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."