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Almost everything we think we know about Osama bin Laden’s death is a lie, reports Sy Hersh

Reuters/White House/Pete Souza
The US national security team gets an update on the Osama mission, May 11, 2011.
By Heather Timmons
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of US Navy SEALs was nothing at all like the official accounts given by the United States government and military, according to a controversial article in the London Review of Books by veteran investigative journalist Seymour M. Hersh:

  • Rather than hiding in Pakistan, bin Laden was a prisoner of the Pakistani military, who not only knew of his location, but were keeping him under house arrest and accepting funds from Saudi Arabia for his upkeep. (This echoes a 2014 New York Times report that said Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency had a special desk assigned to handle bin Laden).
  • The idea that water-boarding and other “harsh interrogation” produced the intelligence that led to bin Laden (as in the fictionalized movie Zero Dark Thirty) is completely fabricated. Instead, a “walk-in” tipster told US officials in Pakistan where he was in order to collect a $25 million reward.
  • Navy SEALs didn’t need to fight their way into bin Laden’s bedroom and probably weren’t shot at by him. Instead they quietly crept upstairs, and probably killed him while he was unarmed.
  • Bin Laden was probably not buried at sea, as the official US account and several reported pieces have claimed. Instead, parts of his bullet-ridden body may have been tossed into the Hindu Kush mountains by Navy SEALs on their helicopter ride back to Afghanistan.

Hersh, a Pulitzer Prize winner who exposed the Vietnam War’s My Lai massacre and has written about the US military for decades, has been a regular contributor to the New Yorker since 1993; he wrote a New Yorker article about My Lai in March.

So then why didn’t Hersh publish his bin Laden exposé in the New Yorker? Perhaps because his account directly refutes a controversial 2011 New Yorker article, “Getting Bin Laden” written by journalist Nicholas Schmidle, the son of a Marine Corps. lieutenant general.

The 2011 article was notable for its “you are there” details from the night bin Laden was killed—including the exact words that the Navy SEAL who fired the shot that killed him uttered (“For God and country—Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo.”) as he died. But until critics raised the issue, the magazine did not disclose that Schmidle had not spoken directly with any SEALs from the bin Laden mission, and had pieced together the report from military and White House sources.

Hersh’s report also relies on a collection of named and unnamed sources to build its case, as well as several direct quotes from retired former ISI head Asad Durrani. It concludes with a damning indictment of the CIA and the Obama administration:

“High-level lying nevertheless remains the modus operandi of US policy, along with secret prisons, drone attacks, Special Forces night raids, bypassing the chain of command, and cutting out those who might say no.”

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