January 25, 2005,
Last week I noted that Sy Hersh, the celebrated New Yorker writer who specializes in getting things backwards, had been warning the world that secret Pentagon teams, in tandem with secret Israeli units, had been unleashed on the Iranian countryside to identify and target nuclear facilities. I also confessed that I rarely read Hersh's stuff, because so much of what he has written has proven wrong, and I prefer not to cloud my mind with material likely to be padded with disinformation. It's the same principle I apply to the evening network news and the New York Times: I'm better off without them.
Had I read more of Hersh, and did I not suffer from an onslaught of senior moments, I might have remembered that Hersh had written the same story before. I'm grateful to one of NRO's thoughtful readers for pointing me in a useful direction. Slightly more than three years ago (in the issue dated November 5, 2001), he wrote something for the New Yorker (lightheartedly labelled "FACT") called "Watching the Warheads." It's about Pakistan; and Hersh warns us that our hunt for Osama "has evolved into a regional crisis that has put Pakistan's nuclear arsenal at risk, exacerbated the instability of the government of General Pervez Musharraf, and raised the possibility of a nuclear conflict between Pakistan and India." And of course, Hersh darkly notes that the smart guys in Washington (the "government's intelligence and diplomatic experts") and the fools in town ("the decision-makers of the Bush Administration") are at odds over the matter. Indeed, it's led to "a serious rift."
That's one of the main themes of his more recent piece. The only difference is the target of opportunity. Then it was Pakistan; now it's Iran. Now, as then, according to Hersh's vision, Rumsfeld's guys are sneaking around: "In recent weeks an elite Pentagon undercover unit trained to slip into foreign countries and find suspected nuclear weapons, and disarm them if necessary has explored plans for an operation inside Pakistan." And then, as now, the Israelis are in it too: "The American team is apparently getting help from Israel's most successful special-operations unit, the storied Sayeret Matkal, also known as Unit 262, a deep-penetration unit that has been involved in...the theft and destruction of foreign nuclear weaponry."
The Israelis in this case were said to be helping our guys "at undisclosed locations," maybe in the United States. But it's the usual tandem. Do you think Hersh has a template for this story, and just changes the name of the country according to the evening news?
There's more along the same lines. Just as our spooks are uncertain about the precise locations of the Iranian nuclear sites, back in 2001 Hersh told us "the American intelligence community cannot be sure, for example, that it knows the precise whereabouts of every Pakistani warhead or whether all the warheads that it has found are real." Which, by the way, raises a fascinating epistemological question, similar to "if a tree falls in a forest where no one can hear it, does it make a sound?" For Hersh would have us believe that our spies can both "find a warhead" and still be in doubt as to whether it's really a warhead. So what does "find" mean anyway?
Moreover, how is it that Hersh never seems to know that our European allies are quite helpful when it comes to nuclear questions? Why is it, for example, that we do not hear about the considerable assistance that we get from countries like Great Britain, Italy, and (sssshhh!) France. Only Israel. Just asking...
Moreover, in each of these stories, Hersh quotes some Washington potentates (ranging from his own anonymous insiders in "intelligence" to identified members of the opposition party in Congress) suggesting that the overall policy (then, Afghanistan, now, Iraq) is nuts. I had forgotten that Senator Biden the ranking member of the appeasement-oriented Senate Foreign Relations Committee had foamed at the mouth about our Afghanistan adventure. Hersh quotes Biden:
How much longer does the bombing continue? Because we're going to pay an escalating price in the Muslim world. We're going to pay an escalating price in the region. And that in fact is going to make the aftermath of our 'victory' more difficult...
If that's accurate, then I have to salute Biden for rare consistency. Unlike so many Democrats, who approved of the liberation of Afghanistan, the destruction of the Taliban, and the routing of al Qaeda, only to change their tune shortly after the liberation of Iraq, Senator Biden didn't want us to free any of the oppressed peoples of the Middle East. We can assume from the favorable treatment that Hersh agrees.
Finally, Hersh's insiders always throw their hands in the air and proclaim that there's really nothing we can do about it. Today they tell us that we might just have to learn to live with a nuclear Iran. Back then, we hear from "a government expert" that "our nuclear strategy has to incorporate the fact that we might have a nuclear-armed fundamentalist government in Pakistan. Even if we know where the weapons are now [which we don't ML], it doesn't mean we'll know where they are if the fundamentalists take over. And after Pakistan it could be Iran and Iraq...."
But not to worry. Most everything in the 2001 prophecy turned out wrong. Musharraf didn't fall, India-Pakistan relations have much improved, and the most obvious result of the liberation of Afghanistan is a happier country living in a remarkably freer polity. With free elections coming up in Iraq, and the Iranian people asking themselves why their neighbors are free while they are enslaved, it might well turn out that the entire vision of the Middle East was wrong.
Which would make the recent purge at CIA look pretty good. It would also make the oracle of the New Yorker look pretty silly. Yet again.