The twilight zone: When Seymour Hersh and Pamela Geller start singing from the same song sheet

“It’s one lie after another…more perilous, more sinister, more deadly.”

That’s Pamela Geller’s reaction to a “bombshell allegation” dropped by Seymour Hersh alleging that President Obama lied about the August 21 chemical attack in Syria.

Barack Obama did not tell the whole story this autumn when he tried to make the case that Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attack near Damascus on 21 August. In some instances, he omitted important intelligence, and in others he presented assumptions as facts. Most significant, he failed to acknowledge something known to the US intelligence community: that the Syrian army is not the only party in the country’s civil war with access to sarin, the nerve agent that a UN study concluded – without assessing responsibility – had been used in the rocket attack. In the months before the attack, the American intelligence agencies produced a series of highly classified reports, culminating in a formal Operations Order – a planning document that precedes a ground invasion – citing evidence that the al-Nusra Front, a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaida, had mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity. When the attack occurred al-Nusra should have been a suspect, but the administration cherry-picked intelligence to justify a strike against Assad.

I know that a lot of people revere Hersh’s reporting as though it was the voice of God, but as an atheist I reserve the right to suspect that sometimes he’s delusional.

Cherry picking intelligence to justify war — yep, we’re back in Iraq.

But wait a minute. In this administration’s mad rush to war, how come Obama, Kerry et al, were falling over themselves in their eagerness to grab the unexpected lifeline thrown to them by Russia and Syria with the promise of chemical weapons destruction?

And consider this: it would seem that Hersh’s sources know more about what’s going on in Syria, than most of the key players. Hersh must have no more than two degrees of separation from Assad — which could well be the case and maybe provides all the more reason for casting a skeptical eye on his reporting.

Note: while Hersh says that al-Nusra should have been viewed as a suspect, he doesn’t actually provide any direct evidence that they were involved — he simply cites alleged evidence that they had the capacity to be involved.

Contrast this with what is thus far the most detailed reporting on the attacks that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on November 22:

The Wall Street Journal has pieced together a reconstruction of that fateful day from battlefield reports and dozens of interviews with eyewitnesses, rebels, medics, activists and Western intelligence officials. It reveals both the horror of the attack and the months of miscalculations by the Syrian regime, opposition groups and U.S. government that left them all unprepared for what happened.

U.S. and Israeli communications intercepts reveal chaos inside the Syrian regime that night. When the reports of mass casualties filtered back from the field, according to the officials briefed on the intelligence, panicked Syrian commanders shot messages to the front line: Stop using the chemicals!

Calls came in to the presidential palace from Syrian allies Russia and Iran, as well as from Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group whose fighters were inadvertently caught up in the gassing, according to previously undisclosed intelligence gathered by U.S., European and Middle Eastern spy agencies. The callers told the Syrians that the attack was a blunder that could have profound international repercussions, U.S. officials say.

Now if al-Nusra had launched the attack, apparently the Assad regime, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah were all ignorant of this.

Hersh’s bombshells usually appear in the New Yorker. Maybe their unswerving loyalty to Obama forced them to take a pass on what could have been a hot-selling cover story.

Or, maybe they concluded Hersh must have been smoking crack cocaine while he pumped out this masterpiece.

A note on Hersh’s sources: A “former senior intelligence official” and a “senior intelligence consultant” are cited as the primary sources for the information in this report. Ray McGovern, for instance, is a former senior intelligence official and he’s been outside government for 23 years and he seems to rely on sources like Mint Press to learn about Syria. A lot of journalists hope their readers will be duly impressed by the phrase senior intelligence official and ignore the prefix former. In reality, former officials often have no better access to current intelligence information than anyone else. As for a senior intelligence consultant, we might as well be told “some guy in Washington.”

It’s too easy to dress up hearsay and make it sound like inside information if your readers are inclined to believe everything you write simply because you happen to be a veteran investigative reporter. As always, it’s much more important to study the content than the packaging.

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4 thoughts on “The twilight zone: When Seymour Hersh and Pamela Geller start singing from the same song sheet

  1. AMeshiea

    Hersh is as bad as your unfortunate namesake (the other Woodward). Total tools in the literal sense.

  2. Paul Woodward

    I wouldn’t dismiss either Hersh or Woodward, but I think it is commonly problematic if anyone achieves wide acclamation for their work too early in their career — for Hersh on the My Lai Massacre when he was just 32 and for Woodward on Watergate when he was just 29.

    Journalism offers the trap of enabling fame to be built around the coverage of a particular story but the truly great journalists are great writers who spend their whole lives laboring on their craft — people like George Orwell.

  3. Carl E. Kandutsch

    Until Paul Woodward produces some investigative journalism remotely comparable to what Seymour Hersh has been producing for several decades, I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to Hersh.

  4. Paul Woodward

    Investigative journalism rises or falls based on the quality of the reporting. But once the journalist becomes a revered figure who no one should dare question, then everyone’s critical faculties will suffer.

    What I engage in here is not investigative journalism — it’s analysis and in this case analysis applied to what is being presented as a piece of investigative journalism. Were it not for the fact that Seymour Hersh’s name appears in the byline, I doubt that this report would have been published since the author provides no evidence that it is well-sourced. Neither does he provide any hard evidence to support a central claim: that the August 21 might have been carried out by al-Nusra.

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