Sy Hersh and Osama bin Laden: The Right and the Wrong

A wax figure of Osama bin Laden, Międzyzdroje, Poland, September 2008
Mark Power/Magnum Photos
A wax figure of Osama bin Laden, Międzyzdroje, Poland, September 2008


On May 1, 2011, President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed in a “targeted operation” carried out by a “small team of Americans.” The raid was conducted, he explained, after “years of painstaking work by our intelligence community” had uncovered bin Laden’s hiding place in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Obama said the successful attack was “the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al-Qaeda.”

During the past few years, the CIA’s claim to having successfully tracked down Osama bin Laden through extensive intelligence work has come under scrutiny by a small group of skeptics. Seymour Hersh, the widely admired investigative journalist who uncovered the My Lai massacre in 1969, is perhaps the most insistent and vocal among them. His own controversial account of how the CIA found and killed the founder of al-Qaeda originally appeared as “The Killing of Osama bin Laden” in the London Review of Books last May, and has now been published in a book of the same name, along with three other essays concerning US policy and Syria.

According to the US government’s official account, the CIA, through “painstaking work,” had identified a “courier” who delivered messages to bin Laden at a house in Abbottabad. Bin Laden and his family had been living there for several years, unknown to the Pakistani military’s Interservices Intelligence (ISI). The house had been especially built for the families of bin Laden, the courier, and the courier’s brother on land that the courier had personally bought. According to the US government, the CIA never informed the ISI of its discovery, nor did it inform it about the planned US Special Forces attack. The subsequent covert airborne raid by SEAL Team Six resulted in the death of bin Laden, bin Laden’s son, the courier, and the courier’s brother and brother’s wife. Bin Laden’s body was flown out in one of the helicopters and buried at sea within twenty-four hours, in keeping with Islamic custom.

When the story of bin Laden’s killing was made public, crowds of people gathered at the White House and Ground Zero to celebrate what was understood to be an American victory in the war on terror. The CIA was praised for its intelligence work, Obama for his decisiveness in authorizing the attack, and the US SEALs for their courage and success in carrying out the raid. Soon after the announcement, however, the official US account of what happened was called into question as new information was made public that contradicted the story initially told by the government. John Brennan, the deputy national security adviser, originally told reporters that bin Laden had “engaged in a firefight” with the US SEALs conducting the raid.…

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