How Solid Is This Sy Hersh Story About the bin Laden Raid?

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Stationed in a covert base overseas, Jessica Chastain plays a member of the elite team of spies and military operatives who secretly devoted themselves to finding Osama Bin Laden in Columbia Pictures' electrifying new thriller directed by Kathryn Bigelow, ZERO DARK THIRTY.
Welcome to our annual national debate over Zero Dark Thirty.Photo: Jonathan Olley/Columbia Pictures

The London Review of Books published a new story by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh on Sunday. It chronicles an unfamiliar alternative to what we have been told about the raid that ended Osama bin Laden’s life, concluding that the Obama administration’s telling of the event was mostly “false.”

In Hersh’s telling,

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Here are a few of the questions hanging over this story, which would undoubtedly be an astounding revelation if proven:

Do we trust Hersh and “a retired senior intelligence official who was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad” more than we trust all the previous reporting on raid?
Most of Hersh’s story relies on a single anonymous source, which is never the most promising sign in any story — but especially in an enormous investigative undertaking. Hersh says this source was “also was privy to many aspects of the Seals’ training for the raid, and to the various after-action reports.” The reporter also relied on “two other US sources, who had access to corroborating information, have been longtime consultants to the Special Operations Command,” as well as “information from inside Pakistan about widespread dismay among the senior ISI and military leadership.” He also spoke to retired spy chief Asad Durrani, who has told the media previously that Pakistan knew about Osama bin Laden’s location in Abbottabad and is the only source to appear by name in the story. 

The White House declined to speak to Hersh about his story, but released a statement regarding the allegations today. White House National Security spokesman Ned Price told reporters, according to CNN, there “are too many inaccuracies and baseless assertions in this piece to fact check each one” and that “the notion that the operation that killed Usama Bin Ladin was anything but a unilateral U.S. mission is patently false.”

Hersh defended his reporting on CNN this morning, saying, “This is not a wager — this is a story that has to be dealt with by this government very seriously.” He also admitted he had made mistakes in past reporting: “Nobody’s perfect, of course — everybody’s done bad stories.”

Does the story make sense in the context of the established facts about the raid and its political context?
CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen argues that it does not, calling the report “a farrago of nonsense that is contravened by a multitude of eyewitness accounts, inconvenient facts and simple common sense.” In his brief hatchet job of the story, he calls some of the claims “simply risible” and something that “reads like Frank Underwood from House of Cards has made an unholy alliance with Carrie Mathison from Homeland to produce a Pakistani version of Watergate.”

Bergen wrote a book about the search for bin Laden, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden — from 9/11 to Abbottabad, and says that some of his reporting — as well as the accounts of SEALs who were actually at the raid — contradict Hersh’s account. Bergen says that he was “the only outsider to visit the Abbottabad compound where bin Laden lived before the Pakistani military demolished it” and that the “evidence at the compound showed that many bullets were fired the night of bin Laden’s death.” He also doesn’t understand why the Pakistani military wouldn’t have arranged bin Laden to be transferred to U.S. authorities quietly, as they had done with several other al Qaeda leaders. Bergen also emailed Durrani to ask about the story. He said that there was “no evidence of any kind” that Pakistan knew about bin Laden’s whereabouts, but that he could “make an assessment that this could be plausible.” 

Why didn’t the story appear in The New Yorker?
Many of Seymour Hersh’s most influential stories of the past few decades appeared in the pages of The New Yorker. So why didn’t this one? Plenty of people on Twitter have wondered just that. Appearing in The New Yorkerwell known for its intense fact-checking operation — would have bolstered Hersh’s Homeland-worthy claims. However, Hersh’s story also completely contradicts a story that his primary journalistic venue had published about the Osama bin Laden raid, Nicholas Schmidle’s 2011 story, “Getting Bin Laden.” That story was briefly questioned after publication, too, for the fact that the journalist managed to portray the thoughts of the 23 SEALs who took part in the raid without talking to any of them. Editor-in-chief David Remnick defended the article in an interview with the Washington Post“The sources spoke to our fact-checkers. I know who they are. Those are the rules of the road around here. We have the time to do this.”

Hersh’s told The Guardian: “Nothing’s been done about that story — it’s one big lie, not one word of it is true.” Three years later, Remnick spoke to the New Republic about the piece.

I thoroughly stand by the story we published,” Remnick said. “Look, there is a difference between what people say loosely or in speeches and what we publish.” He added later, “I was willing, and am still willing, to go to the wall with investigative journalism. But if he and I disagree, it is not an easy thing. I hope we will work again together. I hope you will print this: I wish him all the best, and I think he is one of the great journalists of our age.” A post at Vox dismantling Hersh’s story claims that The New Yorkerhad rejected it repeatedly.” It also notes that Hersh has not written an investigative piece for the magazine since a 2012 story that asserted — questionably, in the minds of many observers — that the U.S. had secretly trained Iranian terrorists at a military base in Nevada.

The New Yorker last published a Seymour Hersh story only two months ago; the reporter returned to Vietnam for an update on hist first big story, and the one his reputation continues to depend on most, his investigation into the My Lai massacre. Hersh has written several critical stories about the Obama administration and Syria for The London Review of Books in the past few years. Neither of the stories have been backed up by other reporting. In 2012, The London Review of Books published a brief essay about fact-checking and U.S. publications’ “schizophrenic obsession with facts.”

At The London Review of Books,

Sources on reported pieces and characters in memoirs aren’t usually rung up to confirm what they’ve said, the way they are in New York, but if someone is quoted at a garden party saying something that might get the paper sued, he’d be asked to sign a letter saying he’d say the same thing in court.

Is Seymour Hersh a consistently reliable reporter?
As Remnick states above, Hersh is undoubtedly a great journalist. However, he also has, as New York Magazine described it several years ago, “always had a rather loose relationship with literal truth. He seems to share with many of the people he writes about the belief that in certain circumstances, the end justifies the means.” Charles Peters, founding editor of Washington Monthly talked to Hersh while Hersh was reporting The Dark Side of Camelot, a book Gail Collins later called “a sort of journalistic tragedy.” 

He called me a lot, and he both educated me and disturbed me,” says Peters, who served as a West Virginia county director for the Kennedy campaign. “He converted me to some extent, but I would say I did not convert him at all to the reasonable points that I had. He took my good points on his side, and he ignored my good points that weren’t on his side.” Whenever he disagreed with Hersh, Peters says, Hersh would start exclaiming, “Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!”

“You can’t help but have a certain skepticism once you’ve been through that experience,” Peters says.

Hersh also told The Guardian that many of the existing explanations of the Osama bin Laden raid were “bullshit.”

Hersh’s public remarks on his reporting often don’t stand up to scrutiny, especially when compared to much of his revered reporting. This has especially been true recently. In 2011, he told a crowd at Georgetown that several military leaders “are members of Opus Dei. They do see what they’re doing…it’s a crusade, literally.” He summed up his disappointment with President Obama’s foreign policy by saying, “Just when we needed an angry black man, we didn’t get one.”

Also from the New York Magazine article:

Former Washington Post reporter Scott Armstrong puts it this way: Say Hersh writes a story about how an elephant knocked someone down in a dark room. “If it was a camel or three cows, what difference does it make? It was dark, and it wasn’t supposed to be there.” And nobody else had yet described it. Sometimes, says Warren Strobel, “it’s worth it for him to be wrong.”

Many of those standing by Hersh’s reporting have relied on a similar defense — “who do you trust, a famous investigative reporter or the government?” Even if Hersh isn’t exactly right, can you say the government’s account is any more correct?

So what to think of it all? There are probably stories still to be told about the Osama bin Laden raid. Some of them are probably true, although perhaps not all of them, and we won’t know the exact details of all of this until most of the people debating this story are no longer alive to tweet “whoa if true” about it.