August 6, 2018


Only a Pawn in Their Game: Seymour Hersh's memoir reveals not a fearless reporter but a useful idiot: a man who spent a lifetime channeling faulty intelligence in a game of intrigue he did not understand. (Liel Liebovitz, 8/06/18, American Interest)

[P]roperly read, Reporter isn't a memoir at all: It's a novel about the sort of chap le Carré knows best, the gullible guy who becomes a pawn in a game of intelligence and intrigue whose rules he doesn't understand but whose players, for some strange reasons, he trusts.

Read almost any Hersh story, going back now for decades, and sooner or later you'll come across a staple of his reporting: unnamed sources. These shadowy figures emerge at critical junctures to shed light on astonishing plots, like the alleged one by the Bush Administration to manipulate Iraq's democratic elections: "I was informed by several former military and intelligence officials," Hersh wrote in the New Yorker in 2005, "that the activities were kept, in part, 'off the books'--they were conducted by retired C.I.A. officers and other non-government personnel, and used funds that were not necessarily appropriated by Congress." A year earlier, unnamed sources also informed Hersh that the Department of Defense, inspired by a 1973 book about Arab psychology, had launched a program, codenamed "Copper Green," designed to use sexual abuse and humiliation to get Iraqi prisoners to share useful intelligence. And in 2017, Hersh published a widely criticized article in the German Die Welt, rushing to the defense of Syria's Bashar al-Assad: The World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders may have ruled the April 4 attack on Khan Sheikhoun, leaving 92 dead, to be a chemical attack orchestrated by the Syrian regime, but unnamed sources assured Hersh that the deaths were caused by toxic discharge released as a result of a conventional attack on a nearby jihadi facility.

These outlandish allegations nearly always turn out to be unverifiable. Frequently, they turn out to be dead wrong: In 1974, for example, another anonymous source informed Hersh that the one-time American Ambassador to Chile, Edward Korry, was instrumental in orchestrating that country's coup d'état. Seven years later, faced with incontrovertible disconfirming information, Hersh was forced to write a 3,000-word story correcting the record and recanting his earlier reporting.

Of course, relying on anonymous sources is an important part of an investigative journalist's job. People in a position to know sensitive information, especially information pertaining to national security, aren't likely to amble into a newsroom and volunteer information that is likely to jeopardize their careers and, sometimes, their freedom. Even our best reporters err from time to time, an inconvenient truth you're taught sometime during your first semester in journalism school. But Hersh errs far more than most, and the pattern of his errors is instructive.

Take l'affaire JFK, in which Hersh, accepting papers that allegedly belonged to the late President, was duped into believing that Kennedy was beholden to mob boss Sam Giancana and blackmailed by Marilyn Monroe. In Reporter, Hersh dispenses with the entire episode, one of the most seminal of his career, in a handful of pages. A 1997 account in the New Yorker by David Samuels, however, paints a more satisfying--and more troubling--picture. [...]

Why would a reporter fudge the facts? And why, given Hersh's record for running into trouble with the truth, would venerable publications like the New Yorker continue to employ him?  The answer to all these questions is the same: It's because, in Hersh's worldview, it's always 1969, there's always a secret war going on, and the American military is always seeking for the next target to destroy. There is always another target for Hersh's permanent adolescent rebelliousness, which took on the form of an infantile left-wing radicalism and is what years ago led New York Times' editor Abe Rosenthal to refer to Hersh, playfully one supposes, as "my little commie."

Often, this forever-hippie worldview comes off as entertaining. In his seminal March 2012 Commentary takedown of Hersh, James Kirchick dug up an interview that Hersh gave the Progressive in 1997. "It was easy to go to war against the Vietnamese," Hersh opined then. "I thought in the 1992 campaign Bill Clinton might be the first president since the end of World War II to actually bomb white people. But I was disappointed, as usual. He found it easier to go after the Somalians. Just like Ronald Reagan found it easy to go to Grenada, and Bush found it easy to go to Panama, to the Third World, or to people of a different hue. There seems to be some sort of general pattern here." That Clinton had in fact bombed Serbia, a European country inhabited by Caucasians, did little to cure Hersh of his vision of America's perpetual malignant racism.

Put a man like that in continuous proximity to our national security apparatus, and you hardly need a John le Carré to dream up a scenario or six in which the idealistic journalist with an impressive capacity for ignoring facts that contradict his wishful thinking gets played by his unnamed sources. Believing anything a source would tell him merely to preserve the source, Hersh is an intelligence officer's dream reporter; all you have to do is make sure that the story you tell him hints at some sort of official American malfeasance, and he's bound to buy into the tale, no matter how tall.

Posted by at August 6, 2018 7:10 PM