Call me guilty of gliding past “He’s an insane crank,” and moving directly to “And we already knew all of this stuff anyway,” but I suppose my biggest beef with the now-infamous Hersh piece is the small stakes. Hersh has a theory about a conspiracy (which is not, it bears mention, the same as a conspiracy theory) among a large number of Pakistani and US government officials to mislead their publics about a) the nature of Osama bin Laden’s relationship with Pakistani intelligence services, b) the role that those services played in his death, c) the nature of his death, and d) the disposal of his body.
C) and d) do not, to me, seem like the sort of things that government officials would take much time out of their days to lie extensively about, especially given that the lies themselves (because of the number of people who actively witnessed both incidents) would be far more risky than simply telling the truth. The number of people (and especially of American voters) who care about whether bin Laden actively resisted in Abbottabad, or how precisely his remains were disposed of, approaches zero, and quite possibly might be smaller than the number of people who witnessed either event. Government officials lie, but generally they like to have a good reason to tell risky lies, and it’s hard for me to see the reasoning here.
A) and b) are more interesting, but also a bit more narrow. Plenty of Americans suspected that the ISI had some kind of relationship with bin Laden (whether as his jailer or protector, or both) prior to the Abbottabad operation, and the course of the operation did nothing to dissuade this concern. The description of the “walk-in” Pakistani source isn’t exactly new, and does not, in and of itself, contradict the mainstream account of the operation. Neither revelation would be faintly embarrassing to the United States, or the Obama administration. More significant are Hersh’s revelations, if we believe them to be accurate, that the ISI worked directly to facilitate the operation, and that the US and Pakistan had planned a cover story about a drone strike in Afghanistan.
I suppose that’s something. It’s not wholly implausible, obviously, that the White House would have adopted a story in order to attempt to protect the Pakistani government from embarrassment. It’s odd, though, that the chosen cover story looks on its face to be even more embarrassing to Pakistan, with the Pakistani security services unable to find bin Laden as he was living right under their collective nose, and unable to stop the United States from carrying out a significant raid in Pakistani territory.
And so I’m struggling with how to make sense of the story. And that says nothing about the bigger question of how we should view a story that is sourced almost entirely on anonymous, retired members of the IC, especially when lots of non-anonymous, retired and not-retired people are willing to go on the record saying Hersh is wrong.