On May 2nd, 2011, immediately before election season, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation to the American people and the world that an elite team of Navy SEALs had infiltrated the hideout of Osama bin Laden. The President stated that the team had managed to kill the “face of terrorism” around the globe. At the time, the country rejoiced what was thought to be a major victory in the War on Terror.
Four years later, almost to the day, a report issued by Seymour Hersh calls into question the integrity of President Obama’s claims. Hersh alleges that the Obama administration lied to the American people about the raid on bin Laden. The administration has repeatedly stated it was direct result of hard work by the military and intelligence community. Hersh’s claims are at odds with the White House’s sequence of events in a number of places.
Hersh asserts that instead of working alone, Obama worked with the ISI, the Pakistani foreign intelligence service, to capture bin Laden. In fact, Hersh goes so far as to say that the Pakistani government knew the location of bin Laden for months and turned him over, potentially already in custody, for $25 million in reward money offered in 2001 by the Bush administration. With the current administration consistently using methods that are already questionable, like drone strikes, the Patriot Act, and Guantanmo Bay, one can not readily say that the government is above such acts.
The Sexy Politico spoke with a source inside the White House who revealed that Washington isn’t giving much weight to Hersh’s “unfounded” article, but the White House is on the defensive. Even though Hersh’s article doesn’t appear high on the administration’s list of priorities at first glance, I believe that it actually is causing more ripples than the White House is letting on. The swiftness of the response this article generated from Obama’s staff is in itself strange, lending credence to the idea that there were at least some facts being left out in the original story presented to the public.
Hersh’s 10,000-word piece in the London Review of Books relies heavily on one unnamed source that is not willing to come forward and can offer no verifiable evidence to support the claims–or at least no documents that are being made public.
So what, exactly, are we left with? An interesting evidential conundrum, considering Hersh’s track record. We are aware of one mystery source that is claiming a large-scale global cover-up and potential execution of bin Laden under false pretenses. That the credibility of the story is met with little concern in Washington is not surprising. And while there may not seem to be lot of evidence, it is not really unheard of for one of Hersh’s Pulitzer Prize-winning articles. Hersh used similar techniques when he first uncovered the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam and the mistreatment & torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Though he has often been criticized for his unnamed sources, his reporting has historically been accurate.
If Hersh is able to produce more evidence, or gain more momentum with his claims, what might happen? It seems likely that this story is going to fizzle out and die as the next big story breaks, but what if it doesn’t? The first thing we might expect to see would be an internal investigation from the other branches of government. The House and Senate would more than likely form an investigative committee, spending months looking through records and orders from 2011 to determine what evidence, if any, there is of collaboration with the Pakistani government. With a Republican-controlled House and Senate, any evidence could easily lead to an attempt at impeachment. At the very least, it would fan the flames of the ongoing confrontation between the White House and Congress.
Alternatively, military leaders–even Obama himself–could be held accountable in some way in the international arena. If bin Laden had already been a prisoner, but was executed in order to keep Pakistan’s involvement quiet, or heighten the appearance of victory, it would be a war crime. If bin Laden had been captured he would have needed to be given the same respect as any other prisoner of war. The Rules of War, set forth in the negotiations of The Geneva Convention, would guarantee him fair and humane treatment. If it were revealed that one of the largest manhunts in modern history ended in the extrajudicial execution of a POW, there were be cries for a war crimes trial. Either of these two possibilities could be detrimental to the already-tenuous foreign relations the United States has with other nations, especially in the Middle East.
With Hersh’s credibility as a journalist being so solid, and given another instance of anonymous sourcing, this article seems par for the course. Perhaps the most telling fact, however, can be found in the reaction to the article hitting the mainstream news outlets; in the past, the Obama administration has often made no effort to respond to stories of similar nature, writing them off as “unsubstantiated accusations.” With very few sources and facts provided by Hersh, the defensive reaction from the White House is extremely out of place. As members of the American public, we should be demanding some sort of answer for these accusations. The time has come for us to no longer sit by and accept basic answers to complicated questions. With such lengthy accusations made by Hersh, the one or two sentence denial the White House keeps repeating is truly insufficient.
We must also ask ourselves, however, why would a story of this magnitude surface now, with paper-thin evidence, so close to the anniversary of the original announcement? Possible answers and motivations are found by consulting a calendar: It is election season.
What this story lacks in substantiated evidence, it makes up for in dramatic flair. The reason it could be finally drifting into mainstream news could have less to do with actual authentic information, and more to do with party politics. The general population of the U.S. has an underlying mistrust of the government and politicians who align themselves with the extreme. Dredging up this sort of information from years ago is a tactic used by both parties trying to sway voters, and primary season is almost here. Consider that Hillary Clinton is running for president now. At the time of bin Laden’s death, Clinton sat on Obama’s cabinet as Secretary of State. Placing her even remotely close to these allegations could have detrimental results on her election campaign. This sort of story is the exactly the thing that could be used to drum up distrust for the Democratic Party and their candidates during an election season.
Election cycles regularly bring out the absolute worst of the mud slinging, and primary elections are not an exception. With Hillary on the ballot and most polls indicating she is considerably ahead of any Republican candidate, a story like this could have exceptionally negative implications for a Democratic nominee. It will only be a matter of time until Clinton’s name is mentioned alongside this story. With Clinton in a prime position to be our next Commander in Chief, that means that she must also answer why she, as part of the Obama administration, is remaining so silent on this issue. All Americans must remember that Presidents serves at the pleasure of the people. They are not above the law and they are not above punishment. If Hersh is right, any involved in the unlawful execution of bin Laden should not be allowed to just walk away.
Whether or not Hersh’s claims are accurate, the allegations have opened a door to strange territory. For the first time in many years, the American people are at a point of true distrust in their own government. Distrust has been building for years, starting with the Bush administration, but a rallying point has always been that the liberties we handed over were for the common good. That we suffered through the Patriot Act and compromising our freedoms to honorably and morally put away terrorists like bin Laden in order to keep ourselves and the world safe. The assumption was that we would be doing so in a ethical way, in a way that made us separate from the terrorists we fought so hard to end. Hersh’s article brings to question one thing, what if we are acting in a way that has us stepping outside of the very laws we helped to shape? At that point, are we truly that different from the terrorists?