Seymour Hersh, Osama bin Laden, and a tsunami of disinformation

13 May

Seymour Hersh’s London Review of Books article on the assassination of Osama bin Laden has been making waves. It makes a series of startling revelations that contradict the official narrative: that bin Laden had been sheltered by Pakistan for year; that the Pakistanis were aware that the raid was happening; that bin Laden offered no resistance; that he was pinpointed as a result of an informant from within ISI who wanted a part of the $25m reward. All of it is explosive stuff, and some of it is more believable than the official version.

What is really interesting is the speed and ferocity of the denials from other media sources: Hersh is depicted as a journalist whose best days are behind him and now works only on conspiracy theories; his sources are scant; many other publications rejected this story before LRB took it. One cannot help but wonder if the CIA and other interested wings of the US National Security State are involved in some of this rebuttal. After all, disinformation is their thing. The internet and news publications are now full of articles debunking Hersh, his version of events, and – crucially – putting out multiple other theories.

We have seen this pattern before. A controversial incident involving a state takes place. Version and counter-version appear in the media. And then the waters are muddied so many versions and theories that it is impossible to differentiate ‘truth’ from fiction. A classic case is the shooting of 12 year old Palestinian boy Muhammad al-Durrah by the Israeli Defence Forces in September 2000. The television footage and still images are famous. The little boy was cowering in a street with his father when he was shot. The IDF at first admitted responsibility for shooting the child but then retracted it. The media, and especially the internet, was flooded with version and counter-version. The Wikipedia page on the incident is instructive (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muhammad_al-Durrah_incident). It is voluminous, containing theory after theory, side detail after side detail. There is so much information that it is difficult to get back to the stripped back version of a little boy shot by the IDF. Again, it is more than likely that Israel – a state that aggressively defends its reputation – and its more ardent supporters have been engaged in a deliberate muddying of the waters and the manufacture of claim after claim.

I suspect that this is what is happening in the Hersh case. We are seeing the manufacture of so much ‘product’ that the market is flooded. As readers, we have too much choice (too many theories and claims swirling around) that it is difficult to strip it back to bare essentials and work out what is the most plausible version. Is the national security apparatus of the United States paying retained ‘journalists’, bloggers, conspiracy theorists to flood the market, to play the man and not the ball, to muddy the waters? Given the size of the national security budget (the combined US intelligence budget exceeds $50bn per year as against a worldwide humanitarian aid budget of $18bn) it would be very small money for big impact.

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