A recent controversial account of the death of Osama Bin Laden claims there was a conspiracy at the highest levels of the US and Pakistani government to assassinate him.
I have been investigating al-Qaeda and Bin Laden for the BBC for nearly two decades – a quest which has taken me from the caves of Tora Bora to the high-walled Pakistani compound where he met his bloody end. So is there any truth in this latest theory?
Seymour Hersh, a veteran US investigative journalist, has embarrassed US governments before with revelations about the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
He laid low for several weeks after a mauling in much of the American press but eventually agreed to speak to me about his article published in the London Review of Books.
Mr Hersh claims that Pakistani intelligence – the ISI – were holding Bin Laden prisoner for nearly six years in the garrison town of Abbottabad and just handed him over to the Americans in a staged raid. According to Mr Hersh the official US account is therefore “a fairytale.”
Michael Morell, the deputy director of the CIA who led the intelligence gathering and was in the CIA operations centre on the night of the raid in 2011, gave me his insider’s account – and his view of Mr Hersh’s theory. “It’s rubbish, rubbish, almost every sentence is inaccurate,” says Mr Morell.
The CIA’s account has always hinged on the courier, an al-Qaeda henchman who they say was tracked over eight years until he led them to Bin Laden’s compound.
At the time of his death I revealed on Panorama that the ISI had given the CIA a mobile phone number without knowing its significance and that US surveillance of that number led eventually to the courier. Several CIA analysts and top American officials have testified to the discovery and tracking of the courier.
However Mr Hersh rejects that and says instead that the key figure was an un-named “walk-in” – a retired Pakistani military intelligence officer. He came to the US embassy in Islamabad in August 2010 and told the CIA his country was hiding Bin Laden – in return for much of the $25 million US reward.
Mr Hersh argues that knowledge of Bin Laden’s whereabouts went right to the top of the Pakistan army and intelligence service. The CIA rejects this view, saying that the Pakistani top brass did not know.
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