Growing up, I dreamed – among a few other things – of being a news reporter. Let’s just say it’s a good thing not every dream comes true.
But I digress.
One of my “role models”, of sorts, was “Joe Rossi”, a character played by Robert Walden from the Lou Grant TV series. One of the things about “Rossi” that I remember admiring, and to which I aspired, was fanatical detachment from everything – groups, people, society – supported by a hard-bitten cynicism about just about everything else. “Rossi” went overboard, of course; never voted, never joined any groups, never did anything that’d compromise this detachment (which was sent up in a memorable episode in which the rest of the staff, in an orgy of chain-yanking, signed Rossi up for every organization they could – the AARP, the NRA, severel political parties, the AAA…
OK, it was TV show – but that was one of the things (supported by my later experience and a little formal education in the field) that I carried with me through my brief, fruitless career as a reporter; reporters should have a healthy skepticism about everything.
And I suspect most reporters would agree – at least as a platitude.
That needs, of course, to be combined with ravenous curiosity (which was one part of the craft that I did get right), including the ability to question ones’ own gaps and, dare I say, preconceptions. We’ll come back to that.
“Skepticism”, of course, has its limits. Reporters are human; they follow baseball teams, they read books, they vote – they have preferences. None of them – not even “Joe Rossi” – attains their perfect ideals, whatever thepy are. So it’s not a surprise that, among other sins, reporters are just as big a bunch of fanboys as the rest of us, when you get down to it. Or so it’d seem, seeing the coverage of Seymour Hersh’s appearance last week at the U of M, as partof the U’s “Great Conversations” program.
I didn’t go – I don’t think the “U” is especially aggressive about inviting non-believers to these things, but I have no idea, honestly.
But it was all over the place; Hersh dropped a few “bombs” (as reported by the local media, who did attend in droves) that got picked up by the big leftymedia.
More on that angle in a bit.
Eric Black of the MinnPost was there:
At a “Great Conversations” event at the University of Minnesota last night, legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh may have made a little more news than he intended by talking about new alleged instances of domestic spying by the CIA, and about an ongoing covert military operation that he called an “executive assassination ring.”
Hersh spoke with great confidence about these findings from his current reporting, which he hasn’t written about yet.
In an email exchange afterward, Hersh said that his statements were “an honest response to a question” from the event’s moderator, U of M Political Scientist Larry Jacobs and “not something I wanted to dwell about in public.”
Of course, when it comes to “covert executive assassination squads”, you don’t have to do a lot of “dwelling” for the story to grab attention, do you?
Hersh didn’t take back the statements, which he said arise from reporting he is doing for a book, but that it might be a year or two before he has what he needs on the topic to be “effective…that is, empirical, for even the most skeptical.”
Hersh, who is most famous (recently) for releasing the Abu Ghraib story (which the Army had been investigating, and which CBS was sitting on at government request) must be complimented for his focus on “empiricism”.
You might be too, if you’d had enough of your claims – apparently the less-“empirical” ones – turn out to be complete squibs. I’ll direct you to this story from two years ago; Hersh claimed (amid a flurry of publicity) that US Special Forces were operating in Iran, preparatory to a US invasion. It’s a claim that’d seem to have fallen down the memory hole; I have read no accounts of any of the journalists present at this or any other appearance questioning Hersh about it.
So perhaps it’s a good thing he’s waiting. Except for the whole “Dropping the bomb in a talk at the U of M” bit.
The evening of great conversation, featuring Walter Mondale and Hersh, moderated by Jacobs and titled “America’s Constitutional Crisis,” looked to be a mostly historical review of events that have tested our Constitution, by a journalist and a high government officials who had experience with many of the crises.
Or, in Mondale’s case, were intimately involved in causing the crises.
Again, I digress.
And it was mostly historical, and a great conversation, in which Hersh and Mondale talked about the patterns by which presidents seem to get intoxicated by executive power, frustrated by the limitations on that power from Congress and the public, drawn into improper covert actions that exceed their constitutional powers, in the belief that they can get results and will never be found out. Despite a few references to the Founding Fathers, the history was mostly recent, starting with the Viethnam War with much of it arising from the George W. Bush administration, which both men roundly denounced.
Nothing like working a relentlessly friendly room.
That’s not a digression.
We’re getting into the interesting stuff here:
At the end of one answer by Hersh about how these things tend to happen, Jacobs asked: “And do they continue to happen to this day?”
“Yuh. After 9/11, I haven’t written about this yet, but the Central Intelligence Agency was very deeply involved in domestic activities against people they thought to be enemies of the state. Without any legal authority for it. They haven’t been called on it yet. That does happen.
And we’ll wait for the evidence on that.
I’m not saying I doubt it, necessarily – it’s just that I hope Mr. Hersh isn’t too busy waiting for the invasion of Iran to show us the evidence. Someday.
Now, here we get into the part of the story where it might have been useful to have some journalists in the room with Mr. Hersh:
“Right now, today, there was a story in the New York Times that if you read it carefully mentioned something known as the Joint Special Operations Command — JSOC it’s called. It is a special wing of our special operations community that is set up independently. They do not report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days, they reported directly to the Cheney office. They did not report to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff or to Mr. [Robert] Gates, the secretary of defense. They reported directly to him. …
Let’s take a brief time-out here.
Re-read Hersh’s explanation of JSOC. Assuming Black is reporting his words accurately (and I’ve expressed my complete confidence in the honest of Eric Black’s reporting in the past), Hersh explains JSOC as if…:
- He expects nobody has heard of it (probably not an unfair assumption, given his audience)
- He wants people to believe that its status is something unique, sinister, and unique to the Bush Administration.
It’s buncombe, of course. Joint Special Operations Command was established so that key, vital, high-risk special operations – hostage rescues, counterterrorist missions and the like – could take place without the paralyzing overburden of the military’s bureaucracy and its effects on these types of operations.
And it reports to the Executive Branch – the Secretary of Defense – rather than Congress; of course, the entire Executive Branch reports to the Executive Branch! But JSOC is isolated from much of the miltiary’s bureaucracy; it does things that need to be done without bringing 535 other commanders into the chain of command. JSOC reports to the Secretary of Defense, and thence to the President and Congress.
This chain of command – directly to the highest ranks of power – was established after an infamous military disaster caused by, among other things, interservice bureaucracy, and micromanagment by civilian officials.
The disaster was “Desert One”. And the order to create JSOC came from President Jimmy Carter. The boss of Hersh’s fellow guest on the panel, former Vice President
A roomful of journalists might have known that.
“Under President Bush’s authority, they’ve been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving. That’s been going on, in the name of all of us.
And I’m sure we’ll wait for evidence of the “executions”, in Hersh’s book, upcoming in a year or so.
But barring that “evidence”, there’s a point of order here: the military doesn’t have to clear its operations with ambassadors or the CIA! The military doesn’t report to either of them!
There’s no question that JSOC – the umbrella for the US’ clandestine military, including the Joint Special Operations Detachment Delta (“Delta Force”) and the Navy’s DEVGRU (formerly “Seal Team Six”) – does things that aren’t supposed to see the light of day. And some of these things are by their very nature controversial. Mark Bowden chronicled the Clinton-era use of JSOC troops to track and kill Medellin drug boss Pablo Escobar; one wonders where the chorus of demands for constitutional due process were back then?
It’s not an idle question for any democracy; in the UK during “The Troubles”, Britain’s Special Air Service – the unit that “Delta” and many of the world’s other special forces are modeled after – garnered decades of controversy in its clandestine surveillance and, in some cases, direct action against the IRA. While Britain’s constitution recognizes a closer relationship between the military and civil authority than we have in the US – something that helped spawn our tradition of Posse Comitatus, in fact – it’s the sort of thing that a free society needs to watch out for and be aware of.
But, until we get Hersh’s “evidence”, really, all we have is innuendo
A roomful of journalists might have known this, and asked Hersh to square his account with history and, while we’re at it, JSOC’s stated organization, oversight structure and (since it can be reasonably assumed Walter Mondale was there) three-decade-long mission.
“It’s complicated because the guys doing it are not murderers, and yet they are committing what we would normally call murder. It’s a very complicated issue. Because they are young men that went into the Special Forces. The Delta Forces you’ve heard about. Navy Seal teams. Highly specialized.
“In many cases, they were the best and the brightest. Really, no exaggerations. Really fine guys that went in to do the kind of necessary jobs that they think you need to do to protect America. And then they find themselves torturing people.
“I’ve had people say to me — five years ago, I had one say: ‘What do you call it when you interrogate somebody and you leave them bleeding and they don’t get any medical committee and two days later he dies. Is that murder? What happens if I get before a committee?’
“But they’re not gonna get before a committee.”
Because the Obama Administration has found that there’s nothing illegal about what Bush sent JSOC to do? Distasteful to modern, urban, urbane, small-l-liberal (and usually big-l-Liberal) products of the university system, perhaps, but not illegal? Indeed, necessary under the circumstances – just as Jimmy Carter found when he plugged the whole thing in three decades ago?
A roomful of journalists might not have known this – but, armed by the skepticism that I and probably not a few of them used to think was a key part of the trade, you’d have thought someone might have asked.
A roomful of star-struck hero worshippers? Not so much.
Am I being unfair in characterizing the room – people paralyzed, if not by Walter Mondale’s suffocating gravitas, by Hershs’ reputation as, as Black put it…:
…the best-known investigative reporter of his generation…
…as a bunch of star-struck fanboys? Who are acting like the shrimp-league lefty commenter on Marty Owings’ show last weekend whose entire line was “who are you to question Sy Hersh?”
But just as someone has to question the government – and its servants, like JSOC – someone needs to subject Seymour Hersh to some skepticism, too.
And I’m sure that roomful of Journalists will do just that.
After Hersh gets done covering that invasion of Iran he warned us about.