Getting to the Truth About the Assassination of Osama Bin Laden

A long article in the London Review of Books further demolishes the Obama administration's official tale.


Four years ago the late great journalist Alexander Cockburn wrote, "Alas, the actual story of 'our history' is an unrelenting ability to lie about everything, while simultaneously claiming America's superior moral worth."

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It so happens he wrote that sentence in closing a column on President Obama's elaborate story about the Navy SEALs' May 2, 2011, assassination of Osama bin Laden. Cockburn wrote,

There was scarcely a sentence in the President's Sunday night address, or in the subsequent briefing by John Brennan, his chief counter-terrorism coordinator, that has not been subsequently retracted by CIA director Leon Panetta or the White House press spokesman, Jay Carney, or by various documentary records.

The official "back story" released Sunday night by Obama is that US intelligence learned of the Abbottabad compound only last August and spent the following months watching the place, following Osama's trusted couriers and concluding that it was highly likely, though not certain, that Osama was there.Cockburn's column was based on reporting that undermined key details of the official narrative. For example:

This is bunk. The three-storey house has been a well-known feature of Abbottabad. Shaukat Qadir, a well-connected Pakistan Army officer, reported to CounterPunch from Pakistan: "For the record, this house has been under ISI [Pakistani intelligence] surveillance while it was under construction."

Now renowned investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has published a long article in the London Review of Books, "The Killing of Osama bin Laden," that appears further to demolish Obama's politically motivated tale. Hersh, whose major scoops include the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and the torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, opens his piece:

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 says that his "major source … is a retired senior intelligence official who was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad." Use of an unnamed source has provoked criticism of Hersh, but one detects a double standard. Many good scoops have depended on unnamed sources, and Hersh says he confirmed what his major source told him. Often that's the only way to get sensitive information about what the government is up to.

The article also has set off a firestorm about its particulars, with the administration, other members of the war party, and media cheerleaders dismissing Hersh's "conspiracy theory." But others defend Hersh. The New York Times' Carlotta Gall, author of The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan 2001-2004, while not accepting every detail, writes:

Among other things, Hersh contends that the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, Pakistan's military-intelligence agency, held Bin Laden prisoner in the Abbottabad compound since 2006, and that "the C.I.A. did not learn of Bin Laden's whereabouts by tracking his couriers, as the White House has claimed since May 2011, but from a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer who betrayed the secret in return for much of the $25 million reward offered by the U.S."

On this count, my own reporting tracks with Hersh's.

Gall points out that the existence of the informant has been confirmed by NBC and a newspaper in Pakistan: "This development is hugely important—it is the strongest indication to date that the Pakistani military knew of Bin Laden's whereabouts…."

Hersh's investigation is also important regarding Saudi Arabia and its connection with bin Laden, who was a Saudi. Is this why bin Laden couldn't be taken alive?

If Hersh is right, the SEALs murdered an unarmed and powerless invalid, held by Pakistan, under orders from Obama when they could have brought him to trial.  

What's most important is this: if one understands the danger inherent in government secrecy, one must oppose the empire. Politicians can lie about domestic matters, but foreign intervention offers irresistible opportunities for really big lies—the kind that get people killed. Do people still need to be persuaded about that? 

If for no other reason than transparency, the empire must be liquidated.

This piece originally appeared at Richman's "Free Association" blog.