What we learned from Seymour Hersh 1.

Seymour Hersh (1937- ) is an investigative journalist and—on occasion—a Holland Tunnel of an ass-hole in the eyes of American government officials. His parents were Lithuanian Jews who got to the United States before the Holocaust. He got a BA in History at the University of Chicago, then drifted into reporting. His politics leaned left and he was hard to corral.[1] His first big break came when he broke the story of My Lai (1969). Then he worked in the Washington bureau of the New York Times during the Watergate events (after which he wrote a highly critical book about Henry Kissinger). More books critical of American foreign policy followed. Hersh became controversial not only for his sharp stabs at alleged government wrong-doing, but for his use of anonymous sources. Richard Perle called Hersh the “closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist.” Hersh has won five George Polk Awards for investigative journalism and a Pulitzer Prize. In 2004, Hersh published a book on the enormities arising from the intersection of intelligence and policy-making in the run-up to the Second Gulf War.[2] What did we learn?

After the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the CIA had gone into a steep decline. One factor in this decline had been the change in the nature of the target. CIA case officers were overwhelmingly European-language speakers used to suborning treason on the part of Soviet bloc officials while operating under diplomatic cover. The implosion of the Soviet target and the liberation of the eastern European satellites had rendered most of these men redundant. Emerging dangers in the post-Cold War scene were difficult to identify with certainty; it was even more difficult to create new cadres of officers to deal with these dangers. These factors led to a considerable decline in the over-all number of Operations Directorate officers, rather than a shift of human resources to new targets. Instead, there took place a shift of resources from gathering human intelligence to gathering signals intelligence and remote observation. To compensate for the loss of case officers, the Directorate of Operations shifted to relying upon liaison relationships with foreign intelligence services. (pp. 76-77.)

Later, in 1995, the public revelation that the CIA had employed a Guatemalan involved with the death squads as an informant led to an order that “assets” who might be considered to have criminal or humans rights problems in their records could only be recruited with prior approval of CIA headquarters in Langley. Hundreds of existing agents all around the globe were simply dumped and new ones rarely recruited. (pp. 79-81.) One case officer of the time fumed to Seymour Hersch that “Look, we recruited assholes. I handled bad guys. But we don’t recruit people from the Little Sisters of the Poor—they don’t know anything.” Bob Baer recalled that “It did make the workday a lot easier. I just watched CNN.” (Hersh, p. 81.)

By 9/11 the C.I.A. lacked the personnel to respond effectively. In summer 2001–before the 9/11 attacks–former Middle Eastern case officer Reuel Marc Gerecht warned of the dangers in an article in The Atlantic Monthly. He quoted officers saying things like “For Christ’s sake, most case officers live in the suburbs of Virginia….Operations that include diarrhea as a way of life don’t happen.” (Quoted, p. 77.) As one now-retired clandestine service officer put it to Hersh, the decision-making was dominated by people who “wouldn’t drive to a D.C. restaurant at night because they were afraid of the crime problem.” (Quoted, p. 81.) So, that’s concerning.

[1] D’un: the highly-educated child of Jewish immigrant parents living in Chicago. Gene McCarthy’s press secretary in 1968.

[2] Seymour Hersh, Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib (HarperCollins, 2004) based on a series of New Yorker pieces.

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