In a series of investigative reports originally published in the London Review of Books in 2015 and early 2016, veteran journalist Seymour Hersh revealed a very different face to the American ‘war on terror’ and the Syrian conflict in particular, from that which most Americans are familiar with. His essays challenged and undermined official American positions and claims on a range of issues, rewriting the publicly understood nature of these conflicts and America’s role in them.
Verso Books has now published Hersh’s essays as a single book, The Killing of Osama bin Laden, which lays out a powerful challenge to conventional understandings of America’s ongoing involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts. Hersh’s arguments have provoked what his publisher describes as “a firestorm of controversy in the world media.” Andrew Anthony, writing in The Guardian, calls them “unconvincing”, and says Hersh’s sources “speak in the same paranoid tone of disillusioned whistleblowers from a TV thriller.”
“[F]or Hersh to be right,” argues Anthony, “it would mean that a very large number of people had agreed on a very detailed lie and stuck to it over several years in countless interviews.”
That’s not precisely the case: Hersh in fact builds his argument by zeroing in on the inconsistencies in official stories and drawing on the insights of anonymous informants to reveal what he suggests actually happened. It might indeed be easy to be skeptical of the sheer brazenness of such a scale of government falsehood, but the allegations are not being made by just anyone. Hersh won the Pulitzer Prize for his exposure of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, and has subsequently collected a trunk full of awards for other investigative journalism over the course of his lengthy career.
Provided one chooses to give Hersh and his informants the benefit of the doubt, the revelations are indeed explosive.
The most explosive part of these allegations is, of course, the US government’s (and military’s) comfort level in lying on a grandiose scale to the American (and international) public. This is illustrated handily by the first essay in the collection, on the American assassination of Osama bin Laden.
The official story given to the American public (revised on a running basis by American officials in the weeks and months following Obama’s original press conference) was various versions of a heroic and surprise attack on bin Laden’s headquarters in Pakistan, which had purportedly been found without Pakistani assistance (and the attack carried out without their knowledge). US Navy Seals had stormed a heavily guarded compound, from which bin Laden had been directing terrorist operations, and had killed him when he tried to resist arrest.
The actual story, according to Hersh’s informants, was dramatically different. An ailing Bin Laden had been captured and held under house arrest for some years by Pakistan, which hoped to use him as a chip against Islamic militants if necessary. When a defecting Pakistani intelligence agent told the Americans where he was, America negotiated an agreement with Pakistan over bin Laden in exchange for increased military aid. To avoid awkward explanations, the Americans were supposed to remove bin Laden from Pakistan and then claim they had found him in Afghanistan.
To facilitate this, the Pakistanis withdrew their soldiers from bin Laden’s compound, leaving it unguarded, and also allowed the Americans safe entry into their airspace. The US Navy Seal team bungled the operation, however, crashing one of its helicopters and thereby alerting the neighbourhood to what was going on. Navy Seals found an unarmed bin Laden hiding in his compound, executed him on the spot, and then had to wait for a rescue team to remove them.
Since the attack was already receiving coverage, Obama’s officials had to rewrite the story so as to claim it a heroic victory for the US (throwing their erstwhile Pakistani allies, who had made it all possible, under the bus, and inflicting serious damage to US-Pakistani relations and intelligence sharing in the process).
The bin Laden allegations, with all their drama and intrigue, are the hook to Hersh’s work, but the subsequent three essays, on the role of the US and other international powers in the civil war in Syria, are far more fascinating and relevant for the present.
The picture Hersh paints is a troubling one. The Obama administration, single-minded in its determination to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and delusional in its belief that there is a moderate non-Islamist opposition capable of replacing him, has been funneling support to Assad’s opposition, a rebel movement now controlled by Islamist groups such as Islamic State and al-Nusra. It has also been denouncing Assad’s allies, particularly Russia.
Meanwhile, his informants suggest, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff have had a very different perspective of the war in Syria: like Russia and China, they’ve been far more concerned about the prospect of Assad’s defeat and the collapse of the country under sway of Islamist groups. So, allege Hersh’s informants, the Joint Chiefs have been essentially working against the Obama administration by funneling intelligence to Assad via allied nations (Germany, Israel, and even Russia, which maintains joint military and intelligence relations with the US despite all the rhetoric in the media).
They’ve also been doing things like undermining the aid the Obama administration has been sending to the rebels by, for example, shifting the source of arms shipments so as to ensure lower quality and obsolete weapons were delivered to rebels, instead of the higher quality arms that had been flowing out of Libya.
The role of Turkey in all this comes under repeated scrutiny, as well. The Obama administration continues to portray Turkey as an ally in the ‘war on terror’; the picture painted by Hersh is very different. The Turkish government has been actively supporting Islamist rebels, it suggests, taking advantage of the initial channels established by the CIA for arms shipments to Syrian opposition groups, to funnel aid directly to the Islamist groups, which have subsequently taken over the Syrian opposition.
Turkey also, suggest the informants, made it possible for Islamist rebel groups to manufacture the sarin gas which has been used on multiple instances in the conflict, in violation of international law and with horrendously lethal results. The Obama administration has tried to pin Assad with the blame for the gas attacks (and nearly used this as a pretext to intervene directly in the conflict), but Hersh’s informants suggest the attacks were launched by opposition rebels, supported by Turkey, with the express hope of triggering a US invasion that would help them to dislodge Assad.
The Killing of Osama bin Laden makes for riveting, provocative, and ultimately depressing reading. Reviewers – along with Hersh and the publishers – say the revelations are important because of what they tell us about President Obama’s legacy in office (not an inspiring one: essentially a bumbling continuation of George W. Bush’s ill-fated ‘war on terror,’ which has only succeeded in expanding global terrorism and militant Islamism beyond anyone’s imagination).
But the revelations are important for reasons far beyond Obama’s legacy. They reveal two very serious things about American governance.
The first is the scale and scope of a government that routinely engages in deliberate falsifications and lies to its citizens (and indeed to the world). The scale of deception is what has triggered skepticism toward Hersh’s allegations from many quarters, but if they are true, they reveal an administration (and military) that is comfortable with extravagant deception. The book reveals the scale of the challenge Americans face if they are to restore authentic democratic and transparent controls over their own government and military.
The second important take-away from the book is the lack of actual honest discourse and debate within the highest levels of American leadership, and the lack of good judgement this is resulting in. Hersh’s informants speak with an exasperated sense of despair, asserting that many people in high positions knew that the Obama administration (or, at other times, elements of the US military chain of command) were making very bad judgements or were relying on very poor and inaccurate information. Yet very rarely did any naysayers speak up.
The fear of those at the top to oppose, provoke debate, or even play devil’s advocate reveals a grave danger for America’s leadership. Good leadership requires vigorous debate, disagreements, the sharing of differing perspectives, and the honest and transparent consideration of all possibilities. In the cases described in this book, very few people had the courage to speak out against bad decisions, challenge the president or other top leaders, or even pose the sort of questions which might have led to more balanced and considered decision-making.
In the few cases where people did speak out, they were quickly removed from power instead of valued for the differing perspectives they offered. The Joint Chiefs, Hersh alleges, even decided to work indirectly against the Obama administration (by passing information and intelligence to Assad through allied powers) instead of challenging his policies directly.
The Killing of Osama bin Laden is a short book, but its allegations, if correct, are serious ones. Readers will have to make up their own minds what they think of them, but this is a critical book for anyone concerned with the importance of truth in democratic governance. Hersh’s allegations reveal a political leadership that is making poor decisions, based on outdated political stances and relying on poor information and intelligence. They also reveal a political and military leadership that’s not willing to engage in serious debate and in which skeptics and naysayers are afraid to voice their opinions.
Finally, they reveal an administration comfortable with constructing elaborate, and entirely false, deceptions for public consumption. If true, this confluence of factors will not just condemn Obama’s legacy, but will continue to make America (and the world) a much more dangerous place—and certainly far less safe for democracy—than it currently is.
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