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What Really Led to the Killing of Osama bin Laden?

Thursday, August 11, 2016 By Seymour Hersh, Verso Books | Book Excerpt
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Pakistani policemen stand guard outside the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, May 5, 2011. (Warrick Page / The New York Times)Pakistani policemen stand guard outside the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 5, 2011. (Warrick Page / The New York Times)

What really happened on the night of Osama bin Laden's death? Famed investigative journalist Seymour examines this critical question in his new book, but The Killing of Osama Bin Laden is also a broader indictment of the Obama administration's foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly concerning Syria and Turkey. Order your copy today by making a donation to support Truthout's reporting!

The following excerpt from The Killing of Osama Bin Laden introduces the reader to dramatically different details than the official narrative disseminated by the White House, Pentagon and CIA:

It's been four years since a group of US Navy SEALS assassinated Osama bin Laden in a night raid on a high-walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The killing was the high point of Obama's first term, and a major factor in his re-election. The White House still maintains that the mission was an all-American affair, and that the senior generals of Pakistan's army and Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) were not told of the raid in advance. This is false, as are many other elements of the Obama administration's account. The White House's story might have been written by Lewis Carroll: would bin Laden, target of a massive international manhunt, really decide that a resort town forty miles from Islamabad would be the safest place to live and command al-Qaida's operations? He was hiding in the open. So America said.

(Image: Verso Books)(Image: Verso Books)The most blatant lie was that Pakistan's two most senior military leaders -- General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of the army staff, and General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, director general of the ISI -- were never informed of the US mission. This remains the White House position despite an array of reports that have raised questions, including one by Carlotta Gall in the New York Times Magazine of March 19, 2014. Gall, who spent 12 years as the Times correspondent in Afghanistan, wrote that she'd been told by a "Pakistani official" that Pasha had known before the raid that bin Laden was in Abbottabad. The story was denied by US and Pakistani officials, and went no further. In his book Pakistan: Before and after Osama (2012), Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Centre for Research and Security Studies, a think tank in Islamabad, wrote that he'd spoken to four undercover intelligence officers who -- reflecting a widely held local view -- asserted that the Pakistani military must have had knowledge of the operation. The issue was raised again in February, when a retired general, Asad Durrani, who was head of the ISI in the early 1990s, told an Al Jazeera interviewer that it was "quite possible" that the senior officers of the ISI did not know where bin Laden had been hiding, "but it was more probable that they did [know]. And the idea was that, at the right time, his location would be revealed.

"And the right time would have been when you can get the necessary quid pro quo -- if you have someone like Osama bin Laden, you are not going to simply hand him over to the United States." This spring I contacted Durrani and told him in detail what I had learned about the bin Laden assault from American sources: that bin Laden had been a prisoner of the ISI at the Abbottabad compound since 2006; that Kayani and Pasha knew of the raid in advance and had made sure that the two helicopters delivering the SEALS to Abbottabad could cross Pakistani airspace without triggering any alarms; that the CIA did not learn of bin Laden's whereabouts by tracking his couriers, as the White House has claimed since May 2011, but from a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer who betrayed the secret in return for much of the $25 million reward offered by the US, and that, while Obama did order the raid and the SEAL team did carry it out, many other aspects of the administration's account were false.

"When your version comes out -- if you do it -- people in Pakistan will be tremendously grateful," Durrani told me. "For a long time people have stopped trusting what comes out about bin Laden from the official mouths. There will be some negative political comment and some anger, but people like to be told the truth, and what you've told me is essentially what I have heard from former colleagues who have been on a fact finding mission since this episode." As a former ISI head, he said, he had been told shortly after the raid by "people in the 'strategic community' who would know" that there had been an informant who had alerted the US to bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad, and that after his killing the US's betrayed promises left Kayani and Pasha exposed. The major US source for the account that follows is a retired senior intelligence official who was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad. He also was privy to many aspects of the SEALS' training for the raid and to the various after-action reports. Two other US sources, who had access to corroborating information, have been longtime consultants to the Special Operations Command. I also received information from inside Pakistan about widespread dismay among the senior ISI and military leadership -- echoed later by Durrani -- over Obama's decision to go public immediately with news of bin Laden's death. The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

It began with a walk-in. In August 2010 a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer approached Jonathan Bank, then the CIA's station chief at the US embassy in Islamabad. He offered to tell the CIA where to find bin Laden in return for the reward that Washington had offered in 2001. Walk-ins are assumed by the CIA to be unreliable, and the response from the agency's headquarters was to fly in a polygraph team. The walk-in passed the test. "So now we've got a lead on bin Laden living in a compound in Abbottabad, but how do we really know who it is?" was the CIA's worry at the time, the retired senior US intelligence official told me.

The US initially kept what it knew from the Pakistanis. "The fear was that if the existence of the source was made known, the Pakistanis themselves would move bin Laden to another location. So only a very small number of people were read into the source and his story," the retired official said. "The CIA's first goal was to check out the quality of the informant's information." The compound was put under satellite surveillance. The CIA rented a house in Abbottabad to use as a forward observation base and staffed it with Pakistani employees and foreign nationals. Later on, the base would serve as a contact point with the ISI; it attracted little attention because Abbottabad is a holiday spot full of houses rented on short leases. A psychological profile of the informant was prepared. (The informant and his family were smuggled out of Pakistan and relocated in the Washington area. He is now a consultant for the CIA.)

"By October the military and intelligence community were discussing the possible military options. Do we drop a bunker buster on the compound or take him out with a drone strike? Perhaps send someone to kill him, single assassin style? But then we'd have no proof of who he was," the retired official said. "We could see some guy is walking around at night, but we have no intercepts because there's no commo coming from the compound."

In October, Obama was briefed on the intelligence. His response was cautious, the retired official said. "It just made no sense that bin Laden was living in Abbottabad. It was just too crazy. The president's position was emphatic: 'Don't talk to me about this any more unless you have proof that it really is bin Laden.' " The immediate goal of the CIA leadership and the Joint Special Operations Command was to get Obama's support. They believed they would get this if they got DNA evidence and if they could assure him that a night assault of the compound would carry no risk. The only way to accomplish both things, the retired official said, "was to get the Pakistanis on board."

During the late autumn of 2010, the US continued to keep quiet about the walk-in, and Kayani and Pasha continued to insist to their American counterparts that they had no information about bin Laden's whereabouts. "The next step was to figure out how to ease Kayani and Pasha into it -- to tell them that we've got intelligence showing that there is a high-value target in the ncompound, and to ask them what they know about the target," the retired official said. "The compound was not an armed enclave -- no machine guns around, because it was under ISI control." The walk-in had told the US that bin Laden had lived undetected from 2001 to 2006 with some of his wives and children in the Hindu Kush mountains, and that "the ISI got to him by paying some of the local tribal people to betray him." (Reports after the raid placed him elsewhere in Pakistan during this period.) Bank was also told by the walk-in that bin Laden was very ill, and that early on in his confinement at Abbottabad, the ISI had ordered Amir Aziz, a doctor and a major in the Pakistani army, to move nearby to provide treatment. "The truth is that bin Laden was an invalid, but we cannot say that," the retired official said. " 'You mean you guys shot a cripple? Who was about to grab his AK-47?'

"It didn't take long to get the cooperation we needed, because the Pakistanis wanted to ensure the continued release of American military aid, a good percentage of which was anti-terrorism funding that finances personal security, such as bullet-proof limousines and security guards and housing for the ISI leadership," the retired official said. He added that there were also under-the-table personal "incentives" that were financed by off-the-books Pentagon contingency funds. "The intelligence community knew what the Pakistanis needed to agree -- there was the carrot. And they chose the carrot. It was a win-win. We also did a little blackmail. We told them we would leak the fact that you've got bin Laden in your backyard. We knew their friends and enemies" -- the Taliban and jihadist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan -- "would not like it."

A worrying factor at this early point, according to the retired official, was Saudi Arabia, which had been financing bin Laden's upkeep since his seizure by the Pakistanis. "The Saudis didn't want bin Laden's presence revealed to us because he was a Saudi, and so they told the Pakistanis to keep him out of the picture. The Saudis feared if we knew we would pressure the Pakistanis to let bin Laden start talking to us about what the Saudis had been doing with al-Qaida. And they were dropping money -- lots of it. The Pakistanis, in turn, were concerned that the Saudis might spill the beans about their control of bin Laden. The fear was that if the US found out about bin Laden from Riyadh, all hell would break out. The Americans learning about bin Laden's imprisonment from a walk-in was not the worst thing."

Despite their constant public feuding, American and Pakistani military and intelligence services have worked together closely for decades on counterterrorism in South Asia. Both services often find it useful to engage in public feuds "to cover their asses," as the retired official put it, but they continually share intelligence used for drone attacks and cooperate on covert operations. At the same time, it's understood in Washington that elements of the ISI believe that maintaining a relationship with the Taliban leadership inside Afghanistan is essential to national security. The ISI's strategic aim is to balance Indian influence in Kabul; the Taliban is also seen in Pakistan as a source of jihadist shock troops who would back Pakistan against India in a confrontation over Kashmir.

Adding to the tension was the Pakistani nuclear arsenal, often depicted in the Western press as an "Islamic bomb" that might be transferred by Pakistan to an embattled nation in the Middle East in the event of a crisis with Israel. The US looked the other way when Pakistan began building its weapons system in the 1970s, and it's widely believed it now has more than a hundred nuclear warheads. It's understood in Washington that US security depends on the maintenance of strong military and intelligence ties to Pakistan. The belief is mirrored in Pakistan.

"The Pakistani army sees itself as family," the retired official said. "Officers call soldiers their sons and all officers are 'brothers.' The attitude is different in the American military. The senior Pakistani officers believe they are the elite and have got to look out for all of the people, as keepers of the flame against Muslim fundamentalism. The Pakistanis also know that their trump card against aggression from India is a strong relationship with the United States. They will never cut their person-to- person ties with us."

Like all CIA station chiefs, Bank was working undercover, but that ended in early December 2010 when he was publicly accused of murder in a criminal complaint filed in Islamabad by Karim Khan, a Pakistani journalist whose son and brother, according to local news reports, had been killed by a US drone strike. Allowing Bank to be named was a violation of diplomatic protocol on the part of the Pakistani authorities, and it brought a wave of unwanted publicity. Bank was ordered to leave Pakistan by the CIA, whose officials subsequently told the Associated Press he was transferred because of concerns for his safety. The New York Times reported that there was "strong suspicion" the ISI had played a role in leaking Bank's name to Khan. There was speculation that he was outed as payback for the publication in a New York lawsuit a month earlier of the names of ISI chiefs in connection with the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008. But there was a collateral reason, the retired official said, for the CIA's willingness to send Bank back to America. The Pakistanis needed cover in case their cooperation with the Americans in getting rid of bin Laden became known. The Pakistanis could say: 'You're talking about me? We just kicked out your station chief.'"

Seymour Hersh

Seymour Hersh has written for the New Yorker and the London Review of Books, as well as serving as a Washington correspondent for the New York Times. He established himself at the forefront of investigative journalism more than four decades ago with an exposé of the massacre in My Lai, Vietnam, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. Since then he has uncovered stories such as Kissinger's role in extending the Vietnam War as well as the military torture regime at Abu Ghraib prison. He has won the George Polk prize five times, the National Magazine Award for Public Interest twice, the LA Times Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

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What Really Led to the Killing of Osama bin Laden?

Thursday, August 11, 2016 By Seymour Hersh, Verso Books | Book Excerpt
  • font size decrease font size decrease font size increase font size increase font size
  • Print

Pakistani policemen stand guard outside the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, May 5, 2011. (Warrick Page / The New York Times)Pakistani policemen stand guard outside the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 5, 2011. (Warrick Page / The New York Times)

What really happened on the night of Osama bin Laden's death? Famed investigative journalist Seymour examines this critical question in his new book, but The Killing of Osama Bin Laden is also a broader indictment of the Obama administration's foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly concerning Syria and Turkey. Order your copy today by making a donation to support Truthout's reporting!

The following excerpt from The Killing of Osama Bin Laden introduces the reader to dramatically different details than the official narrative disseminated by the White House, Pentagon and CIA:

It's been four years since a group of US Navy SEALS assassinated Osama bin Laden in a night raid on a high-walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The killing was the high point of Obama's first term, and a major factor in his re-election. The White House still maintains that the mission was an all-American affair, and that the senior generals of Pakistan's army and Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) were not told of the raid in advance. This is false, as are many other elements of the Obama administration's account. The White House's story might have been written by Lewis Carroll: would bin Laden, target of a massive international manhunt, really decide that a resort town forty miles from Islamabad would be the safest place to live and command al-Qaida's operations? He was hiding in the open. So America said.

(Image: Verso Books)(Image: Verso Books)The most blatant lie was that Pakistan's two most senior military leaders -- General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of the army staff, and General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, director general of the ISI -- were never informed of the US mission. This remains the White House position despite an array of reports that have raised questions, including one by Carlotta Gall in the New York Times Magazine of March 19, 2014. Gall, who spent 12 years as the Times correspondent in Afghanistan, wrote that she'd been told by a "Pakistani official" that Pasha had known before the raid that bin Laden was in Abbottabad. The story was denied by US and Pakistani officials, and went no further. In his book Pakistan: Before and after Osama (2012), Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Centre for Research and Security Studies, a think tank in Islamabad, wrote that he'd spoken to four undercover intelligence officers who -- reflecting a widely held local view -- asserted that the Pakistani military must have had knowledge of the operation. The issue was raised again in February, when a retired general, Asad Durrani, who was head of the ISI in the early 1990s, told an Al Jazeera interviewer that it was "quite possible" that the senior officers of the ISI did not know where bin Laden had been hiding, "but it was more probable that they did [know]. And the idea was that, at the right time, his location would be revealed.

"And the right time would have been when you can get the necessary quid pro quo -- if you have someone like Osama bin Laden, you are not going to simply hand him over to the United States." This spring I contacted Durrani and told him in detail what I had learned about the bin Laden assault from American sources: that bin Laden had been a prisoner of the ISI at the Abbottabad compound since 2006; that Kayani and Pasha knew of the raid in advance and had made sure that the two helicopters delivering the SEALS to Abbottabad could cross Pakistani airspace without triggering any alarms; that the CIA did not learn of bin Laden's whereabouts by tracking his couriers, as the White House has claimed since May 2011, but from a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer who betrayed the secret in return for much of the $25 million reward offered by the US, and that, while Obama did order the raid and the SEAL team did carry it out, many other aspects of the administration's account were false.

"When your version comes out -- if you do it -- people in Pakistan will be tremendously grateful," Durrani told me. "For a long time people have stopped trusting what comes out about bin Laden from the official mouths. There will be some negative political comment and some anger, but people like to be told the truth, and what you've told me is essentially what I have heard from former colleagues who have been on a fact finding mission since this episode." As a former ISI head, he said, he had been told shortly after the raid by "people in the 'strategic community' who would know" that there had been an informant who had alerted the US to bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad, and that after his killing the US's betrayed promises left Kayani and Pasha exposed. The major US source for the account that follows is a retired senior intelligence official who was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad. He also was privy to many aspects of the SEALS' training for the raid and to the various after-action reports. Two other US sources, who had access to corroborating information, have been longtime consultants to the Special Operations Command. I also received information from inside Pakistan about widespread dismay among the senior ISI and military leadership -- echoed later by Durrani -- over Obama's decision to go public immediately with news of bin Laden's death. The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

It began with a walk-in. In August 2010 a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer approached Jonathan Bank, then the CIA's station chief at the US embassy in Islamabad. He offered to tell the CIA where to find bin Laden in return for the reward that Washington had offered in 2001. Walk-ins are assumed by the CIA to be unreliable, and the response from the agency's headquarters was to fly in a polygraph team. The walk-in passed the test. "So now we've got a lead on bin Laden living in a compound in Abbottabad, but how do we really know who it is?" was the CIA's worry at the time, the retired senior US intelligence official told me.

The US initially kept what it knew from the Pakistanis. "The fear was that if the existence of the source was made known, the Pakistanis themselves would move bin Laden to another location. So only a very small number of people were read into the source and his story," the retired official said. "The CIA's first goal was to check out the quality of the informant's information." The compound was put under satellite surveillance. The CIA rented a house in Abbottabad to use as a forward observation base and staffed it with Pakistani employees and foreign nationals. Later on, the base would serve as a contact point with the ISI; it attracted little attention because Abbottabad is a holiday spot full of houses rented on short leases. A psychological profile of the informant was prepared. (The informant and his family were smuggled out of Pakistan and relocated in the Washington area. He is now a consultant for the CIA.)

"By October the military and intelligence community were discussing the possible military options. Do we drop a bunker buster on the compound or take him out with a drone strike? Perhaps send someone to kill him, single assassin style? But then we'd have no proof of who he was," the retired official said. "We could see some guy is walking around at night, but we have no intercepts because there's no commo coming from the compound."

In October, Obama was briefed on the intelligence. His response was cautious, the retired official said. "It just made no sense that bin Laden was living in Abbottabad. It was just too crazy. The president's position was emphatic: 'Don't talk to me about this any more unless you have proof that it really is bin Laden.' " The immediate goal of the CIA leadership and the Joint Special Operations Command was to get Obama's support. They believed they would get this if they got DNA evidence and if they could assure him that a night assault of the compound would carry no risk. The only way to accomplish both things, the retired official said, "was to get the Pakistanis on board."

During the late autumn of 2010, the US continued to keep quiet about the walk-in, and Kayani and Pasha continued to insist to their American counterparts that they had no information about bin Laden's whereabouts. "The next step was to figure out how to ease Kayani and Pasha into it -- to tell them that we've got intelligence showing that there is a high-value target in the ncompound, and to ask them what they know about the target," the retired official said. "The compound was not an armed enclave -- no machine guns around, because it was under ISI control." The walk-in had told the US that bin Laden had lived undetected from 2001 to 2006 with some of his wives and children in the Hindu Kush mountains, and that "the ISI got to him by paying some of the local tribal people to betray him." (Reports after the raid placed him elsewhere in Pakistan during this period.) Bank was also told by the walk-in that bin Laden was very ill, and that early on in his confinement at Abbottabad, the ISI had ordered Amir Aziz, a doctor and a major in the Pakistani army, to move nearby to provide treatment. "The truth is that bin Laden was an invalid, but we cannot say that," the retired official said. " 'You mean you guys shot a cripple? Who was about to grab his AK-47?'

"It didn't take long to get the cooperation we needed, because the Pakistanis wanted to ensure the continued release of American military aid, a good percentage of which was anti-terrorism funding that finances personal security, such as bullet-proof limousines and security guards and housing for the ISI leadership," the retired official said. He added that there were also under-the-table personal "incentives" that were financed by off-the-books Pentagon contingency funds. "The intelligence community knew what the Pakistanis needed to agree -- there was the carrot. And they chose the carrot. It was a win-win. We also did a little blackmail. We told them we would leak the fact that you've got bin Laden in your backyard. We knew their friends and enemies" -- the Taliban and jihadist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan -- "would not like it."

A worrying factor at this early point, according to the retired official, was Saudi Arabia, which had been financing bin Laden's upkeep since his seizure by the Pakistanis. "The Saudis didn't want bin Laden's presence revealed to us because he was a Saudi, and so they told the Pakistanis to keep him out of the picture. The Saudis feared if we knew we would pressure the Pakistanis to let bin Laden start talking to us about what the Saudis had been doing with al-Qaida. And they were dropping money -- lots of it. The Pakistanis, in turn, were concerned that the Saudis might spill the beans about their control of bin Laden. The fear was that if the US found out about bin Laden from Riyadh, all hell would break out. The Americans learning about bin Laden's imprisonment from a walk-in was not the worst thing."

Despite their constant public feuding, American and Pakistani military and intelligence services have worked together closely for decades on counterterrorism in South Asia. Both services often find it useful to engage in public feuds "to cover their asses," as the retired official put it, but they continually share intelligence used for drone attacks and cooperate on covert operations. At the same time, it's understood in Washington that elements of the ISI believe that maintaining a relationship with the Taliban leadership inside Afghanistan is essential to national security. The ISI's strategic aim is to balance Indian influence in Kabul; the Taliban is also seen in Pakistan as a source of jihadist shock troops who would back Pakistan against India in a confrontation over Kashmir.

Adding to the tension was the Pakistani nuclear arsenal, often depicted in the Western press as an "Islamic bomb" that might be transferred by Pakistan to an embattled nation in the Middle East in the event of a crisis with Israel. The US looked the other way when Pakistan began building its weapons system in the 1970s, and it's widely believed it now has more than a hundred nuclear warheads. It's understood in Washington that US security depends on the maintenance of strong military and intelligence ties to Pakistan. The belief is mirrored in Pakistan.

"The Pakistani army sees itself as family," the retired official said. "Officers call soldiers their sons and all officers are 'brothers.' The attitude is different in the American military. The senior Pakistani officers believe they are the elite and have got to look out for all of the people, as keepers of the flame against Muslim fundamentalism. The Pakistanis also know that their trump card against aggression from India is a strong relationship with the United States. They will never cut their person-to- person ties with us."

Like all CIA station chiefs, Bank was working undercover, but that ended in early December 2010 when he was publicly accused of murder in a criminal complaint filed in Islamabad by Karim Khan, a Pakistani journalist whose son and brother, according to local news reports, had been killed by a US drone strike. Allowing Bank to be named was a violation of diplomatic protocol on the part of the Pakistani authorities, and it brought a wave of unwanted publicity. Bank was ordered to leave Pakistan by the CIA, whose officials subsequently told the Associated Press he was transferred because of concerns for his safety. The New York Times reported that there was "strong suspicion" the ISI had played a role in leaking Bank's name to Khan. There was speculation that he was outed as payback for the publication in a New York lawsuit a month earlier of the names of ISI chiefs in connection with the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008. But there was a collateral reason, the retired official said, for the CIA's willingness to send Bank back to America. The Pakistanis needed cover in case their cooperation with the Americans in getting rid of bin Laden became known. The Pakistanis could say: 'You're talking about me? We just kicked out your station chief.'"

Seymour Hersh

Seymour Hersh has written for the New Yorker and the London Review of Books, as well as serving as a Washington correspondent for the New York Times. He established himself at the forefront of investigative journalism more than four decades ago with an exposé of the massacre in My Lai, Vietnam, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. Since then he has uncovered stories such as Kissinger's role in extending the Vietnam War as well as the military torture regime at Abu Ghraib prison. He has won the George Polk prize five times, the National Magazine Award for Public Interest twice, the LA Times Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.