing the U.S. President of lying: The killing of Osama bin Laden happened very differently than described. Who is right?

Seymour Hersh isn’t budging. The star reporter is stuck in traffic; he simply can’t get back to Washington. In the morning, he set off to Virginia to play golf. He just had to get away, he said on the telephone. For a week now he has been accused of planting an implausible, even absurd, conspiracy theory with his story about the apparent real end of Osama bin Laden.

According to Hersh, American Special Forces didn’t kill the al-Qaida chief in Pakistan during a risky operation, as claimed by the White House. The nocturnal capturing of the estate in Abbottabad was rather the result of a joint action by American and Pakistani secret police.

More simply put: “We’ve caught the fox,” said Obama.

“No, you shot the fox in the trap,” says Hersh.

Did Barack Obama lie? Or, is Seymour Hersh wrong? In both cases, it concerns American institutions.

Seymour Hersh, 78, is the most important investigative journalist in the U.S.. His reports about the massacre at My Lai in the Vietnam War (1968) and the Abu Ghraib torture scandal in Iraq (2004) shook America’s view of itself as a well-meaning empire of goodwill that fights for freedom and human rights. Hersh is not just any conspiracy theorist. Since the sixties, he has exposed genuine conspiracies.

Now Hersch claims he has found out through years of research that the Americans didn’t find out about bin Laden’s location in Abbottabad through tracking his courier like they claimed, but rather from a Pakistani defector. At America’s insistence, Pakistan is supposed to have allowed the killing of bin Laden by U.S. Special Forces. In any case, they agreed that the death of the terrorist chief was to be kept secret for a while and eventually be sold as the result of a drone attack in Afghanistan. Then, however, a Navy SEAL’s helicopter crashed during the operation on May 2, 2011 and the White House must have been worried about being able to pull off the cover up. Thus, President Obama went to the world’s media during the night—and, according to Hersh, lied through his teeth about a daring Special Forces operation after months of secret investigating, bin Laden dead after a shoot-out, immediately buried at sea according to Islamic practice, extensive al-Qaida documents secured.

Over the following days, the White House released further details, which partly contradicted each other. But, according to Hersh, the details aren’t incorrect; the core of the story is made up. Again we see, wrote Hersh in his article “The Killing of Osama bin Laden” which will be published in the latest edition of the London Review of Books, “High-level lying nevertheless remains the modus operandi of U.S. policy, along with secret prisons, drone attacks, Special Forces night raids.” (

There have been so many lies from people in the highest offices since Sept. 11, 2001 – about weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s connections to al-Qaida – that all possible forms of manipulation from American governments are conceivable. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Hersh’s version is correct simply because it’s the opposite of what the government is claiming.

Cameron Munter was the U.S. Ambassador in Pakistan when Osama bin Laden was killed. He told Die Zeit: “I don’t agree with Hersh. I have seen no evidence that shows that the Pakistani authorities knew bin Laden was in Abbottabad or that they were informed beforehand of the storming of his house.” *

Hersh had expected the government to react defensively. But he didn’t expect the whole American media to be so critical of him. There’s loud criticism coming from newspapers, TV programs and blogs, which say that Hersh has no credible proof for his version of events apart from a retired secret service agent who is his main source. Apart from that, his story is teeming with implausible details. Such as: The Special Forces apparently “shot Bin Laden to pieces” when they stormed his bedroom and later threw his body parts out the window of the helicopter over the Hindu Kush.

But: How much time and ammunition, even with army weapons, would it take to shoot a man “to pieces”? And: why would the soldiers throw the remains of the world’s most wanted man out of the helicopter instead of allowing the body to be identified? What was the point of the whole operation if there was a deal between the Pakistanis and the CIA? What proof does Hersh have for his adventurous tale?

“Proof!” Hersh is noticeably annoyed by such a question. “No, I don’t have a document that proves everything,” he told us. “If journalists could only report on something when they had documented proof, then we couldn’t write very much!”

One thing is certain: A story like the one Hersh is selling could flourish given the relationship between America and Pakistan. It’s a paradoxical, pathological relationship: extremely intensive but without any trust. It goes back to the year 1979 when the Pakistani Secret Service, ISI, was tasked and given money by the United States to organize a guerilla war against the Russian-backed Islamist Mujahedeen in Afghanistan. This is when the radicalism took shape that was vented on America itself on Sept. 11, 2001. After the attacks on Washington and New York, the U.S. demanded full cooperation from Islamabad in its war on terror. At the same time, they knew full well that ISI hadn’t burnt all its bridges to the militants.

The Pakistanis saw the insincerity of the other side: of a West that first used Islamic radicalism and then wanted to have nothing more to do with it.

Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who was Pakistani Foreign Minister from 2008 to the start of 2011, told Die Zeit, “The world turned away and we were left holding this hot potato.”

Was the al-Qaida founder in Abbottabad, as Hersh says, under the supervision of the ISI? Bin Laden must have had “some sort of support network”* in Pakistan, as former Pakinstani Ambassador Husain Haqqani put it. Haqqani didn’t state whether that help came from the state or a private source. In terms of the possible complicity of the state and secret service in the bringing down of the al-Qaida patriarch, there are many potential levels of implication. Even if the Pakistani leadership didn’t definitively know the whereabouts of the top terrorist, they could have been intentionally negligent. After 9/11 there was “no serious effort made in the search for Osama,” observed the retired three star General Talat Masood. “What were they supposed to do with him if they found him?”* asked Masood. Hand him over to the Americans, who were hated in Pakistan, while bin Laden was hailed as a hero, as an Islamic resistance fighter by many of the people? It was more comfortable not to find him.

Pakistan is a realm of shadows where things are not as they appear to be, and on the rare occasion that they are what they appear to be, no one believes it. It’s a place where anyone who isn’t happy with the plausible, can always find themselves a conspiracy theory to listen to.

Has Hersh become a victim of this realm of shadows and his own skepticism, a skepticism that through the decades has been justified time and again by various government’s actions? Over the last 50 years, Hersh has built a network of informants, who deliver him a type of alternative reality to the one the White House presents. For the bin Laden story, he spoke to sources that he’s known since the seventies and eighties, he said. Can an experienced reporter like Seymour Hersh place too much belief in such an alternative reality? Can skepticism tip over into seeing conspiracy theories at every turn?

For Hersh these are the wrong questions. The real question is still, in his opinion: Why does no one dig further and kindly do what journalists are supposed to do?

*Editor’s Note: Accurately translated, these quotes could not be verified.

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