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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Sy Hersh's blemished record

Seymour M. Hersh still regards himself as an investigative reporter. In a London Review of Books article published in May, he quoted an intelligence source who trashed the White House account of the killing of Bin Laden.

Hersh's report was derided because only one anonymous source was used. In his defense, I observe that one true insider is worth a dozen anonymous sources who are less well placed. The issue is whether Hersh believed his source and whether the reporter had an ax to grind.
                                         Seymour M. Hersh
Surely it is disturbing that all photographs of events inside the Bin Laden compound were either deliberately destroyed or handed off to the CIA, which, unlike other federal entities, does not have to make them public under freedom of information statutes. The fact that the body was ditched at sea rather than brought back for autopsy and secret burial on some military base adds to the aura of mystery.

So one may be inclined to give Hersh the benefit of the doubt.

On the other hand, Hersh, whose specialty is investigative reporting, spent five years looking into John F. Kennedy's foibles and in the process concluded that JFK had been killed by Lee Harvey Oswald and that Jack Ruby was another deranged loner. The murder of Kennedy, a man with many powerful enemies, and the silencing of Oswald were non-conspiratorial, according to Hersh.

From Hersh's book, The Dark Side of Camelot (Little Brown, 1997):

"Over the next thirty-five years, the nation would remain obsessed with the Kennedy assassination. Hundreds of books would be written, full of feverish speculation about Oswald and Ruby and their possible links to organized crime or Soviet intelligence. In five years of reporting for this book, I found nothing that would change the instinctive conclusions of Julius Draznin, or the much more detailed findings of the Warren Commission -- Oswald and Ruby acted alone."

Hersh cites one source, Draznin, who was an expert on the Chicago mob, for this conclusion, though hundreds of important sources were still available to be interviewed in the 1990s. Hersh fails to mention the investigations of congressional committees in the 1970s which did not affirm the Warren report. Hersh discredited hundreds of books with one phrase, as if none of those writers could have been fairly good investigators.

Hersh implies that because some books are of poor quality, they must all be bad. However, I have read many of those books and found that though some are amateurish, many are highly accurate. That doesn't mean that within thousands of details there might not be slip-ups or misinterpretations. But the weight of the evidence is overwhelmingly against the Warren Commission. 

I would add that much of the controversy in the 1970s followed the line set by James Angleton, a top CIA man, that Cuban intelligence deployed Oswald as the shooter. However, CIA people involved in anti-Castro activities kept surfacing in connection with the Dallas murder.

As to possible Soviet intrigue, it is faintly possible that Hersh was ignorant of or had forgot the fact that Angleton, the CIA man who controlled what the Warren panel knew, was later named by his top aide as a probable Red mole. 

Oswald was blamed for turning over U2 secrets to the Soviets but Angleton already knew that a CIA mole had betrayed those secrets before Oswald "defected." Like his friend, the British arch traitor Kim Philby, Angleton controlled the mole hunt.

                                  James Angleton, left, and Kim Philby

It was Hersh who was tipped by a high-level intelligence source that Angleton had been running illegal programs to spy on Americans. Hersh's December 1974 report forced Angleton out without the CIA having to disclose that he had been identified in 1974 by his aide, Clare Edward Petty, as a probable Soviet agent.

Petty was forced to retire immediately on alerting agency bosses. Yet later, the CIA chief at the time, William Colby, said that "I couldn't find" that Angleton's unit had "ever caught a spy" and "that really bothered me."

The books that absolve the CIA of a role in Kennedy's murder and the ensuing coverup tend to  misrepresent important details. Somewhere (hopefully) I have notes that point this out.

It may of course be relevant that Hersh has long had high-level intelligence agency sources. Perhaps these sources led him around by the nose. It's a favored game among intelligence professionals to lay a trail for a "useful idiot" reporter to follow. It's also routine for reporters, as with police and intelligence people, to obtain information from people with unsavory motives, though the information  still has to be checked. 

Curiously, soon after the 9/11 attacks, Hersh quoted an intelligence source as saying someone appeared to have laid a false trail for "useful idiot" FBI agents to follow.

At any rate, Hersh's handling of the JFK slaying issue tells us that we should read The Dark Side of Camelot and his other reports with great caution.

1 comment:

  1. I am for now locked out of Newz from Limbo. So I have set up a temporary blog, The Invisible Man, at, which will be up and running shortly. -- Paul Conant