Bounties for bin Laden

My research convinced me that bounty hunters were an effective part of the American justice system so I have long favored using large bounties to find international terrorists. In 2008 the Washington Post argued that Bounties were a Bust in Hunt for Al-Qaeda:

So far, however, Rewards for Justice has failed to put a dent in al-Qaeda’s central command. Offers of $25 million each for al-Qaeda founders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have attracted hundreds of anonymous calls but no reliable leads, officials familiar with the program say. For a time, the program was generating so little useful information that in Pakistan, where most al-Qaeda chiefs are believed to be hiding, it was largely abandoned.

“It’s certainly been ineffective,” said Robert L. Grenier, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan and former director of the agency’s counterterrorism center. “It hasn’t produced results, and it hasn’t particularly produced leads.”

I wasn’t impressed with that argument at the time and now Seymour Hersh says it wasn’t torture or the billions spent spying on the world that led to bin Laden’s discovery but a bounty:

…the CIA did not learn of bin Laden’s whereabouts by tracking his couriers, as the White House has claimed since May 2011, but from a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer who betrayed the secret in return for much of the $25 million reward offered by the US…

I can’t evaluate Hersh’s larger claims but I find this part of the story plausible.

 Addendum: The time I went bounty hunting in Baltimore.


Seymour Hersh has crossed into la-la land. If your claim is that his story "is plausible" you might as well not cite him at all and just let the claim stand on its own.


Occam's Razor, Mother f _ ckers:

Hersh's account may or may not be true-but it solves one of the existential problems of the WH account-or, one of the dozens of variants, which it released spasmodically over the next 72 hours:

The SEAL attack team crossing into Pak airspace from Afghanistan, and not being detected by Pak military's [USA designed, built, configured and maintained] radar. Particularly up there, so close to Kashmir [disputed territory with its existential enemy].

There is, and was, absolutely no way that US helicopters could have penetrated PAK airspace, etc, etc.

Remember: PAK is a military, with a country.

Not the other way around.

They used stealth helicopters, did they not? Is the Pakistani military's hardware good enough to spot a couple of those stealth helicopters flying low through the mountains? I doubt you're going to find anyone outside the Pentagon or Langley who knows the answer.

Is there such a thing as stealth helicopters??

I guess I don't believe the pictures of the burnt tail section we all saw in the press were faked.

But that aside, there probably didn't need to be stealth helicopters. Regular helicopters could probably have flown pretty much the same mission undetected. Low-level air defense is really hard and Pakistan is unsophisticated and is primarily oriented in the other direction anyway.

Could NORAD detect a well-planned low-level helicopter raid flown from Vancouver to Seattle?

Who is claiming the pictures of burnt tail section are faked? I guess you did not read the article?

No, I didn't read it.

Officially, no, there's no such thing as stealth helicopters. However, that tail section was definitely not a standard helicopter, of any type. The only real explanation for them using a not-publicly disclosed helicopter is that it is "stealth", either in radar-evading, or in noise-reduction capabilities, and probably in both.

If Sy Hersh is to be believed, and the Paks authorized this mission, then why would we risk revealing our super-secret stealth helicopter to the world?

Well I would be interested in hearing more about that. I would think radar stealth on a helicopter would be a hell of an achievement. Lower noise seems more plausible.–Sikorsky_RAH-66_Comanche

The Comanche would incorporate stealth technologies, featuring a number of designs previously untried. It was to employ advanced sensors in its reconnaissance role, and was intended to designate targets for the AH-64 Apache. The aircraft was also armed with missiles and rockets to destroy armored vehicles. Two RAH-66 prototypes were built and conducted flight testing from 1996 to 2004. Since the cancellation the prototypes have been placed on display.

Several years ago I interviewed at Sikorsky in West Palm Beach. I was shown the hangers, one of which was closed. The interviewer said we cannot go into that one because that's where they're kitting out the Comanche. The airframes come from Connecticut and get wired up here. I said: Top Secret...that's why the door's closed. He said "Partly, but mostly because the stealth epoxy coating delaminates in high humidity."

Curious that the Wikipedia article claims that only two display-only copters were built...

Stealth is not an all-or-nothing thing. You can do relatively non-intrusive things to eliminate the most reflective aspects of your vehicle, you can shroud or diffuse your engine exhaust, etc. There are significant differences between the radar returns of similarly sized pre-stealth vehicles dependent on things like geometry and materials.

I read the Hersh article and found it generally not credible. However, the one part of the story that made sense was that the Pak military agreed not to get involved fighting the USA when the raid commenced, because of the long-standing ties between the Pak military and the USA (mostly aid that goes to Pak military officials for their own private gain). It makes sense. Otherwise the 35 minute firefight and crashed copters, that was not investigated, which took a total of 90 minutes, inside of a military town where some of Pak's nuclear arsenal is kept, is gross negligence by Pak's military. While that is possible (recall the West German hobby aircraft pilot who landed in Red Square during the 1980s), it's not that plausible. Far more likely that the Pakistani military chose to look the other way, once they realized OBL was going to be killed or captured. As for OBL's body not being buried at sea, but instead thrown out of a moving helicopter by SEAL members, that part of the story just did not make sense and took away what little credibility Hersh had.

Why did it not make sense?

I've always found the "we buried OBL at sea" story kinda implausible. I mean, it's not that I have any particular reason to doubt it, it just seems really odd, given that we haven't bothered doing that in other cases, and OBL's branch of Islam isn't big on shrines or anything.

But again, I don't see any particular reason to assume the official story has much to do with the truth. Everyone lies about military and intelligence operations, and our government has been caught in a lot of lies in their official stories w.r.t. the war on terror. (Go ask Jessica Lynch and the ghost of Pat Tillman.) Further, this raid became a huge political point for Obama's re-election, which means there was even more incentive to lie. And it was a big PR win for the CIA and military, which again created a big incentive to sand off any rough edges in the story.

GWB's "Your with us or against us," was after all said to Pakistan.

+1 to Albatross above. I also always found the "killed and quickly buried at sea" a little, pardon the pun, fishy, as well. Especially because it seemed like there was only one photo of the body taken.

@Cliff - the buried at sea story made sense to me (more so than the "firefight that did not attract any Pak official response other than a few curious onlookers who were shooed away") because burying OBL on land would make his grave into a martyr's site to be visited. Also, throwing body parts of OBL out of a moving helicopter seems so unprofessional, especially for supposedly trained professionals like SEALs. And it risks compromising your mission if say the head of OBL lands in a schoolyard, or somebody's family pet is seen playing with it.

The buried at sea bit is not credible. The fact that the story came from official government sources makes it even less credible.

Well I think they explain it by saying the original plan was to claim later than Bin Laden was killed in that area by a drone strike. So they scattered the body parts in that area. They also say it was according to reports given by the SEAL members. It seems like a strange thing to make up since there is no need to make it up for the story, you could easily just say that you don't know what happened to the body. Indeed, the author does not seem to accept the story as definite truth, generally stating something like "If the SEAL members' initial story was true..."

the fog of war takes time. The US had trouble scrambling its air defenses in 9-11. Our bombers are no longer on SAC nuclear standby with a portion of the fleet always airborne.
Total readiness takes time and money, which are finite.
Unless there is a squad of special ops sitting in their armored personnel carriers with the motors running at the exact time of the attack that will spring forth and immediately drive to the location of any noted event in the city or a report of a helicopter, they will not get there on time. As a reminder, the Seals were in and out in 35 minutes. So you have to get the initial reports through the police, and to the military, the military has to get them to the right person, that person has to get authority to act, then assemble the squad, then move out. 90 minutes is relatively decent.
If there was an attack at 1 am in Tampa, near US Spec Ops HQ, it would still take a fair amount of time to react.
Pakistan did a classified investigation into it all (which leaked) that lays it out pretty well: (summary of Pakistani military investigation) (summary of actual attack / timeline)
The Pakistani army learned of the attack pretty quickly and their quick reaction squad arrived shortly after the seals left. So good thing they left when they did.
But the Army was very slow passing on the reports to the Air Force - basically the head of the Army called the head of the Air Force to notify him, and only then were the jets scrambled.
The US military is one of the most 'joint' in the world, but it still has its silos and fiefdoms. That doubles in times of peace. I can only assume that Pakistan is significantly worse in those regards.

Read the Hersh article.

You haven't.

If their radar is maintained by the US, it stands to reason that we could make it so one of our own goes undetected. No proof of that, but its not outside the realm of possibility.

All radars are going to have some blind spots in broken terrain. Granted, they would have tried to eliminate as many blind spots as possible, otherwise the system is useful. But practically speaking, there would have been no way to have complete coverage at very low altitudes. If the US helped build the system, there would have been documentation on where the worst blind spots were. So, the planners would have been able to plot a path that took advantage of the local terrain.

Yes, please. This comment has sense in it.

The Mathias Rust incident, the recent gyrocopter on the Whitehouse lawn, and both Iraq wars show just how hard the air defense problem is. It's really hard to stop things flying low over land.

To my knowledge, Pakistan only recently (after this raid) acquired an AWACs capability, so they were trying to solve this problem entirely from the ground. The helicopter infiltration is the easiest to believe part of the story.

And by the same argument those locations would be where PAK would locate some bourder patrols.

Pakistan would use the bulk of its to detect intrusion from India, not Afghanistan.

It would be like the US looking for an intrusion by Canada.

Given this and the mountainous nature of the terrain I have no problem believing that Pakistan did not detect the helicopters.

Pakistan would use the bulk of its resousrces to detect intrusion from India, not Afghanistan.

It would be like the US looking for an intrusion by Canada.

Given this and the mountainous nature of the terrain I have no problem believing that Pakistan did not detect the helicopters.

For me the big problem with the Hersh account is how little sense it makes for the actors involved.

The raid made Pakistan look weak and incompetent by having Bin Laden hiding in a major military town and the US violating their sovereignty with the surprise raid.

The US looked like a bully who disrespects Muslims for launching an unsanctioned raid in a Muslim ally's territory.

If Hersch's account was accurate they could have easily solved those major problems for both sides by relocating Bin Laden pre-raid or at least launching a joint operation.

Yeah, saying "Here is a conspiracy that confirms a Theory I Believe to Be True, and without evaluating whether this person is a nutter, I find this part plausible" is not a particularly self aware (or interesting) statement.

I don't know if Hersh is right or not, but the official story comes from some extremely unreliable sources that have changed their story several times on this matter, and that routinely lie on war-on-terror related things. So it doesn't seem the least bit implausible that all sorts of bits of the official story of the OBL assassination are BS.

A fat lot of good $25,000,000 is when 1,000,000,000 ordinary Muslims want to kill you.

I have no evidence that Hersch is a liar.

I have evidence that Obama, Clinton, and every brass-hat that ever breathed air are inveterate liars.

Plus, the implausibilities in Obama's lies are as blatant as those in Hersch's story.

A few years ago Hersh was saying we were planning to nuke Iran.
So yeah. For some reason because someone dropped the Abu Ghraib story in his lap, people think he's some sort of top-notch investigative reporter, but really he's kind of a conspiracy nutter.

He earned his reputation reporting about My Lai, a generation before Abu Ghraib.

'The Mỹ Lai Massacre (Vietnamese: thảm sát Mỹ Lai [tʰɐ̃ːm ʂɐ̌ːt mǐˀ lɐːj], [mǐˀlɐːj] ( listen); /ˌmiːˈlaɪ/, /ˌmiːˈleɪ/, or /ˌmaɪˈlaɪ/)[1] was the Vietnam War mass killing of between 347 and 504 unarmed civilians in South Vietnam on March 16, 1968. It was committed by U.S. Army soldiers from the Company C of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the 23rd (Americal) Infantry Division. Victims included men, women, children, and infants. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated.[2][3] Twenty-six soldiers were charged with criminal offenses, but only Lieutenant William Calley Jr., a platoon leader in C Company, was convicted. Found guilty of killing 22 villagers, he was originally given a life sentence, but served only three and a half years under house arrest.

The massacre, which was later called "the most shocking episode of the Vietnam War",[4] took place in two hamlets of Sơn Mỹ village in Quảng Ngãi Province.[5] These hamlets were marked on the U.S. Army topographic maps as My Lai and My Khe.[6] The U.S. military codeword for the alleged Viet Cong stronghold in that area was Pinkville,[7] and the carnage was initially referred to as the Pinkville Massacre.[8][9] Later, when the U.S. Army started its investigation, the media changed it to the Massacre at Songmy.[10] Currently, the event is referred to as the My Lai Massacre in America and called the Son My Massacre in Vietnam.'

Whitehouse reports and CNN are not reliable.

If bounties work, then why invade Iraq or attack Syria or attack Iran. A bounty on al Qaeda, a bounty on Assad, and a bounty on the Ayatollah should do the trick. Indeed, if bounties work, then all our enemies can be defeated with only a small contingent of military forces like the one that killed bin Laden. We don't need a Defense Budget, we need a Bounty Budget.

If armies work, why have a navy? Or could it be that the best results come from a mix of many different tools?

They don't work except to help reelection. Al Qaeda is doing fine, they would have had to bump off the old man themselves if the American's hadn't, and in a secretive organization it is always salutary to have a prominent story showing the dangers of connections and intelligence leaks.

What I'd really like to know is how this relates to the Mercatus center, eugenics, and tenuous Nazi connections.

And the p_a signal gets lit up.

Alex: You have one serious error. You state in the article that taxpayers do not pay for the bail-bond system. Taxpayers do pay---just only when they are accused of a crime and whether innocent or guilty. What is worse, the taxpayers who end up paying are the ones who tend to be the poorest. When they can't pay, they sit in jail at taxpayer expense.

Everybody "pays" taxes. The issue is whether you are a net consumer or net payor of taxes.

Your net tax consumer/payor status is fluid over your lifetime.

But at the end of your lifetime, cumulatively speaking, you're either in the red or in the black.

I don't think that's a problem. I think it's civilized for some of us to subsidize others. But for those of us that will most likely end up in the black, it would be nice to hear a thank you once in a while.

It's not that fluid. It's pretty much determined by what you earn in your 30s and 40s.

Alex: Also your claim of thousands of outstanding homicide warrants in California in the article comes from an old newspaper article. Did you confirm that many of the subjects of those warrants weren't in jail due to other arrests or dead, but the warrants were just showing as outstanding? Also the story suggests that some of the warrants are issued for people who either were never in custody in the first place or are for things like failure to answer a summons for a violation or petty crime (e.g. getting a speeding ticket and not paying the fine).

Hey, Alex. Very nice piece in the Wilson Quarterly. I missed it at the time.

The fact that the USG had to send a SEAL team to assassinate Bin Laden seems to argue against Alex's point. $25M should be enough to get a Col. Bob Denard-type interested but so far as I know nobody even tried.

Also, today it's bin Laden, tomorrow it's Julian Assange.

Guess #1: The same security measures that make it hard for intelligence agencies to find and kill you also make it hard for mercenaries or would-be mercenaries to kill you or get you killed in order to collect the reward. Presumably the circle of people who knew how to find OBL was quite small, and that provided protection against both someone turning him in for the reward, and against someone revealing OBL's location under torture or threat.

Guess #2: The Pakistani military and ISI are quite willing to kill (or worse) mercenaries trying to collect a reward by bagging someone they're protecting. But they have zero interest in getting into a shooting war with the US, so they're not too inclined to mess around with a US force who finally found the guy they were sheltering.

I wonder if the official story was put out there to give cover to the intelligence officer who got the reward. Give him time to quietly cover his tracks, maybe wait a while and relocate to where he could enjoy his reward?

A bounty program is definitely not going to work if the person collecting the bounty knows they're going to end up with a bounty on their head.

Yeah, if there's any part of the official story that's likely to be false it's "how we came to have the intelligence." Who leaked info? What eavesdropping measure is unsuspected? Which electronic search tool is really effective? Who broke under waterboarding? Who's a mole? Maybe a contractor figured it out, not an insider? The rumor has always been it was Palantir that put this picture together.

But the raid part? And Pakistan unaware? That's easy to believe.

I agree, the raid is easy to believe. Even a very sophisticated military is often blind to an attack from a totally unexpected angle. Note 9/11, for example. Pakistan's military probably thinks about a lot of things, but the US doing a helicopter raid on a house in a 'nice' section of one of their quiet cities was probably literally not on their radar.

You should look at Jim Bell's essay on assassination politics.

What would happen if you put out a bounty to find Emanuel Goldstein?

How much could we have paid to just "behave nicely" (speaking of which, what exactly was he even doing to annoy the US?) and avoid this entire $1 Trillion Iraq catastrophe? The citizens of both Iraq and US would have been more prosperous and better off because of it.

The US was trying to pay Saddam off but he got stroppy. If had gone along with the inspections the sanctions would have been lifted, the Sunni alliance against Iran would have been back in business and he could have built another dozen palaces. "Pride only hurts. It never helps." - Marsellus Wallace

If a Pakistani intelligence officer "betrayed" bin Laden that would mean that there almost certainly had to be higher up Pakistani officers who were sheltering and hiding him.

Which would make sense because the ISI and CIA are very tightly linked and the US needs to maintain credible deniability with their false flag attacks.

Indeed, that is the point of Hersh's article.

It is almost impossible to believe that powers within the Pakistani government were not sheltering bin Laden. And it's certainly plausible that other Pakistani actors would sell him out. But the part of the Hersh narrative about the US and Pakistan cooking up a fake raid together? It's absurd. You would never, ever, do things that way, with so many moving parts and so many ways for the thing to blow up in your face. What you would do is have the Pakistanis shoot bin Laden and fly his body to a convenient hut in Afghanistan. And the idea that Pakistan officially sold bin Laden out, in return for military aid and a "freer hand" in Afghanistan is complete rubbish, as in fact they got less aid and less cooperation out of us after the raid. So big parts of the story absolutely stink, and I can't see any good reason to believe the specific details even on the plausible aspects.

Penetration of enemy air defenses by helicopter raids are not only possible, but fairly common.

Remember Eagle Claw in 1980? Several US helicopters and C-130s penetrated hundreds of miles into Iran.

Combat SAR by helicopter to rescue downed pilots is also quite common. Bosnia, Serbia etc. Penetrated into enemy territory in precisely the places where other aircraft had been shot down.

It's not unlikely that stealth helicopters (like the ones we know they used), would have penetrated that deep into Pakistan without being detected.

Hence, there's not much of a reason to question the official story. Why would they be making up a lie?

Yes, 'Eagle Claw' - how could we forget this?

That was thirty five years ago, AIG. Radar technology has improved since then.

Oh, and 'stealth' ain't 'stealth'. Ever hear of Vega 31?

btw, there was just one so called 'Stealth helicopter'. And the Yanks couldn't even land it in the compound. Hence the need for the backup Chinook.

A bit too similar to 'Operation Eagle Claw'. Not even close.

Google "radar horizon".

"Penetration of enemy air defenses by helicopter raids are not only possible, but fairly common. - See more at:"

indeed, that has LONG been a benefit of low-flying, slow-moving helicopters over other types of aircraft. We ought also to remember that the helicopters used in this raid (and compromised because of it) were both very secret and specifically designed to evade air-defenses.

If you had permission to cross the airspace, why risk compromising your top-secret, super-expensive experimental airframe?

This story makes no sense.

The problem with a bounty for Bin Laden is that almost anyone *not* in a position to claim it has an incentive to provide false information to the US. What better way to bother your rival than to report that he was hiding Bin Laden? And there's a lottery element to it. Maybe your rival is actually hiding bin Laden so your fake tip might 'win' you $25M!

Likewise those who are in a position to know don't need a bounty. If a high ranking Pakistani officer knew about Bin Laden, I'm sure the CIA would have been willing to negotiate something nice. So the bounty wouldn't be necessary unless it just signals that the US didn't consider Bin Laden some type of head of state so would be willing to pay for his head.....

More challenging would be how you could get the offer of a bounty to a non-elite person who might be motivated to collect it by supplying information? A regular guy in Afghanistan probably would be putting his life at risk trying to turn in Bin Laden unless he had 100% perfect information and could communicate it to the US. More creative options are probably needed. For example, perhaps instead of a bounty pose as a wannabe jihadist supporter and offer $10K to get a sealed message to Bin Laden. The purpose would be to trace out paths his network would take to communicate with him but those 'collecting' the bounties may not even realize who they are really working for.

Tabarrok & Goffman are two social scientists who know what's wrong with the criminal justice system. Now they are leaving the ivory tower and hitting the streets with brass knuckles and semi-structured interviews. They're bounty hunters who hate the government and love young black men. Coming this summer to MSNBC.

Thirty years ago, reviewers for Time were acerbic about the Hersh offering of the day. Martin Peretz, who had personal knowledge of one sequence of events delineated in that book, said that if that tale was of a piece with the rest, the book was a sham (as were Hersh's claims to have interviewed 1,000 people for the volume). His 1991 offering was taken apart by reviewers who remarked that it was largely based on the yarns of a man named Menashe who had worked as a translator in military intelligence in Israel. His 1997 offering was ridiculed by Garry Wills in the Washington Post for its illogic and Hersh's reliance on a man he knew perfectly well was a fatasist/fabricator.

Is there some point at which your credibility is so besmirched that libertarian pundits no longer find the investment of time worthwhile?

Libertarian pundits deam of having a reputation that is only besmirched.

Sy Hersh's interview.

Personally I found the comments about how bin Laden was already marginalize and hostage of the Pakastan military/intellegence community being held for the appropriate exchange most interesting. Looking at a Wiki ('s not clear there was a real change in the output frmo that organization or not.

My gerneral reaction was "How Orwellian". Are both stories Big Brother is telling us about "the war"? Not saying that's my belief here just that was my general reaction.

Make enough of a practice of offering large bounties for bad guys, and you will certainly succeed in creating a profession of killers-for-hire.

But do we really want one? Because once it is out there, other potential customers (besides the US government) will find them useful. And some of those customers will be hostile national governments, as capable as the US of offering asylum to the killers.

Comments for this post are closed