Seymour Hersh’s London Review of Books piece was looking to make waves when he questioned the truthfulness of the story of Osama bin Laden’s death in May 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Hersh did manage to raise fundamental questions about the administration’s narrative with his reporting, but his story also raised as many, if not more, questions about Hersh himself and whether we should take this journalistic leap of faith with him. And a dollop of skepticism seems fair: Hersh’s account is unapologetically held up by a single anonymous source.
On Tuesday, the New York Times’ Carlotta Gall weighed in to offer qualified support for portions of Hersh’s sprawling counter-narrative. Gall, who covered Pakistan and Afghanistan for the Times for more than a decade, wrote in the New York Times Magazine about Hersh’s claim that the U.S. learned of Bin Laden’s whereabouts from a “walk-in” or informant that tipped them off:
On this count, my own reporting tracks with Hersh’s… The story of the Pakistani informer was circulating in the rumor mill within days of the Abbottabad raid, but at the time, no one could or would corroborate the claim… Two years later, when I was researching my book, I learned from a high-level member of the Pakistani intelligence service that the ISI [the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, Pakistan’s military-intelligence agency] had been hiding Bin Laden and ran a desk specifically to handle him as an intelligence asset. After the book came out, I learned more: that it was indeed a Pakistani Army brigadier — all the senior officers of the ISI are in the military — who told the C.I.A. where Bin Laden was hiding, and that Bin Laden was living there with the knowledge and protection of the ISI… I was confident the information was true, but I held off publishing it. It was going to be extremely difficult to corroborate in the United States, not least because the informant was presumably in witness protection. I do not recall ever corresponding with Hersh, but he is following up on a story that many of us assembled parts of.
While Gall’s account does not—as she points out herself—lend any credibility to Hersh’s more controversial claims, it does show, through her own experience as well as Hersh’s, the innate challenges in intelligence reporting. As Gall notes: “Such is the difficulty of reporting on covert operations and intelligence matters; there are no official documents to draw on, few officials who will talk and few ways to check the details they give you when they do.”
While that is true, there is something slightly squeamish about the fact that the Times, now, is willing to publish what it deemed to be insufficiently verifiable to print previously. Did the Times finally feel that it had conclusively, journalistically “assembled the parts?” Well, no. “Hersh appears to have succeeded in getting both American and Pakistani sources to corroborate it,” Gall writes. Instead of publishing the story it either didn’t have the facts or gumption to print, now the Times appears to be piggybacking on a potentially huge story that it doesn’t want to miss out on, but doesn’t want to take responsibility for. The assertion that some of the details of Hersh’s story “ring true” is hardly an act of publishing bravery by the Times. In fact, it feels much more like a newspaper trying to wriggle out of the restraints it set for itself so it can get a piece of the action. When we want to hear theories that “ring true”—that’s what CNN is for.