Wrong Way Sy (Hersh).

Media criticism.
May 6 2003 6:53 PM

The Leading Indicator That WMD Will Be Found

Seymour M. Hersh says they won't.

Wrong Way Sy
Wrong Way Sy

George W. Bush had a good war. Donald Rumsfeld had a good war. Tommy Franks had a good war. New Yorker investigative reporter Seymour M. Hersh had a terrible war. And he's not doing too great in the aftermath, either.

At almost every critical turn since the events of 9/11, Hersh has leapt to the front of the editorial pack with a bracing, well-researched, and controversial explication of the war on terror. And almost every time, Hersh's predictive take on the course of events has been wrong. Boneheaded-dumb wrong.

In "What Went Wrong," published in the Oct. 8, 2001, issue of The New Yorker, Hersh portrays the CIA as a moribund agency and claims that its director, George Tenet, is "history," due for dismissal by the administration "after a decent interval," according to Hersh's CIA source. "Whenever they get some traction on the problem—he will depart. I've heard three to six months," Hersh's source continues.

Some 19 months later, time enough for five or six decent intervals, Tenet still holds the job and appears to have job security, too. Bob Woodward's Bush at War depicts Tenet as a crafty institutional player who gained President George W. Bush's trust after 9/11. Tenet probably had Bush family chits in reserve from the dedication ceremony that he presided over in April 1999 in which CIA headquarters were renamed in honor of George H.W. Bush. Said Tenet: "Mr. President, over the decades and to this very day, you have found many, many ways to help us fulfill our vital intelligence mission on behalf of the American people. You did not forget us, and we will never forget you. May God bless you and Mrs. Bush, and your wonderful family."

Hersh returned to the pages of The New Yorker a month later, when the war in Afghanistan had just started, with "Escape and Evasion" (Nov. 12, 2001). According to Hersh and his sources, the assault on Mullah Omar's Kandahar compound by U.S. special operations showed they couldn't be relied upon to beat the Taliban by themselves. Hersh writes:

"This is no war for Special Operations," one officer said—at least, not as orchestrated by CENTCOM and its commander, General Tommy R. Franks, of the Army, on October 20th.

The thrust of Hersh's piece was, of course, wrong. The Taliban fell a month later. Credit the victory to the horseback-riding special ops, who called in airstrikes against the Taliban and organized the successful Northern Alliance offensive.

At the end of March 2003, shortly after the second Gulf War began, Hersh fretted in his "Offense and Defense" (April 7) that the U.S. war on Iraq had "faltered." Hersh blamed the stalled campaign on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for tossing out the "time-phased forces deployment list" in prosecuting the Iraq war. (Think of TPFDL [pronounced tip-fiddle] as a combined spreadsheet and logistical playbook for a modern war.) A former intelligence officer told Hersh, "When you kill the tip-fiddle, you kill centralized military planning. The military is not like a corporation that can be streamlined. It is the most inefficient machine known to man. It's the redundancy that saves lives."

Then, barely controlling his hysteria, Hersh abused Iraq campaign commander Gen. Tommy Franks for not standing up to Rumsfeld. "A former senator told me that Franks was widely seen as a commander who 'will do what he's told' "—and continued:

According to a dozen or so military men I spoke to, Rumsfeld simply failed to anticipate the consequences of protracted warfare. He put Army and Marine units in the field with few reserves and an insufficient number of tanks and other armored vehicles. … Supply lines—inevitably, they say—have become overextended and vulnerable to attack, creating shortages of fuel, water, and ammunition. Pentagon officers spoke contemptuously of the Administration's optimistic press briefings. "It's a stalemate now," the former intelligence official told me. "It's going to remain one only if we can maintain our supply lines. The carriers are going to run out of jdams"—the satellite-guided bombs that have been striking targets in Baghdad and elsewhere with extraordinary accuracy. Much of the supply of Tomahawk guided missiles has been expended. "The Marines are worried as hell," the former intelligence official went on. "They're all committed, with no reserves. … The only hope is that they can hold out until reinforcements come."

Baghdad fell on April 9—10 days after Hersh's story hit newsstands.

Given this extraordinary track record, any thumbs-down flashed by Hersh must be interpreted as a leading indicator that the precise opposite is about to happen. Which brings us to the question of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

This week in The New Yorker, Hersh ventures ("Selective Intelligence," May 12) that an intelligence "cabal" run out of the Pentagon by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz—the Office of Special Plans—has provided President Bush with most of his information about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (and most of his information about Iraq's al-Qaida connection).

Hersh casts extreme doubts on the cabal's findings that Iraq still possessed WMD by the time of the U.S. invasion. Too many of the cabal's sources are Iraqi exiles—such as Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi or defectors with personal or political axes to grind—to be trusted, Hersh writes. With Pentagon support, these spurious sources started telling their WMD/terrorism stories to the press, but most of these stories are disputed by analysts in the CIA and the DIA.

Hersh also surmises that the Straussians Paul Wolfowitz hired at the Pentagon might have told noble, Platonic lies about WMD to justify the war. A former high-level intelligence official calls the WMD charges "bait and switch" by the Bush administration. "Bait them into Iraq with weapons of mass destruction. And, when they aren't found, there's this whole bullshit about the weapons being in Syria," the source tells Hersh.

If Hersh's interpretive/predictive streak holds, we should expect to find proof of WMD and a direct link between Iraq and al-Qaida within the next two weeks.

Why are Sy Hersh's recent New Yorker defense pieces so consistently off the mark? Perhaps Hersh, who made his name tilting against the establishment, has become too willing to channel establishment sources' complaints. Indeed, most of his unnamed sources hail from the defense/intelligence establishment, which feels encroached upon by Rumsfeld and the rest of the new guard. If the question is, What's wrong with today's CIA?, Hersh reports back, it isn't enough like the old CIA. If the question is, What's wrong with today's Pentagon?, Hersh answers at the behest of his Army sources, Rumsfeld is mucking with tip-fiddle! If the Delta commandos and the Army generals talking to Hersh don't like Rumsfeld's policies—or the CIA, the DIA, and others resent similar turf encroachment by Wolfowitz's "cabal"—they know there is a place where their gripes can get a complete airing: A Hersh piece in The New Yorker.

Every bureaucratic struggle has at least two sides, and a reporter who recklessly throws in with one side against the other may publish blockbusters. But of what use are blockbusters that are consistently wrong?

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Addendum: On Nov. 12, 2003, I ate crow in this column, conceding that Hersh had been right about WMD and I had been wrong. Mea culpa.

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.