Yet the pushback Mahler has received — from Bowden, from Bergen, and especially in the Twittersphere — has been remarkably vehement. Bowden isn’t just upset with Mahler’s story; he’s furious. When I spoke to him, he denounced it as having bought into “crackpot conspiracy theories.”
“I’ve spent a lifetime trying to figure out how things actually happen,” he said. “Stories like this make me feel that it is a losing battle against pure speculation, and theories that are concocted” out of thin air.
When I asked him whether government officials might have held things back, or distorted the truth, Bowden quickly rejected the idea. He had too many different sources, he said. Too many people would have had to have told him the same set of lies. “It strains credulity to the breaking point.”
But does it? I recall my own experience writing a book about events that took place in the government. In the fall of 2010, Bethany McLean and I published “All The Devils Are Here,” about the 2008 financial crisis. After many interviews with current and former officials at the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve, we wrote our account of events that are murky to this day, most obviously why the government let Lehman Brothers fail.
In the intervening five years, new information has come out. Most recently, Ben Bernanke, the former Fed chairman, admitted that he and Hank Paulson, the former Treasury secretary, had been less than forthcoming about the reasons for Lehman’s failure. That information was not in our book because Bernanke and Paulson withheld it.
Bowden’s book was published 18 months after the Bin Laden raid. All things considered, that is not a lot of time. Having been there myself, it strikes me as inevitable that facts will emerge later that add to — or contradict — the original narrative. Bowden wrote the best book he could under the circumstances; there is no shame in that. To suggest that Bowden may not have been told everything hardly means that The New York Times Magazine is buying into some far-fetched conspiracy theory.
We are lucky to have narratives like “The Finish,” which is a great read and as close to the truth as Bowden could get. But is every fact set in concrete? Surely not. Journalism is “the first rough draft of history,” as the old saying goes. In the modern age, that’s as true for books as for any other form of journalism.