Did Seymour Hersh Uncover the Powerful and Obnoxious Odor of Mendacity?

05/19/2015 09:37 am ET | Updated May 19, 2016

In the movie Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the patriarch, Big Daddy, observes:

"What's that smell in this room? ... Didn't you notice a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room?"

It seems that Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has picked up Big Daddy's observation and spread it all over his 10,000-word piece in the London Review of Books. But one need only read the first 76 words before they are greeted with "This is false," referring to the public narrative of the assassination of Osama bin Laden orchestrated by the White House.

The White House version says it was months of intelligence that finally uncovered the location of bin Laden, who had been hiding in plain sight in Abbottabad, Pakistan. But Hersh contends that Pakistan's intelligence service captured bin Laden years earlier and was holding him as a bargaining chip with Saudi Arabia.

In Hersh's account, finding bin Laden had more to do with the $25 million reward and a Pakistani military official's willingness to tell the American government of his whereabouts in exchange for a portion of the lucrative compensation. And in the early morning of May 2, 2011, with the knowledge of the Pakistani government, Navy SEALs assassinated bin Laden, who was in essence a sitting duck.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest recently responded to Hersh's piece:

I can tell you that the Obama White House is not the only one to observe that the story is riddled with inaccuracies and outright falsehoods. The former deputy director of the CIA, Mike Morell, has said that every sentence was wrong.

The White House's blanket denial saves time and energy, but it fails to address Hersh's mendacity charge. I understand why the White House would not wish to respond to every negative criticism leveled in its direction, but this is different.

As much as the White House wishes to portray Hersh as the crazy uncle who somehow escaped from the attic just in time to crank out 10,000 words around the fourth anniversary of bin Laden's death, he's not some disgruntled hack sitting in his basement, producing daily manifestoes between Froot Loops and video games.

One of the protagonists in Hersh's article is the CIA -- an agency that, in December, was vilified in a 500-page report by the Senate Intelligence Committee for its blatant lies deceiving the press and Congress about its torture practices over the last decade.

It would be the peak of irony if it were proven that the mendacious behavior of the previous administration continued into the current one.

Mendacity, in my view, is the looming shadow that hovers over the war in Iraq -- the costly post-9/11 non sequitur that needlessly robbed the nation of its blood, treasure and credibility. Beyond suppositions and the innocuous "mistakes were made," we still don't have a collective understanding of what occurred in creating arguably the worst foreign policy decision in this nation's history, and one that, for a period, made fear the dominant value in American politics.

The current White House has already made statements about the bin Laden assassination that were proven false. Is it inconceivable that other corrections are warranted?

Assuming momentarily that Hersh's account is correct, does it matter if the White House lied? Was killing bin Laden so crucial to the nation's psyche that it became a Machiavellian moment in realpolitik where the ends justified the means?

If the death of bin Laden is the asterisk that supports actions that would otherwise be deemed unacceptable from our government, Hersh's work is already much ado about nothing in the public square, regardless of its authenticity or lack thereof.

But that's too easy, too convenient.

Moreover, this is not a partisan issue. It is not Benghazi; it goes to the heart of who and what we are as a nation. A government that, in the last 50-plus years, has given us Gulf of Tonkin, My Lai, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, Iran Contra, and the Iraq war cannot be presumed to be above suspicion.

Far more journalistic ink has been committed thus far to discrediting Hersh than ascertaining whether the charges he presents against the White House have any validity.

Maybe the powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity is tolerable if it meets our perceived needs.