Osama bin Laden was ISI prisoner, betrayed for $25 mn: US journo

  • HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: May 12, 2015 01:45 IST

Osama bin Laden was a prisoner of the ISI in the garrison town of Abbottabad and a former Pakistani intelligence official gave away his location to the US in return for most of a $25 million reward, veteran journalist Seymour Hersh has said in an article that challenges the Obama administration's narrative of the killing of the Al Qaeda chief.

The White House's contention that the May 2011 mission that resulted in the death of bin Laden was an all-American affair and that senior generals of the Pakistan Army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency were not told of the raid in advance is "false", Hersh has written in a lengthy article published in the London Review of Books.

"The most blatant lie was that Pakistan's two most senior military leaders--General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of the army staff, and General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, director general of the ISI--were never informed of the US mission," he said.

Hersh wrote that he learned from American sources that bin Laden "had been a prisoner of the ISI at the Abbottabad compound since 2006" and that Kayani and Pasha knew of the raid in advance and made sure the two helicopters carrying the US Navy Seals to Abbottabad "could cross Pakistani airspace without triggering any alarms".

He further said that the CIA 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 US".

While US President Barack Obama did order the raid on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad and the Seal team carried it out, "many other aspects of the administration's account were false", Hersh wrote.

Hersh cited a retired senior US intelligence official with knowledge about the initial intelligence on bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad as his major source. Two other US sources were persons with access to corroborating information who had served as longtime consultants to the Special Operations Command, he said.

The CIA first learnt of bin Laden's presence in Pakistan when a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer approached Jonathan Bank, then the CIA's station chief in Islamabad, in August 2010 and offered the information in return for the reward that Washington offered.

Bank was also told by the former Pakistani intelligence official that bin Laden was "very ill" and that the ISI had ordered Amir Aziz, a doctor and a major in the Pakistan Army, to move nearby to provide treatment to him in Abbottabad,.

When Obama sought proof on bin Laden's presence, the planners turned to Kayani and Pasha, who in turn asked Aziz to obtain specimens of the Al Qaeda leader's DNA.

Soon after the raid, the media found out that Aziz had been living in a house near the bin Laden compound but Pakistani officials denied that Aziz had any connection to bin Laden. Hersh wrote that Aziz was given a share of the $25 million reward because the DNA sample had showed conclusively that it was bin Laden in Abbottabad.

The Pakistani cooperated because they wanted to ensure the continued release of US 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", Hersh wrote.

After prolonged negotiations, Kayani eventually agreed on the raid by the US but insisted that there could not be a big strike force. Kayani also insisted that the US would have to kill bin Laden or there would be no deal, Hersh said.

During the negotiations, Pasha offered the Americans a "blunt explanation" of the reason Pakistan kept bin Laden's capture a secret and why it was imperative for the ISI role to remain secret. "We needed a hostage to keep tabs on al-Qaida and the Taliban," Pasha was quoted as saying.

A worrying factor was Saudi Arabia, which had been financing bin Laden's upkeep since his seizure by the Pakistanis.

Though the US reportedly agreed to keep the raid on Abbottabad secret for at least a week, an argument began inside the White House as soon as it became clear that the mission had succeeded. The US had also agreed to state that bin Laden had been killed in a drone attack in the mountains but the crash of a helicopter during the raid made it easy for Obama's political advisers to urge him to go public.

Hersh also wrote that he had been told by two longtime consultants to the Special Operations Command that bin Laden's funeral at sea aboard the USS Carl Vinson "didn't take place".

"One consultant told me that bin Laden's remains were photographed and identified after being flown back to Afghanistan. The consultant added: 'At that point, the CIA took control of the body. The cover story was that it had been flown to the Carl Vinson.' The second consultant agreed that there had been 'no burial at sea'. He added that 'the killing of bin Laden was political theatre designed to burnish Obama's military credentials…," he said.

White House dismisses report

A White House spokesman dismissed the report in a statement on Monday morning saying it has “too many inaccuracies and baseless assertions in this piece to fact check each one”.

National Security spokesman Ned Price rejected a claim in the report that the US cooperated with Pakistan on the raid, saying that “the notion that the operation that killed Usama Bin Ladin was anything but a unilateral U.S. mission is patently false."

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