London: ‘Bin Laden,’ writes the Pulitzer Award-winning journalist Seymour Hersh, ‘had been a prisoner of the ISI.’ According to Hersh, in 2006 the ISI paid off tribesmen in the Hindu Kush to hand over the six-foot-four-inch tall leader of Al Qaeda. Since then, bin Laden had lived in a compound in Abbottabad, the same place he was killed on a moonless night on May 2, 2011.
Moments after bin Laden was shot dead, President Barack Obama told the world that ‘a small team of Americans carried out the operation’ at his own ‘direction’. Wary of how this might affect relations with Pakistan, the President made clear that America’s ‘counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan’ helped find bin Laden. At a press briefing that afternoon, John Brennan – Obama’s Assistant for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism – told a room full of journalists that it was ‘inconceivable that bin Laden did not have a support system in the country that allowed him to remain there.’ Yet both Obama and Brennan were careful not to extend their brief. Questions around any official Pakistani involvement in hiding bin Laden was skilfully dodged. Brennan underlined that the US was pursuing ‘all leads in this issue.’
These ‘leads’ were never uncovered. Pakistan’s role in the bin Laden affair has attracted much attention, but no one – journalist or insider – has offered up a smoking gun. Hersh’s 10,000-word essay in the London Review of Books, published online on May 10, claims to have proof that the Obama administration’s claims are false. The ‘most blatant lie,’ Hersh argues, ‘was that Pakistan’s two most senior military leaders – General Ashfaq Kayani, chief of the army staff, and General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, Director General of the ISI – were never informed of the US mission.’ Instead, he says, negotiations between Pasha and the Central Intelligence Agency began in 2010. This was soon after an unnamed Pakistani intelligence officer walked into the US Embassy in Islamabad offering bin Laden’s location for a share ($20 million as confirmed by Hersh in an interview to CNN on May 11) of a $25 million bounty for the Al Qaeda leader. The intelligence officer and his family were relocated to America, where, according to Hersh, he now works for the CIA as a consultant.
The final agreement was put in force after a meeting between Pasha and Leon Panetta, then director of the CIA, in April 2011. The deal was simple. Bin Laden was to be shot, his body taken away by Navy SEALS, and seven days or so later the United States would claim that bin Laden had been killed in a drone attack on the Afghan side of the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The Generals – who have since retired – would make sure that the operation could be executed free of Pakistani interference. In exchange, the Pakistani state, as well as some individuals, would be provided with much needed financial assistance. Further, Hersh adds, ‘the Americans who planned the mission assured Kayani and Pasha that their cooperation would never be made public.’
This did not happen.
Obama decided to go public with the raid. On May 2, the world learnt that bin Laden was dead, and that he had been killed in Pakistan. Pakistan’s top-most generals had been stabbed in the back. This, Hersh insists, accounts for the difficult relationship between Pakistan and the United States since 2011.
Did Obama lie?
These are only some of the salient points in Hersh’s hypnotic read. In brief, his conclusion is that Obama lied. The May 2 raid was not an audacious unilateral move as suggested by the American president, but the execution of a plan set in motion with the full cooperation of Pakistan’s martial tsars.
To an extent, his claims are certainly plausible. In March 2014, Carlotta Gall, the New York Times correspondent in Pakistan (2001-2013) claimed that ‘soon after the Navy SEAL raid’ an unnamed Pakistani official told her that ‘the United States had direct evidence’ that General Pasha ‘knew of bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad.’ Journalists at NBC News also claim that there was a ‘walk-in’ Pakistani asset who provided bin Laden’s location. Nicholas Schmidle of the New Yorker, whose essay ‘Getting Bin Laden’ was a finalist for the National Magazine Award, cautiously argued that ‘although American officials have stated that Pakistani officials must have helped bin Laden hide in Abbotabad, definitive evidence has not yet been presented.’ Had Hersh followed Schmidle’s light-touch approach, that is, taken care to delineate speculation from fact, his line of analysis would have been that much more credible. Instead, his stark conclusion – that Pakistan did know where bin laden was and helped the United States kill him – rests on questionable evidence.
Hersh bases most of his thesis on one source (say A), a ‘retired senior intelligence official’ in America. This official ‘was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad,’ and had access to the SEALs’ training facilities and after-action reports. Seventy-five percent of Hersh’s essay is based on source A, including details of how on May 2, Obama decided to dump the alleged cover story (agreed with Pasha and Kayani) of a drone attack killing bin Laden. If source A, according to Hersh’s own admission, was in-the-know ‘about the initial intelligence’, then how is it that this source was able to reconstruct the events of that important night in such detail? Hersh might have more clearly caveated his findings. Instead, and to his detriment, he adopts a tone that suggests an exposé that has teeth.
In a television interview to CNN following the release of his essay, Hersh claimed that he had used a number of other sources. Indeed, interviews were conducted with four others, including Asad Durrani, the former Director General of the ISI between 1990-1992, two ‘long-time consultants to Special Operations Command’ in the US (say sources B and C), and an unnamed person (say source D) who offered ‘information from Pakistan.’ The material provided by the latter four sources is questionable.
Hersh claims to have corroborated his storyline with Durrani, but the quotes used from the interview with the former ISI Chief are ambiguous at best. Durrani, as quoted by Hersh, says: ‘what you’ve told me is essentially what I have heard from former colleagues.’ With regards to the ‘walk-in’ informant, Durrani states that ‘people in the ‘strategic community’ who would know’ told him this was true. This is hardly confirmation. It is, in fact, conjecture on Durrani’s part. Did Hersh attempt to verify whether Durrani’s sources were credible? How does the reader know for sure that Durrani was not himself hearing what Carlotta Gall, Nicholas Schmidle and others have been listening to for years?
Further, the information collected from sources B, C, and D are erratic. For instance, D is quoted saying ‘there was a deal with your [America] top guys,’ alluding to the Pasha-Panetta agreement. B and C are used to confirm that the SEAL team was not ‘going to keep bin Laden alive’ and that contrary to the White House version of events bin Laden was not buried at sea. The point about a kill order is hardly new. In 2011, Schmidle interviewed an official who made clear that ‘there was never any question of detaining or capturing’ bin Laden. The contention that bin Laden was never transported to the USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier off the Pakistani coastline, let alone given a burial based on Islamic rites, is again unsubstantiated. Hersh bases his claims on discussions with source C, but none of it is corroborated. He points to interviews given by the Commander of the Carl Vinson, who says only that his crew have been asked to remain tight-lipped.
Hersh’s strongest claim has to do with the ‘walk-in’ asset or the Pakistani intelligence officer who offered up bin Laden’s location in exchange for money and a new life in the United States. This in itself is noteworthy, and partially corroborated by other reporters. It debunks or at least devalues the commonly held view that tracking a ‘courier’ named Abu Ahmed Al-Kuwaiti led the CIA to Abbottabad. This line of enquiry has been made all that more popular by its depiction in the movie Zero Dark Thirty, where the plot is remarkably similar to the White House’s carefully stitched narrative on the bin Laden raid. That apart, the role-played by the ISI in directly supporting operations remains a mystery. Despite Hersh’s audacious attempts, the evidence provided in his essay falls well short of a smoking gun.
Rudra Chaudhuri is a lecturer in Strategic Studies and South Asian Security at the Department of War Studies and the India Institute, King’s College London.