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The many problems with Seymour Hersh's Osama bin Laden conspiracy theory

Seymour Hersh speaking in 2005.
Seymour Hersh speaking in 2005.
Craig F. Walker/The Denver Post via Getty

On Sunday, the legendary investigative journalist Seymour Hersh finally released a story that he has been rumored to have been working on for years: the truth about the killing of Osama bin Laden. According to Hersh's 10,000-word story in the London Review of Books, the official history of bin Laden's death — in which the US tracked him to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan; killed him in a secret raid that infuriated Pakistan; and then buried him at sea — is a lie.

Hersh's story is amazing to read, alleging a vast American-Pakistani conspiracy to stage the raid and even to fake high-level diplomatic incidents as a sort of cover. But his allegations are largely supported only by two sources, neither of whom has direct knowledge of what happened, both of whom are retired, and one of whom is anonymous. The story is riven with internal contradictions and inconsistencies.

The story simply does not hold up to scrutiny — and, sadly, is in line with Hersh's recent turn away from the investigative reporting that made him famous into unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.

A decade ago, Hersh was one of the most respected investigative journalists on the planet, having broken major stories from the My Lai massacre in 1969 to the Abu Ghraib scandal in 2004. But more recently, his reports have become less and less credible. He's claimed that much of the US special forces is controlled by secret members of Opus Dei, that the US military flew Iranian terrorists to Nevada for training, and that the 2013 chemical weapons attack in Syria was a "false flag" staged by the government of Turkey. Those reports have had little proof and, rather than being borne out by subsequent investigations, have been either unsubstantiated or outright debunked. A close reading of Hersh's bin Laden story suggests it is likely to suffer the same fate.

What Seymour Hersh says really happened to Osama bin Laden

White House officials watch the 2011 raid to kill Osama bin Laden (Pete Souza/The White House via Getty)

White House officials watch the 2011 raid to kill Osama bin Laden (Pete Souza/The White House via Getty)

The truth, Hersh says, is that Pakistani intelligence services captured bin Laden in 2006 and kept him locked up with support from Saudi Arabia, using him as leverage against al-Qaeda. In 2010, Pakistan agreed to sell bin Laden to the US for increased military aid and a "freer hand in Afghanistan." Rather than kill him or hand him over discreetly, Hersh says the Pakistanis insisted on staging an elaborate American "raid" with Pakistani support.

According to Hersh's story, Navy SEALs met no resistance at Abbottabad and were escorted by a Pakistani intelligence officer to bin Laden's bedroom, where they killed him. Bin Laden's body was "torn apart with rifle fire" and pieces of the corpse "tossed out over the Hindu Kush mountains" by Navy SEALs during the flight home (no reason is given for this action). There was no burial at sea because "there wouldn’t have been much left of bin Laden to put into the sea in any case."

In this telling, the yearslong breakdown in US-Pakistan relations, which had enormous ramifications for both Pakistan and the war in Afghanistan, was all staged to divert attention from the truth of bin Laden's killing. The treasure trove of intelligence secured from bin Laden's compound, Hersh adds, was manufactured to provide evidence after the fact.

What is the proof?

The evidence for all this is Hersh's conversations with two people: Asad Durrani, who ran Pakistan's military intelligence service from 1990 to 1992, and "a retired senior intelligence official who was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad." Read that line again: knowledgeable about the initial intelligence. Not exactly a key player in this drama, and anonymous at that.

Hersh produces no supporting documents or proof, nor is the authority of either source established. We are given no reason to believe that either Durrani or the "knowledgeable official" would have even second- or thirdhand knowledge of what occurred, yet their word is treated as gospel. His other two sources are anonymous "consultants" who are vaguely described as insiders.

Beyond that, Hersh's proof is that he finds the official story of the Osama bin Laden raid to be unconvincing. And he points out that in the first days after the raid, the administration released details that cast bin Laden in a negative light — saying he tried to use one of his wives as a shield, for example — that it later walked back. But raising questions about the official story is not the same as proving a spectacular international conspiracy.

If that seems like worryingly little evidence for a story that accuses hundreds of people across three governments of staging a massive international hoax that has gone on for years, then you are not alone.

On Sunday night, national security journalists and analysts on Twitter picked through the story, expressing dismay at its tissue-thin sourcing, its leaps of logic, and its internal contradictions.

Some of the problems with Hersh's history of Abbottabad

Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan (Getty Images)

Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. (Getty Images)

Perhaps the most concerning problem with Hersh's story is not the sourcing but rather the internal contradictions in the narrative he constructs.

Most blatant, Hersh's entire narrative turns on a secret deal, in which the US promised Pakistan increased military aid and a "freer hand in Afghanistan." In fact, the exact opposite of this occurred, with US military aid dropping and US-Pakistan cooperation in Afghanistan plummeting as both sides feuded bitterly for years after the raid.

Hersh explains this seemingly fatal contradiction by suggesting the deal fell apart due to miscommunication between the Americans and Pakistanis. But it's strange to argue that the dozens of officials on both sides would be competent enough to secretly plan and execute a massive international ruse, and then to uphold their conspiracy for years after the fact, but would not be competent enough to get on the same page about aid delivery.

And there are more contradictions. Why, for example, would the Pakistanis insist on a fake raid that would humiliate their country and the very military and intelligence leaders who supposedly instigated it?

A simpler question: why would Pakistan bother with the ostentatious fake raid at all, when anyone can imagine a dozen simpler, lower-risk, lower-cost ways to do this?

Why not just kill bin Laden, drive his body across the border into Afghanistan, and drop him off with the Americans? Or why not put him in a hut somewhere in Waziristan, blow it up with an F-16, pretend it was a US drone strike, and tell the Americans to go collect the body? (Indeed, when I first heard about Hersh's bin Laden story a few years ago from a New Yorker editor — the magazine, the editor said, had rejected it repeatedly, to the point of creating bad blood between Hersh and editor-in-chief David Remnick — this was the version Hersh was said to favor.)

If Pakistan's goal is increased US aid, why do something that will virtually force the US to cut aid, as it indeed did? For that matter, why retaliate against the US for the raid that you asked them to conduct? Pakistan's own actions against the US, after all, ensured that it had less influence in Afghanistan.

By the same token, why would the US cut a secret deal with Pakistan to allow that country a "freer hand" in Afghanistan — essentially surrendering a yearslong effort to reduce Pakistani influence there — rather than just taking out bin Laden without Pakistan's permission?

There are smaller but still troubling inconsistencies. Why, for example, would the US need to construct a massive double of the Abbottabad compound for special forces to train in, if the real compound were going to be totally unguarded and there would be no firefight?

See also, for example, the intelligence material that the US brought back from bin Laden's compound and then displayed to the world. Hersh says that, in fact, bin Laden had spent the previous five years a hostage of Pakistani intelligence rather than an active member of al-Qaeda. The intelligence "treasure trove" was thus a fabrication, cooked up by the CIA after the raid to back up the American-Pakistani conspiracy.

This is a strange thing to argue, as Carnegie Endowment Syria research Aron Lund points out, because al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri subsequently said the intelligence materials were real, and had quoted from them himself. So either Hersh is wrong or, Lund writes, "Zawahiri is helping Obama forge evidence to boost US-Pakistan relations, which seems like an unusual hobby for an [al-Qaeda] leader."

In other words, for Hersh to be correct that the intelligence material was faked, and thus that bin Laden was a secret prisoner of Pakistani intelligence, and thus that the raid to kill him was a staged American-Pakistani ruse, then al-Qaeda would have had to be in on it — even though al-Qaeda was also the supposed victim of Pakistan's plot.

As for Hersh's story of what really happened to bin Laden's body — "torn to pieces with rifle fire" and thrown bit by bit out the door of the escaping helicopter, until there was not enough left to bury — it is difficult to know where to begin. It is outlandish to imagine small arms fire reducing a 6-foot-4 man "to pieces," not to mention the sheer quantity of time and bullets this would take. Are we really to believe that special forces would spend who knows how long gleefully carving up bin Laden like horror movie villains, and then later reaching into the body bag to chuck pieces of him out of a helicopter, for no reason at all? On the most sensitive and important operation of their careers?

When Hersh acknowledge the vast evidence against his theory, he typically dismisses it out of hand, at times arguing that it is in fact proof that the Pakistani-American-Saudi architects of this plan were so brilliant that they spent years meticulously engineering their actions at every level so as to appear to be doing the opposite of what Hersh suggests.

For example, Hersh says the CIA station chief in Islamabad, Jonathan Bank, was a key player in helping the Pakistanis stage the bin Laden raid. But the year before the raid, a Pakistani journalist publicly named Bank (many suspect, and Hersh agrees, that this was done at Pakistani intelligence's behest), thus imperiling his life, forcing him to flee the country and sparking a diplomatic incident that set back US-Pakistan relations. Hersh says this entire monthslong incident was staged, a "cover in case their co-operation with the Americans in getting rid of bin Laden became known."

Hersh's story is littered with such justifications: when facts seem to squarely contradict his claims, his answer is that this only goes to show how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Seymour Hersh's slide off the rails

The prison at Abu Ghraib, Iraq. Seymour Hersh helped bring systemic American abuses at the facility to light. (Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty) Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty

The prison at Abu Ghraib, Iraq. Seymour Hersh helped bring systemic American abuses at the facility to light. (Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty)

In early 2004, Hersh reported one of the most important stories of the Iraq War: the torture of detainees at the American-run prison complex in Abu Ghraib, Iraq. In a series of articles for the New Yorker, Hersh revealed horrific and systemic American torture, as well as its authorization at the highest levels of the Bush administration. While earlier investigations by the Associated Press and Amnesty International had uncovered aspects of this story, the depth of Hersh's reports proved both damning and shocking, contributing to a public backlash against both Abu Ghraib and the war itself.

The Abu Ghraib stories were in line with Hersh's reputation as one of the most respected investigative reporters alive. That reputation goes back to 1969, when Hersh uncovered the My Lai massacre, in which American troops killed hundreds of Vietnamese civilians. He later broke elements of the Watergate story while working for the New York Times.

In recent years, however, Hersh has appeared increasingly to have gone off the rails. His stories, often alleging vast and shadowy conspiracies, have made startling — and often internally inconsistent — accusations, based on little or no proof beyond a handful of anonymous "officials."

Supporters of Hersh will often point to his earlier stories in defense of his more recent work, saying that we should trust his sources and not dismiss his reporting so easily. Fair enough. But Hersh's stories on Abu Ghraib or My Lai or Watergate were sourced with documented evidence (in the case of Abu Ghraib, a damning internal military report) and interviews with firsthand participants.

For his bin Laden story, however, he has no documented evidence, and his sources are limited to a couple of "consultants," one "retired official with knowledge," and a Pakistani spymaster who left that world 23 years ago. If Hersh still has his once-famous connections in the American intelligence world, they do not show up here.

Similarly, Hersh's earlier blockbusters were all quickly confirmed by dozens of independent reports and mountains of physical proof. That's how such exposés typically work: the first glint of sunshine brings a rush of attention, which uncovers more evidence and encourages more sources to come forward, until the truth is incontrovertible.

That is not how things have gone with Hersh's newer and more conspiratorial stories. Rather, they have tended to remain all alone in their claims, and at times have been debunked. This is not, in other words, the first time.

The growing list of conspiracy theories

The first hints came in the latter years of the Bush administration, when Hersh reported repeatedly that the US was on the verging of striking Iran. These included reports stating that the US might even bomb Iran with a nuclear warhead, and later that the administration had considered using US special forces disguised as Iranians to launch a "false flag" attack as a premise for war.

These reports seemed a bit far-fetched, particularly since Hersh kept predicting a strike that never came. And, troublingly, they were often sourced to perhaps one or two anonymous "consultants" or "former officials" who were said to "have knowledge" of high-level discussions.

The Iran stories were difficult to accept on anything much more than faith. How do you prove that Dick Cheney never had a meeting in his office during which someone verbally proposed pinning a false flag attack on Iran? You can't. In any case, Hersh had a long record of excellence, and who was going to doubt Cheney's capacity for hawkishness?

The moment when a lot of journalists started to question whether Hersh had veered from investigative reporting into something else came in January 2011. That month, he spoke at Georgetown University's branch campus in Qatar, where he gave a bizarre and rambling address alleging that top military and special forces leaders "are all members of, or at least supporters of, Knights of Malta ... many of them are members of Opus Dei." He suggested that they belong to a network first formed by former Vice President Dick Cheney that is steering US foreign policy toward an agenda of bringing Christianity to the Middle East.

They do see what they’re doing — and this is not an atypical attitude among some military — it’s a crusade, literally. They see themselves as the protectors of the Christians. They’re protecting them from the Muslims [as in] the 13th century. And this is their function.

... That’s the attitude. "We’re gonna change mosques into cathedrals." That’s an attitude that pervades, I’m here to say, a large percentage of the Joint Special Operations Command.

As Blake Hounshell pointed out at the time, there is no evidence for any of this — many of the US military leaders that Hersh named are known as personally liberal and not outwardly religious, and in any case both Opus Dei and Knights of Malta are Catholic service organizations very different from the shadowy forces portrayed in Dan Brown novels.

The next year, in 2012, Hersh reported in the New Yorker that the Bush administration had secretly armed and funded an Iranian terrorist group known as the MEK in 2005. Two sources, neither with direct knowledge, told Hersh that American special forces had flown the Iranians all the way to Nevada to train at a base there. This detail was both spectacular and puzzling: the US has bases throughout the world, including several in the Middle East; why bring terrorists to Nevada?

To be clear, the story was never specifically discredited, but neither has it ever been confirmed by any subsequent investigations into Bush-era national security policy, of which there have been many. Hersh's story was greeted skeptically by many reporters and analysts. Hersh is still employed by the New Yorker, but he has not written an investigative piece for the magazine since.

The Syria chemical weapons story

A UN chemical weapons inspector in Ghouta, Syria (Ammar al-Arbini/AFP/Getty)

A UN chemical weapons inspector in Ghouta, Syria. (Ammar al-Arbini/AFP/Getty)

Since the 2012 MEK story, Hersh has published his primary investigative work in the London Review of Books.

Two of these articles have focused at great length on the August 2013 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, Syria, that killed hundreds of civilians. An extensive UN report, while barred from formally assigning responsibility, pointed out that the chemical weapons were delivered by munitions only used by the Syrian military, and had been fired from an area entirely controlled by Syrian military forces. Independent investigations by human rights groups pointed the finger at forces loyal to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. So did the US government.

Hersh, in his two articles, states that this is all false. In December 2013, he claimed that the Obama administration, seeking to justify its threat to strike Syria in retaliation, had willingly downplayed or ignored evidence that the chemical weapons had in fact been launched by the al-Qaeda franchise Jabhat al-Nusra. He cited a handful of anonymous (and, strangely, often retired) "officials" who warned of a "deliberate manipulation of intelligence" and compared Ghouta to the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident used to justify the US escalation in Vietnam.

Then, in April 2014, Hersh came out with a different story: the government of Turkey, he stated, had orchestrated the Ghouta chemical weapons attack with Jabhat al-Nusra as a false flag operation. Assad was innocent. Turkey and the al-Qaeda branch had cooked up the plan, intending that the attack would be blamed on the Syrian government, thus leading the United States to attack Syria. (You will notice, again, Hersh's preoccupation with false flag operations.)

The accusation of a Turkish-jihadist conspiracy to lure the US into war with Syria seemed stunning — and, to many, outlandish. Could it be true? No independent investigation has yet confirmed it, and the story has been exhaustively and repeatedly debunked, including by Eliot Higgins and Dan Kaszeta, two respected analysts who focus on small arms and chemical weapons in Syria.

As time goes on, Hersh's stories seem to become more spectacular, more thinly sourced, and more difficult to square with reality as we know it. Perhaps one day they will all be vindicated: the Opus Dei special forces cabal, the terrorist training in Nevada, the American plan to nuke Iran, the Turkish false flag in Syria, even the American-Pakistani bin Laden ruse.

Maybe there really is a vast shadow world of complex and diabolical conspiracies, executed brilliantly by international networks of government masterminds. And maybe Hersh and his handful of anonymous former senior officials really are alone in glimpsing this world and its terrifying secrets. Or maybe there's a simpler explanation.

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article at one point referenced the My Lai massacre and Ghouta chemical weapons attack as occurring in 1969 and 2014, respectively, when in fact those were the years when Hersh's stories on the incidents were published. Other references to those events in the story described their timing accurately. The article has been corrected.

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