The Cult of Seymour Hersh

Rael Jean Isaac - American Spectator - July/August 2004

Character assassination. A simplistic moral universe in which the U.S. is the villain and Israel the only country yet more villainous. Anonymous sources that cannot be checked. Dark charges based on a crazy patchwork of suppositions. Far-out conspiracy theories. Con men as sources. Reputable sources misquoted. These constitute the decades-long MO of Seymour Hersh, the man now serving as star investigative reporter of the New Yorker.

Donald Rumsfeld is the target of Hersh's most recent venture into character assassination. In the New Yorker of May 24, 2004 Hersh seeks to pin the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib directly on the Defense Secretary. Typical of Hersh, there is a lot more charge than substance. Supposedly, Rumsfeld approved a secret Pentagon program that "encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners" and then, along with Stephen Cambone, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, expanded the scope of the program "bringing its unconventional methods to Abu Ghraib."

Had Rumsfeld endorsed "sexual humiliation" of prisoners? Does the secret program Hersh describes exist at all? The Pentagon promptly declared the article's charges "outlandish, conspiratorial and filled with error and anonymous conjecture." Given that Hersh's sources are anonymous (a "former high level intelligence official" here, a "Pentagon consultant" there), what he says is impossible to evaluate. But given Hersh's track record, the highest order of skepticism is warranted.

Did Hersh think his article could unseat the Defense Secretary? He has had success in this line before. In March 2003 Richard Perle resigned as chairman of the Defense Policy Board after a firestorm of publicity concerning supposed ethics violations which Hersh had launched in The New Yorker. Again, the article was short on facts, long on sinister speculation. Indeed its only substantive "fact" was that Perle met with two Saudi businessmen to discuss Iraq: Adnan Kashoggi, the longtime arms dealer and middleman, and Iraqi born Harb Saleh al-Zuhair. Kashoggi had arranged the meeting at the request of al-Zuhair, who claimed to have come from Iraq with a negotiating offer from Saddam. All three agree that the only topic discussed at the meeting was Iraq.

This did not stop Hersh from declaring that Perle's "real" motive in meeting with the two Saudis was to obtain investment in Trireme, a venture capital company focusing on technology, goods and services useful for homeland security, in which Perle is a partner. Hersh suggests Perle's hawkishness on Iraq stemmed from his business interests. Hersh writes: "'If there is no war, he [Kashoggi] told me, 'why is there a need for security?'" Apparently Kashoggi had never heard of 9/11. Hersh hauls in Saudi Prince Bandar who had nothing to do with the meeting but states flatly: "I believe the Iraqi events are irrelevant. A business meeting took place."

Like previous (and subsequent) victims, Perle could only explode in unavailing wrath. Asked what element of Hersh's story was true, Perle told the New York Sun, "It's all lies from beginning to end." On CNN Perle called Hersh "the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist." A few years earlier, The New Yorker (May 22, 2000) devoted almost its entire issue to a Hersh story that rehashed ten year old allegations (exhaustively investigated by the army and found to be without merit) that during the first Gulf War General Barry McCaffrey had commanded troops who opened fire on unarmed Iraqis. Defending himself in the Wall Street Journal, McCaffrey wrote that Hersh had told people he had contacted that he intended "to bury" McCaffrey. But McCaffrey, like Perle, ran into the problem that self-defense inevitably sounds self-serving.

Hersh's most unforgivable exercise in character assassination was in his 1983 anti-Kissinger book The Price of Power. While the book was intended to be a hatchet job on Kissinger (who called Hersh's allegations about him "slimy lies"), the chief victim turned out to be India's former Prime Minister Morarji Desai. Hersh quoted anonymous intelligence officials "recalling" Desai had been paid $20,000 yearly as a CIA informer during the Johnson administration. Desai, 87 years old, reacted in outrage, calling it a "sheer mad story" and brought a libel suit seeking $50 million in damages. By the time the suit went to a Chicago jury in 1989, Desai was 93 and too ill to come to the US. Kissinger testified on Desai's behalf, flatly contradicting Hersh's report in the book that he had been delighted to have someone of Desai's stature on the payroll and had playfully chastised CIA officials elsewhere for failing to recruit Cabinet-level informers. He also testified that to his knowledge Desai had no connection to the CIA and that former CIA director Richard Helms had told him he would be on "safe ground" in testifying that Desai was not a paid CIA informant.

Nonetheless Desai lost. He could not prove that no one in the CIA had told Hersh that he was on the payroll because the judge ruled that Hersh need not identify his sources and Desai's attorney was prevented from questioning anyone in the CIA's employ. Hersh never even took the stand. Hersh's lawyer announced that the outcome proved "that even a person as prominent as Morarji Desai cannot intimidate an American journalist entitled to his First Amendment protections." What the case really showed was that as long as he did not need to reveal his sources, an irresponsible journalist could label any public figure a CIA agent with impunity.

Who are Hersh's sources? Much of the time, given his massive use of unnamed individuals, it is impossible to say. Are they reputable people? Disgruntled individuals with an axe to grind? Figments of his imagination? Who knows? However, when Hersh does identify his sources they can be evaluated and he has a record of being taken in by conmen. ("Wanting to believe" is perhaps more accurate than "taken in"- conmen provide the sensational material on which Hersh thrives.) Hersh's The Samson Option (1991) rests squarely on the fantasies of one Ari Ben Menashe. The theme of the book is that Israel, impelled by the megalomania of its leaders, built the Bomb, deceiving the United States (with the help of disloyal Jews) until the wicked deed was done. But apart from the conspiratorial anti-Semitic tone of the book, it had nothing to offer that was not already well-established - except for the "revelations" of Ben Menashe. Hersh identifies him as a former Israeli intelligence expert who served as adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir on intelligence affairs (both untrue). Among Ben Menashe's more sensational revelations, Hersh reports that Prime Minister Shamir personally authorized purloined U.S. intelligence obtained through Jonathan Pollard to be "sanitized, retyped and turned over to Soviet intelligence officials" as part of Israel's ongoing exchange of intelligence with the Soviets on U.S. weapons systems. (How this squares with another of Ben Menashe's "disclosures," that Israel was using its stolen U.S. intelligence to target the Soviet Union which "was always Israel's primary nuclear target" is not explained.) *See J4JP Note below.

In fact Ben Menashe is a notorious tale-spinner who currently, in a scenario beyond the imagination of the most far-out screenwriter, serves as chief witness in Robert Mugabe's farcical treason trial of the leader of the chief opposition party in Zimbabwe. Among fantasies too numerous to count (he was Israel's top spy, a commander of the Entebbe operation, planted a homing device in the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, declined an offer to become head of the Mossad) Ben Menashe claimed to have been with the first George Bush in Paris in October 1980 arranging for Iran to hold the hostages until after the Presidential election - this on dates when Secret Service logs show Bush engaged in a large number of appearances in the United States.) Newsweek's John Barry, who looked into Ben Menashe's claims, declared on CNN "If you were talking about the American civil war, he would tell you he was the guy who planned Lee's campaign."

Terrorism expert Steven Emerson, who described all this and more in a 1991 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, reports that Hersh was warned in advance about Ben Menashe but refused to listen. Emerson himself warned him. Hersh was also warned by Peter Hounam, the chief investigative reporter for the London Sunday Times "Insight" team who had broken the story of the Vanunu affair, with documentation on Israel's Dimona reactor. Ben Menashe had claimed a leading role in luring Vanunu back to Israel and Hounam offered to let Hersh go through his personal files on the Vanunu affair which showed that none of Ben Menashe's claims held up. Hersh was not interested. (Much later even Hersh would admit that Ben Menashe "lies like people breathe.")

It turned out that Hersh was doubly conned. Emerson writes that after Ben Menashe was publicly exposed, Hersh issued a six page statement insisting he had "documentation" from "a private detective" confirming part of Ben Menashe's story. A few days later the Sunday Times revealed the "private detective" was actually Joe Flynn, a well known British hoaxer, who admitted he had deceived Hersh for money (almost 1300 English pounds delivered by Hersh's British publisher). "I am a conman," Flynn told the Times.

But Hersh's best-known romance with a conman came several years later, when he was working on a Kennedy book eventually published in 1997 as The Dark Side of Camelot. Hersh fell for a stash of phony documents peddled by one Lawrence S. Cusack (who went to prison in 1999 for defrauding more than 100 investors of $7 million in a scheme to sell them). Hersh assiduously wooed Cusack who claimed to have found in the files of his late father, a prominent lawyer, papers that included a contract in which Marilyn Monroe promised to keep silent about their affair in return for $600,000 and documentation linking Kennedy directly to mobster Sam Giancana. Amusingly, in one of his letters to Cusack Hersh wrote "We got along so well at that dinner Tuesday night because, I like to think, we are all what we seem to be." Again, there was the same pattern of refusing to credit the warning signs, however glaring. In National Review, journalist John Miller observed that Hersh came up "with desperate rationalizations for skeptics who wondered why documents containing ZIP codes were dated before ZIP codes even existed."

While Hersh pulled down a huge contract with ABC for a Kennedy documentary based on the documents, it fell apart when ABC concluded they were phony. In 1999 Hersh wound up on the stand as a prosecution witness and had to undergo a highly embarrassing three hour grilling by Cusack's lawyer. Hersh was asked to explain a letter he had sent to Cusack claiming he had not only independently confirmed that Cusack's father had known Kennedy through an interview with Kennedy's secretary Evelyn Lincoln, but had also "independently confirmed some of the most interesting materials" in the papers. "Here is where I absolutely misstated things" an embarrassed Hersh testified. (Hersh has a pattern of claiming to "corroborate" material that defies corroboration. In The Samson Option he says that "Ben Menashe's account might seem almost too startling to be believed, had it not been subsequently amplified by a second Israeli, who cannot be named.")

Cusack was exposed in time to spare Hersh the embarrassment of basing yet another book on the breathless recitation of a conman's revelations. Instead Hersh provided what long-time Kennedy associate Theodore Sorenson described as "a pathetic collection of wild stories." Even Thomas Powers, a friendly reviewer in The New York Times, described The Dark Side of Camelot as a "file cabinet," holding up "in strict chronological order just about every report, claim, rumor or telltale clue" of everything the Kennedys and their friends would wish to keep secret. Notice the absence of the word "fact" in this list of the file cabinet's contents.

The Dark Side of Camelot illustrates something else about Hersh's use of sources: reputable sources tend to be misquoted or selectively expurgated if they do not forward Hersh's personal agenda. The book claimed that Ted Kennedy paid off county chairmen in the West Virginia primary, among them Charles Peters, now publisher of Washington Monthly. Barbara Comstock, in National Review online, writes that Peters says Hersh interviewed him five times but simply ignored his claims that the payoffs did not happen. In The Samson Option Hersh cites Israeli scientist and government adviser Yuval Ne'eman as having told him that in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 Israel went on nuclear alert twice. I asked Ne'eman about this in 1992, not long after the book was published. Ne'eman said he had spoken to Hersh and told him the United States - not Israel - went on nuclear alert twice during that war. Also in The Samson Option Hersh repeatedly cites former Israeli Defense Forces major Seth Mintz as source for the charge that Israel deliberately sank the USS Liberty during the 1967 war. On the contrary, Mintz says that the Israelis concluded the Liberty was an enemy ship masquerading as an American vessel after the U.S. embassy, twice queried, denied there was any American ship in the area.

Columnist John Lofton quotes Hersh in a 1984 interview with the University of Chicago magazine: "I'm not interested in history because I'm trying to change things." This may explain Hersh's contempt for mere historical truth. In The Samson Option Hersh writes that the famed U.S. airlift to Israel during the Yom Kippur War was only undertaken because Israel blackmailed President Nixon, threatening to use its atomic arsenal if supplies were not sent immediately. There is no evidence for this and Hersh does not even pretend to offer any. Veteran foreign correspondent Russ Braley wrote to Richard Nixon in retirement and asked if there was any truth in what Hersh wrote. In a letter dated January 22, 1992 Nixon replied: "The story has no foundation whatever." In the Nov. 12, 2001 New Yorker Hersh described an October 20 raid on Taliban leader Mullah Omar's compound as "a near disaster," claiming twelve special forces were injured, three seriously. Gen. Tommy Franks said no one was wounded. Hersh claimed 16 AC-130 planes were used in the mission. The Air Force only has 21 and the large, heavily armed planes are not flown in groups. Journalist John Miller challenged Hersh: "Would 16 of them lead a relatively small special-forces operation in Afghanistan?" Undisturbed, Hersh said he might have "misheard."

In his 1986 book The Target is Destroyed, on the Soviet downing of Korean civilian airliner KAL 007, Hersh gets the entire story wrong. His thesis is that the Soviets had made an honest mistake, confusing the Boeing 747 with the RC-135, a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft. U.S. officials "rushed to judgment" because "strong hostility to communism had led them to misread the intelligence." The "real story," said Hersh, was not the fate of the plane but the "politically corrupt" use of intelligence by the U.S. In 1991 Izvestiya took advantage of its new freedom to investigate the case and interviewed Lt. Col. Gennadi Osipovich, the Soviet fighter pilot who shot down KAL 007. Osipovich said that he had been ordered to state on television that the Boeing had been flying with its lights out, and that it ignored warning tracer shots and a radio message before he destroyed it, all of which was untrue. He also indignantly rejected the suggestion that he had mistaken the plane for an RC-135. To be sure, Hersh could not have obtained the true story in 1984. But if his anti-American ideological blinkers had not been firmly in place, he would have been less confident in his simplistic thesis that bad American anti-Communism led to the U.S. "lying" about the incident, misrepresenting an innocent, if tragic, Soviet mistake.

In an interview with The Progressive Hersh declared that "If the standard for being fired was being wrong on a story, I would have been fired long ago." And that is the real question: why has Hersh, who should long since have been banished to supermarket tabloids, instead attained what People magazine, in a fawning piece, called "a kind of mythic status as a journalist." The answer clearly lies in Hersh's long history of visceral anti-Americanism, which resonates with the journalistic elite. Hersh is a product of the "Movement" of the 1960s, which saw the American government as the focus of world evil. Hersh had his start with Dispatch News Service, a Movement outfit founded in 1969 as an "alternative" news agency to disseminate anti-Vietnam war stories to the mainstream press. A source called Hersh with a tip on what became known as the My Lai massacre. The army was in the process of court-martialing Lt. William Calley and investigating 36 others for their part in the shootings of civilians, and Hersh pursued the story, which Dispatch then distributed. Typically, Hersh insisted that My Lai was not an isolated instance: the true villain, he wrote, was "the Army as an institution."

My Lai turned Hersh overnight into what A.M. Rosenthal, then New York Times managing editor, called "the hottest piece of journalistic property in the United States." The Times hired him and he remained there from 1972 to1979. He wrote a series of stories attacking the CIA for covert actions abroad and for spying on domestic groups (the material, which had been assembled by the CIA itself and turned over to the Congressional committee with oversight of the CIA, was leaked to Hersh by CIA head William Colby). In the anti-establishment atmosphere of the period, Hersh's stories had a major impact, playing an important role in launching Congressional investigations by both houses of Congress into the CIA. The upshot of the "reforms" Congress enacted was to seriously compromise our intelligence capabilities, setting up a firewall between the FBI and CIA, the piper being paid on 9/11. It is significant that Rosenthal would say that a number of Hersh's stories would not have been publishable under the standards he demanded of Times reporters a few years later.

In 1979, his last year at the Times, Hersh went to Vietnam, one of a few selected American journalists the Communists permitted entry. He wrote a series of six articles in which he exhibited none of the critical zeal with which he challenged U.S. government claims. Hersh reported that the boat people were those who had cooperated with the Americans during the war and could not acclimatize; the New Economic Zones were cultural and social success stories (they were actually concentration camps for political undesirables); the "reeducation camps," what they purported to be and not the brutal places they in fact were.

Hersh is an ideological yellow journalist. With his tenacity, lack of scruples, narrow vision and white hats versus black hats view of the world, he might have been a successful police reporter - particularly in the earlier journalistic world of Chicago (Hersh's home town) described by Ben Hecht, where letting the facts interfere with a sensational story was a mark against you. But Hersh is unable to handle complicated material, unable to understand or analyze policy issues. He never seems to have heard of standards of evidence. Unable or unwilling to sift out the wildest, most absurd allegations, he tosses them into the pot, as long as they contribute to his being able to say "the target is destroyed."

The real issue is not Hersh but his standing among journalists. Hersh has won over a dozen major journalism awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, four George Polk awards, and this year's National Magazine Award.. How could such dreadful stuff be so well rewarded? There is no worse indictment of the shoddy standards of American journalism and the political bias of its elite than the flood of awards its standard bearers have bestowed on Seymour Hersh.


The information Israel received from Jonathan dealt with unconventional weapons of war being manufactured neighboring Arab States for use against Israel and upcoming terrorist attacks against civilian targets in Israel. This information was not in any way related to "U.S. weapons systems." as Hersh claims. It is part of the documented record that Jonathan refused to pass to Israel any information about the United States, even though he came under heavy pressure by his handlers to do so.