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Seymour Hersh Responds to White House, Media Backlash On The Bin Laden Killing

By Democracy Now!

Posted May 12, 2016


Four years after U.S. forces assassinated Osama bin Laden, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has published an explosive piece claiming much of what the Obama administration said about the attack was wrong. Hersh claims at the time of the U.S. raid, bin Laden had been held as a prisoner by Pakistani intelligence since 2006. Top Pakistani military leaders knew about the operation and provided key assistance. Contrary to U.S. claims that it located bin Laden by tracking his courier, a former Pakistani intelligence officer identified bin Laden’s whereabouts in return for the bulk of a $25 million U.S. bounty. Questions are also raised about whether bin Laden was actually buried at sea, as the U.S. claimed. Hersh says instead the Navy SEALs threw parts of bin Laden’s body into the Hindu Kush mountains from their helicopter. The White House claims the piece is "riddled with inaccuracies." Hersh joins us to lay out his findings and respond to criticism from government officials and media colleagues.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Four years ago this month, President Obama announced U.S. forces had killed Osama bin Laden in a raid on his hideout in Pakistan.

PRES. BARACK OBAMA: At my direction, the United States has launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abadibad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama Bin Laden and took custody of his body.

AARON MATÉ: But now a new investigation says the official story is a lie. In an explosive report the veteran journalist Seymour Hersh alleges a vast deception on everything from how bin Laden found to how he was killed. According to Hersh, Pakistan detained bin Laden in 2006 and kept him prisoner with the backing of Saudi Arabia. In 2010 a Pakistani intelligence officer disclosed bin Laden’s location to the CIA. Hersh says the U.S. and Pakistan then struck a deal; the U.S. would raid bin Laden’s compound in Abadibad but make it look as if Pakistan was unaware. In fact, Hersh says top Pakistani military leaders provided key help.

AMY GOODMAN: The report also challenges the initial U.S. account of how bin Laden was killed. Hersh says there was never a firefight inside the compound and that bin Laden himself was not armed. Questions are also raised about whether bin Laden was actually buried at sea as the U.S. claimed. Hersh says, instead the Navy SEALs threw parts of bin Laden’s body into the Hindu Kush mountains from their helicopter. The White House has rejected Hersh’s account of the bin Laden raid. Press Secretary Josh Earnest spoke to reporters on Monday.

JOSH EARNEST: 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. The former deputy director of the CIA, Mike Morrell has said that every sentence was wrong. And Jim, I actually thought one of your colleagues at CNN put it best, Peter Bergan, a security analyst for CNN, described the story as being about 10,000 words in length, and he said, based on reading it, that what is true in the story isn’t new and what’s new in the story isn’t true. So I thought that was a pretty good way of describing why no one here is particularly concerned about it.

AMY GOODMAN: In a statement, White House National Security spokesperson Ned Price said, "There are too many inaccuracies and baseless assertions in this piece to fact check each one... the notion that the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden was anything but a unilateral U.S. mission is patently false," he said. But despite the White House denials, none of its statements have addressed Hersh’s specific allegations. Meanwhile other reporting is beginning to corroborate some key elements. According the NBC news, three intelligence sources have backed Hersh’s claim that the U.S. heard about bin Laden’s location when a Pakistani officer told the CIA. The U.S. has said it helped find bin Laden by tracking his personal courier which Hersh says is a ruse. The NBC sources also backed Hersh’s contention that the Pakistani government knew all along where bin Laden was hiding. Well, for more we go directly to Seymour Hersh, who’s 10,000 word article, "The Killing of Osama bin Laden," appears online at the London Review of Books. It’s Hersh’s latest major investigation and a body of work spanning decades. He won the Pulitzer Prize for exposing the 1968 My Lai Massacre in Vietnam when U.S. forces killed hundreds of civilians. In 2004, Seymour Hersh broke the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. Seymour Hersh, welcome to Democracy Now! Why don’t you, in your own words, describe what it is that you found.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, you guys did a pretty good job. Basically, you covered the tracks. Basically, I think you can say, simply, that the President, as he said on television, when he announced the raid, did order the raid and the SEAL Team Six, the most elite unit we have in our special forces group, they did conduct a mission. They did kill bin Laden. They did take the body. That’s all true, and the rest of it is sort of hooey.

AARON MATÉ: Can we talk about what seems to be the most shocking claim. Pakistan finding in 2006 and the U.S. not finding out until 2010 when you allege a Pakistani officer told the U.S., and meanwhile, Saudi Arabia backing and paying for bin Laden’s imprisonment. This seems very improbable, involving hundreds, thousands of officials in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and then the U.S.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Where do you get the notion of hundred or thousand officials? It’s, it’s — we’re talking about a closed society. The White House has a lot of control over the information. The senior Pakistani officials have control over the information. We are talking about a country that went, a dozen, ten years ago through a WMD sort of cover up. The notion that there is some major conspiracy I’m alleging is just sort of — that’s over the top. There’s no major conspiracy here. It’s very easy to control news. We all saw that when the whole thing about the Saddam Hussein and the alleged nuclear weapons. I should think that would be a model for why you might just not be so skeptical of the possibility of holding things. And let me also say, in the piece, it’s not so much that I’m saying what happened. I’m quoting sources and of course they’re unnamed. You just announced what happened to Jeffrey Sterling today. I mean, what reporter would want to name a source in this administration. You know, Baum [sp], he’d be gone. So there you are.

What simply happened is at a certain critical point we had to walk in, we were very angry about it, the United States, Pakistani is our ally. And underneath all of this you have to understand something, which I’m sure you do; just to tell the audience, Pakistan has, what, one, two hundred, maybe more, they’re still making — producing enriched uranium, etc., etc. And they have a great deal of nuclear weapons. I would guess they’re up to 200 now. It was 100 half a decade ago. And so we have to have comity between the ranking American generals and the ranking Pakistani generals. This is something very important to us. The Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI helps train the people who guard the weapons. We work with Pakistan, and very closely to watch out — literally with them — to monitor the people who are in control of the weapons that make sure nobody is a secret nationalist or a secret Jihadist who might grab weapon and do something crazy with it. That’s a serious — big issue that’s sort of an under — that’s behind the whole relationship. We give Pakistan a lot of money through Congress over the table and we give a lot of money to the leadership under the table. So we have a great deal of — and we also understand Pakistan has it’s own agenda.

And so, '06, they did grab bin Laden. 2010 we learn about it. We're angry. We don’t tell the Paks we know right away. We begin looking at Abadibad where he’s located. We start observing him. This has been reported. We set up a team in a nearby house; mostly foreign nationals and Pakistanis who work with us to monitor the house. We go to the President — the community — intelligence community goes to the President with the information about the walk in. Any guy that wants to sell information for money is automatically suspect, so you have to be careful. The President is appropriately very cautious, very cautious. He’s not going to make a move. He doesn’t want to end up like Jimmy Carter in a desert, you know, in 1980, you know, that failed attempt to rescue the American hostages which hurt him politically, terribly. It’s a year before an election. He’s not very popular in America. Not much is going right. He’s in a constant fight with Congress, etc., etc., etc.

So we determine the only way we can be sure that we’ve got the right guy, and this will work, is we have to go to the Pakistanis. So we go to the leadership; General Kayani, who’s the head of the army, and General Pasha who’s the head of the internal — what they call the ISI, Interservices Intelligence Unit; they’re counterpart to the CIA. We go to those people. We lay out our case. We make it clear that a lot of goodies are going to be cut off. There’s F-16s that are in the pipeline. We’re going to slow it down. We’re going to slow down congressional money, etc., etc. They have very little option. OK, they start working with us. We set up a four man team in a place called Tarbela Ghazi. These are all details — this is a 10,000 word article. I mean this is a lot of information in this article. We set up a team — none of which the White House is responding to and senators say — they keep on saying, it’s so many falsehoods we can’t correct it. And by the way, the last time I — quoting Peter Bergan — I don’t know the guy, I’m sure he believes what he believes, but the last time the White House actually quoted a reporter in the way they did would have been Dick Cheney quoting a story by Judy Miller and Mike Gordan in The New York Times at the height of the WMD crisis about the tubes that allegedly could be use for making — delivering nuclear weapons. A story that they had planted in the New York Times and then Cheney and 60 Minutes goes and uses that story as a — to buttress the argument. We know that. That seems to me to really — just get on with it White House. Just start denying specifics.

Four man team in Gaza, Gaza Tarbela, a very important base in Pakistan. A lot of black operations are run with us and the Pakistanis out of it. It’s not that well known. There’s an airbase there, but there’s also a covert unit. The Pakistanis also train most of the guards who monitor and watch over the nuclear weapons there. So it’s a — we’re there. We’re getting — our team is collecting data on the place in Abadibad where bin Laden — you can call him a prisoner under the supervision that there were steel doors leading to his apartment that were locked. He was on the third floor of this complex there. There were a number of buildings in the compound. And we have great detail. We’re learning how thick the steel is, how much dynamite you need to blow it, how many steps are going, who else is there. This is all being passed by the Pakistanis to us.

The whole game and the whole crux of the story I’m writing is that nothing was supposed to made public after the raid. The SEALs were supposed to go in — and you have to understand we’re talking about two Black Hawks full of SEALs, packed to the brim. The SEALs are basically better off with 8-10 people and they had 12 in each of them. They were — the plane was stripped down. They were coming in heavy. And 24 SEALs going into a compound where, presumably, if it was the secret raid there would be somebody with arms. Certainly, if Pakistan itself wasn’t guarding it with armed people, bin Laden would have armed guards because a man that a lot of people would want to get to. They’re going in just repelling down was the plan. You know, a perfect target for anybody with a BB gun. And they’re going to go in like that without any air cover. It’s a story that it is — and bin Laden, the most hunted man in the world at that time since 2001. He was number one international terrorist. He’s going to hide out in a compound at Abadibad, sort of a resort town, and a resort town 48 miles or so outside of Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, within a mile or two of Pakistan’s West Point where they train young officers, the army does, and a couple of miles from a regimental headquarters full of army troops. He’s going to hide out there? I mean, As I wrote in the article, it’s a Lewis Carroll story. It just doesn’t sustain any credibility if you look at it objectively.

And so the deal was it was not to be announced. We were going to go kill the guy. That was, of course, the mission. That’s why the President had to talk about a firefight. There was not firefight. They’ve actually acknowledged that within a few days of the raid; the White House did. Bin Laden did not have an AK and wasn’t being — cowering behind some woman as was initially said. There was — the point being that, as I write very carefully in this article — seven to ten days after the body — the killing was done and the body was taken away, we were going to announce — the White House — the President, himself, was going to announce that a drone raid somewhere in the Hindu Kush mountain area, you know, the Waziristan — that’s not clear, it was going to be vague as to whether it — that’s the area that divides Pakistan and Afghanistan mountain area — it was going to vague as to which country this took place in. Somewhere in that border area a drone raid hit a building. We sent in a team to look at it. There was a tall guy that looked like bin Laden. We took some pictures, some DNA — my god, we got him. That was the announcement. That protects everybody. Pasha and Kayani are working with us and nobody has to know it. Why are they worried about being told?

At one point in the last six or seven years, eight percent — that’s the popularity of America in Pakistan, was eight percent — bin Laden was hugely popular. If it was known to the public that Pasha and Kayani, the two leading generals that worked with us to kill the guy, they would be in real trouble. They’d have to move to Dubai or have armed guards.

So once the president did it — this is done without notice. And I’m — of course, as the — you quoted some officer saying it was unilateral. It was all American, yes, Pakistanis were not involved in a raid, our SEALs were. And so, I wish, as you said in the intro, Amy, the denials are all sort of non-denials.

AMY GOODMAN: Well before we get to the denials, with your sequence of events, you say they killed him, Obama didn’t plan to announce it right away. What happened? And what happened to Osama bin Laden’s body according to your account?


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