A former CIA deputy director and the White House on Wednesday disputed a key claim made in newly published reports on the U.S. operation that killed Osama bin Laden, denying that a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer had defected to the CIA and disclosed the location of the al Qaida leader’s hideout.
“Completely false. No walk-in ever provided any information that was significant in the hunt for Osama bin Laden,” Michael Morell, a former deputy CIA director, said in a telephone interview, using the term for people who offer information to the agency in return for money.
White House spokesman Josh Ernest issued a similar statement, noting that neither a Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s torture program nor the agency’s rebuttal to the panel’s review mention such a defector.
“Neither of those extensive accounts features the role of a Pakistani intelligence walk-in revealing Osama bin Laden’s location to the United States,” Ernest said.
The raid still commands considerable interest because many U.S. officials and experts find it hard to believe that Pakistani officials weren’t aware of bin Laden’s hideout in a compound in Abbottabad, a garrison town that’s home to the country’s top military academy.
According to the official U.S. account of the May 2, 2011, raid that killed bin Laden, the CIA found the compound by identifying and tailing a courier named Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed, a Pakistani who used the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti.
The United States kept the operation secret from Pakistani civilian and military leaders, Obama administration officials have said, out of fear that al Qaida sympathizers within the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, the country’s top intelligence agency, would tip off bin Laden.
That account was called into question by award-winning former New York Times correspondent Seymour Hersh in a 10,000-word report published on Sunday in the London Review of Books.
In addition to claiming that a former senior ISI officer revealed bin Laden’s location to the CIA, Hersh also wrote that ISI leaders secretly cooperated in the bin Laden raid by deactivating the country’s air defense system and allowing U.S. helicopters to fly into and out of Pakistan without being detected.
Carlotta Gall, a New York Times reporter who published a book last year in which she wrote that the ISI had hidden hid bin Laden in Abbottabad, gave credence to the defector claim in an online New York Times Magazine piece on Wednesday titled, “The Detail in Seymour Hersh’s Bin Laden Story That Rings True.”
Gall said that she learned after her book’s release that, “It was indeed a Pakistani Army brigadier – all the senior officers of the ISI are in the military – who told the CIA where bin Laden was hiding, and that bin Laden was living there with the knowledge and protection of the ISI.”
She cited a report on Tuesday by The News International, an English-language newspaper published in Islamabad, identifying the alleged defector as Brig. Usman Khalid.
No such walk-in by that name existed, said a U.S. official who asked not to be further identified because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
For his part, Morell, who became deputy CIA director in 2010 and twice served as acting director before retiring in 2013, was categorical in his denial. “I can tell you with absolute conviction that we didn’t learn of Osama bin Laden’s location from a walk-in,” he said. “We learned about Osama bin Laden’s location the way we’ve said all along. We followed the courier to Abbottabad.”
Morell and a former U.S. official who had access to real-time intelligence on the bin Laden operation said that during the 10-year hunt for bin Laden that followed his flight from the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, a number of walk-ins presented themselves to the CIA seeking money in return for information on his whereabouts.
One was a former Pakistani army officer who turned up in 2010 claiming to have worked for the ISI, said the former U.S. official. It was subsequently determined that the retired officer had never worked for the ISI, he said.
“There was a gentleman from Pakistan’s military who falsely claimed to have been ISI,” said the former U.S. official.
Morell, whose memoir, “The Great War of Our Time,” was released this week, said that he believed that the ISI itself concocted the defector story and the claim that it cooperated in the raid, conducted by Navy SEALs.
The Pakistani intelligence agency, he said, was humiliated by the CIA’s discovery of bin Laden in Abbottabad and the failure of Pakistan’s air defense system to detect the SEALs’ helicopters as they flew in and out of the country.
“I don’t know if this is going on, but this is what I think is going on: The Pakistanis were incredibly embarrassed by the bin Laden operation on the intelligence side because we found him in their backyard, and embarrassed on the military side because our helicopters were able to penetrate hundreds of miles into their airspace,” he said.
The former U.S. official went further, saying the ISI planted the story about its cooperation in order to convince rival India that there was no Pakistani intelligence failure and to respond to assertions by Indian defense experts that the raid proved that Pakistan’s air defenses are easy to penetrate.
“There was no cooperation with the ISI, period,” said the former U.S. official.
Hersh defended the accuracy of his reporting and called on the Obama administration to “just tell the truth.”
Obama “isn’t up for election anymore. But they aren’t going to consider telling the truth,” he said in a telephone interview.
He also rejected the notion that he was used by the ISI.
“Come on, come on. Let’s do better than that,” he said.
Gall did not respond immediately to a request for comment.