Seymour Hersh & bin laden

Well, the international media has gotten another version of the bin laden story to play hot potato with and this time it comes from Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh. While Hersh has been behind a number of massive stories in his 50+ year journey as a journalist, I am hesitant to believe this one to be correct.

Let’s forget that The New Yorker, Hersh’s publication of record, passed on this story in 2011, or that RJ Hillhouse floated the theory of the “paid ISI informant” in the same year. I have spent the last 48 hours since the release of the 10,000 word magna carta reading/watching everything that has been written about it, talking to my own sources and fact checking what could be possible.

Let’s break it down.

“The most blatant lie was that Pakistan’s two most senior military leaders – General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of the army staff, and General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, director general of the ISI – were never informed of the US mission.”

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the top leadership in Pakistan knew of the raid prior to it happening. There is no way that Blackhawk helicopters took off from Jalalabad, Afghanistan and traveled across Pakistan without a single radar blimp appearing that would have scrambled the Pakistan Air Force fighter jets. That’s a non-starter for most of us. To say that they didn’t know was, in essence, a face-saving measure to keep the Pakistan Army’s reputation intact, event though it did more damage than expected.

The Sources

Here’s where I have a problem with his account – Carlotta Gall, Imtiaz Gul, Asad Durrani and a few unnamed intelligence sources.

Carlotta Gall is the same journalist who wrote a book, The Wrong Enemy, painting Pakistan as the enemy of the United States, rather than the Taliban. She also contradicted (ignored) many stories in her newspaper of record about the coordination between Afghan intelligence and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. Her sources were retired General Ziauddin Butt, Afghan intelligence and the Afghan government. General Butt, for those who don’t know, was the man who Nawaz Sharif attempted to promote to Chief of Army Staff of the Pakistan Army on 12 October, 1999. That was the day that Nawaz Sharif attempted to hijack the sitting Chief of Army Staff General Pervez Musharraf’s plane and force him to land in India. We can assume that the Pakistani official that told her of Pasha’s knowledge was the same Ziauddin Butt.

Imtiaz Gul is a regular commentator on Pakistani talk shows, contributing journalist to domestic and international publications and a published author, but he has never shared any information of this sort during those programs nor in any articles. If you are really “in the know,” wouldn’t you want to be the first to break the story? Unless, of course, as Hersh’s article states, it was a “widely held local view.”

And Lt. General Asad Durrani, the former head of the ISI (1990-92). Durrani, for those who are not connected with Pakistan’s news, was charged and convicted of election rigging during the 90s in the recent Asghar Khan case decision by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Christina Fair said that “Durrani has been delusional for years.” Lt. General Durrani, along with General Aslam Beg, then Chief of Army Staff, used the ISI’s secret funds and Mehran Bank to buy politicians in opposition parties to manufacture an election win for Nawaz Sharif.

Not really the people that I would want to base a career as a journalist on.

The Turncoat

“In August 2010 a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer approached Jonathan Bank, then the CIA’s station chief at the US embassy in Islamabad. He offered to tell the CIA where to find bin Laden in return for the reward that Washington had offered in 2001.”

As I said above, RJ Hillhouse floated this theory in 2011, soon after the bin laden kill. She doesn’t have the journalistic credentials of Hersh, so her account wasn’t taken with any great weight. Interesting that it is brought back again now. But let’s look at the process.

From all accounts, at the ISI, there was one-man handling the bin laden desk. Their chief responsibility was coordinating with the other intelligence agencies, preparing reports on intelligence gathered and following up with operatives in the field. If we are to follow Hersh’s account, this could have been one of the guards at the bin laden compound in Abbottabad, the man on the desk or anyone else in the know.

The part that I don’t get, and this comes from Hersh’s article and his interview yesterday on CNN, was that the “informant” took $20 million of the $25 million reward, got US citizenship, is known to everyone in Pakistan and is working as a consultant for the CIA. You give any Pakistani $20 million and they will disappear into the background, especially someone who is a spy. Yet, with that much money , they are working as a consultant for the CIA?

Here’s where the narrative starts to match the US “official” version.

The CIA rented a house in Abbottabad and staffed it with Pakistanis and foreign nationals to keep an eye on the bin laden compound. There is no mention of Dr. Shakeel Afridi, who was the one that supposedly collected the DNA for verification of bin laden’s identity, at this point. The Hersh’s account of the “guy walking around at night” is exactly what has been reported by the versions of the story since the raid. As does the account of the Obama administration’s reaction to the limited intelligence gathered.

And this is where the story turns to support Hersh’s claim that the ISI had bin laden as a “prisoner.” Hersh said in the CNN interview that bin laden was arrested by the ISI somewhere in 2006, which would be during Musharraf’s government. Yet, he quickly refuted the CNN anchor when he brought up multiple interviews with Musharraf regarding bin laden, stating that Musharraf was out of power.

Also, the leaking of a serving Pakistani Major’s name puts his life at great risk. While his “informant” may be safe inside Langley, the Major is still in Pakistan and now had his name publicly released. According to Hersh, it was Aziz who got the DNA samples, not Afridi. According to Hersh, Aziz also got a portion of the $25 million for securing the samples. Yet, he is still serving in Pakistan, knowing that if his name ever came out, he would be a dead man walking.

I do like the negative statements against Pakistan’s intelligence service from a “retired official from the US intelligence community.”

‘It didn’t take long to get the co-operation we needed, because the Pakistanis wanted to ensure the continued release of American military aid, a good percentage of which was anti-terrorism funding that finances personal security, such as bullet-proof limousines and security guards and housing for the ISI leadership,’ the retired official said. He added that there were also under-the-table personal ‘incentives’ that were financed by off-the-books Pentagon contingency funds. ‘The intelligence community knew what the Pakistanis needed to agree – there was the carrot. And they chose the carrot. It was a win-win. We also did a little blackmail. We told them we would leak the fact that you’ve got bin Laden in your backyard. We knew their friends and enemies’ – the Taliban and jihadist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan – ‘would not like it.’

Like the CIA hasn’t made significant amount of money from illegal drugs from Afghanistan and Columbia, arms trade to warlords and rebel groups and other activities. The “retired official” seems to believe that his agency is wearing the white hat, but that is simply not the case for anyone who knows all that the CIA has been involved in around the world.

Saudi Arabia

The most interesting part of the article is that Saudi Arabia was funding the maintenance of bin laden in the compound. Saudi Arabia, the sworn enemy of bin laden, who had cancelled his citizenship, was now paying the ISI to support him in the Abbottabad compound. The rationale presented… if bin laden was handed over, the US might find out what the Saudis had been doing with al-Qaeda. So the CIA is such an inept intelligence service that they have no idea what the Saudis are doing without bin laden’s admission? It is a well-known fact that the Saudis and other Arab states have been funding terrorism around the globe. Had bin laden been taken alive, would his admission of facts changed the relationship with the Saudis or any other Arab country? I would think not. Doubt it? Ask the Obama administration why they haven’t released the 19 pages of the 9/11 commission report that relate specifically to the Saudis. The US will protect their oil supplier while turning a blind eye to everything that they do.

Now, Hersh reaches into a statement made by Lt. General Asad Durrani in an interview with Mehdi Hassan on al-Jazeera. Durrani said that it was possible that the ISI was holding bin laden as leverage to be used in the future. Hersh says that “elements of the ISI believe that maintaining a relationship with the Taliban leadership inside Afghanistan is essential to national security. The ISI’s strategic aim is to balance Indian influence in Kabul; the Taliban is also seen in Pakistan as a source of jihadist shock troops who would back Pakistan against India in a confrontation over Kashmir.”

This claim is echoed in the “negotiations” with General Pasha, Director General of the ISI, for a “freer hand in Afghanistan, provision of 18 new F-16 fighter aircraft was delayed, and under-the-table cash payments to the senior leaders.”

Then, he follows with the outing of Jonathan Bank’s status as CIA station chief, claiming that the ISI was behind the leak as payback for the New York lawsuit in relation to the Mumbai terrorist attack, where the ISI Director General’s name had been included in the complaint. He then offers another option to the story – “Pakistan needed cover in case their cooperation with the Americans became known.” So was it payback or cover?

The Raid

Whether we want to accept it or not, there is no doubt that the top command of the Pakistan Army was informed of the raid. There is no way that the Blackhawk helicopters would have been able to enter Pakistani airspace, without air support, carry out the attack and get back out of Pakistan without a jet fighter being scrambled. But Hersh’s story that the ISI had cleared all the guards from the compound makes no sense logically.

“There was no firefight as they moved into the compound; the ISI guards had gone.”

Peter Bergen, one of the world’s foremost experts on bin laden, had visited the Abbottabad compound after the raid. He said during his CNN interview that it was obvious that a significant firefight had occurred there. The injured Navy SEALs and the downed Blackhawk helicopter also support this position.

“Instead, the retired official said, an ISI liaison officer flying with the Seals guided them into the darkened house and up a staircase to bin Laden’s quarters.”

According to the Navy SEAL who took the kill shots on bin laden, there are two problems with this narrative. First, that an intelligence officer was leading the way for an armed assault team, which is against protocol. Second, that there was a foreign intelligence officer with the assault team. Armed assault teams are trained to move quickly and with purpose, they are not lead by the nose to the target. If they were, what was the point of the training and practice in Nevada before the assault. The retired US intelligence official says:

‘They knew where the target was – third floor, second door on the right,’ the retired official said. ‘Go straight there. Osama was cowering and retreated into the bedroom. Two shooters followed him and opened up. Very simple, very straightforward, very professional hit.’

So what was the need for the ISI liaison officer to be part of the team, if they really knew where he was?

The later White House claim that only one or two bullets were fired into his head was ‘bullshit’, the retired official said. ‘The squad came through the door and obliterated him. As the Seals say, “We kicked his ass and took his gas.”’

Direct contradiction of what the Navy SEALs have said throughout. You can watch the statement from Rob O’Neill, one of the SEALs, on Fox News.

Double Dealing

Now, let’s get down to the screwing.

If we are to believe Hersh, the retired US intelligence official and the sources that have been cited, there was a deal between the US and Pakistan Army to keep this quiet and that it would be announced a week to 10 days later as a drone strike in the Hindu-Kush mountains, why burn a frontline state in the War on Terror and renege on the deal?

Was it because of the downed Blackhawk? Was it because the Obama administration got overly excited? Was it because The Rock got a message from a family member who was part of the SEAL team and tweeted it?

No justification is provided for burning Pakistan’s Army, if they had been on-board with the whole assault.

The DNA

I also don’t understand why Amir Aziz, the Pakistan Army Major who supposedly provided treatment to bin laden while in ISI custody, was arrested and questioned as the CIA informant. If he was an informant, he would never have been released. And the quick offering of Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor, as the sacrificial lamb by the CIA. The retired US intelligence official states that Afridi has been recruited long before the assault to get information about suspected terrorists in Abbottabad. He clearly states that Afridi made no attempt to obtain DNA from the residents of the bin laden compound. Here’s the line that ticks me off:

‘A great humanitarian project to do something meaningful for the peasants has been compromised as a cynical hoax.’

Numerous international vaccination programs were cancelled and boycotted by locals in Pakistan because of this ploy, meaning that many Pakistanis will suffer from diseases in later life just so the CIA could burn an asset of theirs. Notice, there is no sorrow over that from the retired US intelligence official, but the CIA is the agency that wears the white hat? Please.

The Burial

Initial reports of bin laden’s body being buried at sea were to keep his grave from becoming a shrine for wannabe jihadis and terrorists, but with Hersh’s article, the whole narrative is changed. Hersh claims that no body was returned to the USS Carl Vinson. Many people wondered why there was never a photograph of a dead bin laden, which was the case with Saddam and Qaddafi, as well as many other targets of the US forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. This question will linger for many many years to come.

There are also statements from former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and others that bin laden had died in 2001 and the US knew it. These statements have never been refuted with any truth and without the pictures of bin laden, we can’t conclusively assume that he was not dead.

Keep in mind that bin laden had kidney disease and required dialysis weekly. How do you get that in the mountains of Afghanistan and the Pakistan?

A friend in a foreign intelligence service had told me long ago that he had seen the pictures of bin laden’s body, but was unable to share them with me due to the classified nature. Again, speculation abounds as to whether bin laden was actually there or not.

Conclusions

All in all, I have a hard time accepting Hersh’s account of the bin laden raid. There is too much information on the other side from many credible, known sources to disregard all of it. We would have to assume that everyone in the governments, media and military in the US, UK and Pakistan were on board with a massive cover-up, where only 2 people collected the reward. Sure, according to Hersh, the Pakistan military “turned on the spigot” of American aid again, but none of the things that he claims to have been approved have been delivered to Pakistan as yet. The Coalition Support Fund regularly sees hold ups in payments to Pakistan, which would not be there if there really was a deal between the Pakistan Army and the US government.

Pakistan would also have a stronger position in Afghanistan today, but we saw after the raid, where Hamid Karzai took regular punches at Pakistan for harboring bin laden. Was Karzai not brought on the page about the raid’s details, when Carlotta Gall was?

Is this an attempt to rehabilitate Kiyani and Pasha in the media after such a massive failure? Or is it another dig at Pakistan’s intelligence services as a rogue agency?

Although Seymour Hersh has a long-standing record of exposing major stories in the past, he has had a number of balloons that have failed to fly and I would venture that this is another one that just doesn’t hit the mark.

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About Khalid Muhammad - Author

When people talk about Khalid Muhammad, they talk about an entrepreneur who has helped others build their dreams and businesses. They talk about a teacher, who is dedicated to his students, both inside and outside the classroom, and they return the dedication tenfold. Now, they talk about the author, who has written a fast-paced, action-packed spy thriller about Pakistan, the politics, the Army and terrorism. Born in Pakistan’s troubled Swat Valley, educated and raised in the United States, Khalid returned to Pakistan almost 17 years ago and fell in love with his country. His debut novel, Agency Rules – Never an Easy Day at the Office, is a journey behind the headlines about Pakistan, the world’s most dangerous place, to deliver an intense story that will challenge the reader to question what they have been told.

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