Seymour Hersh’s story on the raid that killed Osama bin Laden has exposed a series of Obama administration claims about the raid, including the lie that it was not intended from the first to kill bin Laden and its fanciful story about Islamic burial of his body at sea. Hersh confirms the fact that the Obama administration – and the CIA – were not truthful in claiming that they learned about bin Laden’s whereabouts from a combination of enhanced interrogation techniques and signals intelligence interception of a phone conversation by bin Laden’s courier.
But Hersh’s account of a Pakistani “walk-in,” who tipped off the CIA about bin Laden’s location in Abbottabad, corrects one official deception about how the CIA discovered bin Laden’s location, only to give credence to a new one.
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Hersh’s account accepts his source’s claim that Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI had captured bin Laden in 2006 by buying off some of his tribal allies and that ISI had moved him to the Abbottabad compound under a kind of house arrest. But there are good reasons for doubting the veracity of that claim. Retired Pakistani Brigadier General Shaukat Qadir, who spent months investigating the bin Laden raid and the bin Ladens’ relocation to Abbottabad, interviewed a number of people in the neighborhood of the bin Laden compound and found no evidence whatever of any ISI presence in guarding or maintaining surveillance of the compound, such as described by Hersh’s source.
This writer published a detailed account of the background of bin Laden’s move to Abbottabad at Truthout in May 2012, based on months of painstaking research by Qadir, which showed that it was the result of a political decision by the al-Qaeda shura itself.
Qadir, who has never had any affiliation with ISI, was able to contact Mehsud tribal sources he had known from his service in South Waziristan many years earlier who introduced him to Mehsud tribal couriers for a leading tribal militant allied with al-Qaeda before and after 9/11. He was able to explain why a key al-Qaeda official in charge of relocating bin Laden actually considered Abbottabad, a military cantonment where the Pakistani military academy is located, a better hiding place than a city closer to the northwest Pakistan base area of al-Qaeda.
Qadir also learned that the secrecy of bin Laden’s new location was based on the fact that no one outside the al-Qaeda inner circle knew the real identity of bin Laden’s courier, who ordered the construction of the compound in 2004. That whole history, which Qadir was able to reconstruct in painstaking detail, belies the story that Hersh’s source, the “retired senior intelligence official,” told him about bin Laden being held captive by ISI in Abottabad.
The story has provoked pushback from the deputy director of the CIA at the time, as well as from Qadir. Michael Morell, the former deputy director, has called the story “completely false” and added, “No walk-in ever provided any information that was significant in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.”
Qadir had picked up the walk-in story – complete with the detail that the Pakistani in question was a retired ISI officer who had been resettled from Pakistan – from American contacts in 2011. In his own book, Operation Geronimo, Qadir comments, “There is no way a Pakistani Brigadier, albeit retired, could receive this kind of money and disappear …”
Qadir also learned from interviewing ISI officials that, by mid-2010, they had become suspicious about the owner of the Abbottabad compound, of a possible terrorism connection, as a result of what began as a routine investigation, although they did not know that bin Laden was there. Five different junior and mid-level ISI officers told Qadir they understood Pakistan’s Counter Terrorism Wing (CTW) had decided to forward a request to the CIA for surveillance of the Abbottabad compound in July 2010.
So CTW’s provision of that crucial information to the CIA would have occurred just about the time Hersh’s source says the walk-in took place.
Hersh’s account of the walk-in, offering to tell the CIA where bin Laden was in return for the $25 million reward, is problematic for other reasons. If the walk-in source had been able to provide a reasonably detailed explanation for how he knew bin Laden, was in that compound and had passed a polygraph test, as the source claims, President Obama would certainly have been informed.
But the former senior intelligence official told Hersh that Obama was not informed about the information from the walk-in until October 2010 – two months after the CIA allegedly had gotten the information from the walk-in.
Furthermore both Obama and the “senior intelligence official” who briefed the press on the issue on May 2, 2011, made statements that clearly suggested the information that had helped them was much more indirect than a tip that bin Laden was there. And both indicated that it was a result of Pakistani government cooperation.
The senior intelligence official told reporters that “The Pakistanis … provided us information attached to [the compound] to help us complete the robust intelligence case that … eventually carried the day.” That is very different from telling the CIA that bin Laden had been taken captive by the ISI and deposited in Abbottabad.
And Obama was explicit about the information coming through Pakistani institutional channels in his remarks on the night of the raid. “It is important here to note,” Obama said, “that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound he was hiding in.”
No plausible reason can be offered for those remarks, except that ISI’s counter-terrorism wing (CTW) actually did provide specific information related to the Abbottabad compound that led the CIA to begin intensive satellite surveillance of the compound.
Finally the story of the “walk-in” and the $25 million reward going to the individual is a story line that serves the interests of some high-ranking CIA officials – including then-CIA Director Leon Panetta – who had come to view ISI as the enemy because of a cluster of conflicts that involved suspicions about its protecting bin Laden, as well as ISI restrictions on CIA spying in Pakistan; the detention of CIA contractor Raymond Davis for shooting two Pakistanis; and finally, ISI complaints about US drone strikes. The CIA had increased its unilateral intelligence presence in Pakistan tremendously in 2010-11, and ISI demanded that the increase be rolled back.
In January 2011, CIA operative Raymond Davis had been arrested for killing two Pakistanis who had apparently been tailing him, and the CIA had put intense pressure on the ISI to have him released. Then on March 17, one day after Davis had been released thanks to the intervention of ISI chief Shuja Pasha, the CIA had carried out a drone strike on what was supposedly a gathering of Haqqani network officials, but it actually killed dozens of tribal and sub-tribal elders who had gathered from all over North Waziristan to discuss an economic issue. A former US official later suggested that the strike, which had been opposed by then-Ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, had been carried out then because the CIA had been “angry” over the detention of Davis for several weeks.
The Pakistani military had been angered, in turn, by the March 17 drone strike, and Pasha had then gone to Washington in April 2011 with a demand for a Pakistani veto over US drone strikes in the country.
That summer, as tensions with the Pakistani military continued to simmer, someone began talking privately about ISI’s complicity in bin Laden’s presence in Abbotabad. The story was first published on the blog of R. J. Hillhouse on August 8, 2011, which cited “sources in the intelligence community.”