Seymour Hersh’s unreliable London Review of Books investigation: The national security reporter’s account of the Bin Laden raid has familiar flaws.

A Crank Theory of Seymour Hersh

A Crank Theory of Seymour Hersh

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
May 12 2015 11:45 AM

A Crank Theory of Seymour Hersh

To understand the legendary national security reporter, you need to understand an archetype of the intelligence world: the crank.

Seymour Hersh.
Seymour Hersh attends the New Yorker’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner Weekend Pre-Party on April 24, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The New Yorker

Over the weekend Seymour Hersh published his latest interminably long investigative bombshell—and it’s a doozy.

The 2011 killing of Osama Bin Laden by U.S. special operations forces, Hersh alleges, was an elaborately produced bit of national security theater. Contrary to claims by Obama administration officials, senior members of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence were fully aware of the master terrorist’s whereabouts in their country and facilitated his assassination at the hands of the Americans. That assassination, then, wasn’t the bit of derring-do as portrayed by the White House and the film Zero Dark Thirty, but rather an elaborately staged extrajudicial murder carried out with the connivance of the ISI itself; the only bullets fired that night, according to Hersh, were the handful of rounds required to kill Bin Laden. Furthermore, it was not talented intelligence work on the part of the CIA—painstakingly tracking down Bin Laden’s courier and following him to the compound in Abbottabad—that led to Bin Laden, but a Pakistani “walk-in” to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad. Hersh also claims that Saudi Arabia funded Bin Laden’s stay in Pakistan.

Sourced almost entirely to a single “retired senior intelligence official” (with a handful of details corroborated by two “longtime consultants to the Special Operations Command”), Hersh’s story reads like a fantasia of clandestine intrigue and deception, its narrative flights of fancy peppered with angry outbursts at the Obama administration for perpetrating a “blatant lie” upon a gullible American public and spinning a “Lewis Carroll” “fairy tale.” As I documented extensively for Commentary back in 2012, the bulk of what Hersh has written over the course of his legendary career is distortion and conjecture; his reputation as America’s premier investigative journalist rests on two stories: the My Lai Massacre and the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. The rest of Hersh’s oeuvre descends largely from his overactive imagination.

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On Monday, however, NBC News appeared to back up Hersh’s claim about the Pakistani “walk-in,” confirming with two U.S. intelligence sources that just such a figure had made himself known to the CIA a full year before the assassination. The existence of such an individual—indeed, the claim that some Pakistani officials might have had knowledge of Bin Laden’s presence in their country—is not mutually exclusive with the assertion that the ISI was caught unawares about the nighttime raid. After all, it is not exactly news that officials within Pakistan’s “deep state” might have known of Bin Laden’s location; such reports surfaced almost immediately after the killing took place.

The rest of Hersh’s wild claims are easily dismissed. If the whole assassination was staged from the very beginning, why didn’t the Pakistanis kill him? Or quietly transfer him over to the Americans, as they did 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libi, another al-Qaeda leader? Why stage an elaborate scenario ripped from a James Bond movie? As any conspiracy theorist must know, the more people involved in a conspiracy, the more likely it is to leak. So why involve a whole Navy SEAL team, not to mention all the logistics officers back home, in your elaborate scheme when you could simply hire a Pakistani assassin to do the job?  

Another unbelievable Hersh claim is that Saudi Arabia was “financing bin Laden’s upkeep since his seizure by the Pakistanis.” Bin Laden was a sworn enemy of the House of Saud, whose members he viewed as traitors to the cause of Islam for hosting American military forces on Saudi soil. In response to his support for terrorism, Saudi Arabia revoked Bin Laden’s citizenship and froze his considerable assets there in 1994. Two years later Bin Laden issued his first fatwa, a retaliatory tract titled “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places.” In that document, he accused the “Saudi regime” of being the “tool” of the “American-Israeli alliance” and attacked its complicity “for the shedding of the blood of these innocent [Iraqi] children,” a reference to the United Nations sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s government. For Hersh’s theory to work, the enmity between the Saudis and Bin Laden, dating back some 25 years, has to have been an intricate piece of performance art, carefully scripted by both parties—with the collusion of successive American administrations. 

Readers are expected to believe that the story of the Bin Laden assassination is a giant “fairy tale” on the word of a single, unnamed source. This source fits the profile of nearly all of Hersh’s informants in the national security world: a grizzled veteran of the intelligence sector who, freed from the shackles of government work, has become a withering critic of the national security state and American hubris overseas. “You mean you guys shot a cripple?” the “retired official” asks rhetorically, disputing the claim that Bin Laden was reaching for a weapon when the SEAL team nabbed him. Elsewhere, he refers to the killing as “a premeditated murder” and identifies Bin Laden—orchestrator of a spectacular terrorist attack that killed nearly 3,000 people and destroyed the World Trade Center—as “an unarmed elderly civilian.”

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The core problem with Seymour Hersh is that he relies entirely upon such cranks as his sources. Cranks are an archetype of the intelligence world. Imagine a cross between Connie Sachs (the reclusive, eccentric, spinster Kremlinologist from John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and Ron Paul, and you have an idea of the sort of person I’m talking about. Michael Scheuer, the head of the CIA’s Bin Laden unit for several years in the late 1990s, is emblematic of the type. Scheuer came to public attention after he was exposed as the anonymous author of a hugely popular book assailing American counterterrorism strategy, Imperial Hubris. Lauded by the mainstream media as a brave dissenter, it was only a few years into his public life that he was labeling American supporters of Israel a “fifth column,” posting anonymous hate messages in the comments section of—where else?—a Ron Paul presidential campaign forum, and writing an article endorsing the assassinations of both President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

The way to understand Hersh is to visualize most of his sources as Michael Scheuer-like individuals. It is not difficult to find such people in the intelligence world: obsessive, frustrated idiot savants who perceive themselves as stymied by the paper pushers, the bureaucrats, the know-nothing ass kissers who don’t have the courage to come out and tell it like it really is. Such people are naturally drawn to a reporter like Hersh, a crusading writer who “gets it,” who sees the world in the same conspiratorial tones they do, where dark, shadowy forces manipulate global events.

Leakers of all stripes have an agenda; one of the first things you learn as a reporter—whether you’re covering the CIA or the Agriculture Department—is to be cognizant of this fact and take what they tell you with a grain, if not a spoon load, of salt. Hersh’s problem is that he evinces no skepticism whatsoever toward what his crank sources tell him, which is ironic considering how cynical he is regarding the pronouncements of the U.S. national security bureaucracy. Like diplomats who “go native,” gradually sympathizing with the government or some faction in the host nation while losing sight of their own country’s national interest, Hersh long ago adopted the views of America’s adversaries and harshest critics.

This explains how Hersh can accuse American officials of the most heinous crimes (a cabal embedded within the U.S. military operates as an “executive assassination ring” that deviously plots how to “change mosques into cathedrals”) while carrying on a credulous pen pal relationship with a genocidal psychopath like Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Given Hersh’s political predilections (quitting his job as anti-Vietnam War presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy’s press secretary because McCarthy wasn’t left-wing enough), the story that made and defined his career (exposing the My Lai Massacre), and the period in which he came of age (the Nixon era), it’s not difficult to understand why Hersh views the U.S. government the way he does. Hersh, in the words of one veteran national security reporter, was “shaped by the Nixon era; he assumes everyone is like Nixon, who really was that bad.”

The problem is that Hersh hasn’t moved past 1969: It’s always My Lai, and the government is always composed of people as devious as the denizens of the Nixon White House. “There’s zero value in taking just the line of government agencies and official spokespeople when it comes particularly to intel issues because they’re by definition secret and the official government line is boring and uninteresting,” the national security reporter told me. “So that makes you reliant on people who have agendas, as all sources usually do, and it attracts people who believe in conspiracies. A lot of intelligence work is finding connections, a bit of an occupational hazard. You have to look into the veracity of your sources.”

Hersh’s damning conclusion is unsurprising, as is the conclusion to every story he has ever written about American national security: “High-level lying nevertheless remains the modus operandi of US policy.” Hersh’s placement of this article in the London Review of Books, a literary journal whose take on international affairs tends toward the Chomskyan (“I like the politics of it better,” Hersh told New York), is notable in that it has become the go-to place for Hersh’s exposés of American perfidy in the Obama era. Such pieces are apparently of no interest to the bien pensant liberals of the New Yorker, who apparently wish to leave their idealized notion of Barack Obama undisturbed. The first piece Hersh published in the London Review of Books, a fantastical 2013 concoction accusing Syrian rebels of gassing their own civilians and the Obama administration of “cherry-picked intelligence” in its brief against the Assad regime, was passed over by the magazine, as it similarly passed over his fable about the Bin Laden raid. The following year, Hersh wrote a story for the Review alleging that the Turkish government, working with the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, supplied the sarin gas for the attack, and that the White House had established a “rat line” to funnel weapons from Libya to jihadists in Syria. The New Yorker, where Hersh has contributed since 1971, published Hersh’s thinly sourced calumnies when his target was the Bush administration. Yet the magazine suddenly lost interest the minute he started accusing Obama of “lies, misstatements and betrayals.” 

Hersh, according to his bio line at the Review, “is writing an alternative history of the war on terror.” It’s an unintentionally revealing description, “alternative history” being a type of fiction. Seymour Hersh’s latest foray into the genre makes for amusing, if not edifying, reading.