Seymour Hersh is a pioneer of investigative journalism, the modern iteration of which he fashioned almost singlehandedly by uncovering the 1968 My Lai massacre, during the Vietnam War. Americans had opposed the war before My Lai—everyone knew what the American government was capable of, and many suspected that it was concealing the true extent of the horrors in Vietnam—but Hersh’s 1969 dispatches gave them coordinates to navigate their outrage by. Hersh presented the facts in black and white. After Hersh’s revelations, skeptics on the left didn’t have to feel like paranoids anymore. It turned out they had been right all along.
Hersh’s work in the aughts had much the same effect. In 2004, he exposed torture at Abu Ghraib. In 2008, he found that U.S. Special Forces were operating in Iran. The list goes on, with each discovery providing a single fleck of color. Take a step back to widen your field of vision, and you’ll be able to make out Hersh’s pointillist masterpiece: a painting of the lies the American elite have told to mask the lawless violence of pursuing their imperial ambitions.
Because of the penetration and scope of Hersh’s work, it is as much an indictment of the American media’s coverage of elites as it is one of the American government. To engage with Hersh properly, even to criticise him, the media would necessarily have to break from its day-to-day reporting of political horse races and its slavish echoing of official narratives. It would have to expose the government to shrewd interrogation in the process. That being the case, Hersh’s work is important, even if parts of it do turn out to be inaccurate.
Hersh’s latest is a ten thousand-word piece in the London Review of Books in which he explains that everything the government told you about the killing of Osama bin Laden is a lie. A few of the highlights are: (1) The government of Pakistan knew exactly where Bin Laden was, (2) Saudi Arabia was paying Pakistan to keep Bin Laden in his safe house compound, (3) America found out where Bin Laden was not by tracking an Al Qaeda courier or by torturing people, but because a disgruntled Pakistani intelligence officer wanted to claim the $25 million dollar reward, (4) America was going to make it appear as if Bin Laden had been killed in a drone strike, but switched courses at the last minute after one of the SEAL’s helicopters crashed, (5) The American and Pakistani government colluded to lie to the public about how Bin Laden was found and killed.
Predictably, many in the media have rushed to the government’s defense. Hersh’s anonymous sources rankle them. The story itself, which is so far removed from the official narrative and implicates corruption at the highest levels of government, has a dreamlike aura. Never mind that the account the government gave has been deteriorating from the start, and the glaring contradictions between the official versions as related by the Pakistani and American governments. Put aside the fact that someone else using different sources reported a version of Hersh’s story in 2011, or that NBC, within a day, had already confirmed a key point of Hersh’s narrative. If Hersh’s critics actually did submerge themselves in a detailed re-reporting of his allegations, the process would subjugate the American ruling class to deeper scrutiny than usual.
One of the most compelling responses to the alternative narrative Hersh is advocating came from Tariq Ali. Writing in The Guardian, Ali confirms that his own sources told him in 2006 that Bin Laden was indeed being kept by Pakistani intelligence. But why? As Ali explains, “The person concerned told me the Americans only wanted Bin Laden dead, but that it was in Pakistan’s interest to keep him alive. In his words: ‘Why kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?’—a reference to the billions in aid and weaponry being supplied to the army.” Among the many revelations that Hersh has dredged to the surface, this finer point about America’s codependent relationships with client states risks getting overshadowed.
Generally defined, codependency is being unable to do without someone else’s control, and it’s a useful description of America’s rapport with many of its Middle Eastern client states. In Pakistan’s case, we get to violate the sovereignty of their borders with assassinations (that, perhaps, occasionally, don’t kill civilians) while bloating their coffers with military aid. We get to act like we’re killing terrorists without unduly risking the lives of too many troops on the ground. It’s a pretty toxic relationship in that we enable each other’s worst instincts.
Our liaison with Saudi Arabia is probably even worse. America and Saudi Arabia have inexplicably found things to bond over despite radical differences in culture, political structure, defense needs, and foreign policy goals. In 2010 we sold over $60 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia. That same year Wikileaks found that Saudi Arabian donors represented the largest share of financial support for Al Qaeda. The most recent metaphor for our codependency with Saudi Arabia comes in the symbol of a Saudi-led coalition using American-supplied cluster bombs to maim Yemeni civilians. In return for oil and a market for our weapons, we turn a blind eye to their human rights abuses and connections to terrorism.
Hersh’s piece helps us to interrogate America’s long-term dalliances with these non-ally client states, often working towards ends fundamentally opposed to the will of the American people, buttressed by our tax dollars and military technology. In the rot of these interactions there are whiffs of the problematic relationship the American government has with its citizens, and that of elites with power itself. Each association is fundamentally deceitful, and each transaction exchanges moral curiosity for a false sense of control.
Hersh’s byline in the LRB mentions modestly that he’s at work on an “alternative history” of the war on terror. One can’t help but hope that “alternative” means that special attention will be paid to the uppermost levels of the American power structure, giving us a more complete sense of the big picture.