Seymour Hersh’s alternate reality

The Pulitzer Prize winning veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh was once a regular contributor to the New Yorker. He also wrote for the Washington Post. No more.

Last December he had to turn to the London Review of Books to publish, “Whose sarin?” and his latest piece on Syria appears at LRB today.

A truth-teller shunned by the American mainstream media!

I have little doubt Hersh revels in the image — it plays so well among those who revere him.

But just pause for a minute to think about this: Is Hersh’s reporting so radical, such a threat to the political establishment, that he couldn’t get published by Rolling Stone, or Vanity Fair, or the Boston Review, or Mother Jones, or any of the dozens of new long-form online publications that don’t seem lacking in boldness or creativity?

I doubt it. On the contrary, I think the image of a journalist-in-exile is simply Hersh’s latest vanity.

But if it turns out that there really is no publication this side of the Atlantic that will touch his work, maybe that would say less about a decline in the standards of American journalism and a lot more about the demise of Hersh’s credibility.

When it comes to Hersh’s reporting on Syria, one story that really deserves deeper investigation is whether he has become a stooge for Michael Maloof, a former senior security-policy analyst at the Pentagon who helped gather the bogus intelligence that lay the foundations for the war in Iraq. The fact that both of them have been spinning such similar yarns in recent months seems like more than a coincidence

The most inexcusable feature of Hersh’s reporting is that he effectively functions as his own source. In other words, for readers smitten by his reputation, what he reports is treated as fact for no other reason than the fact that he reported it.

Each time he comes out with a new piece, it’s like Moses coming down from the mountaintop. No one dare ask whether he really heard the voice of God, because no one questions Moses.

For his latest piece, Hersh’s primary source is a “former intelligence official.”

I can picture the two leaning against a bar somewhere in DC as the old hack furiously takes notes. What makes this former official’s word unimpeachable, we’ll never know — suffice to know is that just as Hersh unquestioningly believes his source, we are supposed to believe Hersh, without corroborating sources, without any hard evidence.

Just by chance, a few days ago, Bashar Ja’afari, Syria’s ambassador to the U.N., sent a letter to the Security Council on March 27, saying:

The competent Syrian authorities intercepted a wireless communication between two terrorists in the Jawbar area of Damascus governorate. In that communication, one of the terrorists said that another terrorist named Abu Nadir was covertly distributing gas masks. The authorities also intercepted another communication between the two other terrorists, one of whom is named Abu Jihad. In that communication, Abu Jihad indicates that toxic gas will be used and asked those who are working with him to supply protective masks.

This information … confirms that armed terrorist groups are preparing to use toxic gas in Jawbar quarter and other areas, in order to accuse the Syrian government of having committed such an act of terrorism.

“Terrorists” talking about gas masks who knows when and this “confirms” another gas attack is on the way.

The false flag industry remains as busy as ever — or so the Syrian government’s interlocutors would have you believe.

Those who find Hersh persuasive will probably find the ambassador’s warnings equally persuasive, but in each case it’s not that either is presenting a compelling case. On the contrary, they merely know how to feed their target audience exactly what it wants to hear.

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14 thoughts on “Seymour Hersh’s alternate reality

  1. Steve

    Paul this sounds a bit personal di you guys have some sort of Journo tiff that is unresolved?

  2. Chet

    No, anything that conflicts with the pro-Jihadi rebel narrative promoted by this site must be trivialized.

  3. Paul Woodward Post author

    Steve – What you are picking up is my irritation, but it’s not based on any personal connection to Hersh. I’ve never met him.

    The irritation derives from the fact that because Hersh is revered by so many people, his word is treated like gospel. Yet all he has done in this piece is engage in some storytelling that is impossible to effectively cross examine while Hersh guards the anonymity of his source. The credibility of the whole piece hangs on this one source and if that turned out to be Maloof, that would be the end of Hersh’s career. Even if it’s not Maloof, when one source gets cited 32 times, any reader who is reasonably alert should be asking themselves: in reporting a story of this complexity, why is this journalist relying so heavily on just one source?

    The actors in this story were in Syria, Turkey, Libya, Britain, and the U.S. and yet in order to engage in his “investigation”, Hersh never even had to drive out of Washington DC. All he had to do was sit and take notes while listening to some guy serve him the inside scoop — a guy whose credibility derives from nothing more than the description: “former intelligence official.”

    Michael Hayden, James Woolsey, John Negroponte, and Stephen Cambone are all former intelligence officials. That doesn’t make any of them inherently credible, least of all when they can hide under a cloak of anonymity.

    Moreover, by relying on this single storyteller, Hersh is able to skirt over the fact that he provides virtually no detail on how the attack was supposedly carried out under Turkish direction. He fudges important details. In one sentence he says “the sarin was supplied through Turkey” and then the next sentence he says the Turks “provided the training in producing the sarin and handling it.”

    What became abundantly clear from his previous article, “Whose sarin?”, was that Hersh has very little interest (or ability, perhaps) to investigate any of the technical issues relating to chemical weapons production and use. But the technicalities are crucial.

    Dan Kaszeta, a former US Army and US Secret Service specialist on chemical, biological, and radiological defense, pointed out that whoever conducted the chemical attack last August required the capability to produce one ton of sarin. “To produce at the scale required for the 8/21 attack, a large, sophisticated, and very expensive factory-scale facility is needed.”

    But last year, Hersh was saying making sarin is easy — anyone can do it in their backyard.

    He doesn’t know what he’s talking about and yet he’s now written two articles (more than 11,000 words) which if they were to have any credibility at all, should demonstrate that he has studied these issues in depth. But such an investigation wouldn’t suit his purpose since it would lead him to different conclusions.

  4. Werner Simon

    THREE stories in one day questioning the veracity of one of the most courageous inestigaive resporters of the last half century??? IF not overkill,this this the result of a slow news day!!!! really!!

  5. Paul Woodward Post author

    If someone can be described as one of the most courageous investigative reporters of the last half century, does that mean the veracity of his current reporting is beyond question?

    Seymour Hersh is entitled to a place in journalism’s Hall of Fame, but unless one wants to act like some kind of fawning groupie, there’s just as much reason for placing his reporting under a critical lens as there is any other journalist whose reports garner international attention. Indeed, the very fact that governments feel obliged to issue statements simply because of claims Hersh makes is all the more reason not to accept his assertions on blind faith.

    But blind faith is exactly what Hersh is promoting. As an act of pure conviction, his most loyal followers belief everything he writes. How could Hersh be wrong? And for those of slightly lesser faith it’s sufficient to be told that such-and-such must be true simply because it came from the lips of a trusted “former intelligence official.”

  6. Arthur Sayed

    Fair enough to question the validity of his story, as like most journalists publishing secret & sensitive information, he is relying on anonymous sources. And Hersh does get a pass from many because of his reputation. However, sources for stories like these have very legitimate reasons for wanting to remain anonymous and it is just as irresponsible to dismiss the story because it’s yet to be corroborated by other journalistic outlets. There may be more information leaking out in the coming days/weeks so let’s see.

  7. Paul Woodward Post author

    Agreed. The anonymity of his source(s) is not sufficient reason to dismiss the story. The more compelling reason to dismiss is because of the information he ignored.

    See my follow-up post and this from Eliot Higgins.

    Another point on which Hersh needs to be challenged is the DIA paper that he quotes from. The DIA says no such paper exists, which strongly suggests they may be calling Hersh’s bluff.

    Imagine if Glenn Greenwald was to publish a report based on a secret document that he merely referred to but never published. As widely respected as Greenwald is, he’d have a credibility problem. Hersh does too. Has he even seen this paper?

    If the question’s ever posed, I anticipate quite a bit of hand-waving will follow — emphasis on the highly-classified nature of the information, the risk to his source, the threat to national security, etc, etc.

  8. Steve

    Ok I take your points so I wonder why Mr Hersh has decided to go against what he has done previously and do this.

    I have always thought him one of the better US journalists. It’s a shame that he seems to have strayed from the path.

  9. Paul Woodward Post author

    Steve – Even though I might seem to have been severely critical of Hersh’s reporting on Syria, I’m not passing judgement on him as a journalist. I could speculate about his reasons for approaching this story this way, but there’s not much point doing that. The one thing I will say is that it’s clear that he has failed to make good use of the internet. Is that because of his age (76)? Maybe.

  10. LastWordFreak

    Just 2 questions.
    1.Who is Paul Woodward?
    2.Please list your awards for your service to investigative journalism

  11. Paul Woodward Post author

    LastWordFreak – “Who is Paul Woodward?” Read my about page. “Please list your awards for your service to investigative journalism”: None.

    I have to laugh when I hear Seymour Hersh fans trumpet his authority, his stature, and his credibility as an investigative journalist. Have you forgotten that when he first reported on the My Lai Massacre, he was an unknown independent reporter?

    I guess you would have been throwing similar questions at him back in 1969. Who is Seymour Hersh? What awards has he won?

    It’s ironic that a journalist lionized for questioning power has been invested with so much authority that he cannot now be questioned.

  12. LastWordFreak

    My dear Mr Woodward, if you know of Hersh’s history you will know in today’s environment of social media journalist wannabes, corporate-owned media and government stenographers passing as journalists that Hersh has earned a reputation of the go-to man for people at the top. In fact he is probably the ONLY outlet for people in Govt who have misgivings but cannot go public without endangering their careers.

    He has been attacked for decades and he has fought the “pathetic spineless media” as he called it in a Guardian article for decades. He as been called a liar by Presidents and in the end he proved the President and everyone else was the liar.

    He has a track record that you all envy. Why? BECAUSE HE WONT COMPROMISE. So its really very amusing when he is attacked and the evidence used to support this critique is that the bought-out corporate MSM wont publish him. sigh.

    If you are so sure of yourself against someone of his stature, if he is a crank, why has no one ever sued him? Because they know he has enough names and his network is large enough they cannot predict the fallout.

  13. scott conner

    Paul, you missed all of this. You should hang up the site and start following They tracked this story, it’s a obvious as could be, except if you’re blind. Eight stories were in Reuters, BBC, AP and other similar wire services that found the rebels with sarin, arrested with it, or admitting deploying it. The MIT study corroborated this, as does the “mere argument” that the Joint Chiefs found evidence enough, why, when he’s winning, and inspectors are on the ground would he deploy Sarin. You’ve just missed all of this and I lost interest in your site.

  14. Paul Woodward Post author

    Scott – I’ll start following Moon of Alabama when I start following Alex Jones. I don’t mind if some people lose interest in my site, although I would suggest there’s no need to come back to tell me.

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