Book review: The Killing of Osama bin Laden, by Seymour Hersh

Seymour Hersh portrays Barack Obama as one of the villains of the piece in his latest book.

Seymour Hersh portrays Barack Obama as one of the villains of the piece in his latest book.

The Killing of Osama bin Laden, by Seymour M. Hersh. Verso. $27.99.

A veteran journalist who broke the stories of the My Lai massacre, the expansion of the Vietnam war, and the torture at Abu Ghraib, and who has continued through his long-established contacts in the US military to poke around in dark places, Seymour Hersh may still strike fear into Americans with bad consciences. But now, he suggests, they don’t even feel guilty about supporting tyranny, fomenting violence and lying to allies, the Congress and the American people. 

The New York Times castigated the Bush administration for the Iraq disaster but shied away from printing Hersh’s evidence of how President Obama perpetuated it. He turned to the London Review of Books, which published his essays last year. Here, they conveniently reappear in a slim book with an eloquent 2016 introduction.

Mystery still surrounds what the likes of Barack Obama, second left, and Hillary Clinton, second right, seated, saw in the White House during the mission against Osama bin Laden.

Mystery still surrounds what the likes of Barack Obama, second left, and Hillary Clinton, second right, seated, saw in the White House during the mission against Osama bin Laden. Photo: Pete Souza

Initially reluctant though Hersh is to say it, Obama is the villain of his piece. In an established American tradition  – the unsolved murder of Kennedy, the Tonkin Gulf incident, the dubious details of 9/11, Saddam’s WMD – the latest are the Obama administration’s “lies, misstatements and betrayals” about how Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011. 

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The White House falsely claimed the Pakistan army and the intelligence agency (ISI) knew nothing of bin Laden’s virtual imprisonment from 2006 in Abbottabad, even while the US knew Saudi Arabia was financing it. Hersh says a former ISI officer in 2010 gave bin Laden’s location to the CIA in exchange for the $25 million reward and migration to the US, where he now works for the CIA. The Obama administration claimed Pakistan was told nothing of the raid in advance, while in fact negotiations and planning went on with the ISI for months. The White House’s assertion that the (physically disabled) bin Laden brandished a weapon met the need of the US Navy SEALs to claim they faced armed resistance. And what was done with the body: buried with Islamic ritual at sea, or thrown in a body bag over the Hindu Kush? Another question Hersh leaves unanswered is what, exactly, Obama, Clinton and others actually saw on that video of the assassination they were shown watching in the White House.

In 2012, after President Qaddafi’s assassination, Obama approved shipments of Libyan arms and ammunition, including anti-aircraft missiles, by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, with British secret service collaboration, from Libya through Turkey to Syria, even though he knew President Erdogan supported extreme Islamist groups al-Nusra and IS. To conceal CIA involvement in the shipments they were, we learn from Hersh, facilitated by Australian contractors.

Obama had evidence that President Assad did not possess the sarin that was used on Syrians in August 2013. He was advised that those responsible may have been the Sunni fundamentalist groups Jabhat al-Nusra or al-Qaeda in Iraq, yet he still proposed bombing Syria to Congress. “No-one…doubts the intelligence” linking sarin to Assad, Obama’s chief of staff said (which sounds familiar). The bombing was deflected, partly by the British Parliament refusing David Cameron’s proposal to send in the RAF, and partly by intelligence warning the White House that the Middle East could become a bonfire. Hersh notes, however, that the brief US cooperation with Russia in 2013 to make Assad relinquish his chemical weapons may leave al-Nusra and its Islamist allies in sole possession of the capacity to make sarin.

Obama, Hersh reminds us, still calls the US an “exceptional” nation and expects to win his inherited war on terror. As if reviving the Cold War, Obama identifies China and Russia as the enemy, so Russia’s enemy Turkey is his friend, in spite of Erdogan supporting the ultra-jihadist IS. He appears to have ignored Putin’s warning in October 2014 against splitting terrorists into “moderate and not moderate”, and insists that no anti-IS coalition with Russia is possible. He has rejected the advice of truly exceptional Americans such asCongressman David Obey, Hawaiian Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, General Martin Dempsey and Lieutenant-General Michael Flynn, the last of whom was sacked. In desperation, Hersh says, the Joint Chiefs of Staff used “back channels” to pass US intelligence, on certain conditions, to the Syrian army for use against al-Nusra and IS. One of Hersh’s many unnamed informants says they are the primary Islamist threat to the US, Russia and China, and all three should work together to stabilise Syria under Assad and then hold an election.

Hersh’s critics want him to name more of his sources. At least he protects them, which is more than the US did after the SEALs shot bin Laden.

Dr Alison Broinowski is vice-president of Honest History and of Australians for War Powers Reform.

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