WASHINGTON – A spectacular story alleging a high-level coverup of the true details of the killing of Osama bin Laden is prompting aggressive pushback in Washington.
The controversial report suggests many of the best-known details of the death of the al-Qaida leader were actually fabricated by the U.S. government.
It’s written by a legendary journalist whose reports exposed atrocities during the Vietnam War in the 1960s, led to an overhaul of the CIA’s civilian oversight in the 1970s and revealed prisoner abuse after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
But this time Seymour Hersh got it wrong, his critics say — and they piled on Monday.
“I can tell you that the Obama White House is not the only one to observe that the story is riddled with inaccuracies and outright falsehoods,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
He quoted a former deputy CIA director who said every sentence was wrong and a CNN security reporter who opined that what’s true in the report isn’t new and what’s new isn’t true: “No one here is critically concerned about it,” the White House spokesman added.
The 10,000-word piece wasn’t published in The New Yorker, the best-known venue for Hersh’s exposes. The magazine didn’t respond to a question about whether it declined to run the story, which appeared over the weekend on the website for the London Review of Books.
According to the piece, titled, “The Killing of Osama bin Laden,” the real story involves a deal between the U.S. and Pakistan to quietly kill bin Laden and then claim a few days later that he’d died in a drone strike in Afghanistan.
But the deal fell apart, it said, when one of the helicopters crashed during the mission. Hersh said the Obama administration, much to the horror of the Pakistani government, improvised an explanation with a series of made-up details that now constitute the official version of what happened on May 2, 2011.
Those allegedly false details include: The courier whose movements led the CIA to the terrorist’s compound. The vaccination doctor who collected bin Laden’s DNA to help confirm the identity of the body. The clandestine flight into Pakistan. The burial of bin Laden’s body at sea. The firefight at the compound. The Pakistani anger at the violation of its airspace.
“The White House’s story might have been written by Lewis Carroll,” he wrote, citing as his main source a retired U.S. intelligence official he described as being “knowledgeable about the initial intelligence.”
The truth, he said, was that bin Laden had been a Pakistani prisoner since 2006.
According to Hersh’s account, the terrorist leader was sickly and barely mobile. Word of his location leaked to the U.S. from Pakistani informants. And once caught, Pakistan grudgingly participated in the raid.
The operation was more like an execution, not a firefight, he said. He said the compound was unprotected and did not contain valuable counter-terrorism evidence as claimed by the U.S.
The story said bin Laden was shot so many times that his body was mangled into pieces and later tossed from a helicopter into the Hindu Kush mountains.
A senior CIA agent blasted the story Monday. Michael Morell, now retired, was the deputy director of the agency who briefed the president ahead of the raid.
“It’s all wrong,” Morell said of the story, in a segment on CBS.
“I started reading the article last night. I got a third of the way through and I stopped. Because every sentence I was reading was wrong. The source that Hersh talked to has no idea what he’s talking about.”
He said the Pakistanis didn’t know about the raid and were furious — so furious the president dispatched him afterwards to smooth things over.
When asked about the piece, President Barack Obama’s 2008 opponent, Sen. John McCain, came to the administration’s defence.
A former CIA analyst was equally critical.
“Initially I was hopeful (Hersh) was investigating something we all didn’t know,” Nada Bakos said in an interview. She worked in the CIA’s counter-terrorism centre until 2010.
“But even within the first few paragraphs, it wasn’t making sense.”
She called it ridiculous to suggest there was no courier; to assume bin Laden could have been holed up for years without al-Qaida fighters trying to free him; and to believe different countries could have kept such a massive conspiracy a secret for so long.
“That’s laughable,” she said, of the multi-year, multi-country coverup.
“That would never happen.”