Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh alleged in a long-rumored 10,000-word story published Sunday that the United States and Pakistan lied about major details about the 2011 raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, but the CIA and White House are both rejecting his account.
Hersh, writing for the London Review of Books, reported that Pakistan and the United States collaborated closely on the mission, and hatched a cover story afterward that held that Washington called for it unilaterally. Starting in 2006, bin Laden, Hersh alleged, was actually a prisoner of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) at the compound in Abbottabad, where he was killed, and not hiding from authorities.
A CIA official told The Washington Post that Hersh’s story is “utter nonsense.” White House spokesman Ned Price said it had “too many inaccuracies and baseless assertions” to fact-check each one, and added that the premise that bin Laden was killed in “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,” Price said in a statement. “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.”
Bin Laden was killed May 2, 2011, in a helicopter raid by Navy SEALs. The elite commandos flew in under cover of darkness from Afghanistan.
Hersh, citing American sources, alleged that two Pakistani generals knew about the raid in advance and made sure the American helicopters could cross into Pakistani airspace without triggering any retaliation. He added that the CIA did not learn about bin Laden’s location by tracking his couriers, as widely reported, but through a Pakistani intelligence official who betrayed his own government for reward money.
Hersh earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for exposing the mass killing of civilians in the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam in 1969, and later was credited with helping to expose the abuse of detainees by the U.S. military at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in 2004.
But reporting by Hersh, who stood by his report on Monday, has come under scrutiny in recent years. Peter Bergen, an analyst for CNN and author of a book about the raid, wrote Monday that the new article is a “farrago of nonsense that is contravened by a multitude of eyewitness accounts, inconvenient facts and simple common sense.”
Bergen and others, like Vox’s Max Fisher, noted that Hersh’s new story relies heavily on two sources: A retired Pakistani general, Asad Durrani, and a “retired senior intelligence official who was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad.” It is not made clear how that American source learned about the raid.
Greg Miller contributed to this report.