It has become a cliche to call Bob Woodward and Seymour Hersh the greatest investigative reporters of their generation Woodward the consummate insider, Hersh the ultimate outsider. In truth the differences outweigh the similarities.
Though he achieved fame by bringing down a Republican administration, Woodward is no ideologue. His only bias, as far as I can tell, is in favor of his sources. Within those parameters he produces invaluable, if incomplete, accounts of government deliberations.
Hersh, on the other hand, is the journalistic equivalent of Oliver Stone: a hard-left zealot who subscribes to the old counterculture conceit that a deep, dark conspiracy is running the U.S. government. In the 1960s the boogeyman was the "military- industrial complex." Now it's the "neoconservatives." "They overran the bureaucracy, they overran the Congress, they overran the press, and they overran the military!" Hersh ranted at UC Berkeley on Oct. 8, 2004.
Hersh doesn't make any bones about his bias. "Bush scares the hell out of me," he said. He told a group in Washington, "I'm a better American than 99% of the guys in the White House," who are "nuts" and "ideologues." In another speech he called Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft "demented." Hersh has also compared what happened at Abu Ghraib with Nazi Germany. (Were American MPs gassing inmates?) He has claimed that since 2001 a "secret unit" of the U.S. government "has been disappearing people just like the Brazilians and Argentinians did." And in his lectures he has spread the legend of how a U.S. Army platoon was supposedly ordered to execute 30 Iraqis guarding a granary.
Hersh hasn't printed the execution story, which suggests it may not meet even his relaxed reportorial standards, but what he does run is a confusing farrago of fact and fiction. His latest New Yorker article, "The Coming Wars," is a perfect example.
Based almost entirely on anonymous sources ("a Pentagon advisor" is not to be confused with "a Pentagon consultant"), it starts off with the allegation that the United States is planning strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. I hope so. But planning isn't the same thing as doing. Hersh's article offers no reason to think a war really is "coming."
In the rest of the piece, he writes about how Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is expanding the Pentagon's covert anti-terrorism activities and intelligence-gathering. True enough. According to Bart Gellman of the Washington Post (a real investigative ace), Rumsfeld has created a new spy unit to make up for the CIA's deficiencies. Gellman's Jan. 23 story has all sorts of specifics that the New Yorker piece lacks, including the unit's name (the Strategic Support Branch). Hersh's contribution is to spin this into something nefarious by including anonymous speculation that military operatives might sponsor foreign "execution squads" or even carry out "terrorist activities." Umm, guess we'll have to take your word for it, Sy.
But how good is Hersh's word? His record doesn't inspire confidence. In 1986 he published a book suggesting that the Soviets shot down a South Korean airliner because they mistook it for a U.S. spy plane a claim debunked by the opening of Soviet archives. In 1997 he published a book full of nasty allegations about John F. Kennedy that was widely panned. As part of that project he tried to peddle a documentary based on forged documents.
Few facts in Hersh's stories are checkable by an outsider, but, of those that are, a number turn out to be false. In November 2001, he claimed that 16 AC-130 gunships participated in a raid (a "near disaster") on Mullah Mohammed Omar's compound in Afghanistan. There were only nine AC-130s in the entire region, and they are never used more than one or two at a time. In a story in October 2001, he claimed that Predator drones cost $40 million; the actual price tag is $2.5 million. In the latest article, he says two Pentagon policy officials would be in the "chain of command" for covert operations; the actual chain of command runs from the secretary of Defense to military commanders in the field.
OK, anyone can make a mistake, but all of Hersh's errors run in one direction: toward making the U.S. government look bad. His November 2001 article included a quote, hilarious in retrospect, from "one officer" who claimed, "This is no war for Special Operations." That ran a month before special operators toppled the Taliban. The April 7, 2001, issue of the New Yorker contained his article quoting a "former intelligence official" who said of the invasion of Iraq, "It's a stalemate now." Two days later, Baghdad fell.
Even his celebrated Abu Ghraib stories were marred by unsubstantiated claims that Rumsfeld had "encouraged" the "sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners." How does this square with the fact that the Abu Ghraib scandal like the My Lai massacre was uncovered first not by Hersh but by Army investigators?
It's hard to know why anyone would take seriously a "reporter" whose writings are so full of, in Ted Kennedy's words, "maliciousness and innuendo." That Hersh remains a revered figure in American journalism suggests that the media have yet to recover from the paranoid style of the 1960s.