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.
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.
‘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.