Hersh's Account of the Bin Laden Raid is Journalistic Malpractice
When a journalist writes a tell-all story about a classified operation, and he suspects the story will catalyze anti-American anger, provide fuel for terrorist groups, and cause severe friction with foreign governments, the act of publication is morally fraught. When the story is based on obscenely thin sourcing and careens into conspiracy theories, the decision to publish becomes indefensible. Seymour Hersh has had a long and distinguished history as one of America’s finest investigative journalists. In recent years, he has gone a bit kooky. In 2011, for instance, he suggested that Stanley McChrystal, the former top commander in Afghanistan, and the leadership of the US Joint Special Operations Forces were "all members of, or at least supporters of, Knights of Malta.” His latest story, in which he claims that the entire story of Bin Laden’s killing is an elaborate cover-up for a joint Pakistani-American operation, may be his kookiest. As many have already pointed out, Hersh’s version offers a combination of the inconsistent and the inexplicable. Why, for instance, would the Pakistanis help plan an elaborate raid, complete with a recall of Bin Laden’s Pakistani guards---rather than just hand Bin Laden over directly---if they always intended to claim he’d been killed in a drone strike hundreds of miles away? Worse, the key contentions rely on the exclusive word of one unnamed source who was a) retired, and b) on Hersh’s own account, only “knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad.” To be sure, there are scraps of Hersh’s hodgepodge narrative that may turn out to be true. That a CIA “walk-in” may have contributed to the intel leading to Bin Laden’s whereabouts, for instance, matches a tidbit that NBC has confirmed recently. And Hersh’s insistence that someone highly placed in the Pakistani intelligence services knew of Bin Laden’s presence has been pretty widely believed for a while. But leaping from these plausible and relatively minor details to the rest of the fantastic tale Hersh spins simply boggles the mind. It’s unsurprising then that The New Yorker passed on the story (as it, along with the The Washington Post, have reportedly done with the last few of Hersh’s flights of fantasy.) The London Review of Books, on the other hand, lacked the same degree of restraint. This is hardly surprising given the editorial leadership’s apparent lack of interest in fact-checking. As LRB senior editor Christian Lorentzen wrote in a 2012 piece suitably titled Short Cuts,” “the facts are the burden of the reporter…nobody at the paper fact-checks full time; that’s an American thing... I miss New York sometimes, but I don’t miss its schizophrenic obsession with facts, or the puritan hysteria that attends the discovery that a memoir should have been called a novel.” The LRB, it seems, takes pride in its sloppiness. Perhaps they have an editorial opening for Stephen Glass? As a former fact-checker, I find the LRB’s approach part puzzling and part offensive. As a citizen who would like to form judgements and opinions on the basis of actual information, I’m horrified. Hersh’s and LRB’s offense isn’t simply against their readership---against whom they have almost certainly perpetrated a fraud. It is also a reckless attack on Western interests and American foreign policy. The story seems designed inflame anti-American sentiment and to exacerbate tensions with a ficky, unstable and nuclear-armed ally. Can you imagine the fury within Pakistan---against their government and its always fragile security cooperation with the West---when sizeable numbers of citizens become convinced Pakistan was complicit in an American ground forces incursion, in exchange for cash? Difficult as it is to imagine, some professional journalists stationed in the region seem ready to believe Hersh’s fantasy. And in a region particularly susceptible to conspiracy theories (especially of the anti-American variety), a story like this is like dropping a lit match into a pile of flax---especially when that story is published by a prestigious Western outlet and written by an eminent American journalist. (“See, even the Americans think it’s true!”) Journalists frequently publish stories with the potential to cause sizeable damage to American foreign policy. These are often close calls, but they are justified because the stories are solid and the public has a right to accurate, well-sourced information with which to hold their leaders accountable. But when a “revelation” lacks credibility, we are left with the worst of both worlds: The damage to the national interest is extensive---and without a shred of democratic benefit.