The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, May 15, 2004

Can we trust Hersh on Abu Ghraib?

There is a further instalment (the third by my reckoning - and 5,500 words of it!) of what it turning out to be the Abu Ghraib series now available on the New Yorker site (dated May 15, issue May 24).

Before getting to grips with it [1], I'm moved to pause for quiet reflection: the first piece in the series, you'll recall, was largely retelling the contents of the Taguba report which had found its way into Hersh's hands. The trust element came in with the question whether or not the document was genuine: after that, one could assume Hersh's copy/paste, as checked by the New Yorker fact-checkers, would be reasonably reliable.

By the current instalment, though there are references to an
internal report prepared for the U.S. military
leaked to Hersh, he's relying more than a little on a particular anonymous source, a
former senior intelligence official
. With guest appearances from
a government consultant
a Pentagon consultant, who spent much of his career directly involved with special-access programs [2]

Hersh, needless to say, has something of a rap-sheet. His style, like that of Uncle Bob Woodward, of whom he is, as I've read, supposedly jealous, loves anonymice and abhors footnotes.

You'd expect pros and antis to be divided along ideological lines: a piece on Hersh's record (May 14) in Front Page, not an unmitigated hatchet-job, has one or two damning quotes from Hersh's side of the ideological tracks:
"I don’t read him anymore because I don’t trust him," Max Holland, a Contributing Editor of the ultra-Leftist The Nation magazine, told the Columbia Journalism Review’s Sherman.

"I read what he writes with some skepticism or doubt or uncertainty," said Newsweek Assistant Managing Editor Evan Thomas

For background, Mr Google has suggested: a 2000 Salon Hersh bio; another from the Columbia Journalism Review in 2003; a 1982 piece from the Atlantic Monthly on Kissinger and Chile The Price of Power (same title as his book on the subject); a 1999 piece [3] with quotes rubbishing Hersh's The Sampson Option on the Israeli nuclear weapons programme; a Timothy Noah piece in 2001 queried Hersh's apparent approval of CIA assassinations of terrorists; a rather sceptical 4,000 word CJR review from 1998 of Hersh's controversial The Dark Side of Camelot.

Hersh's method entails an appeal to his readers to take most of what he says on trust. One can look at the rate and seriousness of the errors he has made to date; and try to corroborate elements in his present work to see what checks out and what doesn't (not easy in the field of intelligence, obviously!).

Unsatisfactory, but inevitable with his MO.

  1. I've skimmed it and no more. As ever, I'm reluctant to get into jury questions about what happened in Iraq, which might as well be on the moon for all the personal contact I have with it. I'm primarily interested in the media treatment.

  2. Quite what this means in USG-speak, I'm not clear. The particular SAP Hersh is talking about is, it seems,
    a highly secret program that was given blanket advance approval to kill or capture and, if possible, interrogate “high value” targets in the Bush Administration’s war on terror.
  3. From something called Yated Ne'eman - which a cursory search suggests might have been parti pris.

MORE (May 16)

Hersh's latest Abu Ghraib piece - unlike its predecessors - has been given a mauling by DOD spinners, according to the New York Times - a Continuous News Desk [1] piece (May 16):
the Defense Department criticized his new article in The New Yorker in the very toughest of terms. It said assertions in his article were "outlandish, conspiratorial and filled with error and anonymous conjecture."

The allegation that Rumsfeld is responsible for extending the get-Al Qaida SAP to Iraq has got the Pentagon's goat.

In the meantime, however, Michael Isikoff and an army of helpers from Newsweek have their own Abu Ghraib piece (May 24!). Its USP is a sheaf of legal opinions from within USG of the use of forceful interrogation techniques to Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects.

There's reference, though to
Rumsfeld...getting impatient about the poor quality of the intelligence coming out of [Iraq]
by last summer.
So he directed Steve Cambone, his under secretary for intelligence, to send Gitmo commandant Miller to Iraq to improve what they were doing out there.

Isikoff's piece does not link Rumsfeld further with decisions to toughen up the regime in Iraqi prisons. It merely says that
it is growing harder for top Pentagon officials, including Rumsfeld himself, to absolve themselves of all responsibility.

His piece is plenty anonymised; but there seems to be an element of corroboration there.

(Isikoff has met with no Pentagon flak, that I can see.)

  1. This little arcanum discussed on March 4.

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