December 3, 2001
A Journalist’s latest tricks
JOHN J. MILLER
“At The New Yorker, each article undergoes an extensive fact-checking process: Quotes are confirmed, details authenticated, the spellings of names verified, and so forth,” write that magazine’s editors in their November 12 issue. “This is well known.” With jaw-dropping piety, they go on to note that their “grueling procedure” applies even to cartoons.
It is The New Yorker‘s reputation for rigorous fact-checking that made a story appearing in the same issue such a sensation. Seymour M. “Sy” Hersh, one of America’s most celebrated investigative journalists, reported stunning new information about the military’s nighttime raid, on October 20, of Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s compound in Afghanistan. Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had said the mission “overall was successful.” Hersh, however, labeled it “a near-disaster,” and provided astonishing details: “Twelve Delta members were wounded, three of them seriously.” It was the first time anybody in the public at large had heard this. Hersh’s article was the talk of the Sunday news shows on November 4, before copies of The New Yorker had even hit the newsstands; he made a number of media appearances to explain his version of the events.
If Hersh’s account is correct, it is deeply troubling. It not only conjures up images of botched special operations of the recent past, such as the Desert One mission in Iran (1980) and the “Black Hawk Down” catastrophe in Somalia (1993), but also suggests that the Pentagon won’t provide basic facts about the war, even when doing so poses no reasonable threat to national security.
But if the claims coming out of the Pentagon deserve close scrutiny–and they do–then the same must go for Hersh’s reporting. It turns out that key assertions in his article are very probably wrong, even as Hersh uses them to opine on the airwaves about how the war should be fought.
Hersh, of course, is no ordinary reporter. Over the past 30 years, he has won just about every journalism award there is, including the Pulitzer, which he took home for uncovering the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. His articles and books are full of revelations. In the first New Yorker piece he wrote after September 11, for instance, he reported that an unmanned aircraft had a clear shot to kill Mullah Omar on the first night of the bombing–but that a military lawyer forbade the attack.
This was disputed, just as virtually everything Hersh writes is disputed. It’s become a ritual: Hersh publishes an eye-popping story, and then the complaints pour in. Sources say they weren’t quoted properly. Others claim Hersh takes material out of context and ignores facts that don’t comport with the point he wants to make. According to a Vanity Fair profile of Hersh, A. M. Rosenthal, the former executive editor of the New York Times (where Hersh worked in the 1970s), once heard him “practically blackmailing” a person he was supposed to be interviewing.
Hersh has admitted mistakes in the past. His 1991 book The Samson Option, which said the Israelis owned nuclear missiles, relied for much of its information on a man Hersh now admits “lies like people breathe.” In an interview three years ago with The Progressive, Hersh said, “If the standard for being fired was being wrong on a story, I would have been fired long ago.”
His methods came under severe criticism following the publication of his 1997 bestseller The Dark Side of Camelot and its negative portrayal of John F. Kennedy. While conducting his research, Hersh came across what looked like his biggest scoop since My Lai: a cache of unknown JFK documents offering apparent proof of an affair with Marilyn Monroe, among dozens of other tantalizing factoids. Hersh gained access to them through Lawrence X. Cusack, a man who claimed his father was a lawyer for Kennedy. The papers eventually were shown to be forgeries–Cusack is now in prison–but Hersh refused for months to disbelieve them, coming up with desperate rationalizations for skeptics who wondered why documents containing ZIP codes were dated before ZIP codes even existed. Hersh was so eager to get his hands on the papers, he wrote a letter to Cusack stating that he had “independently confirmed” the relationship between JFK and Cusack’s father. This was a lie. “Here is where I absolutely misstated things,” testified Hersh during Cusack’s trial. Assistant U.S. attorney Paul A. Engelmayer accused Hersh of playing “a little fast and loose with the facts.”
Ultimately Hersh stepped back from the brink. He tried to develop a television documentary about the JFK papers, and his partners were able to prove convincingly that they were fakes. The final version of his book did not cite them. But critics complained about the material he did use, because of its thin sourcing and its treatment of speculation as fact. “In his mad zeal to destroy Camelot, to raze it down, dance on the rubble, and sow salt on the ground where it stood, Hersh has with precision and method disassembled and obliterated his own career and reputation,” wrote Garry Wills in The New York Review of Books. Conservatives enjoyed the controversy, because it involved liberals attacking each other and made JFK look bad. Yet Wills was essentially correct in his assessment.
Hersh defended his interest in Kennedy’s sex life. “I put in all the sex stuff because it goes right to his character, his recklessness, his notion of being above the law,” he told the New York Times. Hersh did not apply this same standard to what he called the “Clinton sex crap.” One year later–and a month before Bill Clinton’s impeachment–he lambasted the press for “climbing into the gutter with the president and the Republican radicals . . . the same Republicans who say you can’t have Huckleberry Finn in libraries.” When he did criticize Clinton, it was always from the left, for “what he’s done to welfare, what he’s done to the working class, what he’s done to habeas corpus.”
Hersh saves his real ire for Republicans, accusing the GOP of having a racist foreign policy: “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.” The war in Afghanistan must only confirm these prejudices.
The latest New Yorker story quickly became the latest Hersh controversy. Top military officials have denied its primary claim of a disastrous mission that included serious casualties. “That’s not true,” said Gen. Myers on Meet the Press, when Tim Russert asked him about the article. “My belief is that every soldier that came back from that particular raid is back on duty today; none of them seriously injured, certainly none of them injured by the Taliban.” Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem concurred: “The reports I have seen just don’t support that article’s supposition.” Army Gen. Tommy Franks added, “We had a bunch of these young people who, you know, had scratches and bumps and knocks from rocks and all this sort of stuff. And so, it’s–it’s probably–it’s probably accurate to say that maybe–maybe five or maybe 25 people were, quote, ‘wounded.’ We had no one wounded by enemy fire.”
Clearly, somebody’s not telling the truth. Perhaps the matter might have cleared up if Hersh had confronted the generals with his information before reporting it. This is Journalism 101–let everybody involved have a chance to comment–and yet Hersh chose to consider only one side of the story.
It is difficult to double-check Hersh’s work because of its heavy reliance on anonymous sources. Perhaps in time the full truth of October 20 will come out. For now, though, there is a single assertion in Hersh’s story whose truth can be independently assessed. Hersh writes: “The mission was initiated by sixteen AC-130 gunships, which poured thousands of rounds into the surrounding area but deliberately left the Mullah’s house unscathed.”
The Pentagon won’t discuss operational details, but it’s extremely unlikely that the mission involved 16 AC-130 planes. The Air Force has only 21 of them, and a number of these are set aside for training in Florida. More important is the fact that these big planes, full of firepower, don’t fly in such large clusters. During the invasion of Panama in 1989, the Air Force used only seven of them at once. In the Gulf War, only a few were in the air at a time. Would 16 of them lead a relatively small special-forces operation in Afghanistan? “It makes zero sense,” one Air Force officer told me.
When I asked Hersh about this apparent discrepancy, he was dismissive. “I wasn’t there. Somebody could have misspoke. I could have misheard. It’s possible there weren’t 16,” he said. “If I’m wrong, I’m wrong.” He did admit that he had made an error during his November 5 interview on CNN, when he said the mission involved “sixteen helicopter gunships” rather than 16 AC-130s. “That time I did misspeak,” he said.
Although The New Yorker says it assigned several fact-checkers to Hersh’s article, it would seem that Hersh is once again playing fast and loose with the facts. And what does that say about his central claim of twelve men wounded, three of them seriously? “That’s what my source told me,” he says.
This is more than a simple matter of getting facts straight. Hersh has taken his contentions and used them as a basis for blasting the conduct of the war. “The operation was much too big. . . . It was noisy. It was slow,” he said on his round of TV interviews. “Delta Force is so mad that they think–the language is that this time we lost twelve. Next time, if they do it again the same way, we’re going to lose, you know, dozens. We can’t operate that way.”
The next time he seems to break a big story in The New Yorker, though, it’s important to remember that General Hersh wasn’t there–and also to recall a line from Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, in which an editor advises a war correspondent: “If there is no news, send rumors instead.”