As a rule, conspiracy theories are more elaborate than the truth, requiring subscribers to suspend their judgment. Someone called every Jewish person in the World Trade Center, and told them to stay home on the morning of 9/11, when the planes brought down the twin towers. The United Nations, along with the vast majority of the world’s scientists, concocted the myth of global warming. The CIA, or the KGB, or the World Health Organization—or perhaps all three of them—manufactured AIDS in a laboratory. In the minds of the theorist, the truth is too simple, too simplistic, to bear consideration.
But in Seymour Hersh’s stunning new account of the killing of Osama bin Laden, the truth is by a magnitude more complex than the conspiracy it claims to uncover. Hersh, who usually writes for The New Yorker, is the doyen of investigative journalism, having revealed some of the most disturbing abuses of military and intelligence authority, from the My Lai massacre in Vietnam to the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib. His connections in the intelligence community are the stuff of legend. But the core contentions of his latest exposé are attributed to a single named source—a former Pakistani spymaster, who retired nearly two decades before bin Laden was killed—and a clutch of unnamed intel sources. The White House has described Hersh’s assertions as baseless.
The official version of bin Laden’s killing is that US intelligence, after years of hard grind and many missteps, located bin Laden in Pakistan. A SEAL team dispatched to get him came under fire. When the men burst into his room, bin Laden reached for a gun, and was shot dead. The SEAL team departed with his body, which was subsequently buried at sea, and a huge trove of documents.
Hersh’s alt-history differs from the official one on several key points. Here’s a brief summary:
In 2006, Pakistani intelligence captured the founder of al-Qaeda. Rather than handing him off to the US, the Pakistani authorities decided to hide bin Laden away, to use him as leverage in future negotiations. He was eventually housed in the now-infamous compound in Abbottabad, a stone’s throw from the country’s military academy. Saudi Arabia helped pay for his upkeep. But four years later, after a Pakistani turncoat alerted the US to bin Laden’s hideout, Islamabad made a deal with Washington: Send your SEAL team to kill bin Laden, and we’ll look the other way. In exchange, the Obama administration would give Pakistan more aid, and a bigger role in the future of Afghanistan.
The SEAL team did arrive in Abbottabad on May 2, 2011, but it did not, Hersh says, encounter any resistance, much less gunfire, at the bin Laden compound. Pakistan’s military and intelligence chiefs were warned that the helicopters were on their way, and they cleared the airspace for the operation. The SEALs killed their target with a hail of bullets, reducing him to body parts that they later threw out of their helicopters as they returned to their base in Afghanistan. There were no papers found in the compound.
In Hersh’s telling, president Barack Obama then went on TV and lied to the world about the circumstances of the raid, the burial at sea, and the haul of documents.
The unanswered question
The story is certainly sensational. But it is also highly questionable. And that is mainly because, throughout his riveting account, Hersh never adequately answers the one question that undermines all conspiracy theories: Why?
Why should the Pakistanis, the Saudis, and the Obama administration have played such an elaborate ruse on the world? Hersh’s explanation of Pakistan’s motive for holding bin Laden—as a hostage, to ensure al-Qaeda and the Taliban didn’t mount attacks on Pakistani soil—doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Neither group has demonstrated much interest in mounting attacks in Pakistan. The Taliban has concentrated on fighting the US-led coalition in Afghanistan; and since the group’s top leaders operate from Pakistani soil, Islamabad has long enjoyed plenty of leverage over them.
Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, relies on its far-flung affiliates—in Yemen, Iraq and North Africa—to do most of its heavy lifting. Both groups seem perfectly happy to leave the job of mayhem-making in Pakistan to their ideological cousins, the Pakistani Taliban. Holding bin Laden hostage was never going to give Pakistan any leverage over its homegrown terrorists. (It’s also worth asking why Pakistan would need US approval for a bigger role in Afghanistan: When American soldiers withdraw from the country, Islamabad and its Taliban ally will have plenty of freedom to operate there.)
Why should the Saudis have paid to maintain bin Laden in the Abbottabad compound? Hersh quotes a retired official as saying Riyadh was worried that, if the Pakistanis handed him over to the US, the al-Qaeda leader—himself from a rich Saudi business dynasty—would blab about his group’s connections to the Saudi elite. But this assumes the Obama administration would be shocked—shocked!—at such revelations. And if keeping bin Laden from spilling the beans was the objective, why pay to keep him alive?
Next, why would the US, when told by a turncoat of bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad, have sought confirmation from Pakistan’s military and intelligence chiefs—the very men who had been concealing the Saudi terrorist and lying to Washington about it? The US would surely expect such consultation to prompt the Pakistanis to immediately relocate their prized “hostage,” and possibly quietly even eliminate him.
And, upon being alerted by Washington, why would the Pakistanis have concocted a plan for an American raid on Abbottabad that would essentially expose Islamabad’s duplicity, as well as suggest that its much-vaunted military was incapable of preventing an American operation deep inside Pakistani territory? Why would the Obama administration have gone along with a plan that required placing enormous trust in the Pakistanis—who had, by the very act of concealing bin Laden, proven themselves completely untrustworthy? After all, had the raid failed, one of Hersh’s interlocutors points out, it could have done for Obama and his legacy what the botched 1980 attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran did for Jimmy Carter.
Why, for that matter, would the White House imagine that SEAL Team Six—it is not a CIA covert-ops squad—would participate in a sham operation, kill a sick, unarmed bin Laden—and agree to lie about it? A single SEAL with a conscience would blow such a subterfuge to smithereens.
Hersh’s telling of how the SEALs killed bin Laden, and what they did to his body parts, also raises the inevitable question. There are so many easier ways to dispose of a body—including giving it a burial at sea—so why should the men go through the trouble of shooting it up into pieces, gathering those pieces into a bag, and then scattering it over mountains?
The why’s keep piling up through Hersh’s story, and—for this reader, at least—they eventually overwhelm the narrative. Unless the great investigative journalist has a sensational, join-the-dots sequel up his sleeve, this story seems destined to be little more than grist for conspiracy theorists. And they will no doubt find ways to make it more complex still.