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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

So Who Did Kill Benazir Bhutto?


In this two-part column, Humayun Gauhar explores the assassination of Pakistan's former prime minister. Fresh insight.


By Humayun Gauhar

Sunday, 7 June 2009.


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—Trying to identify assassins of the great is a zero sum game. Theories sprout up instantaneously, depending on where the theorists are coming from politically. The real assassins are hardly ever definitely identified. Surprising, then, that an experienced journalist like Seymour Hersh slipped into the maze called 'Who killed Benazir Bhutto?'


I should refresh your memories. Pakistani newspapers of May 18, 2009 carried a story by Online, a private Pakistani news agency, that Hersh had claimed in an interview to an Arab TV channel that a "US special squad killed Benazir Bhutto"? The channel was not identified. Try as I might I have not been able to find the purported interview on any English language Arab television channel. The salient points in the story are?


1.       Seymour Hersh told an Arab television channel that the Joint Special Operation Command was formed and headed by Dick Cheney.

2.      Within the JSOC is a "death squad".

3.      The squad killed Benazir Bhutto.

4.      At the time General Stanley McChrystal, the new US army commander in Afghanistan, headed it.

5.      It also killed Rafik Hariri and the Lebanese army chief for refusing to allow the US to set up military bases in Lebanon.

6.      Ariel Sharon, the then prime minister of Israel, was also a key man in the plot.

7.      Many websites suspect that Benazir was killed because she said in a November 2, 2007 interview to Sir David Frost on Al-Jazeera TV that Osama Bin Laden had been murdered by Omar Saeed Sheikh because it took away the justification for the presence of the US army in Afghanistan.

8.     The BBC website that carries transcripts of Al-Jazeera interviews edited out her words about Osama's death.


Newspapers of May 20 carried a vehement denial by Seymour Hersh. The Nation also carried a rather acerbic letter to the editor written, it seems, in some umbrage by the US ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson. Hersh described as "complete madness" reports that the squad headed by General McChrystal "had also killed Hariri and the Lebanese army chief." "Vice president Cheney does not have a death squad. I have no idea who killed Hariri or Bhutto. I have never said that I did have such information. I most certainly did not say anything remotely to that effect during an interview with an Arab media outlet." McChrystal, he said, had run a special forces unit that engaged in "High Value Target activity…while I have been critical of some of that unit's activities in the pages of the New Yorker and in interviews, I have never suggested that he was involved in political assassinations or death squads on behalf of Cheney, as the published stories state." He regretted that he hadn't been first contacted by any of the publications before they printed the story (point taken). "This is another example of blogs going bonkers with misleading and fabricated stories and professional journalists repeating such rumours without doing their jobs…and that is to verify such rumours."


Then there's Her Excellency, who made the following points:

1.       "We…are offended and outraged that your newspaper would republish this especially repugnant brand of spurious and unsubstantiated rumor."

2.      "Regrettably, these baseless, sensational and third-hand allegations have been repackaged and republished without any responsible attempt at either verification or solicitation of comment from an official source of the United States government."

3.      "This, without any byline story, was distributed by a Pakistani wire service, which in turn allegedly quoted an unidentified Arab broadcast organization, which in turn allegedly quoted a single source (a journalist), who in turn relied on comments that were allegedly erased from an interview that took place almost two years ago."

4.      "Regrettably, these baseless, sensational and third-hand allegations have been repackaged and republished without any responsible attempt at either verification or solicitation of comment from an official source of United States government…most troubling of all is the complete failure to provide an opportunity for the accused party, the United States government, to refute these claims."

5.      "…We take exception to allegations that the US government had anything whatsoever to do with the tragic assassination of Pakistan's former Prime Minister, late Benazir Bhutto."

Lectures on the ethics of journalism we've all heard before and some of her points are correct. How one wishes, though, that Her Excellency would deliver the same lecture on the ethics of journalism to US media. They need it more than we do – "The Taliban are about to take over Islamabad", "Pakistan's nuclear weapons about to fall into terrorist hands" and other such garbage. The important point in her letter, one that cannot be challenged without proof, is that the US government had anything to do with Benazir's assassination.


Benazir certainly alleged that Omar Saeed Sheikh had killed Osama Bin Laden because on January 4, 2008 the BBC's Steve Herrmann acknowledged that, "Under time pressure, the item producer responsible for publishing the video on the BBC website edited out the comment, with the intention of avoiding confusion. The claim appeared so unexpected that it seemed she had simply misspoken. However, editing out her comment was clearly a mistake, for which we apologise…" On January 9 the BBC added: "As promised above, we've now updated the original clip with the full version of the interview."


People have heard the interview many times. Benazir said the words deliberately and cautiously, after stopping and taking a breath before uttering Osama's name. Spurious excuses such as these insult people's intelligence and beget conspiracy theories for which people are then mocked by the perpetrators of spurious excuses.


What adds spice to the story is that former President Pervez Musharraf says in his best selling autobiography that Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British national educated in the London School of Economics, was first recruited by Britain's intelligence agency MI6 and sent to Bosnia and Kosovo to fight the Jihad there. It could be that he later 'turned', says the general. But it could also be, say I that he is still working for MI6 pretending that he has 'turned' as a smokescreen or camouflage. Isn't that what is called a 'double agent'?


What makes me not believe the theory that Benazir was killed by the US – a point that Hersh missed – is: If she was killed because she revealed that Osama Bin Laden was dead, killed by Omar Saeed Sheikh, in her interview with Sir David Frost was telecast on Al Jazeera on November 2, 2007, why was the first assassination attempt against her was made two weeks earlier, on October 18? Or was that somebody else? If it was, then how do we know that it was not that somebody else that killed her on December 27, 2007 and not the US? In any case, her assassination was more a case of misadventure. Her assassins were certainly there, but got no opportunity until she suddenly stuck her head out of the sunroof of her vehicle, which she was not supposed to. That is when they went for her with everything blazing. While everyone has been asking why the place was hosed down, no one has asked why Khalid Shahinshah, supposed to be looking after her security, along with two photographers behind him, were making such peculiar gestures standing besides Benazir on the stage, as if signaling something to someone? What possessed her to break with security protocol and stick her neck out of the window? Have the numbers on the SIMs of all the phones of those in her vehicle been examined, including her own phone?


Hersh's denial is interesting, for it reveals more than it denies. He certainly makes it clear that he never said or wrote anywhere that a US special death squad killed Benazir Bhutto and I haven't found anything where he even remotely says so. However, he doesn't deny the existence of what he called "an executive assassination wing" in a speech at the University of Minnesota on March 10 this year… "General McChrystal ran a special forces unit that engaged in High Value Target activity." If people – important politicians and not just terrorists or those that the US thinks are terrorists – are not "High Value Targets", I'll eat my hat Mr. Hersh.


Perhaps I'll continue with this next week because there's so much to tell, unless something happens – which is well within the realm of possibility – that demands more attention.




I ended last Sunday's article, "Who killed Benazir?" with the promise that, "Perhaps I'll continue with this next week because there's so much to tell, unless something happens – which is well within the realm of possibility – that demands more attention." Well something did happen, to wit President Obama's seminal speech in Cairo to what is euphemistically called 'the Muslim World'. It demands attention, but also requires consideration, not a knee-jerk article written in a couple of days just to show that I recognize the importance of the speech. It is precisely because I recognize its great importance and its great potential that I am leaving comment till full consideration.


When the West has no cogent argument it accuses Pakistanis of wallowing in conspiracy theories. Sure people are vulnerable to conspiracy theories – I guess the most have to do with Kennedy's assassination – but who plants their seeds? Here's an example. Many believed that Benazir damaged the justification for the continued US presence in Afghanistan by saying to Sir David Frost on Al Jazeera that Osama Bin Laden was dead, killed by Omar Saeed Sheikh, the former or current MI6 agent, God alone knows which. This view gained great currency when the BBC website first edited out Benazir's crucial sentence – one excuse was that perhaps she had "misspoken" – then apologized and restored it. I said last week: "People have heard the interview many times. Benazir said the words deliberately and cautiously, after stopping and taking a breath before uttering Osama's name. Spurious excuses such as these insult people's intelligence and beget conspiracy theories for which people are then mocked by the perpetrators of spurious excuses."


It has been alleged by President Musharraf that British born Omar Saeed Sheikh was first recruited by MI6 but then "turned". Perhaps he didn't and is a "double agent". I have never read any clarification of this from the British authorities, which also causes people to see possible conspiracies.


The Seymour Hersh kafuffle started with his startling statement, to put it mildly, at the University of Minnesota on March 10 this year. "Congress has no oversight of it. It's an executive assassination wing, essentially. And it's been going on and on and on. And just today in the Times there is a story saying that its leader, a three-star admiral named McRaven, ordered a stop to certain activities because there were so many collateral deaths. It's been going in…under President Bush's authority, they've been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving."


Wow! That's more damning than anything I've ever read or heard from the worst American enemy. Look at it.


1) Its a rogue "executive assassination wing" (or death squad, same thing) because "Congress has no oversight over it."


2) It is "under President Bush's authority" no less, far worse than being under Vice President Dick Cheney's authority.


3) It goes into countries secretly because it doesn't talk to the US ambassador or the CIA station chief. That's typical hit men stuff.


4) They have a list of people to execute, whom they find, kill and then leave – the opposite of Schindler's list, what?


Being in the position that it is landed in, Pakistan must be the most visited destination of this executive assassination wing, but then neither Ambassador Patterson nor the CIA station chief would know anything about it, would they, which explains her umbrage that led her to write a rather acerbic self-righteous letter to The Nation. What Mr. Hersh has said is damning indeed, as damning as saying that a US death squad killed Benazir Bhutto. So tell me: "Who killed Benazir Bhutto?" Do you still blame Pakistanis, a people who have been victims of many conspiracies, for believing in 'conspiracy theories', one of which is that the US killed Benazir? The seeds of many a 'conspiracy theory' are often sowed by the US and its western allies and their media's "Nescafe journalism."


There's more, enough to write a book. Soon after Hersh's Minnesota speech, the CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked Dick Cheney's former National Security Adviser John Hannah about Hersh's claim. "Is there a list of terrorists, suspected terrorists out there who can be assassinated?" And this is what Hannah said: "There is clearly a group of people that go through a very extremely well-vetted process, inter-agency process…that have committed acts of war against the United States, who are at war with the United States, or are suspected of planning operations of war against the United States, whom authority is given to the troops in the field and in certain war theaters to capture or kill those individuals. That is certainly true."


Wolf Blitzer: "And so, this would be, and from your perspective – and you worked in the Bush administration for many years – it would be totally constitutional, totally legal, to go out and find these guys and to whack 'em?"


John Hannah: "There's no question that in a theater of war, when we are at war, and we know – there's no doubt, we are still at war against al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and on that Pakistani border, that our troops have the authority to go after and capture and kill the enemy, including the leadership of the enemy."


Hersh told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! "The problem with having military go kill people when they're not directly in combat, these are asking American troops to go out and find people and…they go into countries without telling any of the authorities, the American ambassador, the CIA chief, certainly nobody in the government that we're going into, and it's far more than just in combat areas. There's more -- at least a dozen countries, and perhaps more…The President has authorized these kinds of actions…our boys have been told they can go and take the kind of executive action they need…there's no legal basis for it."


Hersh on Guantanamo: "An internal report that I wrote about in a book I did years ago, an internal report made by the summer of 2002, estimated that at least half and possibly more of those people had nothing to do with actions against America. The intelligence we have is often very fragmentary, not very good. And the idea that the American president would think he has the constitutional power or the legal right to tell soldiers not engaged in immediate combat to go out and find people based on lists and execute them is just amazing to me…the thing about George Bush is, everything's sort of done in plain sight. In his State of the Union address, I think January the 28th, 2003, about a month and a half before we went into Iraq, Bush was describing the progress in the war, and he said…that we've captured more than 3,000 members of al-Qaeda and suspected members, people suspected of operations against us. And then he added with that little smile he has, 'And let me tell you, some of those people will not be able to ever operate again. I can assure you that. They will not be in a position'. He's clearly talking about killing people, and to applause."


About the JSOC, Hersh told Amy Goodman: "Well, it's a special unit. We have something called the Special Operations Command that operates out of Florida, and it involves a lot of wings. And one of the units that work under the umbrella of the Special Operations Command is known as Joint Special Op -- JSOC. It's a special unit. What makes it so special, it's a group of elite people that include Navy Seals, some Navy Seals, Delta Force -- what we call our black units, the commando units. 'Commando' is a word they don't like, but that's what we, most of us, refer to them as. And they promote from within. It's a unit that has its own promotion structure. And one of the elements, I must tell you, about getting ahead in promotion is the number of kills you have. Of course. Because it's basically devised – it's been transmogrified, if you will, into this unit that goes after high-value targets. And where Cheney comes in and the idea of an assassination ring -- I actually said 'wing' -- that reports to Cheney was simply that they clear lists through the Vice President's office. He's not sitting around picking targets. They clear the lists. And he's certainly deeply involved, less and less as time went on, of course, but in the beginning very closely involved. And this is the elite unit. I think they do three-month tours. And last summer, I wrote a long article in The New Yorker, last July, about how the JSOC operation is simply not available, and there's no information provided by the executive to Congress."


So who did kill Benazir Bhutto? The question is still suspended in the air, where it will remain forevermore if they can help it.


This column appeared in The Nation. Mr. Gauhar can be reached at

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