Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Evil But Stupid

On May 10, the London Review of Books published “The Killing of Osama bin Laden,” a 10,000-word piece by veteran reporter Seymour Hersh. The story argued that the official White House narrative of the al Qaeda leader’s killing was a fabrication. The intelligence blogger R. J. Hillhouse had made similar claims a few years earlier, which had gone largely ignored in the US. But these allegations came from the most celebrated investigative journalist of the past half-century — they received more attention. The number of people trying to read Hersh’s story online was enough to crash the LRB’s website, something their many articles on Greco-Roman numismatics had previously failed to do.

Hersh’s story was largely sourced from an unnamed retired US intelligence official, whose direct quotes are scattered through the piece, and whose account of the bin Laden raid is backed by testimony from several defense consultants and the former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (all of whom, as Hersh’s detractors quickly pointed out, are retired or otherwise out of the loop). Its main claim was that Pakistan’s government had been holding bin Laden under house arrest in a compound in Abbottabad since 2006. The US government claims the raid was the result of years of patient intelligence work, which culminated in the identification of bin Laden’s courier (through the use of “enhanced” interrogation techniques, as famously depicted in the movie Zero Dark Thirty), who was then tracked back to the compound. Hersh says the precipitating event was, instead, just an unplanned accident: in 2010, a retired officer of the Pakistani intelligence service walked into the US Embassy and offered to reveal bin Laden’s location in exchange for $25 million, the reward the US had offered since 2001.

This initial event set off a chain of consequences. First, Hersh says, the US attempted to confirm the story with Pakistan’s chief of army staff and the head of the country’s intelligence service. Eventually, after threats, bribery, and blackmail, Pakistani officials admitted they had custody of bin Laden and were coerced into offering a sample of his DNA to prove it. Pakistan’s situation, Hersh claims, was complicated: they were using bin Laden as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Taliban and al Qaeda, and they were also receiving payments from bin Laden’s Saudi Arabian sources to finance his upkeep. They needed foreign aid and support, but they couldn’t publicly hand bin Laden, a popular hero in Pakistan, over to the US. According to Hersh, the deal they struck was that they wouldn’t oppose a US raid on bin Laden’s compound, but bin Laden had to be killed.

The raid was planned for May 2, 2011. As it was in the interest of both sides to keep their cooperation secret, the initial plan, according to Hersh, was to say that bin Laden had been killed by a drone strike in the mountains on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where he was widely believed to be hiding. The Pakistan Army agreed that on the night of the raid they would turn a blind eye to the presence of American helicopters in their airspace. The guards at bin Laden’s compound were ordered to leave as soon as they heard the sound of approaching choppers.

The broad outlines of Hersh’s account match those of the official version: two Black Hawk helicopters brought an elite team of Navy SEALs to bin Laden’s compound. One crashed on the lawn while attempting to land. The SEALs forced their way into the building, blasted through security doors, and surprised bin Laden in his room. But Hersh’s story features no armed guards, no firefight, no wives used as human shields. Nor was bin Laden killed in self-defense, as the White House still maintains. One of the pleasures of reading Hersh’s account is the way it elegantly dismantles aspects of the story that seemed suspect from the beginning, and first among these is the notion that bin Laden, had he surrendered, would have been taken alive. “Let’s face it,” the retired intelligence officer told Hersh. “We’re going to commit a murder.”

After this point Hersh’s story and the administration’s largely jibe. Although they offer differing assessments of the quantity and value of the intelligence gathered from bin Laden’s compound, and the care with which it was collected, both agree that the SEALs took at least some of bin Laden’s papers (the administration claimed there was also computer equipment, which Hersh’s source denies) and went outside to wait for a backup helicopter. Before they left, the SEALs set a controlled explosion in the crashed helicopter to destroy its communications equipment. Hersh argues that these last actions should be seen as indirect confirmation of Pakistan’s support for the raid: if there really was a high risk of detection — the sort of risk you might expect when landing two helicopters in the heart of Pakistan’s military establishment — the SEALs would have abandoned their body armor and weapons, left the damaged helicopter intact for the Pakistanis to find, and crammed into the remaining helicopter for the return trip.

After the raid was complete, Hersh claims, there was a third unplanned event: the White House rushed to share the news. The original plan had been to wait a week and then claim that a drone strike had killed bin Laden in the Hindu Kush mountains, just across the border in Afghanistan. But given the helicopter crash and resulting fireball, the Obama Administration felt the raid would be impossible to keep under wraps for a week. With the vocal exception, Hersh says, of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Obama’s advisers urged him to go public with the story as quickly as possible, before the Pentagon could announce it and take credit for it. According to Hersh, the White House had no press plan to implement should the raid go awry, no backup story. So they had to make up the story as they presented it to the world. Over the course of a few weeks, this scrambling produced inconsistencies. Bin Laden used a woman as a human shield; then he didn’t. Bin Laden was buried at sea from a naval vessel; the ship’s log has no record of any such burial. Bin Laden was shooting at SEALs when he was shot; or he wasn’t. And so on.

Hersh’s article solved several puzzles in the official report of bin Laden’s death. How could he have been hiding in a compound less than a mile from an elite military academy without Pakistan’s knowledge (a question raised in the days after the attack by the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Dianne Feinstein, among others)? Why, when bin Laden’s neighbors called the Abbottabad police after the SEALs’ helicopter crashed, did the Pakistani military tell the police not to respond? Why had Obama, in his speech announcing the news, originally claimed that the raid was due to the help of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, only to refute this claim the next day? Why were the pictures of bin Laden’s supposed burial at sea at first kept classified and then said to have been destroyed?

Then the melee began. (...)

Is Hersh paranoid? In some ways, the label seems appropriate. He has written about the private lives of the Kennedys and claimed that high-ranking military officials are members of the Knights of Malta and Opus Dei (although, as Greg Grandin pointed out in the Nation, a number of current and former high-ranking military officials really have been members of extreme right-wing Christian sects such as the Knights of Malta). In its unending accumulation of detail after disastrous detail, Hersh’s reporting often has the screwball plotting of a Pynchon novel. If the subject matter weren’t so upsetting, his reports would be funny.

But in other respects, the term doesn’t fit. Hersh’s stories break down complex events into chains of isolated, largely reactive individual decisions. His reporting never points back, as Pynchon’s novels do, to shadowy conspiracies; there is no titanic clash between impersonal forces, no central organizing principle, only human action churning away. Near the beginning of Hersh’s book on the Iraq war, an intelligence official complaining about the “enhanced interrogation” tactics at Guantánamo says, “It was wrong and also dysfunctional.” A few pages later, this refrain is repeated by another source: “It’s evil, but it’s also stupid.”

Evil but also stupid: that’s the keynote of the book, and in some ways of Hersh’s entire career. He is a great chronicler of bureaucracy. His stories are powered by scenes of administrative incompetence, organizational stupidity, turf warfare, inadequate foresight, random outbursts of violence, disorganized reactions, and self-serving attempts by everyone involved to spin the narrative of events to their own advantage. The bin Laden story depends on a string of uncoordinated accidents — the walk-in, the helicopter crash — and a series of mostly unsuccessful responses, culminating in the White House’s rush to claim public credit for the raid without informing the Pentagon or its Pakistani allies.

by The Editors, N+1 |  Read more:
Image: Pete Sousa