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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Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Iran: is the H-bomb a dud?

Now, I don't know from nuclear proliferation, still less, from ongoing US covert operations. So the Seymour Hersh v DOD tourney is very much a he said, she said for your humble blogger.

In the blue corner, Hersh's New Yorker piece The Coming Wars; in the red corner, Larry DiRita's statement in rebuttal.

Evaluating on the papers alone, then: Hersh's sourcing is, as usual, mostly anonymous. In the field of national security, more understandable than in others: USG spokesmen expect anonymity, dissident officials need it.

But, as early as graf 2, we get (emphasis mine)
According to a former high-level intelligence official, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff shortly after the election and told them, in essence, that the naysayers had been heard and the American people did not accept their message.

Who is this guy? If he's former, why does he need anonymity? And which branch of intelligence? And when did he leave the service (whichever service that might be) - how current is his inside information?

The name that sprang to mind reading that was ex-CIA man Vincent Cannistraro - who's turned up here before. But - obviously - I know him only from on-the-record appearances: perhaps, for some stuff, he goes anonymous.

In fact, Cannistraro is namechecked later in the piece:
Two former C.I.A. clandestine officers, Vince Cannistraro and Philip Giraldi, who publish Intelligence Brief, a newsletter for their business clients
- (and which might they be? can you say conflict of interest?)

So journalistic fair play would rule him out as the former high-level intelligence official. (The Marquess of Queensbury is long dead, however.) Giraldi is quoted by Hersh on the record - it looks like he gave Hersh an interview.

The former high-level intelligence officer is quoted a dozen or more times in the piece (depending on how you count) - lots more than any other identified source, at least.

Hersh's other sources (in the words with which he first describes them, and cast in order of appearance) are:
  • a senior official of the International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.)

  • [a] retired senior C.I.A. official one of many who left the agency recently

  • [o]ne Western diplomat

  • [a]European Ambassador

  • Silvan Shalom, the [Israeli] Foreign Minister

  • In a recent essay, Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert who is the deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (and a supporter of the Administration)

  • Shahram Chubin, an Iranian scholar who is the director of research at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy

  • the government consultant [1] with close ties to the Pentagon

  • Flynt Leverett, a Middle East scholar who worked on the National Security Council in the Bush a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, at the Brookings Institution

  • Howard Hart, who was chief of the C.I.A.’s Paramilitary Operations Division before retiring in 1991

  • the Pentagon adviser [2]

  • [a] second Pentagon adviser

  • Jeffrey H. Smith, a West Point graduate who served as the C.I.A.’s general counsel in the mid-nineteen-nineties

  • a series of articles by John Arquilla, a professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterey, California, and a consultant on terrorism for the rand (sic) corporation

  • one Pentagon adviser

  • [a] retired four-star general

  • [a] former senior C.I.A. officer

The retired senior C.I.A. official and the government consultant with close ties to the Pentagon appear several times, the rest mostly just the once.

DiRita says
Mr. Hersh’s source(s) feed him with rumor, innuendo, and assertions about meetings that never happened, programs that do not exist, and statements by officials that were never made.

Love that
by the way - almost sounds like this time, it's personal. Of course, when the blind quotes are flowing from Pentagon background briefings - how many (dozen) were there yesterday alone, I wonder? - the
are fair and truthful in every respect - naturally.

DiRita cites four examples of Hersh's fabulation:
The post-election meeting he describes between the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff did not happen.

Hersh's source for this is our friend the former high-level intelligence officer; Hersh gives us no reason to suppose that the guy had first-hand knowledge of this meeting; there wouldn't exactly need to be a motorcade for the parties to get together; DiRita would hardly have mentioned it if he knew or suspected that corroboration was available.

Searching on the New York Times and Washington Post sites, it doesn't seem that either paper has a piece by a staff correspondent addressing Hersh's piece or DiRita's response [3]. But, if there was such a meeting, those papers' national security correspondents would have heard about it from their sources, surely?

Would those correspondents be tempted to keep shtum, though? Through professional jealousy (of Hersh?), or under DOD or White House pressure, that is.

[The alternative reading is a non-denial denial - such that
The post-election meeting he describes
is jumping on immaterial differences between Hersh's description and what actually happened to say Hersh's meeting never took place. I don't rule that alternative out. Oh no...]

The only civilians in the chain-of-command are the President and the Secretary of Defense, despite Mr. Hersh’s confident assertion that the chain of command now includes two Department policy officials. His assertion is outrageous, and constitutionally specious.

That's a reference to Hersh's
Rumsfeld and two of his key deputies, Stephen Cambone, the Under-secretary of Defense for Intelligence, and Army Lieutenant General William G. (Jerry) Boykin, will be part of the chain of command for the new commando operations.
- Boykin is Cambone's deputy still, I assume.

Again, I'm thinking the devil is in the expression chain of command - which no doubt varies in meaning according to context. Can it be that no instruction to a serving member of US forces is given except personally by Bush or Rumsfeld? What are these unders and deputies for, then? Powers are made to be delegated.

Another non-denial denial?

Arrangements Mr. Hersh alleges between Under Secretary Douglas Feith and Israel, government or non-government, do not exist. Here, Mr. Hersh is building on links created by the soft bigotry of some conspiracy theorists. This reflects poorly on Mr. Hersh and the New Yorker.

Soft bigotry - he's been working for Rumsfeld for too long!

Hersh says
the Defense Department civilians, under the leadership of Douglas Feith, have been working with Israeli planners and consultants to develop and refine potential nuclear, chemical-weapons, and missile targets inside Iran.

Again, it could be a mere quibble from DiRita. Civilians such as your humble blogger are entirely dependent on steers from grown-ups the grinding of whose axes is kept down to a dull roar. (Dana Priest has a webchat tomorrow, for instance.)

Mr. Hersh cannot even keep track of his own wanderings. At one point in his article, he makes the outlandish assertion that the military operations he describes are so secret that the operations are being kept secret even from U.S. military Combatant Commanders. Mr. Hersh later states, though, that the locus of this super-secret activity is at the U.S. Central Command headquarters, evidently without the knowledge of the commander if Mr. Hersh is to be believed.

I suspect that that sort of thing happens - need to know and so forth. But, again, even the pseudo-corroboration of the not-viscerally-engagé expert is sorely needed.

This is not, of course, the first time that Hersh's credibility has come under question. When his Abu Ghraib series started appearing in the New Yorker, I took a look at his rap-sheet (May 15) - it's not exactly an unblemished record.

Then, apparently as a teaser for his book Chain of Command, we had the tale of video footage (in a speech to the ACLU - July 15 and July 19) of boys being sodomized by Iraqi guards at Abu Ghraib.

The existence of that footage has, so far as I can, never been corroborated; still less has any of it entered the public domain.

So, was the video just a figment of Hersh's marketing-driven imagination?

On Iran, the cui bono arguments go both ways: perhaps, it's part of USG softening up of public opinion for a party in Iran: Bush gave NBC's David Gregory a friendly poke in the ribs on military action:
I hope we can solve it diplomatically, but I will never take any option off the table.

On the other hand, why give it to Hersh, who has zero credibility amongst Bush supporters, but would stand to gain to the extent his story proved true?

(Is it a feint for the Iranians? Or a morale-booster for the Israelis? So many potential conspiracies...)

Dissidents hardly benefit from the disclosures, surely? They were ignored before, and will continue to be ignored.

That's enough guessing. Ed.

  1. Use of the definite article implies an earlier reference to the guy in question. I can't spot it - my bad, no doubt.

  2. Not, I think, the same guy as the government consultant with close ties to the Pentagon but I wouldn't bet the farm on it.

  3. Note that, in the Bizarro World of American journalism, DiRita's spiel makes the Hersh piece a legitimate topic for the top papers to discuss. Without it, the iron law of Not Invented Here would bar it.

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