Seymour Hersh has an incredible story in the London Review of Books that purports to reveal the truth about Osama bin Laden’s life and death in Abbottabad. The crucial details are contained in a single paragraph:
This spring I contacted Durrani and told him in detail what I had learned about the bin Laden assault from American sources: that bin Laden had been a prisoner of the ISI at the Abbottabad compound since 2006; that Kayani and Pasha knew of the raid in advance and had made sure that the two helicopters delivering the Seals to Abbottabad could cross Pakistani airspace without triggering any alarms; that the CIA did not learn of bin Laden’s whereabouts by tracking his couriers, as the White House has claimed since May 2011, but from a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer who betrayed the secret in return for much of the $25 million reward offered by the US, and that, while Obama did order the raid and the Seal team did carry it out, many other aspects of the administration’s account were false.
What follows is a masterclass in pieces of this type. It starts with an unusual tale and a difficult-to-answer question: How on earth was it that bin Laden was able to live right under the noses of the Pakistani military establishment, hiding in plain sight? From there it weaves conspiracy theory, anonymous quotes and just enough truth to concoct an utterly plausible story – but one utterly devoid of facts.
The main source is anonymous. He is described as a “retired senior intelligence official”, which could mean pretty much anything. And most damning of all, he is described as “knowledgeable” about the early intelligence to find and kill bin Laden – which again, when you stop to actually weigh the words, means absolutely zilch. (Interestingly, he also turns out to be an authority on Saudi-Pak relations, the Pakistani military, the US aid programme, Barack Obama’s media briefing strategy, Jimmy Carter and a whole bunch of other things on which he is quoted at length.)
So what are we left with? The only corroboration offered in the story comes from other unnamed officials – and even then only tangential stuff that doesn’t support the thesis – and a retired ISI officer. None offers any verifiable facts. Just vague suggestions that the new account sounds about right, or that the ISI was accused by US officials of working with AQ or the Taliban (hardly surprising).
And there are details that Hersh gets wrong along the way. The US did not say there was a network of couriers keeping bin Laden in touch with AQ – just two brothers – for example.
But for the soft minded it will all ring true.
Which is exactly what conspiracy theories set out to do: Take something odd and weave a plausible explanation. And just because it is plausible doesn’t make it true.