(update below)

Most distressing about investigative journalist Seymour Hersh’s story on the lies President Barack Obama’s administration reportedly told about the killing of Osama bin Laden is the general reaction of the United States establishment press.

Hersh is an award-winning journalist best known for exposing the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam War. It earned him a Pulitzer Prize. He also did stellar reporting on the abuse and torture of detainees at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. Yet, most establishment press seem to be shrugging at Hersh’s latest 10,000-word feature story published by the London Review of Books or they are snidely dismissing it altogether.

Is it because most in the US press wholly accept the narrative put forward by the Obama administration around the raid that killed bin Laden? Is it because they have moved on and no longer find it worthy to investigate what really happened? Is it because they do not want to believe what Hersh is alleging because it amounts to a major international espionage conspiracy if it all happens to be true?

Christopher Frizzelle of The Stranger already went to the trouble to list off each allegation against the Obama administration that is made in Hersh’s story. So, courtesy of Frizzelle:

• Pakistani officials knew about the raid and even helped the US pull it off.

• There never was a firefight, neither in the yard outside the house nor once the Seals got inside.

• The story of the courier whom the reportedly CIA traced, leading them to bin Laden, was a fabrication.

• The story of the courier dying in the firefight was a cover-up “because he didn’t exist and we couldn’t produce him,” a retired senior intelligence official told Hersh.

• The way the CIA actually found out where bin Laden was is that a “Pakistani walk-in” who wanted the $25 million reward came in and told the CIA about it.

• Osama bin Laden was not armed, contrary to reports that he had a machine gun and was killed in a firefight, and he was not killed with just one or two bullets but “obliterated.”

• “Seals cannot live with the fact that they killed bin Laden totally unopposed, and so there has to be an account of their courage in the face of danger. The guys are going to sit around the bar and say it was an easy day? That’s not going to happen,” that same retired senior intelligence official said.

• “Despite all the talk” about what the Seals collected on site, the retired official said 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 story about bin Laden’s sea burial may be a fabrication.

• The retired official told Hersh that bin Laden’s “remains, including his head… 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.”

• Obama was going to wait a week until after bin Laden’s death to announce it, and he was going to tell the American people that bin Laden had been killed by a drone, but after the Seals had to blow up their malfunctioning helicopter onsite, attracting attention locally, everything changed.

• The story about the vaccination program carried out locally in an attempt to get bin Laden’s DNA—a story that “led to the cancellation of other international vaccination programmes that were now seen as cover for American spying”—wasn’t true.

• Retired official again: “It’s a great hoax.”

What are Hersh’s sources for these claims against the Obama administration?

Hersh relies on a “major US source” who is not named in the story. The person is described as a “retired senior intelligence official who was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad.” He also sources his claims to two additional unnamed US sources, “who had access to corroborating information” and have been “longtime consults to the Special Operations Command.”

He writes that he received information from “inside Pakistan” that indicates “senior ISI and military leadership” were upset with Obama’s decision to immediately go public with the news that bin Laden was killed. He also quotes Asad Durrani, who was the head of Pakistan’s spy agency, the ISI, in the 1990s.

One of the key criticisms of Hersh’s story is that it relies on anonymous sources. However, should this criticism be allowed to invalidate the claims put forward by Hersh?

I have zealously criticized the frequent use of anonymous sources by journalists. It happens quite often at the New York Times and The Washington Post. However, as Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has articulated:

For many journalists, they can be a necessity. And that necessity is increasing — especially for stories involving national security — now that the Obama administration’s crackdown on press leaks has made news sources warier of speaking on the record. (Leonard Downie Jr. , a former executive editor of The Washington Post, has written revealingly about this for the Committee to Protect Journalists.)

“It’s almost impossible to get people who know anything to talk,” Bill Hamilton, who edits national security coverage for The Times, told me. Getting them to talk on the record is even harder. “So we’re caught in this dilemma.”

There is a tradition in journalism of using anonymous—or confidential sources—to expose scandal. Watergate and warrantless wiretapping were both revealed in this manner.

Which ultimately leads one to conclude that the problem members of the establishment press and others reflexively have with Hersh is not that he uses anonymous sources but that he uses these anonymous sources to challenge a narrative they have already decided to accept as truth. If that narrative is wrong, they have to seriously rethink what they have been doing as journalists, especially if they report on war or national security matters.

For example, Noah Schachtman, Daily Beast executive editor, tweeted:

That a bunch of unnamed Pakistani and US special operations sources dismiss Hersh’s story as pure bunk does not really disprove anything in his story. What if these sources are somehow invested in the narrative of events that players involved in the raid. What if they are somehow wedded to the statements of officials deployed to sell Americans a certain story about the operation?

It should be noted that many of these same journalists reacting to Hersh’s story also dismissed his latest investigative journalism on Turkey’s potential role in the Syria chemical attack that nearly sparked US attacks and the Obama administration’s “cherry-picking” of intelligence to justify launching a war after the chemical attack.

Members of the US establishment press are not generally opposed to the use of anonymous sources in national security reporting. They just are collectively only comfortable with telling certain stories with anonymous sources, and, in this case, it is clear one of those stories will never be about how the Obama administration and CIA were in on an international espionage conspiracy to kill bin Laden.


Unquestionably, if Hersh’s story is the truth, which is entirely possible, then Zero Dark Thirty is an even greater masterpiece of propaganda. CIA officers on contract developed a cover story that would help the CIA publicly defend its torture program. Officials would say that information used to catch bin Laden came from “enhanced interrogation.” (Press in Washington, DC, were mostly positive about the film initially.)

If it is truth, it also means that journalists fell victim to a grand disinformation campaign perpetrated by the Obama administration. It may not be as embarrassing and troubling as what happened around the march to war in Iraq, but it still demonstrates how easily officials can manipulate the press to tell the story they want told about the “War on Terrorism.” And, generally, it is a key example of how the Obama administration packaged an assassination operation and slickly exploited it to ensure Obama’s re-election campaign went smoothly.

Rather than mocking Hersh’s story, a better response for skeptics would be to actually prove Hersh wrong through journalism. The only problem is no journalist is likely to spend time digging to prove Hersh wrong if they already think they know what exactly occurred—and many US journalists seem to think they know what happened so there is no need to pursue this story any further.

What this means is Americans are likely to be left with a fascinating counter-history to the Obama administration’s official story of events that becomes a Rorschach test. It is true if you doubt most of what the government tells you about the “war on terrorism,” and it is false if you believe the government is mostly right to be waging the “war on terrorism.” But no one will ever quite know.

Judging the reaction of establishment journalists, it also is a Rorschach test for them too. His sourcing is flawed because they have decided these are anonymous sources they would never rely on for a story as damning as this one. But, if Hersh had uncovered an angle to the story that added details but did not challenge the Obama administration, Special Operations Command and the CIA, they might think his anonymous sources were worth believing.

Update – 10:15 am ET

Max Fisher of Vox’s initial reaction to Hersh’s story was the following:

Fisher now has a post at Vox on Hersh’s “conspiracy theory.”

I’ll only focus on the last paragraph for now because it is perfectly in line with what I argued in this post:

Maybe there really is a vast shadow world of complex and diabolical conspiracies, executed brilliantly by international networks of government masterminds. And maybe Hersh and his handful of anonymous former senior officials really are alone in glimpsing this world and its terrifying secrets. Or maybe there’s a simpler explanation.

That is essentially the attitude I suggested journalist critics are exhibiting and will continue to exhibit toward Hersh. Someone like Fisher is not opposed to anonymous sources. He just does not like what Hersh’s anonymous sources are alleging about the world.

Creative Commons Licensed Photo on Flickr of Seymour Hersh by Marjorie Lipan

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."


  1. David Moore
    May 10, 2015 at 9:33 pm

    Hersh’s seems to make so much more sense based on what we know. If Carlos the Jackal was found living nest to West Point, we wouldn’t find that odd? One other point is that bin Laden was basically a liability for the jihadi movement. As we know from the French Revolution, “all revolutions eat their children.”

    The most sickening fact is that medicine in these areas was set back generations, merely as a convenient cover story. I once interviewed with the CIA and found them a dangerous combination of stupidity and arrogance. This was 1984 and I would have been their fourth Arabic speaker. I knew the area as I had trained and worked as a Near East archaeologist. I am also a Vietnam veteran and so no babe in the woods. When I told then they didn’t need to pose as journalists or doctors, they called me naive. I told them they were the ones who didn’t know who Khomeini was even though every muzzein was playing his tapes. I also reminded them what Bashir Gemayal said about them writing their reports in an alcoholic haze coming back from an embassy party talking to generals.

    My short answer to Hersh is this is how the CIA does things because they can’t do it on their own.

  2. Chris Maukonen
    May 10, 2015 at 9:50 pm

    Does not surprise me. How many other presidents lied for political reasons and the press swallowed it hook, line and sinker ? JFK, LDJ, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton …the list is endless.

    The only one who was honest was Eisenhower and he did not come clean until he left office.

  3. Pluto
    May 10, 2015 at 9:52 pm

    The New York Times, the loudest CIA mouthpiece in journalism, would not have a newspaper to publish were it not for anonymous (government/military/intelligence) sources.

    World-class analysis, Kevin. Thank you.

  4. Trends1
    May 10, 2015 at 9:55 pm

    The CIA lied about their conduct before 9/11 in regard to al-Hazmi and al-MIhdhar. For an honest journalist this should have been an “all bets are off” moment. Instead cognitive dissonance, peer pressure and pseudo patriotism kicked in and the journalistic community sold the public on pure BS.

    The same CIA agents involved in the courier and torture claims were involved in the al-Hazmi/al-Mihdhar investigation. A key agent is Alfreda Bikowsky. She has never had to explain any of her conduct nor have the CIA officials who continually promoted her.

  5. bsbafflesbrains
    May 10, 2015 at 10:24 pm

    Establishment press is good but propaganda press is more accurate. We live in a fascist State.

  6. jane24
    May 10, 2015 at 10:50 pm

    If Hersh’s account is true would be no big surprise, but as Kevin points out, we’ll likely never know the truth. (Or even the half of it.) This is what is disturbing.

  7. Mark Erickson
    May 10, 2015 at 11:50 pm

    I’m with you up until the end. It would be very very hard to prove Hersh wrong through journalism, since documentation will be next to impossible. So we’re left with Hersh said-they said.

  8. splicernyc
    May 11, 2015 at 4:44 am

    If my loved one had died on 9/11, I wouldn’t give two shits about whether bin Laden was killed in a firefight, killed with his hands up or “obliterated” while still in bed. Of all the people not to give a fuck about, it’s bin Laden.

  9. Drsquishy
    May 11, 2015 at 5:02 am

    What makes no sense to me is if Seymour Hersh’s version of events is true why would Obama lie about it? That makes no sense. Whether we paid the Pakistani government $25 million to help get Bin Laden or Seal Team Six got Bin Laden (which the event was live tweeted from Pakistan at the time), the BOTTOM LINE is BIN LADEN IS DEAD and it happened on Obama’s watch.

    In other words Obama got Osama. BOTTOM LINE.

  10. longtail
    May 11, 2015 at 7:43 am

    I’m not sure the details of how Bin Laden was taken out make much difference to the average American. The real problem was the Bush administration’s hesitancy or disinterest in doing the job.

  11. Jan R.
    May 11, 2015 at 8:23 am

    The whole story doesn’t make much sense to me. Once we had learned that Pakistan was holding him and we got their cooperation to take him out, why would it have been necessary to do it with a SEAL raid? Why wouldn’t the Pakistanis just have killed him and handed over the body? (I’m presuming they didn’t want to give him to us alive, perhaps because of things he might know about them.)

  12. patb2009
    May 11, 2015 at 8:59 am

    The question I always asked, would be “Is it better to have brought Bin Laden back alive then Dead?”. An alive bin laden can be questioned about different people, and could be tried, and convicted. Plus if the saudi’s wanted to deny supporting him, you just need to say “That’s not what he tells us”…

  13. Pete Needham
    May 11, 2015 at 9:37 am

    The corporate press is really in a panic. Brian Williams lies, CNN(Certainly Not News), David Gregory being replaced after Glenn Greenwald eviscerated him(but not TOO SOON after, so they could deny that that was a reason why Gregory’s cred was crud).

    The Middle East is backfiring against years of Western stupidity, particularly the last 15…they don’t know which way to point their pecker, so they are circling the wagons instead.

  14. Pete Needham
    May 11, 2015 at 9:41 am

    Bottom line…or flat line.

    You are happy to be an ignorant twit.

  15. Pete Needham
    May 11, 2015 at 9:42 am

    Right. Duh…Repub wrong, Dem right…duhhh…

  16. Pete Needham
    May 11, 2015 at 9:43 am

    Yes, I’m QUITE SURE that the folks in Pakistan would be THRILLED that their government kow-towed to the Americans.

  17. Pete Needham
    May 11, 2015 at 9:45 am

    They never wanted to bring him back alive and be put on trial, nor Saddam Hussein. Those two guys knew where a lot of skeletons were buried.

  18. jaango
    May 11, 2015 at 10:30 am

    The “dark stain” on the forever Fourth Estate is that the owners of these mass media publications permitted their ’employees’ or the journalists to “embed” themselves with the Bush Forces, and consequently, we, the Native Americans and the Chicanos–from here in the Sonoran Desert, can’t and won’t take any, yes, any, story told seriously. As such the Blaspheme of Buffoonery that is the apt description for today’s journalism.

  19. shalako7
    May 11, 2015 at 12:37 pm

    I believe that Hersh has come up with a lot of good questions about what really happened re death of Osama. The entire ‘raid story’ was good for Obama’s re-election–remember the slogan “Osama is dead and Gen Motors is alive”? Given that the US media basically elected Obama in the first place, refusing to do ANY investigative journalism on his background and rise to power from relative obscurity (he had only just been elected as a junior senator), it is no wonder they are ignoring this story. Let’s face it, the media is bought and sold. They need access to Obama administration insiders, and will kiss his butt to get it.

  20. Bobster33
    May 11, 2015 at 12:51 pm

    Your assertion has a supposition that suggests that the Pakistani government is cohesive, in complete agreement and never changes their position. ISI may have wanted to host bin Laden, but some later realized that they could not keep a secret. At this point, some ISI generals got really nervous. They wanted the reward money, bin Laden’s life was cheap and the generals did not want others to find out. Thus the plot to CYA the Pakistani generals that wanted bin Laden dead.

  21. Jan R.
    May 11, 2015 at 12:58 pm

    I don’t know… it seems to me it would be a lot harder to pull off what’s claimed – clearing airspace for both ingress and egress of the SEAL team as well as pulling away all the ISI guards on the compound – than it would have been to just kill him and ship his body to us. That’s even more true if it’s a small faction doing this in defiance of other parts of the government.

  22. marym
    May 11, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    What you may want to consider caring about, on behalf of lost loved ones, is having an honorable, honest government, and a media which investigates and informs,

  23. rosemariejackowski
    May 11, 2015 at 3:13 pm

    Hersh is one of the few journalists that I have any trust in. He has a good record of ethics and honesty.

    No matter how you look at it, the assassination of an unarmed man in his bedroom is not something we should be proud of. 9/11 was Blowback in a war that was started by the USA. We have been bombing them since 1991 – and don’t forget about the 500,000 Iraqi children we killed and then said that ‘we think the price was worth it.’

    Remember the video made by Osama… he stated why 9/11 was done…3 reasons.
    #1 We had military bases in their ‘holy’ land.
    #2 The 500,000 dead Iraqi children.
    #3 The US bombing since 1991.
    He also mentioned one USA author during that video. Anyone remember who it was?
    Answer : William Blum

  24. mulp
    May 11, 2015 at 4:04 pm

    Obviously this was just the dry run for the military takeover of the US, starting in the West with Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, etc, done under the cover of a US military exercise, with all the guns rounded up so there will be no insurgency fighting back. And we know this is Obama’s plan because Gov Abbott is mobilizing the Texas National Guard to fight Obama’s war on America.

  25. purejuice
    May 11, 2015 at 7:19 pm

    noah schactman needs an editor on his tweets. uh, no.

  26. Ben A. Varkentine
    May 11, 2015 at 7:30 pm

    But that ship sailed a long, long time ago. I think most people over the age of five accepted long ago that a government is sometimes honorable, sometimes not, sometimes honest, sometimes not.

    What you hope is that they’ll be so more than others, relatively speaking, and that along the way they’ll enact some policies that you believe in. Ain’t nobody looking for Abraham Lincoln around here.

  27. May 11, 2015 at 9:20 pm

    Thanks Kevin.