Commentary Magazine


Topic: Seymour Hersh

Seymour Hersh’s Latest Conspiracy Theory

Seymour Hersh is gaining headlines again for a London Review of Books article in which he alleges that Turkey was behind the chemical-weapons strike in the suburbs of Damascus which led many American officials to demand that President Obama enforce his red line and retaliate against the Bashar al-Assad regime.

I’m not one to defend the Turkish regime—certainly, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a terrorist sympathizer, if not sponsor—but Hersh’s allegations are problematic and, frankly, an embarrassment to the New Yorker.

While Hersh gained fame for his reporting of the My Lai massacre, he has largely been coasting on his reputation ever since. Did he blow the lid on the reprehensible abuses at Abu Ghraib? Not quite: the Pentagon had already investigated the abuses, was in the process of taking action, and Hersh simply published the leaked report.

Today, rather than personify responsible journalism, Hersh seems to embody a political agenda which leads him to fit square pegs into round holes, cherry pick what works, and discard what doesn’t. A 2007 article on jihadis in Lebanon was a real embarrassment to the New Yorker, as other analysts quickly tore it apart.

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Seymour Hersh is gaining headlines again for a London Review of Books article in which he alleges that Turkey was behind the chemical-weapons strike in the suburbs of Damascus which led many American officials to demand that President Obama enforce his red line and retaliate against the Bashar al-Assad regime.

I’m not one to defend the Turkish regime—certainly, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a terrorist sympathizer, if not sponsor—but Hersh’s allegations are problematic and, frankly, an embarrassment to the New Yorker.

While Hersh gained fame for his reporting of the My Lai massacre, he has largely been coasting on his reputation ever since. Did he blow the lid on the reprehensible abuses at Abu Ghraib? Not quite: the Pentagon had already investigated the abuses, was in the process of taking action, and Hersh simply published the leaked report.

Today, rather than personify responsible journalism, Hersh seems to embody a political agenda which leads him to fit square pegs into round holes, cherry pick what works, and discard what doesn’t. A 2007 article on jihadis in Lebanon was a real embarrassment to the New Yorker, as other analysts quickly tore it apart.

The good thing about Hersh is that he is predictable: He often circles back to the same sources, with the same agenda, which by no coincidence happens to be his own. The current article seems to rely a great deal on a former Defense Intelligence Agency official. Who might this person be? There is no way to know for sure since Hersh protects his source with anonymity, never allowing the reader to assess whether the person is simply using his past affiliation to spin a tale or if he was even in a position to have the information he claimed to possess. In the past, Hersh has relied on one W. Patrick Lang, a former Defense Intelligence Agency official. Let’s hope the source isn’t Lang, because if it was, Hersh should certainly have noted (as he neglected to previously) that Lang had registered with the Foreign Agents Registration Act in order to work with a pro-Syrian Lebanese politician. Given Hersh’s previous mistakes in this regard, he cannot be given the benefit of the doubt.

Now, this isn’t to say that the Syrian opposition hasn’t, at times, sought to use crude chemical-weapons devices. Nor is it to deny that Erdoğan has single-mindedly sought to pursue a sectarian agenda inside Syria. But the international community seems to have conducted a great deal of forensic work about what happened in East Ghouta, and that evidence reportedly pointed overwhelmingly at the Assad regime. And if that information doesn’t coincide with whatever Hersh’s political agenda of the day is, tough.

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Hersh: U.S. Trained M.E.K. in Nevada

No, not at Area 51, but speaking of conspiracy theories, here’s Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker:

Despite the growing ties, and a much-intensified lobbying effort organized by its advocates, M.E.K. [Mujahideen-e-Khalq] has remained on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations—which meant that secrecy was essential in the Nevada training. “We did train them here, and washed them through the Energy Department because the D.O.E. owns all this land in southern Nevada,” a former senior American intelligence official told me. “We were deploying them over long distances in the desert and mountains, and building their capacity in communications—coördinating commo is a big deal.” (A spokesman for J.S.O.C. said that “U.S. Special Operations Forces were neither aware of nor involved in the training of M.E.K. members.”) …

It was the ad-hoc training that provoked the worried telephone calls to him, the former general said. “I told one of the guys who called me that they were all in over their heads, and all of them could end up trouble unless they got something in writing. The Iranians are very, very good at counterintelligence, and stuff like this is just too hard to contain.” The site in Nevada was being utilized at the same time, he said, for advanced training of élite Iraqi combat units. (The retired general said he only knew of the one M.E.K.-affiliated group that went though the training course; the former senior intelligence official said that he was aware of training that went on through 2007.)

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No, not at Area 51, but speaking of conspiracy theories, here’s Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker:

Despite the growing ties, and a much-intensified lobbying effort organized by its advocates, M.E.K. [Mujahideen-e-Khalq] has remained on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations—which meant that secrecy was essential in the Nevada training. “We did train them here, and washed them through the Energy Department because the D.O.E. owns all this land in southern Nevada,” a former senior American intelligence official told me. “We were deploying them over long distances in the desert and mountains, and building their capacity in communications—coördinating commo is a big deal.” (A spokesman for J.S.O.C. said that “U.S. Special Operations Forces were neither aware of nor involved in the training of M.E.K. members.”) …

It was the ad-hoc training that provoked the worried telephone calls to him, the former general said. “I told one of the guys who called me that they were all in over their heads, and all of them could end up trouble unless they got something in writing. The Iranians are very, very good at counterintelligence, and stuff like this is just too hard to contain.” The site in Nevada was being utilized at the same time, he said, for advanced training of élite Iraqi combat units. (The retired general said he only knew of the one M.E.K.-affiliated group that went though the training course; the former senior intelligence official said that he was aware of training that went on through 2007.)

It’s even more difficult to take Hersh seriously after reading Jamie Kirchick’s persuasive takedown of his work in last month’s COMMENTARY, and this Nevada training scenario seems particularly unrealistic. If true, it would be an enormous scandal. But why would Joint Special Operations Command go through the trouble and risk of bringing members of a terrorist group back to the U.S. for training, when the U.S. controlled an entire military base full of M.E.K. members, Camp Ashraf, in Iraq? And there has been no indication that any training was going on there, so why would it take place at a Department of Energy facility in Nevada?

There’s reason to believe that Israel may have provided the M.E.K. with training and worked with the group on assassinations in Iran. Which seems to make it even less likely that the U.S. would do the same thing, particularly inside the country, with all the security and legal hazards that would carry.

Unfortunately, Hersh provides the sort of storyline that benefits both the M.E.K. and its enemies. A Washington attorney for the M.E.K., and a British defector who now works against the group, were two of the only people quoted who didn’t remain anonymous in Hersh’s story (though neither actually confirmed that the Nevada training took place). Why is that? Because it helps the M.E.K.’s lobbying efforts to get removed from the U.S. list of designated terrorist groups if it gives the impression that members went through training on U.S. soil. And proponents of the Iranian regimes love to find ways to try to tie the U.S. to the M.E.K., a theory that fits flawlessly into their anti-American worldview.

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