Gaius Publius: Notes on Seymour Hersh’s Book “Reporter”

By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. GP article archive  here. Originally published at DownWithTyranny

An American soldier stoking a fire of burning houses during the My Lai massacre on March 16th, 1968 (Ronald S. Haeberle/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty)

Seymour Hersh recently released a book on his life as a reporter, called appropriately, Reporter. It’s gotten praise from many quarters, including from novelist and former intelligence officer John Le Carré: “This book is essential reading for every journalist and aspiring journalist the world over.”

Journalist Matt Taibbi has apparently taken le Carré’s words to heart, read it (no surprise) and written an interesting commentary on it for Rolling Stone. I’m drawing the observations below from Taibbi’s observations.

On Intelligence Agencies “Going Rogue”

Taibbi recounts a story from Reporter about a time when Hersh, who makes his living discovering information that intelligence agencies don’t want people to know, was handed a “treasure trove” of secret information the CIA did want him to know.

Taibbi writes:

Late in his new memoir, Reporter, muckraking legend Seymour Hersh recounts an episode from a story he wrote for the New Yorker in 1999, about the Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.

Bill Clinton was believed to be preparing a pardon for Pollard. This infuriated the rank and file of the intelligence community, who now wanted the press to know just what Pollard had stolen and why letting him free would be, in their eyes, an outrage.

“Soon after I began asking questions,” Hersh writes, “I was invited by a senior intelligence official to come have a chat at CIA headquarters. I had done interviews there before, but always at my insistence.”

He went to the CIA meeting. There, officials dumped a treasure trove of intelligence on his desk and explained that this material – much of which had to do with how we collected information about the Soviets – had been sold by Pollard to Israel.

On its face, the story was sensational. But Hersh was uncomfortable. “I was very ambivalent about being in the unfamiliar position of carrying water for the American intelligence community,” he wrote. “I, who had worked so hard in my career to learn the secrets, had been handed the secrets.”

From this Taibbi takes this lesson: “This offhand line explains a lot about what has made Hersh completely embody what it means to be a reporter. The great test is being able to get information powerful people don’t want you to have. A journalist who is handed something, even a very sensational something, should feel nervous, sick, ambivalent.”

From the same story I take an additional lesson: The CIA, through an active, serving, “senior official,” attempted to use an unauthorized intelligence leak of massive proportions to undermine and potentially sabotage the decision of an elected, sitting president, nominally the official’s boss via the chain of command, all this in 1999, decades before Donald Trump.

Should Pollard have been pardoned by Clinton? Likely not. Pressure on Clinton from Israel and the Jewish-American community was intense, but he eventually decided against a pardon, and a look at the facts shows he made the right decision. Pollard had done quite a lot of damage, was unrepentant, and acted for gain as well as in the interests of Israel. So justice was done.

Yet the method attempted by the CIA to influence this decision included not just normal chain-of-command influence (going into the president’s office and arguing the case), but backdoor leaks to the press (Hersh) calculated to make a pardon politically impossible. In other words, to box in a presidential decision, the agency decided to “go rogue” — use its access to classified intelligence material to force the president it serves to make a decision it preferred.

This is first cousin to blackmail by the keeper of the nation’s secrets via a third party (Hersh), and it would actually have been blackmail had someone from the agency gone to Clinton ahead of time and told him of the plan. Which they may well have done.

Keep this intelligence community behavior in mind as you consider (a) how that community operates with respect to U.S. politics; and (b) how it may be helping to get rid of another elected, sitting president, one that few in the Beltway political establishment want to continue in office.

To be clear: Should Trump be removed as president? I’m a strong yes on that, though you may disagree. How should he be removed? The answer to that sets precedent, doesn’t it?

We’ve had presidents murdered out of office, most recently in 1963, in suspicious circumstances as a matter of fact. To my knowledge we haven’t yet had one blackmailed out of office, though that clock has obviously not run out.

On CIA Assassination

Taibbi also brings up the history of political assassination carried out by the CIA: “Hersh was also among the first to describe a burgeoning American assassination program that to this day is poorly understood.”

Within weeks of 9/11, for instance, Hersh quoted a “C.I.A. man” claiming the U.S. needed to “defy the American rule of law… We need to do this – knock them down one by one.” He later reported on the existence of a “target list” and cited an order comparing the new tactics to El Salvadoran execution squads, reporting that much of this was going on without Congress being told.

That quote, about defying American rule of law, can be found in this New Yorker analysis of Hersh’s writing about the executive assassination program in the post 9/11 years, “Close Read: What Did Seymour Hersh Say About Assassination?” published in 2009. It’s quite revealing.

For even more about executive assassination, I strongly recommend reading this Hersh account of what really happened to Osama bin Laden — “The Killing of Osama bin Laden” — published in the London Review of Books.

A taste:

‘They knew where the target was – third floor, second door on the right,’ the retired official [one of Hersh’s sources] said. Go straight there. Osama [by now an invalid] was cowering and retreated into the bedroom. Two shooters followed him and opened up. Very simple, very straightforward, very professional hit.’ Some of the Seals were appalled later at the White House’s initial insistence that they had shot bin Laden in self-defence, the retired official said. ‘Six of the Seals’ finest, most experienced NCOs, faced with an unarmed elderly civilian, had to kill him in self-defence?’

The whole thing, including Obama’s shameful, self-serving sabotage of the agreed-upon plan, will fascinate you.

How to Be a Reporter

Taibbi ultimately reflects on the journalism business:

The job in many quarters has devolved into feeding captive audiences a steady stream of revelations framed to fit their preconceived ideas about the world, in order to keep them coming back. From Fox to MSNBC, the slant of programming has become more predictable, because audiences hate surprises and dislike being challenged. …

Hersh’s career is a tribute to the pursuit of the “unpredictable result.” We used to value reporters who were willing to alienate editors and readers alike, if that’s the way the truth cut. Now, as often as not, we just change the channel. This has been bad for both reporters and readers, who are losing the will to seek out and face the unpredictable truth.

I found myself speculating a little as I read those paragraphs. Matt Taibbi is already one of our most valuable journalists. Still, could this signal a change in his own career, or is this just an comment about someone else’s career from his own desk at Rolling Stone? Taibbi’s admiration is certainly obvious, as is his criticism of his peers.

Either way, Seymour Hersh has committed journalism of the most dangerous kind, putting him several steps ahead of what is now delivered to us as reporting. It would be nice to find a few more like him among the current crop.

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  1. Disturbed Voter

    Speaking truth to power, usually gets you fired or worse. My Hersh hasn’t suffered yet, so is that a sign that he is a tool of the Elite? Or just a sign that the Deep State isn’t monolithic?

    1. bob mcmanus

      From the Taibbi:

      “Ultimately, Hersh and the New Yorker fell out over the story of the assassination of Osama bin Laden.”

      After what, 25 years?

      “In the end, Hersh was forced to publish his account in the London Review of Books, which is where he’s been publishing on and off ever since.”

    2. Enquiring Mind

      Hersh has received, researched and reported on so much around the world for decades, and has had access to people at all levels in and out of many organizations. Imagine what he hasn’t yet said. One possible explanation of his longevity is that he has kept some information for eventual release in the event of some attempt on his life. He likely knows enough to cause embarrassment, or worse, to many in DC and elsewhere, so it is in their interest to tolerate his occasional missives. That preserves their ability to operate with the caveat that he has to live to avoid such a release.

      Recall the scene in The Firm, where the Tom Cruise character explains how he has made copies of all of the records dealing with the firm’s sole client. He describes that situation as being like a ship that is always on the ocean, and not coming into port unless something were to happen. The Paul Sorvino character says that the situation is like that of Yassar [family blog] Arafat (intimating that that is how he survived for so long surrounded by hostile forces).

      Think of Hersh and the Cruise character, and how many others in and out of US government or agencies, as having a type of insurance policy.

    3. TimmyB

      Only if we turn a blind eye to the easily observable facts such as Hersh can’t get a job in the US and instead has to be published in Germany and England can the claim Hersh hasn’t “suffered yet” become believable.

  2. Ook

    “nice to find a few more like him among the current cropnice to find a few more like him among the current crop”

    I know of at least one, but he’s been locked up inside the Ecuador Embassy for several years. Hersh was lucky enough to have worked in a previous generation.

  3. The Rev Kev

    I’d also include such people as Dahr Jamail, Uri Avnery, Pepe Escobar, Eva Bartlett, Tom Engelhardt, Gareth Porter & Vanessa Beeley as well that immediately come to mind.

    1. Temporarily Sane

      Beeley and Bartlett are propagandists for the Syrian Ba’athist regime. They deliberately ignore all the evidence that does not fit into their narrative. The Syrian regime has a well deserved reputation, stretching back half a century, for responding to dissent with savage brutality. The entire debate about the Syrian war has been polluted with propaganda from all sides involved and it is difficult to seperate fact from fiction, but it can be done if one accepts a certain amount of ambiguity. Whatever else may be true, the viciousness of the Ba’athist regime is beyond doubt and it is sad to see so many intelligent people getting hoodwinked by blatant propaganda as if only the west is in the disinformation business.

      1. zapster

        Actually, no. I’ve searched for verifiable evidence of these claims for months, and have yet to find anything but ‘anonymous official sez’ type nonsense. And such claims are routinely debunked by experts. That ‘reputation’ is just another example of the power of repetitive propaganda.

      2. The Rev Kev

        People are entitled to their opinions but they are not entitled to their facts. Venessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett have actually gone in on the ground in Syria. They have visited and toured ex-terrorist headquarters in captured cities. They are easy to find as they are parked right next door to White Helmets locations. They do not sit on their backsides in some hotel in Jordan or Turkey and wait to get their latest’s scoop’ from documented Jihadist groups or some Atlantic Council muppets sitting in a bedsit in the UK. You should really watch some of their material sometimes.

        Sure Syria has a bad reputation for heavy handed behavior. Otherwise George Bush would have never sent captured suspects there for torture as sending them to Israel or Saudi Arabia would have been to politically sensitive. But the truth of the matter is that Syria is a secular nation of many different people and they stand with Syria. Wanna know what would have happened if the Jihadist had won?
        Apart from the Alawites being slaughtered (with the west guaranteed denying them refuge) but also the Christians would have been slaughtered as well. And the Sunnis and Shia too. In the last election they voted for Assad and they will not accept some Saudi fundamentalist government-in-a-box delivered by western powers to rule them. Too much blood has been spilt for that.

        You think that it is difficult to separate fact from fiction? Let me help you. For the past several years Syria has been fighting for its life against several divisions worth of fanatical Jihadists. These Jihadists who have been recruited, transported, trained, equipped and supplied by the west along with the Gulf nations have gone on an absolute spree of death, mayhem and destruction.

        Equipment and ammunition has come from the NATO nations, Israel as well as the old stockpiles from Libya and were fed by the CIA into Syria by routes through Turkey, Israel and Jordan. At times countries like the US, Israel, the UK, France, Australia, etc have attacked Syrian positions to help not only Jihadists but also in direct aid to ISIS. Yeah, that ISIS.

        With the Jihadist losing, countries like the US and France are deliberately occupying big chunks of Syria to try to save the situation for the Jihadists. I suspect that this is more to fulfill an Israeli foreign policy rather than a US one. NC has given many links to articles on the war in Syria over the years so it is not like that this stuff is hidden or anything. Personally I have become an admirer of the Syrian people as here is a country that has fought off half the world to get their country back again. Sure they had help from Iran and Russia but most of the heavy-lifting has been done by themselves. I wish them well.

      3. TimmyB

        Same old “the leader of that country is a new Hitler, so let’s turn the entire country into rubble” bullshit we’ve heard from Vietnam (“we had to burn the village to save it”) to Serbia, to Iraq, to Libya, to Syria today.

        I really don’t care how awful Assad is, killing hundreds of thousands and displacing millions is too high a price to pay to get rid of him. That becomes especially true when all observable facts indicate that those who replace him will be much, much worse.

  4. Adrian Kent.

    I have huge respect for Hersh, but I think he rather slipped up on the very problem detailed here with a piece he wrote last year on the alleged Khan Sheikhoun chemical weapons attack in Syria which he actually had to get published in Germany (Welt iirc) as even the London Review of Books wouldn’t touch it.

    In that piece he reported anonymous US sources who informed him of communication logs that supported the then Russian/Syrian explanation that the ‘massacre’ was due to a conventional bomb hitting a store of CW or other chemicals in the town.

    The trouble for Hersh, and his version, was that the location of this store was never provided and could not be identified in satellite images, even if a bomb could have produced such a release from a stockpile in the first place (which is debateable).

    The upshot was that, at least for those who want to protect the (preposterous) Assad did it narrative (the US, Bellingcat, Dan Kazseta and others) Seymoure Hersh was a discredited source – and his much better sourced and evidenced claims about the 2013 alleged Ghouta sarin attack, could be flung out too.

    Worse still, the fact that someone as eminent as Hersh would produce a report that accepted that a large scale event took place detracted from the increasing body of evidence that actually none did – and that a much more likely explanation of the events was a ‘managed masacre’ that required just a small amount of ‘sarin or sarin-like’ substance to contaminate a few soil and tissue samples.

    See here for more on this from Prof Paul McKeigue of Edinburgh University:

    1. pespi

      This is inaccurate. Hersh may not have had complete information about what was struck, but he got the facts correct about everything else. Dr. Postol and others work has triangulated the source of the toxic smoke as a stock of organophosphate pesticides. Hersh is not discredited, but those who attempted to frame the Syrian gov are. There was an explosion and there were deaths. The syrian government themselves gave data about the location where they dropped a conventional bomb.

      Let’s not slander a great reporter.

    2. Temporarily Sane

      Are you sure Assad did not do it? The evidence is not conclusive and it is impossible to say with certainty who was responsible. Reflexively assuming the Syrian government could never have done it is an odd position to take considering its sordid track record.

  5. Christopher Fay

    There’s already been one Rolling Stone reporter off’ed for not respecting the chain of command.

  6. Andrew Watts

    From the same story I take an additional lesson: The CIA, through an active, serving, “senior official,” attempted to use an unauthorized intelligence leak of massive proportions to undermine and potentially sabotage the decision of an elected, sitting president, nominally the official’s boss via the chain of command, all this in 1999, decades before Donald Trump.

    Wow. That’s a great example of authoritarian liberal/progressive boot-licking. What the higher-ups at the CIA attempted with Hersh is no different then what Snowden accomplished with Greenwald/Poitras. They both had privileged access to super-duper top secret information and their actions were to inform the public so that a political cost could be imposed, a wholly democratic one I might add, where the public would be able to draw their own conclusions based upon the information made available.

    The contemporary situation with Trump is a horse of a different color. The public is being fed with a steady diet of disinformation and they serve no other role than as targets for political manipulation in an attempt to prevent Trump’s election and undermine the legitimacy of his presidency.

    Should Pollard have been pardoned by Clinton? Likely not.

    Why not? Clinton did pardon Deutch after all and that particular instance was probably an intelligence leak that was several multitudes more significant then what Pollard sold. It’s truly disturbing to see so many people adopt the self-aggrandizing attitude of the national security mindset.

    Espionage didn’t play a vital role in the outcome of the Cold War otherwise the Soviets would’ve probably won. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing that your adversary knows your intentions in certain specific instances. You know, so the Soviets don’t draw the wrong conclusions about a NATO military exercise like Able Archer and mistakenly launch their nukes in a nuclear first strike.

    1. Gaius Publius

      That’s a great example of authoritarian liberal/progressive boot-licking. What the higher-ups at the CIA attempted with Hersh is no different then what Snowden accomplished with Greenwald/Poitras. They both had privileged access to super-duper top secret information and their actions were to inform the public so that a political cost could be imposed, a wholly democratic one I might add, where the public would be able to draw their own conclusions based upon the information made available.

      These are entirely different cases, in my view, and that difference is my point. What Snowden did was without the knowledge or approval of his agency. What the CIA did in Hersh’s case was with the approval of the agency.

      IOW, in the Hersh case, it was the agency acting. That’s my point in that passage. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.


  7. Pelham

    Shouldn’t the CIA’s attempt to blackmail a sitting president have been exposed as such by Hersh, rather than treated as merely suspicious?

    Similarly, when JFK learned of Operation Northwoods — a proposal by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to carry out false-flag attacks to justify an invasion of Cuba — shouldn’t Kennedy have exposed the plan as such and then proceeded to prosecute the planners?

    If not, why not? Obviously, Kennedy would have put his presidency at risk. And in Hersh’s instance, he might have burned sources. But it seems to me that in each case much graver issues were in play requiring full exposure to the light.

    1. jsn

      Kennedy was already doing plenty to put his presidency at risk, and his life it turns out. David Talbot’s biography of Alan Dulles, “The Devil’s Chessboard” lays out the state of play and constraints on Kennedy at that point.

      Institutional constraints prevent most clear, simple action by presidents, thus Trump reaches for tariffs to address the NeoLiberal displacement of his working class constituents. In taking on State, FBI and CIA, none of whom liked Kennedy or his policies, he was highly constrained and was playing a smart game until his removal was arranged. Even some die hard conservatives are starting to see this.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Having just read the Unz article, I am again led to wonder why Noam Chomsky remains so derisive of Kennedy the President, AND derisive towards any and every person who ever wondered who really
        planned and carried out the assassination.

    2. Lord Koos

      JFK couldn’t do too much because the FBI had so much dirt on him… it wasn’t much of a secret that Jack had girlfriends but the general public didn’t know. I’m pretty sure that given contemporary surveillance tech, our intel agencies have plenty of stuff with which to control our politicians.

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