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What's Wrong with Seymour Hersh's Conspiracy Theory

If you have not read the story yet you are bound to come across it soon as even the White House has felt compelled to rebut it. Seymour Hersh, the legendary Pulitzer prize-winning journalist who exposed both the My Lai massacre war crime carried out by US troops in Viet Nam in 1969 and the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal by US troops in Iraq, had an epic new scoop on May 10th.

This one purports to expose a vast international conspiracy that brings together conspirators ranging from the U.S. Navy, the CIA, the NSA, JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command), Pakistan’s military and its intelligence organization known as the ISI, the Pakistani parliament, the Saudi government, and the Obama White House, to deceive the world about the killing of Osama Bin Laden. In his 10,000 word expose titled “The Killing of Osama Bin Laden” which appears in the London Review of Books, Hersh makes several stunning claims that would seem to indicate that the Obama administration is involved in the greatest cover up since the Nixon era.

In a nutshell, Hersh tells us that just about everything the world knows about the May 1/2, 2011 raid that killed Bin Laden is a government-orchestrated lie. A recap of Hersh’s story, which is far too long and filled with far too many complex “War on Terror” accusations for the average internet-era reader’s patience, will show just how explosive his findings are.

Hersh comes out swinging and his broadside begins with a salvo wherein he boldly asserts: “It’s been four years since a group of US Navy Seals assassinated Osama bin Laden in a night raid on a high-walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The killing was the high point of Obama’s first term, and a major factor in his re-election. The White House still maintains that the mission was an all-American affair, and that the senior generals of Pakistan’s army and Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) were not told of the raid in advance. This is false, as are many other elements of the Obama administration’s account. The White House’s story might have been written by Lewis Carroll….”

Hersh then goes on to expose what he claims is the truth behind the operation that has remained a secret kept by hundreds, if not thousands, of officials in all the governments concerned, for over four years. He states that far from being left in the dark by the US over the 2011 covert Navy SEAL raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad (that was subsequently described as a “violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty” by that country’s enraged parliament), Pakistan’s two most senior military leaders – General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of the army staff, and General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, director general of the ISI—actually worked hand-in-glove with the Americans on the stealth operation to deceive the people of both countries.  

Hersh tells how this improbable scenario came to be by going back to the beginning and claiming that the CIA/NSA did not find Bin Laden by tracking down and following his courier to his compound in northern Pakistan as the U.S. government official account states. Instead, a Pakistani “walk-in” (i.e. a defecting Pakistani intelligence officer) told the Pakistani CIA bureau chief where Bin Laden was hiding in return for the 25 million dollar reward. Hersh claims that the Pakistani ISI had Bin Laden under their “constant supervision” in his compound at this time and even tended to him with a doctor.

If this were not enough of a bombshell, Hersh claims that another American ally, the Saudi government, was secretly funding Bin Laden’s stay in Abbottabad as part of a plot to cover up their involvement with Al Qaeda. Having been informed of Bin Laden’s whereabouts in his Saudi-Pakistani-supported compound by the walk-in, the CIA then “blackmailed” the Pakistanis into working with them in a convoluted scheme to “assassinate” Bin Laden. First they convinced the Pakistanis to surreptitiously provide DNA evidence from a Pakistani doctor that Bin Laden was in the compound. Then they planned an attack to be carried out on the ISI-guarded compound deep in the heart of Pakistan by US special forces coming from Afghanistan (but without using Pakistani forces stationed in the town which is a military headquarters).

To cover up the elaborate operation/ruse, Obama would announce several days after Bin Laden’s death that he had been killed in a drone strike (no explanation is given by Hersh as to why the blackmailed Pakistanis wouldn’t just arrest or execute Bin Laden and save everyone involved a lot of work). Obama’s drone death explanation would protect the Pakistani top generals’ families from enraged Pakistanis in a country where Hersh claims Bin Laden was popular. In return for its assistance in this bizarre, covert invasion of their own country by their American allies to carry out “premeditated murder,” the Pakistanis would get “more goodies” (financial assistance) and plausible deniability.

Having made this complex web of agreements to stage a deception, the raid commenced once the ISI removed their guards from Bin Laden’s compound and shut down power in the city of Abbottabad. There was even an ISI operative on one of the helicopters guiding it to its destination. After one of the US helicopters subsequently crashed at the compound, a larger Chinook helicopter was dispatched from “a Pakistani base” to rescue the stranded Navy SEALs.

Hersh then rejects the play-by-play, eyewitness account of the actual raid on the compound given by Matt Bisonnette (a Navy SEAL who  took part in the operation and wrote a bestselling book on it titled No Easy Day) and Rob O’ Neill (the SEAL who killed Bin Laden and has spoken about the raid on various news channels), and states “there was no firefight as they moved into the compound.” Hersh goes on to claim that after “obliterating” an unarmed Bin Laden with gunfire, the SEALs searched his compound, but did not find any intelligence trove of “terrorist material” as the Obama administration later claimed.

On their way back to Afghanistan in their helicopter, Hersh then claims that “some [of Bin Laden’s] body parts were tossed out over the Hindu Kush mountains” by vengeful or jubilant Navy SEALs. As for the rest of Bin Laden’s body, it was not buried at sea off the decks of the USS Carl Vinson as the White House stated (he does not tell us what actually happened to the body). To top it all off, Obama then “double crossed everyone” by going back on his promise to the Pakistanis to announce that Bin Laden had been killed in a drone strike. Instead, he told the world about the SEAL raid on the compound. Thus ends the sordid story Hersh tells of “lies, misstatements and betrayals” that was all “political theater” designed to assist Obama.

It is a remarkably convoluted story of deception by our government and that of the Pakistanis and Saudis, but it requires a complete lack of awareness of the complexities of recent Pakistani history to be uncritically swallowed. A background analysis of the recent history of Pakistan and its tortured relationship with the US shows just how improbable this bizarre story of a joint Pakistani-US operation/scheme designed to enhance Obama’s reputation is.

Frenemies: Pakistan’s Troubled Relationship with the Americans

The first incorrect premise of Hersh’s article is his fundamental statement that “American and Pakistani military and intelligence services have worked together closely for decades on counterterrorism in South Asia.” In order for this joint operation to have been carried out successfully this statement has to be accepted. Sadly, this claim is not born out by recent history.

While it is true that the US and Pakistani ISI worked closely together in the 1980s to arm the Afghan mujahideen “freedom fighters” in their struggle against the Soviet invaders (i.e. in Operation Cyclone), this marriage of convenience between unlikely allies ended in bitter acrimony soon after the Russian withdrawal in 1989. War makes strange bedfellows and the relationship between the Islamist dictator of Pakistan, Zia ul Haq, and the Americans fell apart in 1990 when the CIA discovered that Pakistan was secretly developing a nuclear weapon dubbed “the Muslim atom bomb.”

The Americans were deeply concerned about the spread of nuclear weapons to this unstable country and enacted the Pressler Amendment to enforce sanctions on Pakistan for trying to develop them. This led the Americans to withhold 1.2 billion dollars worth of military equipment that the Pakistanis had already paid for. Among the most symbolic weapons withheld by the Americans was a squadron of F-16 fighter jets.

The Pakistanis were furious and the Pakistani military and ISI felt used by the Americans. Having helped defeat the Soviets by using Pakistani territory, the Americans had withdrawn their support leaving the Pakistanis to cope with two to three million Afghan war refugees living in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. At this time, Pakistani officers who had been traveling to U.S. military academies ceased coming to America for training. All this contentious history contradicts Hersh’s claim in his article that the U.S. “looked the other way” when Pakistan was building its nuclear weapons.

As the relationship between Washington and Islamabad collapsed, a new generation of Pakistani military officers would come of age in the 1990s distrusting the Americans and believing in Islamist causes like the jihad against the Indians in the contested province of Kashmir. The Pakistani ISI began spreading jihadi terrorism into India at this time through a variety of militant groups that would later be designated FTOs (Foreign Terrorist Organizations) by the U.S. State Department.

If this were not enough, in 1994 the ISI began sponsoring the conquest of neighboring Afghanistan by the Taliban extremists. By 1996 the ISI-supported Taliban had given sanctuary to Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, as well as other terrorist groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Thus, far from having “worked together closely for decades on counterterrorism in South Asia,” as Hersh incorrectly claims, the ISI was actively sponsoring terrorism of the sort that would directly lead to the Mumbai attacks of 2008, and indirectly to 9/11 (in fact the leader of the ISI-sponsored Pakistani terror group that attacked Mumbai, India killing 164, Hafiz Muhammad Saaed, still lives openly in Pakistan, despite being designated a terrorist by the Americans).

After 9/11 Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, threatened to “bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Ages” if it did not sunder its ties with its Taliban surrogates and join the Coalition in the war on Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts. Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf put his finger to the wind, felt a strong breeze coming from Washington, and reluctantly ended his country’s close ties with the very Taliban movement it had midwifed. (I’ll explain why, later.) But when thousands of Taliban subsequently fled from Afghanistan to Pakistan’s remote tribal region to escape US bombardments during Operation Enduring Freedom, the Pakistanis did nothing to stop them from setting up a fallback sanctuary on Pakistani soil that became known as “Talibanistan.”

Having given the Pakistanis 10 billion dollars in Coalition Support funds to join the war on Al Qaeda, the Americans felt betrayed and pressed the Pakistanis to invade the Taliban-controlled tribal regions of Pakistan to capture Al Qaeda members hiding there. With deep reluctance, the Pakistani army invaded the tribal regions known as FATA (the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies) in 2002/3 and succeeded in both turning the local Pakistani Taliban into enemies and being militarily defeated by the skilled Talib mountain fighters. In response, the Pakistanis signed a series of treaties with the newly formed Pakistani Taliban that were essentially capitulations granting them control of the FATA.

But this did not satiate the Pakistani Taliban, who then began a terror campaign against Pakistan that killed up to 3,000 Pakistanis a year. The Pakistani Taliban also moved out of their remote tribal region conquering lands within a hundred miles of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. The Taliban’s Al Qaeda allies also twice tried killing Pakistani leader Musharraf, who was described as a “traitor to Islam,” and succeeded in killing former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007.

Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zadari, then became president from 2008 to 2013 and began to work more closely with the Americans against the Pakistani Taliban, who he saw not only as the murderers of his wife, but as an existential threat to his country. It was at this time that he allowed the upswing in the CIA’s drone campaign against the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda in the FATA tribal region.

But the relationship was not always smooth. On September 3, 2008, US heliborne special forces crossed into Pakistani territory and raided a Taliban-controlled village. The Pakistani Foreign Ministry condemned the attack, calling it “unacceptable” and “a grave provocation … which has resulted in immense loss of civilian life.” But it was the Pakistani military that raised the biggest objection. Using bellicose terms more suited for an enemy than an ally, the new head of Pakistan’s army, General Pervez Kayani, stated that Pakistan’s territorial integrity would be “defended at all cost.” Lest there be any ambiguity, Kayani also stated “There is no question of any agreement or understanding with the coalition forces whereby they are allowed to conduct operations on our side of the border…. No external force is allowed to conduct operations inside Pakistan.”

In his article, Hersh explains that as all this was happening (and Pakistan was   adamantly rejecting the presence of US boots on the ground in their country), the ISI counter-intuitively protected their enemy, Bin Laden. He states: “The ISI was using bin Laden as leverage against Taliban and al-Qaida activities inside Afghanistan and Pakistan. They let the Taliban and al-Qaida leadership know that if they ran operations that clashed with the interests of the ISI, they would turn bin Laden over to us.” But this claim flies in the face of the fact that the Taliban and Al Qaeda did openly and violently clash with the interests of the ISI. As previously stated, Al Qaeda tried killing President Musharraf who was formerly head of the military (ISI is closely linked to the military) in two bombings and the Taliban carried out suicide bombings on ISI targets killing scores of operatives in 2009 (i.e. two years before the SEAL raid on the Bin Laden compound Hersh claims was still protected by ISI to maintain his good behavior).

This latter act drove the ISI closer to the Americans. After 2008, the ISI military intelligence was active in helping the CIA wage its drone campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban terrorists that led to the deaths of three heads of the Pakistani Taliban, three number threes in Al Qaeda, and thousands of foot soldiers.

The Taliban and Al Qaeda were thus at war with the ISI and vice versa; there is no evidence on the ground that the ISI was using Bin Laden to keep the Taliban/Al  Qaeda alliance in line, as Hersh asserts. On the contrary, the depth of the animosity between the Taliban and ISI/Pakistani military was on display for the world to see as recently as the December 2014 Taliban attack on a military school in Peshawar, Pakistan, that led to the deaths of 141 students who were children of Pakistani military officers.

To claim, as Hersh does, that the ISI had Bin Laden under their protection in Abbottabad to ensure the good behavior of the Taliban and Al Qaeda thus flies in the face of the history of open warfare between the Taliban and the Pakistani military that ranged from the capital of Pakistan (when the army besieged the Red Mosque held by militants in 2007) to the tribal regions where Taliban militants have filmed themselves beheading Pakistani soldiers. History would indicate that there was no quid pro quo agreement between Al Qaeda/Taliban and the Pakistani ISI based on Bin Laden being a hostage as Hersh claims.

Hersh makes similar sorts of claims about collusion between Al Qaeda and the Saudis that are not born out by recent history. In his article, Hersh claims that it was America’s staunch Saudi allies that were paying for Bin Laden’s upkeep in his compound in Abbottabad. His American intelligence source told him: “The Saudis didn’t want bin Laden’s presence revealed to us [the United States] because he was a Saudi, and so they told the Pakistanis to keep him out of the picture. The Saudis feared if we knew we would pressure the Pakistanis to let bin Laden start talking to us about what the Saudis had been doing with al-Qaida.”

There is only one problem with this claim. Al Qaeda is at war with the Saudi dynasty and has called for its overthrow ever since it allowed US troops on Saudi soil to fight Saddam Hussein in 1991. Al Qaeda tried killing a member of the Saudi royal family in a suicide attack on Prince Mohammad bin Nayaf in 2009; it has carried out a series of deadly bombing attacks in Saudi Arabia that have killed scores; and it has issued fetwas against the Saudi regime (for which Bin Laden was stripped of his passport and had his bank accounts frozen). In response, the Saudis have allowed the US to use airstrips in the Empty Quarter to target ‘Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’ with drones and has moved to brutally stamp out any possible support for Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia itself.

Lastly, Hersh’s claim that the US made an agreement with the Pakistanis to allow them “ ‘a freer hand’ in Afghanistan as it began its military draw-down there” needs to be addressed. It has long been clear that the US and Pakistan have vastly different goals vis a vis Afghanistan. The Pakistani ISI, for all the fact that it is at war with the Pakistani Taliban, has covertly supported the Afghan-based Haqqani network, which is allied to the Afghan Taliban. This terrorist group is seen as an ISI “asset” and has been used to carry out terror attacks on Indian targets in Afghanistan and weaken the Afghan government through suicide bombings and insurgent attacks. The Pakistanis want to utilize the Haqqani network to exert control over post-US Afghanistan and have also kept up ties with the Afghan Taliban leadership (currently living in Pakistan) for this same purpose.

The US has criticized the Pakistanis for supporting the Haqqani network on several occasions and has killed several of its leaders in their Pakistani sanctuaries with Predator drones without Pakistani approval. The American-allied Afghan government sees Pakistani meddling and support for the Afghan Taliban as its greatest threat and has regularly issued demarches against the Pakistanis. The notion that the US would allow the Pakistanis a “freer hand” in Afghanistan flies in the face of all this bitter history since Islamabad’s objectives (i.e. the creation of a pro-Pakistani regime in Kabul, like the previous Taliban regime, that is beholden to Pakistan, and Islamic) contradicts America’s goals of creating a stable, pro-American democracy in the country.


On many levels Hersh’s article fails the commonsense test when it comes to its claims about Pakistan’s recent history. Its claims of a vast, joint conspiracy between the ISI and Pakistani military on the one hand, and many US agencies and military services on the other hand, don’t gel with the contentious relationship between the two countries. There are just too many competing actors in these two countries’ intelligence and military services to pull off such a united operation that ended in the humiliation of the Pakistanis (their top generals offered to resign to Pakistani parliament afterwards), all for the goal of assisting the American president in a deceitful publicity campaign.

In addition, Americans, Saudis, and Pakistanis (all said to have played a role in this deception) live in societies with ready access to the internet. In this era of WikiLeaks, Edward Snowdon’s revelations on the NSA spying, investigative journalism, etc. it requires a suspension of commonsense to accept that, for over four years, this vast international conspiracy was kept secret from the peoples of all three countries. For all these reasons, CNN analyst Peter Bergen, who visited Bin Laden’s compound and found evidence of firefight of the sort Hersh says did not take place, has blasted Hersh’s story calling it “a farrago of nonsense that is contravened by a multitude of eyewitness accounts, inconvenient facts and simple common sense.”

This criticism from an expert who not only wrote a field research-based book on Bin Laden’s death but interviewed Bin Laden in the late 1990s stems in part from the fact that Hersh’s major source for his remarkable story is described as an unnamed “retired senior intelligence official” (who has refused to go on the record with his name to support his story). Further information for Hersh’s story is said to come from two lesser sources described as “consultants to Special Operations Command.” I myself once served as a consultant to Special Operations Command in Tampa, Florida (for their Center for Operational Knowledge and Futures) and can state that, despite having Top Secret Level security clearance, I was not involved on an operational level with secret missions of any sort. The reason being, consultants like me are seen as outsiders who are given limited information on a need to know basis, not insiders who are given access to trade secrets.

I have also interacted with Navy SEALs and other “silent professionals” who are on the inside and found the story of the Special Forces victoriously and irresponsibly throwing parts of the body of Bin Laden (the most wanted terrorist in the world) out of a flying helicopter to be beyond the realm of believability. And speaking of Special Forces, Rob O’ Neill, the SEAL who killed Bin Laden (and has publicly gone on record with his account of a firefight, unlike Hersh’s anonymous source) has described his reaction to Hersh’s story as follows: “This thing is so ludicrous it's almost an insult to the word ‘ludicrous.’ For this guy to have a few guys from Pakistan just lie to him and to write this ridiculous story, it's a comedy. Everything we said we did, we did. The [Hersh] story, it took me a long time to read it because I had to put it down. I couldn't read the nonsense.”

 As for Hersh’s claims of a lack of firefight in Bin Laden’s compound, this eyewitness Special Forces source stated: "Well I’m sure that my friends who got shot at and almost took a few bullets to the face through the doors would disagree with them there and be insulted."

Other sources involved, including an FBI agent who collated the intelligence material gathered in garbage bags from Bin Laden’s compound by the Special Forces, would also seem to contradict Hersh’s claims that there was no “trove” of intel. The fact that the CIA drone fleet went on an unprecedented killing of spree of top Al Qaeda operatives following the capture of Bin Laden’s computer in the compound would seem to indicate that they were operating on intel collected from this “intelligence trove.”

For all these reasons I would rate Hersh’s story as something between a canard created to take advantage of the public’s lack of awareness of Pakistan’s recent history and a conspiracy theory of the sort he has served up elsewhere (on one occasion Hersh stated that the US special forces and top military are “all members of, or at least supporters of, Knights of Malta, many of them are members of [the Catholic organization] Opus Dei").

Sadly, in a conspiracy-oriented internet age where millions of people believe Barack Obama is a crypto-Muslim born in Indonesia, no Jews were killed on 9/11, there were nuclear and other deadly WMDs found in Iraq, and that the Bush White House ordered the September 11attacks, Hersh’s story will doubtless find supporters and live on in alternative-universe chat rooms from Islamabad to Washington. This seems to be a sad contribution to our understanding of what was once known as the War on Terror by an investigative journalist who has done genuine good work in exposing war crimes in the past.