Introduction

What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Ben McGrath is not like a piece by Jill Lepore, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Goodyear, or Filkins for Khatchadourian, or Bilger for Paumgarten. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Is Nicholas Schmidle's "Getting bin Laden" Accurate?


Illustration by John Ritter (from Nicholas Schmidle's "Getting bin Laden")















To what extent, if any, does Seymour Hersh’s controversial “The Killing of Osama bin Laden” (London Review of Books, May 21, 2015) undermine the accuracy of Nicholas Schmidle’s great “Getting bin Laden” (The New Yorker, August 8, 2011)? Hersh’s piece doesn’t mention “Getting bin Laden,” but its account of the Abbottabad raid contradicts at least four aspects of Schmidle’s narrative:

1. Hersh claims bin Laden’s hideout was revealed not by CIA spying, but by a Pakistani informant. He writes,

It began with a walk-in. In August 2010 a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer approached Jonathan Bank, then the CIA’s station chief at the US embassy in Islamabad. He offered to tell the CIA where to find bin Laden in return for the reward that Washington had offered in 2001.

In contrast, Schmidle, in his piece, reports that the CIA discovered bin Laden’s location. He writes,

In August, 2010, Panetta returned to the White House with better news. C.I.A. analysts believed that they had pinpointed bin Laden’s courier, a man in his early thirties named Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Kuwaiti drove a white S.U.V. whose spare-tire cover was emblazoned with an image of a white rhino. The C.I.A. began tracking the vehicle. One day, a satellite captured images of the S.U.V. pulling into a large concrete compound in Abbottabad. Agents, determining that Kuwaiti was living there, used aerial surveillance to keep watch on the compound, which consisted of a three-story main house, a guesthouse, and a few outbuildings. They observed that residents of the compound burned their trash, instead of putting it out for collection, and concluded that the compound lacked a phone or an Internet connection. Kuwaiti and his brother came and went, but another man, living on the third floor, never left. When this third individual did venture outside, he stayed behind the compound’s walls. Some analysts speculated that the third man was bin Laden, and the agency dubbed him the Pacer.

2. Hersh claims that the Pakistani military collaborated in the raid. He says,

Pasha [General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, director general of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI)] and Kayani [General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of Pakistan’s army] were responsible for ensuring that Pakistan’s army and air defence command would not track or engage with the US helicopters used on the mission. The American cell at Tarbela Ghazi was charged with co-ordinating communications between the ISI, the senior US officers at their command post in Afghanistan, and the two Black Hawk helicopters; the goal was to ensure that no stray Pakistani fighter plane on border patrol spotted the intruders and took action to stop them.

He further says, “At the Abbottabad compound ISI guards were posted around the clock to keep watch over bin Laden and his wives and children. They were under orders to leave as soon as they heard the rotors of the US helicopters.”

Schmidle’s account doesn’t indicate any CIA-ISI cooperation. On the contrary, it reports, “Obama decided against informing or working with Pakistan. ‘There was a real lack of confidence that the Pakistanis could keep this secret for more than a nanosecond,’ a senior adviser to the President told me.”

3. Hersh claims that, except for the bullet that struck one of bin Laden’s wives in the knee, and the bullets that killed bin Laden, “no other shots were fired.”

In contrast, Schmidle’s “Getting bin Laden” describes the killing of four people in addition to bin Laden:

(1) Three SEALs in front broke off to clear the guesthouse as the remaining nine blasted through another gate and entered an inner courtyard, which faced the main house. When the smaller unit rounded the corner to face the doors of the guesthouse, they spotted Kuwaiti running inside to warn his wife and children. The Americans’ night-vision goggles cast the scene in pixellated shades of emerald green. Kuwaiti, wearing a white shalwar kameez, had grabbed a weapon and was coming back outside when the SEALs opened fire and killed him.

(2) The nine other seals, including Mark, formed three-man units for clearing the inner courtyard. The Americans suspected that several more men were in the house: Kuwaiti’s thirty-three-year-old brother, Abrar; bin Laden’s sons Hamza and Khalid; and bin Laden himself. One SEAL unit had no sooner trod on the paved patio at the house’s front entrance when Abrar—a stocky, mustachioed man in a cream-colored shalwar kameez—appeared with an AK-47. He was shot in the chest and killed, as was his wife, Bushra, who was standing, unarmed, beside him.

(3) After blasting through the gate with C-4 charges, three seals marched up the stairs. Midway up, they saw bin Laden’s twenty-three-year-old son, Khalid, craning his neck around the corner. He then appeared at the top of the staircase with an AK-47. Khalid, who wore a white T-shirt with an overstretched neckline and had short hair and a clipped beard, fired down at the Americans. (The counterterrorism official claims that Khalid was unarmed, though still a threat worth taking seriously. “You have an adult male, late at night, in the dark, coming down the stairs at you in an Al Qaeda house—your assumption is that you’re encountering a hostile.”) At least two of the seals shot back and killed Khalid.

It should be noted that in a passage that precedes the above description of Khalid’s death, Schmidle says,

Until this moment, the operation had been monitored by dozens of defense, intelligence, and Administration officials watching the drone’s video feed. The SEALs were not wearing helmet cams, contrary to a widely cited report by CBS. None of them had any previous knowledge of the house’s floor plan, and they were further jostled by the awareness that they were possibly minutes away from ending the costliest manhunt in American history; as a result, some of their recollections—on which this account is based—may be imprecise and, thus, subject to dispute.

4. Hersh reports that bin Laden’s body was not buried at sea, that “the remains, including his head, which had only a few bullet holes in it, 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.”

Schmidle says that the SEALs brought bin Laden’s body back to Jalalabad. From there it was taken to Bagram, and then it was flown to the U.S. aircraft carrier Carl Vinson where it was “washed, wrapped in a white burial shroud, weighted, and then slipped inside a bag.” Schmidle writes,

The process was done “in strict conformance with Islamic precepts and practices,” Brennan [John Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism advisor] later told reporters. The JSOC liaison, the military-police contingent, and several sailors placed the shrouded body on an open-air elevator, and rode down with it to the lower level, which functions as a hangar for airplanes. From a height of between twenty and twenty-five feet above the waves, they heaved the corpse into the water.

Hersh’s piece raises interesting questions. Nevertheless, the events in Schmidle’s “Gettting bin Laden” are so exactly described, so immersively detailed, I find it hard to believe they're fabricated. It’s more likely, in my opinion, that Hersh, not Schmidle, is wrong. I find support for my view in Ahmed Rashid’s recent “Sy Hersh and Osama bin Laden: The Right and the Wrong” (The New York Review of Books, September 29, 2016), in which Rashid considers, among other things, Hersh’s argument that the Pakistani military collaborated in the Abbottabad raid. He concludes:

In view of the history of bad relations between the CIA and ISI during the period before the raid, it is inconceivable to me that the cooperation between them that Hersh describes could have taken place. That Hersh mentions none of these tensions and nothing at all about the state of CIA-ISA relations seems to me inexplicable. Moreover, in the aftermath of the Abbottabad raid, both the commanding general of the Pakistani army and senior ISI officers faced acute embarrassment and accusations from the civilian government, the parliament, the media, and the public. They were deemed incompetent for allowing US helicopters into Pakistani airspace. It is not plausible that military commanders would deliberately risk the kind of humiliation that Pakistan’s army then faced. Hersh does not nay of this fallout.

As well, I find it odd that Hersh omits any mention of Schmidle’s piece. An argument that fails to address the major case against it lacks credibility. “Getting bin Laden” is based, as Schmidle says, on the recollections of SEALs who carried out the raid. Surely, their account of what happened that night in Abbottabad is deserving of immense weight. If Hersh disbelieves Schmidle’s account, he should say so and give his reasons. His failure to refer to “Getting bin Laden” is, in my view, a major weakness of his piece.

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