Tony Greenstein | 14 May 2015 | Post Views:

The Lies and Deceptions 

as the Saudis funded their man

London Review of Books, Seymour M. Hersh, 21.5.15.
Seymour M. Hersh
View of Abbottabad 

It’s been four years since a group of US Navy Seals
assassinated Osama bin Laden in a night raid on a high-walled compound in
Abbottabad, Pakistan. The killing was the high point of Obama’s first term, and
a major factor in his re-election. The White House still maintains that the
mission was an all-American affair, and that the senior generals of Pakistan’s
army and Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) were not told of the raid in
advance. This is false, as are many other elements of the Obama
administration’s account. The White House’s story might have been written by
Lewis Carroll: would bin Laden, target of a massive international manhunt,
really decide that a resort town forty miles from Islamabad would be the safest
place to live and command al-Qaida’s operations? He was hiding in the open. So
America said.
Overview of compound
The most blatant lie was that Pakistan’s two most senior
military leaders – General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of the army staff, and
General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, director general of the ISI – were never informed of
the US mission. This remains the White House position despite an array of
reports that have raised questions, including one by Carlotta Gall in the New
York Times Magazine
of 19 March 2014. Gall, who spent 12 years as the Times
correspondent in Afghanistan, wrote that she’d been told by a ‘Pakistani
official’ that Pasha had known before the raid that bin Laden was in
Abbottabad. The story was denied by US and Pakistani officials, and went no
further. In his book Pakistan: Before and after Osama (2012), Imtiaz Gul,
executive director of the Centre for Research and Security Studies, a think
tank in Islamabad, wrote that he’d spoken to four undercover intelligence
officers who – reflecting a widely held local view – asserted that the
Pakistani military must have had knowledge of the operation. The issue was
raised again in February, when a retired general, Asad Durrani, who was head of
the ISI in the early 1990s, told an al-Jazeera interviewer that it was ‘quite
possible’ that the senior officers of the ISI did not know where bin Laden had
been hiding, ‘but it was more probable that they did [know]. And the idea was
that, at the right time, his location would be revealed. And the right time
would have been when you can get the necessary quid pro quo – if you have someone
like Osama bin Laden, you are not going to simply hand him over to the United
This spring I contacted Durrani and told him in detail
what I had learned about the bin Laden assault from American sources: that bin
Laden had been a prisoner of the ISI at the Abbottabad compound since 2006;
that Kayani and Pasha knew of the raid in advance and had made sure that the
two helicopters delivering the Seals to Abbottabad could cross Pakistani
airspace without triggering any alarms; that the CIA did not learn of bin
Laden’s whereabouts by tracking his couriers, as the White House has claimed
since May 2011, but from a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer who
betrayed the secret in return for much of the $25 million reward offered by the
US, and that, while Obama did order the raid and the Seal team did carry it
out, many other aspects of the administration’s account were false.
strikes on Tora Bora
‘When your version comes out – if you do it – people in
Pakistan will be tremendously grateful,’ Durrani told me. ‘For a long time
people have stopped trusting what comes out about bin Laden from the official
mouths. There will be some negative political comment and some anger, but
people like to be told the truth, and what you’ve told me is essentially what I
have heard from former colleagues who have been on a fact-finding mission since
this episode.’ As a former ISI head, he said, he had been told shortly after
the raid by ‘people in the “strategic community” who would know’ that there had
been an informant who had alerted the US to bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad,
and that after his killing the US’s betrayed promises left Kayani and Pasha
Pakistan military compound
The major US source for the account that follows is a
retired senior intelligence official who was knowledgeable about the initial
intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. He also was privy to
many aspects of the Seals’ training for the raid, and to the various
after-action reports. Two other US sources, who had access to corroborating
information, have been longtime consultants to the Special Operations Command.
I also received information from inside Pakistan about widespread dismay among
the senior ISI and military leadership – echoed later by Durrani – over Obama’s
decision to go public immediately with news of bin Laden’s death. The White
House did not respond to requests for comment.
BBC’s Olga Guerin at Compound
It began with a walk-in. In August 2010 a former senior
Pakistani intelligence officer approached Jonathan Bank, then the CIA’s station
chief at the US embassy in Islamabad. He offered to tell the CIA where to find
bin Laden in return for the reward that Washington had offered in 2001.
Walk-ins are assumed by the CIA to be unreliable, and the response from the
agency’s headquarters was to fly in a polygraph team. The walk-in passed the
test. ‘So now we’ve got a lead on bin Laden living in a compound in Abbottabad,
but how do we really know who it is?’ was the CIA’s worry at the time, the
retired senior US intelligence official told me.
Bin Laden’s compound
The US initially kept what it knew from the Pakistanis.
‘The fear was that if the existence of the source was made known, the
Pakistanis themselves would move bin Laden to another location. So only a very
small number of people were read into the source and his story,’ the retired
official said. ‘The CIA’s first goal was to check out the quality of the
informant’s information.’ The compound was put under satellite surveillance.
The CIA rented a house in Abbottabad to use as a forward observation base and
staffed it with Pakistani employees and foreign nationals. Later on, the base
would serve as a contact point with the ISI; it attracted little attention
because Abbottabad is a holiday spot full of houses rented on short leases. A
psychological profile of the informant was prepared. (The informant and his
family were smuggled out of Pakistan and relocated in the Washington area. He
is now a consultant for the CIA.)
Overview of Compound
‘By October the military and intelligence community were
discussing the possible military options. Do we drop a bunker buster on the
compound or take him out with a drone strike? Perhaps send someone to kill him,
single assassin style? But then we’d have no proof of who he was,’ the retired
official said. ‘We could see some guy is walking around at night, but we have
no intercepts because there’s no commo coming from the compound.’
Obama & fellow criminals watching as Bin Laden is taken out
In October, Obama was briefed on the intelligence. His
response was cautious, the retired official said. ‘It just made no sense that
bin Laden was living in Abbottabad. It was just too crazy. The president’s
position was emphatic: “Don’t talk to me about this any more unless you have
proof that it really is bin Laden.”’ The immediate goal of the CIA leadership
and the Joint Special Operations Command was to get Obama’s support. They
believed they would get this if they got DNA evidence, and if they could assure
him that a night assault of the compound would carry no risk. The only way to
accomplish both things, the retired official said, ‘was to get the Pakistanis
on board’.
Satellite view of compound
During the late autumn of 2010, the US continued to keep
quiet about the walk-in, and Kayani and Pasha continued to insist to their
American counterparts that they had no information about bin Laden’s
whereabouts. ‘The next step was to figure out how to ease Kayani and Pasha into
it – to tell them that we’ve got intelligence showing that there is a
high-value target in the compound, and to ask them what they know about the
target,’ the retired official said. ‘The compound was not an armed enclave – no
machine guns around, because it was under ISI control.’ The walk-in had told
the US that bin Laden had lived undetected from 2001 to 2006 with some of his
wives and children in the Hindu Kush mountains, and that ‘the ISI got to him by
paying some of the local tribal people to betray him.’ (Reports after the raid
placed him elsewhere in Pakistan during this period.) Bank was also told by the
walk-in that bin Laden was very ill, and that early on in his confinement at
Abbottabad, the ISI had ordered Amir Aziz, a doctor and a major in the
Pakistani army, to move nearby to provide treatment. ‘The truth is that bin
Laden was an invalid, but we cannot say that,’ the retired official said. ‘“You
mean you guys shot a cripple? Who was about to grab his AK-47?”’
‘It didn’t take long to get the co-operation we needed,
because the Pakistanis wanted to ensure the continued release of American
military aid, a good percentage of which was anti-terrorism funding that
finances personal security, such as bullet-proof limousines and security guards
and housing for the ISI leadership,’
the retired official said. He added that
there were also under-the-table personal ‘incentives’ that were financed by
off-the-books Pentagon contingency funds. ‘The intelligence community knew what
the Pakistanis needed to agree – there was the carrot. And they chose the
carrot. It was a win-win. We also did a little blackmail. We told them we would
leak the fact that you’ve got bin Laden in your backyard. We knew their friends
and enemies’ –
the Taliban and jihadist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan –
would not like it.’
A worrying factor at this early point, according to the
retired official, was Saudi Arabia, which had been financing bin Laden’s upkeep
since his seizure by the Pakistanis. ‘The Saudis didn’t want bin Laden’s
presence revealed to us because he was a Saudi, and so they told the Pakistanis
to keep him out of the picture. The Saudis feared if we knew we would pressure
the Pakistanis to let bin Laden start talking to us about what the Saudis had
been doing with al-Qaida. And they were dropping money – lots of it. The
Pakistanis, in turn, were concerned that the Saudis might spill the beans about
their control of bin Laden. The fear was that if the US found out about bin
Laden from Riyadh, all hell would break out. The Americans learning about bin
Laden’s imprisonment from a walk-in was not the worst thing.’
Despite their constant public feuding, American and
Pakistani military and intelligence services have worked together closely for
decades on counterterrorism in South Asia. Both services often find it useful
to engage in public feuds ‘to cover their asses’, as the retired official put
it, but they continually share intelligence used for drone attacks, and
co-operate on covert operations. At the same time, it’s understood in
Washington that elements of the ISI believe that maintaining a relationship
with the Taliban leadership inside Afghanistan is essential to national
security. The ISI’s strategic aim is to balance Indian influence in Kabul; the
Taliban is also seen in Pakistan as a source of jihadist shock troops who would
back Pakistan against India in a confrontation over Kashmir.
Adding to the tension was the Pakistani nuclear arsenal,
often depicted in the Western press as an ‘Islamic bomb’ that might be
transferred by Pakistan to an embattled nation in the Middle East in the event
of a crisis with Israel. The US looked the other way when Pakistan began building
its weapons system in the 1970s and it’s widely believed it now has more than a
hundred nuclear warheads. It’s understood in Washington that US security
depends on the maintenance of strong military and intelligence ties to
Pakistan. The belief is mirrored in Pakistan.
‘The Pakistani army sees itself as family,’ the retired
official said. ‘Officers call soldiers their sons and all officers are
“brothers”. The attitude is different in the American military. The senior
Pakistani officers believe they are the elite and have got to look out for all
of the people, as keepers of the flame against Muslim fundamentalism. The
Pakistanis also know that their trump card against aggression from India is a
strong relationship with the United States. They will never cut their
person-to-person ties with us.’
Like all CIA station chiefs, Bank was working
undercover, but that ended in early December 2010 when he was publicly accused
of murder in a criminal complaint filed in Islamabad by Karim Khan, a Pakistani
journalist whose son and brother, according to local news reports, had been
killed by a US drone strike. Allowing Bank to be named was a violation of
diplomatic protocol on the part of the Pakistani authorities, and it brought a
wave of unwanted publicity. Bank was ordered to leave Pakistan by the CIA,
whose officials subsequently told the Associated Press he was transferred
because of concerns for his safety. The New York Times reported that
there was ‘strong suspicion’ the ISI had played a role in leaking Bank’s name
to Khan. There was speculation that he was outed as payback for the publication
in a New York lawsuit a month earlier of the names of ISI chiefs in connection
with the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008. But there was a collateral reason,
the retired official said, for the CIA’s willingness to send Bank back to
America. The Pakistanis needed cover in case their co-operation with the
Americans in getting rid of bin Laden became known. The Pakistanis could say:
“You’re talking about me? We just kicked out your station chief.”’
The bin Laden compound was less than two miles from the
Pakistan Military Academy, and a Pakistani army combat battalion headquarters
was another mile or so away. Abbottabad is less than 15 minutes by helicopter
from Tarbela Ghazi, an important base for ISI covert operations and the
facility where those who guard Pakistan’s nuclear weapons arsenal are trained.
‘Ghazi is why the ISI put bin Laden in Abbottabad in the first place,’ the
retired official said, ‘to keep him under constant supervision.’
The risks for Obama were high at this early stage,
especially because there was a troubling precedent: the failed 1980 attempt to
rescue the American hostages in Tehran. That failure was a factor in Jimmy
Carter’s loss to Ronald Reagan. Obama’s worries were realistic, the retired
official said. ‘Was bin Laden ever there? Was the whole story a product of
Pakistani deception? What about political blowback in case of failure?’ After
all, as the retired official said, ‘If the mission fails, Obama’s just a black
Jimmy Carter and it’s all over for re-election.’
Obama was anxious for reassurance that the US was going
to get the right man. The proof was to come in the form of bin Laden’s DNA. The
planners turned for help to Kayani and Pasha, who asked Aziz to obtain the
specimens. Soon after the raid the press found out that Aziz had been living in
a house near the bin Laden compound: local reporters discovered his name in
Urdu on a plate on the door. Pakistani officials denied that Aziz had any
connection to bin Laden, but the retired official told me that Aziz had been
rewarded with a share of the $25 million reward the US had put up because the
DNA sample had showed conclusively that it was bin Laden in Abbottabad. (In his
subsequent testimony to a Pakistani commission investigating the bin Laden
raid, Aziz said that he had witnessed the attack on Abbottabad, but had no
knowledge of who was living in the compound and had been ordered by a superior officer
to stay away from the scene.)
Bargaining continued over the way the mission would be
executed. ‘Kayani eventually tells us yes, but he says you can’t have a big
strike force. You have to come in lean and mean. And you have to kill him, or
there is no deal,’ the retired official said. The agreement was struck by the
end of January 2011, and Joint Special Operations Command prepared a list of
questions to be answered by the Pakistanis: ‘How can we be assured of no
outside intervention? What are the defences inside the compound and its exact
dimensions? Where are bin Laden’s rooms and exactly how big are they? How many
steps in the stairway? Where are the doors to his rooms, and are they
reinforced with steel? How thick?’ The Pakistanis agreed to permit a four-man
American cell – a Navy Seal, a CIA case officer and two communications
specialists – to set up a liaison office at Tarbela Ghazi for the coming
assault. By then, the military had constructed a mock-up of the compound in
Abbottabad at a secret former nuclear test site in Nevada, and an elite Seal
team had begun rehearsing for the attack.
The US had begun to cut back on aid to Pakistan – to
‘turn off the spigot’, in the retired official’s words. The provision of 18 new
F-16 fighter aircraft was delayed, and under-the-table cash payments to the
senior leaders were suspended. In April 2011 Pasha met the CIA director, Leon
Panetta, at agency headquarters. ‘Pasha got a commitment that the United States
would turn the money back on, and we got a guarantee that there would be no
Pakistani opposition during the mission,’ the retired official said. ‘Pasha
also insisted that Washington stop complaining about Pakistan’s lack of
co-operation with the American war on terrorism.’ At one point that spring,
Pasha offered the Americans a blunt explanation of the reason Pakistan kept bin
Laden’s capture a secret, and why it was imperative for the ISI role to remain
secret: ‘We needed a hostage to keep tabs on al-Qaida and the Taliban,’ Pasha
said, according to the retired official. ‘The ISI was using bin Laden as
leverage against Taliban and al-Qaida activities inside Afghanistan and
Pakistan. They let the Taliban and al-Qaida leadership know that if they ran
operations that clashed with the interests of the ISI, they would turn bin
Laden over to us. So if it became known that the Pakistanis had worked with us
to get bin Laden at Abbottabad, there would be hell to pay.’
At one of his meetings with Panetta, according to the
retired official and a source within the CIA, Pasha was asked by a senior CIA
official whether he saw himself as acting in essence as an agent for al-Qaida
and the Taliban. ‘He answered no, but said the ISI needed to have some
control.’ The message, as the CIA saw it, according to the retired official,
was that Kayani and Pasha viewed bin Laden ‘as a resource, and they were more
interested in their [own] survival than they were in the United States’.
A Pakistani with close ties to the senior leadership of
the ISI told me that ‘there was a deal with your top guys. We were very
reluctant, but it had to be done – not because of personal enrichment, but
because all of the American aid programmes would be cut off. Your guys said we
will starve you out if you don’t do it, and the okay was given while Pasha was
in Washington. The deal was not only to keep the taps open, but Pasha was told
there would be more goodies for us.’ The Pakistani said that Pasha’s visit also
resulted in a commitment from the US to give Pakistan ‘a freer hand’ in
Afghanistan as it began its military draw-down there. ‘And so our top dogs
justified the deal by saying this is for our country.’
Pasha and Kayani were responsible for ensuring that
Pakistan’s army and air defence command would not track or engage with the US
helicopters used on the mission. The American cell at Tarbela Ghazi was charged
with co-ordinating communications between the ISI, the senior US officers at
their command post in Afghanistan, and the two Black Hawk helicopters; the goal
was to ensure that no stray Pakistani fighter plane on border patrol spotted
the intruders and took action to stop them. The initial plan said that news of
the raid shouldn’t be announced straightaway. All units in the Joint Special
Operations Command operate under stringent secrecy and the JSOC leadership
believed, as did Kayani and Pasha, that the killing of bin Laden would not be
made public for as long as seven days, maybe longer. Then a carefully
constructed cover story would be issued: Obama would announce that DNA analysis
confirmed that bin Laden had been killed in a drone raid in the Hindu Kush, on
Afghanistan’s side of the border. The Americans who planned the mission assured
Kayani and Pasha that their co-operation would never be made public. It was
understood by all that if the Pakistani role became known, there would be
violent protests – bin Laden was considered a hero by many Pakistanis – and
Pasha and Kayani and their families would be in danger, and the Pakistani army
publicly disgraced.
It was clear to all by this point, the retired official
said, that bin Laden would not survive: ‘Pasha told us at a meeting in April
that he could not risk leaving bin Laden in the compound now that we know he’s
there. Too many people in the Pakistani chain of command know about the
mission. He and Kayani had to tell the whole story to the directors of the air
defence command and to a few local commanders.
‘Of course the guys knew the target was bin Laden and he
was there under Pakistani control,’ the retired official said. ‘Otherwise, they
would not have done the mission without air cover. It was clearly and
absolutely a premeditated murder.’ A former Seal commander, who has led and
participated in dozens of similar missions over the past decade, assured me
that ‘we were not going to keep bin Laden alive – to allow the terrorist to
live. By law, we know what we’re doing inside Pakistan is a homicide. We’ve
come to grips with that. Each one of us, when we do these missions, say to
ourselves, “Let’s face it. We’re going to commit a murder.”’ The White House’s
initial account claimed that bin Laden had been brandishing a weapon; the story
was aimed at deflecting those who questioned the legality of the US
administration’s targeted assassination programme. The US has consistently
maintained, despite widely reported remarks by people involved with the
mission, that bin Laden would have been taken alive if he had immediately
At the Abbottabad compound ISI guards were posted around
the clock to keep watch over bin Laden and his wives and children. They were
under orders to leave as soon as they heard the rotors of the US helicopters.
The town was dark: the electricity supply had been cut off on the orders of the
ISI hours before the raid began. One of the Black Hawks crashed inside the walls
of the compound, injuring many on board. ‘The guys knew the TOT [time on
target] had to be tight because they would wake up the whole town going in,’
the retired official said. The cockpit of the crashed Black Hawk, with its
communication and navigational gear, had to be destroyed by concussion
grenades, and this would create a series of explosions and a fire visible for
miles. Two Chinook helicopters had flown from Afghanistan to a nearby Pakistani
intelligence base to provide logistical support, and one of them was
immediately dispatched to Abbottabad. But because the helicopter had been
equipped with a bladder loaded with extra fuel for the two Black Hawks, it
first had to be reconfigured as a troop carrier. The crash of the Black Hawk
and the need to fly in a replacement were nerve-wracking and time-consuming
setbacks, but the Seals continued with their mission. There was no firefight as
they moved into the compound; the ISI guards had gone. ‘Everyone in Pakistan
has a gun and high-profile, wealthy folks like those who live in Abbottabad
have armed bodyguards, and yet there were no weapons in the compound,
’ the
retired official pointed out. Had there been any opposition, the team would
have been highly vulnerable. Instead, the retired official said, an ISI liaison
officer flying with the Seals guided them into the darkened house and up a
staircase to bin Laden’s quarters. The Seals had been warned by the Pakistanis
that heavy steel doors blocked the stairwell on the first and second-floor
landings; bin Laden’s rooms were on the third floor. The Seal squad used
explosives to blow the doors open, without injuring anyone. One of bin Laden’s
wives was screaming hysterically and a bullet – perhaps a stray round – struck
her knee. Aside from those that hit bin Laden, no other shots were fired. (The
Obama administration’s account would hold otherwise.)
‘They knew where the target was – third floor, second
door on the right,’ the retired official said. ‘Go straight there. Osama was
cowering and retreated into the bedroom. Two shooters followed him and opened
up. Very simple, very straightforward, very professional hit.’ Some of the
Seals were appalled later at the White House’s initial insistence that they had
shot bin Laden in self-defence, the retired official said. ‘Six of the Seals’
finest, most experienced NCOs, faced with an unarmed elderly civilian, had to
kill him in self-defence? The house was shabby and bin Laden was living in a
cell with bars on the window and barbed wire on the roof. The rules of
engagement were that if bin Laden put up any opposition they were authorised to
take lethal action. But if they suspected he might have some means of
opposition, like an explosive vest under his robe, they could also kill him. So
here’s this guy in a mystery robe and they shot him. It’s not because he was
reaching for a weapon. The rules gave them absolute authority to kill the guy.’
The later White House claim that only one or two bullets were fired into his
head was ‘bullshit’, the retired official said. ‘The squad came through the
door and obliterated him. As the Seals say, “We kicked his ass and took his
After they killed bin Laden, ‘the Seals were just there,
some with physical injuries from the crash, waiting for the relief chopper,’

the retired official said. ‘Twenty tense minutes. The Black Hawk is still
burning. There are no city lights. No electricity. No police. No fire trucks.
They have no prisoners.
’ Bin Laden’s wives and children were left for the ISI
to interrogate and relocate. ‘Despite all the talk,’ the retired official
continued, there were ‘no garbage bags full of computers and storage devices.
The guys just stuffed some books and papers they found in his room in their
backpacks. The Seals weren’t there because they thought bin Laden was running a
command centre for al-Qaida operations, as the White House would later tell the
media. And they were not intelligence experts gathering information inside that
On a normal assault mission, the retired official said,
there would be no waiting around if a chopper went down. ‘The Seals would have
finished the mission, thrown off their guns and gear, and jammed into the
remaining Black Hawk and di-di-maued’
– Vietnamese slang for leaving in a rush
– ‘out of there, with guys hanging out of the doors. They would not have blown
the chopper – no commo gear is worth a dozen lives – unless they knew they were
safe. Instead they stood around outside the compound, waiting for the bus to
arrive.’ Pasha and Kayani had delivered on all their promises.
The backroom argument inside the White House began as
soon as it was clear that the mission had succeeded. Bin Laden’s body was
presumed to be on its way to Afghanistan. Should Obama stand by the agreement
with Kayani and Pasha and pretend a week or so later that bin Laden had been
killed in a drone attack in the mountains, or should he go public immediately?
The downed helicopter made it easy for Obama’s political advisers to urge the
latter plan. The explosion and fireball would be impossible to hide, and word
of what had happened was bound to leak. Obama had to ‘get out in front of the
story’ before someone in the Pentagon did: waiting would diminish the political
Not everyone agreed. Robert Gates, the secretary of
defence, was the most outspoken of those who insisted that the agreements with
Pakistan had to be honoured. In his memoir, Duty, Gates did not mask his
Before we broke up and the president headed upstairs to
tell the American people what had just happened, I reminded everyone that the
techniques, tactics and procedures the Seals had used in the bin Laden
operation were used every night in Afghanistan … it was therefore essential
that we agree not to release any operational details of the raid. That we
killed him, I said, is all we needed to say. Everybody in that room agreed to
keep mum on details. That commitment lasted about five hours. The initial leaks
came from the White House and CIA. They just couldn’t wait to brag and to claim
credit. The facts were often wrong … Nonetheless the information just kept
pouring out. I was outraged and at one point, told [the national security
adviser, Tom] Donilon, ‘Why doesn’t everybody just shut the fuck up?’ To no
Obama’s speech was put together in a rush, the retired
official said, and was viewed by his advisers as a political document, not a
message that needed to be submitted for clearance to the national security
bureaucracy. This series of self-serving and inaccurate statements would create
chaos in the weeks following. Obama said that his administration had discovered
that bin Laden was in Pakistan through ‘a possible lead’ the previous August;
to many in the CIA the statement suggested a specific event, such as a walk-in.
The remark led to a new cover story claiming that the CIA’s brilliant analysts
had unmasked a courier network handling bin Laden’s continuing flow of
operational orders to al-Qaida. Obama also praised ‘a small team of Americans’
for their care in avoiding civilian deaths and said: ‘After a firefight, they
killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.’ Two more details now had
to be supplied for the cover story: a description of the firefight that never
happened, and a story about what happened to the corpse. Obama went on to
praise the Pakistanis: ‘It’s important to note that our counterterrorism
co-operation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where
he was hiding.’ That statement risked exposing Kayani and Pasha. The White
House’s solution was to ignore what Obama had said and order anyone talking to
the press to insist that the Pakistanis had played no role in killing bin
Laden. Obama left the clear impression that he and his advisers hadn’t known for
sure that bin Laden was in Abbottabad, but only had information ‘about the
possibility’. This led first to the story that the Seals had determined they’d
killed the right man by having a six-foot-tall Seal lie next to the corpse for
comparison (bin Laden was known to be six foot four); and then to the claim
that a DNA test had been performed on the corpse and demonstrated conclusively
that the Seals had killed bin Laden. But, according to the retired official, it
wasn’t clear from the Seals’ early reports whether all of bin Laden’s body, or
any of it, made it back to Afghanistan.
Gates wasn’t the only official who was distressed by
Obama’s decision to speak without clearing his remarks in advance, the retired
official said, ‘but he was the only one protesting. Obama didn’t just
double-cross Gates, he double-crossed everyone. This was not the fog of war.
The fact that there was an agreement with the Pakistanis and no contingency
analysis of what was to be disclosed if something went wrong – that wasn’t even
discussed. And once it went wrong, they had to make up a new cover story on the
fly.’ There was a legitimate reason for some deception: the role of the
Pakistani walk-in had to be protected.
The White House press corps was told in a briefing
shortly after Obama’s announcement that the death of bin Laden was ‘the
culmination of years of careful and highly advanced intelligence work’ that
focused on tracking a group of couriers, including one who was known to be
close to bin Laden. Reporters were told that a team of specially assembled CIA
and National Security Agency analysts had traced the courier to a highly secure
million-dollar compound in Abbottabad. After months of observation, the
American intelligence community had ‘high confidence’ that a high-value target
was living in the compound, and it was ‘assessed that there was a strong
probability that [it] was Osama bin Laden’. The US assault team ran into a
firefight on entering the compound and three adult males – two of them believed
to be the couriers – were slain, along with bin Laden. Asked if bin Laden had
defended himself, one of the briefers said yes: ‘He did resist the assault
force. And he was killed in a firefight.’
The next day John Brennan, then Obama’s senior adviser
for counterterrorism, had the task of talking up Obama’s valour while trying to
smooth over the misstatements in his speech. He provided a more detailed but
equally misleading account of the raid and its planning. Speaking on the
record, which he rarely does, Brennan said that the mission was carried out by
a group of Navy Seals who had been instructed to take bin Laden alive, if
possible. He said the US had no information suggesting that anyone in the
Pakistani government or military knew bin Laden’s whereabouts: ‘We didn’t
contact the Pakistanis until after all of our people, all of our aircraft were
out of Pakistani airspace.’ He emphasised the courage of Obama’s decision to
order the strike, and said that the White House had no information ‘that
confirmed that bin Laden was at the compound’ before the raid began. Obama, he
said, ‘made what I believe was one of the gutsiest calls of any president in
recent memory’. Brennan increased the number killed by the Seals inside the
compound to five: bin Laden, a courier, his brother, a bin Laden son, and one
of the women said to be shielding bin Laden.
Asked whether bin Laden had fired on the Seals, as some
reporters had been told, Brennan repeated what would become a White House
mantra: ‘He was engaged in a firefight with those that entered the area of the
house he was in. And whether or not he got off any rounds, I quite frankly
don’t know … Here is bin Laden, who has been calling for these attacks … living
in an area that is far removed from the front, hiding behind women who were put
in front of him as a shield … [It] just speaks to I think the nature of the
individual he was.’
Gates also objected to the idea, pushed by Brennan and
Leon Panetta, that US intelligence had learned of bin Laden’s whereabouts from
information acquired by waterboarding and other forms of torture. ‘All of this
is going on as the Seals are flying home from their mission. The agency guys
know the whole story,’
the retired official said. ‘It was a group of annuitants
who did it.’
(Annuitants are retired CIA officers who remain active on
contract.) ‘They had been called in by some of the mission planners in the
agency to help with the cover story. So the old-timers come in and say why not
admit that we got some of the information about bin Laden from enhanced
’ At the time, there was still talk in Washington about the
possible prosecution of CIA agents who had conducted torture.
‘Gates told them this was not going to work,’ the
retired official said. ‘He was never on the team. He knew at the eleventh hour
of his career not to be a party to this nonsense. But State, the agency and the
Pentagon had bought in on the cover story. None of the Seals thought that Obama
was going to get on national TV and announce the raid. The Special Forces
command was apoplectic. They prided themselves on keeping operational
security.’ There was fear in Special Operations, the retired official said,
that ‘if the true story of the missions leaked out, the White House bureaucracy
was going to blame it on the Seals.’
The White House’s solution was to silence the Seals. On
5 May, every member of the Seal hit team – they had returned to their base in
southern Virginia – and some members of the Joint Special Operations Command
leadership were presented with a nondisclosure form drafted by the White
House’s legal office; it promised civil penalties and a lawsuit for anyone who
discussed the mission, in public or private. ‘The Seals were not happy,’ the
retired official said. But most of them kept quiet, as did Admiral William McRaven,
who was then in charge of JSOC. ‘McRaven was apoplectic. He knew he was fucked
by the White House, but he’s a dyed-in-the-wool Seal, and not then a political
operator, and he knew there’s no glory in blowing the whistle on the president.
When Obama went public with bin Laden’s death, everyone had to scramble around
for a new story that made sense, and the planners were stuck holding the bag.’
Within days, some of the early exaggerations and
distortions had become obvious and the Pentagon issued a series of clarifying
statements. No, bin Laden was not armed when he was shot and killed. And no,
bin Laden did not use one of his wives as a shield. The press by and large
accepted the explanation that the errors were the inevitable by-product of the
White House’s desire to accommodate reporters frantic for details of the
One lie that has endured is that the Seals had to fight
their way to their target. Only two Seals have made any public statement: No
Easy Day
, a first-hand account of the raid by Matt Bissonnette, was
published in September 2012; and two years later Rob O’Neill was interviewed by
Fox News. Both men had resigned from the navy; both had fired at bin Laden.
Their accounts contradicted each other on many details, but their stories generally
supported the White House version, especially when it came to the need to kill
or be killed as the Seals fought their way to bin Laden. O’Neill even told Fox
News that he and his fellow Seals thought ‘We were going to die.’ ‘The more we
trained on it, the more we realised … this is going to be a one-way mission.’
But the retired official told me that in their initial
debriefings the Seals made no mention of a firefight, or indeed of any
opposition. The drama and danger portrayed by Bissonnette and O’Neill met a
deep-seated need, the retired official said: ‘Seals cannot live with the fact
that they killed bin Laden totally unopposed, and so there has to be an account
of their courage in the face of danger. The guys are going to sit around the
bar and say it was an easy day? That’s not going to happen.’
There was another reason to claim there had been a
firefight inside the compound, the retired official said: to avoid the
inevitable question that would arise from an uncontested assault. Where were
bin Laden’s guards? Surely, the most sought-after terrorist in the world would
have around-the-clock protection. ‘And one of those killed had to be the
courier, because he didn’t exist and we couldn’t produce him. The Pakistanis
had no choice but to play along with it.’
(Two days after the raid, Reuters
published photographs of three dead men that it said it had purchased from an
ISI official. Two of the men were later identified by an ISI spokesman as being
the alleged courier and his brother.)
Five days after the raid the Pentagon press corps was
provided with a series of videotapes that were said by US officials to have
been taken from a large collection the Seals had removed from the compound,
along with as many as 15 computers. Snippets from one of the videos showed a
solitary bin Laden looking wan and wrapped in a blanket, watching what appeared
to be a video of himself on television. An unnamed official told reporters that
the raid produced a ‘treasure trove … the single largest collection of senior
terrorist materials ever’, which would provide vital insights into al-Qaida’s
plans. The official said the material showed that bin Laden ‘remained an active
leader in al-Qaida, providing strategic, operational and tactical instructions
to the group … He was far from a figurehead [and] continued to direct even
tactical details of the group’s management and to encourage plotting’ from what
was described as a command-and-control centre in Abbottabad. ‘He was an active
player, making the recent operation even more essential for our nation’s
security,’ the official said. The information was so vital, he added, that the
administration was setting up an inter-agency task force to process it: ‘He was
not simply someone who was penning al-Qaida strategy. He was throwing operational
ideas out there and he was also specifically directing other al-Qaida members.’

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Tony Greenstein

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