Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 9, 2013

Semour Hersh and Richard Sale’s senior moments

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 1:39 pm

Seymour Hersh

Richard Sale

Perhaps betraying senior moments, long-time reporters Seymour “Sy” Hersh (76) and Richard Sale (74) have penned articles of the sort that were rampant in the weeks following Barack Obama’s threats to do something about Bashar al-Assad’s August 21 sarin gas attack on East Ghouta. Despite the consensus among the “anti-imperialist” left that Obama intended to attack Syria as a prelude to attacking Iran, after the fashion of Hitler using Poland as a launching pad for invading the USSR, it has been revealed that at that very moment the U.S. and Iran were involved in secret talks designed to reorient American foreign policy against the “jihadist” threat.

“We need to start talking to the Assad regime again” about counterterrorism and other issues of shared concern, said Ryan C. Crocker, a veteran diplomat who has served in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. “It will have to be done very, very quietly. But bad as Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence.”

“Whether they are dismayed by the way things played out in Egypt or by the growth of Al Qaeda in Syria, the worm has turned in the Middle East in the minds of American foreign policy makers,” said William McCants, an expert on jihadist movements and a former senior adviser at the State Department. “It seems we are back to counterterrorism as a guiding focus for American policy.”

–NY Times, December 3, 2013

Hersh’s article–featured as a coming attraction for the next issue of London Review of Books–is titled “Whose sarin?” I just heard from Brown Moses that he has an article answering Hersh in Foreign Policy magazine so I won’t go into any details about the technical issues. Instead I am going to focus on the political assumptions implicit in what amounts to version 2.0 of the Ray McGovern/Yossef Bodansky “false flag” story that surfaced in September. Basically Hersh’s article is an attempt to snow the reader with references to all the “experts” he knows who have the inside goods that it was the jihadists who were behind the East Ghouta massacre.

But in recent interviews with intelligence and military officers and consultants past and present, I found intense concern, and on occasion anger, over what was repeatedly seen as the deliberate manipulation of intelligence. One high-level intelligence officer, in an email to a colleague, called the administration’s assurances of Assad’s responsibility a ‘ruse’. The attack ‘was not the result of the current regime’, he wrote. A former senior intelligence official told me that the Obama administration had altered the available information – in terms of its timing and sequence – to enable the president and his advisers to make intelligence retrieved days after the attack look as if it had been picked up and analysed in real time, as the attack was happening. The distortion, he said, reminded him of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, when the Johnson administration reversed the sequence of National Security Agency intercepts to justify one of the early bombings of North Vietnam. The same official said there was immense frustration inside the military and intelligence bureaucracy: ‘The guys are throwing their hands in the air and saying, “How can we help this guy” – Obama – “when he and his cronies in the White House make up the intelligence as they go along?”’

For comparison’s sake, here’s the first paragraph of an open letter that Ray McGovern and a gaggle of other ex-spooks sent to Barack Obama.

We regret to inform you that some of our former co-workers are telling us, categorically, that contrary to the claims of your administration, the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21, and that British intelligence officials also know this. In writing this brief report, we choose to assume that you have not been fully informed because your advisers decided to afford you the opportunity for what is commonly known as “plausible denial.”

One has to scratch one’s head over Hersh’s reference to a Gulf of Tonkin incident when he surely must have been aware that the U.S. and Iran had been in secret talks since November 2012, something that has been widely reported in the bourgeois press. Speaking as a geezer myself, I understand what a burden that cataracts can impose on your reading but surely a well-paid journalist like Hersh could have had an intern at the LRB read press reports for him. Surely she (it probably would have been a woman) could have whispered in his ear what was going on:

An Israeli television network reported Sunday night that Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Barack Obama, has been holding secret talks with the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, and that the international negotiations underway in Geneva are merely a “facade” covering up a deal whose terms have already been decided.

The report on Israel’s Channel 10 quoted unnamed senior Israeli officials who said that the talks, which have reportedly been underway for a year, have been held in various Persian Gulf states.

Exactly one year ago, the Israeli newspaper Ynet reported that Jarrett was beginning to communicate behind the scenes with representatives of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Apparently Hersh has been obsessed about this looming war on Syria and Iran for sometime now, even long before the Arab Spring occurred. And long before many in the “anti-imperialist” left had developed an obsession with Sharia law and beheadings that would have made Christopher Hitchens wince, he was warning readers of the New Yorker magazine, the place to go if you are looking for Jeffrey Goldberg type reporting. In a March 5, 2007 article titled “The Redirection”, Hersh worried about George W. Bush—of all people—becoming soft on the jihadists.

To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has coöperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

Most of the article consists of Hersh serving as a stenographer to Hizbollah leader Nasrallah, whose every word he seems to dote on.

I understand that for many people Sy Hersh is a saintly figure whose every word deserves to be preserved for the ages, but there are some people who demand that he be as accountable as any other scribbler for the bourgeois press—starting with Alexander Cockburn.

On November 13, 2001 Cockburn informed N.Y. Press readers that Hersh was clueless about predator drones—a warning flag to anybody taking Hersh’s ruminations on sarin-laded missiles with a wheelbarrow of salt. In a New Yorker magazine published that year, Hersh described predator drones as having an uncanny ability to distinguish combatants from non-combatants—a revelation one imagines to the Afghan families that lost children in one of Obama’s remote controlled death squad escapades. Cockburn wrote:

Discussing the Hersh story, a knowledgeable [Capitol] Hill staffer drew attention to the Pentagon’s unclassified “Operational Test & Evaluation Report” on the Predator from September 2001 (i.e., well before the articles). It highlighted numerous shortcomings, such as “poor target location accuracy, ineffective communications and limits imposed by relatively benign weather, including rain, negatively impact missions…” To sum up: The best Predator sensor needs daylight and clear skies, and at operational ranges (15,000 to 30,000 feet) it can make gross distinctions between what type of vehicle it is looking at.

After Alexander Cockburn assumed ownership of Counterpunch, along with the intrepid Jeff St. Clair, the less than worshipful attitude toward Hersh continued. Just after Hersh’s “The Redirection” appeared in the New Yorker, Counterpunch published an article by Michael Young with this opening:

It’s become a habit to greet whatever journalist Seymour Hersh writes with reverence. However, after his ludicrous claim last summer that Israel’s war in Lebanon was a trial run for an American bombing of Iran – an accusation undermined by postwar narratives showing the confused way Israel and the United States responded to the conflict – my doubts hardened.


Finally, it is worth pointing out that the London Review of Books has become a reliable source of pro-Assad propaganda, adding Hersh to a roster that includes Tariq Ali and David Bromwich among other luminaries. When I first became aware of the “humanitarian intervention” phenomenon in the 1990s when Yugoslavia was being torn apart, it became clear to me that such “respectable” liberal magazines intended for Oxford graduates were instrumental in lining up support against the “dastardly Serbs”. How ironic that in 2013, the LRB and the New York Review of Books function as a wing of the John Rees left internationally.

Richard Sale’s “Syria’s Criminal Rebels” appeared in the December 4, 2013 Truthout, an online publication I always associated with William Rivers Pitt who no longer seems to have any connection with it.

As was the case with Sy Hersh, Alexander Cockburn refused to take Truthout at its word, at least with respect to its coverage of the Valerie Plame story.

Take Truthout, the site identified with William Rivers Pitt and Mark Ash. After months and months of obsessive bloggings about the Plame scandal Truthout contributor Jason Leopold declared on May 13 that Karl Rove had been indicted on charges of perjury and lying to investigators. Leopold cited “sources” averring that prosecutor Fitzgerald had met for 15 hours with Rove’s lawyer, Robert Luskind, that Rove had told Bush and his chief of staff Joshua Bolton that he was about to indicted.

In the days that followed, came immediate, categorical denials from Rove’s lawyer and the White House. The week progressed with no indictment. It looked as though Truthout would have to sponge the egg off its face. Truthout did nothing of the sort, insisting as vehemently as any lunatic claiming abduction by aliens that it stuck by its story.

Like most of the left, Truthout is generally reliable even if it is subject to the sort of silliness that Cockburn called attention to. I have it bookmarked along with Truthdig and CommonDreams as part of my daily intake of liberal bromides.

But like most of the left, it has been dreadful on Syria. A search on “Syria” there returns 6,600 results with Dutchman Daan de Wit’s “Why Is Syria Under Attack?” at the top. Truthout links to De Wit’s website Deep Journal, where you can find a plethora of articles on 9/11 starting with “Scientific proof of explosives in WTC on 9/11 – Prof. Niels Harrit interviewed by Daan de Wit”. As my regular readers know, 9/11 Truthism goes hand in hand with Baathist propaganda, like a giant-sized coke with a Big Mac.

Sale, like Hersh, is a big macher in the journalism business—or at least was at one time—with a impressive credit to his name: Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1989. My guess is that he is enjoying his retirement nowadays with occasional contributions to Truthout, an online publication not bound by the fact-checking rigors of the print media one gathers.

The article is larded with references to those “professionals” in the military and intelligence business that Hersh alluded to in a bid for authority, but with the added cachet of naming names:

“The first thing in a war that flees is human decency,” said Col. Pat Lang, former Defense Intelligence Agency leader of Middle East operations.

“The criminality of the Syrian opposition, I think, is the chief reason President Obama is steering clear of more involvement there,” Vince Cannistraro, former CIA counterterrorism chief, told Truthout.

A veteran Mideast expert at National Defense University in Washington, DC, Judith Yaphe, described the Syrian civil war as “a complete mess” that the United States would be warned to stay out of.

An analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, Joseph Holliday, remarked that organized crime played “a major role in creating nearly insolvable insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, as the governments became hopelessly corrupt and insurgents secured regular sources of weapons and cash. [Strange, I always thought it had more to do with a brutal occupation…]

For a second there, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t reading an op-ed piece in the N.Y. Times by somebody from the Brookings Institute. Yaphe is the sort of person I’d be as likely to quote as Walter Russell Mead, but then again I wouldn’t dream of writing for Truthout.

In a sign of “senioritis”, Sale cites a N.Y. Timesman named C.J. Shivers better known to his readers as C.J. Chivers. I admit shivering when I read Sale’s reference to a Chivers article dated September 6, 2013:

A New York Times article made this point with great impact last month when it described the execution of five trussed men, badly beaten, whose faces were pressed into the dirt as Syrian rebels, posed casually, fired bullets into the back of each prisoner’s head.

Like Hersh, who betrayed no awareness that secret talks had been going on between the White House and the Iranians, Sale is blissfully unaware that the article he cites to reinforce his Islamophobia turned out to be in need of fact-checking. The N.Y. Times was forced to make a public mea culpa on Chivers’s article:

An article on Thursday about the brutal and ruthless tactics adopted by some rebel groups in Syria misstated the date of a video that showed a band of rebels executing seven captured Syrian soldiers. The video, which was smuggled out of Syria by a former rebel, was made in the spring of 2012, not April 2013.

Even if Chivers had his dates correct, it would have not made much difference in the overarching purpose of his article, namely to provide N.Y. Times editorial endorsement for Obama’s “turn” to Syria and Iran. All these lurid articles are meant to serve one purpose and one purpose only: to deaden the American people’s sensitivity to one of the most brutal attacks on human rights in decades. Oh, it’s just those Arabs killing each other again. Nobody would ever push for American intervention in Syria but the backhanded support for Bashar al-Assad by people such as Richard Sale is disgusting.

Assuming that Sale is a journalist emeritus, there is no excuse for some of the slop that appears in his article. For instance, he writes:

The new chief of police in Aleppo, a man named Ryhan, commented, “We now have serious complaints about members of the Free Syrian Army. Some of them are stealing cars to move around.” He added that there were “too many robberies and people being kidnapped in the streets.”8

But if go to footnote 8, you will discover nothing that connects to the quote. Did Sale just make “Ryhan” up like Stephen Glass, the disgraced New Republic reporter who had a vivid imagination? And equally disconcerting, why would anybody cite the “new chief of police in Aleppo” as an impartial authority on the FSA? You might as well have cited Bashar al-Assad.

One of the major collateral damages of the Syrian conflict has been integrity in left journalism, with the Mint Press fiasco as a prime example. People like Sy Hersh and Richard Sale believe that in pursuit of their strategic goals, it is permissible to make things up. Just like Judith Miller really. If anybody ever catches me writing such bullshit on my blog, they have permission to come to my apartment in Manhattan and seize my Macbook. They also have permission to walk me over to the nearest clinic to have me checked for early onset of Alzheimer’s. Thank god I still have my principles and my brainpower intact.


  1. It’s interesting how a large body of interconnected knowledge on Syria had been created to vindicate the position of the mainstream left and justify their indifference. It reminds me of the first chapter in Said’s Orientalism where he documents DeSacy being quoted by Nerval, and Nerval being quoted by Napoleon. At each turn, the field of Orientalism with its complex relations and imaginations is validated. Propaganda feeds on itself.
    And like the doctrine of Orientalism, it’s sophisticated and, in my opinion, sophisticated propaganda for the Assad regime (from, say, Abu Khalil, Musa Al Gharbi, David Bromwhich) requires theoretical approaches to tear it down.
    Then there’s the bourgeois longing for a romanticized old Damascus squares and nostalgia for the artifacts destroyed: all Orientalist curtain for repression that’s been going on for decades in Syria and the destruction of people.
    By all means, I think you’re doing a terrific job in documenting this travesty.

    Comment by Anas El Hawat — December 9, 2013 @ 3:32 pm

  2. I glad to see we didn’t have to wait long for your spin on Sy Hersh’s septuagenarian ramblings. If you had read the whole article, which I doubt you did since it was so long, you would have seen a lot of information there and not one word about Iran. Sy also did not make any claim to have proof of who did use the gas but only focused on how the USG manipulated the intelligence about the attack but you know Assad was responsible because some unemployed guy sitting in his mother’s basement in England has the “real facts” about Syria. One of the bits of intelligence he brings up is that some US analysts believe that some of the rebels have the means to make sarin gas which gives more credibility to the Mint Press story.

    You do pack a lot into your posts but it seems to be mostly bloviating with some odd kitchen sinks thrown in for good measure and you actually say very little about the facts in dispute. I know, Lewis, if we don’t defer to your POV we are Assad apologists and Sy Hersh is very old.

    Comment by PeteM — December 9, 2013 @ 11:27 pm

  3. Myers, I brought up Iran to put Hersh’s Islamophobia into context. In terms of the “analysts” Hersh relies on, Scott Lucas makes the case that it is one Michael Maloof. Here’s the goods on Maloof:

    U.S. revokes security clearance for Pentagon employee
    By Warren P. Strobel

    11/06/03: (Knight Ridder Newspapers)

    WASHINGTON – A veteran Pentagon employee who was a key player in the effort to find links between Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida has been stripped of his security clearance, according to senior U.S. officials.

    The employee, F. Michael Maloof, is associated with a Lebanese-American businessman who is under federal investigation for possible involvement in a gun-running scheme to Liberia, the West African nation embroiled in civil war. The businessman, Imad El Haje, approached Maloof on behalf of Syria to seek help in arranging a communications channel between Syria and the Defense Department.

    Maloof is close to influential foreign policy hawks inside and outside government, some of whom lobbied vigorously to get his clearance restored despite objections from government security officers, one official said.

    The officials involved all spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing classified matters.

    Maloof is a Pentagon veteran who has made a career of attempting to suppress the trade in high-tech goods with military uses. He was awarded the Defense Department’s Distinguished Civilian Service Award.

    The battle over Maloof’s access to government secrets appears to be part of a larger struggle in the Bush administration over control of intelligence and foreign policy.

    On one side are officials who say senior Pentagon civilians are conducting foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, outside of established channels on the basis of questionable intelligence. On the other are hawks who say the State Department, the CIA and others don’t fully appreciate the threats the United States faces.

    Maloof, contacted three times, declined comment, but his backers contend that his superiors at the Defense Department cleared his contact with El Haje. One person close to Maloof said he had informed his Pentagon superiors about his dealings with El Haje, terming it a “sensitive relationship” that could benefit U.S. security in the Middle East.

    Maloof is on administrative leave and hasn’t been charged with wrongdoing. Those close to him contend that his clearances were pulled in retaliation for challenging the official assessment that there were no operational terrorist links between al-Qaida and Iraq.

    Maloof was part of a two-man team created at the Pentagon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to find such links. The team was a predecessor to the Pentagon’s controversial Office of Special Plans.

    Maloof and David Wurmser, who’s now an aide to Undersecretary of State John Bolton, claimed they had found evidence that Sunni and Shiite Muslim groups, as well as secular Islamic countries, cooperate to harm the United States despite their many differences.

    Pentagon officials briefed the CIA on the team’s findings in August 2002. CIA Director George Tenet sat in on part of the briefing.

    Most intelligence analysts and terrorism specialists vigorously dispute that any operational ties exist between Iraq and al-Qaida. One senior official said no new evidence of active cooperation between them had been found since the United States invaded Iraq.

    After Maloof’s clearances were revoked in December 2001, several individuals close to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld came to his defense and wrote supporting letters, officials said. They included Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, the Pentagon’s No. 3 civilian, who oversees the Office of Special Plans, and Richard Perle, a top outside adviser and former chairman of the influential Defense Policy Board, a group of outsiders who advise the defense secretary.

    The action was on appeal until late May 2003, when the appeal was rejected.

    An individual close to Maloof charged that the action was payback for Maloof’s work, which challenged the official orthodoxy.

    “We were able to show that they had not done their work, they had not done their analysis,” said the individual. The lifting of Maloof’s security clearance “is definitely retaliation,” he said. There “was an ongoing battle” between security professionals and the “forces of political incorrectness,” a senior official said.

    Other U.S. officials disputed that the action was politically motivated.

    The FBI and the Customs Service are investigating El Haje, a onetime associate of Liberian President Charles Taylor. The investigation is probing allegations of possible gun running into Liberia, which would violate a United Nations embargo that official U.S. policy honors.

    El Haje, who’s believed to be in Beirut, Lebanon, was detained at Washington Dulles International Airport outside Washington on Jan. 28 for attempting to export a .45-caliber handgun without a license. According to one account, he paid a small administrative fine, but faced no criminal charge.

    Repeated attempts to reach El Haje through his firm, American Underwriters Group, in Vienna, Va., and Beirut, were unsuccessful.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 9, 2013 @ 11:35 pm

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