Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sigh Hersh

A couple of days back Dawn published a story quoting an interview with New Yorker investigative journalist Seymour Hersh that supposedly ran on an Arabic television station. According to the story, which originally appeared in tons of Arabic newspapers and was subsequently republished in Pakistani newspapers and made the headlines of many television stations, Hersh claimed that a death squad, reporting directly to Dick Cheney, assassinated Benazir Bhutto and Rafiq Hariri of Lebanon.

Just a few hours later, Dawn retracted the story and ran a piece where Hersh denied giving any such interview. He categorically stated that he gave no interview claiming Cheney was responsible for Benazir's and Hariri's assassinations. Since no video has turned up of this alleged interview, it would be fair to give Hersh the benefit of the doubt on that point.

But Sy Hersh's denial went a step further, also saying this:

‘Vice President Cheney does not have a death squad. I have no idea who killed Mr Hariri or Ms Bhutto. I have never said that I did have such information. I most certainly did not say any thing remotely to that effect during an interview with an Arab media outlet,’ Hersh said.

‘General McChrystal ran a special forces unit that engaged in High Value Target activity. While I have been critical of some of that unit's activities in the pages of the New Yorker and in interviews, I have never suggested that he was involved in political assassinations or death squads on behalf of Mr Cheney, as the published stories state.’

He is lying. In a speech at the University of Minnesota on March 10 (you can hear audio and read a transcript at the Democracy Now website, which did a segment on his comment), Hersh made the following accusation:

Congress has no oversight of it. It’s an executive assassination wing, essentially. And it’s been going on and on and on. And just today in the Times there was a story saying that its leader, a three-star admiral named McRaven, ordered a stop to certain activities because there were so many collateral deaths. It’s been going in—under President Bush’s authority, they’ve been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or to the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving.

Later, in an interview with Democracy Now's host Amy Goodman he said that this assassination ring reported to Dick Cheney, although he does include the caveat that Cheney only approved assassination targets and wasn't actually picking them.

Before any further criticism of Hersh, I should acknowledge that he has been breaking huge stories for about forty years, including the My Lai Massacre and Abu Ghraib. But he has also been spectacularly wrong on many occasions. Just search the New Yorker website for "Seymour Hersh+ Iran" and you will get at least half a dozen stories where he predicted that the US was going to invade the country within a matter of weeks (some examples of this). Hersh's book on JFK, The Dark Side of Camelot, was an embarrassment, that, among other things, concluded that JFK had a secret first marriage that had not been annulled when he married Jackie Kennedy. This story in NY magazine is the definitive account of Hersh's deficincies as a reporter.


Ahsan said...

Sy Hersh is the Marat Safin of reporters: when he gets it right, it's bloody awesome, but when he gets it wrong, cover your head and walk away slowly because it is bound to get ugly.

bubs said...

Sy Hersh is emblematic of the biggest conundrum facing investigative journalism: the use of anonymous sources. You can have the best fact-checkers in the world (which the New Yorker does) but it doesn't mean anything when the vast majority of your reporting relies on unnamed sources. While the New Yorker editor says that he knows who all of Hersh's sources are, I would be more interested in the sources Hersh doesn't use in his stories. I've always got the feeling that he only uses those sources who are validating his viewpoint, which could explain his poor batting average.

And thanks for the tennis analogy. It reminded me that I had to do a post retracting my "Death of Federer" posts.

AKS said...


To be fair to Hersh there's a huge difference between an executive assassination wing and a political assassination wing.

That said, his retraction is flimsy. In an interview with Wolf Blitzer he explicitly speaks about Dick's men going "into a country without telling the CIA station chief or the ambassador and whack someone."

His choice of words is interesting, ambassadors and CIA station chiefs are only relevant in countries where the US is not militarily engaged; this would rules out Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan (I can't imagine Anne Paterson being consulted about drone attacks).

A day later he 'clarified' his comments by saying:

"I wish I had said something different, more careful. It's a loaded phrase, [but] it comes down to the same thing," Hersh said. "[The Bush administration] delegated authority to troops in the field on the basis of whatever intelligence they think is good, and I can tell you it's always not good and sometimes things get very bloody."

No it does not come down to the 'same thing.' In fact, the two things are very different. Taking out 'high value targets' in a conflict under executive authority is a tad bit different than carrying out assassinations of foreign citizens in foreign countries where the US military may not be engaged in a conflict.

AKS said...

Link to the CNN story:


karachi khatmal said...

Seymour Hersh - fueling socialist/islamic fundamentalist/free love conspiracy fantasies since 1969

bubs said...

AKS: Hersh fingers the Join Special Operations Command as the assassination wing. It might be a bit of a stretch to call them that, but targeted assassinations of terrorists was certainly part of their brief. The best account of their work is in Bob Woodward's Bush at War. It is incorrect to say that their is no congressional oversight of this group; its just that the Republican Congress abdicated its oversight responsibility.

I should also add that I think it would have been vastly preferable if the JSOC had gone around assassinating AL-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan rather than sending in 200,000 troops.

Anonymous said...

As far as Dawn is concerned, you guys have omitted to mention what Dawn took as its main point in the story - that Benazir and former Lebanese PM Hariri were assassinated by JSOC. You should read the detective work about the story that cafepyala posted *before* Dawn's retraction.


bubs said...

Anon: 1124: Uh, this is from the first para of the post:

Hersh claimed that a death squad, reporting directly to Dick Cheney, assassinated Benazir Bhutto and Rafiq Hariri of Lebanon.

And the Dawn retraction was posted almost 24 hours before the cafe pyala post.