Seymour Hersh Reignites the Bin Laden Raid Controversy

By: Air CDR (Ret.) Jamal Hussain, Pakistani Air Force

The news that broke in Pakistan on the morning of 2 May 2011, that a US special operations team had conducted a daring night raid inside Pakistan to eliminate terrorist Osama bin Laden, left the Pakistani public in a state of shock and utter disbelief. At first, a significant majority in the country refused to accept that bin Laden could have sought refuge—or, possibly, been given shelter by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)—at a location scarcely more than a stone's throw from the Army's prestigious military academy at Kakul. As the narrative unfolded over time, however, the truth about the presence of bin Laden in Abbottabad and his elimination by a US SOF team finally dawned on a deeply humiliated nation, but most people remained highly skeptical about the official American version of the raid.

An exposé by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, "The Killing of Osama bin Laden," published in the May 2015 London Review of Books, categorically rejected the American claim that "the mission was an all-American affair, and that the senior generals of Pakistan's army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) were not told of the raid in advance."1 A sizable section of the Pakistani public agreed with Hersh's assertion, igniting a fresh debate over the raid within Pakistan that had the skeptics gloating, "I told you so." While Hersh's reputation for professional integrity makes it hard to dismiss this latest piece on the bin Laden raid, at the same time, his past acclaim should not guarantee automatic acceptance of his viewpoint.

Before embarking on a critical examination of the bin Laden raid narrative as pieced together by Hersh, it would help to briefly assess one of the assumptions on which he apparently bases his version of events. Hersh claims that the helicopters carrying the SOF operators could have ingressed deep (about 100 nautical miles) inside Pakistani airspace undetected only if someone high in Pakistan's military command were complicit with the raiders. If this conjecture is faulty, as I believe it is, then Hersh's entire analysis is built on a dubious foundation.

On the night of 1 May 2011, in the border sector where the raiders crossed into Pakistan's airspace, there were only a few low-level radars deployed between Peshawar and Abbottabad, whose primary function was to facilitate and monitor local Pakistan Air Force (PAF) activity. Because friendly NATO and International Security Assistance Force airpower operating across the border in Afghanistan had full control of the airspace, no serious threat was envisaged from the western front—hence, comprehensive low-level radar coverage of the western front was not considered necessary.2

The PAF does have airborne sensors in the form of airborne early warning and control (AEWC) platforms, which can greatly enhance low-level detection capability when deployed in a given sector. There were no AEWC aircraft in the air when the raid materialized on that fateful night, however, because these very expensive systems are meant for use primarily during actual war or in military exercises. With the aid of the electronic surveillance and electronic countermeasure capabilities that it possessed, the US Air Force could therefore easily have plotted the range of the handful of low-level radars deployed in the sector and selected a route well beyond their detection capability. Using a combination of stealth technology, nap-of-the-earth flying (terrain masking, flying under the radar), and a route plotted to keep them in the shadow of the hills, flying in undetected was, to use a cliché, a piece of cake for the raiders. It is believed that in addition to all of these precautions, the flight team had a contingency plan to spoof and jam the PAF radars if any units still managed to pick up the aircraft.3

General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha

Hersh's assumption that the PAF had the wherewithal to guarantee detection of four ultra-low flying helicopters, two of which were masked with stealth technology, even over such a distance, displays his naïveté about the workings of air defense systems. In any investigation, when the investigator accepts certain assumptions as truth, there is a subsequent tendency to cherry-pick only that evidence that supports the initial assumptions, even if it comes from sources that are normally considered unreliable and unacceptable. What follows is a chronological sequence of key events before, during, and after the actual raid, as portrayed by Hersh.

  1. Bin Laden's presence in Pakistan was disclosed by a "walk-in"—a retired senior ISI officer who came unbidden to the US embassy in Islamabad in August 2010. The officer told officials there that bin Laden was being kept in protective custody by the ISI at an isolated compound in Abbottabad.
  2. General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the powerful chief of the army staff, and Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the head of the ISI, initially denied any knowledge of bin Laden's presence in the country but eventually had to concede that he was in their custody. They were persuaded to cooperate with the CIA-conceived plan to kill or capture bin Laden after negotiating for some quids pro quo, particularly regarding military aid.
  3. Kayani and Pasha were kept in the loop about the air raid and were made responsible for ensuring that the PAF stayed out of the way.4 They were also told in no uncertain terms that any efforts to relocate bin Laden from his Abbottabad hideout would have serious consequences not only for the Pakistani generals but for their country as well. For their part, Kayani and Pasha insisted that "you can't have a big strike force. You have to come in lean and mean. And you have to kill him, or there is no deal." 5
  4. The two sides jointly agreed that the United States would wait a week before formally announcing that bin Laden had been killed by a drone strike in the hilly region of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, a story that Pakistan would subsequently confirm. The crash of one of the Blackhawks as it attempted to drop team members onto the Abbottabad compound's rooftop, however, made it impossible to keep the raid a secret. Once it was clear that the mission had succeeded, a backroom argument began in the White House: "Should Obama stand by the agreement with Kayani and Pasha and pretend a week or so later that bin Laden had been killed in a drone attack in the mountains, or should he go public immediately? The downed helicopter made it easy for Obama's political advisers to urge the latter plan. ... Obama had to ‘get out in front of the story' before someone in the Pentagon did." 6
  5. Much to the dismay of US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Obama acted on the advice of his political team, taking all the credit for the mission with only a vague mention of any involvement by the Pakistani government: "It's important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding." 7 Kayani and Pasha had little choice but to accept the official US version, refuting any involvement with the US plan or prior knowledge of bin Laden's presence in the country. The appearance of incompetency was a lesser evil for them than complicity.
  6. Hersh maintains that the sea burial of bin Laden's remains cannot be verified and, according to his unnamed source, never took place. In his telling, the remains were either strewn over the Hindu Kush mountains or interred in some undisclosed location.

Each of these points presents some problems. On the subject of the ISI walk-in postulated by Hersh, although such a possibility cannot be ruled out, Hersh fails to provide any credible source to support this story beyond the one unnamed former US intelligence official who is the sole source for almost the entire article. The US administration provided a slightly different version of events. In the initial press briefing after the raid, a senior intelligence official confirmed, in guarded terms, that Pakistan had provided crucial information that intensified the CIA's focus on the Abbottabad compound. "‘The Pakistanis did not know of our interest in the compound,' said the official, ‘but they did provide us information that helped us develop a clearer focus on this compound over time. … [T]hey provided us information attached to [the compound] to help us complete the robust intelligence case that … eventually carried the day.'" 8 One reporter's version of the story claimed that "the ISI had given the CIA a mobile phone number without knowing its significance and that US surveillance of that number led eventually" to an al Qaeda courier and finally to bin Laden.9 This was apparently the extent of the cooperation to which Obama had briefly referred in his triumphant announcement.10

President Obama and other officials in the "Situation Room" watching live feed from drones operating over the bin Laden complex

The purported initial denial by Kayani and Pasha of bin Laden's presence in Pakistan and their subsequent admission that the al Qaeda leader was in their custody raise a number of questions. If, as Hersh maintains, bin Laden had been in the ISI's custody in Abbottabad since 2006, then-President and Army General11 Pervez Musharraf must have known about it and given his consent and approval to the scheme. What stopped Musharraf from using this priceless asset to save his rapidly sinking political ship in 2007?12 An offer from him to then-US President George W. Bush to eliminate America's most wanted terrorist—with or without officially admitting the role of Pakistan in his capture—would have been a God-sent opportunity for both of them. For Bush, bin Laden's capture and/or destruction would have been the crowning glory of his presidency, and would have given a significant boost to the Republican Party and the election campaign of the Republican candidate John McCain in the 2008 US presidential election. In an interview with CNN's Piers Morgan in late May 2011, however, Musharraf repeatedly denied any knowledge of bin Laden's presence in Pakistan and clearly stated that had he known, he would have extracted maximum benefit for himself.

Former Presidents George W. Bush and Pervez Musharraf

If there was complicity, and [bin Laden] was there for five years, I get directly involved. That means I was complicit. ... Now, if that was the case, I would like—I would have wanted to take leverage out of it. When I was at the receiving end in the 2007 [inaudible], I should have done something with this Osama bin Laden card and gained advantage. ... I would have done something to turn the tables in my favor. ... I would have used this card in my favor.13

Even conceding that Musharraf missed the trick, what prevented Kayani and Pasha from relocating bin Laden to a much more securely guarded facility when they were initially confronted with his presence in Abbottabad? A cynic might insist that they must have been blackmailed, coerced, or bought off. To begin with, it is simply bizarre to imagine that the ISI would hide a priceless asset like Osama bin Laden in such an undefended and vulnerable spot—that is not how the service is known to operate. Far less valuable assets than bin Laden are guarded very heavily when in ISI custody. Just as important, once Kayani and Pasha were coerced into accepting the US raid plan, could they not have suggested an alternative that would have still allowed the US administration to come out smelling of roses without discrediting the entire nation of Pakistan?14 If, as Hersh insisted, bin Laden was in the custody of the ISI, the agency could have moved him physically, dead or alive, to a remote region of the inaccessible Afghan frontier where the brave SOF team could have staged their heroic raid with far less danger. The failure of the top Pakistani generals to do so would have painted them as dim-witted at best, or traitors at worst. While one may disagree with many of the policies of the top leadership of the Pakistani armed forces, dismissing them as dimwits or traitors is something not even their harshest critics would do. The Hersh version just does not hold water.

Did Kayani, Pasha, and Gates honestly believe, as Hersh implies, that two fully laden Blackhawks could unload heavily armed SOF personnel in a fairly well-built-up area of Pakistan and sit there for a minimum of 30 minutes, and that the entire incident would go unnoticed by the local populace?15 Given the level of cooperation between the ISI and the CIA, as described by Hersh, would it not have made more sense to pre-position a helicopter and a small team of CIA operatives inside the compound, and after taking possession of bin Laden (dead or alive), have them fly off to Afghanistan and then claim, as agreed, that bin Laden was eliminated in a drone strike elsewhere? Was Obama so politically naïve that he gave his blessing to the delayed announcement scheme, or had he planned to double-cross the "not-so-bright" Pakistanis and his own secretary of defense from the outset?

Hersh claims that Obama was able to extract tremendous political mileage from the bin Laden raid, to the point that it was touted as one of his crowning overseas achievements and helped him win reelection in 2012 with relative ease. If Obama blatantly lied to the American public about the raid, however, were his Republican enemies so simpleminded that they could not see through the farce and expose him? A charge of such magnitude, if proven, was bound to have led to Obama's subsequent impeachment. Does Hersh want us to believe that, like Kayani and Pasha, the Republicans are also morons?

Finally, Hersh questions the ceremonial sea burial of bin Laden's remains. His undisclosed sources suggest that the sea burial never took place and that the remains may have been either tossed overboard from the helicopters as they flew over the Hindu Kush mountains or buried elsewhere. While his assertions are within reason, Hersh does not give any verifiable source to back up his claim. In either case, it makes sense for the White House to have made a public display of the body's disposition in a way that prevented bin Laden's followers from turning his burial site into a pilgrimage place for radicals—if any part of him were anywhere on land, someone was bound to claim they knew where it was. Scattering bits of his body across the mountains (and thus leaving his death uncertain), as Hersh claims took place, if it became known, could easily incite a violent backlash among his followers and imitators while making Americans feel squeamish. The sea burial may in fact have been a lie, but it was a good idea nevertheless.

For the general public in Pakistan and the international audience abroad, the failure of the ISI, renowned the world over for its professionalism in the murky world of espionage, to detect the presence of Osama bin Laden so close to the army's prestigious military academy for more than four years is very hard to swallow. While the hunt for bin Laden had the highest priority in the United States, the mere possibility of his presence in Pakistan was a nightmare scenario for both the ISI and the national leadership. Whether the ISI captured him and handed him over to US forces or killed him outright, either action could have had major fallout within Pakistan because of bin Laden's cult following among a section of the public. Harboring him was equally dangerous and likely to be viewed as an extremely hostile act by the United States and its Western allies. Besides economic and political sanctions, Pakistan could have found itself directly in the crosshairs of the American military. The world is a witness to the destruction of Afghanistan and the Taliban-led Afghan government after they dared to refuse to hand over bin Laden to the United States in 2001.

Besides the helicopter crash that woke up the neighborhood, the shooting and blasting of doors by the commandos continued for the next 40 minutes. According to journalist Jane Corbin, neighbors had alerted the local police about the crash of a helicopter, but the police were told to stand down by the Abbottabad army high command.16 The possibility that the Americans had warned the Pakistanis at the last minute about a raid on a high-value target, without specifying who, and that the local authorities judiciously turned a blind eye, is a theory Pakistan's security analysts favor.17

Given the murky history of rogue elements within Pakistan's military and intelligence who are sympathetic to Islamic militants, the possibility that these sympathizers provided support to bin Laden and his motley group at their hideout in Abbottabad cannot be ruled out.18 There is still, however, no conclusive proof whether the presence of bin Laden was known by the country's top intelligence and military commanders, or whether he was indeed in their custody. The one possible explanation for the failure of the ISI to detect bin Laden's presence was its leaders' firm belief and fervent hope that he was either dead or—more likely—barely surviving on the fringes of the Pakistani-Afghan border. The ISI never seriously hunted for bin Laden within Pakistan, thus falling victim to its own canard.

In conclusion, the broad contours of the official US account of the bin Laden raid appear plausible, but as the deputy director of the CIA told one reporter, "there are parts of the US account the world may never be told. ... ‘Not a hundred percent of the story is out there.'" 19 Exaggerations concerning the tactical details of the behind-the-scenes intelligence work and the actual raid, such as those depicted in the Hollywood film Zero Dark Thirty, are at best the kind of propaganda tool very commonly wielded by the victor.20

Seymour Hersh needs to take a closer look at his sources and revisit his monograph on the real story behind Operation Neptune Spear, as the bin Laden raid was known to its planners, if he wishes his latest work to be taken seriously within academia.

About the Author(s):

Air CDR (Ret.) Jamal Hussain is the director of Pakistan's Center for Air Power Studies.

  1. Seymour M. Hersh, "The Killing of Osama bin Laden," London Review of Books 37, no. 10 (21 May 2015): . Hersh received acclaim early in his journalism career for work that exposed the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. More recently he helped break the story of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq.go back up
  2. For details on high- and low-level radar systems function, see Jamal Hussain, "The Phantom Raid," in this issue of CTX. In peacetime, Pakistan does not maintain standing air patrols along its borders. Pilots rotate on standby, ready to scramble instantly when alerted.go back up
  3. In this event, spoofing and jamming were not necessary; the raiders progressed to the destination undetected. Nor was Abbottabad under low-level radar surveillance, perhaps because it was not considered a vulnerable area during peacetime.go back up
  4. Hersh, "Killing of Osama bin Laden."go back up
  5. Ibid.go back up
  6. Ibid.go back up
  7. Ibid.; Macon Phillips, "Osama Bin Laden Dead," What's Happening (blog), 2 May 2011: back up
  8. Gareth Porter, "Exclusive Investigation: The Truth behind the Official Story of Finding Bin Laden," Truthout, 3 May 2012: go back up
  9. Jane Corbin, "Have We Been Told the Truth about Bin Laden's Death?" BBC, 17 June 2015: back up
  10. Ibid. Obama acknowledged Pakistan's cooperation in a single sentence of his post-raid speech. go back up
  11. He did not retire from the Army until November 2007, following reelection.go back up
  12. Musharraf fled Pakistan for exile in Britain in August 2008 after the parliament called for his impeachment.go back up
  13. See minute 4:50 of "CNN Official Interview: Pervez Musharraf Eyeing Old Job," YouTube video, 6:32, posted by CNN, 26 May 2011: back up
  14. According to Hersh, "Pasha and Kayani were responsible for ensuring that Pakistan's army and air defence command would not track or engage with the US helicopters." Hersh, "Killing of Osama bin Laden." Hersh's assumption that someone high in the military command could make such a promise on his own, without taking the PAF air chief into his confidence, is misled. The air defense system of Pakistan is directly under the command of the chief of the Air Staff PAF, and only he could guarantee that there would be no interference with the airborne intruders. The entire ground radar network related to early detection, the airborne early-warning platforms, and the interceptor fleet are entirely under the command of the PAF. In the aftermath of the bin Laden raid, it was the PAF and not the Pakistani army that came under fire for failing to detect the raiders. go back up
  15. Within half an hour of the departure of the helicopters, the attack was breaking news on a number of local TV channels. I personally heard a number of eyewitnesses say they were alarmed by the noise of the helicopter crash and the sound of gunfire. According to some witnesses, any efforts to approach the site were met with warnings in Pashto from loudspeakers within the compound, telling people to stay away.go back up
  16. Corbin, "Have We Been Told the Truth?"go back up
  17. Ibid.go back up
  18. Ibid.go back up
  19. Ibid.go back up
  20. Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Los Angeles: Columbia Pictures, 2012): . Editor's note: You can read a review of the film Zero Dark Thirty by Kalev Sepp in CTX 3, no. 2 (May 2013): 99–101: go back up
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