The good news: The media is holding one of its own accountable for questionable reporting based on single anonymous sourcing. The bad news: It’s Chris Cuomo versus Seymour Hersh in a credibility contest. Cuomo gets the edge here, though, because he’s done quite a bit of homework before going into this morning’s debate with Hersh over his eyebrow-raising contention that the operation that killed Osama bin Laden was really a set-up made by the Pakistani government. “I’m not out on a limb with this,” Hersh insists, but Cuomo isn’t buying it.
If nothing else, the clip is well worth watching for Hersh’s determined defense in the face of effective scrutiny:
It’s not easy to follow the circular logic that Hersh attempts to use here, so just ask yourselves this: if the Pakistanis wanted to appease the US by coughing up bin Laden, why not just, y’know, cough up bin Laden and say the US caught him in Afghanistan on the other side of Waziristan? Or shoot him themselves and toss his body across the border? Why take the risk of having American commandos stage a raid in Abbottabad at all, even if it was a flat-out assassination mission? If the super-genius plot was to claim that OBL got killed in the Hindu Kush, as Hersh alleges in his piece, then a big night-time raid in suburban Abbottabad makes a cover story a little difficult to sustain, no?
Cuomo raises the same point I did earlier, which is the nonsense idea that the Saudis were protecting bin Laden. One main aim of al-Qaeda was the destruction of the Saudi royal family. How likely was it that the Saudis would keep him in relative comfort in Pakistan while still serving as nominal and inspirational leader of AQ?
Cuomo repeatedly references CNN’s Peter Bergen in this interview. Bergen wrote a response that praises Hersh’s career, but calls this story “a farrago of nonsense” contradicted by evidence, witnesses, and common sense:
Let’s start with the claim that the only shots fired at the Abbottabad compound were the ones that killed bin Laden. That ignores the fact that two SEALs on the mission, Matt Bissonnette, author of “No Easy Day,” and Robert O’Neill have publicly said that there were a number of other people killed that night, including bin Laden’s two bodyguards, one of his sons and one of the bodyguard’s wives. Their account is supplemented by many other U.S. officials who have spoken on the record to myself or to other journalists.
I was the only outsider to visit the Abbottabad compound where bin Laden lived before the Pakistani military demolished it. The compound was trashed, littered almost everywhere with broken glass and several areas of it were sprayed with bullet holes where the SEALS had fired at members of bin Laden’s entourage and family, or in one case exchanged fire with one of his bodyguards. The evidence at the compound showed that many bullets were fired the night of bin Laden’s death. …
Common sense would also tell you that if the Pakistanis were holding bin Laden and the U.S. government had found out this fact, the easiest path for both countries would not be to launch a U.S. military raid into Pakistan but would have been to hand bin Laden over quietly to the Americans.
Indeed, the Pakistanis have done this on several occasions with a number of other al Qaeda leaders such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the operational commander of 9/11, who was handed over to U.S. custody after a raid in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi in 2003. So too was Abu Faraj al-Libi, another key al Qaeda leader who was similarly handed over by the Pakistanis to U.S. custody two years later.
Bergen notes that Durrani also told him that he had no evidence that ISI knew about bin Laden, but that Hersh’s theory was “plausible,” as Cuomo notes in the report. Bergen dismisses the entire story as rank speculation:
All sorts of things are, of course, plausible, but in both journalism and in the writing of history one looks for evidence, not plausibility.
Indeed. On top of that, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Hersh gives us a single source, around which he’s wrapped barely relevant testimony to dress up his speculation. Kudos to Cuomo for challenging Hersh, and … grudging respect to Hersh for conducting a spirited if occasionally deluded defense of his report.