In May, the London Review of Books published a 10,000-word exposé by veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh on the killing of Osama bin Laden. It was widely read online, receiving “more than two million page-views,” according to an editor’s note inserted at the bottom. While Hersh’s account was popular in the Internet’s fever swamps, however, it was given little credence by the mainstream press. The New Yorker, where Hersh has published much of his work, passed on the story. Indeed, the thinly sourced piece seems implausible on its face. The few anonymous sources cited—most of the piece is based on the testimony of a single “retired senior intelligence official”—posit a vast conspiracy by the Obama administration to cover up the true story of how al Qaeda’s founder was located and killed. Such an extraordinary claim demands extraordinary evidence, which Hersh failed to deliver.
Then, in mid-October, Hersh received a much-needed endorsement of sorts from the New York Times Magazine. Writing under the headline “What Do We Really Know About Osama bin Laden’s Death?” Jonathan Mahler did not argue that Hersh was necessarily right. But he considered Hersh’s story just as plausible as those sourced mainly to Obama administration officials. As Mahler explained to Hersh, he “wasn’t going to offer a definitive judgment on what happened,” but instead “saw this as more of a media story, a case study in how constructed narratives become accepted truth.” Mahler’s piece, at more than 7,000 words, was enough to give Hersh’s story a veneer of mainstream acceptability.
Yet Mahler missed a fatal flaw in Hersh’s account. Neither Mahler nor Hersh examined the dozens of publicly available files recovered from Osama bin Laden’s compound. If Mahler had looked at some of these files, which can be found online with ease, he would have discovered that Hersh’s chief source is not credible.
The retired official Hersh cites makes the following claims: Osama bin Laden was being held “hostage” by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency for years prior to the Abbottabad raid. The ISI used bin Laden as “leverage” over al Qaeda and the Taliban before trading him to the United States for cash. The idea that bin Laden was still in charge of al Qaeda’s operations at the time of his death is a “great hoax,” because very little terror plotting could be linked to al Qaeda since 2006. And “nothing has come” of the U.S. government’s analysis of bin Laden’s files.
The documents recovered in the Abbottabad raid show that each of these claims is demonstrably false.
The first set of documents was released in May 2012 via West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. A second set came to light in February of this year as a result of a terror trial in Brooklyn. In May, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released more files on a webpage titled “Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf.”
These three releases constitute a small subset of the total haul recovered in bin Laden’s lair—several dozen out of more than a million documents and files. As The Weekly Standard has reported on more than one occasion, that is the real story. Even so, the documents publicly available contradict Hersh’s piece in crucial ways.
For example, Hersh writes that “bin Laden had been a prisoner of the ISI at the Abbottabad compound since 2006.” This is flat wrong. The Abbottabad files show that al Qaeda’s founder was hardly a “prisoner.” In his final months, bin Laden even worried that Pakistani intelligence operatives were tracking some of his family members and key subordinates.
A more explosive revelation concerning al Qaeda’s dealings with the Pakistani state is in a memo written by bin Laden’s chief lieutenant, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, in July 2010. Al Qaeda was deeply enmeshed in the jihadist insurgency then raging in northern Pakistan. Some Pakistani officials, including those in the ISI, wanted to negotiate a truce. After discussing the matter with Ayman al Zawahiri, then bin Laden’s second-in-command and now al Qaeda’s chief, Rahman and his comrades came up with a plan for the talks. Al Qaeda was willing to make a deal with the Pakistani government, if the military and intelligence services stopped fighting al Qaeda and its allies.
“Our decision was this: We are prepared to leave you [the Pakistanis] be. Our battle is primarily against the Americans. You became part of the battle when you sided with the Americans,” Rahman wrote to bin Laden, outlining the position al Qaeda would take. “If you were to leave us and our affairs alone, we would leave you alone. If not, we are men, and you will be surprised by what you see; God is with us.”