Seymour Hersh

Seymour Hersh’s London Review of Books piece on the killing of Osama Bin Laden has been met with wide skepticism; many have characterized it as “conspiracy theory.” Hersh, of course, was proven alarmingly correct about other things in the past that were initially denied–for example, his wild story about a massacre of innocent Vietnamese civilians at My Lai, or the horrible tortures that were carried out in an Iraqi prison by active duty personnel of the US armed forces and CIA. But he wouldn’t be the first prominent journalist to go off the rails either. Pierre Salinger gave his name to a syndrome in the months after the crash of TWA Flight 800 (he was suffering from dementia when he died just a few years later); back in the ’90s, Hersh himself fell for a notorious con man and almost used his forgeries in his book The Dark Side of Camelot.

Should Hersh be granted latitude now because he was so often right in the past, or should his present alleged credulity discredit his past bombshells? Neither, obviously, though you wouldn’t know that to read the stories on the Internet.

“Conspiracy theory,” it’s worth remembering, isn’t the belief in conspiracies per se, which often do happen.  Merely disbelieving an official story doesn’t make you a conspiracy theorist. Given the government’s track record in the past and its strong motives for engaging in disinformation today you’d be foolish to believe everything it says, and you’d be particularly foolish to put much credence in its story about the OBL killing, which I went on the record at the time, for what it’s worth, to characterize as troublesome, to say the very least. It’s only when you craft an alternative story based on rumor, lies, inference, and supposition and present it with absolute certainty as the unvarnished truth that you become a conspiracy theorist.

This is some of what I wrote about the story back then–and I was speaking completely off the top of my head, without the benefit of high-placed (or not-so-high-placed) intelligence sources:

I got a call from Russia Today TV this afternoon and they asked me what I thought was going on. I repeated what I said in this space yesterday–that I find the whole thing baffling, especially after the weekend that Obama just had. Friday he released the birth certificate, belatedly conceding that conspiracy theories do matter but finally putting that particular one to rest. Saturday he eviscerated Donald Trump while wearing a tuxedo and a smile and Sunday he announced that he’d taken out the most hated man in the world. And then Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, he couldn’t stop tripping over his feet. Our Skype connection was pretty unstable; they only used a second of the interview, but you can watch their package here if you’re interested.

They aced the operation, but the subsequent messaging has been really uneven, to say the very least. I suspect that what we’re seeing is the result of a lack of consensus within the White House team on what the message actually is. One group–let’s call them the grownups–thinks that we should be bending over backwards to show our Muslim allies that we’re respectful, that we’re not gloating over or desecrating the body of a man that some regard as a religious leader. Another group–the political guys–figured that what happened wasn’t dramatic enough, that it needed the kind of artful, morally-telling touches that you’d see on TV, like Osama shielding himself with his young wife’s body before dying in a firefight, instead of simply having his head blown off when soldiers burst into the room where he was hiding. When the grownups rushed in to undo the damage that the political guys were causing, they planted the germ of cognitive dissonance that conspiracy theories grow out of.

Thomas Powers wrote something in the NYTBR piece about The Dark Side of Camelot I linked to above that stayed with me: “Hersh does not write history in the usual sense of the term, but he makes life difficult for historians by digging up just enough about distressing matters so they can’t honestly be ignored.” He goes on to say that while Hersh’s speculations about motives aren’t always to be trusted, his reporting generally is.

If some of Hersh’s LBR piece sounds like something you’d read at Infowars, a lot of it, to quote one of its lines about the enigma of the disposition of OBL’s corpse, sounds more like what you get after “the classic unravelling of a poorly constructed cover story – it solves an immediate problem but, given the slightest inspection, there is no back-up support.” I suspect that many of the mysteries that will forever surround Kennedy’s assassination could have been dispelled by documents that were made to disappear for a variety of reasons. Though I don’t believe that Hersh got all the details right and suspect that he got some of them wrong, I think he did get this one right when it comes to matters related to Iraq, Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, ISIS, and more: “High-level lying nevertheless remains the modus operandi of US policy, along with secret prisons, drone attacks, Special Forces night raids, bypassing the chain of command, and cutting out those who might say no.” Given all that, how could a piece like “The Killing of Osama bin Laden” not sound like conspiracy theory?


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