By J.F. Mezo
Photo by Seth Anderson: https://www.flickr.com/photos/swanksalot/
NEW YORK, Oct. 31 – Seymour M. Hersh’s investigative essay, ‘The Killing of Osama bin Laden’ offers a clear look into the controversy surrounding the death of Al-Qaeda’s former leader. In order to build a complex picture, Hersh investigates multiple aspects of the story and relies of various sources, ranging from the official statements of the White House to allegation about the mission that resulted in bin Laden’s death. And while the wide variety of cited sources is undoubtedly one of the main strengths of his work, the transparency of sourcing also makes it generally easy for the reader to put the pieces of the puzzle into place.
However, Hersh also relies on anonymous sources, a practice that is generally regarded as risky by journalists, since by citing anonymous sources, the author effectively asks his audience to trust that he was thorough in his investigation, putting his credibility on the line. While it might seem like a real gamble to make, there are certain situations when the journalist has no choice but to omit the names of his sources in order to protect them – and, as most would agree, asking a government official to provide details on how taking down the most famous terrorist leader of our time was a premeditated act on the part of the American government certainly calls for precautions.
On the other hand, Hersh does a good job at establishing his sources’ credibility, since their status or (former) position makes it entirely conceivable that they would have relevant information about the case. His main anonymous source is cited as a retired senior US intelligence official, and (while a bit less transparent) another anonymous source is revealed to be a source within the CIA, while yet another is labelled a former Seal commander. It is easy to imagine that people at such ranks would have insider information about the operation, even more so since their claims seem to be backed up by the former Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, in his memoir, Duty. Their motives for providing information, however, remain largely unclear, which leaves room for speculations .
In his essay, Hersh also mentions a couple of readily available sources and documents that the public can access, for example the statements issued by the White House and the published personal accounts of two navy Seals who participated in the operation, contrasting them with the information provided by his sources. By doing so, he points those who wish to read about the story in even greater detail towards useful resources, which further increases his credibility.
To sum up, while the anonymity of some of his most important sources might set the story back on certain levels, Hersh’s efforts to establish the credibility of his sources and provide the reader with the broadest possible scope inspires trust in his audience. Although using materials provided by many different sources allows him to explore multiple aspects of the story, his narration remains clear and easy to follow throughout the essay, making his piece a must-read for those studying investigative journalism.