With a litany of unproved claims, veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has revived discussion about the circumstances in which al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was discovered and killed in May 2011 in the Pakistani garrison city of Abbottabad.
Some of Hersh’s assertions in a 10,000-word London Review of Books article border on fantasy. He claims that bin Laden lived under the protection of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was given up for reward money by one of the agency’s officers, and was eventually eliminated in a U.S. raid covertly backed by Pakistan’s army commander and ISI chief.
According to Hersh, the Americans “blackmailed” Pakistan’s generals into helping them kill bin Laden but then stabbed them in the back for political reasons by denying them any credit for assisting in the raid by Navy SEALs. Instead of blaming ISI for sheltering bin Laden in Pakistan (which Hersh claims it did), he points the finger at the Obama administration for not acknowledging ISI’s role in the U.S. operation that killed the terrorist mastermind.
With the exception of the possibility of a Pakistani “walk in” selling information about bin Laden’s location, the other details of Hersh’s story simply do not add up. If the ISI had hidden bin Laden for five years, it would not have cooperated in the U.S. operation to kill him without demanding a serious quid pro quo.
Hersh explains the Obama administration’s eagerness to claim sole credit for finding and killing bin Laden in terms of domestic U.S. politics. But he offers no explanation as to why, after covertly helping the Americans, Pakistan’s generals would keep quiet about their role. The veteran reporter alludes to the idea that this might have been because of bin Laden’s popularity among the Pakistani public. But by 2011, bin Laden was no longer that popular — and in any case Pakistan’s military leaders have consistently ignored public opinion to ensure the flow of American aid. Hersh’s suggestion that Pakistan’s generals covertly helped Americans eliminate bin Laden simply to maintain the flow of U.S. dollars to the country — but kept it secret so as not to incur the wrath of the Pakistani street — does not hold water.
For several years before the bin Laden raid, Pakistan’s military and the ISI had been criticized in the U.S. media and Congress for double-dealing in the fight against terrorism. If the ISI had protected bin Laden (or held him prisoner) for five years before being found out by the Americans, the United States would have increased its leverage by going public with accusations of hiding bin Laden. But there’s no evidence that Washington held Islamabad’s feet to the fire.
If, however, a backroom deal had been negotiated to secure Pakistani cooperation in the raid on Abbottabad in return for U.S. silence, the ISI would have demanded some glory for its cooperation. Facilitating the raid, as narrated by Hersh, would have provided Pakistan’s military and ISI an opportunity to redeem themselves in American eyes. Hersh wants us to believe an entirely improbably scenario. According to him, Obama’s political requirements denied Pakistanis any credit and senior generals in Islamabad simply accepted that without pushing back.
Was the “walk-in” real?
To this day, there is no solid evidence of Pakistanis at the highest level of government knowing about bin Laden being in Pakistan — though there have been widespread suspicions. If, after being tipped off by a rogue Pakistani intelligence officer looking for personal reward, the United States planned a raid with covert help from Pakistani intelligence, why didn’t the cooperating Pakistani officials demand credit for assisting in targeting bin Laden in order to mitigate the bad press for previously protecting him? And what prevented the U.S. government from publicly acknowledging that they knew bin Laden had been officially protected? Was the need to keep the relationship with Islamabad on solid footing so important that the Obama administration would risk telling a lie this massive?
Hersh’s story is based on the fundamental premise that the U.S. government had bad intentions, including in their interactions with the Pakistan Army and the ISI. In an interview with the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, Hersh defends Pakistan’s generals. “Pakistan has a good army, not a bad army,” he declared, adding that the Obama administration’s cover story made the Pakistan army look incompetent because it didn’t know that bin Laden was residing in a garrison town just two miles from the country’s main military academy. But he still does not offer an explanation for why the Pakistan Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, and ISI head, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, went along with the cover story.
The only point in Hersh’s story that seems plausible relates to the Pakistani officer who tipped off the Americans about bin Laden’s location. Further reporting by AFP and a story by NBC affirm the role of a Pakistani defector — though NBC later amended its story to clarify that while the defector provided information, it didn’t lead to finding bin Laden. The rumor that the CIA learned about bin Laden’s location through an ISI officer has been around since the Abbottabad raid. But I’ve also heard another version of the same story from Pakistani officials.
According to this version, the ISI officer only facilitated the CIA’s on-ground operation in Abbottabad after the U.S. spy agency started planning an operation based on intelligence obtained through other means. The CIA relocated the Pakistani officer — not because he was the man who tipped them off on bin Laden’s location — but because he acted without authority from his superiors in enabling the CIA to conduct an operation on Pakistani soil.
The NBC story also repeats the suspicion of U.S. officials — about Pakistani complicity in hiding bin Laden — though, obviously, there isn’t enough evidence for the U.S. government to formally and publicly make that charge. As a witness to Pakistan’s response after the bin Laden raid I find it difficult to believe Hersh’s conspiracy theory about so many people in both the U.S. and Pakistani governments and militaries telling a big coordinated lie.
In the middle of a diplomatic dance
I was serving as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States at the time of the SEAL raid in Abbottabad. I was on my way to Islamabad via London and Dubai when the operation took place; I first found out about it upon landing at Heathrow airport in the early morning of May 2, 2011. My superiors in Islamabad instructed me to turn around immediately. I was back in Washington by around 5 p.m. local time.
My instructions were clear: to ensure that the U.S. government, Congress, and the media did not blame Pakistan’s government, armed forces, or intelligence services for allowing Osama bin Laden’s presence in the country, as that would have been a violation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1267 and 1373. My bosses, both civilian and military, were obviously concerned that Pakistan would be taken to task. But nothing in the conduct of Generals Kayani and Pasha (both of whom later forced me to resign as ambassador) hinted at their collusion with the U.S. in the Abbottabad raid.
They attributed their lack of response to the incursion by U.S. helicopters from Afghanistan to the absence of adequate radar coverage on the western border — a symptom of Pakistan’s view of India as the only threat to its national security. Kayani and Pasha also wanted to ensure that there would be no reprisals against Pakistan over allegations of official complicity in hiding bin Laden.
A bevy of damage diplomacy followed. A few days after the Abbottabad raid, then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry visited Islamabad. Gen. Kayani was eager during that visit for a statement by the U.S. senator emphasizing Pakistan’s position as an American ally in the war against terrorism. Kerry agreed to the reassuring language proposed by Kayani. The Kerry visit was followed by a visit by Pasha to Washington during which he was keen to convince the CIA that the ISI had no knowledge of bin Laden being in Pakistan. In a meeting with CIA Director Leon Panetta, Pasha listed the CIA’s own failures over the years to advance his argument that intelligence gathering is often imperfect and that the enemy can hide within plain sight.
Notwithstanding my own disagreements with Kayani and Pasha, I found no reason to believe that either general was feigning ignorance or outrage while being secretly in league with the Americans. The Foreign Office also asked me to protest the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty by U.S. forces in conducting the operation and to point out how it violated the norms of international conduct between two sovereign countries that were, at least officially, allies. I didn’t make much headway.
The U.S. officials I interacted with were not only unwilling to apologize for violating Pakistani sovereignty but demanded that Islamabad cooperate in giving Americans access to data and persons found at the house in Abbottabad where the raid was conducted. They also demanded the return of the wreckage of the stealth helicopter that had been damaged and left behind during the operation. Pakistan handed over the wreckage a few days later, though not without prodding by the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen.
Security Council cover
Immediately after the raid, the U.S. government persuaded the president of the U.N. Security Council to issue a statement, “welcoming [the] end of Osama bin Laden’s ability to perpetrate terrorist acts.” Obama administration officials I spoke with pointed to UNSC resolutions and this statement by the Security Council president to justify their unilateral action in Abbottabad in disregard of Pakistani sovereignty.
Pakistan’s protests about violation of its sovereignty and against the U.N. Security Council president’s statement came within hours of the Abbottabad raid. Our side was stunned because it had not been kept in the loop. At the United Nations, the Security Council president was busy listing justifications under international law for the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. But none of these responses would have occurred if, as Hersh says, the cover story about the unilateral raid had been “manufactured” in the White House just two hours after the raid, in a cynical ploy to help Obama’s re-election bid.
On the evening of May 2, I was interviewed on CNN. There I made what remains a valid point: I said that it was obvious someone in Pakistan protected Osama bin Laden. The question was to determine whether bin Laden’s support system lay “within the government and the state of Pakistan or within the society of Pakistan.” I had asked for “a full inquiry into finding out why our intelligence services were not able to track him earlier.”
I never got an answer to my question. Pakistan created a commission that conducted its hearings in a non-transparent manner and declined to publish its findings. The Obama administration went back to business-as-usual with Pakistan — without insisting or pushing Islamabad for answers on the tough questions about bin Laden’s stay in Pakistan from 2006 to 2011. I understand how the failure of both Washington and Islamabad to disclose a more complete understanding of what transpired in the years leading up to the raid feeds conspiracy theories and the presumption that something is fishy.
But it is this failure — explaining bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan, not the elaborate conspiracies Hersh alleges on the say-so of a single retired U.S. counterterrorism official — which has been a major disservice to truth.
Both the people of Pakistan and the people of the United States would benefit from detailed answers to questions about bin Laden’s support network in Pakistan. But don’t hold your breath. It might not be in either Islamabad’s or Washington’s interest to wake sleeping dogs.