The White House’s Distaste for True Storytelling

A legend in the world of journalism once again embarrasses the US military. Responding, the Biden administration calls a perfectly credible account not just false but “utterly false.” Adding “utterly” reveals that it is most likely true.
seymour hersh

© Hossam el-Hamalawy / wikipedia

February 15, 2023 03:02 EDT

Seymour Hersh is one of those rare reporters who can claim to have had a direct and even profound influence on historical events. In 1969 his coverage of the My Lai massacre in which U.S. soldiers killed hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians marked a major turning point in the public’s perception of the Vietnam War.

Three years later Hersh was at it again, revealing that President Richard Nixon had secretly authorized a massive bombing campaign of Cambodia. Hersh’s reporting for The New York Times exposed not just the extent of the bombing campaign but also the fact that it had been concealed from both the American public and Congress.

In May, 2004 Hersh shocked the world again when, in a series of articles for The New Yorker he exposed the widespread abuse and torture of prisoners by U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The scandal seriously tarnished the perception of the US military presence, usually presented to the public as “a force for good.” Though its impact didn’t prevent George W Bush’s re-election that same year, Hersh’s reporting stoked a feeling about the Bush wars that led to the eventual election in 2008 of a man who presented himself as a peace candidate opposed to the Iraq war: Democrat Barack Obama.

Hersh was back in the news last week, but this time no longer as a reporter for a prestigious title of the press like The New York Times or The New Yorker. In a modest Substack blog, Hersh independently recounted the complex story of how the US government carried out what was clearly a strategic operation by sabotaging in September 2022 the Nord Stream pipelines. Like My Lai and Abu Ghraib, it’s a story about military overreach and a well-executed coverup. In other words, it is precisely the kind of story no mainstream media outlet in the US in today’s world dare to handle. Few even allow them to acknowledge it, despite Hersh’s credentials.

Newsweek proved to be the outlier when it dared to publish an article mentioning Hersh’s post. In a roundabout move, he approaches the subject from a curious angle by focusing on the specific worries of a Senator concerning his own reputation. At a key point in the text, the reader learns that, following Hersh’s posting, “the White House called the accusation ‘utterly false’ and ‘complete fiction.’”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Complete fiction:

In Washington DC, any set of facts that deviate from carefully engineered official propaganda, especially when the facts in question have been the object of an elaborate and expensive coverup.

There can be little doubt that Hersh’s reporting is what provoked the publication of the Newsweek article. But IT reduces Hersh’s role to that of an incidental messenger in a possibly acrimonious debate. The article begins by a ploy when it focuses on a Senator’s personal concerns. This reduces Hersh and his blockbuster story with potentially far-reaching geopolitical consequences to a circumstantial report on a minor Beltway drama. Instead of directing the reader’s attention to what was clearly both an act of war and an inept coverup, it reframes it as a banal problem of communication between the executive and legislative branches of the US government.

The next sentence in the article, recounting the White House’s denial of Hersh’s claims, continues the evasion. Before revealing anything about the core issue – the story of the sabotage –  it focuses on the government’s adamant denial of “any involvement in the damage to Russia’s Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines.” This creates the impression that the real story is the government’s denial, not the act of sabotage.

But that same sentence announcing the White House’s refusal to take the story seriously does more than simply keep Hersh and his story momentarily out of sight. By referring to US “involvement,” it misrepresents the substance of Hersh’s reporting, which describes a carefully prepared and secretly conducted campaign by the US to carry out the destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines. Hersh’s account is not about involvement, as if this was someone else’s initiative. What Hersh describes is premeditated planning and execution.

The next sentence in the article finally does get around to the real story so cleverly obscured by the Senator’s scruples and the White House’s dismissal of Hersh’s reporting as fiction. To be fair to Newsweek (but not to the White House), it should be noted that to tell the story in its full detail, Hersh has relied on an anonymous witness. That means one of two things: that he does not have any forensic evidence in his hands or that it would risk his witness’s security to reveal it. It is therefore perfectly legitimate to contest the status of the facts Hersh recounts rather than blindly believe everything he writes. What is far less legitimate, however, is to mischaracterize the nature of an article that cites a complex web of concrete actions, each of which is potentially verifiable as fact and none of which are contradicted by known facts.

Once Hersh has been mentioned, the article returns to the problem mentioned at the beginning: the concern of some lawmakers that the blame for a war crime, if proved true, might land on them. “Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah posted on Twitter on Wednesday afternoon that if the allegations are true, he and many of his colleagues were unaware of the plan.” This is obviously defensive – avoiding blame— but also offensive, since Republicans may be preparing to focus the blame on Democratic President Joe Biden.

The second half of the article is a largely straightforward account of the sequence of events surrounding the sabotage. By the end of the article, an attentive reader will most likely conclude that Hersh’s attribution of the attack to the US is far closer to the truth than the official denials or the utterly absurd idea, put forward by the US in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, that Russia sabotaged its own infrastructure.

Historical note

Since the Russian invasion last year, US media has become locked into what can only be described as a subservient position of patriotically supporting a cause that, in reality, has very little if anything directly to do with the nation’s security. As we learn the facts – consistently denied but increasingly visible –

concerning how the US not only anticipated Russia’s invasion but did everything in its passive power to provoke it, the only rational strategic justification for it is the importance the US gives to NATO as a means of controlling other regions of the world, starting with Europe. The evolution of this strategy has become only too apparent. Over recent decades NATO has silently drifted away from its original role of ensuring Europe’s security to becoming the principal tool of US military aggression potentially across the entire globe.

Beginning with Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, the Russians have complained about violation of the George H.W. Bush administration’s promise not to expand NATO one inch eastward. This was the bait the US used to get Mikhail Gorbachev to agree to the eventual unification of Germany. The ruse of simply “inviting” nations to join NATO rather than recruiting them served as the ruse to betray that promise.

Eastward expansion was not NATO’s only innovation. Another evolution – or rather transformation – has been taking place. With no Soviet Union to keep at bay, NATO quickly lost its initial focus on defense. Starting with the Balkans wars in Kosovo, then in Afghanistan and Libya, It increasingly became an offensive force.

Thanks to the Ukraine war, Europeans are beginning to realize the danger this represents. Obligated to toe the line, at least momentarily, and even to make a show of enthusiasm for NATO in the name of solidarity with Ukraine, at a deeper level Europeans increasingly sense that this relationship must change. It’s something like the profligate young St Augustine’s famous prayer: “Lord, give me chastity and continence, but not yet!”

This malaise is likely to erupt in the next few years, once the Ukraine war ends… which depends, of course, on whether the US actually allows it to end. But once that happens, Europe will either seek a way of breaking free of US control through NATO or the European Union will fracture beyond repair.

The spectators inside the Beltway appear to be rooting for the second solution.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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