It’s become a habit to greet whatever journalist Seymour Hersh writes with reverence. However, after his ludicrous claim last summer that Israel’s war in Lebanon was a trial run for an American bombing of Iran – an accusation undermined by postwar narratives showing the confused way Israel and the United States responded to the conflict – my doubts hardened. In his latest New Yorker piece, Hersh maintains that he has unearthed more dirt on the Bush administration: The US is involved in containing Iran by directly or indirectly “bolstering Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.”
The broad tropes of Hersh’s arguments are correct. The US has indeed abandoned the neoconservative approach to the Middle East (which Hersh so loathed), to return to political “realism” based on imposing a balance of power. Much like the US did during the 1980s when it supported Iraq in its war against Iran, the Bush administration is today using Sunnis against Shiites (though in Iraq it is mainly using Shiites against Sunnis). The policy is risky – fiddling with sectarianism may ultimately backfire – but the problem with Hersh is that he offers little hard evidence for many of his controversial assertions. In fact his discussion of Lebanon in particular and his broader charge that the administration is engaging in clandestine activities without proper legislative approval are ill-informed or partial. The New Yorker has signed off on a piece shoddily constructed, often tendentious, and driven almost entirely by Hersh’s sources (most of the more significant ones left unnamed), rather than his own independent confirmation of the details.
Let’s start with Lebanon, where the American and Saudi effort to counter Iran and its allies is in full swing. Today, the US and the kingdom, but also much of the international community and the Muslim world, are shoring up the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, which has for the past three months been facing a serious challenge to its authority from the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hizbullah. We learn from Hersh that, in the context of this struggle against Hizbullah, “representatives of the Lebanese government” have supplied weapons and money to a Palestinian Sunni extremist group called Fatah al-Islam, which allegedly broke off from its pro-Syrian parent group, Fatah al-Intifada, before moving to North Lebanon. Fatah al-Intifada was created by the Syrian regime in the early 1980s to oppose Yasser Arafat. Hersh also points out that “the largest” of the Sunni groups, Esbat al-Ansar, located in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in Sidon, in South Lebanon, “has received arms and supplies from Lebanese internal-security forces and militias associated with the Siniora government.”
What is Hersh’s evidence for these extraordinary statements? Which “militias” is he referring to? In the ongoing Lebanese standoff, Hizbullah has used the term to describe pro-government supporters, without ever substantiating that such militias even exist. The Fatah al-Islam story is based entirely on a quote by one Alistair Crooke, a former MI6 agent, who, we learn, “was told” that weapons were offered to the group, “presumably to take on Hizbullah.” The passage on Esbat al-Ansar is not even sourced.
The Fatah al-Islam story is instructive, because it shows a recurring flaw in Hersh’s reporting, namely his investigative paralysis when it comes to Syria. In articles past, Hersh has acted as a conduit for those defending the post-9/11 intelligence collaboration between the US and Syria, and lamenting the Bush administration’s subsequent isolation of Damascus in the run-up to and aftermath of the Iraq invasion. Most Lebanese analysts believe that Fatah al-Islam, far from being aided by the Lebanese government, is in fact a Syrian plant, deployed to Lebanon to be used by the Assad regime to destabilize the country and prevent formal endorsement by the Siniora government of a court to try suspects in the February 2005 assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri. Syria is the main suspect in the crime.
Nowhere does Hersh mention two items that were all over the Beirut media: that the Lebanese authorities have arrested several of the group’s members, and that the Lebanese and Palestinian security services have collaborated in opposing Fatah al-Islam in the northern Palestinian refugee camps of Nahr al-Bared and Baddawi. The mainstream Palestinian leadership in Lebanon has criticized the entry of such groups into the country, fearing this will provoke tension between Palestinians and the Lebanese state. Fatah al-Islam’s leader, Abu Khaled al-Amleh, is said to be under house arrest in Damascus, but for a number of Lebanese analysts who closely follow Palestinian affairs the story is bogus, designed only to provide Syria with plausible deniability.
As for Hersh’s Esbat al-Ansar allegation, so little is said that it’s difficult to know where to begin a refutation. The history of Esbat al-Ansar is convoluted, but the group was, as French researcher Bernard Rougier notes in a book on the rise of militant Islam in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps, “the first armed group to claim a Salafist-Islamist orientation in … Ain al-Hilweh.” Where Hersh stumbles is in his lack of knowledge of Lebanese-Palestinian relations. First of all, it’s not clear to whom he’s comparing Esbat al-Ansar when describing it as “the largest” Sunni Islamist group. According to Palestinian sources, the group includes no more than 70-80 men. If the Lebanese government, and Sunnis in particular, were to collaborate with anyone in the camps, it would be with the main Palestinian organizations, particularly Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement, which are more powerful militarily and represent far more people than Esbat al-Ansar.
Second, in its dealings with the Palestinians, the Lebanese government tends to work through the mainstream Palestinian parties, given that the camps are largely autonomous areas. This may vary depending on the region, but the idea that Lebanon’s internal security forces would directly arm Esbat al-Ansar, which is hostile to Fatah, is not credible. The Lebanese would not spoil their relationship with Fatah over Esbat al-Ansar, and it is utterly implausible that Esbat al-Ansar could or would “take on Hizbullah,” with which the group was close in the mid-1980s, before it moved away from Iran, toward Salafist-Islamism. Nowhere does Hersh prove his point; worse, nowhere are readers given a larger context that would affirm how weak his contentions are.
Hersh errs in trying too hard to somehow tie the Bush administration in with the most militant groups. In fact, it is true that the Lebanese government is allied with Sunni Islamists – most notably Al-Jamaa al-Islamiyya, the Lebanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. It may indeed have allowed “some aid,” as Hersh writes, to end up in the hands of “emerging” Sunni militant groups, though this is very imprecise language. The reality is that amid the sectarian polarization in Lebanon today, most Sunnis have rallied to the government’s side, against the Shiite Hizbullah. Al-Jamaa is close to Saudi Arabia, and in 2005 the Saudis intervened prior to parliamentary elections that followed the Syrian withdrawal to ensure the group would not vote against candidates in North Lebanon backed by Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s most powerful Sunni leader who enjoys American and Saudi backing. However, Al-Jamaa is nothing like Esbat al-Ansar or Fatah al-Islam; it has integrated into the state and has had members in Parliament. Doubtless it holds views of Israel and the West that the Bush administration would find distasteful, but so too do the Saudi, Jordanian, and Egyptian clergy. Is Hersh suggesting that the US end ties with Riyadh, Amman, and Cairo?
What is going on today is power politics at their most essential. While Hersh may consider his disclosures news, he must make a better case that the American shift to a Sunni-centric policy against Iran is strengthening violent Islamists. The evidence he presents is scant.
What about Hersh’s belief that the Bush administration is illegally hiding aspects of its pro-Sunni regional strategy? “The clandestine operations have been kept secret, in some cases, by leaving the execution of the funding to the Saudis, or by finding other ways to work around the normal congressional appropriations process.” The administration’s point man in this endeavor is purportedly Vice President Dick Cheney.
This revelation is noteworthy, but when we turn to the final part of Hersh’s text in which he addresses congressional oversight issues, we find little meat. Unexplainably, the piece jumps from Hersh’s interview with Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah to a flashback on how the Iran-Contra affair undermined the oversight process. That’s because two of those involved in the mid-1980s arms-for-hostages deal, Elliott Abrams, a senior official in the US National Security Council, and Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to the US who heads his country’s National Security Council, are key players in the tilt toward the Sunnis.
But Iran-Contra was then. When it comes to now, all Hersh can tell us is that “the issue of oversight is beginning to get more attention from Congress.” Is that it? Other than quoting unnamed skeptical sources, Hersh doesn’t enlighten us on specific instances where the administration broke laws. He does mention, not for the first time, that US military and special operations teams “have escalated their activities in Iran to gather intelligence” and to pursue Iranian operatives from Iraq. This merits more investigation, but it is not directly related to his more disturbing point that the US is somehow bolstering extreme Sunni Islamists.
Hersh goes on to remind us that any administration, in order to engage in clandestine activities, “must issue a written finding and inform Congress.” The argument is a fair one, if the Bush administration has failed to do so. But in that case why does Hersh not mention a Daily Telegraph report published in January, which suggested that “senators and congressmen have been briefed on [a] classified ‘non-lethal presidential finding’ that allows the CIA to provide financial and logistical support to the [Lebanese] prime minister, Fouad Siniora” to oppose Hizbullah? Did The New Yorker’s fact checkers miss that one? If Bush is so keen to hide his hand in Lebanon and elsewhere, then this news item implies that the picture is more complicated. And if Hersh disagrees with the Telegraph, shouldn’t his editors have asked him to place a rebuttal in his article?
But the editors, I suspect, weren’t really looking. Sy Hersh has written some remarkable pieces in the past, but his latest is not one of them. It is badly argued, displays shaky knowledge of the details, and seems mainly propelled by antipathy for the Bush administration.
When there are serious political repercussions in the Middle East from Hersh’s much-read pieces, it would help for him to know better what he’s talking about.
MICHAEL YOUNG is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.