Hersh Furor Bares Pakistan's Perfidy More Than Obama's

Journalist Seymour Hersh speaks at a forum in Doha, Qatar, April 1, 2007. Fadi Al-Assaad/Reuters

Everybody seems to have a story about Seymour Hersh. Mine goes way back to sometime in 1971, about two years after I got back from Vietnam. Late one night in Boston, my phone rang. It was Hersh, asking what I knew about the CIA's Phoenix assassination program. He'd heard that I'd given testimony about it from my time as a military intelligence spy-handler in Vietnam. He didn't waste time on niceties.

Of course I knew who he was. He was already world famous from his recent exposé of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. What more could I tell him? he demanded. Could I corroborate what somebody else had said about the torture of a captive? Did I know about so-and-so, such-and-such? The questions came ratatatat, more of an interrogation than an interview. And then he was gone. The 1972 publication of his book Coverup, which showed how high-level U.S. Army officers buried the facts of yet another Vietnamese massacre, got far less attention than his original Pulitzer Prize-winning My Lai story, which focused on the soldiers.

Exposing high-level skullduggery is Hersh's line of work, as has been fully noted again this week, in stories recounting his astounding exposés in the Watergate affair, the CIA's meddling in Chile, CIA domestic spying and so on, right down to the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, which pried open the window on CIA torture—stories that turned out, with notable exceptions, to be right on the money. But even way back then, Hersh was as much a story as his revelations. His taser-like style was legendary four decades ago. As somebody cracked this week, he's the Alec Baldwin of journalism, quick to take umbrage at questions about his work. So it went last week with the publication of his 10,000-word blockbuster about the Obama administration's multiple versions of the Osama Bin Laden assassination, which he proclaimed were full of "lies, misstatements and betrayals," something that "might have been written by Lewis Carroll." When critics leveled similar charges about his own story, Hersh's response was pretty much, "Get off my lawn."

To be sure, Hersh's main Bin Laden story—that Pakistan protected the Al-Qaeda boss for years—is full of loony-sounding allegations, particularly the one about the SEAL team raiders tossing pieces of his corpse over the Hindu Kush. And while it's an axiom of journalism that a story is only as strong as its weakest link, all the fuss about the links has obscured the chain: that Pakistan's perfidy always gets a pass when the White House decides it's convenient.

The fact is that American presidents have used Pakistan like a call girl for decades, turning blind eyes to its deadly obsession with India as long as we got what we wanted. In the 1970s, the Nixon administration ignored Pakistan's genocide in India-backed Bangladesh because we were using Islamabad as a secret diplomatic conduit to China. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration covered up Islamabad's clandestine nuclear bomb program because it needed it to wage a war on the Russians in Afghanistan. (The Pakistanis were delighted to employ its fellow Sunni holy warriors, like Bin Laden, in the task.) And what happened to Bin Laden and his lieutenants after we came after them in Afghanistan in late 2001? They vanished into Pakistan, with, according to many believable reports at the time, Islamabad's help.

The details of Bin Laden's whereabouts over the following decade have remained buried. He is thought to have spent the first five years in a cave in Pakistan's tribal area, hidden away in a virtual witness protection program. Hersh was hardly the first to charge that the Pakistanis eventually squirreled away Bin Laden in Abbottabad, home to the nation's West Point and many of its top military and intelligence officials. Or that, confronted with the Americans' discovery of him there (thanks to a Pakistani turncoat), the Pakistanis facilitated the May 2011 SEAL raid. Indeed, former Pakistani and American intelligence officials were saying as much within hours of the operation.

On May 7, 2011, a well connected former Pakistani tank officer, Agha H. Amin, noted that no local security forces showed up during the entire 40 minutes that the SEALs were mucking around in Bin Laden's prominent compound, which began with a very loud helicopter crash and ended with a very noisy exit.

"How do you rationalise the fact that two Pakistani battalions had cordoned [off] the areas 15 minutes before the raid and when the raid started Pakistani troops warned the area's residents to switch off their lights!" Amin wrote in the Lahore edition of The Nation. "When I said it on 7 May 2011 it was a conspiracy theory," Amin wrote on his Linkedin page this week. "But when Hersh stated it [in] May 2015 it's investigative journalism."

Now, Pakistani journalism is a cesspool of rumors and conspiracy theories. But The New York Times's veteran foreign correspondent in the region, Carlotta Gall, also reminded us this week that Hersh "is following up on a story that many of us assembled parts of" years ago. In 2013, she said, "I learned from a high-level member of the Pakistani intelligence service that the ISI had been hiding Bin Laden and ran a desk specifically to handle him as an intelligence asset. After [my] book came out, I learned more: that it was indeed a Pakistani Army brigadier—all the senior officers of the ISI are in the military—who told the CIA where Bin Laden was hiding, and that Bin Laden was living there with the knowledge and protection of the ISI."

Hersh did not identify the alleged Pakistani "walk-in" who he claims volunteered information on Bin Laden's location to the CIA in exchange for $25 million and relocation to the U.S. But this week a respected Pakistani reporter, Amir Mir, identified him as "none other than an ISI official—Brigadier Usman Khalid."

Mir added, "The retired Brigadier, who has already been granted American citizenship along with his entire family members, persuaded Dr Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani physician, to conduct a fake polio campaign in the Bilal Town area of Abbottabad to help the Central Intelligence Agency hunt down Osama."

Nonsense, said former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell. It never happened. In Friday's Wall Street Journal, Morell laid out a persuasive rebuttal of virtually every detail in Hersh's jeremiad, calling it "wrong in almost every significant respect." Gathering DNA via the CIA's polio doctor? False. The "walk-in"? False. The fake Bin Laden burial? False. "How do I know?" he wrote. "I heard the president give the order, and I saw photographs and video of the burial at sea."

Morell finds it astonishing that Hersh and expert journalists like Carlotta Gall would take the word of their own sources "over on-the-record statements made in the past four years by people who were in the room—or on the scene." Then again, Morell insists that CIA torture "produced reams of crucially important intelligence," a claim contradicted by the CIA's own internal documents and illuminated in a PBS Frontline documentary this week, Secrets, Politics and Torture.

But another of Morell's denials deserves more attention. He knocks Hersh's claim that the Bin Laden raid was a joint U.S.-Pakistani operation, right down to senior generals shutting off Islamabad's air defenses as the SEAL helicopters came over the mountains.

"The truth is that the decision not to tell the Pakistanis was made early in the discussions of our options," Morell wrote. "We would have liked to have made the raid a joint operation with the Pakistanis—what better way to strengthen the bilateral relationship?—but we simply couldn't trust that someone in the Pakistani system would not tip off Bin Laden."

Now that rings true. It also goes a long way toward explaining how Bin Laden escaped from Afghanistan and remained undetected in Abbotabad for a half dozen years. Our close friends the Pakistanis were protecting him. Did we really not know, or is there yet another chapter to be told?

Morell called Hersh's piece "one of the most badly flawed documents ever produced by a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer." But he and others in the Obama administration have a lot more explaining to do themselves.

Correction: $25 million is the amount reportedly paid to the alleged Pakistani "walk-in" who Hersh claims volunteered information on Bin Laden's location to the CIA. The incorrect figure $25,000 appeared in an earlier version of this article.