Last week, Seymour Hersh published The Killing of Osama bin Laden in the London Review of Books. According to Hersh, the Oscar winning movie Zero Dark Thirty chronicling the killing of Osama bin Laden was a work of fiction. According to Hersh, Osama bin Laden was not found through the diligent efforts of a CIA analyst tracking an Al Qaeda courier. The Pakistani intelligence service did know where bin Laden was living and was protecting him. And the Pakistanis were aware of and facilitated the raid on Abbottabad, where Navy Seals killed him.
This is not the first time Hersh has accused Barack Obama of not being forthright with the public. Last year, Hersh published The Red Line and the Rat Line, in which he claimed that the Syrian government of Bashir al Assad did not launch the chemical weapons attack that nearly resulted in a US attack on the Syrian regime. Instead, Hersh asserted that the chemical attack was launched from rebel-held territory as part of a Turkish operation instigated by the President of Turkey, who was seeking to provoke an American attack on the Syrian regime.
The response to Hersh's articles has been unequivocal. With respect to The Killing of Osama bin Laden, Obama administration officials denied Hersh's allegations in the harshest possible terms, while pundits and others in the media have belittled the once-iconic journalist as having become a conspiracy theorist and a crank.
It may well be that Seymour Hersh has wandered off the reservation into the world of conspiracy theories, but he offers in each case a plausible story line that fits well with the motivations of the parties to the conflicts. You don't have to believe Hersh's accounts to find that they illuminate hard truths about the challenges we continue to face in the region.
Hersh's rendition of the killing of bin Laden makes more sense in many respects than what we now understand to be the truth of what transpired. According to the official story, the CIA tracked down bin Laden to a house in Abbottabad by following the movements of an al-Qaeda courier over time. Hersh claims instead that the CIA learned of bin Laden's location from a Pakistani intelligence officer who approached the CIA seeking a part of the $25 million reward offered for the information. According to the official story, neither the Pakistan's military nor its Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) knew of bin Laden's whereabouts at the time of the US raid that killed him. Hersh claims instead that the ISI had located bin Laden in the tribal areas of Pakistan several years earlier and--with the support of the Saudis--was keeping him under wraps in Abbottabad.
And according to the official story, the Pakistanis knew nothing about the US raid until the Navy Seal team was leaving the country after killing the al Qaeda leader. Hersh claims instead that once the US learned from the informant where bin Laden was and demanded his return, the Pakistanis agreed to facilitate the Navy Seal raid as long as they were assured both that bin Laden would not be taken alive and that any Pakistani knowledge of bin Laden's whereabouts or facilitation of the raid would be denied.
The essential assertion of the Hersh story was that Pakistan's intelligence service knew where bin Laden was all along. It is the central point around which everything else revolves and that is vociferously denied by the Obama administration. That aspect of the official story--that bin Laden was living within two miles of a major Pakistani military training facility in Abbottabad but no one knew he was there--has always been the least plausible element of the official account. Over the past year, two news accounts have supported key elements of Hersh's version of events. Last year, New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall confirmed that the ISI had known bin Laden's whereabouts for years and had been protecting him. Then, last month, a Pakistan-based journalist disclosed the name of the Pakistani "walk-in"--an ISI agent who was subsequently relocated to the US with his family--who had provided the CIA with the information about bin Laden's whereabouts. The CIA has subsequently acknowledged the walk-in, but denied that he provided specific information regarding bin Laden's whereabouts.
Hersh's article published last year about the Syrian chemical weapons attack similarly presents a version of events significantly at odds with the official account. Both versions of the Syria story begin with President Obama's ill-conceived words setting down a red line threatening the Assad regime with retaliation if it used chemical weapons. In the official account, after Obama had laid down his red line, Assad launched a chemical weapons attack. In the wake of the attack, Obama equivocated about whether to make good on his threats and launch a military assault on the Syrian regime, until he was ultimately bailed out by the Russians who got the Assad regime to agree to give up its chemical weapons.
Hersh describes a completely different sequence of events. The central actor in Hersh's account is Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Up until 2011, Erdoğan had been a close supporter of Assad. Then, early on in the Syria uprising, the two had a public falling out and since that time Erdoğan has been determined to destroy his former ally.
Hersh writes that both the military and the CIA immediately recognized that Obama's laying down a red line was a serious error. They pushed from the beginning for clarification of what it meant, what would constitute a violation, and what the consequences would be. The Turkish President understood as well that laying down a red line was a mistake, but one that provided him with an opportunity. According to Hersh, the Turks conspired to launch the chemical weapons attack that became the focus of international outrage as a "false flag" operation intended to point blame at Assad and trigger an American retaliation. As Hersh tells it, after the chemical attack Obama pushed for a massive assault on Assad even as the military and the CIA pushed back, believing that a US attack would lead a broader regional war. The military joint chiefs of staff--and particularly joint chiefs chairman General Martin Dempsey--did not believe from the outset that there was clear evidence that the Assad regime had launched the attack. The evidence against Assad only weakened under further investigation, leading Obama to seek a face saving way out.
In Hersh's view, in each critical episode President Obama has not told the truth. Yet, if Hersh's accounts are true, those lies can be rationalized as having been in the interest of national security. Once the US learned of bin Laden's whereabouts, the Pakistanis insisted on secrecy about their role, and for good reason. Keeping Pakistan's role a secret was critical to keeping the relationship intact--a relationship that serves a range of US interests, including suppression of the Taliban, maintaining relative calm in the Indian subcontinent, keeping pressure on Iran's eastern flank, and preserving some semblance of American control over the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. Similarly, even if Erdoğan is a scheming egoist, Turkey remains an essential ally as well, both as a power in the region and as the southern flank of the NATO alliance. Of course, the President may not have lied. It may simply be that in his old age, Seymour Hersh has become a conspiracy theorist and a crank.
Whether one believes Hersh's accounts or not, his stories paint credible portraits of key parties to each event. Taken together, they paint a coherent picture of the dynamics that the United States faces in the region. Today, the United States is struggling to execute an effective strategy to roll back the rise of ISIS, while almost every one of our allies in the region is either standing on the sidelines or actively acting to undermine our efforts.
Turkey, our NATO ally and the country with the strongest military in the region, borders on ISIS territory but has proven to be largely sanguine about its presence. Erdoğan's singular priority is the destruction of the Assad regime that was once his close ally. Turkey is actively supporting Jabhat al Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliated Sunni rebel group widely viewed as the most powerful faction in the Syrian conflict, and which is tacitly allied with ISIS in opposition to Assad. Turkey has been and continues to be the conduit for jihadi fighters and funding coming from other countries to join ISIS as well as other groups. Similarly, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are actively backing Sunni jihadist groups fighting Assad. For Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, Assad and Iran are their sworn enemies. ISIS is of less concern to them.
Our relationships with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies exemplify our challenge in the region. While in the US media the battle against ISIS is presented as the sine qua non of the conflicts in that region, our allies there have each chosen their own paths, and are each now either actively or tacitly aligned with ISIS. And so it has always been with Pakistan, our other ally in the region, whose ISI created and nurtured the Afghan Taliban against whom we fought the longest war in our history.
In the official stories of the killing of Osama bin Laden and the Syrian chemical attacks, our allies had only marginal roles. While we tracked down and killed bin Laden on their turf, the much vaunted Pakistani intelligence service was oblivious to what was happening. When Assad launched chemical weapons at his own people, our President bumbled his way along until the Russians finally bailed him out. But to hear Seymour Hersh tell it, in both events, our allies were cunning and devious in the pursuit of their own interests, and worked against us each step of the way. In his telling, our allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia protected the architect of 9/11 for the better part of a decade while their US ally was searching the globe to find him. In his telling, it was our ally the Turks who seized on Barack Obama's ill-conceived red line comment as an opportunity to manipulate Barack Obama into going to war in Syria, while it was our adversary the Russians who bailed him out.
Hersh may be making his stories up out of whole cloth, but they ring true. We may think we are leading the fight against ISIS today, but none of our allies seem to be following. Instead, they are soldiering on, just as Hersh portrays them, feigning to be our friends, while fighting us every step of the way. Only Iran, it seems, is prepared to fight by our side against ISIS, but our allies won't abide it.