Almost everyone in the know is skeptical — if not downright dismissive — of Seymour Hersh’s latest blockbuster story. Too thinly sourced, they say. Too conspiratorial. Even kind of crazy.
To which Sy Hersh has a ready reply: You can’t handle the truth.
“The story is so f---ing awful people can’t f---ing deal with it,” says the investigative reporter, almost giddy over the fuss. “They’re going f---ing crazy.”
The story in question is Hersh’s 10,000-word opus about the events surrounding Osama bin Laden’s killing in 2011, published Sunday by the London Review of Books. The short version: Almost everything that has been said or written about this storied and massively documented event, including the White House’s version, isn’t true.
Was bin Laden living in secrecy in Abbottabad, Pakistan, when Navy SEALs stormed his compound and killed him?
No, writes Hersh; Pakistan’s intelligence service had captured the al-Qaeda leader years earlier and was holding him as a bargaining chip, with Saudi Arabia’s support.
Did the United States find bin Laden through dogged intelligence work and by tracking his courier?
No again, Hersh says; a Pakistani military official tipped off the Americans in exchange for a piece of the $25 million reward.
The raid itself, he writes, was not some daring mission out of “Zero Dark Thirty”; the Pakistanis effectively stage-managed it.
And bin Laden’s burial at sea? Didn’t happen, Hersh says. Instead, the SEALs tossed chunks of the terrorist leader’s body, which was obliterated by gunfire in the raid, out of their Black Hawk helicopter as they flew out of Pakistan.
Hersh’s complex and somewhat disjointed weaving of all the alleged lies and deceptions — supposedly engineered by three governments and perhaps hundreds of individuals — met with swift denials. Within hours Monday, the White House, the Pentagon and the National Security Agency all dismissed his account, which is based largely on information from anonymous sources.
The commentary from Hersh’s colleagues in the news media, meanwhile, has formed a symphonic chorus of harrumphing.
“The story simply does not hold up to scrutiny — and, sadly, is in line with Hersh’s recent turn away from the investigative reporting that made him famous into unsubstantiated conspiracy theories,” Max Fisher wrote at Vox.com. Politico media critic Jack Shafer, a longtime friend of Hersh, described the story as “a messy omelet of a piece that offers little of substance for readers or journalists who may want to verify its many claims.” James Kirchick, writing at Slate.com, labeled it a “fantasia.” CNN’s Peter Bergen called it “a farrago of nonsense.”
All of which both amuses and delights the 78-year-old Hersh.
“It’s not my fault I have f---ing sources most reporters don’t have,” he says from his office in Washington, between fending off calls from reporters seeking comment.
The official narrative “has been fixed,” he adds. “It’s complete. You bought the narrative! That’s why there’s so much anger. It’s not jealousy. It’s more than that. People are just f---ing bats--- about this.”
Were it not for Hersh’s byline on the story, it’s likely that no one would be paying much attention. In fact, blogger R.J. Hillhouse wrote a similar and largely ignored account of the raid in 2011 and accuses Hersh’s story of being “either plagiarism or unoriginal”; Hersh denies having seen her work. But it’s hard not to take account of a legend like the famously profane, famously cranky and iconoclastic Hersh.
“I don’t know the details of this story, and I haven’t followed it. But as many administrations have learned over the decades, never underestimate Sy Hersh,” said Bob Woodward, The Washington Post’s acclaimed investigative reporter and a longtime friend of Hersh.
The Chicago-born Hersh first made news as a reporter for the Associated Press, detailing the U.S. military’s stockpiling of chemical and biological weapons during the Vietnam War. (He left the AP to work briefly for Democratic Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign, which forever branded him suspiciously liberal.) Hersh soon followed that scoop with the story that established his reputation as an extraordinary muckraker: his 1969 account of U.S. Army atrocities in the Vietnamese village of My Lai.
Since then, he has unearthed some of the most consequential (and controversial) stories of the past half-century: the Nixon administration’s efforts to destabilize Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973; illegal spying by the CIA in 1974; Israel’s clandestine nuclear weapons program; gun-running and drug-smuggling by Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega in 1986; Gen. Barry McCaffrey’s alleged war crimes during the Persian Gulf War.
In 2004, Hersh revealed the abuse of Iraqi prisoners held by U.S. forces at the Abu Ghraib prison. The story appeared in the New Yorker, which has published Hersh’s work for the past 15 years.
Although Woodward and Carl Bernstein are the journalists most closely associated with the Watergate scandal, Hersh played an important role. In early 1973, he reported in the New York Times that the Watergate burglary defendants had been paid hush money with funds from Nixon’s reelection campaign. That bombshell helped restart the temporarily stalled Watergate narrative, eventually leading to Nixon’s resignation.
Hersh’s success as a reporter is all the more remarkable because he is not exactly the world’s most charming individual, said Mark Plotkin, a political columnist and pundit who has played tennis with Hersh. “How does he get people to tell him things?” wonders Plotkin. “He’s not a seducer,” yet he gets people “to reveal things that are deeply secretive.” Plotkin describes Hersh’s manner as the “South Side, belligerent, Chicago, in-your-face” approach.
Hersh, a longtime Washington resident, and his wife, a doctor, have three adult children, one of whom, Joshua, followed his father into the family business by becoming a reporter.
The rebuke of Hersh’s latest story puts him in familiar territory, said Robert Miraldi, the author of the 2013 biography “Seymour Hersh: Scoop Artist.” Hersh’s stories have often been disputed upon publication., he said, for some of the same reasons his bin Laden story is now taking heat: They’re considered too conspiratorial, or they relied too heavily on anonymous sources. (A third long-running criticism of Hersh — that he is a liberal partisan — doesn’t seem to be in play now.)
“This is typical Sy,” Miraldi said. “He explodes onto page one, his critics say it ain’t so, and yet in the end he’s proven to be correct. He’s loving this. He revels in these moments.”
At least two key parts of Hersh’s bin Laden story have found a notable public backer. Carlotta Gall, who spent 12 years covering Afghanistan and Pakistan for the New York Times, wrote Tuesday that while reporting a book, she learned from a “high-level member” of the Pakistani intelligence service that the Pakistanis had been hiding and protecting bin Laden. She also said that a Pakistani army officer had indeed told the CIA where bin Laden was. Her article — which Hersh eagerly highlights — was the first time she went public with these claims.
As for spinning conspiracies, Hersh offers this retort: How many people knew about the National Security Agency’s vast surveillance operations for years after Sept. 11, 2001, and said nothing? The number of high-security employees and contractors who knew probably ran into the thousands, he said, yet only one, Edward Snowden, spoke up, more than a decade after the fact. “Clearly,” Hersh said, “it’s not that hard to hide very, very explosive information.”
Miraldi said that over time, Hersh’s accounts stand up. And he expects the same here. “I would bet some elements get proven wrong but that the essence, that the bin Laden death story was altered, holds up,” he said.
However, Miraldi is surprised by one element of the story: Hersh’s sourcing appears to be thinner than usual. This may reflect the editing standards of the London Review of Books, which may not have been as demanding as at Hersh’s usual home, the New Yorker, he said.
In fact, the story’s publication by the London Review of Books — a 64,000-circulation journal better known for commentary and criticism than investigative journalism — has inspired its own bit of chatter.
The Review also published in late 2013 a story in which Hersh claimed that the Obama administration had “cherry picked” intelligence showing that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict, ignoring similar evidence about a rebel group.
In both cases, critics suggested that the British magazine demanded less corroboration than the more rigorous New Yorker would have. (Neither New Yorker editor David Remnick nor London Review of Books editor Christian Lorentzen responded to requests for comment.) For his part, Hersh said that the Review employed a former New Yorker fact-checker to vet his bin Laden story.
But he acknowledges that Remnick rejected his Syria story. “David didn’t want” it, he said. “I don’t think he thought I had it. He didn’t feel it was strong enough.” That story was also reviewed and rejected by editors at The Post. Hersh said at the time that his sourcing “did not meet The Post’s standards,” a characterization that Post Executive Editor Martin Baron said Thursday was “accurate.”
As for his bin Laden piece, which started as a chapter in a book he’s been working on, Hersh said it was never submitted to the New Yorker and went straight to London.
Although Hersh said that he fights “like cats and dogs” with Remnick, he remains in the New Yorker’s good graces. Last month, the magazine carried his story about visiting My Lai, some 46 years after the little village began the epic journalistic saga of Sy Hersh.