What Hersh the Most
The original plan had been to wait a week and then claim that a drone strike had killed bin Laden in the Hindu Kush mountains, just across the border in Afghanistan. But given the helicopter crash and resulting fireball, the Obama Administration felt the raid would be impossible to keep under wraps for a week. With the vocal exception, Hersh says, of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Obama’s advisers urged him to go public with the story as quickly as possible, before the Pentagon could announce it and take credit for it. According to Hersh, the White House had no press plan to implement should the raid go awry, no backup story. So they had to make up the story as they presented it to the world. Over the course of a few weeks, this scrambling produced inconsistencies. Bin Laden used a woman as a human shield; then he didn’t. Bin Laden was buried at sea from a naval vessel; the ship’s log has no record of any such burial. Bin Laden was shooting at SEALs when he was shot; or he wasn’t. And so on.
Hersh’s article solved several puzzles in the official report of bin Laden’s death. How could he have been hiding in a compound less than a mile from an elite military academy without Pakistan’s knowledge (a question raised in the days after the attack by the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Dianne Feinstein, among others)? Why, when bin Laden’s neighbors called the Abbottabad police after the SEALs’ helicopter crashed, did the Pakistani military tell the police not to respond? Why had Obama, in his speech announcing the news, originally claimed that the raid was due to the help of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, only to refute this claim the next day? Why were the pictures of bin Laden’s supposed burial at sea at first kept classified and then said to have been destroyed?
Then the melee began. To be sure, there were a few journalists who duly followed up on Hersh’s claims. The New York Times correspondent Carlotta Gall, who wrote a long piece in the Times Magazine last fall claiming that Pakistan’s intelligence service had been holding bin Laden captive, said that Hersh’s story about the walk-in was supported by her own sources. NBC News reported the night after Hersh’s article appeared that the news of bin Laden’s location had come from a Pakistani defector; a few hours later, they modified this report to say that although a defector had been involved, the main lead had still come from the mysterious courier. Agence France-Presse reported that two Pakistani military officials had acknowledged that a Pakistani defector had been a “key” part of the bin Laden operation.
It was up to the rest of the media to lash into Hersh himself.