What Do We Really Know About Osama bin Laden’s Death?

American history is filled with war stories that subsequently unraveled. Consider the Bush administration’s false claims about Saddam Hussein’s supposed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Or the imagined attack on a U.S. vessel in the Gulf of Tonkin. During the Bay of Pigs, the government inflated the number of fighters it dispatched to Cuba in hopes of encouraging local citizens to rise up and join them. When the operation failed, the government quickly deflated the number, claiming that it hadn’t been an invasion at all but rather a modest attempt to deliver supplies to local guerrillas. More recently, the Army reported that the ex-N.F.L. safety Pat Tillman was killed by enemy fire, rather than acknowledging that he was accidentally shot in the head by a machine-gunner from his own unit.

These false stories couldn’t have reached the public without the help of the media.  Reporters don’t just find facts; they look for narratives.

.. Hersh confidently walked readers through an alternate version of all the familiar plot points in a dispassionate, just-the-facts tone, turning a story of patient perseverance, careful planning and derring-do into one of luck (good and bad), damage control and opportunism.

.. ‘‘It’s all sort of hokey, the whole thing,’’ Robert Baer, a longtime C.I.A. case officer in the Middle East (and the inspiration for the George Clooney character in the movie ‘‘Syriana’’) told me of the government’s version of the events. ‘‘I’ve never seen a White House take that kind of risk. Did the president just wake up one morning and say, ‘Let’s put my presidency on the line right before an election?’ This guy is too smart to put 23 SEALs in harm’s way in a Hollywood-like assassination. He’s too smart.’’ Still, none of Baer’s old friends inside or outside the agency have challenged the administration’s account.

.. This was a story that was so good it didn’t need to be fictionalized, or so it seemed. It began with a series of C.I.A.-led torture sessions, which the movie suggested provided the crucial break in the hunt for bin Laden. Only they didn’t, at least according to a report conducted over the course of many years by the Senate Intelligence Committee (and others with access to classified information). Senator Dianne Feinstein, who oversaw the report as the committee’s chairwoman, said she walked out of a screening of the film. ‘‘I couldn’t handle it,’’ she said. ‘‘Because it’s so false.’’ The filmmakers’ intent had presumably been to tell a nuanced story — the ugly truth of how we found bin Laden — but in so doing, they seem to have perpetuated a lie.

.. And we can’t necessarily console ourselves with the hope that we will have more answers any time soon; to this day, the final volume of the C.I.A.’s official history of the Bay of Pigs remains classified. We don’t know what happened more than a half-century ago, much less in 2011.

.. There are different ways to control a narrative. There’s the old-fashioned way: Classify documents that you don’t want seen and, as Gates said, ‘‘keep mum on the details.’’ But there’s also the more modern, social-media-savvy approach: Tell the story you want them to believe. Silence is one way to keep a secret. Talking is another. And they are not mutually exclusive.

Osama Bin Laden’s First Draft

I recall my own experience writing a book about events that took place in the government. In the fall of 2010, Bethany McLean and I published “All The Devils Are Here,” about the 2008 financial crisis. After many interviews with current and former officials at the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve, we wrote our account of events that are murky to this day, most obviously why the government let Lehman Brothers fail.

.. In the intervening five years, new information has come out. Most recently, Ben Bernanke, the former Fed chairman, admitted that he and Hank Paulson, the former Treasury secretary, had been less than forthcoming about the reasons for Lehman’s failure. That information was not in our book because Bernanke and Paulson withheld it.

.. Journalism is “the first rough draft of history,” as the old saying goes. In the modern age, that’s as true for books as for any other form of journalism.

The Mystery of ISIS

The story is relatively easy to narrate, but much more difficult to understand. It begins in 1989, when Zarqawi, inspired by his Islamic self-help class, traveled from Jordan to “do jihad” in Afghanistan. Over the next decade he fought in the Afghan civil war, organized terrorist attacks in Jordan, spent years in a Jordanian jail, and returned—with al-Qaeda help—to set up a training camp in Herat in western Afghanistan. He was driven out of Afghanistan by the US-led invasion of 2001, but helped back onto his feet by the Iranian government. Then, in 2003—with the assistance of Saddam loyalists—he set up an insurgency network in Iraq. By targeting Shias and their most holy sites, he was able to turn an insurgency against US troops into a Shia–Sunni civil war.

.. After he mounted three simultaneous bomb attacks against Jordanian hotels—killing sixty civilians at a wedding party—the senior leaders of his Jordanian tribe and his own brother signed a public letter disowning him. The Guardian was only echoing the conventional wisdom when it concluded in Zarqawi’s obituary: “Ultimately, his brutality tarnished any aura, offered little but nihilism and repelled Muslims worldwide.”

.. The al-Qaeda cash that launched Zarqawi in 1999, for example, was, in their words, “a pittance compared to what al-Qaeda was financially capable of disbursing.” The fact that it didn’t give him more reflected bin Laden’s horror at Zarqawi’s killing of Shias (bin Laden’s mother was Shia) and his distaste for Zarqawi’s tattoos.

.. Although the Iranians gave Zarqawi medical aid and safe haven when he was a fugitive in 2002, he soon lost their sympathy by sending his own father-in-law in a suicide vest to kill Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, Iran’s senior political representative in Iraq, and by blowing up one of the most sacred Shia shrines.

.. By June 2010, General Ray Odierno claimed that 80 percent of the movement’s top forty-two leaders had been killed or captured, with only eight remaining at large. But after the US left in 2011, instead of rebuilding its networks in Iraq, the battered remnants chose to launch an invasion of Syria, and took on not just the regime, but also the well-established Free Syrian Army. It attacked the movement’s Syrian branch—Jabhat-al-Nusra—when it broke away. It enraged al-Qaeda in 2014 by killing al-Qaeda’s senior emissary in the region. It deliberately provoked tens of thousands of Shia militiamen to join the fight on the side of the Syrian regime, and then challenged the Iranian Quds force by advancing on Baghdad.

Next, already struggling against these new enemies, the movement opened another front in August 2014 by attacking Kurdistan, driving the Kurdish forces—who had hitherto stayed out of the battle—to retaliate. It beheaded the American journalist James Foley and the British aid worker David Haines, thereby bringing in the US and UK. It enraged Japan by demanding hundreds of millions of dollars for a hostage who was already dead. It finished 2014 by mounting a suicidal attack on Kobane in Syria, in the face of over six hundred US air strikes, losing many thousands of ISIS fighters and gaining no ground. When, as recently as April, the movement lost Tikrit and seemed to be declining, the explanation appeared obvious. Analysts were on the verge of concluding that ISIS had lost because it was reckless, abhorrent, over-extended, fighting on too many fronts, with no real local support, unable to translate terrorism into a popular program, inevitably outmatched by regular armies.

.. ISIS’s power is now reinforced by the staggering arsenal that the movement has taken from the fleeing Iraqi and Syrian army—including tanks, Humvees, and major artillery pieces.

.. many Sunnis in Iraq and Syria now feel that ISIS is the only plausible guarantor of order and security in the civil war, and their only defense against brutal retribution from the Damascus and Baghdad governments.

.. But this simply raises the more fundamental question of why the movement’s ideology and actions—however slickly produced and communicated—have had popular appeal in the first place.

.. But in truth, these new foreign fighters seemed to sprout from every conceivable political or economic system. They came from very poor countries (Yemen and Afghanistan) and from the wealthiest countries in the world (Norway and Qatar). Analysts who have argued that foreign fighters are created by social exclusion, poverty, or inequality should acknowledge that they emerge as much from the social democracies of Scandinavia as from monarchies (a thousand from Morocco), military states (Egypt), authoritarian democracies (Turkey), and liberal democracies (Canada).

.. In Ramadi, three hundred ISIS fighters drove out thousands of trained and heavily equipped Iraqi soldiers. The US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter observed:

The Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight. They were not outnumbered. In fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force, and yet they failed to fight.

The thinkers, tacticians, soldiers, and leaders of the movement we know as ISIS are not great strategists; their policies are often haphazard, reckless, even preposterous; regardless of whether their government is, as some argue, skillful, or as others imply, hapless, it is not delivering genuine economic growth or sustainable social justice. The theology, principles, and ethics of the ISIS leaders are neither robust nor defensible. Our analytical spade hits bedrock very fast.

.. To take only one example, five years ago not even the most austere Salafi theorists advocated the reintroduction of slavery; but ISIS has in fact imposed it. Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough—even in hindsight—to have predicted the movement’s rise.




Evil but Stupid: Followup on Sy Hursh Osama bin Ladin Story

ON MAY 10, the London Review of Books published “The Killing of Osama bin Laden,” a 10,000-word piece by veteran reporter Seymour Hersh. The story argued that the official White House narrative of the al Qaeda leader’s killing was a fabrication. The intelligence blogger R. J. Hillhouse had made similar claims a few years earlier, which had gone largely ignored in the US. But these allegations came from the most celebrated investigative journalist of the past half-century — they received more attention. The number of people trying to read Hersh’s story online was enough to crash the LRB’s website, something their many articles on Greco-Roman numismatics had previously failed to do.

.. Signs of the new conformity appeared early in the 1990s with the closest precedent to l’affaire Hersh, the controversy over Gary Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series in the San Jose Mercury News. Webb, an adherent of the paranoid school of investigative journalism, alleged that money for the contras also flowed through CIA-sponsored drug dealing in Californiasuggesting that crack cocaine on the streets of Los Angeles had indirectly fueled the Nicaraguan civil war. Rather than follow up Webb’s reporting, which over time was revealed to be mostly accurate, journalists frenetically tried to discredit Webb, attacking his methods and his character. The subtext was clear: We don’t do this kind of thing anymore; the age of conspiracies has ended. Webb, ostracized and unable to find work at any major paper, eventually committed suicide.

.. This spring, Politico conducted a poll that found that 65 percent of White House correspondents believe Obama to be the “least press-friendly president they’ve ever seen,” a judgment echoed by former Times executive editor Jill Abramson, who called it “the most secretive White House that I have ever been involved in covering.”

.. As Jeremy Scahill reported, an outcry persuaded Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh to sign an order for his release, but before that order could be delivered Saleh received a call from Obama, who said he would prefer that Shaye remain in prison. So Shaye remained in prison.

.. THE KEY DIFFERENCE between Hersh’s and Obama’s accounts of the bin Laden raid is that in the President’s version, everything went according to plan. Each element of the story seems calibrated for a political purpose: the heroism of the SEALs, the obsessive professionalism of the CIA analysts, and bin Laden’s respectful burial at sea, conducted in accordance with Islamic law.

.. The New Yorker ran an “as it happened” account of the raid (“Getting Bin Laden”) that gave readers the impression that reporter Nicholas Schmidle had been embedded with the SEALs, peering out through his own set of night-vision goggles, when in fact the whole thing was reconstructed from interviews; he hadn’t even talked to the SEALs.

.. Bin Laden’s death, widely seen as the most significant victory in what is now the fourteen-year history of the war on terror, is also the only sort of “victory” that the war on terror, with its diffuse aims and symbolic targets, could actually accomplish. Hersh stripped the war’s only conspicuous “success” of its halo, while also reminding the US public that the war it could not truly face was still taking place, behind much the same veil of lies and secrecy that characterized the more obvious wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

..  In effect, it has attempted to do away with the idea that the country is conducting a war, technically subject to public approval via the legislative branch, and has put in place the hazier notion of a potentially endless chain of discrete war-resembling events overseen by a reluctant executive. In 2009, the administration asked the Pentagon to stop using the phrase “Global War on Terror,” favoring “Overseas Contingency Operations” instead, recasting the war as a series of ad hoc skirmishes.

.. The US is a country engaged in an endless global war that never feels like one. The government prefers to refuse to acknowledge this war; much of the media follows suit. In this respect, bin Laden’s killing is only the most notable instance of the open fabrications and legalistic half-truths that we’ve come to accept as inevitable parts of our public discourse.

.. It is fine to argue about the accuracy of Hersh’s individual claims, but his overarching onethat the White House’s account of the raid was an arrogant, lazy, and self-serving lie in a chain of arrogant, lazy, and self-serving liesis something that most of us know, on some level, to be true.

.. Obama has been Uriah Heep–like in his professions of humility over the capacity of American war-making, but even as he has drawn down forces in one country, he has prosecuted smaller-scale wars in Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and Libya, to say nothing of the continuing maneuvers in Afghanistan and Iraq and the enhanced NATO presence along the border with Russia. He does not make major speeches to the public about these wars, nor does he let Congress decide whether to fight them