WASHINGTON -- In the immediate aftermath of Seymour Hersh’s winding narrative on the killing of Osama bin Laden and an alleged cover-up by the U.S. government, officials, spies and even other journalists have been quick to label the story a sham.
But now, multiple news sources are backing up at least one aspect of Hersh’s controversial account on the 2011 raid: It was a Pakistani tipster who ultimately led U.S. special forces to the fugitive’s Abbottabad compound, not the courier Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, whose identity was supposedly revealed by CIA detainees.
Which, if true, would mean the key to bin Laden’s location was not, as the agency tells it, torture.
The agency’s, White House’s and even Hollywood’s official telling of the sensational nighttime raid in Pakistan have long painted the picture of a heroic CIA, one that relentlessly interrogated terror suspects until, finally broken, the prisoners revealed critical information about bin Laden’s secret courier.
Those Bush-era interrogations involved techniques now widely considered torture, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and stress positions. But even amid criticism of those techniques -- the Obama Administration admitted last year that it did indeed overstep legal boundaries -- the CIA had the bin Laden raid to tout as proof that the ends justified the means.
The CIA has stuck to that story, despite fierce criticism from the legislative branch. The Senate Intelligence Committee, in a report released last December, alleged that the use of torture did not, in fact, lead to bin Laden’s hideaway. The identity of bin Laden’s courier, the report says, was already known prior to the use of harsh interrogation techniques against detainees.
The agency, meanwhile, says that’s a farce, and has continued to resist those claims.
But now, the Hersh report and the apparent corroboration from other news sources suggest the agency’s already shaky case for torture may be unraveling further. If the accounts prove true, the trail to Abbottabad wasn’t laid by talkative, tortured detainees. Instead, the accounts further underscore the explosive Senate report on the now-defunct torture program the spies have fought tooth and nail to discredit.
Hersh has defended his reporting and brushed off the criticism. "If I worried about the reaction to what I write, I’d be frozen," he told HuffPost in an interview Monday.
That Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency -- which operates largely separately from Islamabad’s civilian government -- may have known of bin Laden’s whereabouts is not groundbreaking in itself. Multiple reports through the years have reported on this ISI-bin Laden link, and suspicion and theories that the ISI was colluding to hide bin Laden have floated around intelligence circles for years.
Pakistan news outlets reported Tuesday morning the name of the alleged tipster, former ISI Brigadier Usman Khalid.
Still, not everyone is sold on the ISI tipster narrative.
Neither the Senate torture report nor the CIA’s official response make any mention of this Pakistani tipster, and a White House spokesperson pointed to those reports when asked to address the theory.
Multiple U.S. officials have slammed the Hersh story since it published Sunday. White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said Monday it was “riddled with inaccuracies,” and National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said, "There are too many inaccuracies and baseless assertions in this piece to fact check each one.”
“It is utter nonsense,” a CIA spokesman said on the Hersh story.