Part 2: Seymour Hersh’s New Book Disputes U.S. Account of Bin Laden Killing

Web ExclusiveApril 25, 2016
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Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh discusses the reporting he did for his new book, The Killing of Osama bin Laden, in Part 2 of an extended interview. Next week marks the fifth anniversary of the assassination of bin Laden.

Watch Part 1, when Hersh argues the official U.S. account of how bin Laden was found and killed was deceptive, and that Pakistan detained bin Laden in 2006 and kept him prisoner with the backing of Saudi Arabia. He suggests that the U.S. and Pakistan then struck a deal: The U.S. would raid bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, but make it look as if Pakistan was unaware.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with Part 2 with our discussion with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh, who has just published a new book, The Killing of Osama bin Laden. It’s based on his explosive piece last year in the London Review of Books. It also includes other of his pieces. Next week will mark the fifth anniversary of the assassination of Osama bin Laden. When Hersh’s piece on bin Laden was published last year, the White House rejected the account. This is White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST: I can tell you that the Obama White House is not the only one to observe that the story is riddled with inaccuracies and outright falsehoods. The former deputy director of the CIA, Mike Morell, has said that every sentence was wrong. And, Jim, I actually thought one of your colleagues at CNN put it best: Peter Bergen, a security analyst for CNN, described the story as being about 10,000 words in length, and he said, based on reading it, that what’s true in the story isn’t new, and what’s new in the story isn’t true. So I thought that was a pretty good way of describing why no one here is particularly concerned about it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. Seymour Hersh, respond to what he said. But also, as you continue from Part 1 of our conversation, you were saying that the U.S. actually did not want to kill—to announce that Osama bin Laden was killed at Abbottabad.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, first of all, it seems to me the White House spokesman, who, by the way, was never a journalist—that’s where we’re at now with spokesmen. It’s sort of comical. But I don’t know why you can’t quote the president denying it. Why you have to quote another reporter, that’s really astonishing to me. I don’t think I remember ever—you know, I’m not an expert on everything a press secretary says. I just never remember a press secretary relying on another reporter. And I don’t know Bergen, but apparently, you know, he claims some sort of ownership of the story. He’s been—he’s written about it a lot. And I’m sure he’s a fine guy and all that, but, you know, so what? Why do you want to quote him instead of quoting the president or somebody else?

What happened, here’s the critical issue. And if you remember, here’s what I—here’s how I did this story. The story happens. I’m watching it like everybody else. And, OK, we got bin Laden. I didn’t think it was the end of Salafism or Wahhabism. It had been 10 years, and it would spread all over. And, you know, the war was going badly everywhere. We were fighting a war against an idea, and it’s really hard to do that. And without—there were people on the inside saying, “We must go to the social process, eliminate the reason people don’t like us and the suffering they have and the lack of—the lack of any hope in their societies, etc.”—all these sort of goody-goody issues, you know, but that are really valid, that are—it’s the way you’ve got to deal with some of the underlying issues.

And anyway, so what the deal was, we were mad at Pasha and Kayani, and, my god, we gave them money. We gave this—Pakistan has been our ally forever. You know, remember the guy that was shot down in the U-2—what’s his name?—[Francis Gary] Powers, over Russia, that embarrassing episode when Eisenhower lied about it. He flew out of a secret base in Pakistan. It’s always been a home, a little home away from home. And it’s always been a lot of controversy inside Pakistan.

I would say, I don’t know—I can’t give you a number, but I would say in many areas of the country, many rural areas where there’s a lot of jihadism, fundamentalism, bin Laden is a hero. And so, when we learned that Pasha and Kayani, the two guys that we were giving toys to—you want a helicopter, you got a helicopter; you want a trip to America, you got a trip to America; you want an armored car, you got an armored car—along with stuff, under-the-table stuff and stuff also appropriated—a lot of money we spend on Pakistan, making them our buddies, because, as I say, among other things, they were. They were—they fought with us in Afghanistan. They joined the Afghan War. And Pakistan, one of the stories that was told—and this is just a product of good, old journalism sort of, you know, boots on the ground or whatever you want to call it, doing your job. So appalled at this. One of the things they did is they came in early in 1980 and helped fight us—helped us in Afghanistan. They supported the Taliban. It was very complicated, but they also fought against other area—other—the government regime for us. And once the Russians took over Pakistan—Afghanistan, rather, the Indians, of course, who were always—India and Pakistan, that’s a blood feud forever—the Indians moved in and set up eight consulates. Well, in the early '80s, ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service, raided some of the consulates, hung some of the Indian diplomats from trees—everything I'm saying now was written and published in wire service stories at the time—and then got—were in a bind, because in the early '80s they were working on the nuke, but they hadn't made weapons. We know India, and Pakistan certainly knew it—India was weaponized by ’75, had a bomb. Panic city in Islamabad, the capital.

What do we do? We—they’re our allies, they’re our buddies. We spend—and you could find it in a NexisLexis search—maybe not in Google, but Nexis, you can find it. We begin giving contracts to Raytheon. When I last got—it was over $900 million when I stopped looking at it, for an incredible radar system. It’s a 3D audible system that we built for them, state of the art, no—among other things, every image could not be deleted. It was—you could not delete an image. It was that solid of a system, A-plus system. The only—I learned later that what they had to do, if they didn’t want to see our choppers coming—and remember the story, they came in without being seen, and the Pakistani government didn’t know it. I mean, it’s comical stuff, as I wrote, out of a Lewis Carroll story. They actually probably—I learned this later—probably shut down the system, because they just—they would have had to deploy the—they watched them all the way. Otherwise, they would have.

Anyway, the point being that the—it was an—when the president—the whole plan, once we got to Pasha and Kayani—we learned about the Saudi money. I learned about it initially from Americans. I learned more from ISI about the tankers. It’s very hard to trace that stuff. Once you get a tanker in high sea, you can change the ownership five times. It’s actually a great way to move money. The Saudis—if you remember, after the raid, he had wife and children in the—Abbottabad with him, and ISI took them out. And we never heard another thing about them. The stories were we’d get to debrief them. They were flown out of—in a Saudi plane back to Saudi Arabia, where his family—bin Laden came from a very eminent family in Saudi Arabia.

And so, that night, when we—instead of waiting a week to 10 days, as was the game, to protect Pasha and Kayani, we put them in a bind. They had two options. They could say they helped us kill him, or they knew about it, and then they wouldn’t be able to go home. There would be people rioting in front of their houses forever, wanting to hurt them. The extreme number of radicals there is very high. It’s a huge problem, for us and for the Pakistanis. We worry about crazies getting control of one of the nuclear weapons. The other option was to do what they did: say, “Aw, shucks, we didn’t know,” and get ripped apart by their people, just attacked unmercifully for being incompetent, not knowing what they’re doing. How could they not track? I found, in my reporting, I could find newspaper stories where, you know, some of the kids who like to monitor Google Earth could track the dots of the choppers coming in, from Google Earth, the two choppers coming in. It’s just a story that wouldn’t hold up. The radar system is just too good. But nobody does the work. Nobody looked at how good the radar system was.

And so, what happened is, so you just see all these things. But before that, on the day after the raid, somebody I know—I’ll be coy. I hate to be coy, but I will, just a shade. Somebody called up one of the key guys in the White House, one of the big-name guys, and—a buddy, a newspaper guy I know, columnist, and said, “Hey, way to go!” and left—he had his cellphone number, and said, “Hey, this is great. You won re-election. Great! Wonderful bit.” And this high-level, senior, senior person in the White House called back and said—said to him, the journalist, said, “Let me tell you something. Anybody that thinks this guy, Obama, is some community organizer”—you know, after he got out of high school, before he went to—after he got out of college, before he went to law school, he did community organizing in the South Side of Chicago. I went to university there; I know exactly where he was. And he did do that for a couple years, and then he decided to go to law school. And so, his good friend in the White House said to the journalist, “Anybody who thinks he’s a community—an organizer, doesn’t know. He is tough. He ran it up Gates’s [bleep]. Gates didn’t want to go.” This is Bob Gates, the Republican secretary of defense that Obama kept on, and he was the one who replaced Rumsfeld. Bush replaced him in '06. But Obama kept him on. And there was skepticism about him. He's a Republican, and Obama’s a Democrat. A lot of—the breach was getting stronger with each year. This is three years after Obama is in office. And the message was: Gates didn’t want to play; we ran it up his [bleep]. And I—that guy called me. He said, “Look, I can’t do this, but you can. What the hell is going on?”

So, a day or two later—I did a lot of reporting for The New Yorker about Pakistan, the last two—a bunch of pieces about our worry about the bomb. In one case, one of the stories I wrote two years earlier, in 2009. This is inside baseball, but it’s not irrelevant. In 2009, we wrote a story about all the stuff we were doing about the bomb and how worried we were and how we were lying to the Pakistanis. And the White House denied everything, as usual—deny, deny, deny. They’re not—there’s no interest in helping a reporter. Truth isn’t an issue. That ended a long time ago. There was a time maybe some spokesman would say the truth to you, but that hasn’t happened in decades. And so, two days before the story was to go into print, a senior official—I really don’t know who—my editor, Dave Remnick, called me to say that the White House has called. He’s gotten this high-level call, and maybe not from the White House, and maybe the Pentagon. And they said, unless we change the story dramatically, we’re going to have to shut the embassy and close all consulates and move everybody out, because of potential riots. So we did what, of course, you have to do then: We modified the story, toned it down quite a bit. The main point was still there, but you had to read a little harder to get it.

And so, I have contacts. The only reason I say that I have contacts, if I can learn something from the Pakistani side about what’s going on. And one of the things is special groups, ISI, the intelligence services involved in training the people who guard this stuff, the bombs, it’s a big, separate compartment. So, somebody who knew me, who I knew who it was, somebody who’s information was reliable, two days after the raid writes me and says, “My god! What a whopper!” told me—three-page email. And then I go to my friends inside, and within a couple more days, I get the same story from the inside, with people that I’ve been dealing with in some cases for 20 years. Some of the people I’ve been dealing with, some are still there, and I’m very careful in how I deal. If you came into my office, you’d be amazed—nothing but notes. I don’t put any interviews in a computer, even a computer not attached to the internet, because after '01 I was told nothing in a computer. Don't worry. It doesn’t matter that it’s not in—I didn’t know what Snowden knew, but I knew there was a lot going on.

And, by the way, you want to talk about conspiracy, Snowden comes out 12 years after they start wiretapping everybody in the NSA, 60,000 people—30,000 people at the NSA and 30,000 contractors, like Snowden was. How many talk in 12 years? One: Snowden. How many talked after he came out? None. Talk about a conspiracy. From the day after 9/11, they began to listen to everybody, in violation of every principle that exists in the NSA and in the Constitution. So, anyway, I mean, when people say to me you can’t a conspiracy, the truth is our government, as Dan Ellsberg will tell you, too—I’ve talked to Dan a lot about this—they can keep a secret. Secrets can be kept, absolutely. And many are.

In any case, the big issue for Gates—

AMY GOODMAN: Sy, I wanted to go back to your suggestion that the Saudi government bribed Pakistan with hush money to hide Osama bin Laden from the U.S., because the Saudis didn’t want the U.S. to interrogate him. Can you explain?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Yes, I can certainly tell you the first part is absolutely true. A great deal of money was sent by the Saudis to the Pakistani leadership. The motive, the only rational motive we can think of, is they didn’t want us to get access to bin Laden. He wasn’t well. He was under treatment by a doctor. In fact, in his compound in Abbottabad, there was—right next door was an army—Pakistani army major who’s a nephrologist, and he was treating him. This, we—we probably learned this earlier, but the press actually picked this up. They saw his name on a door plate right at the time after the raid, but they didn’t connect it. The only thing I know is that the money—I was initially told it was, you know, in four years—they kept him for four years before we learned about it, and which was considered great betrayal by us. You can imagine. We put so much effort into the two leaders to make them trust us, because of the bomb issue, and also because of what they do for us, constantly do for us, still in Pakistan. And also, you know—anyway, afterwards I was told it was much more money. I initially thought—was told it was scores of millions of dollars. Millions were passed every year. And then, later, when I heard from my contacts in the ISI, then—which I haven’t written yet, because I haven’t—I’m just telling you what I’ve heard. It was much more money involved, a lot of oil tankers being transferred, ownership being transferred. So you’re really into very big bucks. And whether bin Laden would have talked or not isn’t clear. We don’t know. He was very—he was infirm.

The SEALs—I did not talk to a SEAL on the mission, but I have had access to some of the things they debriefed afterwards. I’ve also talked—in the first days when they came back, I’ve talked to people that talked—you know, their peers. I know enough people in the SEALs. It’s the SEAL Team 6, the special team. There’s—when you know one of them, they’re all sort of a small, little team that worked together. I talked to people within days who described to me how it was nothing but a hit. It was an absolute assassination. And they knew it, the guys doing it. It was a turkey shoot. We knew going in, because the Pakistanis helped us. That was the price for betraying us. They had to help us plan the mission. They had to get us DNA. They had to give us all the letters bin Laden wrote.

That’s how we got letters. You know, we’ve been putting out letters, just recently put out letters, ironically, before this book was published, a bunch of bin Laden letters that they say they found in his house. And they’re handwritten letters. And I always wondered, is it a South Asian—sort of a South Asian pattern or practice, when you handwrite a letter, you handwrite a second one to leave behind for the American SEALs or the intelligence community to get them. We got them from the ISI. ISI was—he was writing letters, and ISI was just filing them. They didn’t mail them. Loony stuff.

He was out of it. He’d been out of it—his version of bin Laden had done almost nothing since he left. There had been one incident, we tracked with some of the people that worked for him. The whole—the copycat movement, the al-Qaeda copycat movement, moved on all over the world, but he wasn’t a player anymore after he was driven out in the—he was hiding in the bushes, you know, hiding in the mountains.

Gates, as you know, in his book, was—had a very critical thing to say about the White House, about going public so early. And he said it’s because they named the SEALs. That wasn’t what his concern was. His concern is we violated an agreement we made with Pasha and Kayani to protect them. And the agreement was we wouldn’t let it be known that he was there, that the ISI was protecting him. They didn’t want their public to know it. And so, we were going to have it—as I said on air, he was going to have it done—we were going to announce it happened in the Hindu Kush and pretend that we did a strike with a drone, and there was an after-action report, etc. Only problem with that story, of course, is drones have—the Hellfires we have have 500—you know, a KT of napalm, enriched fire stuff. I don’t know if they’d have any survivors. The whole story they did, from what they call operational security, was a joke. They changed their mind at the last minute, not because a chopper went down—one of the two crashed. And if you remember, it crashed, and they had to blow it up because it had very advanced avionics and security—

AMY GOODMAN: Sy, we have 20 seconds before we lose you.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Oh, oh, anyway, the bottom line is Obama changed his mind because of politics, because the boys got to him. And Gates was enraged about that. He thought you do not double-cross the two guys that control the bomb. That’s the real story. It wasn’t because we named SEALs. The SEALs are mad because they weren’t supposed to be named. They’re not proud of going and whacking a guy who’s an old man cowering. That’s what they did.

AMY GOODMAN: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh, who has just published a new book, The Killing of Osama bin Laden.

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