WASHINGTON – The White House is dismissing as “baseless” a controversial report alleging President Barack Obama’s administration lied about the circumstances surrounding the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden.
“There are too many inaccuracies and baseless assertions in this piece to fact check each one,” White House National Security spokesman Ned Price said in a statement to reporters.
He took aim specifically at journalist Seymour Hersh’s assertion that the administration collaborated with Pakistani officials to kill the al Qaeda leader, saying that “the notion that the operation that killed Usama Bin Ladin was anything but a unilateral U.S. mission is patently false.”
“As we said at the time, knowledge of this operation was confined to a very small circle of senior U.S. officials. The President decided early on not to inform any other government, including the Pakistani Government, which was not notified until after the raid had occurred,” Price said.
“We had been and continue to be partners with Pakistan in our joint effort to destroy al-Qa’ida, but this was a U.S. operation through and through.”
It was the White House’s first response to Hersh’s stunning report, published this weekend in the London Review of Books, outlining what he describes as the true circumstances surrounding bin Laden’s death. Other former administration officials have panned the report as well.
Citing an anonymous “major U.S. source,” Hersh writes that the Obama administration cooperated with Pakistani intelligence officials to kill bin Laden, and that the chief of staff of the Pakistani army and director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency knew about the mission, contrary to Obama’s claim that Pakistani officials weren’t aware of the raid in advance.
CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen immediately rebutted Hersh’s allegations in a post that contradicts most of the claims in his 10,000 word report.
“Hersh’s account of the bin Laden raid is a farrago of nonsense that is contravened by a multitude of eyewitness accounts, inconvenient facts and simple common sense,” Bergen wrote Monday.
Hersh’s source is identified as a “retired senior intelligence official who was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad.”
And on CNN’s “New Day” on Monday morning, Hersh defended that sourcing and questioned why the Obama administration hadn’t yet responded to the report.
“This is not a wager — this is a story that has to be dealt with by this government very seriously,” he told CNN’s Chris Cuomo.
Hersh stuck by his claims on CNN. In explaining why he relied largely on the “major U.S. source,” Hersh said that it’s “very tough for guys still inside to get quoted extensively,” and declared that he “vetted most and verified” his sourcing with further reporting in Pakistan.
But Hersh, who has drawn criticism for his heavy use of anonymous sourcing before, admitted that he had gotten some things wrong in his reporting before.
“I would argue that a lot of the stories I wrote were pretty much on-mark,” he said, but he acknowledged: “Nobody’s perfect, of course — everybody’s done bad stories.”
Indeed, he said he may have gotten the state where the military practiced the operation wrong in the piece because “sometimes my geography gets lousy.”
Hersh also revealed that the piece hinged in part on an on-the-record interview with former ISI head Gen. Assad Durrani who told him, “look, you got the story.” That was “one of the things that made the story doable now where it wouldn’t have been” before, he said.
Bergen, in his report pushing back on Hersh’s claims, says he reached out to Durrani and received a far different response.
Durrani said there was “no evidence of any kind” that the ISI knew that bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad but he still could “make an assessment that this could be plausible.”
Hersh also pushed back against skepticism over the claims in his article, calling it a “Lewis Carroll fairy tale” to believe bin Laden would’ve been hiding in such an easily accessible region of Pakistan.
The administration has said they received information on bin Laden’s whereabouts by tracking his courier, and that the top military target was killed in a firefight with an elite team of Navy SEALs.
But Hersh writes that the Obama administration had initially agreed to say bin Laden had been killed by a drone strike; that ISI was holding bin Laden a prisoner at the Abbottabad compound where he was killed, and that a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer told the U.S. of his whereabouts for the $25 million award being offered at the time.
Hersh also reports on boasting from some SEALs that bin Laden wasn’t given a burial at sea that adhered to Islamic religious traditions as the administration had claimed — rather, his remains “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.”
Hersh also alleges Obama’s speech announcing the successful mission was “put together in a rush,” not vetted or cleared by national security officials and created “chaos in the weeks following.”
“This series of self-serving and inaccurate statements would create chaos in the weeks following,” he said.
Hersh quotes his source as saying: “This was not the fog of war.
“The fact that there was an agreement with the Pakistanis and no contingency analysis of what was to be disclosed if something went wrong — that wasn’t even discussed,” the source says. “And once it went wrong, they had to make up a new cover story on the fly.”
Hersh won the Pulitzer in 1970 for his shocking report on the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War that was widely credited with contributing to the public backlash against the war, and has since reported on conflicts in Iraq, Iran and Syria.
But Hersh has come under frequent criticism for his heavy use of unnamed sources. In 2004, for instance, his report that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld effectively approved abuses against terrorists held at Abu Ghraib prison was dismissed by a Pentagon spokesperson as “the most hysterical piece of journalist malpractice I have ever observed.”
– CNN’s Jim Acosta contributed to this report.