In a blockbuster 10,000-word story for the London Review of Books this week, longtime New Yorker investigative journalist Seymour Hersh called into question the official account of the American raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, and argued that what is arguably seen as the apex of Barack Obama’s presidency is actually built on a lie.
Hersh’s piece claims that Bin Laden was being held prisoner by the Pakistani military and intelligence service (the ISI), who were using him as a means to control Taliban and al-Qaida elements, and hoping to use him as leverage in their relationship with the United States. According to Hersh, who relied largely on an anonymous intelligence source, the Obama administration found out that Pakistan had Bin Laden, and eventually convinced Pakistani military leaders to allow a raid on the compound where Bin Laden was being held. The plan, Hersh writes, was to say publicly that Bin Laden was killed not in the raid but in a drone strike. The White House, however, supposedly broke this deal because of the political value of making the details of the raid public.
Hersh’s story has been much debated over the past several days, with many calling it into question and (a comparable few) others applauding its willingness to undercut the official narrative. NBC News and the AFP have both backed up small elements of Hersh’s story, although both outlets have also called other elements of his piece into question (and NBC later backed away from its original reporting). And no news source has supported Hersh’s largest claim—that the president lied about the raid.
I spoke to Hersh by phone this week. Here is a transcript of our conversation, which has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.
Isaac Chotiner: If the plan until the night of the raid was to use the cover story that he had not been killed in a raid but in a drone strike, then why have the raid at all? Why not just have the Pakistanis kill him? Why risk Obama’s presidency?
Seymour Hersh: Of course there is no answer there because I haven’t talked to any of the principals. But I can just give you what the people who were in the process believed to be so, which is that for [Gens.] Pasha and Kayani, the chance of something like that getting leaked out would be devastating. America was then running at about 8 percent popularity in Pakistan, and Bin Laden was running at 60, 70 percent. He was very popular.[Editor’s note: This 2010 opinion poll says that Bin Laden’s popularity was at 18 percent in Pakistan.] You couldn’t just take a chance, because if someone ratted you out—I can only give you a basic theory.
Chotiner: It just seems like a huge raid with Pakistani complicity brings up just as many problems for the Pakistanis.
Hersh: If you believe, as a smart guy said to me, if anybody, if anyone didn’t think the president was going to fuck [the Pakistani military] they are out of their mind. He was always going to fuck them.
Chotiner: OK. In your piece you call into question that the Americans got valuable documents in the raid. But Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current head of al-Qaida, himself seemed to confirm that this was true. How do you handle that contradiction?
Hersh: I handle it pretty easy. [Laughs] The issue for me is the treasure trove issue. Did the SEALS take out piles of computers? There were claims they found computers and disks and sticks, what do they call those sticks?
Chotiner: I don’t know.
Hersh: You’re not as old as I am. You should know that. Anyway, the SEALs mission was to go kill the guy. They did pick up some papers, but most of the papers were delivered by the ISI. He was a prisoner under their control. He wasn’t beaten and could walk around but it was a prison. He couldn’t get out. They kept encouraging him to write stuff. And he did. But I am bothered by the contradictions. [The] president said it was a treasure trove so there had to be a treasure trove. Is it real? I don’t know. It was used in a trial. Is it real? Is it not? I don’t know.
Chotiner: You seem slightly annoyed that Obama double-crossed the Pakistanis.
Hersh: Double-crossed is your word.
Chotiner: OK fine. I want to understand why you seem bothered by that, aside from the lying. Turning our back on the worst elements in Pakistan who we have long nurtured doesn’t seem so bad. We have supported them forever.
Hersh: Why do we do that?
Chotiner: Because we see it as being in our own interest.
Hersh: Well no, we do it for nukes.
Chotiner: Fine, we see that as being in our interest.
Hersh: In my experience in the last 30 years, one of the major worries was about the “Islamic bomb,” about Pakistan. If you knew the lengths to which we go, working with the ISI, to make sure some ultranationalist or ultrajihadist doesn’t get [control of nukes].
Chotiner: Yes, although you could argue that if we hadn’t nurtured these elements for so long, the country would be less of a threat.
Hersh: You could argue anything.
Chotiner: I want to—
Hersh: Swing away fella.
Chotiner: You sent me—
Hersh: You probably don’t know that NBC reported, and now they have reported it on one of these dopey afternoon shows with that woman, what’s her name, the NBC woman who claims to have some knowledge of foreign policy, married to Alan Greenspan.
Chotiner: Andrea Mitchell.
Hersh: She’s comical. On her show the administration is acknowledging walk-ins but saying the walk-ins aren’t necessarily linked to Bin Laden.
Chotiner: The AFP piece, which you sent me approvingly, says the same thing, that there is no evidence the walk-in led to Bin Laden, and that the walk-in did not even know the target was Bin Laden.
Hersh: Uh huh, OK.
Chotiner: OK but here is my question about journalism, since you have been doing this longer than I have—
Hersh: Oh poor you, you don’t know anything. It is amazing you can speak the God’s English.
Chotiner: Are you hoping with this piece to say that you made no mistakes, or that OK there were mistakes because I am getting the ball rolling? You have quoted two pieces very approvingly, from NBC and AFP, that differ from key points in your own story. I want to know how accurate you think your story now is.
Hersh: [Laughs loudly] Well I will tell you one thing: At one point a copy editor in England confronted me about the SEALs training in Nevada and changed it to Utah, and the line made it because according to her they were sort of the same.
Chotiner: The AFP piece contradicts your piece but you aren’t running around worried about that.
Hersh: I sent it approvingly because it crossed my desk and it does say there were walk-ins. [Laughs] You can read it any way you want. The White House has been very clever about this. They have gone after me personally. They don’t like me boo hoo hoo. But they have been very careful to hedge everything, they quote Peter Bergen. Bergen or Berger, is that his name?
Hersh: They quote him. He views himself as the trustee of all things Bin Laden.
Chotiner: I just want to talk to you about your piece and journalism.
Hersh: What difference does it make what the fuck I think about journalism? I don’t think much of the journalism that I see. If you think I write stories where it is all right to just be good enough, are you kidding? You think I have a cavalier attitude on throwing stuff out? Are you kidding? I am not cavalier about what I do for a living.
Chotiner: I don’t think you are cavalier. That was not my question.
Hersh: Whatever it is, it’s an impossible question. It’s almost like you are asking me to say that there are flaws in everybody. Yes. Do I acknowledge that not everybody can be perfect? But I am not backing off anything I said.
Chotiner: Well let’s talk about sources. A lot of the reporting that got us into the last stupid war was based on bad and often anonymous sources. Is there a problem with journalists having a limited number of sources, just generally speaking? Is this a problem? With unnamed sources—
Hersh: Are you kidding me? Unnamed sources? You are smarter than that. This is too boring.
Chotiner: Let me finish my question and then you can yell at me.
Hersh: I am done yelling.
Chotiner: Is there some sort of journalistic standard that reporters should try to meet to prevent more errors?
Hersh: Let me say something to you. There was a practice at the New Yorker that continued at the London Review of Books. The reason I like the LRB is that it isn’t tied down to Americana. It is more open to being … In Europe people think this story makes sense. There is not the quibbling. It is a different approach. By that I mean that the view of America is less cheery abroad but the standards are the same. The people at the London Review knew whom I talked to. It is the same at the New Yorker. David Remnick knows who I talk to. I do have sources, which is a problem for a lot of people that don’t.
Chotiner: OK well it seems like the upshot of what you are saying, and correct me if this is wrong—
Hersh: I just said what I said. I don’t want to hear what the upshot is. If you have another question then ask it. This is going on too long. I am too old and too cranky and too tired. I have been doing this fucking thing for a day. I told you, I warned you, that I am really irritable.
Chotiner: OK so if both places check your sources, and the New Yorker—
Hersh: Now you are restating it. In Europe it is an easier path. The notion that somehow America—I have one slight layer less. Believe me. I don’t know if you know who Mary-Kay Wilmers is. You probably don’t.
Chotiner: She is the editor of the LRB.
Hersh: Do you know how smart she is?
Chotiner: I have heard stories.
Hersh: She is fantastic. She is as good as they say. They go gaga over her. She was married to Stephen Frears. She is tenacious. But believe me this piece took a long time to get into print. A lot of questions. A lot of nasty questions.
Hersh: Don’t turn this into some sort of profound anti-American statement.
Chotiner: It seems like you are hinting the New Yorker rejected it for reasons having to do with politics.
Hersh: Would you care to hear the truth? Would you care to hear something that didn’t come from Vox, whoever Vox is? I am not sure you are that interested in it. I am doing a book. Within four or five days I hear that there are problems with the [official] OBL story. A lot of problems. And I have good friends in Pakistan. Really good friends. I go there a lot. Hold on, I just walked out of a two-room suite and the fucking movie crew. The fucking movie crew just leaves the desk. God dammit. [A film crew had been in Hersh’s office.] Anyway. First of all, you may get some suggestion of this. Maybe I am not an easy guy.
Chotiner: I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that.
Hersh: There was a point with the New Yorker where I thought they should rename the fucking magazine the Seymour Hersh Weekly. David Remnick has his own theories and opinions. He is not cowed by me. We have a lot of fights. We have a lot of disagreements. I don’t find that so shocking. I like him a lot, he is brilliant, he is great. I think he is even a better writer than editor. I have always been a freelancer. I always work for myself.
Chotiner: I get that.
Hersh: So, all that happens is I tell him about the story, and his initial approach was to say do a blog item. Go fuck yourself! A blog? I have done a couple blogs when it is 1,000 words but this is worth more. At that point it was very early. So I was on contract for a book and said fuck it … You want to make a lot out of it? David always says he welcomes another view. I am the guy who said fuck it, I will do what I want to do. [Editor’s note: Other news sources have reported that the New Yorker declined to publish a version of the story.]
[Hersh picks up other phone]: Yeah. Yeah. Oh no, fuck no … I don’t want to do it there! Go fuck—
Hersh: You there?
Hersh: Fucking TV interview sets up in the hall of my office building. It’s a lawyer’s building.
Chotiner: I was just asking—
Hersh: You want to write about this totally tedious shit? Yes, I am a huge pain in the ass. I am the one that decided to publish it wherever the hell I please. That’s the story. You want to listen to hall gossip about me? Go ahead. [Sarcastic voice] It is so immensely important to so many people to know where I published. I can’t believe it.
Chotiner: Can I tell you why?
Hersh: I don’t want to hear why. You think there is a different standard in London?
Chotiner: I wish you would listen.
Hersh: All right, maybe I will listen, but I gotta hang up.
Chotiner: If people here are turning down stories because of certain politics—you yourself said it was easier in Europe—that is a story that should be written.
Hersh: Now you said the first intelligent thing you have said. If you had asked whether he didn’t run this because he is in love with Obama and all that stuff that people think, no … It is a very good question. Although we have huge disagreements. My children and I have huge disagreements. I have a huge disagreement with my dog. We have a lot of disagreements and there are times when he will call me and I will not answer the call. Oh fuck hold on. He always has said to me he welcomes any information and it was I who said fuck it.
Chotiner: OK but you have talked about the New Yorker’s Americana and said my question was a good one, so is there something to it?
Hersh: I think it is a great question.
Chotiner: So what do you think of it?
Hersh: I just told you what I think. In the case of the Bin Laden story, he is open for anything. It was I who made the decision.
Chotiner: I feel like you are telling me two different things. One is that you get less pressure in Europe, and the other is that this story would have been fine at the New Yorker.
Hersh: So fine, I am glad you are confused. Write whichever one makes you happy.
Hersh: I don’t mean to yell at you but I feel good doing it. Goodbye.