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Book of the Week: The murder of Osama bin Laden

Finlay Macdonald reviews The Killing of Osama bin Laden by Seymour Hersh

 About the worst thing anyone will say of Seymour Hersh’s journalism is that he’s only “one of America’s greatest investigative reporters”. But that’s the New York Times for you, always hedging. Others don’t hold back so much: “The most feared investigative reporter in Washington” (the Guardian); “The last great American reporter” (Financial Times); “Quite simply, the greatest investigative reporter of his era” (David Remnick of the New Yorker).

Really, it’s a wonder dear old Mr Hersh can fit his head through the doorway.

But he can, and I have seen it with my own eyes. In 2013 he accepted an invitation to speak at a festival in Wanaka at a session I was lucky enough to chair. He was immensely likeable – an unpretentious Chicago native with a wry Jewish slant on just about everything, including that he was such a fish out of water, a big city boy in a bucolic South Island village, surrounded by ruddy-faced Range Rover drivers in Rodd & Gunn jerkins.

He called our daughter “kiddo” and kept having to apologise for swearing in front of her. (“But, you know, they are bastards!”) He traveled with a tennis racket and a bulging briefcase of hand-written notes on lined legal paper. Later, while we were waiting for the same flight back to Auckland, he explained that he never used a computer or laptop to write anything important, only paper. He wasn’t being paranoid, he said. He simply knew too much about how digital documents and information were routinely stolen.

Hersh’s visit to New Zealand coincided with the Boston Marathon bombing, which was the hot news at the time of our public session at the festival. Like any good reporter, and unlike the babbling pundits across CNN, he refused to speculate, beyond noting that it would be useful propaganda for all sides in the “war on terror”. He talked about Afghanistan, Iraq, the Abu Ghraib torture scandal (that he was instrumental in exposing), the awful situation in Libya, and the risk of war with Iran.

Presciently, he talked a good deal about Syria and the prospect of nightmarish civil war, given the unholy mixture of American foreign policy ambitions, rampant jihadism and complex regional power struggles. Despite its title, more than half of this latest book is devoted to why and how this has been allowed to happen.

If there is a connection between the killing of Osama bin Laden and the war in Syria it is that, at the heart of both, sit the lies and manipulations of the Obama White House. Hersh mines his peerless Washington and military sources to lay this out with calm precision and logic. Behind the “hope” and “change you can believe in”, he asserts, it has all been the business of empire as usual.

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To take just one, visceral example, the strange case of the supposed burial at sea of bin Laden is rendered ridiculous in Hersh’s version. In fact, the entire story of the assassination, as told by Hollywood in Zero Dark Thirty, was unalloyed propaganda. Using sources close to Special Operations Command and US intelligence, he builds a more plausible picture of a largely unopposed raid in which Navy SEALs opened up on the defenseless and pathetic former al Qaeda leader and literally blew him to bits.

The later White House claim that only one or two bullets were fired into his head was “bullshit”, the retired official said. “The Squad came through the door and obliterated him. As the SEALs say, ‘We kicked his ass and took his gas.’”

There are also no reliable first-hand accounts of a burial aboard the USS Carl Vinson, let alone one held under Muslim protocols. And, according to Hersh’s main source, “if the SEAL’s first accounts are to be believed, there wouldn’t have been much left of bin Laden to put into the sea in any case.”

Hersh is no great stylist and wastes little time with metaphor or rhetorical flourish. But the force of his reporting resides in sentences that serve the facts, relentlessly and cumulatively. It’s a style he has perfected since the late 60s and early 70s, covering Vietnam (the My Lai massacre in particular) and Watergate. The stories change over time, but the underlying motivation rarely does. Seymour Hersh just hates bullshit.

It’s a slight shame, then, that the editing of this slim hardback lets the original material down in small but annoying ways. The chapters mostly began life as remarkable long-form pieces for the London Review of Books, including the much-shared essay that lends the book its title. How hard would it have been to re-re-edit the text for basic continuity and context?

So we are introduced to the embattled president of Syria simply as “Assad”, with no earlier reference to his full name or position; there is a reference to a study being emailed to the New York Times “last week”, never a helpful timeframe in a book; “It’s been four years since” bin Laden’s assassination we are told, which won’t help next year’s readers much either. Call me a pedant and argue this is expediency in the name of timely publishing, but there was time to create an index so one more pass at the manuscript wouldn’t have been impossible.

The book ends abruptly, if intriguingly, leaving one wishing for an epilogue to match Hersh’s excellent introduction. By this stage we have been presented with a lot of compelling evidence that Obama is anything but the measured and cautious president his image pretends, but is as self-serving and deaf to reason as his far more maligned predecessor.

Specifically, he appears willfully self-deceiving about the sinister role of Turkey’s president Recep Erdogan in the rise and survival of ISIS, and America’s own perverse support for “moderate” rebel groups that are, in essence, no better. Obama has been repeatedly advised of this by his Joint Chiefs and others, but has refused to listen. Concluding with the words “Why not?” might work well in a current affairs magazine, but in a book it leaves one feeling slightly short-changed.

Yet it might also be a clue to the rather noble limits of Hersh’s ambition. On the one hand, his distaste for speculation or lazy supposition is admirable, especially in a Fox universe built on hot air and recycled talking points. On the other, it prevents him from offering the final damning conclusion that so much of his own reporting supports and often cries out for.

To which I suspect Seymour himself might say, look kiddo, you draw your own conclusions, I’m just here to tell you what I could find out.


The Killing of Osama bin Laden (Verso, $29.99) by Seymour Hersh is available at Unity Books.

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