In May of 2015 one of the most admired journalists of all time, “scoop artist” Seymour Hersch, revealed that much of what the Obama White House told the world about their killing of Osama bin laden in a Pakistani compound was simply a lie. In a not unusual display of arrogance from the Obama administration, the claims were dismissed out of hand. Instead Obama and his henchmen, in a classic case of disinformation, attempted to malign the name of one of the best connected, most thorough and most intellectually gifted reporters of the modern era. They claimed Seymour Hersch, whose books include Chain of Command and The Price of Power, had got it wrong. Unfortunately for the future of a decaying democracy, Seymour Hersch was a far more credible source of information than the Obama White House would ever be. In a transparent attempt to bury the Hersch story and manipulate public opinion, in the wake of Hersch’s revelations the White House released a flood of documentation of material found in bin Laden’s compound, including a list of his favourite reading material, including the book Obama’s Wars: The Inside Story by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Bob Woodward. There is no such thing as coincidence.
Bob Woodward’s book draws from hundreds of interviews with key administration figures, their deputies and other firsthand sources. In addition, Obama’s Wars is based on extensive documentation, including internal memos, letters, chronologies and meeting notes. It focuses on national security, particularly the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the fight against terrorism. Woodward has structured the book to answer the questions: How does Obama govern? How and why does he decide? And how does he balance the numerous pressures of the modern presidency? Obama has learned that he is not commander-in-chief of the economy, and many of his high-profile reforms – such as health care, education and energy – have been turned over to Congress. But the president has realized he has almost total authority as commander-in-chief. Woodward thinks of the book as conceptually titled, The Crucible: Obama at War.
Bob Woodward is Assistant Managing Editor of one of the world’s leading newspapers, The Washington Post. His Pulitzer Prize-winning Watergate reporting set the standard for investigative reporting. He has authored or co-authored seven bestselling books.
In an essay for the revered London Review of Books Seymour Hersch wrote: “It’s been four years since a group of US Navy Seals assassinated Osama bin Laden in a night raid on a high-walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The killing was the high point of Obama’s first term, and a major factor in his re-election. The White House still maintains that the mission was an all-American affair, and that the senior generals of Pakistan’s army and Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) were not told of the raid in advance. This is false, as are many other elements of the Obama administration’s account. The White House’s story might have been written by Lewis Carroll: would bin Laden, target of a massive international manhunt, really decide that a resort town forty miles from Islamabad would be the safest place to live and command al-Qaida’s operations? He was hiding in the open. So America said.
“The most blatant lie was that Pakistan’s two most senior military leaders – General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of the army staff, and General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, director general of the ISI – were never informed of the US mission. This remains the White House position despite an array of reports that have raised questions, including by the New York Times Magazine…”
In his book Pakistan: Before and after Osama (2012), Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Centre for Research and Security Studies, a think tank in Islamabad, wrote that the intelligence community and a widely held local view held that the Pakistani military must have had knowledge of Osama’s whereabouts and the planning of the operation.
A retired Pakistani General, Asad Durrani, former head of the Intelligence Security Inter-services Intelligence Agency said: “The idea was that, at the right time, his location would be revealed. And the right time would have been when you can get the necessary quid pro quo – if you have someone like Osama bin Laden, you are not going to simply hand him over to the United States.”
Hersch later contacted Durrani, informing him of his findings, that bin Laden had been a prisoner of the Pakistanis at the Abbottabad compound since 2006; that details of the raid were known in advance and that the CIA did not learn of bin Laden’s whereabouts by tracking his couriers, as the White House has claimed since May 2011, but from a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer who betrayed the secret in return for much of the $25 million reward offered by the US, and that, while Obama did order the raid and the Seal team did carry it out, many other aspects of the administration’s account were false.
“When your version comes out – if you do it – people in Pakistan will be tremendously grateful,’ Durrani told Hersch. “For a long time people have stopped trusting what comes out about bin Laden from the official mouths. There will be some negative political comment and some anger, but people like to be told the truth, and what you’ve told me is essentially what I have heard from former colleagues who have been on a fact-finding mission since this episode.”
In an attempt to bury the Hersch story, the Obama administration released a total of 103 documents allegedly seized on the night of Osama’s assassination, including the largest repository of correspondence ever released between members of bin Laden’s immediate family and significant communications between bin Laden and other leaders of al Qaeda as well as al Qaeda’s communications with terrorist groups around the Muslim world.
According to gilded news reports, the documents represented a treasure trove which showed that in his final years hiding in his compound in Pakistan, Osama bin Laden was a man who at once showed great love and interest in his own family while he coldly drew up quixotic plans for mass casualty attacks on Americans.
Also released was a list of bin Laden’s massive digital collection of English-language books, think tank reports and U.S. government documents, numbering 266 in total.
CNN reported that: “To the end bin Laden remained obsessed with attacking Americans. In an undated letter he told jihadist militants in North Africa that they should stop “insisting on the formation of an Islamic state” and instead attack U.S. embassies in Sierra Leone and Togo and American oil companies. Bin Laden offered similar advice to the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, telling it to avoid targeting Yemeni police and military targets and instead prioritize attacks on American targets.
“Much of bin Laden’s advice either didn’t make it to these groups or was simply ignored because al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and North Africa continued to attack local targets.
“ISIS, of course, didn’t exist at the time bin Laden was writing. The group, which now controls a large swath of territory in the Middle East, grew out of al Qaeda in Iraq and has charted a different path, seeking to create an Islamic state and not prioritizing attacks on the United States and its citizens.
“Taken together, these documents and reading materials paint a complex, nuanced portrait of the world’s most wanted man in the years before he was killed in the raid on his compound.
“In the letters that bin Laden exchanged with his many sons and daughters, he emerges as a much-loved and admired father who doted on his children. And in a letter he sent to one of his wives, he even comes off as a lovelorn swain.
“That’s in sharp contrast to the letters bin Laden sent to al Qaeda leaders that demanded mass casualty attacks against American targets and insisted that al Qaeda affiliates in the Middle East stop wasting their time on attacks against local government targets.”
According to CNN, Bin Laden’s digital library was that of an avid reader whose tastes ran from “Obama’s Wars,” Bob Woodward’s account of how the Obama administration surged U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010, to Noam Chomsky as well as someone who had a pronounced interest in how Western think tanks and academic institutions were analyzing al Qaeda.
The new documents showed how bin Laden reacted to the events of the Arab Spring, which was roiling the Middle East in the months before his death. While bin Laden had nothing to say publicly about the momentous events in the Middle East, privately he wrote lengthy memos analyzing what was happening, pointing to the “new factor” of “the information technology revolution” that had helped spur the revolutions and characterizing them as “the most important events” in the Muslim world “in centuries.”
ISIS, of course, didn’t exist at the time bin Laden was writing. The group, which now controls a large swath of territory in the Middle East, grew out of al Qaeda in Iraq and has charted a different path, seeking to create an Islamic state and not prioritizing attacks on the United States and its citizens.
Taken together, these documents and reading materials paint a complex, nuanced portrait of the world’s most wanted man in the years before he was killed in the raid on his compound.
It is unlikely, as a prisoner of the Pakistani government, that Osama had much choice about where he lived. But Bob Woodward suggests that he might not have read his book closely enough; and perhaps he would have lived elsewhere if there was any choice in the matter.
Woodward told The Washington Post: “If he read ‘Obama’s Wars,’ bin Laden’s takeaway should have been Obama does not like war but is willing to use lethal force. The American commander-in-chief in fact prefers covert Special Forces raids targeted and aimed at capturing or killing known high-value terrorist in their hideouts. A close reading might have sent him back to a mountain cave. Follow-on reading about Nixon (“All the President’s Men” and “The Final Days”) could have shown him the destructive power of hate. As Nixon said, ‘When you hate your enemies, you destroy yourself.’”
According to The Washington Post, some of the exchanges in Obama’s Wars might have comforted the al-Qaeda leader. “What do you mean you don’t know where he is?” then-White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said to Bruce Riedel, a retired CIA veteran who was chairing a White House review on AfPak policy. Some $50 billion a year spent on intelligence “and you don’t have a clue where the most wanted man in the history of the world is?”
Other passages might have fed bin Laden’s ego; for example, a discussion between Riedel and President Obama regarding the al-Qaeda leader. “Some al Qaeda watchers would argue that bin Laden, hiding in Pakistan, is irrelevant, Riedel said. He’s stuck in a cave somewhere, and yes, he puts out these audiotapes once in a while, but he’s more of a symbol than the commander of a global jihad. What I learned is that’s just not true, Riedel said. He communicates with his underlings and is in touch with his foot soldiers. His troops believe they are getting his orders, and we know from good intelligence that they are.”
Woodward also quotes then-National Security Adviser Gen. James L. Jones on how the search for bin Laden was always a factor when formulating U.S. policy toward Pakistan. “The Pakistan problem was not just a matter of protecting the homeland and destroying al Qaeda,” Woodward writes. “There was always the prize: bin Laden. ‘We’ve found the hornet’s nest,’ Jones said later. ‘We’re poking at it from different ways. The bees are swarming but the queen is still there.’ ”
Asked what the al-Qaeda leader should have taken away from Obama’s Wars: The Inside Story, and what in his other books, Osama might have found relevant, Woodward told The Washington Post: “If he read Obama’s Wars, bin Laden’s takeaway should have been Obama does not like war but is willing to use lethal force. The American commander-in-chief in fact prefers covert Special Forces raids targeted and aimed at capturing or killing known high-value terrorist in their hideouts. A close reading might have sent him back to a mountain cave. Follow-on reading about Nixon (“All the President’s Men” and “The Final Days”) could have shown him the destructive power of hate. As Nixon said, ‘When you hate your enemies, you destroy yourself.’ ”