On Sunday, The New York Times Magazine published a 7,500-word essay in which the reporter Jonathan Mahler attempts to untangle the knotty controversy surrounding the May 2011 execution of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. It’s primarily pegged to a May 2015 report by the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh that purported to expose the Obama administration’s preferred narrative of bin Laden’s death as a hoax—alleging, for example, that the U.S. government discovered the al Qaeda leader’s whereabouts not by tracking one of his couriers but from an agent-turned-informant of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI. While Mahler questions some of Hersh’s sourcing, he also replicates one of his subject’s more egregious errors: Failing to note that Hersh’s most explosive claims were first floated over four years ago, by a blogger named R.J. Hillhouse.
Mahler’s piece has already been raked over the coals by Mark Bowden in Vanity Fair and Peter Bergen at CNN for giving Hersh’s “conspiracy theories,” as both men call his allegations, any more attention than they supposedly deserve. Their shared criticism of Hersh (and, by extension, Mahler) is somewhat complicated, but it centers on the perceived capability of dozens of government officials to decide upon and promote a series of carefully constructed deceptions. “For Hersh to be correct, every significant turn of events I reported was a lie,” Bowden notes, “and not just a lie, but a lie carefully and deftly coordinated.”
But the biggest issue with Mahler’s piece is not the fact that he bothered to take Hersh seriously. It’s the fact that he tells an incomplete story of Hersh’s allegations—which, placed in context, originated not in the London Review of Books, where Hersh’s investigation appeared, but on an infrequently-updated website hosted on Blogspot called “The Spy Who Billed Me.”
Shortly after Hersh’s piece came out five months ago, dozens of outlets highlighted the fact that R.J. Hillhouse, a blogger and former professor who achieved some notoriety in 2007 for landing an exclusive interview with the former president of Blackwater, had alleged, in an August 2011 post on her own blog, not only the thrust but many of the specifics found in Hersh’s supposedly new and exclusive reporting. One of those outlets was the Times itself:
Mr. Hersh is not the first person to present this version of events. A similar account was presented on Aug. 7, 2011, on the blog The Spy Who Billed Me, which is run by R. J. Hillhouse, who tracks national security issues. Ms. Hillhouse lacks the pedigree of Mr. Hersh, who more recently detailed the abuse committed at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Hillhouse may lack Hersh’s “pedigree”—her one-off Times byline on the same exact day of her August 7 post notwithstanding—but that doesn’t mitigate the fact that she reported largely the same story, including what Hersh called the U.S. government’s “most blatant lie”: The claim that the leaders of the ISI and Pakistan’s military were never made aware of the the U.S. government’s intentions to take out bin Laden. Hillhouse even leveled charges of plagiarism against the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter.
Why were the similarities between Hillhouse’s and Hersh’s stories worthy of inclusion in an 900-word writeup published on A7 of The New York Times the day after Hersh’s initial report, but not worthy of inclusion in a magazine feature eight times as long and published five months after the fact?
Mahler, who declined to comment on the record, was certainly aware of Hillhouse’s allegations. In an email to Gawker, Hillhouse said he got in touch with her several months ago, and they ended up talking on the phone for 25 minutes. Mahler, Hillhouse added, “was pretty clueless at the time. Sounded like an undergrad, concerned about narratives over facts.” (Asked to speculate on why he wouldn’t speak to us, Hillhouse responded: “Sorry, but no idea, except it’s sloppy journalism. He should be embarrassed.”)
There is, of course, an obvious reason why Mahler or one of his editors would be wary of acknowledging Hillhouse’s contribution. After all, Mahler portrays an explosive counter-narrative making the rounds among Washington’s whispering power elite until Hersh finally manages to sell the story to the London Review of Books. The fact that the counter-narrative existed on the Internet, where anyone with a working browser could read it several years before Hersh’s report saw publication, significantly undercuts Mahler’s portrayal not just of Hersh’s determination, but of the actual story he was so determined to tell the wider public.
“It’s not that the truth about bin Laden’s death is unknowable,” Mahler writes near the very end of his essay, “it’s that we don’t know it.” But we do know one thing, at least: Who reported this particular counter-narrative about bin Laden’s violent demise. And it wasn’t Seymour Hersh.