The White House has been spending some time today rebutting a long investigative report in the London Review of Books by longtime investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. Though a great deal of investigative journalism is layered and complicated and qualified, this piece is less so: It claims that the story of the May 2011 raid on the Osama bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, is shot through with fictions. A partial rundown:
* The whole thing about the CIA discovering the compound by tracking couriers? False — an informant gave away the location.
* The idea that the two top Pakistani military leaders weren’t informed of the U.S. raid? Also not true, reports Hersh.
* The claim that Bin Laden was buried at sea? Nope, no such plan existed.
* The official line that U.S. Navy SEALs encountered resistance during the raid? Never happened.
There are more such alleged debunkings in the Hersh piece. Gawker has a nice rundown.
Any set of claims that the White House and others concocted lies and cover stories on perhaps the biggest counterterrorism operation of our time will, of course, attract attention. So National Security Council spokesman Ned Price has issued this statement:
There are too many inaccuracies and baseless assertions in this piece — which apparently is based on the claims of a single anonymous source — to fact check each one. Nevertheless, the notion that the operation that killed Usama Bin Ladin was anything but a unilateral U.S. mission is patently false. As we said at the time, knowledge of this operation was confined to a very small circle of senior U.S. officials. The President decided early on not to inform any other government, including the Pakistani Government, which was not notified until after the raid had occurred. We had been and continue to be partners with Pakistan in our joint effort to destroy al-Qa’ida, but this was a U.S. operation through and through.
A number of outlets have compiled refutations of Hersh’s reporting, including the Wall Street Journal and Vox. And one blogger advances another complaint altogether: “It’s either plagiarism or unoriginal,” writes R.J. Hillhouse, who published a post titled “Bin Laden Turned in by Informant — Courier Was Cover Story” back in August 2011.
Hersh is a decorated investigative reporter famous for his expose of the 1968 My Lai massacre and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in 2004. And if his allegations about the bin Laden operation are to be believed, then they constitute an indictment of the U.S. mainstream media. To have passed along incorrect stories about the couriers, the Pakistani ignorance of the raid, etc., would count as grounds for a whole wave of corrections and retractions. With that notion in mind, we rang up Hersh today and asked about the media dimension of his reporting.
He wasn’t biting. “I just wrote what I wrote,” said Hersh, adding that it would be “self-immolation to go after the press.”
Pressed a bit more, Hersh stuck to his position: “I could go on and on about the press, but I’m not,” he said.
A great deal of Hersh’s investigative work has appeared in the New Yorker, though he shops his stuff around. In December 2013, he published a controversial story in the London Review of Books criticizing President Obama for having failed to tell the “whole story … when he tried to make the case that Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attack near Damascus on 21 August.” As it turned out, Hersh had tried to sell that piece to the New Yorker and The Washington Post. Of the London Review of Books, Hersh said, “I like them. I find them more open politically.”
Hersh’s reporting on the bin Laden raid hangs from a thread in the form of a “retired senior intelligence official who was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad.” To his credit, Hersh states that this official was the “major” source for his account. He wasn’t kidding: The Erik Wemple Blog counted 55 attributions to “the retired official.” Says Hersh: “There’s always one guy who tells you the secret.”