I greatly admire Seymour Hersh’s investigative journalism, especially his revelations of the My Lai massacre and Abu Ghraib. If he were judged by those works alone, we should consider him a national treasure. In this post, I attempt to put his report of the sarin attacks in Syria in its most favorable light. I conclude, however, that the report does not withstand scrutiny.
I. Understanding Hersh’s Principal Claims
It is important to understand Hersh’s argument in its most persuasive form, especially because that version of it neutralizes some of his critics.
The element of timing: what the President did not know and when he did not know it
Hersh’s principal claim is that the President did not have sufficient certainty that the Assad regime was responsible for the sarin attack at the time the White House attempted to publicly justify a military strike.
In other words, Hersh’s central point would not be negated if information subsequently comes to light providing much stronger evidence that the regime was responsible. This is important because the leading published criticism of Hersh — Eliot Higgins’ piece in Foreign Policy — bases much of the response to Hersh on “a growing body of evidence” showing that the regime carried out the attacks. The key question is what the White House knew in August and September 2013.
The standard of proof: How unlikely is it that al-Nusra was responsible
Hersh claims that the White House irresponsibly excluded the possibility that a rebel force, the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, carried out the chemical attack. Once again, Hersh need not prove that al-Nusra actually conducted the attack—just that it was likely enough such that the White House did not have a sufficient case for going to war (and the administration should have been more honest with the American people about the level of uncertainty).… continue »