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Friday, May 15, 2015

Seymour Hersh, Osama Bin Laden, and recent history

Seymour Hersh's career is a classic case of being in the right place at the right time.  In 1970, as a free-lance journalist of 32 , he discovered that the Army was holding Lt. William Calley for the murder of 100 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai, and broke the story.  (It had come to light thanks to the efforts of an army veteran named Ronald Ridenhour, whose remarkable lettrer about the massacre, addressed to various Washington officials, appeared in full in Hersh's book about My Lai.)  That landed him a job at the New York Times,  where he broke at least one major Watergate story. In late 1974, he broke the story of the CIA's "family jewels," a report on domestic spying abuses, which led to the Church and Pike Committee investigations of the FBI and CIA over the next two years.  Regular newspaper work was not for him, however, and he became a free-lance journalist and author again in the 1980s.  In general I have always felt that Hersh could be a good reporter about contemporary subjects, but that his techniques--finding the man or woman who would tell the most sensational story about a past event--failed him when he tried to do history.  The Dark Side of Camelot, about various supposed and real scandals of the Kennedy years, was in this respect quite disastrous, although it undoubtedly made him a good deal of money and was turned into an ABC documentary. 

Hersh was writing The Dark Side of Camelot while I was working on American Tragedy, and at some point I heard through a third party about a claim he was preparing to make.  In 1963, he said, during the Buddhist crisis in South Vietnam, President Kennedy had the legendary intelligence officer General Edward Lansdale come to the White House and asked him to return to Saigon as CIA Station Chief to arrange the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem.  I telephoned Hersh, because my own primary research not only showed beyond a doubt that this story was false, but also suggested how it might have gotten going.  Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, as it happened, HAD asked that Lansdale come out as station chief for the purpose of arranging a coup (not an assassination), but the State and Defense departments and the CIA had all reacted violently against this idea.  And indeed, a tape of a White House conversation recorded Kennedy saying that they all knew who Lodge wanted as station chief, and they knew that he couldn't have him.   Last but hardly least, the White House appointment calendar at the JFK Library did not show a single visit by Lansdale to the White House during 1963.  When I passed all this on to Hersh, he initially became violently abusive, but then calmed down.  Still, the story appeared as fact in his book. I expressed my views of it in print at the time in a review in the Providence Journal.   I ran into him again years later, and he was perfectly polite.

Now, in the London Review of Books.  Hersh has written a sensational account of the killing of Osama Bin Laden, arguing that the Obama Administration has consistently lied about how the operation came about and what happened in it.  He argues that the CIA did not track Bin Laden through a courier--much less with the help of waterboarding--but rather through a tip from a Pakistani official who claimed a good deal of our $25 million reward.  More sensationally, he says that the whole operation was carried out with the full cooperation of two senior Pakistani officials, and that they made sure that the Pakistani military would allow the US helicopters to violate Pakistani air space without interference.  Going further, he says that there was no firefight in Bin Laden's compound and that his body was not buried at sea, and that the Obama Administration went back on promises not to announce the raid for one week after it occurred.

The first thing I need to address is where this story came from, and how Hersh appears to have handled it.  It is based almost entirely, by  his own account,. on lengthy interviews with one unidentified retired CIA official who gave him the whole story.  There is an interesting parallel here, it seems to me, with Ronald Ridenhour's 1969 letter that led to the uncovering of the My Lai massacre.  Ridenhour--like Hersh's CIA source--had not participated directly in the events he described--he had heard about My Lai from a soldier who had been there.  Thanks mostly to Congressman Morris Udall, Ridenhour's letter led to an actual investigation within the Pentagon, and numerous soldiers came forward not only to confirm the story, but in one case, to provide photographs of the massacre.  But in this case--and we are further away in time from Bin Laden's death now than we were from My Lai when that story was broken--Hersh is relying almost entirely on an informant who does not claim to have been there. And that informant does claim to know an extraordinary amount, not only about the raid and how it happened, but also about deliberations at the highest levels of the Obama Administration.

I have no way of knowing, of course, exactly what might or might not be true in Hersh's account. but the burden of proof is on him and on the editors of the London Review of Books. (Hersh has published some very interesting and better-sourced pieces about Iran's nuclear program in The New Yorker in recent years, and I must conclude that that publication decided--wisely in my view--not to touch this one.)  A few of his assertions strike me as plausible and certainly worthy of further investigation.  Most of them, however, do not.  Let me try to explain why--without making any claim to authoritative knowledge.

I do think that some of what Hersh says about the ISI--the Pakistani intelligence service, which is a critical power within the Pakistani government--and Bin Laden is probably true, and indeed, he is not the first one to say it.  Carlotta Gall of the New York Times, the author of The Wrong Enemy, a most provocative book about the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan, said in that book that the ISI was protecting Bin Laden inside Pakistan and that she had identified his desk officer.  That did not surprise me, because I had heard numerous American officials speculate that Bin Laden was living in Pakistan under official protection before.  Gall has now come forward to confirm Hersh's second critical point: that it was an informer, whom Gall identifies, from the ISI who tipped the U.S. off about Bin Laden's whereabouts.  But Gall most definitely does NOT confirm Hersh's claim that ISI leaders cooperated with the United States in the raid that killed Bin Laden.  She does speculate that his story would explain something she already knew--that the police and Pakistani army in Abbotabad seem to have reacted slowly to the reports of the crash of one of the American helicopters at Bin Laden's compound--but to judge from the interview I heard her do when her book came out, she does not, or did not, believe that the ISI leadership was interested in handing Bin Laden over to the United States at all.

At this point I want to shift gears a bit, and turn to the implications of this and other aspects of  Hersh's story, if they are true.  Hersh made a successful career out of exposing government wrongdoing.  As time has gone on, however, he and others have defined government wrongdoing so broadly as to make it impossible for governments to function. This is one such case.

If, which I am inclined not to believe, the United States government, as Hersh argues, managed by threats to persuade the Pakistanis to tell us where Bin Laden was, then in my opinion, the Obama Administration deserves credit, not blame, for that.  Indeed, in my seminars at the Naval War College I frequently suggested to students that we should tell the Pakistani government that we would withdraw from Afghanistan (as they obviously wanted us to do) if they would hand Bin Laden over.  Nor does it upset me that the CIA and the Administration would claim publicly that they tracked Bin Laden through his courier, rather than admit that the tip came from an informant whom they would obviously need to protect.  It does bother me a great deal that CIA officials have gone a step further and claimed (falsely, it seems) that waterboarding played a key role in tracking him down, but the Senate Intelligence Committee report has taken care of that problem for anyone who cares about the truth.

Similarly, Hersh seems to think that it is very serious that the US government might have lied about burying Bin Laden at sea.  That  is possible, but the idea of burying him at sea seemed to me at the time to be brilliant, since it would avoid the propaganda disadvantage of desecrating his remains according to his religion, and also eliminate any grave site that would become a target of veneration or of more terrorist acts.  For the good of the nation it makes perfect sense, and does no harm, to claim that we buried him at sea, and I can't find anything to criticize here.

And that leads me to my broadest point: Hersh's insistence that the details of the killing had to be altered so as to absolve US soldiers and the US government of a charge of murder.  I do not believe there was anything they needed to be absolved of. This was not murder, it was an act of war against a man who had carried on war against the United States and killed more than 3000 Americans.  Taking him into custody would have given him an opportunity to speak publicly to the world, and would surely have provided a pretext for more terrorist attacks designed to free him.  And that kind of situation is the only exception I am still inclined to make to my opposition on principle to capital punishment.  Yes, putting people to death is a barbaric act, but if the criminal's imprisonment is going to lead to more murders by confederates on his behalf, I think governments have no choice but to execute him.  I think that the ongoing drone campaign is a terrible mistake based on false policies and strategies, but I have no objection to the raid on Bin Laden.

Hersh's work, from 1969 until today, illustrates what has happened to the United States in the last half century.  The Vietnam War convinced young Americans who had believed their country could do no wrong that it could do no right.  It accelerated an attack on all institutional, intellectual and moral authority.  The new generation, generation X, that grew up in that atmosphere, is even more cynical than its elders, and tens of millions of Americans now have no trust in government at all.  And that, in turn, makes government impossible.  That is the legacy of the new tradition of investigative reporting as an end in itself, not designed to uncover a specific abuse or serve the greater good.  The American people have lost the capacity to tell a good military operation, or a good public official, from a bad one.


CrocodileChuck said...

Calm down.

2 Points:

- It is impossible to believe that US aircraft could penetrate PAK airspace [monitored by US designed, built, configured and maintained radars] & not be detected. Certainly not that far north & close to Kashmir, & PAK's existential enemy. So, if nothing else in the Hersh account is true, his account of how this was achieved solves this insuperable problem.

- I never believed the sea burial angle. N-carriers are the size of towns: > 6,000 crew. & no one blabbed when it returned to Newport News, about the USA's supreme arch-villian? Not even a lowly Able Seaman? Not buying it.

For all we know UBL was already dead, & they iced someone else.

But this story [warts & all] is infinitely more believable than that of the WH at the time* [& any of its twelve subsequent 'variations']

* wasn't there a Re-election campaign just about to kick off?

Assurance-First-Assurance said...

Thank you Professor. That was very enlightening.


Bozon said...


Great post and topic. See my blog....

Also see Randy Fertel's charitable work.

all the best

CrocodileChuck said...

ps see comments by NYT reporter Carlotta Gall


Kenneth Jost said...

As always, David, sensible and measured analysis and commentary.

Bozon said...


I do think that Risen's remarks, at the 2015 Ridenour Awards, are a small breath of fresh air, or at least an acknowledgment of a rather plain truth.

all the best

sglover said...

Dr. Kaiser -- I think your criticism of Hersh, and what he's done here, is wildly, light-years, off the mark.

The intelligence apparatus has been quite happy to state or imply that it was thanks to "enhanced interrogation" techniques that Bin Laden's whereabouts became known. If you'll recall, this disinfo was central to the extremely successful "Zero Dark Thirty"; (I'm guessing the producers got lots of help from the CIA and its kin.)

Hersh's expose' of the role of paid informants puts the lie to that. THAT is the significance of the story: The official tale is a fabrication, which is apparently intended to reinforce faith in methods that are odious and unproductve. So don't you think the deeper question might be, Why would they do that? Whose purposes are being served by putting torture in a good light?

Was it Brennan or Clapper who admitted to perjuring himself before Congress, and then got promoted? I don't remember. Maybe both of them? Or maybe only one them admitted it, while the other just does it. Who knows? Yet you're going to say it's Hersh's style of investigation reporting that makes the youngsters cynical?!?!? Get real!

One more thing: I doubt very much that the New Yorker's decision to turn Hersh's article down had anything to do with integrity. It sounds a lot more like the kind of pussyfooting that's made American newspapers and magazines pretty much worthless. A few months ago you gave an awful NYT piece about Bulgaria way more credence than it deserved. I really don't want to sound condescending -- truly I don't, I've always liked your site! -- but I think you need to shed your faith in the old icons of the American news biz.

Whistleblowers and muckrakers aren't always right, and they should never be elevated to sainthood. But consider Assange and Snowden and, now, Hersh: It sure is eerie how often and eagerly American journalists have joined in and even led smear campaigns against the muckrakers. Quite often it's months before it's clear that the substance of the muck was true. But by then, of course, the story's faded to a trivia item. Mission accomplished!

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