Investigative reporter Sy Hersh's bombshell story about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden pulls the curtain back on law enforcement and state security agencies’ deceptive deployment of signals intelligence and confidential informants, further revealing a dangerous shell game that violates basic democratic norms. In the world of spycraft—and increasingly, policing—not everything is as it seems.
Citing an unnamed source in the security state, Hersh reports that a Pakistani intelligence official gave the CIA bin Laden’s location in exchange for millions of dollars, about a year before the US killed the former al Qaeda head. The walk-in said the Pakistani intelligence service, ISI, had been holding bin Laden in Abottabad since 2006 in cooperation with the Saudis, who footed the bill. After learning bin Laden's location, US officials gave Pakistan an ultimatum: help us kill him, or watch US aid dry up. According to Hersh, Pakistan agreed to assist the US operation, and even dispatched a spy to lead US special forces to bin Laden's bedroom, where they executed him, facing no resistance.
Hersh’s reporting on the source of the intelligence that led the CIA to bin Laden directly contradicts the Obama administration’s claims. The official story said the CIA located bin Laden in Abottabad, Pakistan after carefully combing through signals intelligence and tracking a courier whose name was tortured out of a captive. The Obama administration leaked to trusted reporters that its CIA had, CSI-like, used high-tech surveillance capabilities to find Osama. Going on the offensive against torture critics, the CIA claimed the critical tip, on the courier, came from torturing someone—a falsehood then-Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein hotly contested, using the CIA's own records.
The veracity of their claims aside, the security state’s message was clear: torture and surveillance keep Americans safe. If we give the Good Guys all the money and power they need, they can find the most dangerous man on earth and blow him to smithereens. The most powerful people in Washington got what they wanted out of their carefully crafted version events. The spooks and special operators had the ultimate terrorism trophy to haul before congressional committees. The bin Laden raid was political fairy dust for President Obama.
In the bin Laden case, the government claimed torture and electronic surveillance led Navy Seals to bin Laden when they actually got the tip from an informant. But it's not just federal spooks playing these tricks. The bloated post-9/11 spying infrastructure in the United States has led to a trickle down of these kinds of shell games to state and local police. In domestic law enforcement today, officials are using "parallel construction" to cover up illegal electronic surveillance, sometimes pretending they got information from an informant when they really got it from a warrantless digital dragnet.
When it’s convenient for the state, information obtained through illegal electronic monitoring can be laundered and used against people in court under the guise of intelligence derived from an informant. And when the government wants to obfuscate the existence of a human source, officials can simply say that their magical dragnet surveillance powers got the goods. In the former situation, the government shields illegal spying powers from public scrutiny and judicial review. In the latter, the security state produces (phony) ammunition before congress to demand more power to monitor the internet and cell phones—and even to torture.
No matter what actually happens, agents of the security state at all levels can advance a narrative that, for them, is a win-win. But these shell games are affronts to civil and due process rights, and about as corrosive to a free society as it gets. From the federal level down to our local cops, what's needed to combat this subversive trend is the same: meaningful transparency, accountability, and oversight. In the meantime, Hersh’s reporting suggests we consume a substantial dose of salt along with official government claims, especially when the subject turns to the limits of state power.