Archive: Conspiracy Theory and the Media
OCT. 15, 2015)
ark Bowden was watching a ballgame — the Phillies versus the Mets — on the night of May 1, 2011, when the network cut away to President Obama in the East Room of the White House. “Tonight,” the president said, ‘‘I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children.’’
Five minutes or so after the president wrapped up his brief remarks, as thousands of Americans gathered in front of the White House and at ground zero chanting ‘‘U-S-A! U-S-A!’’ Bowden’s cellphone rang. It was Mike Stenson, the president of Jerry Bruckheimer Films. Bowden had worked with Bruckheimer on the film adaptation of his 1999 best seller, ‘‘Black Hawk Down.’’
‘‘Mike said, ‘Look, Mark, Jerry wants to make a movie about this bin Laden thing, and he wants to put together all of the people who made ‘Black Hawk Down,’ ’’ Bowden told me over lunch recently. ‘‘ ‘He wants to know: Would you be willing to write the script?’ ’’
Bowden said absolutely, count him in.
He quickly reached out to Jay Carney, Obama’s press secretary at the time, to ask for an interview with the president. Bowden was friendly with Carney from a profile he wrote of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. for The Atlantic. Still, he was surprised to hear back from him almost right away. It was an encouraging response, especially given the deluge of requests Bowden knew the president must be receiving. Carney said that he couldn’t make any promises but that he would definitely advocate on his behalf.
The next day, Stenson called back: Bruckheimer had changed his mind.
Bowden considered for a second and decided he would write a book instead. In some ways, it was a perfect match of author and subject. Bowden specializes in chronicling covert operations. In addition to ‘‘Black Hawk Down,’’ which told the story of a 1993 raid in Somalia by U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force teams that went disastrously awry, he has written books about the failed mission to rescue the American hostages in Iran in 1980 and the long manhunt for the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.
His method in those books was to combine exhaustive reporting with vivid storytelling. It helps that Bowden tends to write about historical events a long time after they take place. People are typically eager to sit down with him, and they are usually able to speak freely. One interview subject leads to another, who leads to another, and so on. It’s a process that can take years.
The bin Laden book proved to be a very different sort of undertaking. Bowden was trying to tell the story just months after it happened. And only a small number of people — a handful of senior administration and military officials and the Navy SEALs who carried out the operation — had been privy to the events of that evening. There was virtually no paper trail for Bowden to follow; the government had classified all the documents relating to the raid, including the record of the C.I.A.’s search for bin Laden. Bowden had to request interviews through official administration channels and hope for the best.
His book, ‘‘The Finish,’’ was published in the fall of 2012, and the story it tells is one that is by now familiar. The C.I.A., working in the shadows for many years, had identified a courier whom agency officers eventually traced to a large compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Agents studied this compound for months via distant satellite cameras but couldn’t be certain that bin Laden was inside. If he was — a 55/45 percent proposition, Obama said later — the president did not want to let him slip away. The safe play was to reduce the compound to dust with a bomb or missiles, but this would risk civilian casualties and also make it impossible to verify the kill with any certainty. Obama instead sent in a team of 23 Navy SEALs in two Black Hawk helicopters. The whole mission almost fell apart when one of the helicopters had to crash-land near an animal pen inside the compound. But the SEALs adapted on the fly and were soon making their assault, breaching gates and doors with C-4 charges and, eventually, killing their target. Before leaving, they blew up the damaged Black Hawk. As they flew off, a giant fire raged inside the compound. The Pakistani government was none the wiser until the SEALs were long gone.
This irresistible story would be told in many different forms in the months and years that followed. Bowden’s was one of several books, but there were also countless newspaper articles, magazine features, television news programs and ultimately the 2012 movie ‘‘Zero Dark Thirty,’’ which billed itself as the narrative of ‘‘the Greatest Manhunt in History.’’ In this sense, the killing of bin Laden was not only a victory for the U.S. military but also for the American storytelling machine, which kicked into high gear pretty much the moment the terrorist leader’s dead body hit the floor.
Last spring, Bowden got another unexpected call on his cellphone. He was on his way home to Pennsylvania from a meeting in New York with his publisher about his next book, the story of the Battle of Hue in the Vietnam War. On the other end of the line was Seymour Hersh, the investigative reporter.
Hersh was calling to ask about the photographs of bin Laden’s burial at sea — carried out, the U.S. government said, in accordance with Islamic custom — that Bowden had described in detail at the end of ‘‘The Finish,’’ as well as in an adaptation from the book that appeared in Vanity Fair. ‘‘One frame shows the body wrapped in a weighted shroud,’’ Bowden had written. ‘‘The next shows it lying diagonally on a chute, feet overboard. In the next frame, the body is hitting the water. In the next it is visible just below the surface, ripples spreading outward. In the last frame there are only circular ripples on the surface. The mortal remains of Osama bin Laden were gone for good.’’
Hersh wanted to know: Had Bowden actually seen those photos?
Bowden told Hersh that he had not. He explained that they were described to him by someone who had.
Hersh said the photographs didn’t exist. Indeed, he went on, the entire narrative of how the United States hunted down and killed bin Laden was a fabrication. He told Bowden that he was getting ready to publish the real story of what happened in Abbottabad.
Bowden said he found Hersh’s claims hard to believe. Hersh tried to sympathize. ‘‘Nobody likes to get played,’’ he said, adding that he meant no offense.
‘‘I said, ‘No offense taken,’ ’’ Bowden recalled. ‘‘I told him that he was, after all, Seymour Hersh, and that he ought to do whatever he thought best. But that in this case, I feared he was mistaken.’’
It’s hard to overstate the degree to which the killing of Osama bin Laden transformed American politics. From a purely practical standpoint, it enabled Obama to recast himself as a bold leader, as opposed to an overly cautious one, in advance of his 2012 re-election campaign. This had an undeniable impact on the outcome of that election. (‘‘Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive,’’ Joe Biden was fond of boasting on the campaign trail.) Strategically, the death of bin Laden allowed Obama to declare victory over Al Qaeda, giving him the cover he needed to begin phasing U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. And it almost single-handedly redeemed the C.I.A., turning a decade-long failure of intelligence into one of the greatest triumphs in the history of the agency.
But bin Laden’s death had an even greater effect on the American psyche. Symbolically, it brought a badly wanted moment of moral clarity, of unambiguous American valor, to a murky war defined by ethical compromise and even at times by collective shame. It completed the historical arc of the 9/11 attacks. The ghastly image of collapsing towers that had been fixed in our collective minds for years was dislodged by one of Obama and his senior advisers huddled tensely around a table in the White House Situation Room, watching closely as justice was finally brought to the perpetrator.
The first dramatic reconstruction of the raid itself — ‘‘Getting bin Laden: What Happened That Night in Abbottabad’’ — was written by a freelancer named Nicholas Schmidle and published in The New Yorker just three months after the operation. The son of a Marine general, Schmidle spent a couple of years in Pakistan and has written on counterterrorism for many publications, including this magazine. His New Yorker story was a cinematic account of military daring, sweeping but also granular in its detail, from the ‘‘metallic cough of rounds being chambered’’ inside the two Black Hawks as the SEALs approached the compound, to the mud that ‘‘sucked at their boots’’ when they hit the ground. One of the SEALs who shot bin Laden, Matt Bissonnette, added a more personal dimension to the story a year later in a best-selling book, ‘‘No Easy Day.’’ Bowden focused on Washington, taking readers inside the White House as the president navigated what would become a defining moment of his presidency. And then there was ‘‘Zero Dark Thirty,’’ which chronicled the often barbaric C.I.A. interrogations that the agency said helped lead the United States to bin Laden’s compound.
The official narrative of the hunt for and killing of bin Laden at first seemed like a clear portrait, but in effect it was more like a composite sketch from multiple perspectives: the Pentagon, the White House and the C.I.A. And when you studied that sketch a little more closely, not everything looked quite right. Almost immediately, the administration had to correct some of the most significant details of the raid. Bin Laden had not been ‘‘engaged in a firefight,’’ as the deputy national-security adviser, John Brennan, initially told reporters; he’d been unarmed. Nor had he used one of his wives as a human shield. The president and his senior advisers hadn’t been watching a ‘‘live feed’’ of the raid in the Situation Room; the operation had not been captured on helmet-cams. But there were also some more unsettling questions about how the whole story had been constructed. Schmidle acknowledged after his article was published that he had never actually spoken with any of the 23 SEALs. Some details of Bissonnette’s account of the raid contradicted those of another ex-SEAL, Robert O’Neill, who claimed in Esquire and on Fox News to have fired the fatal bullet. Public officials with security clearances told reporters that the torture scenes that were so realistically depicted in ‘‘Zero Dark Thirty’’ had not in fact played any role in helping us find bin Laden.
Then there was the sheer improbability of the story, which asked us to believe that Obama sent 23 SEALs on a seemingly suicidal mission, invading Pakistani air space without air or ground cover, fast-roping into a compound that, if it even contained bin Laden, by all rights should have been heavily guarded. And according to the official line, all of this was done without any sort of cooperation or even assurances from the Pakistani military or intelligence service. How likely was that? Abbottabad is basically a garrison town; the conspicuously large bin Laden compound — three stories, encircled by an 18-foot-high concrete wall topped with barbed wire — was less than two miles from Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point. And what about the local police? Were they really unaware that an enormous American helicopter had crash-landed in their neighborhood? And why were we learning so much about a covert raid by a secret special-operations unit in the first place?
American history is filled with war stories that subsequently unraveled. Consider the Bush administration’s false claims about Saddam Hussein’s supposed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Or the imagined attack on a U.S. vessel in the Gulf of Tonkin. During the Bay of Pigs, the government inflated the number of fighters it dispatched to Cuba in hopes of encouraging local citizens to rise up and join them. When the operation failed, the government quickly deflated the number, claiming that it hadn’t been an invasion at all but rather a modest attempt to deliver supplies to local guerrillas. More recently, the Army reported that the ex-N.F.L. safety Pat Tillman was killed by enemy fire, rather than acknowledging that he was accidentally shot in the head by a machine-gunner from his own unit.
These false stories couldn’t have reached the public without the help of the media. Reporters don’t just find facts; they look for narratives. And an appealing narrative can exert a powerful gravitational pull that winds up bending facts in its direction. During the Iraq war, reporters informed us that a mob of jubilant Iraqis toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square. Never mind that there were so few local people trying to pull the statue down that they needed the help of a U.S. military crane. Reporters also built Pvt. Jessica Lynch into a war hero who had resisted her captors during an ambush in Iraq, when in fact her weapon had jammed and she remained in her Humvee. In an Op-Ed essay in The Timesabout the Lynch story in 2003, it was Bowden himself who explained this phenomenon as ‘‘the tendency to weave what little we know into a familiar shape — often one resembling the narrative arc of a film.’’
Was the story of Osama bin Laden’s death yet another example of American mythmaking? Had Bowden and, for that matter, all of us been seduced by a narrative that was manufactured expressly for our benefit? Or were these questions themselves just paranoid?
‘‘The story stunk from Day 1,’’ Hersh told me. It was a miserably hot summer day in Washington, and we were sitting in his office, a two-room suite in an anonymous office complex near Dupont Circle, where Hersh works alone. There’s no nameplate on the door; the walls of the anteroom are crowded with journalism awards. ‘‘I have a lot of fun here,’’ he said, amid the clutter of cardboard boxes and precariously stacked books. ‘‘I can do whatever I want.’’
Within days of the bin Laden raid, Hersh told me, ‘‘I knew there was a big story there.’’ He spent the next four years, on and off, trying to get it. What he wound up publishing, this May in The London Review of Books, was no incremental effort to poke a few holes in the administration’s story. It was a 10,000-word refutation of the entire official narrative, sourced largely to a retired U.S. senior intelligence official, with corroboration from two ‘‘longtime consultants to the Special Operations Command.’’ Hersh confidently walked readers through an alternate version of all the familiar plot points in a dispassionate, just-the-facts tone, turning a story of patient perseverance, careful planning and derring-do into one of luck (good and bad), damage control and opportunism.
Hersh, who is 78, was reluctant to cooperate when I told him that I was interested in writing about his article. (‘‘I’ve gotta bunch of problems with your request,’’ his first email to me began.) He wanted me to follow up on his reporting instead and suggested that I might start by looking into Pakistan’s radar system, which he said was far too sophisticated to allow two U.S. helicopters to enter the country’s airspace undetected. (‘‘Those dimwitted third-world guys just can’t get anything right,’’ he wrote sarcastically, meaning of course the Pakistanis would have been aware of two military helicopters flying into the heart of their country.) Hersh, who worked at The New York Times for seven years in the 1970s, didn’t think the paper would allow me to take his claims seriously. ‘‘If you did so,’’ he wrote, ‘‘you better be sure not to let your wife start the car for the next few months.’’ But after a little prodding, he relented and spent the better part of a day with me, describing his reporting as thoroughly as he felt he could without compromising his sources.
Hersh’s most consequential claim was about how bin Laden was found in the first place. It was not years of painstaking intelligence-gathering, he wrote, that led the United States to the courier and, ultimately, to bin Laden. Instead, the location was revealed by a ‘‘walk-in’’ — a retired Pakistani intelligence officer who was after the $25 million reward that the United States had promised anyone who helped locate him. For that matter, bin Laden was hardly ‘‘in hiding’’ at all; his compound in Abbottabad was actually a safe house, maintained by the Pakistani intelligence service. When the United States confronted Pakistani intelligence officials with this information, Hersh wrote, they eventually acknowledged it was true and even conceded to provide a DNA sample to prove it.
According to Hersh’s version, then, the daring raid wasn’t especially daring. The Pakistanis allowed the U.S. helicopters into their airspace and cleared out the guards at the compound before the SEALs arrived. Hersh’s sources told him the United States and Pakistani intelligence officials agreed that Obama would wait a week before announcing that bin Laden had been killed in a ‘‘drone strike somewhere in the mountains on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border.’’ But the president was forced to go public right away, because the crash and subsequent destruction of the Black Hawk — among the rare facts in the official story that Hersh does not dispute — were going to make it impossible to keep the operation under wraps.
As if those assertions weren’t significant enough, Hersh went on to make some even wilder claims. He wrote, for instance, that bin Laden had not been given a proper Islamic burial at sea; the SEALs threw his remains out of their helicopter. He claimed not just that the Pakistanis had seized bin Laden in 2006, but that Saudi Arabia had paid for his upkeep in the years that followed, and that the United States had instructed Pakistan to arrest an innocent man who was a sometime C.I.A. asset as the fall guy for the major in the Pakistani Army who had collected bin Laden’s DNA sample.
What was perhaps most shocking of all, though, was that this elaborate narrative was being unspooled not by some basement autodidact but by one of America’s greatest investigative reporters, the man who exposed the massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians in the village of My Lai (1969), who revealed a clandestine C.I.A. program to spy on antiwar dissidents (1974) and who detailed the shocking story of the abuses at Abu Ghraib (2004). Could the bin Laden article be another major Hersh scoop?
‘‘It’s always possible,’’ Bowden told me. ‘‘But given the sheer number of people I talked to from different parts of government, for a lie to have been that carefully orchestrated and sustained to me gets into faked-moon-landing territory.’’ Other reporters have been less generous still. ‘‘What’s true in the story isn’t new, and what’s new in the story isn’t true,’’ said Peter Bergen of CNN, who wrote his own best-selling account of the hunting and killing of bin Laden, ‘‘Manhunt.’’ And government officials were least receptive of all. Josh Earnest, then the White House spokesman, said Hersh’s ‘‘story is riddled with inaccuracies and outright falsehoods.’’ Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said it was ‘‘largely a fabrication.’’ (There were ‘‘too many inaccuracies to even bother going through them line by line.’’) The administration pretty much left it at that, though some of Hersh’s critics have pointed to classified documents made public by Edward Snowden revealing a long history of C.I.A. surveillance of the Abbottabad compound as proof that its location hadn’t simply been revealed by a walk-in.
This sort of reception is nothing new for Hersh. A Pentagon spokesman at the time of Abu Ghraib, Lawrence Di Rita, described one of his many (now unchallenged) articles for The New Yorker on the scandal as ‘‘the most hysterical piece of journalist malpractice I have ever observed.’’ Still, Hersh got worked up in some of the interviews he gave after the publication of the bin Laden piece. ‘‘I don’t care if you don’t like my story!’’ he told a public-radio host during one grilling. ‘‘I don’t care!’’ But with time, his petulance cooled into a kind of amusement. ‘‘High-camp’’ was one adjective he used to describe the administration’s version of the events.
At one point in our conversation, I reminded Hersh that I wasn’t going to offer a definitive judgment on what happened. I didn’t want to reinterview the administration officials who had already given their accounts of the events to other journalists. I saw this as more of a media story, a case study in how constructed narratives become accepted truth. This felt like a cop-out to him, as he explained in a long email the next day. He said that I was sidestepping the real issue, that I was ‘‘turning this into a ‘he-said, she-said’ dilemma,’’ instead of coming to my own conclusion about whose version was right. It was then that he introduced an even more disturbing notion: What if no one’s version could be trusted?
‘‘Of course there is no reason for you or any other journalist to take what was said to me by unnamed sources at face value,’’ Hersh wrote. ‘‘But it is my view that there also is no reason for journalists to take at face value what a White House or administration spokesman said on or off the record in the aftermath or during a crisis.’’
For those in and around the news business, the fact that Hersh’s report appeared in The London Review of Books and not The New Yorker, his usual outlet, was a story in its own right, one that hasn’t been told in full before. (Editors and reporters may not be as secretive as intelligence officials, but they like to keep a tight lid on their operational details, too.)
A week or so after the raid, Hersh called The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick. In 2009, Hersh wrote a story for the magazine about the growing concern among U.S. officials that Pakistan’s large nuclear arsenal could fall into the hands of extremists inside the country’s military. Now he let Remnick know that two of his sources — one in Pakistan, the other in Washington — were telling him something else: The administration was lying about the bin Laden operation.
One of The New Yorker’s staff writers, Dexter Filkins, was already planning a trip to Pakistan for a different assignment. It is rare, but not unprecedented, for The New Yorker to run double-bylined articles, and the magazine decided to pursue one. It paired Filkins with Hersh, asking Filkins to report the Pakistani side — in particular, the notion that Pakistan had secretly cooperated with the United States — while Hersh would keep following leads from Washington. But Filkins, who covered Afghanistan and Pakistan for The Times before moving to The New Yorker, spent about a week running the tip by sources inside the Pakistani government and military with little success.
‘‘It wasn’t even that I was getting angry denials,’’ Filkins told me. ‘‘I was getting blank stares.’’ Filkins said the mood on the ground completely contradicted Hersh’s claim; the Pakistani military seemed humiliated about having been kept in the dark by the Americans. Remnick told him to move on. He ended up writing about a Pakistani journalist who was murdered, probably by the country’s intelligence service, the I.S.I., after detailing the links between Islamist militants and the Pakistani military.
In the meantime, The New Yorker published Schmidle’s account of the bin Laden raid, and, soon after, brought Schmidle on as a staff writer. (In an email, Schmidle told me his subsequent reporting has only confirmed his initial account. Regarding the possibility ‘‘that some inside the Pakistani military or intelligence services knew that bin Laden was living in that house, I think it’s entirely plausible, though I’ve not seen any proof,’’ he wrote.)
Hersh plowed ahead by himself, working his sources, trying to flesh out his counternarrative. Three years later he sent a draft to The New Yorker. After reading it a few times, Remnick told Hersh that he didn’t think he had the story nailed down. He suggested that Hersh continue his reporting and see where it took him. Instead, Hersh gave the story to The London Review of Books.
Hersh has never been on The New Yorker’s staff, preferring to remain a freelancer. But he has strong ties to the magazine. He published his first article there in 1971 and has written hundreds of thousands of words for the magazine since then, including, most recently, an essay about visiting My Lai with his family that was published only weeks before his London Review of Books article on bin Laden. (His son Joshua, now a reporter for Buzzfeed, was a New Yorker fact-checker for many years.) Remnick has published some of Hersh’s most provocative articles and, for that matter, plenty of other major national-security stories that the government would have preferred to keep buried.
But the bin Laden report wasn’t the first one by Hersh that Remnick rejected because he considered the sourcing too thin. In 2013 and 2014, he passed on two Hersh articles about a deadly sarin gas attack in Syria, each of which claimed the attack was not launched by the Assad regime, the presumed culprit, but by Syrian rebels, in collaboration with the Turkish government. Those articles also landed in The London Review of Books. Like the bin Laden article, each was widely questioned upon publication, with critics arguing that the once-legendary reporter was increasingly favoring provocation over rigor. (Hersh still stands by both stories.)
The media would certainly have treated Hersh’s bin Laden story differently if it had been published in The New Yorker, which is highly regarded for its thorough review process. But Hersh insists that the L.R.B. was just as thorough, if not more so. His editor, Christian Lorentzen, told me that three fact-checkers worked on the bin Laden article, and he also spoke directly to Hersh’s key sources, including the retired American intelligence official identified in the article as the ‘‘major U.S. source for the account.’’
Even if the fact-checking process at The London Review of Books was as thorough as Hersh and the magazine say, we are still left trusting his unnamed sources. Should we? Hersh’s first Abu Ghraib article was based on an internal Army report, but many of the most important revelations in his work come from midlevel bureaucrats, ambassadors, C.I.A. station chiefs and four-star generals whose identities are known to only his editors and fact-checkers. The promise of anonymity is an essential tool for reporters. It changed the course of history (in Watergate, most prominently) and helped make Hersh’s illustrious career. But it also invariably leaves doubts about the motivation of the sources and thus their credibility.
Hersh’s instincts — to him, every story stinks from Day 1 — have served him well. But there are inherent perils in making a career of digging up the government’s deepest secrets. National-security reporters are almost never present at the events in question, and they are usually working without photos or documents, too. Their hardest facts consist almost entirely of what (unnamed) people say. It is a bedrock value of journalism that reporters must never get facts wrong, but faithfully reproducing what people tell you is just the beginning. You have to also decide which facts and which voices to include and how best to assemble this material into an accurate, coherent narrative: a story. In making these judgments, even the best might miss a nuance or choose the wrong fact or facts to emphasize. As Steve Coll, a New Yorker staff writer and the dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, told me, ‘‘You’d want an investigative reporter’s reputation to not be 100 percent right all of the time, but to be mostly right, to be directionally right.’’
Hersh may have been the first journalist to write that a secret informant had steered the United States to bin Laden’s compound, but he was by no means the only one who had heard this rumor. Coll was another. ‘‘In my case, it was described to me as a specific Pakistani officer in the intelligence service,’’ Coll, the author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the C.I.A. and Afghanistan, told me one afternoon in his office at Columbia. ‘‘I even had a name that I’ve been working on for four years.’’
Intuitively, the notion of a walk-in makes sense. Secret informants have led the United States to virtually every high-value terrorist target tracked to Pakistan, including Ramzi Yousef, the first World Trade Center bomber, and Mir Aimal Kansi, who killed two C.I.A. employees in an attack on Langley in 1993. ‘‘The idea that the C.I.A. stitched this together, and torture worked and they found the car and they found the courier, then they found the license plate and they followed it to the house — that had always seemed to those of us on the beat like it was very elaborate,’’ Coll said.
But Coll has never been able to confirm the tipper story. The closest he came was a conversation with an American intelligence officer who had worked with the man said to have been the informant. ‘‘I said, ‘Do you know this guy?’ ’’ Coll recalled. ‘‘He said: ‘Yeah, I do know him. I used to work very closely with him.’ I said, ‘Is this bio that I’ve been given accurate?’ He said, ‘Yeah, it’s accurate.’ I said, ‘I’ve been told he took the $25 million and is in witness protection.’ He paused, and he said, ‘Hmm, that’s the sort of thing he would do.’ ’’
From the beginning, it seemed hard to believe that high-level Pakistani officials weren’t aware of bin Laden’s presence in their country; several U.S. officials even publicly said as much in the aftermath of the raid. Pakistan conducted its own secret investigation into the matter, which was leaked to Al Jazeera in 2013. The Abbottabad Commission Report, as it was known, found no evidence that Pakistan was harboring bin Laden. Instead, it concluded that the world’s most wanted man was able to move freely around the country for nine years because of widespread incompetence among military and intelligence authorities.
The most detailed exploration of the question of Pakistani complicity in sheltering bin Laden appeared in this magazine in March 2014. It came from a book written by a Times correspondent, Carlotta Gall, who reported that a source inside the I.S.I. told her that Pakistan’s intelligence service ran a special desk assigned to handle bin Laden. ‘‘The desk was wholly deniable by virtually everyone at the I.S.I. — such is how supersecret intelligence units operate — but the top military bosses knew about it, I was told,’’ Gall wrote.
More controversial is Hersh’s claim that Pakistan knew in advance about the SEAL team raid and allowed it to proceed, even helped facilitate it. This is the starkest departure from the standard story as it was reported previously. Logically, it would require us to accept that the U.S. government trusted the Pakistanis to help it kill bin Laden, and that the humiliation that Pakistan’s military and intelligence reportedly felt in the aftermath of the raid was either a ruse or the product of some even deeper U.S.-Pakistani intrigue. Is there any evidence to support this claim or, really, anything we can latch onto beyond Hersh’s unnamed sources?
Eleven days after the raid, an unbylined story appeared on GlobalPost, an American website specializing in foreign reporting. The dateline was Abbottabad; the story was headlined: ‘‘Bin Laden Raid: Neighbors Say Pakistan Knew.’’ A half-dozen people who lived near bin Laden’s compound told the reporter that plainclothes security personnel — ‘‘either Pakistani intelligence or military officers’’ — knocked on their doors a couple of hours before the raid and instructed them to turn the lights off and remain indoors until further notice. Some local people also told the reporter that they were directed not to speak to the media, especially the foreign media.
When I contacted the chief executive of GlobalPost, Philip Balboni, he told me he considered trying to aggressively publicize this narrative when he first posted it. ‘‘[B]ut that would have required resources that we did not possess at the time, and the information against it was so overwhelming that even we had to wonder if our sources were right,’’ he wrote me in an email.
Balboni put me in touch with the reporter, Aamir Latif, a 41-year-old Pakistani journalist. Latif, a former foreign correspondent for U.S. News and World Report, told me that he traveled to Abbottabad the day after bin Laden was killed and reported there for a couple of days. I asked him if he still believed that there was some level of Pakistani awareness of the raid. ‘‘Not awareness,’’ he answered instantly. ‘‘There was coordination and cooperation.’’
Latif, who kept his name off the original post because of the sensitivity of the subject in Pakistan, said that people in the area told him that they heard the U.S. helicopters and that surely the Pakistani military had, too: ‘‘The whole country was awake, only the Pakistani Army was asleep? What does that suggest to you?’’ Gall has also written that bin Laden’s neighbors heard the explosions at the compound and contacted the local police, but that army commanders told the police to stand down and leave the response to the military. The SEALs were on the ground for 40 minutes, but the Pakistani Army didn’t arrive until after they had left.
Gall’s best guess (and she emphasizes that it is just a guess) is that the United States alerted Pakistan to the bin Laden operation at the 11th hour. ‘‘I have no proof, but the more I think about it and the more I talk to Pakistani friends, the more I think it’s probably true that Kayani and Pasha were in on it,’’ Gall told me, referring to Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who was then the chief of the army staff, and Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, then the director general of the I.S.I. As for killing bin Laden, she said: ‘‘The scenario I imagine is that the Americans watched him and tracked him and never told the Pakistanis because they didn’t trust them, but when they decided to go ahead with the raid, I think they might have gone to Kayani and Pasha and said, ‘We’re going in, and don’t you dare shoot down our helicopters or else.’ ’’ (I should note that not every national-security reporter, including some at The Times, agrees with Gall about the likelihood of high-level Pakistani complicity in either harboring bin Laden or helping kill him.)
Following Gall’s scenario to its logical conclusion, Pakistan would have faced an unappealing choice after the raid: acknowledge that it had cooperated and risk angering hard-liners for betraying bin Laden and abetting a U.S. military operation on Pakistani soil, or plead ignorance and incompetence.
‘‘The Pakistanis often fall back on, ‘We were incompetent,’ ’’ Gall said. ‘‘They don’t want their countrymen to know what they’re playing at. They fear there will be a backlash.’’
Where does the official bin Laden story stand now? For many, it exists in a kind of liminal state, floating somewhere between fact and mythology. The writing of history is a process, and this story still seems to have a long way to go before the government’s narrative can be accepted as true, or rejected as false.
‘‘It’s all sort of hokey, the whole thing,’’ Robert Baer, a longtime C.I.A. case officer in the Middle East (and the inspiration for the George Clooney character in the movie ‘‘Syriana’’) told me of the government’s version of the events. ‘‘I’ve never seen a White House take that kind of risk. Did the president just wake up one morning and say, ‘Let’s put my presidency on the line right before an election?’ This guy is too smart to put 23 SEALs in harm’s way in a Hollywood-like assassination. He’s too smart.’’ Still, none of Baer’s old friends inside or outside the agency have challenged the administration’s account.
Over time, many of Hersh’s claims could be proved right. What then? We may be justifiably outraged. Pakistan, our putative ally in the war on terror and the beneficiary of billions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer aid, would have provided refuge to our greatest enemy — the author of the very act that prompted us to invade Afghanistan. The audacious raid on bin Laden’s compound, our greatest victory in the war on terror, would have been little more than ‘‘a turkey shoot’’ (Hersh’s phrase). Above all, our government would have lied to us.
But should we really be shocked by such a revelation? After all, it would barely register on a scale of government secrecy and deception that includes, in recent years alone, the N.S.A.’s covert wiretapping program and the C.I.A.’s off-the-books network of ‘‘black site’’ prisons. ‘‘White House public-affairs people are not historians, they are not scholars, they are not even journalists,’’ Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, told me. ‘‘They are representing a political entity inside the United States government. Telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth is not their job, and even if it were their job, they would not necessarily be able to do it.’’
Hersh’s version doesn’t require us to believe in the possibility of a governmentwide conspiracy. Myths can be projected through an uncoordinated effort with a variety of people really just doing their jobs. Of course, when enough people are obscuring the truth, the results can seem, well, conspiratorial. Hersh is fond of pointing out that thousands of government employees and contractors presumably knew about the N.S.A.’s wiretapping, but only one, Edward Snowden, came forward.
We can go a step further: The more sensitive the subject, the more likely the government will be to feed us untruths. Consider our relationship with Pakistan, which Obama clearly had on his mind in the aftermath of the raid. In his address to the nation, Obama expressed his gratitude: ‘‘Over the years, I’ve repeatedly made clear that we would take action within Pakistan if we knew where bin Laden was. That is what we’ve done. But it’s important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding.’’
Either the line in Obama’s statement wasn’t truthful or the administration’s subsequent disavowal of it wasn’t. But in either case, it’s hard to imagine that telling the whole truth was more important to Obama, or should have been more important, than managing America’s relationship with this unstable ally.
There’s simply no reason to expect the whole truth from the government about the killing of bin Laden. If a tipper led the United States to his compound in Abbottabad, the administration could never say so without putting that individual’s life at risk and making it virtually impossible for the C.I.A. to recruit informants in the future. If Pakistan didn’t want us to acknowledge its cooperation with the raid, we wouldn’t, for fear of igniting the militant backlash Gall mentioned. Hersh himself has written — in The New Yorker — that there is a credible danger of extremists inside Pakistan’s military staging a coup and taking control of its large stockpile of nuclear weapons.
Reporters like to think of themselves as empiricists, but journalism is a soft science. Absent documentation, the grail of national-security reporting, they are only as good as their sources and their deductive reasoning. But what happens when different sources offer different accounts and deductive reasoning can be used to advance any number of contradictory arguments? How do we square Latif’s reporting in Abbottabad and Baer’s skepticism with the official story that Bowden and many others heard?
‘‘As a reporter in this world,’’ Bowden told me, ‘‘you have to always allow for the possibility that you are being lied to, you hope for good reason.’’
We may already know far more about the bin Laden raid than we were ever supposed to. In his 2014 memoir ‘‘Duty,’’ the former secretary of defense, Robert M. Gates, wrote that everyone who gathered in the White House Situation Room on the night of the raid had agreed to ‘‘keep mum on the details.’’ ‘‘That commitment lasted about five hours,’’ he added, pointing his finger directly at the White House and the C.I.A: ‘‘They just couldn’t wait to brag and to claim credit.’’
The problem is that amid all of this bragging, it became impossible to know what was true and what wasn’t. Recall ‘‘Zero Dark Thirty,’’ which grossed $130 million at the box office and was in many ways the dominant narrative of the killing of bin Laden. The filmmakers, in numerous interviews, went out of their way to promote their access to government and military sources: The opening credits announced that the film was based on ‘‘firsthand accounts of actual events.’’ And, as a trove of documents made public via the Freedom of Information Act amply demonstrated, the C.I.A. eagerly cooperated with the filmmakers, arranging for the writer and director to meet with numerous analysts and officers who were identified as being involved in the hunt for bin Laden. The director, Kathryn Bigelow, has described the film as ‘‘the first rough cut of history.’’
This was a story that was so good it didn’t need to be fictionalized, or so it seemed. It began with a series of C.I.A.-led torture sessions, which the movie suggested provided the crucial break in the hunt for bin Laden. Only they didn’t, at least according to a report conducted over the course of many years by the Senate Intelligence Committee (and others with access to classified information). Senator Dianne Feinstein, who oversaw the report as the committee’s chairwoman, said she walked out of a screening of the film. ‘‘I couldn’t handle it,’’ she said. ‘‘Because it’s so false.’’ The filmmakers’ intent had presumably been to tell a nuanced story — the ugly truth of how we found bin Laden — but in so doing, they seem to have perpetuated a lie.
It’s not that the truth about bin Laden’s death is unknowable; it’s that we don’t know it. And we can’t necessarily console ourselves with the hope that we will have more answers any time soon; to this day, the final volume of the C.I.A.’s official history of the Bay of Pigs remains classified. We don’t know what happened more than a half-century ago, much less in 2011.
There are different ways to control a narrative. There’s the old-fashioned way: Classify documents that you don’t want seen and, as Gates said, ‘‘keep mum on the details.’’ But there’s also the more modern, social-media-savvy approach: Tell the story you want them to believe. Silence is one way to keep a secret. Talking is another. And they are not mutually exclusive.
‘‘I love the notion that the government isn’t riddled with secrecy,’’ Hersh told me toward the end of our long day together. ‘‘Are you kidding me? They keep more secrets than you can possibly think. There’s stuff going on right now that I know about — amazing stuff that’s going on. I’ll write about it when I can. There’s stuff going out right now, amazing stuff in the Middle East. Are you kidding me? Of course there is. Of course there is.’’