So, back in 2007, right before her novel “Outsourced” came out, I met Raelynn Hillhouse at a café in Ballston, Virginia. There, we talked about the intelligence community, her blogging about the IC at “The Spy Who Billed Me“, and sometimes surreal universe of military and intelligence contracting, and other sundry topics. I gave her book a pretty warm review: it’s a fun read, and her blog gave it such a feel of realness that the marketing totally sucked me in.
For a few months, she and I had an engaging correspondence, where she’d break some really interesting stories about bizarre or possibly unethical contracting snafus, and then, in 2008, she disappeared. In July, I sent her an email excitedly asking about her next book, and she never responded. She did not respond to a second email the next year, either.
She would publish an occasional blog post here and there, but she was silent on her blog for several years, until she claimed to know some details about the Osama bin Laden raid in 2011 (that are just as anonymously sourced as Sy Hersh’s, but she has been correct that Hersh seems to have lifted much of the story from her).
But then she disappeared again. And then, suddenly when Hersh writes his long conspiracy screed, Hillhouse is back, demanding credit for “getting” the story first (even if it’s fiction, she argues). The thing is, though, I’ve grown quite a bit over the last many years, and I’ve also come to learn quite a bit over that time as well. My perspective has shifted, and the new things I’ve learned over that time have changed my attitudes, opinions, and levels of credulity. And Hillhouse’s perspective — both of herself as a “plugged in” writer with tons of secret sources, and her analysis of this story — simply does not ring “true” as it once did, and her attempts to push this story seem as tenuous as Hersh’s.
More to the point, she hasn’t published anything for years. So many years, in fact, that I’m curious what happened to her: she had told me she was planning a sequel to her 2007 book but it never came out. She hasn’t written any articles that I can find. Apart from the occasional blog post, bragging about all the CIA people she’s influencing, she has literally vanished from the internet.
I don’t know what happened to her. In 2007 and 2008, Hillhouse was poised to dominate the intelligence discourse: she had a huge effect, people listened to her, and she was breaking powerful stories about the industry left and right many years before Dana Priest did her Washington Post series about it. But instead of becoming the public intellectual, she disappeared without a single word as to why (not even her previous, short-lived revival in 2011 contained an explanation as to why she went dark).
Something about all of this doesn’t add up, and I don’t know what it is. It is all, from Hersh’s completely unbelievable story to his seeming plagiarism of a vanished blogger, to her sudden revival to stake claim to Hersh’s intellectual flop, is completely weird and it really bothers me.
Nothing about this story makes sense. If the raid was staged from the start, why risk (and then lose control) of incredibly sensitive classified helicopter technology? Who in their right mind believes Pasha would go along with a conspiracy to make himself look bad? And if the plan was for an ISI-imprisoned bin Laden to be killed in a drone strike, why not move him into the FATA so nothing is put at risk?
This story, and the controversy surrounding it, is totally weird. I have no idea what to make of it. Do any of you?
I was able to correspond with Hillhouse about this story — the first time we have spoken since 2008. She’s offered some more detail about why she stopped writing (namely, the same reasons I did: though fun, it did not pay the bills).
To be honest, I’m not sure what to think of that. She told some other writers that she stopped because “my understanding was there was great concern with the security guys … Everything that I’ve written on national intelligence, [that] was the first time I ever had a [former] senior member of the intelligence community signal me to basically go black … I’ve never been waved off like I was signaled to [then].” I don’t know the full story here, but I’m also not going to pry; I simply do not think it relevant to the issue of Seymour Hersh refusing to give her credit for this story, or for evaluating the story itself.
Raelynn stands by her 2011 writing, but I remain troubled by the implied outrage it presents. For starters, I am not surprised, nor do I think it particularly scandalous, to learn that the U.S. government may have tried to conceal the identity of a valuable and politically sensitive intelligence source. In fact, I expect them to do so.
Nor am I particularly interested in the charge that the ISI has really troubling ties to al Qaeda and may have known of his location at the time of the raid: indeed, tons of people, including in NATO, were open about these concerning issues.
That being said, to take the rest of her story — and, since I think it is clear Hersh lifted its outline from her, Hersh’s as well — at face value, one must accept many assertions that simply do not make any sense. I do not find it credible, for example, that Generals Kayani and Pasha would prostrate themselves in public over the raid if they were directly harboring bin Laden. They just would not humiliate themselves like that for an op. Especially when credible reporting by good journalists at the time simply does not match up with a bunch of anonymous sourcing published years later. And at least one senior intelligence source in Pakistan said, at least at first, that they had collaborated with the U.S. on the raid. None of the revisionism since makes a lot of sense on this front.
Moreover, I do not find it credible that they would then decide the least controversial way of killing him would be to fake a drone strike in Abbottabad (a CIA drone striking Abottabad, right near the Pakistani military academy, would be an enormous deal). The idea that SEALs would chop up pieces of bin Laden’s body to toss out of a helicopter is bizarre and nonsensical: why would they dump body parts several hundred miles away from an alleged drone strike? That would only make it more suspicious, not less.
Similarly, I cannot find a plausible mechanism by which the White House decides to risk a stealth helicopter so secret that its crash surprised even secrecy-busting aviation journalists for a coordinated false flag campaign to fake the bin Laden raid. If this was the real plan, why not have the ISI move its bin Laden asset to a house in Waziristan where he can be killed without scrutiny, fanfare, crashed helicopters, or weirdly complicated multigovernment conspiracy?
So a lot remains for me to take this alternate version of events seriously. Sure, it could be true, but there’s no evidence that it is — more to the point, there is a lot of fishy business surrounding the story (to include Hersh’s odd praise for the Pakistani Army and his fundamental misunderstanding of Pakistani public opinion) to where I just do not think it is a credible version of events. And the “real” story of the raid has shifted, constantly, from the moment it became public knowledge, to include contradictory and nonsensical statements from both governments — so seeing it do so again really is not surprising.
That being said, Raelynn is “disappointed” I wrote this blog post above before I reached out to her. And perhaps that is my mistake. But I had no idea why she “went dark” these many years ago. She never told me (which is, I suppose, the whole point of “going dark”). And, while she reiterated to me her concern about her sources, she also strongly hinted that the danger they face would be over once Obama was out of the White House — a claim that sticks out at me as being entirely weird. If they are breaking the law by leaking, why would they not be in similar danger in, say, the Rubio administration? Or if they face such a unique and severe threat under Obama that she destroyed all her notes from that conversation and is loathe even now to go into any detail about them… then why mention it at all? That would be incredibly risky.
This entire scandal, such as it is, has become completely ridiculous. The “skepticism” being expressed by some corners has crossed the border, from health into paranoia, and everyone is hinting at Dark Purposes and Deadly Secrets, and Fatal Encounters, and Hushed Meetings, and whatever, that it sounds like a mass acting out of a spy fantasy than anything real. Sy Hersh alleging a conspiracy where none exists, on such flimsy evidence, is just throwing chum into a shark tank — and here, on the outside, all of the frenzied thrashing about is just perplexing.
And still, bafflingly, weird.