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Seymour Hersh's Anonymous Sources

Like Carl Sagan’s undetectable fire-breathing dragon, we must take them on faith

Oliver North testifies before the Senate's Iran-Contra committee in 1987. (Photo: National Archives)

Ever since 1969, when he rose to national prominence with the story of the My Lai massacre, Seymour Hersh has been one of the best-known investigative journalists in the world. His career has not been without controversy. His most recent piece, about the recently deceased George H.W. Bush’s role in the Iran-Contra affair (“The Vice President’s Men”), is a clear example of why he remains controversial.

Hersh’s principal thesis, that the office of Vice President George H.W. Bush controlled much of President Reagan’s foreign policy, including the Iran-Contra debacle, is certainly plausible. Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel directing the Iran-Contra investigation, found substantial evidence leading to the vice president’s office, and Bush, by then president in his own right, pardoned virtually every conspirator while misleadingly denouncing Walsh’s indictment of felonious activity as merely “the criminalization of policy differences.”

"The true history of U.S. national security policy is baffling enough. It does not require embellishment by sensational but unverifiable claims made by sources who apparently insist on anonymity 35 years later, long after applicable statutes of limitations have passed and many of the participants have died."

But Hersh makes at least three sensational claims that beg for airtight evidence. First, that the Washington bureaucracy was riddled with Soviet sleeper agents who, when detected, were not prosecuted, but allowed to “wither on the vine.” Second, that what the author calls “Star Wars” (otherwise referred to as SDI or ballistic missile defense) was known to be unachievable or impractical: “[n]obody on the Joint Chiefs of Staff ever believed we were going to build Star Wars.” Third, that the Iran-Contra affair was made public by an article appearing in a Lebanese magazine – an article based, in Hersh’s telling, on a leak provided by the very U.S. government cell that was conducting the operation. The purpose of the leak was to shut down an out-of-control caper.

As to Star Wars, over $200 billion has been spent since Reagan initiated the program, and it continues today under a different name. It was, according to Hersh, intended as a ruse to tempt the Soviet sleeper agents to expose themselves in efforts to find out technical details about the program. But if SDI were merely a false flag, why was it not terminated upon the collapse of the Soviet Union? He may be right, but as the eminent science writer Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Independently confirmable evidence is as yet nowhere in sight.

Second, what about those sleeper agents? Exposing and prosecuting them would supposedly also expose SDI’s role as a ruse, a contention which is credible only if we believe the entire program was designed with deliberate errors intended to mislead the Soviets in the Cold War (a program that continues in 2019).

The contention of one of Hersh’s anonymous sources that “we” (meaning the Reagan administration) “could not take the chance of another McCarthy period” is risible on its face. As a former congressional staff member, my entire career’s association with Republican politicians suggests to me that they would have bounded like spring lambs at the chance to publicly tar their political opponents, or opponents of SDI, as communist sympathizers.

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Who were all those sleeper agents? How far up in the bureaucracy did they go? Any names? When I asked Hersh these questions at a public event this February in Washington, Hersh said he did not know anything about them, impatiently dismissing the questions as harping on “just one sentence in the story.” Like Carl Sagan’s hypothesized invisible pet fire-breathing dragon that lived in his garage (a thought experiment intended to emphasize the crucial importance of testable evidence), the sleeper agents exist on Hersh’s insistence.

Finally, the leaked information about the arms-for-hostages deal that appeared on November 3, 1986, in Ash-Shiraa magazine in Beirut. Mr. Hersh’s contention that a cell within the U.S. government blew its own secret operation out of the water, a news leak that would have unforeseeable and uncontrollable criminal consequences leading to potential presidential impeachment, is surely a blockbuster. 

The leak was allegedly orchestrated by former members of a “secret team” assembled by one of the vice president’s key men: Vice Admiral Arthur Moreau, a covert operative apparently more formidable in his capacity for mischief than James Bond’s nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld. But a competing explanation exists for the exposure of Iran-Contra. On October 5, 1986, a month before the Lebanon leak, the C-123 cargo aircraft piloted by the CIA-connected Eugene Hasenfus crashed in Nicaragua, blowing open the Central American end of the Iran-Contra affair. The story was already unraveling, and the Ash-Shiraa story was merely one more dangling thread, whatever its source.

The true history of U.S. national security policy is baffling enough. It does not require embellishment by sensational but unverifiable claims made by sources who apparently insist on anonymity 35 years later, long after applicable statutes of limitations have passed and many of the participants have died.

There is a larger lesson. Many of us have long been skeptical of the claims of the conventional wisdom emanating from within the Beltway: government agencies, establishment pundits, think tanks and foundations that subsist off the status quo. But we must apply the same skepticism and insistence upon verifiable evidence to the self-described truth-tellers, whistle-blowers, and gadflies possessing their own agendas. The problem of establishing the boundaries between complex truth, pernicious half-truth, and outright falsehood, has never been more necessary than in the present era.

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