White House calls Seymour Hersh story about Osama bin Laden raid ‘baseless’

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Dylan Stableford
·Senior Writer
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President Obama announcing the death of Osama bin Laden, May 1, 2011. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

Famed investigative journalist Seymour Hersh is standing by his controversial account of the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden despite a growing chorus of critics, including the White House, who say his version is flat-out wrong.

“This is not a wager,” Hersh told CNN’s “New Day” Monday. “This is a story that has to be dealt with by this government very seriously.”

“The White House’s story might have been written by Lewis Carroll,” Hersh wrote in a 10,356-word report published in the London Review of Books Sunday. “Would bin Laden, target of a massive international manhunt, really decide that a resort town 40 miles from Islamabad would be the safest place to live and command al-Qaida’s operations? He was hiding in the open. So America said.”

The White House refuted Hersh’s account Monday, calling his report “baseless.”

“There are too many inaccuracies and baseless assertions in this piece to fact-check each one,” White House National Security spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

Citing an anonymous “major U.S. source” described as “a retired senior intelligence official who was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad,” Hersh alleges that the White House engaged in what amounts to a massive conspiracy. He writes that:

• The U.S. was tipped off to bin Laden’s whereabouts by a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer, who was paid nearly $25 million for that information. The Obama administration has said repeatedly it located the terror leader by tracking his couriers.

• Two senior Pakistani military officials knew about the raid in advance, Hersh writes, contrary to the White House’s insistence that no one outside a small group of senior U.S. officials was informed of the operation.

• There was no firefight during the nighttime raid on the Abbottabad compound, because bin Laden was being held there as a prisoner by the Pakistani military; the only shots fired, Hersh writes, were the ones that the Navy SEALs used to kill bin Laden.

• The Obama administration had initially agreed with Pakistani officials to say bin Laden had been killed by a U.S. drone strike in the mountains a week after the raid but that President Obama decided to go public that night.

Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morrell calls the report nonsense.

“It’s all wrong. I started reading the article last night. I got a third of the way through and I stopped, because every sentence I was reading was wrong,” Morrell said on “CBS This Morning.” “The source that Hersh talked to has no idea what he’s talking about.

“The person obviously was not close to what happened. The Pakistanis did not know,” Morrell continued. “The president made a decision not to tell the Pakistanis. The Pakistanis were furious with us. The president sent me to Pakistan after the raids to try to start smoothing things over.”

“The notion that the operation that killed [bin Laden] was anything but a unilateral U.S. mission is patently false,” Price said. “As we said at the time, knowledge of this operation was confined to a very small circle of senior U.S. officials. The president decided early on not to inform any other government, including the Pakistani government, which was not notified until after the raid had occurred. We had been and continue to be partners with Pakistan in our joint effort to destroy al-Qaida, but this was a U.S. operation through and through.”

CNN National Security analyst Peter Bergen called Hersh’s account of the bin Laden raid “a farrago of nonsense that is contravened by a multitude of eyewitness accounts, inconvenient facts and simple common sense.”

According to Bergen, who wrote “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden — From 9/11 to Abbottabad,” Hersh’s story “reads like Frank Underwood from ‘House of Cards’ has made an unholy alliance with Carrie Mathison from ‘Homeland’ to produce a Pakistani version of Watergate.”

Other critics wondered why Hersh’s explosive story was not published in the New Yorker, where he has been a regular contributor since 1993.  According to Vox.com, the magazine “had rejected it repeatedly, to the point of creating bad blood between Hersh and [New Yorker] editor in chief David Remnick.”

In 2013, Hersh told the Guardian newspaper that the Obama administration’s account of the bin Laden killing is “one big lie, not one word of it is true,” and that he was devoting a chapter of an upcoming book — “an alternative history of the war on terror” — to the raid.

On CNN, Hersh, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1970, defended his use of an anonymous retired source.

“It’s very tough for guys still inside to get quoted extensively,” he said. “There are other people who have retired with great information, so it’s much easier to quote some of them than somebody on active duty.”

Hersh did admit he may have gotten one detail wrong: that the U.S. Navy SEALs practiced for the bin Laden raid in Nevada — not in Utah, as his piece suggests.

“If I’m wrong about Utah, that’s just a mistake, because I know exactly where they were in Nevada,” he said. “Sometimes my geography gets lousy.”