The Cable

Obama Administration: Hersh Account of Bin Laden Raid ‘Patently False’

Current and former officials flatly deny journalist's assertions of grand U.S.-Pakistani conspiracy.

Pakistani security personnel measure a wall outside the hideout house of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following his death by US Special Forces in a ground operation in Abbottabad on May 3, 2011. The bullet-riddled Pakistani villa that hid Osama bin Laden from the world was put under police control, as media sought to glimpse the debris left by the US raid that killed him. Bin Laden's hideout had been kept under tight army control after the dramatic raid by US special forces late May 1 in the affluent suburbs of Abbottabad, a garrison city 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of Islamabad. AFP PHOTO/ AAMIR QURESHI (Photo credit should read AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani security personnel measure a wall outside the hideout house of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following his death by US Special Forces in a ground operation in Abbottabad on May 3, 2011. The bullet-riddled Pakistani villa that hid Osama bin Laden from the world was put under police control, as media sought to glimpse the debris left by the US raid that killed him. Bin Laden's hideout had been kept under tight army control after the dramatic raid by US special forces late May 1 in the affluent suburbs of Abbottabad, a garrison city 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of Islamabad. AFP PHOTO/ AAMIR QURESHI (Photo credit should read AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)

The May 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden handed the White House one of its few major foreign policy successes, so it’s of little surprise that the Obama administration would push back on two new articles that allege that much of what the U.S. government told the world about the raid is false.

What’s interesting is just how strongly the administration — and its former officials — are denying the new claims.

In a rare on-the-record comment, CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani described the first article, written by Seymour Hersh and published Sunday in the London Review of Books, as “utter nonsense.”

Michael Morell, who was deputy director of the CIA at the time of the bin Laden raid, said he stopped reading Hersh’s article after finding “something wrong” in every sentence.

Hersh reported that the Pakistani government was holding the al Qaeda leader prisoner in the compound in Abbottabad where he was eventually killed. Hersh further reported that the CIA learned of bin Laden’s presence there not by tracking his courier, as the Obama administration has stated, but from “a senior Pakistani intelligence officer” eager to claim the $25 million reward, and that, contrary to the public version of events, the United States did not bury bin Laden at sea.

“It’s dead wrong — not even close to the truth,” said Morell, who details the events surrounding the raid in a chapter of his new book, The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism — From al Qaida to ISIS. “We didn’t learn about Osama bin Laden from a Pakistani official that we paid $25 million to. We learned about his whereabouts from following the courier.”

Late Monday afternoon, in a follow-up article, NBC News reported that it had separately been told by two intelligence sources that a Pakistani “walk in” had told the United States where the al Qaeda leader was hiding.

Current and former U.S. officials insisted that was not the case.

“A walk in did not give up bin Laden’s location,” said a U.S. government official, speaking after the NBC News story had been published. “The U.S. found him the way we said we found him,” added the official, who requested anonymity so as to discuss sensitive intelligence issues.

Additionally, Morell said in an interview Monday, Hersh’s assertion that the Pakistanis had foreknowledge of and participated in the raid that Joint Special Operations Command conducted under CIA auspices to kill bin Laden in his compound is not true. A former senior member of SEAL Team 6, the unit at the heart of the Abbottabad raid, described Hersh’s article as “laughable,” adding that bin Laden was found through “some luck and some good eavesdropping.” The former Team 6 member also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Hersh for decades has gotten under the U.S. government’s skin. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the 1968 massacre — and cover-up — at My Lai during the Vietnam War. But his more recent reporting has come under harsh scrutiny, particularly his April 2014 article that a chemical attack in Syria widely attributed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad was in fact perpetrated by Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, in coordination with the Turkish government. Hersh’s latest article relies largely on the account of an anonymous source described as “a retired senior intelligence official who was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad.” The other principal sources  are two anonymous “longtime consultants to the [U.S.] Special Operations Command, and retired Lt. Gen. Asad Durrani, who headed Pakistani’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency in the early 1990s.

Spokesmen for the National Security Council and the Defense Department each issued very similarly worded statements that flatly refuted Hersh’s article on the bin Laden raid.

“The notion that the operation that killed Osama bin Laden was anything but a unilateral U.S. mission is patently false,” said NSC spokesman Ned Price in an email. The Obama administration did not inform the Pakistani government until after the raid, Price said.

The Hersh article contained “too many inaccuracies and baseless assertions … to fact check each one,” said Pentagon spokesman Maj. Roger M. Cabiness II in an email. “We had been and continue to be partners with Pakistan in our joint effort to destroy al Qaeda, but this was a U.S. operation through and through.”

Photo: Aamir Qureshi/AFP

Seán D. Naylor is the author of Relentless Strike – The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. @seandnaylor

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