Seymour Hersh challenges White House story of Osama bin Laden’s death

US journalist claims al-Qaeda leader held for five years by Pakistani intelligence

The raid on the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed Osama bin Laden and the intelligence leading to the attack have been a source of fascination for US commentators.

The heroic narrative around the secret night-time assault, on May 2nd, 2011 – purportedly executed without the knowledge of Pakistani military – has changed several times, beginning in the days after the Obama administration trumpeted the killing in unusually generous media briefings about such a classified, intelligence-led operation.

In the immediate aftermath, contradictions flew in the accounts of the US and Pakistani governments about the involvement of both sides in the intelligence leading to his killing. The Washington Post and the New York Times in 2012 investigated whether Pakistani intelligence, ISI, had known in advance about bin Laden's location.

The White House has never wavered in its account of the operation: the raid was a unilateral US military operation.


US investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who exposed the 1968 My Lai massacre of Vietnamese villagers by US soldiers and the 2004 abuse of prisoners at the US-run Abu Ghraib prison, claims to present evidence discrediting the White House's version, which helped to re-elect Obama in 2012.

In a 10,356-word article in the London Review of Books, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist claims the US administration lied about al-Qaeda leader's death and alleges it was a joint operation with Pakistani intelligence.

“The White House’s story might have been written by Lewis Carroll,” he writes.

$25 million reward

Hersh claims bin Laden had been held as a prisoner of ISI at the compound in Abbottabad since 2006. He also says, “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.”

The officer was, according to Hersh, a “walk in” at the US embassy in Islamabad in 2010, where he informed the CIA station chief bin Laden was in a compound in Abbottabad.

The journalist also alleges Pakistan's two most senior military leaders, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of the army staff, and Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, director general of ISI, knew about the raid in advance and made sure the helicopters carrying the Seals entered Pakistani airspace without triggering any alarms.

The White House rejected Hersh’s account, saying “the notion that the operation that killed Osama bin Laden was anything but a unilateral US mission is patently false” and the story was riddled with “inaccuracies and baseless assertions”.

Hersh stands by his claims. Since his story appeared, reports by other media, which had previously checked out the claims, support some of his findings. NBC News and AFP have reported similar accounts that a Pakistani officer helped the US find bin Laden.

Journalist Carlotta Gall, who reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan for the New York Times, said her own reporting "tracks with Hersh's". She heard a Pakistani army brigadier had told the CIA where bin Laden was hiding and bin Laden was living there under the protection of ISI.


The News in Pakistan reported on Tuesday that ISI official Brigadier Usman Khalid, now retired and with US citizenship, informed the US about bin Laden's compound.

In his late-night public address announcing the bin Laden raid four years ago, Obama noted: “Our counterterrorism co-operation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding.” But that’s as far as his administration has gone.

As for the rest of Hersh’s claims, the White House is sticking with its story.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent