The newest Seymour Hersh blockbuster in the London Review of Books has one big claim: virtually the entire story of Osama bin Laden’s death was an elaborate fiction.

Bin Laden wasn’t hiding out in Abbattobad, as we’ve been told—he was effectively under house arrest, placed there under guard by Pakistan’s security services with financial help from the Saudis. We didn’t track down his address through diligent intelligence work—a Pakistani informant ratted him out to the CIA in exchange for the $25 million reward. And we didn’t kill him in a firefight—he was abandoned by his Pakistani guards and gunned down in cold blood by U.S. troops. The whole operation was supposed to remain secret, with bin Laden’s death publicly chalked up to a drone strike, but an unexpected helicopter crash at the site of the raid forced the U.S. to concoct a complex symphony of lies. According to Hersh.

The article, if you believe its almost entirely anonymous sourcing (not that there’s anything wrong with anonymous sources!), casts the Obama White House’s account of the operation as a frantic and harried cover-up designed to valorize a “homicide,” as one anonymous commando put it. Though the Hersh account is by no means new—Hersh fails to credit her, but national security writer R.J. Hillhouse wrote a blog post in 2011 that included substantially the same claims, and generated some mainstream press accounts—his stature in the spook world and track record with previous stories means his account is getting traction.

Here are the U.S. lies about the raid, as catalogued by Hersh.

Bin Laden Wasn’t Buried at Sea

Since his killing in 2011, the U.S. government has maintained (and U.S. media has reported) that bin Laden was given a perfunctory naval funeral off the deck of an aircraft carrier, to prevent any gravesite from becoming a symbol of martyrdom. According to Hersh’s lengthy account of the assassination, bin Laden’s corpse never made it to the USS Carl Vinson, because it had been torn apart by machine gun fire at point blank range before the CIA took whatever shreds were left:

Some members of the Seal team had bragged to colleagues and others that they had torn bin Laden’s body to pieces with rifle fire. The remains, including his head, which had only a few bullet holes in it, were thrown into a body bag and, during the helicopter flight back to Jalalabad, some body parts were tossed out over the Hindu Kush mountains – or so the Seals claimed.

Hersh continues, “there never was a plan, initially, to take the body to sea, and no burial of bin Laden at sea took place...the retired official said that if the Seals’ first accounts are to be believed, there wouldn’t have been much left of bin Laden to put into the sea in any case.” This raises the possibility that the CIA remains in possession, literally, of Osama bin Laden’s head.

From Vanity Fair, November 2012:

“A navy photographer recorded the burial in full sunlight, Monday morning, May 2. One frame shows the body wrapped in a weighted shroud.”

From Hersh:

“It would be navy officers who came up with the “burial at sea” idea. Perfect. No body. Honourable burial following sharia law. Burial is made public in great detail, but Freedom of Information documents confirming the burial are denied for reasons of ‘national security’.”

There Was No Firefight, at All, During the Raid

From the New Yorker, August 2011:

“One SEAL unit had no sooner trod on the paved patio at the house’s front entrance when Abrar—a stocky, mustachioed man in a cream-colored shalwar kameez—appeared with an AK-47. He was shot in the chest and killed, as was his wife, Bushra, who was standing, unarmed, beside him.”

And from the New York Times, May 2011:

Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, Osama bin Laden’s courier, opens fire from behind a door of the guesthouse. Commandos kill the courier. His wife is caught in the cross-fire and killed.

From Hersh:

“Aside from those that hit bin Laden, no other shots were fired.”

Pakistan Knew About, and Aided, the Operation

From the New Yorker:

“Obama decided against informing or working with Pakistan. ‘There was a real lack of confidence that the Pakistanis could keep this secret for more than a nanosecond,’ a senior adviser to the President told me.”

From Hersh:

“The most blatant lie 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 of the US mission...Obama was anxious for reassurance that the US was going to get the right man. The proof was to come in the form of bin Laden’s DNA. The planners turned for help to Kayani and Pasha, who asked [Maj. Amir] Aziz to obtain the specimens.”

Bin Laden Was Gunned Down in a Hail of Bullets

From the New York Times, May 2011:

When the commandos reach Bin Laden’s room on the third floor, an AK-47 and a Makarov pistol are seen in arm’s reach of Bin Laden. A commando shoots Bin Laden in the left eye and chest, killing him.

From Hersh:

The later White House claim that only one or two bullets were fired into his head was ‘bullshit’, the retired official said. ‘The squad came through the door and obliterated him. As the Seals say, “We kicked his ass and took his gas.”’

An Informant Ratted bin Laden Out

From the New York Times, May 2011:

After nearly a decade of hunting Osama bin Laden, a breakthrough came in August of 2010 when Bin Laden’s most trusted courier was located and identified. What followed was eight months of painstaking intelligence work.

From Hersh:

The CIA did not learn of bin Laden’s whereabouts by tracking his couriers, as the White House has claimed since May 2011, but from a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer who betrayed the secret in return for much of the $25 million reward offered by the US.

There Was No “Trove” of al-Qaeda Documents In the bin Laden Compound

From the Washington Post, July 2011:

Toward the end of his decade in hiding, Osama bin Laden was spending as much time exchanging messages about al-Qaeda’s struggles as he was plotting ways for the terrorist network to reassert its strength.

From CNN, May 2012:

U.S. officials say that the documents found in the compound — about 6,000 worth — were written between September 2006 and April 2011 and were recovered from five computers, dozens of hard drives and more than 100 storage devices. The cache has been described as the single largest batch of senior terrorist material ever obtained.

From Hersh:

These claims were fabrications: there wasn’t much activity for bin Laden to exercise command and control over. The retired intelligence official said that the CIA’s internal reporting shows that since bin Laden moved to Abbottabad in 2006 only a handful of terrorist attacks could be linked to the remnants of bin Laden’s al-Qaida....

Despite all the talk,’ the retired official continued, there were ‘no garbage bags full of computers and storage devices. The guys just stuffed some books and papers they found in his room in their backpacks. The Seals weren’t there because they thought bin Laden was running a command centre for al-Qaida operations, as the White House would later tell the media. And they were not intelligence experts gathering information inside that house.’

If Hersh (and Hillhouse) are correct, then these outlets were basically republishing CIA fan fiction. Loyal Washingtonians have already begun reacting aggressively to Hersh’s story, and there will no doubt be be a series of volleys over “The Killing of Osama bin Laden”—the American presidency and its eager reporters have too much at stake to let a challenge like this go.

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