No journalist has made more of a splash since September 11 than Seymour Hersh. Writing in The New Yorker, he has scored a string of scoops–about a Delta Force mission gone awry, corruption in the Saudi royal family, the vulnerability of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and Iran's efforts to build a nuclear bomb. These revelations have been picked up by many other news organizations and have generated a rash of admiring profiles of Hersh. They have also raised many questions. The story about the Delta Force raid in Afghanistan, asserting that it met heavy resistance and produced many casualties, was flatly denied by the Pentagon. Even more controversial has been Hersh's use of unnamed sources. By my rough count, of the 111 sources cited in the five articles he has written since September 11, 106 are unnamed. Of those, 103 are present or former officials–mostly US military and intelligence officials. In the past Hersh has used his sources to criticize the government from the left, exposing the My Lai massacre, the CIA's abuses in Chile, Henry Kissinger's misuse of power. Since September 11, however, he has used them to attack the government from the right, embracing positions he once would have summarily rejected.
Take his first story, "What Went Wrong," about the government's failure to prevent the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. According to Hersh, the main culprit was the CIA, which, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, he wrote, has "become increasingly bureaucratic and unwilling to take risks." "We've been hiring kids out of college who are computer geeks," a senior officer tells him. "This is about going back to deep, hard dirty work, with tough people going down dark alleys with good instincts." Hersh was particularly critical of a 1995 directive–issued after a CIA informant in Guatemala was implicated in murders–that required CIA headquarters to approve any person with an unsavory past. As a result of this, he wrote, "hundreds of 'assets' were indiscriminately stricken from the CIA's payroll, with a devastating effect on anti-terrorist operations in the Middle East." "Look," an intelligence officer tells him, "we recruited assholes. I handled bad guys. But we don't recruit people from the Little Sisters of the Poor–they don't know anything." As a result of the CIA's failure, Hersh wrote, its director, George Tenet, was likely on the way out: "Even one of Tenet's close friends told me, 'He's history.'"
Two months later, Tenet is still on the job. He could yet lose it, of course (one of Hersh's sources said he would go in three to six months), but one has to wonder whether Hersh's sources were trying to use him to force Tenet out. More troubling, I think, is Hersh's eagerness for the CIA's return to dirty work in dark alleys. When it did such work in the past, it often led to trouble, be it in Iran, the Congo or, yes, Guatemala. No one would seem more aware of this than Hersh, who over the years has written so extensively about CIA misadventures in the Third World. Yet here he seems eager to unleash the agency.
In "King's Ransom," Hersh, citing electronic intercepts collected by the National Security Agency, depicts a Saudi regime that is "increasingly corrupt, alienated from the country's religious rank and file, and so weakened and frightened" that it has channeled hundreds of millions of dollars in "protection money to fundamentalist groups that wish to overthrow it." Hersh goes on to quote intelligence and military officials who portray "the growing instability of the Saudi regime–and the vulnerability of its oil reserves to terrorist attack–as the most immediate threat to American economic and political interests in the Middle East. The officials also said that the Bush Administration, like the Clinton Administration, is refusing to confront this reality…." Under Clinton, Hersh complains, the CIA "was discouraged from conducting any risky intelligence operations inside the country." The US military response in Afghanistan, Hersh adds, "has triggered alarm in the international oil community and among intelligence officials who have been briefed on a still secret CIA study, put together in the mid-eighties, of the vulnerability of the Saudi fields to terrorist attack." Hersh goes on to cite a "prominent Middle Eastern oil man" as predicting that the Saudi regime "will explode in time."
Hersh's portrayal of Saudi corruption is convincing. But his message–that the United States needs to undertake risky intelligence operations inside Saudi Arabia in order to protect America's stake in its oilfields–seems a classic statement of the standard Big Oil position on that country.
No article better illustrates Hersh's newly hard line than his December 3 piece about Iran. Soon after the US air war in Afghanistan began, he reports, Israel sent a government delegation to Washington to express its concern that Iran's "atomic-bomb program was making rapid progress." Hersh writes that "many American and Israeli intelligence officials estimate that Iran is only three to five years away from having launchable warheads. The immediate question is whether the country has passed the point of no return." Hersh cites an unnamed US intelligence officer as saying, "They're closer to that point than we should be comfortable about–and the fact that we can't pin it down also makes me uncomfortable." Quoting Israeli officials, Hersh notes that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has "made it clear" that the Iranian bomb is "an existential issue for Israel." Hersh adds, "Even Israel's most skeptical critics in the American intelligence community–and there are many–now acknowledge that there is a serious problem."
Since September 11, relations between the United States and Iran have thawed some, and even some hard-line mullahs seem open to a rapprochement. Such a prospect, however, disturbs the Sharon government and its neoconservative friends in Washington. And Hersh–relying heavily on Israeli sources–has essentially adopted their perspective.
It's odd to find someone with Hersh's background embracing the views of the Sharon government, Big Oil and proponents of a more aggressive CIA. I asked him about this in a phone interview. While he remained adamantly opposed to covert operations, he told me, "I don't think that saying the agency did outrageous things in Chile and the Bay of Pigs disqualifies me from saying the agency needs good intelligence. There's no justification for our having gotten involved in helping the government of Guatemala stay in power, but it's a long stretch to say that that should prevent us from collecting intelligence in the Middle East. Because we have no 'assets' there, there's a direct threat of international terrorism against the United States."
Hersh went on to acknowledge that September 11 has affected his views: "It's a tough world. You have to rely on unsavory people. It's real easy to say 'forget about it' until you start thinking about your own kid being a hostage. Then you want Oliver North working on it. It's easy to laugh at Oliver North, but one of the things he was doing was trying to get somebody out of prison."
That "somebody" was the hostages in Lebanon. North was so determined to free them that he was willing to sell weapons to the government of Iran. And North felt so strongly about the cause of the Nicaraguan contras that he arranged for them to receive the proceeds from the Iranian arms sales. The war on terrorism does justify extraordinary measures. But the North episode shows how the best of intentions can produce the worst of outcomes, and how easy it is, in writing about the horrors of September 11, to forget that.