Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 18, 2013

Seymour Hersh and his unnamed sources

Filed under: journalism — louisproyect @ 11:23 pm

Ever since Seymour Hersh’s “Whose Sarin” article appeared in the London Review of Books, there’s something that’s been nagging at me that I couldn’t put my finger on. This afternoon it all became clear to me. Instead of describing it, I think a couple of examples should suffice:

A former senior intelligence official told me that the Obama administration had altered the available information – in terms of its timing and sequence – to enable the president and his advisers to make intelligence retrieved days after the attack look as if it had been picked up and analysed in real time, as the attack was happening.

–Seymour Hersh, Whose Sarin?

Hussein’s staying power is remarkable. In the months after he invaded Kuwait in 1990, the United States learned of several attempts on his life that he thwarted. “We had knowledge of at least one,” said a former senior official from the first Bush administration. After U.S. and coalition forces defeated and drove Hussein’s forces from Kuwait in March 1991, inflicting one of the largest and most visible military humiliations of the post-Vietnam period, the former official said, “We thought some colonel or brigadier general would march in and shoot him.”

–Bob Woodward, The Washington Post, June 16, 2002

Now stop and ask yourself when was the last time that someone like Glenn Greenwald cited a “former senior official”? Or when Alexander Cockburn was alive, can you remember him ever citing some unnamed source either currently or formerly ensconced in the CIA or the State Department?

The simple fact of the matter is that their reputations preceded them. Nobody in the CIA would ever spend 5 minutes “spilling the beans” to a Glenn Greenwald or an Alexander Cockburn. The use of unnamed sources at the highest echelons of the “deep state” is characteristic of bourgeois journalism. The only reason we give someone like Seymour Hersh a free pass on an article larded in just about every paragraph with oh-so-impressive unnamed sources is because he broke the My Lai story 44 years ago. He went on to write some other important investigative pieces in the 1990s but for the past 20 years or so, his reporting has mostly followed the same trajectory as Woodward’s but from the left side of the ledger rather than the center-right.

For many people unfamiliar with the ups and downs of the bourgeois journalism racket, it might come as a surprise to learn that his peers do not view him as walking on water. In December 2001 Michael Massing wrote an article for the Nation Magazine lamenting the tendency of reporters to rally around the “war on terror”. Guess who was included?

Another, more serious example of the press’s credulity has been its coverage of the US intelligence services. In light of the failures to predict the September 11 attacks, the press has almost unanimously concluded that the United States needs to beef up its spying abroad and to “unleash” the CIA to fight terrorism. In a piece for The New Yorker, for instance, Seymour Hersh, relying heavily on sources within the US intelligence community, lambasted the CIA for turning away from the rough-and-tumble methods it used during the cold war. “Look,” one agent told Hersh, “we recruited assholes. I handled bad guys. But we don’t recruit people from the Little Sisters of the Poor–they don’t know anything.”

As it turns out, the article is not behind a paywall. You can read it at http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2001/10/08/011008fa_FACT. This will give you a flavor for the reliance on “unnamed sources” that virtually turn Hersh into a stenographer for the CIA:

In interviews over the past two weeks, a number of intelligence officials have raised questions about Osama bin Laden’s capabilities. “This guy sits in a cave in Afghanistan and he’s running this operation?” one C.I.A. official asked. “It’s so huge. He couldn’t have done it alone.” A senior military officer told me that because of the visas and other documentation needed to infiltrate team members into the United States a major foreign intelligence service might also have been involved. “To get somebody to fly an airplane—to kill himself,” the official added, further suggests that “somebody paid his family a hell of a lot of money.”

Frankly, if I had asked someone who keeps up on current events whether Bob Woodward or Seymour Hersh wrote this, they’d be hard pressed to come up with the right answer.

But the words in the article that should warn lefties about taking Hersh at his word are the ones below, exactly the sort of propaganda that has led to extraordinary renditions, waterboarding, drone attacks and all the rest. Maybe Hersh didn’t realize it at the time, but that’s no excuse.

One hard question is what lengths the C.I.A. should go to. In an interview, two former operations officers cited the tactics used in the late nineteen-eighties by the Jordanian security service, in its successful effort to bring down Abu Nidal, the Palestinian who led what was at the time “the most dangerous terrorist organization in existence,” according to the State Department. Abu Nidal’s group was best known for its role in two bloody gun and grenade attacks on check-in desks for El Al, the Israeli airline, at the Rome and Vienna airports in December, 1985. At his peak, Abu Nidal threatened the life of King Hussein of Jordan—whom he called “the pygmy king”—and the King responded, according to the former intelligence officers, by telling his state security service, “Go get them.”

The Jordanians did not move directly against suspected Abu Nidal followers but seized close family members instead—mothers and brothers. The Abu Nidal suspect would be approached, given a telephone, and told to call his mother, who would say, according to one C.I.A. man, “Son, they’ll take care of me if you don’t do what they ask.” (To his knowledge, the official carefully added, all the suspects agreed to talk before any family members were actually harmed.) By the early nineteen-nineties, the group was crippled by internal dissent and was no longer a significant terrorist organization. (Abu Nidal, now in his sixties and in poor health, is believed to be living quietly in Egypt.) “Jordan is the one nation that totally succeeded in penetrating a group,” the official added. “You have to get their families under control.”

Such tactics defy the American rule of law, of course, and the C.I.A.’s procedures, but, when it comes to Osama bin Laden and his accomplices, the official insisted, there is no alternative. “We need to do this—knock them down one by one,” he said. “Are we serious about getting rid of the problem—instead of sitting around making diversity quilts?”

Can you imagine Glenn Greenwald or Alexander Cockburn ever getting unnamed CIA officials to talk to them about the benefits of coercing family members to help snare their children? What else would be useful in “getting rid of the problem”? Waterboarding? Sleep deprivation? If that’s investigative journalism, then I’ll have no part of it.


  1. “The simple fact of the matter is that their reputations preceded them. Nobody in the CIA would ever spend 5 minutes “spilling the beans” to a Glenn Greenwald or an Alexander Cockburn. The use of unnamed sources at the highest echelons of the “deep state” is characteristic of bourgeois journalism.”

    I’m not as hostile to Hersh as you are, but I did notice this about Hersh several years ago. While I believe that Hersh attempts to verify what he is told, and attempts to come to an objective decision about the credibility of his sources (unilke, say, reporters like Michael Gordon and Judith Miller of the NYT who seek to ingratiate themselves by recycling what they are told), that doesn’t contradict what you say here.

    My sense is that Hersh has contacts with some long time figures in the military and intelligence services that feed him information. That doesn’t make it necessarily wrong, but it does raise concerns as to whether Hersh is reliant upon people with specific agendas. By and large, they have been hostile to the post-9/11 military interventions. It also raises issues about whether his sources have become too far removed from the events that they speak about.

    Hersh is best read in terms of what fissures, in any, exist in the US military industrial complex, as most recently in regard to Syria. He consistently relies upon sources that dislike how the executive branch manipulates intelligence and politicizes situations. As badly as Bush and Obama have mislead us, there is, embedded within this approach, an elitist recourse to experts that considers the political process disreputable.

    A side note about Cockburn, I generally believe that you are correct, but he did post articles on the Counterpunch website under pseudonyms from people purported involved in the diplomatic and intelligence community. They were, of course, labeled as such.

    Comment by Richard Estes — December 19, 2013 @ 12:04 am

  2. Actually, Greenwald has also come under criticism with charges that his dealings with Pierre Omidyar show that he must be a sellout. It’s just good to maintain a general skepticism towards all such journalists while looking for nuggets of information can be found.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — December 19, 2013 @ 1:04 pm

  3. The issue is not who is funding you, but unnamed sources.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 19, 2013 @ 1:07 pm

  4. “is because he broke the My Lai story 44 years ago.”

    … and the Abu Ghraib story if I’m not mistaken, so it’s not like he’s been totally useless for 44 years… but your point still stands…

    Comment by SK — December 20, 2013 @ 2:53 am

  5. There are a lot of flaws in Hersh’s account – but the one that strikes me most forcefully is his ignorance of what has been going on in Syria (especially since he claims to have been hanging out with intelligence specialists). He refers to “al Qaeda in Iraq” – a name that hasn’t been used since 2006 (perhaps reflecting just how superannuated his sources were); he seems to think AQI (sic) was “another Sunni fundamentalist group” to Jabhat al Nusra (rather than JaN’s original patron); and, quite extraordinarily, he refers to “the FSA and another secular faction, the Syrian National Coalition”. Reading that, I began to doubt that Hersh would be able to find Syria in his atlas. More significantly he appears totally unaware of the bitter split that took place between the Islamic State of Iraq (AQI as was) and JaN back in April. This is rather important since his “intelligence” is that the sarin capability lay with ISI/AQI while his accusations are directed at JaN, understandable since it is they who were on the ground in Ghouta.

    Comment by Brian S. — December 23, 2013 @ 8:02 pm

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