Seymour Hersh and the curious case of the bomb that wasn’t there

It is not a rule of journalism but it should be. Writing anything at all about the various conflicts in the Middle East, with all their shifts and shapes and connected parts moving like the patterns in a kaleidoscope tube with absolutely none of the beauty, invites the fate of Shelley’s Ozymandias. The journalist roars, ‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ In response to which the wind makes the sand shrug and the writer is buried until some day a travelling archaeologist with a shovel comes along, digs out the remains and tosses them away as historically unimportant.

And yet, we observers of the world during our so very brief blink of a lifetime continue to write about this nexus point of religion, power and money for one very good reason: It is important. Oil, old man, it’s all about the oil. If the currency of the world and all its industry were based on the value of clay pots we’d all be writing about Stoke. But it isn’t and so we don’t. Instead we risk ridicule, accusations of prejudice and incompetence, and you know, just the occasional murder. And yet, it remains important so onward we type.

Seymour Hersh has been engaged in the task of Dangerous Journalism for fifty years now, first achieving both fame and a distinct hatred by power elites with his reporting of the My Lai Massacre carried out by American troops obliterating a tiny Vietnamese village in March of 1968. Hersh interviewed nearly 50 members of the Charlie Company that attacked My Lai 4, prompted by the court-martial of Second Lieutenant William Calley. Those on the right damned Hersh for exploiting what was surely – surely! – a rare and tragic exception to America’s complete acceptance of the Geneva Conventions and rules of war. (What of Nixon’s secret invasion of Cambodia a few years later you ask? Another exception of course. No wonder US politicians without irony delight in the term ‘American exceptionalism’.) Those on the left thought Hersh’s reporting actually assisted the Pentagon in making Calley the scapegoat of the slaughter. So, the reporter had done his job well as no one loved him for his work.

Fame for a journalist is a most curious thing. One can forget about undercover work, but on the whole that is the stuff of crime dramas. No, it’s more like a curious overlap of functions. As soon as one is well-known as a holder of secrets, people feel compelled to tell the writer more secrets in order that they should be revealed; but please leave my name out of it, thanks.

There is within the broadest span of the public a certain distrust of those who reveal secrets whether that is the source or the journalist. Just look at the names we assign them: snitch, stoolie, grass, supergrass, leaker, whistleblower, informant, and that is just a handful. What are your opinions, and have they changed over time, of Chelsea Manning, Daniel Ellsberg, Bob Woodward, Wikileaks, Julian Assange, Ed Snowden or Glenn Greenwald?

Motivation is always the trickiest of all mental aspects to discern. Just ask any novelist why a character did something; if the answer comes quickly and easily, the book is probably crap. And that’s fiction, never mind reality. The closest I have ever come to a conclusion as to why revealers of secrets do what they do is, I fear, deeply cynical. Oh, I am certain that there are those who pull back the curtain revealing the tiny man who pulls levers creating the Wizard of Oz who are compelled to do so for such an altruism as to make Buddha himself blush. For most though? I think Ezra Pound nailed it in the closing lines of his short poem The White Stag:

‘Tis the white stag, Fame, we’re a-hunting,

Bid the world’s hounds come to horn!’


Yes, that. We want our lives to have meaning and consequence. After all, who would you rather be in the end, Eleanor Rigby or Paul McCartney? And if the revealing of secrets causes a disruption of normal services, well, perhaps those are services that deserve disruption or there might be a few dollars to be made from it, maybe even both! Seymour Hersh himself has said it, regarding his investigation of My Lai 4, ‘Yeah, part of me said, ‘Fame! Fortune! Glory!’ The other part was very pragmatic [in thinking] about, ‘How are you going to prove this?’

And so it was that after his My Lai Massacre books were released, increasingly those around the powerful and indeed even the powerful themselves sought out Hersh in order to have a briefly private word. The CIA director William Colby discussed a covert project to raise a sunken Soviet submarine, asking Hersh to keep it all quiet for as long as the operation was active. And then of course there was Hersh’s role in writing about the late proprietor of The Sunday Mirror and The Daily Mirror Robert Maxwell, the latter’s possible ties to Israeli intelligence and the leaking of information regarding Israel’s nuclear weapons program. Lastly for now (there are many more Hersh stories, but we haven’t got all day) in May 2004, Hersh revealed the atrocities being carried out by US military police at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

And so, we have a career established and a journalistic standard set. Seymour Hersh has his sources and there had not been any substantial, proven instances where he had fallen victim to a reporter’s worst fear – getting the story wrong.

Ah, but then came May 10, 2015 and a Hersh-written, 10,000 word (!) article titled The Killing of Osama bin Laden. For nearly forty years, the majority of Hersh’s work had been published by The New Yorker. They took a pass on that one, as they had on a story in 2013 about Syria and chemical weapons (q.v.) so the article ran in The London Review of Books. To quickly summarise ten thousand words into a phrase, Hersh said that the Obama Administration’s narrative of the 2011 raid that killed the Al-Qaeda leader was bullshit. Quoting from the actual article:

The killing was the high point of Obama’s first term, and a major factor in his re-election. The White House still maintains that the mission was an all-American affair, and that the senior generals of Pakistan’s army and Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) were not told of the raid in advance. This is false, as are many other elements of the Obama administration’s account.

Furthermore, the official version whereby bin Laden was given a navy funeral and his corpse dumped into the ocean in order to prevent a gravesite becoming a shrine was also bullshit:

Some members of the SEAL team had bragged to colleagues and others that they had torn bin Laden’s body to pieces with rifle fire. The remains, including his head, which had only a few bullet holes in it, were thrown into a body bag and, during the helicopter flight back to Jalalabad, some body parts were tossed out over the Hindu Kush mountains.

Well now, not to overly dwell on bovine by-products but the bullshit hit the fan. The Navy, the CIA, the White House, and the usual coterie of dead-eyed conservative pundits all hit the airwaves and web pages damning Hersh, accusing him of being at worst delusional or misled, at worst the tool of a Pakistani government desperate to save face.

All this takes us to today and Hersh’s story published on June 25, 2017 in Welt

AS: We got a fuckin‘ problem

SA: What happened? Is it the Trump ignoring the Intel and going to try to hit the Syrians? And that we’re pissing on the Russians?

AS: This is bad…Things are spooling up.

SA: You may not have seen Trump’s press conference yesterday. He’s bought into the media story without asking to see the Intel. We are likely to get our asses kicked by the Russians. Fucking dangerous. Where are the godamn adults? The failure of the chain of command to tell the President the truth, whether he wants to hear it or not, will go down in history as one of our worst moments.

AS: I don’t know. None of this makes any sense. We KNOW that there was no chemical attack. The Syrians struck a weapons cache (a legitimate military target) and there was collateral damage. That’s it. They did not conduct any sort of a chemical attack.

AS: And now we’re shoving a shit load of TLAMs (tomahawks) up their ass.

SA: There has been a hidden agenda all along. This is about trying to ultimately go after Iran. What the people around Trump do not understand is that the Russians are not a paper tiger and that they have more robust military capability than we do.

The implication is inescapable. The Trump Administration was fully aware that there was no intention by the Assad regime to murder civilians with sarin gas. Rather, the Syrian Air Force bombed a rebel armoury or warehouse that happened to hold toxic chemicals. This truth (if indeed it is the truth, and it also happens to be Russian version of events) was either held back from a President who may well not know sarin from saffron or ignored as justification to bomb the Shayrat Air Base three days later with 59 Tomahawk missiles to no lasting effect on the runway.

As with the 2015 bin Laden article or Hersh’s reporting in 2013 that the Al-Nusra Front Jihadists had access to sarin gas and may have used it in order to implicate the Bashar al-Assad as culprits, once more the reporter finds himself attacked by both left and right. It is the attack against Hersh from the left that I find the most interesting.

Kevin Drum, writing for Mother Jones in a story datelined July 1, 2017, summarizes the doubts about Hersh’s reporting on Khan Sheikhoun. Drum wonders why, if the facts are there, both The New Yorker and London Review of Books passed on the story? Argument two is that Hersh receives all of his eggs in one basket from one advisor who seems exceptionally clued in as to White House operations. Finally, argument three is that given how leaky the Trump White House is, if intelligence had been dismissed or manipulated, surely we would have heard about it from someone else by now?

Let us state the obvious. I wasn’t there and neither were you. However, jurors at murder trials weren’t at the crime scene or they’d be witnesses, not jurors. We have to use our own abilities to assess evidence and see patterns in order to make opinions. It is worthy of note that Hersh’s latest story was proved wrong, but was the evidence manipulated or not?

For what it is worth, the following is my view.

Bashar al-Assad is a cheap thug in power in a region over-populated with cheap thugs in power. Do not expect me or anyone with a brain larger than a starfish’s to carry any brief for him. Still, there is one commonality among tyrants and somewhat like Sir Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog it is that they know one big thing – all their actions are designed to keep themselves in power. There’s a rather good reason for that too. If a tyrant loses power he tends to end up like Mussolini, shot and pissed on in a town square. No book deals for weighty memoirs await.

So with that as a starting point for assessment, why would al-Assad drop a sarin bomb? He may be a thug, but he’s a cunning thug. Particularly with a borderline insane President like Trump around who Christ knows might drop any or all of paratroopers, nuclear warheads or godawful country and western bands onto Damascus, it just makes no sense. Trump nakedly loathes his predecessor and any chance of showing that he is ‘tougher’ than Barack Obama is a chance that this ego that walks like a man will gladly take. Besides, a ruse that appears to show that this Administration will ‘stand up to the Russians’ can be presented as evidence against the collusion investigation into the 2016 campaign crawling along in Washington. Do note – no Russian personnel or materiel were harmed by any of those 59 Tomahawk missiles.

I grant you that is not a lot to go on, but it is what we have. Ultimately I suppose I dance with who brought me and I trust who I know. Therefore given a choice among believing politicians, generals, corporate media or an independent journalist with half a century’s record of getting the story right, guess which of the above I choose? I stand with Seymour Hersh.

Be seeing you.

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