The revelations, assertions and accusations made by Seymour Hersh in his “London Review of Books” piece on “The Killing of Osama bin Laden” are worthy of a Nobel Prize for fiction or, better yet, fantasy. For those who have neither read nor heard of this 10,000 word descent into wonderland, Hersh asserts that the raid that killed bin Laden four years ago was a set-up wonderfully play acted by President Barack Obama and his entire national security team from the Pentagon, State Department and CIA to Capitol Hill and the Pakistani Army and ISI who allegedly had been holding Osama prisoner as a means to control al Qaeda and the Taliban. What was that marvelous Hollywood tune with the key line that applies here: Sy, “you take my breath away?”
For a conspiracy driven nation like Pakistan, no doubt the Hersh narrative opened old wounds and provoked new ones. After all, that Osama was hiding barely a rifle shot away from the Pakistani equivalent of America’s West Point in Abbottabad raised two profoundly and exquisitely contradictory conclusions. Either the Pakistani military and intelligence services were incompetent and did not know. Or Pakistan was complicit and had been sheltering bin Laden for years. Hersh clearly chooses the latter answer.
It is a pity that Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum are dead because the Hersh piece would have made for a great movie with either James Bond or Jason Bourne in the lead. Imagine M, the venerable head of Britain’s Secret Service summoning Bond with the word that Osama was indeed alive and to prevent a potential crisis between America and Pakistan, Bond had to kidnap or kill the architect of September 11th. And who would have played bin Laden? One wonders.
It is hard to recall when such an over the top story was accorded this much attention and not immediately dismissed as absolute drivel. One needs to go back nearly eighty years when twenty-three year old Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater Company broadcast H.G. Welles’ “War of the Worlds” and an invasion of earth by Mars. The radio broadcast was taken as real reporting. Over 1,000,000 Americans believed the attack was taking place and, for a few minutes, the country was at panic stations.
Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed with the bin Laden saga. But, still, some suspended disbelief. After all, conspiracy theories are often fun. And why not stand truth and fact on their respective heads?
The most obvious antidote to such nonsensical but amusing prose is the absolute impossibility of the U.S. government keeping such a ruse secret. Suppose Generals Ashraf Pervez Kayani, Army Chief of Staff, and Ahmed Shuja Pasha, Director General of ISI were in league with American counterparts Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Leon Panetta, Director of the CIA. How many hundreds or thousands of others would have had to be in on this fabricated tale? It is inconceivable that someone higher up or lower in the chain of command would not have blown the whistle or leaked to the press. Indeed, an abundance of disclosures on the actual raid subsequently flooded the media.
Former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell wrote a devastating critique in last week’s Wall Street Journal destroying on a point-by-point factual basis Hersh’s tale. And if President Obama had one nightmarish scenario in mind, it was not that such a staged attack would be found out. Rather, Obama did not want to repeat a second Desert One raid that failed to free fifty-four American hostages taken prisoners in Tehran in 1979 when the U.S. Embassy was overrun by Iranian “students” and held captive for 444 days.
The larger question is why is such a palpable fairy tale taken seriously? One can argue that Hersh’s journalistic coup in revealing the My Lai massacre in Vietnam in 1968 for which he won a Pulitzer Prize and subsequent scoops gave his reporting great credibility. Of course continued distrust of government plays to conspiracy reporting. And that bin Laden could have been hiding in plain sight for so many years in Abbottabad was very troubling.
All that withstanding, the facts are irrefutable. Hersh made news—bad news. And before believing such inventive and intriguing fiction, as Ronald Reagan famously said, “trust but verify.” In this case verification makes Hersh’s article a nominee for best fantasy of 2015.