Commentary Magazine


The Deceits of Seymour Hersh

Last June, the distinguished American journalist Seymour Hersh published an article in the New Yorker entitled “Iran and the Bomb: How Real Is the Nuclear Threat?” His answer: not very. There exists no “irrefutable evidence of an ongoing hidden nuclear-weapons program in Iran,” Hersh asserted, relying upon the words of anonymous “intelligence and diplomatic officials.” Hersh concluded with a quote from Mohamed ElBaradei, who had retired as director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) two years earlier: “During my time at the agency,” ElBaradei said, “we haven’t seen a shred of evidence that Iran has been weaponizing, in terms of building nuclear-weapons facilities and using enriched materials.”

A week before Hersh’s piece hit newsstands, news came of a letter sent by Yukiya Amano, ElBaradei’s successor, to the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization. The IAEA had received “further information related to such possible undisclosed nuclear-related activities.” Amano wished to “reiterate the concern about the existence of possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program.” Iran, as it has always done, dismissed the evidence collected by the IAEA as forgeries. 

In September, the IAEA revealed it had received information about Iranian “activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.” Two months later, the agency released yet another report confirming what everyone already knew: The regime is pursuing a nuclear-weapons program. Among other information, the agency revealed tests “relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device,” “the acquisition of nuclear-weapons development information and documentation from a clandestine nuclear-supply network,” and “work on the development of an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon including the testing of components.” The IAEA cited more than 1,000 document pages of “credible” information related to Iranian weaponization, accumulated by “more than 10 member states.”

The damning IAEA report was a long time coming. In September 2009, at a joint press conference on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh, President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced the declassification of intelligence that revealed a secret, underground uranium-enrichment plant near the holy city of Qom—a highly inconvenient place to produce fuel rods for medical isotopes. Obama said that he delayed releasing the information for months, as it “is very important in these kind of high-stakes situations to make sure the intelligence is right,” and that the revelation of the plant “represents a direct challenge to the basic foundation of the nonproliferation regime.”

Hersh—the man described by the Financial Times as “the last great American reporter”—was unfazed. There remains “no definitive evidence of a nuclear-weapons program,” he wrote in a November 18 blog post. To account for the IAEA’s increasingly harsh tone toward Tehran, he suggested that the agency’s new head, unlike ElBaradei, was a lackey of Washington, telling a radio interviewer that “Amano has pledged his fealty to America.”

Indeed, the IAEA report was nothing more than “a political document,” Hersh said, before revealing a hint as to why he was so adamant in denying the obvious about Iran’s nuclear intentions:

I wish we could separate our feelings about Iran and the mullahs and what happened with the students from 1979, into the reality, which is that I think there’s a very serious chance the Iranians would certainly give us the kind of inspections we want, in return for a little love—an end to sanctions and a respect that they insist that they want to get from us.

As for the Obama administration’s posture toward Iran, it was little better than that of its predecessor. “The new report, therefore, leaves us where we’ve been since 2002, when George Bush declared Iran to be a member of the Axis of Evil,” Hersh wrote, “with lots of belligerent talk but no definitive evidence of a nuclear-weapons program.” 

What could explain the positions of Obama and Clinton—liberal Democrats who, in Hersh’s eyes, have made the cardinal sin of expressing such distress about a nuclear-weapons program that doesn’t even exist? “Money. A lot of the Jewish money from New York. Come on, let’s not kid about it,” Hersh said in a 2007 interview on the far-left Democracy Now! radio show, in a discussion about the Democratic presidential primary. “A significant percentage of Jewish money, and many leading American Jews support the Israeli position that Iran is an existential threat,” he continued. “And I think it’s as simple as that.”

A succession of reports from the IAEA, the considered judgment of a vast array of international intelligence services, and the 30-year history of the Iranian regime’s wanton aggression and domestic depravity—none of this explains the views of the president and his secretary of state. No, they are beholden to “Jewish money from New York.” 

If Iran is peaceful and genuinely desirous of rapprochement with the West, according to Hersh, Washington is hell-bent on bombing it. Indeed, his article last June exculpating Tehran of utilizing nuclear technology for nefarious purposes was merely the culmination of a years-long series of stories claiming that President George W. Bush was preparing for war against Iran. 

In no fewer than six feature-length New Yorker articles published during the Bush administration, Hersh claimed that the United States was going to launch a war against the Islamic Republic. The first such article appeared more than seven years ago. In “The Coming Wars,” published in January 2005, Hersh wrote: “In my interviews, I was repeatedly told that the next strategic target was Iran.” He quoted a “former high-level intelligence official” who said: “Next, we’re going to have the Iranian campaign.” In April 2006, Hersh alleged that the Bush administration “increased clandestine activities inside Iran and intensified planning for a possible major air attack.” That piece made the stunning charge that the U.S. was contemplating a tactical nuclear first strike against Iran. Three months later, in an article entitled “Last Stand,” Hersh relayed the tale of how “senior commanders” in the military were heroically challenging Bush’s order that they prepare for a “major bombing campaign in Iran.”

In November 2006, after the midterm elections restored Democratic control of Congress, Hersh reported that the administration had decided to refocus its plans for an attack on Iran by throwing support to a Kurdish terrorist organization rather than prepare for an extensive bombing run. In March 2007, the “realists” within the administration must have weakened, because Hersh wrote that Bush had ordered a list of Iranian targets to be bombed, a decision that “brought the United States closer to an open confrontation with Iran.” An attack could come as early as “this spring,” Hersh wrote, according to one of his innumerable “former senior intelligence officials.” When spring came and went, with no attack on Iran, Hersh returned with a piece in October, alleging now that “the emphasis is on ‘surgical’ strikes on Revolutionary Guard facilities in Tehran and elsewhere, which, the Administration claims, have been the source of attacks on Americans in Iraq.” 

Needless to say, the United States never went to war against Iran during the Bush administration. And there is no evidence that the administration had ever prepared for a war—certainly less evidence than exists for the suspicion that Iran is working towards the ability to produce a nuclear weapon, which Hersh loudly warns anyone and everyone from concluding. Indeed, according to a 2009 report in the New York Times, President Bush rejected a request from Israel the previous year that it be allowed to attack Iran’s main nuclear facility, which would have required flying over Iraqi airspace. That Hersh’s reporting on Iran has repeatedly been exposed as inaccurate never once dissuaded him from repeating his same fantastical assertions over and over again. 

Indeed, if there is one thing that Hersh—known to every aspiring journalist as the greatest investigative reporter of his generation—has been consistent on, it’s his uncanny ability to be utterly wrong. 

 Hersh’s early career as a journalist was fitful. Born in 1937 in Chicago, Illinois, to Jewish immigrant parents, he was expelled from the University of Chicago Law School for poor grades and went on to spend several years as a wire service reporter in Washington, D.C. He briefly joined Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign, only to quit over allegations that the candidate was not more vocal on civil rights. Hersh returned to freelance journalism, and at age 32 finally made his big break with his exposé of the 1969 My Lai massacre, in which a group of American soldiers killed hundreds of unarmed civilians. 

Hersh’s story of American military atrocity was to become the template for his entire journalistic career. “It was easy to go to war against the Vietnamese,” he mused in a 1998 interview with the Progressive. “I thought in the 1992 campaign Bill Clinton might be the first president since the end of World War II to actually bomb white people. But I was disappointed, as usual. He found it easier to go after the Somalians. Just like Ronald Reagan found it easy to go to Grenada, and Bush found it easy to go to Panama, to the Third World, or to people of a different hue. There seems to be some sort of general pattern here.” Under President Clinton, the United States launched two bombing campaigns against Serbia (whose citizens are mostly Caucasian), during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. But why let facts get in the way of a determined effort to paint the United States and its foreign policy as irredeemably racist? 

For his reporting on My Lai, Hersh won the Pulitzer Prize, and the story made him, in the words of then-New York Times managing editor A.M. Rosenthal, “the hottest piece of journalistic property in the United States.” The Times promptly hired Hersh to work in its Washington bureau, where the sloppiness that would come to define his journalism career soon became evident. In 1974, he claimed that the former U.S. Ambassador to Chile, Edward Korry, was involved in a coup d’état the previous year. It wasn’t until 1981 that Hersh would write a 3,000-word, front-page retraction exonerating Korry that Time referred to as “the longest correction ever published.” 

This experience did nothing to dissuade Hersh from making grave and poorly substantiated charges, almost always based upon the assertions of what would soon become the defining feature of the Hersh oeuvre: anonymous sources. In a 1983 book on former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Hersh alleged that former Prime Minister Morarji Desai of India was a paid agent of the Central Intelligence Agency, receiving $20,000 annually. Hersh based the accusation on what he claimed were interviews with six confidential sources. Desai sued Hersh for libel, but due to his advanced age was unable to travel to the United States for the trial. Given the nature of American libel laws, which heavily favor defendants (particularly journalists using anonymous sources), Hersh won, claiming a great victory for the First Amendment in the process. Desai’s lawyer said, “We just had to take Mr. Hersh’s words for it that he talked to someone”—words that must apply to anyone who reads Hersh’s journalism. 

In 1991, Hersh published The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy, which featured a variety of stupendous (and occasionally, contradictory) allegations. To take but a handful: Hersh alleged that, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel blackmailed the United States into launching a weapons airlift by threatening to deploy its nuclear arsenal against Arab adversaries—a claim that Richard Nixon later said had “no foundation whatsoever.” Hersh also wrote that Israel had targeted cities in the Soviet Union with its nuclear arsenal while simultaneously passing along American nuclear secrets to Moscow.

The source for this, and much else in the book, was Ari Ben-Menashe, an Israeli con man and “spinner of tangled yarns,” according to Time. Perhaps the most infamous of such yarns was the 1980 meeting Ben-Menashe claims to have witnessed in Paris where then Vice Presidential candidate George H.W. Bush persuaded Iranian leaders to hold American hostages until after the election. Hersh himself would later admit that Ben-Menashe “lies like people breathe.” 

But it wasn’t until the 1997 publication of his 500-page tome on the Kennedys, The Dark Side of Camelot, that Hersh would earn the opprobrium of the elite media that had, up until this time, praised him as the greatest muckraker since Upton Sinclair. As he had with his book on Israel’s nuclear-weapons program, Hersh fell for a hoax—in this case, a series of forged documents indicating that John F. Kennedy had, among many other indignities, offered hush money to his alleged lover, Marilyn Monroe, and had conspired with mafia bosses to overthrow Fidel Castro. Ultimately, two forensic experts hired by ABC News—in the midst of producing a documentary based on a working draft of Hersh’s book—concluded that the documents were fakes. Hersh admitted he had been duped and removed all references about the documents from his manuscript before the book was published. 

But, as is his wont, Hersh made many other dubious claims in the book (for instance, that John F. Kennedy had been married to a Palm Beach society matron prior to wedding Jacqueline Lee Bouvier). Reviewers panned it. What was notable about the critical reaction, however, was the ecumenism of the condemnations; now that Hersh’s journalistic agenda to paint the United States as the world’s greatest malefactor had impugned a Democratic Party hero, his ethics and practices came under scrutiny by the very liberal media establishment that had fawned over him when these same tactics were turned on their ideological enemies.

Writing in the Nation, Gail Collins advised that the book was “best read as a sort of journalistic tragedy.” Gary Wills, in a piece for the New York Review of Books entitled “A Second Assassination,” concluded that “Hersh has with precision and method disassembled and obliterated his own career and reputation.” Douglas Brinkley, the sympathetic biographer of John Kerry, said that Hersh had “squandered” his credibility and “one can only assume he did it for money.” Three years later, Salon reported that the next book by “the hardest working muckraker in the journalism business,” about Gulf War Syndrome, “has been selling indifferently and has been ignored by a surprising number of reviewers.”

But Hersh’s career, and his reputation among the very liberals who had so disparaged him over his portrayal of the glamorous president robbed of his life at such a tragically young age, would prove resurgent once he set his sights on a new target: the Bush administration. In May 2004, Hersh broke the story of how a small group of U.S. military police at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq had abused and sexually humiliated inmates. As public opinion turned against the war in Iraq and the president who led it—a change in attitudes that Hersh played no small role in fomenting—the elite media that had once written him off, accurately, as a doddering old crank, rushed back to his side.

For a barometer of elite media consensus, witness Newsweek’s Evan Thomas, who told the Columbia Journalism Review in summer 2003, “I read what [Hersh] writes with some skepticism or doubt or uncertainty.” Yet the following year, after the Abu Ghraib piece appeared, Thomas told New York, “Even if he’s made a few mistakes—even if you’re not sure what they are—overall you’d have to say he’s pretty much been ahead of everybody.” Ted Kennedy, who had condemned The Dark Side of Camelot as nothing more than “maliciousness and innuendo” only seven years earlier, was now trumpeting the information Hersh had brought to light, stating that “shamefully we now learn that Saddam’s torture chambers reopened under new management, U.S. management.” 

Of course, what happened at Abu Ghraib was a crime, and the perpetrators were punished by court-martial. And therein lies the problem with Hersh’s reporting about abuses committed by members of the American military, evidenced in his portrayal of what happened with both My Lai and Abu Ghraib. Had Hersh merely reported on the existence of the massacre and the prisoner abuse respectively, his stories would have been not only journalistic triumphs but also true services to his country: Exposing wrongdoing is never wrong. But Hersh went further, using the existence of such offenses to allege far-reaching, institutional conspiracies.

Indeed, in the cases of My Lai and Abu Ghraib both, it was not a cover-up of wrongdoing that Hersh exposed, but rather the investigation of said transgressions by the very government that Hersh condemned as inherently abusive and corrupt. Hersh “broke” the story of My Lai by reporting on the existence of the court-martial of Lieutenant William Calley, the man chiefly responsible for the massacre. According to Hersh, however, the real problem with My Lai was not the behavior of Calley and his comrades, but “the Army as an institution.” But if Calley represented the nadir of the American military, Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who stopped the massacre by threatening to fire on his fellow American soldiers if they continued to kill innocents, represented the finest. Nevertheless, Hersh used My Lai to tar the entire military and American policy in Vietnam more broadly.

Likewise, with Abu Ghraib, it did not matter that the prisoner abuse had been discovered by the military and that the sadistic perpetrators were in the process of being punished; Hersh had to argue that the incident was demonstrative of a deeper, broader evil that reached all the way up to the highest levels of power. What happened at Abu Ghraib, Hersh claimed, was not the result of misbehavior by low-level grunts. It was the consequence of interrogation policies authorized by senior Bush administration officials.

Hersh alleged the existence of a Pentagon program entitled “Copper Green,” which, in his words, “encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in an effort to generate more intelligence about the growing insurgency in Iraq.” But as former CNN Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre noted last year, “the most sensation[al] allegations in that article were never confirmed, and didn’t check out, namely that then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld establish[ed] a top-secret program (Copper Green) that changed the rules concerning al-Qaeda suspects, and then okayed the tactics for use at Abu Ghraib prison.”

Hersh’s reporting on Abu Ghraib came off the heels of a series of pieces popularizing, more successfully than the work of any other journalist, the narrative that the Bush administration had corrupted the process of intelligence analysis so as to deceive the country into the Iraq War—a thesis that became the basis for his 2004 book, Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib. “How did they do it?” Hersh asked. “How did eight or nine neoconservatives…get their way? How did they redirect the government and rearrange long-standing American priorities with so much ease? How did they overcome the bureaucracy, intimidate the press, mislead the Congress, and dominate the military?” In 2004, Hersh won a National Magazine Award for Public Interest for a series of articles alleging that elements of the Bush administration had manipulated intelligence to lead the country into war.

Allegations about such political interference, however, should have been put to rest in 2004 with the release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community’s Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq. The committee “did not find any evidence that intelligence analysts changed their judgments as a result of political pressure, altered or produced intelligence products to conform with Administration policy, or that anyone even attempted to coerce, influence or pressure analysts to do so.” The 2005 bipartisan Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, also known as the Robb-Silberman Commission, “found no evidence of political pressure to influence the Intelligence Community’s prewar assessments of Iraq’s weapons programs.” And a subsequent “Phase II” report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released in 2008 found that the Bush administration’s assertions about Iraq’s nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs, as well as the regime’s ties to terrorist organizations, were all “substantiated by intelligence information.” Ultimately, it was the intelligence itself that was false, not the Bush administration’s presentation of it. But the Hersh lie has become widely accepted nonetheless.

In addition to the series of false predictions he published about impending war with Iran, Hersh’s reporting after Abu Ghraib has been specious on a wide variety of topics. In a January 2005 New Yorker article, Hersh wrote that then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld “will become even more important during the second term.” Less than two years later, following the November 2006 midterm elections, Rumsfeld resigned.

Several months later, in a story sourced to a variety of anonymous “past and present intelligence and military officials,” Hersh asserted that the Bush administration “covertly intervene[d] in the Iraqi election” held earlier that year in an “off the books” campaign “conducted by retired CIA officers and other non-government personnel” that “used funds…not necessarily appropriated by Congress.” No other news outlet could confirm this scoop, and a subsequent story in the Times, citing a number of Bush administration officials, said that “a formal authorization for covert action to influence the election” was brought to Bush, who “either had already signed it or was about to when objections were raised in Congress. Ultimately, he rescinded the decision, the officials said.”

In March 2007, Hersh asserted that, as part of its plan to destabilize the Shiite regime in Tehran, Washington was “bolstering Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to al-Qaeda.” In Lebanon, he wrote, this broader policy manifested itself in the form of the Lebanese government’s supply of weapons, with American backing, to Fatah al-Islam, a Sunni Palestinian terrorist group, so that it might take on Iranian-backed Hezbollah. The story, sourced only to a former MI6 agent who said he “was told” that weapons had been given to the group, was, in the words of Lebanese journalist Michael Young, “badly argued, displays shaky knowledge of the details, and seems mainly propelled by antipathy for the Bush administration.” Two months later, the Lebanese army launched an attack on Fatah al-Islam, the group to which it was allegedly running weapons as part of a long-term, pro-Sunni regional plot, in what became the bloodiest domestic conflict since Lebanon’s Civil War. 

When not accusing Republicans and Israelis of warmongering, Hersh downplays or ignores the actual warlike behavior of rogue states. In this role, he has been a literal court stenographer to tyrants. In February 2008, Hersh wrote in the New Yorker that a Syrian facility bombed by Israel the previous September “apparently had little to do with…nuclear reactors.” Three months later, the Bush administration released a series of images of the facility before it had been destroyed, revealing nuclear fuel rods similar to ones used in North Korea, as well as a photograph of the head of North Korean’s Yongbyon nuclear plant meeting with Syria’s nuclear agency director. Last April, IAEA’s Yukiya Amano unequivocally stated that the site was “a nuclear reactor under construction.” And in November, UN investigators found evidence that Syria was working with rogue Pakistani nuclear-weapons scientist A.Q. Khan on its facility. 

The following year, Hersh authored a piece suggesting that Bashar al-Assad—inserted into power in 2000 after his father, who had ruled the country with an iron fist for three decades, died—was eager for a peace deal with Israel. Communicating with Hersh by e-mail, the dictator wrote that, while Jerusalem was “doing everything possible to undermine the prospects for peace…we still believe that we need to conclude a serious dialogue to lead us to peace.” Hersh met with Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, who assured the New Yorker correspondent that “Syria is eager to engage with the West”—a genuine desire for peace that, of course, “was never perceived by the Bush White House.”

Hersh concluded that Syria “can help the U.S. engage with Iran, and the Iranians, in turn, could become an ally in neighboring Afghanistan,” (where they have been killing American soldiers) and that the only thing standing in the way of such fruitful cooperation was American fear of “the kind of diplomacy that disappeared during the past eight years, and that the Obama team has to prove it possesses.” Later that year, Hersh interviewed Assad in Damascus and did not even bother to question him about the nature of the site bombed by Israel. 

In early 2011, a popular uprising against Assad was sparked by the regime’s murder of peaceful demonstrators. Over the past year, the regime has killed upwards of 6,000 people, and the country has essentially descended into civil war. Assad has resisted all entreaties from the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and his Arab brethren to stop the crackdown. The notion that Assad was ever interested in peace with Israel or in withdrawing his support for terrorism, and that any agreement it would have signed would be worth more than the paper it was written on, is simply laughable. 

Just as Syria was always ready to make peace, in Hersh’s telling, so too is Iran hungering for a rapprochement with the West. The Bush administration, according to Hersh, had deceived the American people by alleging that Iran was arming and equipping militias in Iraq responsible for the deaths of American soldiers. 

“[T]he Administration also revived charges that the Iranian leadership has been involved in the killing of American soldiers in Iraq: both directly, by dispatching commando units into Iraq, and indirectly, by supplying materials used for roadside bombs and other lethal goods,” Hersh wrote in July 2008. “There have been questions about the accuracy of the claims; the Times, among others, has reported that ‘significant uncertainties remain about the extent of that involvement.’”

Yet the very New York Times article Hersh cited reported that “Iran’s Quds Force had developed a formal and sophisticated training program that included five courses on tactics, leadership, training, commando operations and weapons and explosives” and that interviews with “two dozen military, intelligence and administration officials” found that Iran’s “shipments of arms had continued in recent months despite an official Iranian pledge to stop the weapons flow.”

As glaringly inaccurate as much of his written reporting may be, it is in his public statements—free from the watchful eye of the famed New Yorker fact-checking department and the better instincts of his editors—where the real Hersh is unleashed. “On the podium, Sy is willing to tell a story that’s not quite right, in order to convey a Larger Truth,” Chris Suellentrop wrote in a 2005 New York profile of Hersh. That “Larger Truth” varies in specifics from day to day but invariably paints the United States as in thrall to malignant forces and as a perpetrator of unspeakable evil.

In a 2004 speech to the American Civil Liberties Union, Hersh claimed that young boys were sodomized, in front of women, at Abu Ghraib prison, and that the Pentagon has video of the event. The allegation has never been confirmed, and the supposed video of these crimes has never surfaced. 

Speaking before an audience at the University of Minnesota in 2009, Hersh claimed that the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a special division of the U.S. Special Operations Command, “do not report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days, they reported directly to the Cheney office.” JSOC, Hersh claimed, serves as an “executive assassination ring” over which “Congress has no oversight.” Everything about the statement was false; JSOC does not report to the vice president (even during the nightmare “Bush-Cheney days”) but to the secretary of defense and, as such, is subject to congressional oversight. 

Two years later, in a speech at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service campus in Qatar, Hersh issued what is perhaps the most outlandish series of allegations ever to emanate from his mouth or pen. Beginning with the lamentation that “just when we needed an angry black man, we didn’t get one,” he then launched into a “conspiracy-laden diatribe,” according to an observer with Foreign Policy magazine. “What I’m really talking about is how eight or nine neoconservatives, whackos if you will, overthrew the American government. Took it over.”

The rot extended well beyond the senior levels of government and into the U.S. military: “An attitude that pervades, I’m here to say, a large percentage of the Joint Special Operations Command,” the secretive “executive assassination ring” he had already revealed, is “we’re gonna change mosques into cathedrals.” Other military leaders, Hersh alleged, including General Stanley McChrystal, who had headed JSOC prior to taking command of coalition troops in Afghanistan, “are all members of, or at least supporters of, Knights of Malta,” as well as “Opus Dei” (for what it’s worth, McChrystal later denied being a member of the Knights, a Catholic service organization). The members of this cabal, Hersh alleged, “have little insignias, these coins they pass among each other, which are crusader coins. They have insignia that reflect the whole notion that this is a culture war.”

Hersh later defended his speech to the Washington Post, stating that it was “a rumination.” Most revealing, however, were the words of David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker throughout most of Hersh’s career with the magazine. Refusing to comment on any of the specific allegations Hersh had made in the speech, Remnick simply stated that, “Sy is one of the greatest reporters the country has ever known, and that is all I need to know about him.”

Remnick is hardly alone in his admiration for Hersh, who has won every honor that the journalistic establishment has to confer: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Magazine Award, as well as four George Polk awards. And it’s not hard to understand why: Hersh is the leading reportorial expositor of a narrative that has proven very useful to liberals, particularly after it became clear that the intelligence regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was inaccurate, and the swift overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime gave way to a destructive, years-long insurgency. The argument for removing Hussein, which many of these figures (Remnick prominent among them) had supported, was, Hersh reassured them, based on a series of deliberate falsehoods. The case for war was a giant hoax perpetrated by a group of committed ideologues—“a lot of people in this government are Straussians,” Hersh said in 2003—who saw fit to employ “the noble lie” in order to foist their policy preferences upon an unwilling bureaucracy. 

With this account, built up over the course of many long articles in the New Yorker, a book, and a series of interviews, Hersh thus absolves the liberal establishment, from journalists to elected officials, of intellectual responsibility for their words and actions. Elected Democrats who had access to the same information used by the Bush administration, and who made public claims about the Hussein regime as grave as those uttered by any Bush administration official, are not responsible for their own failures of judgment, but victims of an elaborate campaign of lies orchestrated by a neoconservative cabal.

Hersh’s enablers and fans don’t care if he repeatedly gets things wrong in his journalism, or makes outlandish allegations in public forums, as long as he continues to provide fodder for the narrative of America as a rapacious and blundering imperial power. As Warren Strobel, at the time a foreign correspondent for the
McClatchy newspaper chain, told New York in 2005, “it’s worth it for him to be wrong.” From his lofty perch at the New Yorker, and with the demeanor of the grizzled, shoe-leather newspaperman straight out of the The Front Page, Hersh lends a patina of respectability to a variety of accounts that had previously existed on the conspiratorial fringe. 

While certainly much less wild in tone than his public remarks, Hersh’s published work is not altogether different in its adherence, or lack thereof, to the facts. He comes to his stories with a set conclusions that he wants to prove (the U.S. military is in the hands of Fascist-Christian “crusaders,” a cabal of “eight or nine neoconservatives…overthrew the American government,” etc.), and then he finds the “former intelligence analyst” or “government consultant” willing to confirm them. 

“If the standard for being fired was being wrong on a story, I would have been fired long ago,” Hersh told the Progressive in 1998. That Hersh has continued to rise, rather than suffer professional admonishment for his perennial falsehoods, is a testament to the ideological usefulness of his deceits to the people who publish him and the people who praise him. The disgrace is one in which Hersh’s editors and legions of readers are also complicit, and will continue to be for as long as “the last great American reporter” goes on telling them the lies they want to hear.

About the Author

James Kirchick is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor to the New Republic.




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