During the Bay of Pigs, the government inflated the number of fighters it dispatched to Cuba in hopes of encouraging local citizens to rise up and join them. More recently, the Army reported that the ex-N. And an appealing narrative can exert a powerful gravitational pull that winds up bending facts in its direction. During the Iraq war, reporters informed us that a mob of jubilant Iraqis toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square. Never mind that there were so few local people trying to pull the statue down that they needed the help of a U.
Reporters also built Pvt. Jessica Lynch into a war hero who had resisted her captors during an ambush in Iraq, when in fact her weapon had jammed and she remained in her Humvee. Had Bowden and, for that matter, all of us been seduced by a narrative that was manufactured expressly for our benefit? Or were these questions themselves just paranoid? It was a miserably hot summer day in Washington, and we were sitting in his office, a two-room suite in an anonymous office complex near Dupont Circle, where Hersh works alone.
It was a 10,word refutation of the entire official narrative, sourced largely to a retired U.
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Hersh, who is 78, was reluctant to cooperate when I told him that I was interested in writing about his article. It was not years of painstaking intelligence-gathering, he wrote, that led the United States to the courier and, ultimately, to bin Laden.
When the United States confronted Pakistani intelligence officials with this information, Hersh wrote, they eventually acknowledged it was true and even conceded to provide a DNA sample to prove it. The Pakistanis allowed the U. He wrote, for instance, that bin Laden had not been given a proper Islamic burial at sea; the SEALs threw his remains out of their helicopter. He claimed not just that the Pakistanis had seized bin Laden in , but that Saudi Arabia had paid for his upkeep in the years that followed, and that the United States had instructed Pakistan to arrest an innocent man who was a sometime C.
Could the bin Laden article be another major Hersh scoop? This sort of reception is nothing new for Hersh. I saw this as more of a media story, a case study in how constructed narratives become accepted truth. This felt like a cop-out to him, as he explained in a long email the next day. Editors and reporters may not be as secretive as intelligence officials, but they like to keep a tight lid on their operational details, too.
In , Hersh wrote a story for the magazine about the growing concern among U. Now he let Remnick know that two of his sources — one in Pakistan, the other in Washington — were telling him something else: The administration was lying about the bin Laden operation. It is rare, but not unprecedented, for The New Yorker to run double-bylined articles, and the magazine decided to pursue one.
It paired Filkins with Hersh, asking Filkins to report the Pakistani side — in particular, the notion that Pakistan had secretly cooperated with the United States — while Hersh would keep following leads from Washington. But Filkins, who covered Afghanistan and Pakistan for The Times before moving to The New Yorker, spent about a week running the tip by sources inside the Pakistani government and military with little success. Remnick told him to move on. In an email, Schmidle told me his subsequent reporting has only confirmed his initial account.
Hersh plowed ahead by himself, working his sources, trying to flesh out his counternarrative. Three years later he sent a draft to The New Yorker. He suggested that Hersh continue his reporting and see where it took him.
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But he has strong ties to the magazine. He published his first article there in and has written hundreds of thousands of words for the magazine since then, including, most recently, an essay about visiting My Lai with his family that was published only weeks before his London Review of Books article on bin Laden. His son Joshua, now a reporter for Buzzfeed, was a New Yorker fact-checker for many years. In and , he passed on two Hersh articles about a deadly sarin gas attack in Syria, each of which claimed the attack was not launched by the Assad regime, the presumed culprit, but by Syrian rebels, in collaboration with the Turkish government.
Those articles also landed in The London Review of Books.
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Like the bin Laden article, each was widely questioned upon publication, with critics arguing that the once-legendary reporter was increasingly favoring provocation over rigor. Hersh still stands by both stories. But Hersh insists that the L.
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Even if the fact-checking process at The London Review of Books was as thorough as Hersh and the magazine say, we are still left trusting his unnamed sources. Should we? The promise of anonymity is an essential tool for reporters. But it also invariably leaves doubts about the motivation of the sources and thus their credibility. National-security reporters are almost never present at the events in question, and they are usually working without photos or documents, too.
Their hardest facts consist almost entirely of what unnamed people say. It is a bedrock value of journalism that reporters must never get facts wrong, but faithfully reproducing what people tell you is just the beginning. You have to also decide which facts and which voices to include and how best to assemble this material into an accurate, coherent narrative: a story.
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In making these judgments, even the best might miss a nuance or choose the wrong fact or facts to emphasize. Coll was another. Intuitively, the notion of a walk-in makes sense. But Coll has never been able to confirm the tipper story. The closest he came was a conversation with an American intelligence officer who had worked with the man said to have been the informant.
I used to work very closely with him. Pakistan conducted its own secret investigation into the matter, which was leaked to Al Jazeera in The Abbottabad Commission Report, as it was known, found no evidence that Pakistan was harboring bin Laden. The most detailed exploration of the question of Pakistani complicity in sheltering bin Laden appeared in this magazine in March It came from a book written by a Times correspondent, Carlotta Gall, who reported that a source inside the I.
This is the starkest departure from the standard story as it was reported previously. Logically, it would require us to accept that the U. Eleven days after the raid, an unbylined story appeared on GlobalPost, an American website specializing in foreign reporting. Some local people also told the reporter that they were directed not to speak to the media, especially the foreign media. When I contacted the chief executive of GlobalPost, Philip Balboni, he told me he considered trying to aggressively publicize this narrative when he first posted it.
Balboni put me in touch with the reporter, Aamir Latif, a year-old Pakistani journalist. Latif, a former foreign correspondent for U.
News and World Report, told me that he traveled to Abbottabad the day after bin Laden was killed and reported there for a couple of days. I asked him if he still believed that there was some level of Pakistani awareness of the raid. Latif, who kept his name off the original post because of the sensitivity of the subject in Pakistan, said that people in the area told him that they heard the U.
What does that suggest to you? Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who was then the chief of the army staff, and Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, then the director general of the I. They fear there will be a backlash. Where does the official bin Laden story stand now?