And untold millions don't think we've heard the real (or at least
complete) story of the phenomenal, complex success of those 19 hijackers
on Sept. 11, 2001. Skeptics now include former White House
counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke, who recently
speculated that the hijackers may have been able to enter the US and
move freely precisely because American intelligence hoped to recruit
them as double agents--and that an ongoing cover-up is designed to
hide this. And then, of course, there are the Pentagon's account of the heroic rescue of Jessica Lynch in Iraq, which turned out to be a hoax, and the Pentagon's fabricated account of the heroic battle death of former NFL player Pat Tillman in Afghanistan, who turned out to be a victim of friendly fire. These are just a few from scores of examples of deceit perpetrated upon the American people. Hardly the kind of track record to inspire confidence in official explanations with the imprimatur of the military and the CIA.
Whatever one thinks of these other matters, we're certainly now at a point where we ought to be prudent in embracing authorized accounts of the latest seismic event: the dramatic end to one of America's most reviled and storied nemeses.
The bin Laden raid presents us with every reason to be cautious. The government's initial claims about what transpired at that house in Abbottabad have changed, then changed again, with no proper explanation of the discrepancies. Even making allowances for human error in such shifting accounts, almost every aspect of what we were told requires a willing suspension of disbelief -- from the manner of Osama's death and burial to the purported pornography found at the site. (For more on these issues, see previous articles we wrote on the subject, here, here and here.)
Clarke's theory will seem less outrageous later, as we explore Saudi intelligence's crucial, and bizarre, role at the end of bin Laden's life--working directly with the man who now holds Clarke's job.
Add to all of this the discovery that the reporter providing this newest account wasn't even allowed to talk to any raid participants--and the magazine's lack of candor on this point--and you've got an almost unassailable case for treating the New Yorker story with extreme caution.
One person who spoke to the reporter, and who is identified by name is John O. Brennan, Obama's counterterrorism adviser. Brennan is quoted directly, briefly, near the top, describing to Schmidle pre-raid debate over whether such an operation would be a success or failure:
"John Brennan, Obama's counterterrorism adviser, told me that the President's advisers began an 'interrogation of the data, to see if, by that interrogation, you're going to disprove the theory that bin Laden was there.'"
The mere fact of Schmidle's reliance on Brennan at all should send up a flare for the cautious reader. After all, that's the very same Brennan who was the principal source of incorrect details in the hours and days after the raid. These included the claim that the SEALs encountered substantial armed resistance, not least from bin Laden himself; that it took them an astounding 40 minutes to get to bin Laden, and that the White House got to hear the soldiers' conversations in real time.
Here's a Washington Post account from Brennan published on May 3, less than 48 hours after the raid:
"Half an hour had passed on the ground, but the American commandos raiding Osama bin Laden's Pakistani hideaway had yet to find their long-sought target.
"...The commandos swept methodically through the compound's main building, clearing one room and then another as they made their way to the upper floors where they expected to find bin Laden. As they did so, Obama administration officials in the White House Situation Room listened to the SEAL team's conversations over secure lines.
"'The minutes passed like days,' said John O. Brennan, the administration's chief counterterrorism adviser. 'It was probably one of the most anxiety-filled periods of time, I think, in the lives of the people who were assembled.'