Cold War Blame Games

Seymour Hersh and Nord Stream

Seymour Hersh, the legendary investigative journalist who uncovered American war crimes in Vietnam and Iraq, has been in journalistic hibernation for some time. 

Repaired and open. Antiwar protest, Frankfurt.

When he moved from The New Yorker to the London Review of Books, one could have thought Hersh switched because the latter fit his feisty attitude toward US power better. 

Alas, as Prospect reported, since he has drifted into the world of Alex Jones conspiracy theories about Syria, some have wondered if Seymour Hersh’s body has outlived his mind, while others suspected a form of source capture, where his iron-clad belief that the American government is lying is simply not applied to other governments.

But the big man is back. On Substack – a free-for-all blogging-meets-newsletter platform where writers can monetize their work without indignities like editing and fact-checking [Editor’s note: The Battleground uses Substack] – Hersh has presented a dramatic narrative that US forces blew up key parts of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 natural gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea last September with the help of Norway, who, as an oil-producing state, rivals Russia in the energy wars.

If true, this would validate pro-Russian propaganda stating that Washington hasn’t simply provoked the crisis in Ukraine but is an active belligerent, turning the conflict into a very hot war between two nuclear rivals with all of Europe in the middle.

But the key word here is “if”.  And Seymour Hersh’s piece doesn’t settle the question of who sabotaged Nord Stream.

The obvious problem many of Hersh’s critics have is the sourcing. 

As one critic of the piece said at Insider, “The central new claims of Hersh’s article appear to rely on a single unnamed source, and included no details which Insider or other media outlets were able to verify.”

For such critics, unless more sources come forward to verify this, we can’t just take Seymour Hersh at his word. 

Sure, national security reporters always need anonymous sources, but those sources usually lead to harder evidence in reporting. 

The New York Times’ coverage of Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction”, which helped lead to the unjust invasion of Iraq, was based on shadowy sourcing, triggering a discussion of those reporting methods at the time.

Would this piece have survived editorial scrutiny at The New Yorker or the London Review of Books? It’s hard to tell. 

The problem is that Hersh makes factual mistakes in his report that undermine his finger-pointing. 

For example, he writes that NATO commander “Jens Stoltenberg, a committed anti-communist…has cooperated with the American intelligence community since the Vietnam War,” a source of proof that he’s willing to do Washington’s bidding. 

At the time of the Tet Offensive, Stoltenberg was just shy of nine years old. It might seem far-fetched that General Westmoreland was getting his cues from a Norwegian schoolboy, but again, it’s Seymour Hersh, so we just have to accept this.

The Russian government certainly likes the piece. The Maritime Executive stated:

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told state-owned RIA Novosti that the report generally aligns with Russia’s perspective, and said that there would be “consequences” for the pipeline attack. “By and large, [Hersh’s] publication confirmed a conclusion we made for ourselves—the official representative of the foreign ministry said yesterday that we never had any doubts that the United States, possibly other NATO countries, were involved in this outrageous sabotage,” Ryabkov said. 

State media Russia Today called it a “bombshell” report, and Russian news agency Sputnik also heralded the piece. Moscow has vowed it will respond. The US government, unsurprisingly, has dismissed this report.

Critics of the Hersh piece have to endure the accusations from pro-Putin pundits that they’re smearing the article in order to maintain the American narrative. 

But here’s the tricky part: It’s simply not impossible that the United States did this. And it’s not impossible that Russia did it, either. But it would be pretty irresponsible to make either case without a mountain of evidence. 

The same standard would apply to any report accusing the US of sabotage, but this report – both in terms of its sourcing and the choice of venue – doesn’t have the kind of authoritative reportage that held up Seymour Hersh’s best work on the Vietnam War. 

This is why there is so much scepticism about his Nord Stream piece. It’s not the allegations he makes but the lack of adequate evidence to base them on.

So the issue about the Hersh piece isn’t that it helps Russia or hurts the US, but that it hurts journalism.  

If this is true, why did he not build a bigger and better case that would be harder to dismiss? 

As it stands, you either trust Seymour Hersh or you don’t. You either accept the claim because it fits your narrative, or you justify a pro-Ukraine and pro-West position by noting that the report has some holes. 

Hersh’s article is not a testament to how polarised discussion of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has become – although it certainly has become a touchy subject. Rather, it is evidence that the English-speaking press lacks the full reporting on this subject it needs. 

Instead, we have a free-for-all culture of self-publishing that allows for “create your own adventure” narratives which can read like a mashup of fiction and op-eds.

Truth is always the first casualty in war. We’re no nearer to knowing what happened with Nord Stream than we did before the Seymour Hersh report. 

Photograph courtesy of 7CO. Published under a Creative Commons license.