I just finished reading through Seymour Hersh’s latest “blockbuster” investigatory report, published in the London Review of Books, and I’m underwhelmed. Relying primarily on a single, unnamed allegedly senior source, Hersh penetrates the fog of war and offers his omniscient take on the bin Laden raid. According to Hersh, the Obama administration fabricated virtually everything about bin Laden’s death except the bare facts that the died at the hands of Navy SEALs at the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Some of his allegations, if true, would (or should) have significant geopolitical ramifications. For example, he claims that bin Laden was essentially in Pakistani custody, guarded by Pakistani intelligence and cared for by a designated Pakistani doctor. Not only that, the Saudis were “financing bin Laden’s upkeep.” In other words, our ostensible allies were guarding and funding America’s worst enemy.
Other allegations make less sense, such as the claim that leaked accounts of a firefight were totally fabricated to avoid giving the impression that the SEALs were “murdering” bin Laden. After all, this was not a police raid, but a special forces mission undertaken pursuant to a Congressional authorization for the use of force. The only context where killing him would be anything approaching “murder” would be in the event he clearly and unambiguously surrendered but was shot anyway. Otherwise, it’s lawful to barge into his room and even shoot him while he’s sleeping, provided there’s positive identification.
While I think it’s highly likely — likely to the point of near-certainty — that the Obama administration has either fabricated some elements of the story or (to be charitable) placed the most favorable possible reading on conflicting and confusing reports, I find it implausible — to the point of near-impossibility — that Seymour Hersh and his single source have the God’s-eye-view on both the raid and the pre-raid intel. It’s hard to overemphasize how pervasive and opaque the fog of war truly is. The SEALs actually on the ground all experienced different things from different perspectives, so even if we were able to hear from them individually historians would still argue about the exact chain of events on the ground in Abbottabad. Regarding the pre-raid intelligence, it will take mass-scale declassification for any of us to feel comfortable asserting what the CIA or Pentagon knew or should have known about bin Laden’s whereabouts and Pakistani (or Saudi) complicity.
While Hersh has uncovered his share of journalistic scoops, it’s also true that some of his other stories have proven to be more the byproduct of ideological wishful thinking than true and rigorous reporting. So read his latest story, but read it with a healthy dose of skepticism.