Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib by Seymour Hersh (HarperCollins, 370 pp., $25.95)
T his side of Dan Rather, no one has more cause for concern about fallout from CBS’s scandalous document hoax than Seymour Hersh. For no journalist has benefited more from the decades-old jerry-rigged system of American news reporting now being razed before our eyes.
It was a cozy arrangement. A precious few titans–called the “mainstream” media, though there was little mainstream about them–anointed themselves arbiters of the “objective” and the “responsible.” Objective was a veneer of just-the-facts-ma’am rigor, hiding a supernumerary lens implacably programmed to align selected facts with certain preordained “truths”: American strength bad, European piety good, individual initiative dangerous, government social activism desirable, and so on. Responsible, in turn, was the process of bolstering this “objectivity” with analysis from dependable sources, trusted to go along with the program and transformed into superstar pundits for doing so.
Only through such an arrangement could Seymour Hersh have thrived. In lionizing this Pulitzer Prize winner, the “mainstream” has honored itself. How fitting, then, that Hersh’s new book, Chain of Command–derived from his Bush-bashing post-9/11 reports for The New Yorker–arrives just as Rather’s blogging nemeses have removed the last stitch of the emperor’s clothes.
By any truly objective standard, Hersh is a terrible reporter. Real reporting plays it straight and gets it right, and the reader simply can’t trust him to do either. Hersh is a hard-left ideologue who disdains facts that collide with his dark theories. His methodology, moreover, is a joke. As has been ably recounted by National Review’s John J. Miller and others, Hersh’s most important sources are anonymous and impossible to verify, while the few sources he does identify tend to be conmen or the transparently agenda-driven. His journalistic practices have been decried by his former New York Times editor, A. M. Rosenthal, and embarrassingly laid bare by his own admissions, in court testimony, about concocting elaborate deceptions to pry out dubious information.
More fundamentally, Hersh gets even easily verifiable details wrong. And, as long as a story-hawker is playing to his prejudices, he has proved spectacularly gullible. Indeed, were it not for some rudimentary due diligence by ABC News–the kind CBS recently eschewed–Hersh might have beaten Rather to phony-document infamy when, in the course of compiling his roundly discredited account of the Kennedy presidency (The Dark Side of Camelot), he was taken in for months by forgeries trumpeting salacious gossip about JFK and Marilyn Monroe.
Nevertheless, as long as they were the only game in town, the mainstream media could present Hersh as a respectable raconteur instead of a hyper- partisan. In fact, at The New Yorker, they still think they can: Chain of Command begins with a cloying introduction by Hersh’s current editor, David Remnick, who burnishes the legend, elides any hint of the innumerable gaffes, and conveniently explains that, of course, Hersh can’t be expected to name his sources, but you can bet the ranch on their credibility because, after all, this is The New Yorker we’re talking about.
Hersh wastes little time cashing in on this license to mutilate. In the book’s most explosive section, “Torture at Abu Ghraib,” he tries to trace knowing culpability for the degradation of Iraqi prisoners directly to President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
But his case is a house of cards. The White House made a legally unassailable decision after the 9/11 attacks that Qaeda terrorists were not entitled to Geneva Convention prisoner-of-war protections: Captives could properly be subjected to harsh interrogation methods, but not torture. This, to Hersh, appears sinister; so he cites internal memoranda in which government lawyers at the non-policy level discuss the limits of permissible interrogation in light of anti-torture laws, and finds a conspiracy to torture prisoners.
For Hersh, it is immaterial that these memos were never endorsed as policy and that the relevant administration decision-makers all insisted that torture was forbidden. Relying on an unidentified “former intelligence official,” Hersh contends there was a top-secret program that licensed the abuse of Qaeda captives for intelligence purposes, and that, in late 2003, the Pentagon shifted the program to Iraq in an effort to get tough with the thriving insurgency there. The result was the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal–which the Pentagon tried to keep a lid on, but could not, owing to Hersh’s tireless reporting.
This account is farcical. First, it was the Pentagon, which vehemently denies the existence of such a program, that first publicly revealed prisoner-abuse allegations in Iraq, months before Hersh reported them. Second, Gen. Antonio Taguba was loosed to conduct an aggressive internal investigation–which Hersh selectively praises–and expressly concluded that the abuse was not authorized. Third, former defense secretary James Schlesinger’s exhaustive independent probe similarly found neither a “policy of abuse” nor “approved procedures” for inhumane treatment. And fourth, the abuse is being vigorously prosecuted, with 45 personnel thus far referred for courts-martial, and at least one cooperating defendant denying that the heinous conduct was authorized. Hersh nonetheless plows ahead with this and other calumnies, propped up by shadowy sources.
He also reprises his contention that the U.S. was duped into invading Iraq by that root-of-all-evil, the “neocons” in the Pentagon and Vice President Cheney’s office. Prominent here is the disingenuous harangue that, to heighten fears of a revived Iraqi nuclear program, the Bush administration relied on crude forgeries suggesting Iraqi efforts to purchase yellowcake uranium from Niger. Hersh’s case, again, is a crock. The forgeries were a sideshow, and never the core of concerns about Saddam’s ambitions. Probes completed by the Senate Intelligence Committee and Lord Butler’s commission in the U.K. have concluded that the uranium allegation was consistent with years of clandestine surveillance by Western intelligence services.
Were it not perfectly obvious from the suspect fact-gathering that his purpose is a pre-election mauling of the sitting president, Hersh’s designs would be clear from his choice of identified sources, who are called on when the pretense of impartial expert analysis is in order. On prisoner abuse, for example, his go-to guys are Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch and former New York Times eminence Anthony Lewis–both scathing Bush critics at the forefront of a due-process-for-terrorists movement. On Iraq, Hersh offers up former weapons inspector and current Saddam apologist Scott Ritter, and Richard Clarke, who, after years of holding very nearly the opposite view, “evolved” into a naysayer on Iraqi ties to terror just in time to pen his own election-year bestseller. And, for the astounding claim that ostensibly successful military operations in Afghanistan were really a study in ineptitude, Hersh is accommodated by a declared Democratic partisan, retired general Wesley Clark.
This is the way the mainstream game, in which Hersh is among the most renowned winners, was always played. The game is ending, apparently unbeknownst to the storied investigative journalist, but not a moment too soon for the rest of us.
–Mr. McCarthy, who led the prosecution of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven others in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and a contributor to National Review Online.