NEW YORK –- Seymour Hersh, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who revealed the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War and helped expose the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal during the Iraq War, wrote in a bombshell article published Sunday that the Obama administration lied about details surrounding the Navy SEALs raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Hersh's 10,000-word article, published in the London Review of Books, prompted pushback from the White House and from journalists, who rebutted his claims online, on cable news, and on Twitter.
Hersh on Monday brushed off the criticism in an interview with The Huffington Post. "If I worried about the reaction to what I write, I’d be frozen," he said. Hersh said that journalists "should be very skeptical of someone who says what goes against what every newspaper and magazine believed."
“You’re not doing your job if you say, ‘Oh, it must be true,'" he said.
The May 2011 raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, is one of the defining moments of President Barack Obama’s first term. The episode was immortalized in the film, "Zero Dark Thirty," which presents a narrative disputed by Hersh's piece.
Hersh said he learned of contradictions with the administration’s account within days of the raid and planned to explore the episode in a forthcoming counter-history of the war on terror. However, Hersh and his publisher, Knopf, decided last summer that the book should only extend through George W. Bush’s presidency. While Hersh suggested in a 2013 Guardian interview that the Obama administration misled the public about the raid, he hadn’t written anything in depth about it before Sunday’s piece.
In his article, Hersh disputes much of the Obama administration's account of how bin Laden was discovered, killed, and buried. Hersh questions the administration’s claim that Pakistan wasn’t notified in advance of the raid, writing that senior Pakistani military officials, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, were aware of the mission.
Hersh writes that a senior Pakistani official provided bin Laden’s whereabouts to the CIA for part of a $25 million reward, rather than U.S. intelligence services discovering the location by diligently tracking couriers to his home. Bin Laden wasn't hiding, as the White House said, but was imprisoned by Pakistan's security services for five years, according to Hersh. Obama wasn't supposed to quickly announce the killing, Hersh writes, but was to say a week later that bin Laden had been killed in a drone strike on the Pakistani border with Afghanistan. Hersh also disputes other parts of the official storyline, including the claim that bin Laden was killed in a firefight with SEALs and his burial at sea.
On Monday, National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in a statement that “there are too many inaccuracies and baseless assertions in this piece -- which apparently is based on the claims of a single anonymous source -- to fact check each one.”
Several journalists challenged the report within hours of its publication. Daily Beast executive editor Noah Schachtman tweeted Sunday night that U.S. and Pakistani sources speaking to his staff didn’t support Hersh’s account.
In a contentious interview Monday morning on CNN's “New Day,” host Chris Cuomo questioned Hersh’s sourcing for the article, which relies heavily on information from a “retired senior intelligence official." Hersh told Cuomo that he “was able to vet and verify information with others in the community.”
In his article, Hersh describes other high-level sources both in the U.S and Pakistan. In addition, he writes that Asad Durrani, head of Pakistan’s intelligence services in the early 1990s, confirmed the information about the bin Laden raid was true.
About an hour after the “New Day” interview, Peter Bergen, a CNN national security analyst an author of a book on the hunt for bin Laden, said Hersh has had a distinguished career, but “misfired with this one.”
“What’s true isn’t news and what’s new isn’t true,” said Bergen, who wrote a piece contradicting Hersh’s claims.
One major news organization backed up some of Hersh's claims. NBC News reported Monday evening that a "walk in" asset from Pakistani intelligence did notify the CIA of bin Laden's whereabouts and that the Pakistani government knew where the terrorist leader was located. Still, NBC noted that "the new revelations do not necessarily cast doubt on the overall narrative that the White House began circulating within hours of the May 2011 operation."
The media attention around Hersh's piece in the London Review of Books also prompted chatter about where it wasn't published -- The New Yorker.
Vox’s Max Fisher, in a piece questioning Hersh's reporting, claimed that The New Yorker had “repeatedly” refused to publish Hersh's bin Laden story. The New Yorker’s decision, Fisher writes, created “bad blood” between Hersh and editor David Remnick. Politico's Dylan Byers also reported the New Yorker passed on it.
Hersh is a freelance writer, but he has written for The New Yorker since the early 1990s and is closely aligned with the magazine. When a major Hersh piece isn't published there, members of the media begin speculating. "Beware of the Sy Hersh stories that @NewYorker passes on," tweeted Slate Group chief Jacob Weisberg.
The New Yorker did pass on Hersh's December 2013 report of a sarin gas attack in Syria, as HuffPost reported at the time. And it's true Remnick and Hersh disagree on the Obama administration’s account of the bin Laden raid, which New Yorker writer Nicholas Schmidle describes in cinematic detail in an August 2011 piece, “Getting Bin Laden.” When asked in 2014 about Hersh's public skepticism, Remnick said he stood by Schmidle’s article and had “enormous respect” for Hersh.
Hersh still contributes to The New Yorker. An article published in March revisited the My Lai massacre. As for the bin Laden counter-narrative, Hersh said Remnick once asked him to write a blog post on the matter. But at the time, Hersh said he still planned to cover the episode in his book and declined. Hersh said Remnick “wasn’t afraid of a different point-of-view” and brushed off suggestions of ongoing tensions over the bin Laden raid account.
“Excuse me,” Hersh said. “Arguing with an editor. That’s so unusual?”
Remnick and a New Yorker spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.
Hersh said he discussed the bin Laden story with London Review of Books editors over lunch and they expressed interest in publishing it and giving him ample space. He said the piece was thoroughly fact-checked.
Hersh’s article drew heavy media attention Sunday afternoon, crashing the London Review of Books’ website. Some of the story's more explosive claims, however, had been published elsewhere.
R.J. Hillhouse, a novelist and health care executive, reported in August 2011 on a her national security blog, “The Spy Who Billed Me,” that a Pakistani intelligence officer gave up bin Laden to try collecting the $25 million reward. She attributed the information to “sources in the intelligence community.”
Hillhouse wrote that the Saudis financed keeping bin Laden in the Abbottabad compound. “The cover story was going to be a drone strike in Pakistan,” but after one of the SEALs' helicopters crashed in the compound, the White House issued the administration’s story, she wrote on her blog. Four days later, Hillhouse dismissed Schmidle’s inside account as a “puff piece.”
Hersh told HuffPost he was unaware of Hillhouse’s reporting before publishing his story.
By phone Monday, Hillhouse said she found it “very difficult to come up with a scenario” in which Hersh hadn’t come across her work, which was picked up by international outlets, including The Telegraph. In a Monday blog post, Hillhouse said she deserved credit.
Hillhouse's blog post on Monday was her first since those centered around the bin Laden raid in August 2011.
Hillhouse said she blogs on national security as a sideline activity. Her posts about the bin Laden raid, she said, "hit a nerve" in the intelligence community and prompted her to stop blogging out of concern for her sources.