NEW DELHI: A storm is raging with growing intensity, and at the centre of it is one of America’s most famous investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. And such is the impact of the article that he has written for the London Review that the US State Department and Pakistan’s ruling elite are in a spin, almost ballistic in mouthing denials to the story, to the point of calling a former ISI chief “delusional” and questioning Hersh himself.

Seymour Hersh has busted the US and Pakistan version of the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as “false”. His report turns official accounts on their head, with little in common except the fact that US President Barack Obama ordered the raid, and the US Seals killed bin Laden in the Abbotabad house.And as the officials currently running around denying everything he has written know it better than others, much of what Hersh has written feeds into initial reports at the time that had journalists and security experts picking holes in the official version of the operation that felled bin Laden.

Hersh, in a report based clearly on meticulous investigation and high placed sources in both the US and Pakistan, has said that the al Qaeda leader was a prisoner of the ISI; that the then Army chief and ISI director general knew of the raid and worked with the US to plan it; and that the initial information did not come from the CIA operatives but from a Pakistani intelligence informant.

Four years ago the al Qaeda leader, reportedly living in a house in Abbotabad with his family, was killed by US Seals in a stealth operation that all claimed was not in the knowledge of Islamabad. In fact as per official accounts bin Laden’s whereabouts were also not in the knowledge of the Pakistan authorities, who were totally surprised when the US not only discovered the hideout but also killed the al Qaeda leader in an operation that had reportedly not taken Islamabad into confidence.

There were many at the time including former Pakistan’s former ISI chief Asad Durrani who did not accept this story, and murmurs grew in the ruling elite of that country questioning the version. However, in the face of resolute silence the doubters had no choice but to fall silent and accept the official version of the events drummed up by Islamabad and Washington, leading to the operation that killed bin Laden.

Seymour Hersh now in this article, based on investigation and clearly sources who have satisfied his exacting standards, maintains that US President Barack Obama did of course order the raid on the hideout, and this was carried out by the US Seals. But this is as far as it goes, with Hersh now putting out a story that is closer to the unconfirmed reports swirling around Pakistan at the time. But being denied on a daily by both Washington and Islamabad.

Hersh maintains that bin Laden was not hiding under the noses of the Pakistan military in the bungalow in Abbotabad as was made out. Instead he had been taken prisoner by the ISI and was kept there since 2006. In other words top echelons in the ISI, Army and of course the government probably knew of this. Hersh is categorical that then Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and director general of the ISI General Ahmed Shuja Pasha knew of the US raid. “The most blatant lie” he has said is that these two most senior military leaders were not informed of the raid. In fact articles to this effect had appeared in the Pakistan media at the time but were rubbished by the authorities. General Durrani, as Hersh also points out had maintained that while it was “possible” the senior officers did not know, it was “probable” that they were aware of bin Laden’s ‘residence’.

Hersh narrates a different story, that can have dramatic repercussions in both Washington and Islamabad. While the big players have changed in Pakistan, this is not the case in the US where President Obama is still in office. More so, as the raid on the hideout was one of the factors that went into his winning the polls again.

Hersh records, “It began with a walk-in. In August 2010 a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer approached Jonathan Bank, then the CIA’s station chief at the US embassy in Islamabad. He offered to tell the CIA where to find bin Laden in return for the reward that Washington had offered in 2001. Walk-ins are assumed by the CIA to be unreliable, and the response from the agency’s headquarters was to fly in a polygraph team. The walk-in passed the test. ‘So now we’ve got a lead on bin Laden living in a compound in Abbottabad, but how do we really know who it is?’ was the CIA’s worry at the time, the retired senior US intelligence official told me.” The informant according to the story, was relocated to Washington and is working as a consultant for the CIA. He had also informed the Americans that from 2001 till 2006 bin Laden and his family had lived in the Hindu Kush mountains and he had been caught by the ISI by paying bribes to the locals.

The US hid this from the Pakistani’s lest they move bin Laden who was clearly being kept hostage to drive a bargain, if so required, at any point in time. The compound was placed under satellite surveillance and CIA operatives rented a house in the vicinity as an observation base.

President Obama was informed in October and his first response, according to Hersh quoting the retired officer who is clearly the major source of his report, was an emphatic, “Don’t talk to me about this any more unless you have proof that it really is bin Laden.”’ Till this time the US had not shared the information with the Pakistanis, and both Kayani and Pasha continued to insist that they had no idea of bin Laden’s whereabouts.

It was around this time, to get the necessary DNA that the US authorities started working on Pakistan---with a fine tuned carrot and stick approach---to make sure that the top brass cooperated. This was apparently not difficult, and soon all secrets were out and the two sides decided to make common cause on the issue. The carrot was financial perks and the stick was “a little blackmail” of releasing the information that bin Laden was being held captive by the ISI, information that would alienate their other assets like the extremist groups.

The ISI safe house was strategically located. It was close to the Pakistan Military Academy, to their combat battalion headquarters and less than 15 minutes away by helicopter from Tarbela Ghazi, that Hersh notes as “an important base for ISI covert operations and the facility where those who guard Pakistan’s nuclear weapons arsenal are trained. ‘Ghazi is why the ISI put bin Laden in Abbottabad in the first place,’ the retired official said, ‘to keep him under constant supervision.’”

With President Obama insisting on proof, the Americans needed Pasha and Kayani to establish bin Laden’s DNA. This is where Dr Aziz was brought in who did the needful, and according to Hersh received a share of the $25 million bounty, as it was this DNA sample that had conclusively proved that it was bin Laden in the house in Abbotabad. According to Hersh he was an invalid, with his source saying that the Americans had decided not to disclose this for fear of the sympathy factor.

There was some bargaining over the execution of the mission between Islamabad and Washington. Kayani wanted the US to come in “lean and mean”. According to the retired officer he even told them, “you have to kill him, or there is no deal.” The agreement was finalised by end January 2011 and preparations, with Pakistan providing logistical details including a virtual map of the house, began.

Hersh claims that the Pakistanis at this stage gave permission for “ a four-man American cell – a Navy Seal, a CIA case officer and two communications specialists – to set up a liaison office at Tarbela Ghazi for the coming assault. By then, the military had constructed a mock-up of the compound in Abbottabad at a secret former nuclear test site in Nevada, and an elite Seal team had begun rehearsing for the attack.” Loose ends were tied up, and trust established in a meeting between Pasha and the then the CIA director, Leon Panetta, in April 2011.

Hersh quotes a “Pakistani with close ties to the senior leadership of the ISI” as telling him ‘there was a deal with your top guys. We were very reluctant, but it had to be done – not because of personal enrichment, but because all of the American aid programmes would be cut off. Your guys said we will starve you out if you don’t do it, and the okay was given while Pasha was in Washington. The deal was not only to keep the taps open, but Pasha was told there would be more goodies for us.’

Hersh writes, “Pasha and Kayani were responsible for ensuring that Pakistan’s army and air defence command would not track or engage with the US helicopters used on the mission. The American cell at Tarbela Ghazi was charged with co-ordinating communications between the ISI, the senior US officers at their command post in Afghanistan, and the two Black Hawk helicopters; the goal was to ensure that no stray Pakistani fighter plane on border patrol

“It was understood by all that if the Pakistani role became known, there would be violent protests – bin Laden was considered a hero by many Pakistanis – and Pasha and Kayani and their families would be in danger, and the Pakistani army publicly disgraced.”

It was clear to all by this point, the retired official said, that bin Laden would not survive: ‘Pasha told us at a meeting in April that he could not risk leaving bin Laden in the compound now that we know he’s there. Too many people in the Pakistani chain of command know about the mission. He and Kayani had to tell the whole story to the directors of the air defence command and to a few local commanders.”

Hersh maintains, “At the Abbottabad compound ISI guards were posted around the clock to keep watch over bin Laden and his wives and children. They were under orders to leave as soon as they heard the rotors of the US helicopters.

The town was dark: the electricity supply had been cut off on the orders of the ISI hours before the raid began.

One of the Black Hawks crashed inside the walls of the compound, injuring many on board.”

His report claims that an ISI operative had flown in with the Seals to guide them through the house. And that “ Osama was cowering and retreated into the bedroom. Two shooters followed him and opened up. Very simple, very straightforward, very professional hit.’ The retired official is quoted as saying, ‘The squad came through the door and obliterated him. As the Seals say, “We kicked his ass and took his gas.”’

The Seals were in no hurry rush off. They waited for the relief chopper knowing they were safe, according to the report … “Twenty tense minutes. The Black Hawk is still burning. There are no city lights. No electricity. No police. No fire trucks. They have no prisoners.”

“ Pasha and Kayani had delivered on all their promises.”