On Sunday, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published a story in the London Review of Books calling the Obama administration’s account of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden pure fiction, a cover story for an elaborate conspiracy between the American and Pakistani governments. Immediately, many began questioning the reporting in Hersh’s story. For a person familiar with Hersh’s famous revelations about the My Lai massacre and Abu Ghraib, the idea that he is even capable of producing shoddy journalism is shocking.
But the criticism of Hersh’s latest piece echoes the controversy that recently met Hersh after he published two other stories—in December 2013 and April 2014, also in the London Review—about the Syrian civil war. Both stories cited anonymous sources, corroborated by second- and third-hand accounts, saying that Syrian rebels, not the Assad regime, were the first to use chemical weapons in the country’s ongoing civil war, specifically in a sarin gas attack on Ghouta, Syria, on Aug. 21, 2013.
At the time, President Obama had recently issued a “red line,” saying that if Assad used chemical weapons, the U.S. would intervene in the conflict on the rebels’ behalf. Hersh argued that the government was blaming the rebel attack on Assad to justify direct involvement in the war. (The U.S. ultimately decided against entering the conflict directly.)
Hersh’s first story, from December 2013, said that the rebel group responsible for the sarin gas attack was the al-Nusra Front, an affiliate of al-Qaida. As the Huffington Post's Michael Calderone and others noted at the time, Hersh also said that al-Nusra had “mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity.” This first story asserted the administration “cherry-picked” evidence and deliberately manipulated intelligence to avoid implicating al-Nusra. But the story raised eyebrows, in part because the New Yorker and the Washington Post declined to publish it. But that wasn’t all: At Foreign Policy, Eliot Higgins cited open-source evidence—including YouTube videos—to show that the munitions in the gas attack had been used repeatedly by the Syrian military. “There is no evidence of Syrian rebel forces ever using this type of munition—and only Syrian government forces have ever been shown using them,” Higgins wrote.
Hersh’s second story was even more questionable, asserting that actually, it was the Turkish government who was using the al-Nusra Front as a false-flag, in order to force the United States into the war. While the first Hersh story stated that the al-Nusra Front was sophisticated at procuring and manufacturing chemical weapons on its own, the second one suggested that in fact, it was heavily reliant on the expertise of the Turkish military and intelligence agency. In the April 2014 piece, Hersh spoke to a “former senior U.S. intelligence official, who has access to current intelligence.” This official was unequivocal and colorful in his assertions: “We knew there were some in the Turkish government … who believed they could get Assad’s nuts in a vice by dabbling with a sarin attack inside Syria — and forcing Obama to make good on his red line threat,” the official told Hersh.
The problem with these charges is that this official and the other unnamed sources in the piece—with attributions like “a former senior Defense Department official,” a “foreign policy expert,” and a “U.S. intelligence consultant”— are often relaying crucial supporting evidence by means of things they were told or things they read. The following passage in the second Hersh piece is telling:
A US intelligence consultant told [Hersh] that a few weeks before 21 August he saw a highly classified briefing prepared for [Gen. Martin] Dempsey and the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, which described ‘the acute anxiety’ of the Erdoğan administration about the rebels’ dwindling prospects. The analysis warned that the Turkish leadership had expressed ‘the need to do something that would precipitate a US military response.’
This proof—of Erdogan’s desire to force the U.S. into the conflict—rests on the word of an unnamed person who tells Hersh that he saw a document. That’s not to say that accurate reporting is never obtained this way, but it’s not exactly rock-solid proof.
At the Guardian, Higgins and Dan Kaszeta published another refutation of Hersh, again using proof that the munitions used to carry out the attack could only have been used by the Syrian government, as they had been repeatedly since 2012. Higgins and Kaszeta also pointed to several aspects of the Turkish theory that remain unexplained, including technological, economic, and logistical questions.
In March, Hersh published a story in the New Yorker about his trip back to the site of the My Lai massacre. It was his first piece with his usual publication since the first Syria story was published in the London Review of Books. One has to wonder if, on the heels of this latest bin Laden story, the New Yorker will continue to publish him in the future.
Hersh has done tremendously important investigative journalism during his career. Few did more than he to normalize worthy skepticism toward the government’s version of controversial foreign entanglements. It’s painful for admirers to read his latest pieces and concede that frankly, the government’s stories seem to have more behind them than the reporter’s do.