WASHINGTON: Osama bin Laden was a prisoner of Pakistans intelligence agency ISI at the Abbottabad compound since 2006, and it was a Pakistani intelligence officer who gave him up to the US in return for a $25 million reward: these are only some of the most startling revelations made by Veteran American journalist Seymour Hersh.
Writing in the London Review of Books on the fourth anniversary of the Abbottabad raid that killed bin Laden, Hersh says, the US concocted a fairy-tale version of actual events for public consumption to help President Obamas reelection bid.
In the controversial article, Hersh claims that the then Pakistan army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and head of ISI, Lt General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, knew of the US Navy Seals raid and made sure that the two helicopters carrying the Seals to Abbottabad crossed Pakistani airspace without triggering an alarm.
Bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, home to the Pakistan Military Academy, on the night of May 2, 2011, in a CIA-led operation conducted by Seal Team Six of the US Navy.
As per the official US version, bin Ladens location at Abbottabad was identified by the CIA by tracking an al-Qaeda courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Hersh, however, claims that a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer betrayed the secret of bin Ladens presence at Abbottabad in return for the $25 million reward offered by the US.
In August 2010, this Pakistani intelligence officer, who has since been relocated with his family to Washington and is a consultant to the CIA, walked into the office of the CIA Station Chief at the US embassy in Islamabad. In Aug 2010 a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer approached Jonathan Bank, then the CIAs station chief at the US embassy in Islamabad. He offered to tell the CIA where to find (Osama) bin Laden in return for the reward that Washington had offered in 2001. Allowing the Jonathan Bank, to be named in a criminal suit for murder which led to him being moved out of Pakistan soon after was part of an elaborate cover-up of its complicity by the ISI, according to Hersh.
Mr Hersh rejected the suggestion that Osama bin Laden was living in his own hideout and was free to move around. OBL was an ISI prisoner and never moved except under their supervision, he said.
The walk-in, Hersh claims, had told the US that bin Laden had lived undetected from 2001 to 2006 with some of his wives and children in the Hindu Kush mountains, and that the ISI got to him by paying some of the local tribal people to betray him.
Bin Laden was very ill, and that early on in his confinement at Abbottabad, the ISI had ordered Amir Aziz, a doctor and a major in the Pakistani army, to move near his compound to provide treatment. Aziz was also given a part of the $25 million reward because he got the DNA sample which conclusively proved that it was bin Laden in Abbottabad.
Mr Hersh said the Saudi government also knew about it and had advised the Pakistanis to keep OBL as a prisoner.
He said when the Americans contacted the Pakistani government and asked for OBL, the ISI insisted that he be killed and his death should be announced a week after the operation.
The Americans were required to say that the al Qaeda chief was found in a mountainous region in the Hindu Kush so that neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan could be blamed for keeping him, Mr Hersh said.
The author said the ISI wanted him dead because they did not want a witness.
According to him, the Americans set up an observation post in Abbottabad and later informed the ISI. Before the operation, the ISI set up a cell in Ghazi, Tarbela, where one man from the SEALs and two communicators practised the raid.
Mr Hersh said that President Barack Obama did not consult the then army or ISI chief, Generals Kayani and Pasha, before releasing the cover story that he shared with his nation in a live broadcast.
The cover story trashed Pakistan. It was very embarrassing for them, said Mr Hersh. Pakistan has a good army, not a bad army, but the cover story made it look bad.
Mr Hersh also said that Shakil Afridi, the physician now jailed in Peshawar for his links to the CIA, was a CIA asset but he did not know about the operation. He was used as a cover to hide the real story.
The Americans, and the Pakistanis, wanted to protect Amir Aziz, a doctor and a major in the Pakistani army. The ISI had moved Dr Aziz close to the compound where they had kept OBL because he was on his deathbed when found.
Mr Hersh described the official US version of the so-called Operation Neptune Spear as a work of fiction, a fairy-tale. In an interview to Pakistans Dawn newspaper he said, while the United States got to Osama bin Laden with Pakistans help, it disclosed the operation in a manner that made the country look like a villain.
Mr Hersh also said that former US Defence Secretary Robert Gates disagreed with the cover-up story and wanted the US to respect the arrangement they had made with Pakistan.
President Obama changed the game because he was running for re-election, he said. The two-hour delay in the speech was caused by an internal debate.
Asked if his investigation showed Pakistan as a villain or an ally, Hersh said: Total ally. Initially, he said, here was anger (in Washington) that they had OBL for years, but did not tell us. But we understand people have their interests and act to protect them. He added: The Pakistanis were treated quite badly by the Americans.
He said the cover- up story soured US relations with the Pakistani military as it made it look bad. We have a very strong background relationship with them. It continues and is now in a good shape.
In the story he wrote for London Review of Books, Mr Hersh says that when the former Pakistani intelligence official walked into the US Embassy, Islamabad, with information about Bin Laden, the CIA did not believe him.
So the agencys headquarters sent a polygraph team and the CIA began to believe the Pakistani official only after he passed the test.
Although Mr Hersh spoke to a number of people for the story, including a former ISI chief, his major source was a retired senior US intelligence official who told him that the Americans initially did not share with the Pakistanis what they learned from this retired Pakistani official.
Mr Hersh says The fear was that if the existence of the source was made known, the Pakistanis themselves would move Bin Laden to another location. So only a very small number of people were read into the source and his story, the retired official said. The CIAs first goal was to check out the quality of the informants information.
The compound was put under satellite surveillance. The CIA rented a house in Abbottabad to use as a forward observation base and staffed it with Pakistani employees and foreign nationals. Later on, the base would serve as a contact point with the ISI; it attracted little attention because Abbottabad is a holiday spot full of houses rented on short leases. A psychological profile of the informant was prepared. The informant and his family were eventually smuggled out of Pakistan and relocated in the Washington area, where he is a consultant for the CIA.
The immediate goal of the CIA leadership and the Joint Special Operations Command was to get Mr Obamas support. They believed they would get this if they got DNA evidence, and if they could assure him that a night assault of the compound would carry no risk. The only way to accomplish both things, the retired official said, was to get the Pakistanis on board.
During the late autumn of 2010, the US continued to keep quiet about the walk-in, and Generals Kayani and Pasha continued to insist to their American counterparts that they had no information about bin Ladens whereabouts. The next step was to figure out how to ease Kayani and Pasha into it to tell them that weve got intelligence showing that there is a high-value target in the compound, and to ask them what they know about the target.
It didnt take long to get the co-operation we needed, because the Pakistanis wanted to ensure the continued release of American military aid, a good percentage of which was anti-terrorism funding that finances personal security, such as bullet-proof limousines and security guards and housing for the ISI leadership, the retired official said.
He added that there were also under-the-table personal incentives that were financed by off-the-books Pentagon contingency funds. The intelligence community knew what the Pakistanis needed to agree there was the carrot. And they chose the carrot. It was a win-win. We also did a little blackmail. We told them we would leak the fact that youve got bin Laden in your backyard. We knew their friends and enemies the Taliban and jihadist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan would not like it.
A worrying factor at this early point, according to the retired official, was Saudi Arabia, which had been financing bin Ladens upkeep since his seizure by the Pakistanis.
The Saudis didnt want bin Ladens presence revealed to us because he was a Saudi, and so they told the Pakistanis to keep him out of the picture. The Saudis feared if we knew we would pressure the Pakistanis to let bin Laden start talking to us about what the Saudis had been doing with Al Qaeda. And they were dropping money lots of it.
The Pakistanis, in turn, were concerned that the Saudis might spill the beans about their control of bin Laden. The fear was that if the US found out about bin Laden from Riyadh, all hell would break out. The Americans learning about bin Ladens imprisonment from a walk-in was not the worst thing.
Seymour Hersh won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting after he broke the story on the My Lai massacre in 1969 during the Vietnam War. His reports in 2004 on the US militarys ill-treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq also drew global attention.
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