Sy Hersh's revelations about the systematic misrepresentation by the Obama administration of how it brought Osama bin-Laden to bay are causing a stir. Justifiably so. For they puncture the carefully constructed myth of how America revenged itself and renewed itself through this act of righteous justice. Moreover, the account of unsavory chicanery in high places once again spotlights the deceit that now is the hallmark of how our government works.
A year or so after the event, I wrote a piece in The Huffington Post about the CIA-sponsored film Zero Dark Thirty which has entrenched a cartoon version of this mythic story in the popular American mind. That commentary lays out some of the logical contradictions and false notes in the official story on which the film is based. I have incorporated a condensed, slightly modified version, in the belief that it could help serve as a primer for following the argument that the Hersh reporting has triggered.
Here are a few crucial points essential to assessment of Hersh's interpretation. The paramount truth is that while his account may not be the final word on this multifaceted affair, it is considerably closer to the truth than the official story line that we have received from the Obama administration. For one thing, the internal contradictions of that account disqualify it as a valid interpretation of what occurred in what sequence. It also raises doubts as to the motivation of those who composed it.
Second, there is now an admission that indeed there was a "walk-in" informant from the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) unit. The CIA's hurried qualification is to claim that the ISI officer did not provide any critical information and that the original explanation remains the correct one. This assertion is not credible. The unidentified gentleman did not risk his career and person by approaching the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad to sell a rumor that OBL as holed up somewhere in northern Punjab -- a "clue" he well knew would not convince the American authorities to fork over big money.
Moreover, the "walk-in" was a story that has been circulating in intelligence circles for four years. Indeed, it was recounted to me shortly after the OBL killing by a former very high intelligence officer of impeccable credentials who was informed of it by a principal. Furthermore, a careful reading of the Hersh account makes it pretty clear that his unnamed CIA source was Bank -- the former CIA station chief in Islamabad. It's hard to imagine Bank's interest in making up this story. The name leaked by the ISI is a retired Brigadier, Usman Khalid (now deceased) -- according to a Pakistani journalist. However, I have been informed by another senior retired Pakistani officer who is familiar with Khalid that "he couldn't have since he has been living in the UK for a couple of decades." So, it looks like he is the designated fall-guy and diversion.
Hersh has an excellent record as an investigative reporter. He won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking the My Lai story in Vietnam. He also broke the Abu Ghraib story. There clearly is now an orchestrated attempt to discredit him. People like Peter Bergen are trotted out; this is the CNN so-called security specialist who wrote the popular book on the Seals' OBL mission. He swallowed whole what was fed him by the CIA and the White House and now his reputation turns on defending his witting or unwitting role as the purveyor of pulp fiction. This sounds harsh -- but this is the harsh truth about a nasty business. Overall, Hersh's record for veracity over decades is far superior to that of the Obama administration which has fed us a steady diet of untruths and distortions in regard to every aspect of the GWOT..
Obama's precipitate decision to announce the killing immediately, and to reveal that it took place in Abbottabad, violated the agreement with the Pakistani Army leaders Generals Kayani and Pasha that his death would be reported as happening on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Obama's vague press conference nod to the Pakistani assistance cut no ice In Islamabad. The personal and political cost to Kayana and Pasha stemmed from their allowing the Americans to conduct a military operation, without permission, on national soil. Obama, in his typical fashion, was just massaging his own conscience. That placed Kayani/Pasha in the near impossible position of pleading either complicity or incompetence. They chose incompetence as being less damaging to themselves and to the Army. They convened an extraordinary meeting of 300 active duty senior officers to explain the dilemma and to lay out a strategy of damage control.
The weakening of the Army politically is what encouraged an abortive move to cut them down to size which involved the CIA, the Pakistani Ambassador in Washington and President Zardari. It aimed to sideline Kayani and Pasha, thereby opening the country to unconstrained American operations -- military and CIA. This was despite the unprecedentedly cooperative attitude they had taken to clandestine operations In Northwest Pakistan behind the façade of public complaint. The plan was to concoct a fictional Army putsch and use that as an excuse to oust the then current Army leadership. Then followed the embarrassing affair of the CIA's misbegotten Raymond Davis mission, and a general deterioration in relations. So the cumulative negative consequences of Obama's betrayal for the American position in the area were of the first order.
Zero Dark Thirty aimed to write our collective history for us -- engraving it on the American psyche. The graphic images of who we are and the deeds we have done are intended to inspire confidence and to soothe qualms -- now and in the future. We are a Resourceful people. We are a Righteous people. We are a Resolute people who do not shrink from the necessary however hard it may be. We are a Moral people who bravely enter the shadowy precincts where Idealism collides with Realism -- and come out enhanced.
In truth we are an Immature people -- an immature people who demand the nourishment of myth and legend that exalt us. Actual reality intimidates and unsettles us; virtual reality is the comforting substitute. Zero Dark Thirty is fiction. It is the cartoon version of the official fiction. Yet critics and many commentators have taken as given the story line, the highlight events, and the main character portraits as if the film were a documentary. That helps to explain their sharp putdown of the Hersh report that leaves them looking foolish.
The one big debate that was allowed is on the question of whether torture works. The film's paramount message is that it does, that it did lead inexorably to the killing of Osama bin-Laden, and that anyone who gives precedence to ethical considerations had better be prepared to accept the potentially awful consequences. The heroines and heroes make the right judgment after struggling with their consciences.
That is a dubious conclusion. Moreover, the question itself is wrongly framed. For the intelligence supposedly extracted was of no value in finding bin-Laden ten years later. Even members of the Senate Intelligence Committee have testified to that. Simple logic should lead any thoughtful person to the same conclusion. After all, if so valuable, how is it possible that it took a full decade for the information to lead anywhere -- the indefatigable fictional lady notwithstanding (the lady who does not exist in the real world)?
For both the official and film versions, it all comes down to the fabled courier. Without him, the narrative collapses completely. We didn't have a clue where OBL was between Tora Bora and Abbottabad five years later. His odyssey from one safe house to another in the Tribal Areas, and Northwest Frontier Province (Swat and Bajaur) escaped the CIA with all its ultra-sophisticated high-tech gadgetry. We had next to no human intelligence assets anywhere in the region and did not until the very end. We learned of OBL's whereabouts only when tipped off by the anonymous Pakistani officer in 2010. It was just a week or so after OBL's killing that the White House and the CIA approached Hollywood with promises of cooperation if a film were made that properly hallowed those who brought OBL to "justice" and satisfied the national thirst for vengeance. Both sides kept their side of the bargain.
What of the courier al-Kuwaiti? The official cum Hollywood line is full of inconsistencies, anomalies and logical flaws. A systematic scrutiny of the evidence available makes that abundantly clear to the unbiased mind. That task has been undertaken by the retired Pakistani Brigadier Shaukat Qadir. His account, and interpretive analysis, draws as well on extensive interviews with intelligence and military officials in Islamabad - and with principals in both Northwest Pakistan and across the Durand Line in Afghanistan.
Here is a brief summary of a few key points regarding the official story's self-contradictory elements.
· According to the CIA, Hassan Gul, was a courier for senior Al-Qaida operatives including OBL and Khalid Sheikh Muhammed (KSM). Gul revealed to the CIA under interrogation the name Al-Kuwaiti, the fact that Al-Kuwaiti was still alive, that he was OBL's most trusted courier. CIA further stated that it was Gul's statement that provided detailed insight into his working routines which led (four years later) in 2009 to the feeling that al-Kuwaiti lived in Abbottabad! Assuming all this to be true, it seems a little surprising that it should take them almost four years to move.
· What is even more improbable is that, despite providing such a wealth of information for the CIA, Gul was released as early as 2006 by the CIA into ISI custody. If Gul had provided all the information on Kuwaiti to the CIA and the CIA did not wish to share this information with the ISI, as asserted, how can their releasing him to ISI custody make any kind of sense?
· Is it credible that it took the CIA so long after 2005 to discover Al-Kuwaiti's identity since Al-Libi, his close collaborator, was also captured by the ISI and handed over to CIA in 2005! Yet, Al-Libi was not questioned regarding Al-Kuwaiti's real identity -- despite Gul's revelations, despite "enhanced interrogation" techniques? In short, why did it take the CIA from 2004 till 2011 to find "actionable intelligence" to locate and execute OBL?
· Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, captured by the ISI in March 2003, was handed over to CIA soon thereafter. KSM not only knew Al-Kuwaiti by his real name, Ibrahim, according to OBL's wife, Amal, he had also visited al-Kuwaiti's house outside Kohat when OBL was resident there in 2002. Yet, he too never was questioned as to Kuwaiti's identity.
There are two fundamental flaws in the official CIA (and Hollywood) account:
a) the CIA seems to have been unaware of the intimate relations between Al-Libi and Al-Kuwaiti despite all those Al-Qaida leaders in their custody (most of whom were arrested by ISI) who knew exactly who and where Al-Kuwaiti was -- and, therefore, the CIA actually was unaware of the latter's identity until early 2011;
b) yet they still insist that the ISI did not provide the lead that ultimately led them to OBL's hideout, which looks to be equally untrue.
Let us recall President Obama's words when he announced that OBL had been killed. Even as he stated that the U.S. acted unilaterally on actionable intelligence, he added, "It is important here to note that our counter terrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound he was hiding in."
Against that backdrop, it was logical for the U.S. and Pakistan to collaborate. The agreed plan, as Hersh relates, was to kill OBL at his home in Abbottabad and later "discover it" in the Hindu Kush as the casualty of an air strike launched against another al-Qaeda target. They agreed to a joint operation in Abbottabad. But the White House double-crossed the Pakistanis by broadcasting the Abbottabad raid immediately after it occurred. Why? Apparently, Obama and his advisers feared the story would seep out before they had the chance to milk the drama for all its political value. They also wanted the glory and flourish of a drama with Americans in all the starring roles - they wanted a Hollywood blockbuster.
John Brennan, the White House terrorism chief, gave the game away the next day in offering the world a vivid description of the assault featuring a concocted shootout between the Seals and a pistol wielding Osama bin-Laden who held his young wife as a shield while firing off shots. Made for Hollywood indeed.
After a decade of impulsive vengeance, of brutality, of killing, of deceit, of hypocrisy, of blindness and incompetence -- we have an encapsulated myth that expiates all that in a drama worthy of our greatness. We have Closure. The American pageant moves forward.
What in fact we have is a roughly-spun yarn woven post-hoc to give a semblance of discipline and direction to a fitful, adrenaline driven manhunt that belatedly stumbled upon its objective -- only thanks to the critical help of others. Unable to generate any human intelligence, we relied on technology and torture. It didn't work
The claim that the official U.S. version provides an honest, forthright accounting is no longer sustainable. The version offered by Zero Dark Thirty went a step further in substituting pulp fiction -- of the mythological kind -- for truth. It satisfies a gnawing hunger; it meets a powerfully felt need. It allows us to avoid coming to terms with how America went off the rails after 9/11. It fosters the juvenile in us.
The instinctive denial mechanism at work in the response to Hersh's revelations tells us that we indeed are politically immature.