The New York Times' bizarre story on Osama bin Laden's death

Story highlights

  • Peter Bergen: Times magazine cover story says incorrectly that we don't know truth about the bin Laden killing
  • Participants in raid and U.S. officials would have had to agree on massive cover up if story they told is false, Bergen said

Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad." This piece draws on a story from May 20, 2015.

(CNN)The New York Times is the greatest newspaper in the world, so when the current cover story in the Times magazine is headlined, "What Do We Really Know about Osama bin Laden's Death?," readers are surely going to pay attention.

The story was of particular interest because we actually know a great deal about bin Laden's death, not only from three books written by participants in the operation -- one of the U.S. Navy SEALs who was on the raid and the two top CIA officials who led the hunt for al Qaeda's leader -- but also from many news articles about the operation written by reporters working for The New York Times.
Anything that might add to the hundreds of thousands of words that are already on the public record about bin Laden's death would, of course, be of great interest to the American public and, indeed, to people around the world.
    My interest was particularly piqued because I have written a book about the long search for al Qaeda's leader and his death at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs, so I was anxious to find out more from the newspaper of record which is, after all, based in the city where the terrible 9/11 attacks had killed so many Americans in an operation that was, of course, ordered by bin Laden.
    So it was an unpleasant surprise to find that Times reporter Jonathan Mahler, in his more than 7,000 word piece, had discovered little new about the hunt for bin Laden and the raid that killed him, but also made the following claim: "It's not that the truth about bin Laden's death is unknowable; it's that we don't know it."
    Mahler also asserted that it was "impossible to know what was true and what wasn't" about the story of bin Laden's death, which is now "floating somewhere between fact and mythology."
    Really? That is only if you accept at face value the work of the investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, who wrote a lengthy piece in the London Review of Books in May that set out to challenge the "official" story of bin Laden's death.

    Seymour Hersh's story

    Let's recap the principal claims that Hersh's article made, which largely relied on the assertions of an unnamed, retired senior U.S. intelligence official:
    -- That the 2011 raid on the Abbottabad compound where bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan was not an intense firefight involving 23 SEALs, but a Hollywood-like set up in which Pakistani officials simply handed over bin Laden to the SEALs for execution.
    -- The only shots fired the night of the bin Laden raid were the ones that the SEALs fired to kill bin Laden.
    -- Pakistan's military had been holding bin Laden prisoner for many years and a "walk in" informant to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad tipped off the CIA that bin Laden was living in the Abbottabad compound.
    -- It was false, despite the statements of multiple U.S. officials after the raid, that the CIA had traced back one of bin Laden's couriers to the Abbottabad compound and built a circumstantial case that bin Laden was living there.
    -- A Pakistani army doctor obtained DNA from bin Laden that proved he was in Abbottabad, proof that was provided to the States so that all the supposed uncertainty -- cited by Obama administration officials after the raid -- about whether bin Laden was actually living in the compound was a lie.
    -- The "most blatant lie," according to Hersh, 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" in advance of the U.S. raid on the bin Laden compound.
    In short, according to Hersh's account, President Barack Obama and many of his top advisers lied about pretty much everything concerning what is considered one of the President's signal accomplishments: authorizing the raid in which bin Laden was killed.
    If Hersh's account were true, it would be an outrageous betrayal of the public trust by Obama and his most senior advisers on the scale of Watergate.
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    During the course of reporting for my book about the hunt for bin Laden I spoke on the record to, among many others, then-CIA Director Leon Panetta; John Brennan, now the CIA director and then President Obama's top counterterrorism adviser; then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen; then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. James Cartwright; then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Michael Vickers, who was then the civilian overseer of Special Operations at the Pentagon; Tony Blinken, who is now the deputy secretary of state, and Denis McDonough, who is now Obama's chief of staff.
    I also spoke off the record to some dozen other officials from many different agencies across the U.S. government and to multiple officials in the Pakistani government and military. The story told by all those officials was remarkably consistent: that the Pakistanis did not know where bin Laden was hiding; that the case that bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad was built up thorough circumstantial evidence; and that the SEALs went in to a dangerous situation at the compound and fought their way past two bodyguards to get to bin Laden, killing a total of five people, including an unarmed female.
    Either all these many dozens of officials were all lying in great detail and have kept up this pretense collectively for the past four years, or they were telling the truth.

    Give Hillary an Oscar

    One of those supposed liars would also be the woman who may well be the next president of the United States, Hillary Clinton. By the way, give her an Oscar for acting for her performance when the iconic photograph was taken at the White House as the bin Laden raid went down, the one in which Clinton has her hand over her mouth in disbelief and anxiety so uncertain was the outcome of the raid.
    While the story about the hunt for bin Laden has been exhaustively reported and the key sources and witnesses are in agreement about the main points of the narrative, of course, it's still possible that we could learn new details about the story that would add to the narrative.
    Still, as I wrote in May when Hersh's story first appeared, his account of the bin Laden raid is a farrago of nonsense that is contravened by a multitude of eyewitness accounts, inconvenient facts and simple common sense.
    Let's start with the claim that the only shots fired at the Abbottabad compound were the ones that killed bin Laden. That ignores the fact that two SEALs on the mission, Matt Bissonnette, author of "No Easy Day," and Robert O'Neill have publicly said that there were a number of other people killed that night, including bin Laden's two bodyguards, one of his sons and one of the bodyguard's wives.
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    Their account is supplemented by many other U.S. officials who have spoken on the record to myself or to other journalists, including Mark Bowden, who also wrote a book about the bin Laden raid and whose book "Black Hawk Down" is the definitive account of the fiasco that unfolded in Somalia in 1993 when a U.S. Special Forces mission to capture a Somali warlord ended up with 18 American servicemen dead.
    I was the only outsider to visit the Abbottabad compound where bin Laden lived before the Pakistani military demolished it.
    The compound was trashed, littered almost everywhere with broken glass and several areas of it were sprayed with bullet holes where the SEALs had fired at members of bin Laden's entourage and family, or in one case exchanged fire with one of his bodyguards. The evidence at the compound showed that many bullets were fired the night of bin Laden's death.

    U.S.-Pakistani relations

    Common sense would also tell you that if the Pakistanis were holding bin Laden and the U.S. government had found out this fact, the easiest path for both countries would not be to launch a U.S. military raid into Pakistan but would have been to hand bin Laden over quietly to the Americans.
    Indeed, the Pakistanis have done this on several occasions with a number of other al Qaeda leaders such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the operational commander of 9/11, who was handed over to U.S. custody after a raid in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi in 2003. So too was Abu Faraj al-Libi, another key al Qaeda leader who was similarly handed over by the Pakistanis to U.S. custody two years later.
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    Common sense would also tell you that if U.S. officials had found out that the Pakistani officials were hiding bin Laden, there is no reason the Americans would have covered this up.
    After all, around the time of the bin Laden raid, relations between the United States and Pakistan were at an all-time low because the Pakistanis had recently imprisoned Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor who had killed two Pakistanis. What did U.S. officials have to lose by saying that bin Laden was being protected by the Pakistanis, if it were true?
    The fact is that the senior Pakistani officials who Hersh alleges were harboring bin Laden were as surprised as the rest of the world that al Qaeda's leader was living in Abbottabad.
    The night of the bin Laden raid, U.S. officials were monitoring the communications of Pakistan's top military officials such as Kayani and Pasha, and their bewildered reactions confirmed that the Pakistanis had not had a clue about bin Laden's presence there, according to a number of U.S. officials.
    In his article, Hersh correctly pointed out that in the immediate aftermath of the bin Laden raid, White House officials initially made some false statements about the raid -- for instance, that bin Laden was using his wives as human shields during the raid -- but these were quickly corrected.

    Little support for Hersh

    The only source Hersh referred to by name in his 10,000-word piece was Asad Durrani, who was the head of Pakistan's military intelligence agency, ISI, during the early 1990s, around two decades before the bin Laden raid occurred. Hersh portrayed Durrani as generally supportive of Hersh's various conclusions.
    When I emailed Durrani after the Hersh piece appeared, Durrani said he had "no evidence of any kind" that the ISI knew that bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad, but he still could "make an assessment that this could be plausible." This was hardly a strong endorsement of one of the principal claims of Hersh's piece by his only named source.
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    Durrani added that he believed that the bin Laden "operation could not have been carried out without our cooperation."
    This glossed over the fact that the SEALs were flying in stealth helicopters through blind spots in Pakistan's radar defense and the Pakistani air force had virtually no capacity to fly at night when the raid took place, so in fact the bin Laden raid was relatively easily accomplished without Pakistani cooperation, according to multiple U.S. officials with knowledge of the bin Laden operation.
    One of the only journalists who has "stood up" any element of Hersh's story is Carlotta Gall, a reporter for the Times whose 2014 book, "The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan 2001-2014," was excerpted in the Times magazine.
    Gall wrote that she had been told by a Pakistani source that "the ISI actually ran a special desk assigned to handle bin Laden. It was operated independently, led by an officer who made his own decisions and did not report to a superior. He handled only one person: bin Laden ... the top military bosses knew about it."
    This would be big news, if true, but strangely the aggressive reporters at the Times who cover Pakistan and also the U.S. intelligence community, including Pulitzer prize winners such as Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt, have not substantiated an iota of Gall's reporting, nor any of Hersh's.

    Times' reporters 'patsies'?

    Are Times reporters such as Mazzetti and Schmitt patsies for the American and Pakistani governments and militaries? Hardly. Mazzetti co-authored a massive Times investigation earlier this year that was quite critical of U.S. Navy SEAL Team 6, which carried out the bin Laden raid, while he and Schmitt shared in the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for their aggressive Times coverage of Pakistan.
    The only kernel of new and interesting reporting done by Mahler in his Times magazine cover story was to find Aamir Latif, a 41-year-old Pakistani journalist who went to Abbottabad, the day after bin Laden was killed, where he reported for a couple of days. Latif said he had spoken to half-dozen neighbors living near bin Laden's compound, and they had told him that Pakistani security personnel a couple of hours before the raid had told them to turn off their lights and remain indoors.
    Certainly very interesting, if true, but Latif is the only journalist who has reported this story, while the many dozens of Pakistani reporters and reporters from around the world who were in Abbottabad after the raid did not find this.
    It has been established that U.S. Navy SEALs took a translator with them to Abbottabad, and during the raid, he spoke to curious neighbors in the local language and told them to go back inside their houses because a security operation was under way.
    I spent several days in Abbottabad and interviewed Ihsan Khan, the local journalist who first broke the story of the mysterious helicopter crash in Abbottabad, which was the one of the stealth helicopters carrying the SEALs crashing inside bin Laden's compound. Khan was one of the first at the scene and spoke to multiple eyewitnesses. Khan made no mention that any of them had told him that Pakistani security personnel had been going door to door before the raid warning neighbors to stay inside.
    The newspaper of record is now in the curious and uncomfortable position in which its own magazine is fanning the flames of conspiracy theories about the bin Laden raid. This is a very strange place for the Times to be.