American reporter Seymour Hersh visited Syria and Lebanon last month and is in the process of publishing a story in The New Yorker “on Syria,” according to the British daily The Guardian.
Pulitzer Prize winner Hersh, 71, is undoubtedly one of the finest investigative journalists America has ever produced. But Hersh has grown overconfident, and his accuracy rate has declined substantially.
For instance, Hersh has prophesized an American attack on Iran many times, often giving a date. All his dates have passed, however, and with no ado. The Guardian wrote, “His supporters, though, believe that his mistakes - and even the wilder allegations he sometimes makes in speeches - should always be put in the context of his hit rate.”
But hit rates are no substitute for accuracy. Seymour Hersh’s writing has been sensationalist at best, fictional at worst.
The list of Hersh’s inaccurate reports is long. In some cases, he filed corrections. In other cases, harm was done and he simply looked the other way.
There was the time, for example, back in 1974, The Guardian reported, when Hersh “accused the US ambassador to Chile, Edward Korry, of being in on a CIA plot to overthrow President Allende. Some years later, Hersh had to write a long correction; it ran on page one of the New York Times.”
And then, not too long ago, there was the last time Hersh visited Lebanon. His story – which also ran in The New Yorker on March 05, 2007 under the title “The Redirection” – was so inaccurate that one could not tell the difference between fact and faction.
The next Hersh story, which will soon run in The New Yorker, may be an update of his earlier rumor-based article on Future Movement leader Saad Hariri’s funding of terrorism.
But before the Hersh piece is out, his readers in the United States and the Middle East should keep in mind how he works, in his own words and as was reported in The Guardian.
In Beirut, Hersh himself is known for his strong links with former Information Minister Michel Samaha, who is in turn known for his staunch loyalty to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime through Assad’s political and media advisor, former Minister Buthayna Shaaban. Samaha is also known for his hostility toward the March 14 alliance, including Hariri himself.
Aside from blatant misreporting and the effect of his friendships on his journalism, Hersh’s use of sources is highly dubious. The Guardian asked Hersh whether his sources are people he has known for a long time. “No,” said Hersh, “I do pick up new people.” According to The Guardian, this Hersh tactic is flawed, for “with new contacts… there is always the danger of a plant.”
The risk of distorting the report through false witnesses runs high, and was probably the case during Hersh’s last trips to Lebanon and Syria.
According to The Guardian, Hersh’s critics also point to “what they regard as his excessive use of unnamed sources. Others accuse him of getting things wrong and of being gullible.”
In an interview with Hala Gorani on CurrentCurrent.org in May 2007, Hersh said that the White House, with Saudi Prince Bandar, had the idea of “supporting various hard-line jihadists, Sunni groups, particularly in Lebanon, who would be seen in case of an actual confrontation with Hezbollah… as an asset.” To Hersh, such support was tantamount to American foreign policy errors during the 1980s, using “the Saudis to support jihadists,” particularly in North Lebanon. Today, Hersh said, the business of supporting Sunnis anywhere against Shia was big. “We're in a business of creating in some places, Lebanon in particular, a sectarian violence.”
Another aspect of US policy in Lebanon, Hersh says at the end of the interview, is to support the Fouad Siniora government, “despite its weakness” against the coalition joining the Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah.
Yet here, Hersh does in fact “get things wrong.” Hersh’s interview gives away his superficial understanding of the region and its politics, and in concealing parts of the story. Why, for instance, would America, Saudi Arabia and their Lebanese allies support the Lebanese army and the government, who fought a bloody war with Fatah al-Islam, while Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah delivered a speech in which he warned the army against fighting Fatah Al-Islam, inferring that the group was a “red line?”
To substantiate his point, Hersh quoted Alastair Crooke, whom Hersh introduced as a former agent who had spent nearly thirty years in MI6, the British intelligence service, and now works for the Beirut-based think tank Conflicts Forum. Crooke told Hersh, "One Sunni extremist group, Fatah al-Islam, had splintered from its pro-Syrian parent group, Fatah al-Intifada, in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, in northern Lebanon." Fair enough.
According to Hersh, Crooke also said, "I was told that within twenty-four hours they were being offered weapons and money by people presenting themselves as representatives of the Lebanese government's interests—presumably to take on Hezbollah."
Now here is the catch. Crooke "was told" that the government supported Fatah Al-Islam, to "presumably" take on Hezbollah.
Despite its rumor style, Hersh's so-called investigative report instantly hit success with Syrian media and Syria's Lebanese protégés, and was repeatedly quoted with the anti-Hariri crowd behaving as if they now have it on good authority that Hariri was funding radical Sunni groups.
As for never learning from history, while Hersh wants the United States to avoid repeating past faux pas, such as supporting Jihadists in the region, he encourages America to repeat its miserable deal with Syria over Lebanon, in 1991. Hersh forgets, however, that despite the deal at the time, Syria never helped disarm Hezbollah or other militias in Lebanon, as it promised. At least two full-scale wars erupted between Hezbollah and Israel during the Syrian control of Lebanon.
When you read Hersh’s new story in The New Yorker, do so with a grain of salt.