Evil but Stupid

Sy Hersh, secrecy, and paranoia

On May 10, the London Review of Books published “The Killing of Osama bin Laden,” a 10,000-word piece by veteran reporter Seymour Hersh. The story argued that the official White House narrative of the al Qaeda leader’s killing was a fabrication. The intelligence blogger R. J. Hillhouse had made similar claims a few years earlier, which had gone largely ignored in the US. But these allegations came from the most celebrated investigative journalist of the past half-centurythey received more attention. The number of people trying to read Hersh’s story online was enough to crash the LRB’s website, something their many articles on Greco-Roman numismatics had previously failed to do.

Hersh’s story was largely sourced from an unnamed retired US intelligence official, whose direct quotes are scattered through the piece, and whose account of the bin Laden raid is backed by testimony from several defense consultants and the former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (all of whom, as Hersh’s detractors quickly pointed out, are retired or otherwise out of the loop). Its main claim was that Pakistan’s government had been holding bin Laden under house arrest in a compound in Abbottabad since 2006. The US government claims the raid was the result of years of patient intelligence work, which culminated in the identification of bin Laden’s courier (through the use of “enhanced” interrogation techniques, as famously depicted in the movie Zero Dark Thirty), who was then tracked back to the compound. Hersh says the precipitating event was, instead, just an unplanned accident: in 2010, a retired officer of the Pakistani intelligence service walked into the US Embassy and offered to reveal bin Laden’s location in exchange for $25 million, the reward the US had offered since 2001.

This initial event set off a chain of consequences. First, Hersh says, the US attempted to confirm the story with Pakistan’s chief of army staff and the head of the country’s intelligence service. Eventually, after threats, bribery, and blackmail, Pakistani officials admitted they had custody of bin Laden and were coerced into offering a sample of his DNA to prove it. Pakistan’s situation, Hersh claims, was complicated: they were using bin Laden as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Taliban and al Qaeda, and they were also receiving payments from bin Laden’s Saudi Arabian sources to finance his upkeep. They needed foreign aid and support, but they couldn’t publicly hand bin Laden, a popular hero in Pakistan, over to the US. According to Hersh, the deal they struck was that they wouldn’t oppose a US raid on bin Laden’s compound, but bin Laden had to be killed.

The raid was planned for May 2, 2011. As it was in the interest of both sides to keep their cooperation secret, the initial plan, according to Hersh, was to say that bin Laden had been killed by a drone strike in the mountains on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where he was widely believed to be hiding. The Pakistan Army agreed that on the night of the raid they would turn a blind eye to the presence of American helicopters in their airspace. The guards at bin Laden’s compound were ordered to leave as soon as they heard the sound of approaching choppers.

The broad outlines of Hersh’s account match those of the official version: two Black Hawk helicopters brought an elite team of Navy SEALs to bin Laden’s compound. One crashed on the lawn while attempting to land. The SEALs forced their way into the building, blasted through security doors, and surprised bin Laden in his room. But Hersh’s story features no armed guards, no firefight, no wives used as human shields. Nor was bin Laden killed in self-defense, as the White House still maintains. One of the pleasures of reading Hersh’s account is the way it elegantly dismantles aspects of the story that seemed suspect from the beginning, and first among these is the notion that bin Laden, had he surrendered, would have been taken alive. “Let’s face it,” the retired intelligence officer told Hersh. “We’re going to commit a murder.”

After this point Hersh’s story and the administration’s largely jibe. Although they offer differing assessments of the quantity and value of the intelligence gathered from bin Laden’s compound, and the care with which it was collected, both agree that the SEALs took at least some of bin Laden’s papers (the administration claimed there was also computer equipment, which Hersh’s source denies) and went outside to wait for a backup helicopter. Before they left, the SEALs set a controlled explosion in the crashed helicopter to destroy its communications equipment. Hersh argues that these last actions should be seen as indirect confirmation of Pakistan’s support for the raid: if there really was a high risk of detectionthe sort of risk you might expect when landing two helicopters in the heart of Pakistan’s military establishmentthe SEALs would have abandoned their body armor and weapons, left the damaged helicopter intact for the Pakistanis to find, and crammed into the remaining helicopter for the return trip.

After the raid was complete, Hersh claims, there was a third unplanned event: the White House rushed to share the news. The original plan had been to wait a week and then claim that a drone strike had killed bin Laden in the Hindu Kush mountains, just across the border in Afghanistan. But given the helicopter crash and resulting fireball, the Obama Administration felt the raid would be impossible to keep under wraps for a week. With the vocal exception, Hersh says, of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Obama’s advisers urged him to go public with the story as quickly as possible, before the Pentagon could announce it and take credit for it. According to Hersh, the White House had no press plan to implement should the raid go awry, no backup story. So they had to make up the story as they presented it to the world. Over the course of a few weeks, this scrambling produced inconsistencies. Bin Laden used a woman as a human shield; then he didn’t. Bin Laden was buried at sea from a naval vessel; the ship’s log has no record of any such burial. Bin Laden was shooting at SEALs when he was shot; or he wasn’t. And so on.

Hersh’s article solved several puzzles in the official report of bin Laden’s death. How could he have been hiding in a compound less than a mile from an elite military academy without Pakistan’s knowledge (a question raised in the days after the attack by the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Dianne Feinstein, among others)? Why, when bin Laden’s neighbors called the Abbottabad police after the SEALs’ helicopter crashed, did the Pakistani military tell the police not to respond? Why had Obama, in his speech announcing the news, originally claimed that the raid was due to the help of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, only to refute this claim the next day? Why were the pictures of bin Laden’s supposed burial at sea at first kept classified and then said to have been destroyed?

Then the melee began. To be sure, there were a few journalists who duly followed up on Hersh’s claims. The New York Times correspondent Carlotta Gall, who wrote a long piece in the Times Magazine last fall claiming that Pakistan’s intelligence service had been holding bin Laden captive, said that Hersh’s story about the walk-in was supported by her own sources. NBC News reported the night after Hersh’s article appeared that the news of bin Laden’s location had come from a Pakistani defector; a few hours later, they modified this report to say that although a defector had been involved, the main lead had still come from the mysterious courier. Agence France-Presse reported that two Pakistani military officials had acknowledged that a Pakistani defector had been a “key” part of the bin Laden operation.

It was up to the rest of the media to lash into Hersh himself. At Vox, Max Fisher spent about 1,800 words arguing that there were some modest inconsistencies in Hersh’s stories. Then, with bloggy ressentiment, he spent nearly 1,500 additional words attacking every other piece Hersh has published in the last decade. Fisher angrily pointed out that Hersh relied on anonymous sources, as though unaware that real journalists reporting sensitive stories invariably rely on anonymous sources.

But the Vox reaction looked measured in comparison with that of Slate, which published five anti-Hersh pieces in the space of thirty-six hours. The spree began on May 11: “Seymour Hersh’s Version of the Bin Laden Raid Is Not Only Illogical. It’s Not New” (3:01 PM), “The Last Time Seymour Hersh’s Reporting Raised Doubts” (6:55 PM), and “Did Pakistani Intelligence Turn Seymour Hersh into Its Dupe?” (7:55 PM). Then Slate went to bed so that it could set an early alarm for May 12. “What InfoWars Conspiracy Theories and Hersh’s Bin Laden Story Have in Common” appeared at 8:29 AM, and “A Crank Theory of Seymour Hersh” followed at 11:45 AM. (It was left unnoticed that Hersh’s original piecewhich might have been titled “Everything You Think You Know About the Bin Laden Raid Is Wrong”was an almost ideal Slate pitch.)

None of these takedowns were backed by follow-up reporting. Those journalists who did consult sources other than their own feelings about Hersh found information that tended to corroborate certain details of his report. At a briefing, White House press secretary Josh Earnest didn’t even have to use his own words to dispute Hersh’s account; instead he repeated those of CNN’s Peter Bergen, who had earlier said, with all the weird, illogical satisfaction that only chiasmus can deliver, “What’s true in the story isn’t new, and what’s new in the story isn’t true.” Earnest said he thought “that was a pretty good way of describing why no one here is particularly concerned about it.”


Is Hersh paranoid? In some ways, the label seems appropriate. He has written about the private lives of the Kennedys and claimed that high-ranking military officials are members of the Knights of Malta and Opus Dei (although, as Greg Grandin pointed out in the Nation, a number of current and former high-ranking military officials really have been members of extreme right-wing Christian sects such as the Knights of Malta). In its unending accumulation of detail after disastrous detail, Hersh’s reporting often has the screwball plotting of a Pynchon novel. If the subject matter weren’t so upsetting, his reports would be funny.

But in other respects, the term doesn’t fit. Hersh’s stories break down complex events into chains of isolated, largely reactive individual decisions. His reporting never points back, as Pynchon’s novels do, to shadowy conspiracies; there is no titanic clash between impersonal forces, no central organizing principle, only human action churning away. Near the beginning of Hersh’s book on the Iraq war, an intelligence official complaining about the “enhanced interrogation” tactics at Guantánamo says, “It was wrong and also dysfunctional.” A few pages later, this refrain is repeated by another source: “It’s evil, but it’s also stupid.”

Evil but also stupid: that’s the keynote of the book, and in some ways of Hersh’s entire career. He is a great chronicler of bureaucracy. His stories are powered by scenes of administrative incompetence, organizational stupidity, turf warfare, inadequate foresight, random outbursts of violence, disorganized reactions, and self-serving attempts by everyone involved to spin the narrative of events to their own advantage. The bin Laden story depends on a string of uncoordinated accidentsthe walk-in, the helicopter crashand a series of mostly unsuccessful responses, culminating in the White House’s rush to claim public credit for the raid without informing the Pentagon or its Pakistani allies.

In this respect, the bin Laden story exhibits the characteristics of the groundbreaking exposés that made Hersh’s name, many of which, by the standards of his critics, would be equally inadmissible today. (The centerpiece of Hersh’s The Price of Powerhis claim that Kissinger was directly responsible for covering up the carpet bombing of Cambodiarests largely on a single anonymous source.) If Hersh hasn’t changed, what has? It’s not the US government’s penchant for official secrecy and high-level lying: all the charges leveled against Hersh’s fondness for conspiracy theories are belied by the many conspiracies disclosed in recent yearsnot least the huge conspiracy to guard the National Security Agency’s data collection programs, which might have succeeded for who knows how long were it not for the thumb drive of Edward Snowden. Jerome Starkey and other journalists have also documented the administration’s efforts to cover up the February 2010 massacre of five innocent people, including two pregnant women, by US Special Forces operators in Gardez, a provincial capital in Afghanistan. US officials told reporters the massacre was the result of an honor killing carried out by Taliban militants.

The question becomes: Why isn’t the media more paranoid?

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In fact, given the zeal for secrecy that characterizes Obama’s presidency (to say nothing of its enthusiasm for extrajudicial assassinations), the question becomes: Why isn’t the media more paranoid? What may be irking journalists about Hersh is the way he harks back to an era of heroically paranoid journalismthe kind that once brought down governmentsthat they no longer feel themselves to be living in. It was, after all, the mainstream media that decided to run the Pentagon Papers, and it was the Washington Post that broke the Watergate story. It was also the press that uncovered the high-level conspiracy to fund the contras in Nicaragua by selling arms to Iran.

In other words: one role of the journalist is to debunk crazy conspiracy theories, but another, more difficult role is to expose real and harmful conspiracies, of which there have been many. During the ’60s and ’70s, growing journalistic skepticism of the American adventure in Southeast Asia fueled a wider culture of dissent and investigation, and produced an unprecedented golden age of investigative journalism. Once the cold war ended, however, the public mood changed, and journalism resumed its previously supine position on the divan of American triumphalism and self-regard. Signs of the new conformity appeared early in the 1990s with the closest precedent to l’affaire Hersh, the controversy over Gary Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series in the San Jose Mercury News. Webb, an adherent of the paranoid school of investigative journalism, alleged that money for the contras also flowed through CIA-sponsored drug dealing in Californiasuggesting that crack cocaine on the streets of Los Angeles had indirectly fueled the Nicaraguan civil war. Rather than follow up Webb’s reporting, which over time was revealed to be mostly accurate, journalists frenetically tried to discredit Webb, attacking his methods and his character. The subtext was clear: We don’t do this kind of thing anymore; the age of conspiracies has ended. Webb, ostracized and unable to find work at any major paper, eventually committed suicide.

In the late ’90s and early 2000s, one dubious story after another was simply rubber-stamped by the media, not least the lies on which the government founded its case for the invasion of Iraq. These lies were presented as fact by the Times and ecstatically supported by the paper’s editorial board. When the Times discovered that the CIA was running a wiretapping program secretly tracking the phone calls of millions of Americans, the White House asked the paper not to report the story for a year, and the Times obliged.

In the mid-2000s, skepticism made a comeback. The New Yorker, whose editor David Remnick had initially endorsed the invasion of Iraq, began publishing one stunning report after another on the Bush Administration’s black sites and torture chambers. Some of the best were written by Jane Mayer and Lawrence Wright, but many were written by Seymour Hersh. Every few months, news of another Hersh bombshelland more evidence of the administration’s sheer criminalityspread through the mediasphere. (“There was a point with the New Yorker where I thought they should rename the fucking magazine the Seymour Hersh Weekly,” Hersh, with characteristic bombast, told Slate, in what has already become a legendary interview.) As a lying, cynical administration bombed innocents and made lasting war on false and flimsy pretexts, the analogy between Iraq in the ’00s and Vietnam in the late ’60s and ’70s became agonizingly precise. One consequence of this was that journalists, freed from entanglement with the Bush Administration by that administration’s sheer despicability, had a clear precedent for how to proceed: approach with skepticism all official stories and expose, with dogged passion, the crimes and costly mistakes of the powerful. The darkest of times for the country became, as in the Vietnam era before it, a brilliant period for journalism. It’s no accident that, within this climate, Hersh enjoyed a resurgence.

Of course, things changed with the election of Barack Obamaan intelligent, eloquent man who seemed the opposite of the maladroit Bush the press had come to loathe. Not only did Obama campaign as an antiwar candidate, but he promised a new era of transparency and international goodwill. The press relaxed so drastically that they couldn’t easily change tacks when Obama began to betray his promiseswhich in turn made it hard to know how deeply he was betraying them.

The Obama Administration’s relationship to the press has been alternately characterized by caution and contempt. Most of the time, it holds reporters at arm’s length. This spring, Politico conducted a poll that found that 65 percent of White House correspondents believe Obama to be the “least press-friendly president they’ve ever seen,” a judgment echoed by former Times executive editor Jill Abramson, who called it “the most secretive White House that I have ever been involved in covering.”1 Abramson also noted that Obama has mobilized a tortured reading of the 1917 Espionage Act to open at least seven criminal-leak investigations into journalists covering national security.

It gets worse for non-American reporters, or at least it did for Abdulelah Haider Shaye. A Yemeni journalist who became famous for his ability to find and interview al Qaeda leaders in person, Shaye was arrested by the Yemeni government in 2010 and then convicted of terrorism-related charges in what was widely regarded as a show trial. As Jeremy Scahill reported, an outcry persuaded Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh to sign an order for his release, but before that order could be delivered Saleh received a call from Obama, who said he would prefer that Shaye remain in prison. So Shaye remained in prison. He was finally released in 2013 and will remain under house arrest until sometime this summer. There may be some evidence somewhere to support Shaye’s conviction, but no government has ever presented it.


The key difference between Hersh’s and Obama’s accounts of the bin Laden raid is that in the President’s version, everything went according to plan. Each element of the story seems calibrated for a political purpose: the heroism of the SEALs, the obsessive professionalism of the CIA analysts, and bin Laden’s respectful burial at sea, conducted in accordance with Islamic law.

The New Yorker ran an “as it happened” account of the raid (“Getting Bin Laden”) that gave readers the impression that reporter Nicholas Schmidle had been embedded with the SEALs, peering out through his own set of night-vision goggles, when in fact the whole thing was reconstructed from interviews; he hadn’t even talked to the SEALs. Then Vanity Fair published its own account (“The Hunt for ‘Geronimo’”), in which photographs of bin Laden’s burial at sea were described as follows: “One frame shows the body wrapped in a weighted shroud. The next shows it lying diagonally on a chute, feet overboard. In the next frame the body is hitting the water.” It took Hersh to point out that Vanity Fair’s reporter, Mark Bowden, had not actually seen the photos he described so poetically. He just heard about them from a source.

This reporting has the rhetorical character of realist narrative fiction. The New Yorker story ends with a touch of attractively deferred dramatic resolution that would make an MFA seminar leader proud. Obama is meeting with the SEALs who carried out the raid. He poses for photos. “But he left one thing unsaid,” Schmidle writes. “He never asked who fired the kill shot, and the SEALs never volunteered to tell him.”

The moral of these short stories is that America finally did one thing right in the war on terror, and as luck would have it, it was the most important thing. The night bin Laden’s death was announced, college kids went to Ground Zero, clambered up street signs, and chanted, “U-S-A, U-S-A.” Bin Laden’s death, widely seen as the most significant victory in what is now the fourteen-year history of the war on terror, is also the only sort of “victory” that the war on terror, with its diffuse aims and symbolic targets, could actually accomplish. Hersh stripped the war’s only conspicuous “success” of its halo, while also reminding the US public that the war it could not truly face was still taking place, behind much the same veil of lies and secrecy that characterized the more obvious wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Obama Administration has been deeply invested in the fantasy of the war on terror’s end from its earliest days in office. In effect, it has attempted to do away with the idea that the country is conducting a war, technically subject to public approval via the legislative branch, and has put in place the hazier notion of a potentially endless chain of discrete war-resembling events overseen by a reluctant executive. In 2009, the administration asked the Pentagon to stop using the phrase “Global War on Terror,” favoring “Overseas Contingency Operations” instead, recasting the war as a series of ad hoc skirmishes. And five months after the Abbottabad raid, Obama announced that all American troops would be removed from Iraq. (The Senate voted down a proposal to bring Congress’s authorization of the war to an end, however, and in any case, Obama left thousands of private military contractors in the country. This June, Obama quietly signed off on a plan to send 450 “advisers” back to Iraq to fight ISIS.)

The US is a country engaged in an endless global war that never feels like one. The government prefers to refuse to acknowledge this war; much of the media follows suit. In this respect, bin Laden’s killing is only the most notable instance of the open fabrications and legalistic half-truths that we’ve come to accept as inevitable parts of our public discourse. Hersh’s story reminded us of the inconsistencies in the government’s original story, inconsistencies that journalists briefly recognized in the aftermath of the raid but then shunted aside. Not least of these is the administration’s shifting account of whether bin Laden had been armed at the time of his death. Who believes, or ever believed, that bin Laden presented such a threat to twenty-three fully armed SEALs that he had to be shot in self-defense? And yet this is still the administration’s official story.

That Pakistan knew about the presence of bin Laden in Abbottabad is less disturbing, less conspiratorial, than the idea that bin Laden, an internationally recognized celebrity sold to us for years as a terrorist mastermind, would decide to hide from the Pakistani government in the middle of a Pakistani military stronghold. As R. J. Hillhouse wrote on her blog, “Try hiding the Kardashians for 6 years in Abbottabad without the Pakistani Intelligence or the ISI noticing. Then we can talk about whether Seymour Hersh’s claims that the Pakistanis knew about OBL in their midst is far-fetched.” It is fine to argue about the accuracy of Hersh’s individual claims, but his overarching onethat the White House’s account of the raid was an arrogant, lazy, and self-serving lie in a chain of arrogant, lazy, and self-serving liesis something that most of us know, on some level, to be true.

The US is a country engaged in an endless global war that never feels like one.

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The advantage to conducting a war that doesn’t feel like a war is that the Presidentand the executive branchcontinues to accrue more and more unaccountable power. Obama, the erstwhile antiwar candidate, came into a presidency whose powers were dramatically enhanced by his predecessor, thanks to Vice President Cheney’s belief that the executive had to regain the dignity lost in Watergate. Obama has been Uriah Heep–like in his professions of humility over the capacity of American war-making, but even as he has drawn down forces in one country, he has prosecuted smaller-scale wars in Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and Libya, to say nothing of the continuing maneuvers in Afghanistan and Iraq and the enhanced NATO presence along the border with Russia. He does not make major speeches to the public about these wars, nor does he let Congress decide whether to fight them. Meanwhile he reminds the public that he consults books by Augustine and Aquinas for guidanceas if turning to theology to justify murder would somehow be reassuring.

The more we forget the wars Obama conducts, the better he is able to conduct them. Obama knows that a basic skepticism toward American imperial ambitions, the great achievement of the Sixties, still inheres in the republic. Though the Bush Administration drummed up a frenzy of nationalism to prepare for the invasion of Iraq, it was only two years later that the public mood soured on the war and its rationalizations. (By contrast, a majority of the public did not oppose the Vietnam War until 1969, some eight years after Kennedy first sent in advisers.) And yet it cannot be said that there is, or has been for a long time, anything resembling an antiwar movement in the country. The streets are empty, and media discussion of the current war has largely been limited to “how to fight ISIS” or whether Obama’s strategy is all wrongrather than whether we should be conducting a war at all, whether the empire itself ought to be dismantled.

The war on terror’s signature trait has always been its apparent imperviousness to critique or protest, and this imperviousness is one of the primary subjects of Hersh’s investigation. “High-level lying... remains the modus operandi of US policy,” Hersh wrote in the piece’s final paragraph, “along with secret prisons, drone attacks, Special Forces night raids, bypassing the chain of command, and cutting out those who might say no.” The most important implication of Hersh’s article is simple: The war on terror is taking place.

  1. Abramson was nonetheless part of the Times team that assisted the Bush Administration’s secret-keeping by deciding to hold the CIA wiretapping story. 

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