3 Reasons to Be Skeptical of Seymour Hersh’s Account of the Bin Laden Raid
"Mr. Hersh is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who has broken major stories, including the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. This account purports to explain an elaborate conspiracy theory, and-–as I have written previously-–such stories sometimes contain elements of truth. Still, the issues of sourcing and substance suggest taking Mr. Hersh’s account with a healthy dose of salt," writes Michael Kugelman.
Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published an article Sunday about the 2011 raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan that immediately went viral, crashing the London Review of Books Web site.
Among its striking claims: Bin Laden was a “prisoner” of the Pakistani intelligence service in his Abbottabad compound since 2006; the United States learned of Bin Laden’s whereabouts through a former Pakistani intelligence officer; Saudi Arabia was “financing Bin Laden’s upkeep”; and Pakistan’s military helped Washington plan the raid.
There’s a lot to absorb in Mr. Hersh’s lengthy story. The White House has denied the allegation that Pakistan cooperated on the raid. Here are three reasons to be skeptical of some of the article’s claims:
1. Sourcing. This article takes the practice of anonymous attribution to a new level. Mr. Hersh’s 10,356-word account is based nearly exclusively on a handful of unnamed sources–which can’t be fact-checked–and mainly one retired U.S. intelligence official. One of the only named sources is Asad Durrani, a former director of Pakistani intelligence in the early 1990s. In an Al Jazeera interview this year, Mr. Durrani insinuated that Pakistani intelligence knew about Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. But Mr. Durrani retired more than 20 years ago. Even in a country where retired security establishment figures retain influence and access, such a long separation from public service suggests that Mr. Durrani is not the most plugged-in source.
2. Quotations. Mr. Hersh’s account features voluminous, sometimes paragraphs-long quotations. Some are suspect for logical reasons; among the skepticism expressed online, for example, was a point on social media that the way in which a “former Seal commander” reportedly spoke about SEAL missions is unrealistic. Other remarks appear absurd or, at the least, ill-informed. The retired U.S. intelligence official says that Pakistani military officers believe they are the “keepers of the flame against Muslim fundamentalism.” Based on what I’ve observed as an analyst of Pakistan, I would argue that it’s more accurate to say the Pakistani military is a keeper of the flame of fundamentalism, thanks to its associations with militant groups.
3. U.S.-Pakistan Relations. In early 2011, U.S.-Pakistan relations were in deep crisis thanks in part to Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor who was arrested after killing two people at a crowded intersection in Lahore. According to Mr. Hersh, at that point the CIA and Pakistani intelligence were closely cooperating and jointly planning the raid on the Bin Laden compound. He writes that the retired U.S. intelligence source said that a Pakistani intelligence “liaison officer” flew with the SEALS on the night of the raid. Unless the crisis in relations was an elaborate cover, it beggars belief to assume such close intelligence cooperation.
Mr. Hersh is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who has broken major stories, including the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. This account purports to explain an elaborate conspiracy theory, and–as I have written previously–such stories sometimes contain elements of truth.
Still, the issues of sourcing and substance suggest taking Mr. Hersh’s account with a healthy dose of salt.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.
This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal.
About the Author
The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region. Read more