How did Osama bin Laden really die? The truth matters.

“All governments lie,” wrote the great radical investigative journalist I. F. Stone in In a Time of Torment (1967). And he added “but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out.” In short, it’s suicidal to objectify the lie, as if it were a law to be lived by.

Within the last year more evidence has accumulated that Osama Bin Laden did not die the way our government, with great fanfare and an odd mix of confusion, said he died. I greeted that news with little satisfaction and some disgust. Dissatisfaction for the same reasons that I, and other Christians, oppose the death penalty. He, like many criminals on death row, was a bad man; but he was still a human being; and to a Christian all human life is sacred. My disgust was with the celebration of the killing by mobs in the streets as if downtown had been transformed into the last minutes of “The Wizard of Oz” in which the munchkins sang and danced “Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead.”


A recent clue to the unraveling was the New York Times story that Vice President Joe Biden was rethinking whatever advice he gave President Obama when they planned the secret attack, which evolved from his saying, “Don’t do it because we don’t know for sure he’s there” to “Follow your instincts, Mr, President.” A later front-page Times story told how four lawyers with long meetings and secret memos managed to justify killing the target. International law forbids one country from using force on another’s soil without the other’s consent; but these lawyers decided one can violate international law in a “covert action.” They also approved—and President Obama ordered—going in to kill, not capture, their target.

The Geneva Convention requires burying one’s enemies slain in battle, “if possible.” according to their religion—a Muslim, in a marked grave facing East. According to the White House, after Muslim prayers, we dumped him, wrapped in a sheet, from an aircraft carrier into the ocean.

Enter Seymour Hersh —see Robert Miraldi’s bio, Seymour Hersh,Scoop Artist generally considered the greatest, though controversial, investigative reporter alive today, known for his expose of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, the torture in Abu Ghraib prison, Watergate revelations, and Kissinger’s abuse of power. He worked several years to uncover the facts behind the myth of what he described as Osama Bin Laden’s murder.

His article in The London Review of Books, May 2015, “The Killing of Osama bin Laden,” based on interviews with participants in both Washington and Pakistan, whom he would not name, reports that the raid on bin Laden’s high-walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was negotiated with the Pakistan army chief of staff and the director of intelligence. Pakistan cooperated, according to Hersh’s research, because it feared losing America’s financial support. Osama’s guards were removed for the evening. Neighbors were told to ignore whatever happened next door. There was no firefight or resistance, the SEALS just went up to his room and shot him again and again. Two SEALS, though sworn to secrecy, sold stories each claiming that he had shot bin Laden first.

According to Hersh’s reporting, Osama was an invalid, not armed, not shielded by his wife, just a target hustling into his bedroom where they “obliterated him.” The SEALS, contrary to the government’s account, did not collect his files or other valuable information. Nor was he buried at sea. The government says bin Laden’s body was put in a helicopter and delivered it to the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson where, following a Muslim prayer service, he was slipped into the ocean. This account was provided by a government spokesman describing photographs he had seen of the burial. Yet according to Hersh’s informants, bin Laden’s body, torn to pieces by rifle fire, was dumped into a body bag and tossed out of the helicopter over the Hindu Kush mountains.

In a long meticulously researched article in The New York Times Magazine (Oct 18) Jonathan Mahler tries to put May 2011 in context. He also attempts, with only partial success, to answer whether the incident was as it has been described—including the famous photo of the president’s team huddled in an office following a direct televising of the event—was a triumph of justice or a fabrication. Mahler states, “It’s hard to overstate the degree to which the killing of Osama bin Laden transformed American politics...It enabled Obama to recast himself as a bold leader, as opposed to an overly cautious one.” It had an impact on his re-election and allowed him to declare victory over Al Qaeda.

I have admired and supported Obama since a day during the New Jersey primary in 2008 when St. Peter’s College in Jersey City gave him our gym for his rally. I stood two feet from him and observed how he dealt with the neighborhood people who had packed the gym to the rafters to see him. But this “new” cool killer was a different person.

Mahler is not able to corroborate every detail of Hersh’s report, but he does grant the “sheer improbability” of the administration’s story. American history, he reminds us, is filled with war stories that later unraveled: the supposed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, the imagined attack on a U.S. vessel in the Gulf of Tonkin that allowed Lyndon Johnson to expand the Vietnam War. Hersh usually has published his exposes in the New Yorker, but the editor had rejected this one because the New Yorker’s resources weren’t able to verify everything independently. The London Review of Books, on the other hand, is also scrupulous in its fact checking and they took the article.

Mahler was able to verify Pakistan’s cooperation in the attack. It turns out that the person who described the photographs of Osama’s sea burial did not in fact see the pictures. Someone else said he saw the pictures and told him. Mahler concludes that right now the story is floating “somewhere between fact and mythology.” He is not shocked that the government may have lied to us. He says, “The more sensitive the subject, the more likely the government will feed us untruths.” Consider the film “Zero Dark Thirty,” which grossed $130 million for its narrative about the killing of bin Laden “based on firsthand accounts of actual events,” including the CIA-led torture scenes where they extracted the information leading to where he was.

Except it wasn’t true. It’s that hashish smoke—pride, lust for power, egotism, ambition, fear of embarrassment, moral weakness—that makes our leaders lie. And we believe what they say. How much better it would have been if the four lawyers who first advised the president had told him about the Nuremberg trials in which the accused Nazi war criminals were tried publicly, with prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges. This was a lot of trouble, but it was public and it allowed the nations of the world to see how justice is done. But now we have secrets and lies rather than a live prisoner in an isolated cellblock forced to re-evaluate his life. We have his ghost haunting the national conscience.

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Bill Collier
3 years 2 months ago
This is an interesting article, as was the Hersh expose, but was "Obama Bin Laden's Ghost Lurks" the intended caption for the article, or is it "Osama Bin Laden's Ghost Lurks"? The president may not have been fully candid about what he told the American people, but I'm not grasping a reference to him in the context of a lurking ghost.
Robert Lewis
3 years 2 months ago
There's an additional thing, too: part of the reason that Bin Laden can be portrayed as a "shaheed" (martyr) amongst some here in the Muslim world, where I live, has to do with the manner in which he died. A cell block in the West would have made him far less of a martyr in jihadists' eyes. However, you can ALWAYS count on the U.S. government to stab itself in the foot, when dealing with Muslims.
Guy Mullins
3 years 2 months ago
A new book called Osama's Angel by Michael McWilliams and available on amazon, speculates on what really happened at Abbottabad. Was bin Laden captured and under the pretext of a fake sea burial, taken to Germany for interrogation? Did the CIA use an hight-tech version of an ancient faith-based technique to extract every bit of information from bin Laden? Was the Chinook crash that killed many of the assault force just after the raid a means of covering up what actually happened? These and many other unanswered questions are answered in the book.
Gabriel Marcella
3 years 2 months ago
It's not certain that we can depend on Hersh's version of events. He has been criticized in the past for anonymous sourcing of information, and at times getting the story wrong. According to one account, his source for the Obama story was one intelligence official. Can we trust that?
Dudley Sharp
3 years 2 months ago
"In his “Ethics,” Bonhoeffer quoted Aquinas in justification of tyrannicide, along with the examples of Ehud (Judges 3:15-30) and Jehu (2 Kings 9: 22-35). The close friend of Pius XII, Bishop von Preysing cited similar sources to justify the attempts on Hitler’s life." from NOVEMBER 19, 2015 The Plot to Kill Hitler and the Vindication of Pius XII FR. GEORGE W. RUTLER

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