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That Big Bin Laden Story the White House Denies Is Getting Some Backup From Other Major News Outlets

"They knew."

This undated file photo shows al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. (Photo: AP)

Both the New York Times and NBC News are backing up parts of the recent story by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh that accuses President Barack Obama of lying about the killing of Osama bin Laden.

The key assertion of the Hersh piece, published in the London Review of Books, is that the Pakistani government knew the whereabouts of the world's most wanted terrorist. The White House strongly denied the story, calling it filled with “inaccuracies and baseless assertions.”

Osama bin Laden AP

However, a New York Times correspondent Carlotta Gall wrote in a first-person account that some of Hersh’s reporting checks out [emphasis added]:

Among other things, Hersh contends that the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, Pakistan’s military-intelligence agency, held Bin Laden prisoner in the Abbottabad compound since 2006, and that “the C.I.A. did not learn of Bin Laden’s whereabouts by tracking his couriers, as the White House has claimed since May 2011, but from a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer who betrayed the secret in return for much of the $25 million reward offered by the U.S.”

On this count, my own reporting tracks with Hersh’s. Beginning in 2001, I spent nearly 12 years covering Pakistan and Afghanistan for The Times. (In his article, Hersh cites an article I wrote for The Times Magazine last year, an excerpt from a book drawn from this reporting.) The story of the Pakistani informer was circulating in the rumor mill within days of the Abbottabad raid, but at the time, no one could or would corroborate the claim. Such is the difficulty of reporting on covert operations and intelligence matters; there are no official documents to draw on, few officials who will talk and few ways to check the details they give you when they do.

Two years later, when I was researching my book, I learned from a high-level member of the Pakistani intelligence service that the ISI had been hiding Bin Laden and ran a desk specifically to handle him as an intelligence asset. After the book came out, I learned more: that it was indeed a Pakistani Army brigadier — all the senior officers of the ISI are in the military — who told the C.I.A. where Bin Laden was hiding, and that Bin Laden was living there with the knowledge and protection of the ISI.

Separately, NBC News reported that sources confirmed to them that Pakistani intelligence officials were aware of bin Laden’s whereabouts [emphasis added]:

The NBC News sources that confirm that a former Pakistani military intelligence official became a U.S. intelligence asset include a special operations officer and a CIA officer who had served in Pakistan. These two sources and a third source, a very senior former U.S. intelligence official, also say that elements of the ISI were aware of bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad. The former official was emphatic about the ISI's awareness, saying twice, "They knew."

Another top official acknowledged to NBC News that the U.S. government had long harbored "deep suspicions" that ISI and al Qaeda were "cooperating." And a book by former acting CIA director Mike Morrell that will be published tomorrow says that U.S. officials could not dismiss the possibility of such cooperation.

None of the sources characterized how high up in ISI the knowledge might have gone. Said one former senior official, "We were suspicious that someone inside ISI … knew where bin Laden was, but we did not have intelligence about specific individuals having specific knowledge."

The NBC story includes an editor’s note that said:

This story has been updated since it was first published. The original version of this story said that a Pakistani asset told the U.S. where bin Laden was hiding. Sources say that while the asset provided information vital to the hunt for bin Laden, he was not the source of his whereabouts.

(H/T: Gawker)

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