The Fog of War
Seymour M. Hersh
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Seymour Hersh and the Question as to What Really Happened in Khan Sheikhoun.
March 1968: Vietnamese civilians allegedly murdered by US troops in My Lai
Quelle: Getty Images
Reporter Seymour Hersh was just 32 years old when he became a legend. In late 1969, he revealed that U.S. soldiers had massacred over 100 civilians -- including women, children and old men -- in the small village of My Lai in South Vietnam.
Several informants had long tried unsuccessfully to find a journalist to report on the slaughter, which had actually taken place in early 1968 in an area known within U.S. Army as "Pinkville." After Hersh published his first article on My Lai, he spoke with one of the participants, who expressed surprise that the media had kept quiet for so long. “Pinkville has been a word among GIs for a year… I’ll never cease to be amazed that it hasn’t been written about before.” It was a crucial lesson for Hersh. Enormous scandals, he learned, can be common knowledge within an institution like the U.S. Army and still the general public knows nothing of it. And sometimes, journalists hear about these stories but fail to follow up. Indeed, it became an insight that became a leitmotif of Hersh’s career: Write stories that others don't want to write, read or believe. To this day, most of Hersh’s work focuses on overreach and abuse by the U.S. government in its deployment of the nation's powerful intelligence agencies and military -- and how that power is often used to cover up scandals.
The risk of such scandals is always heightened in times of war. Such as Iraq. The U.S. invaded the country in 2003 on the search for chemical weapons that, as Washington had previously insisted to the international community, were sure to be found.
As they had in Vietnam, U.S. troops committed war crimes in Iraq as well. In Abu Ghraib prison on the outskirts of Baghdad, they systematically tortured and abused inmates in addition to humiliating them by photographing them naked and bound.
Hersh was the first journalist to report on the Abu Ghraib scandal as well. The U.S. government had tried to keep the scandal under wraps, seeking to prevent documents, photos and other evidence from reaching the public. But sources provided the material to Hersh, knowingly breaking U.S. law to do so.
Pulizer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh, ca. 1970s
Quelle: picture alliance / Everett Colle/Copyright © CSU Archives/Everet
Now 80 years old, Seymour Hersh has proved to be an almost obsessive reporter during his career, willing to go to great lengths to overcome obstacles. And he has seldom demonstrated a willingness to compromise -- a characteristic that hasn't always made him friends at the publications for which he has worked, including theNew Yorker and the New York Times. He has pushed more than one editor to their limits. His reporting on U.S. President Barack Obama was just as critical as it was on Nixon, the Bushes or Clinton. In an article two years ago, he wrote that some within the Obama administration knew that Osama bin Laden was living under the protection of Pakistani intelligence in Abbottabad long before the raid to kill him was ultimately launchd.
The story led to a falling out between Hersh and the editor-in-chief of the New Yorker and it was ultimately published in the renowned London Review of Books. In another story for the same publication, he quoted from a secret Congressional report, which claimed that the CIA, during the Obama administration, had developed a "Rat Line" to smuggle weapons from Libya to Syria in order to support militias fighting against the regime of Bashar Assad. The fake companies established as part of the Rat Line, Hersh wrote, were later thought to have been used by the Turkish secret service to arm Islamist militias inside of Syria.
As has been the case so often in his professional life, Hersh was harshly criticized for his most recent stories about Syria, about Obama, and about bin Laden. Many say he goes too far and relies too heavily on anonymous sources. Crucially, though, no source who is actively working for a government can reveal classified information “on the record” without incurring considerable personal risk. That holds true in Germany as well.
As has always been his practice, Hersh has told Welt am Sonntag the identities of all the sources he quotes anonymously in his story about Trump's retaliatory strike against Syria. The paper was thus able to speak independently to the central source in the U.S.
Hersh had also offered the article to the London Review of Books. The editors accepted it, paid for it, and prepared a fact checked article for publication, but decided against doing so, as they told Hersh, because of concerns that the magazine would vulnerable to criticism for seeming to take the view of the Syrian and Russian governments when it came to the April 4th bombing in Khan Sheikhoun. Hersh had met a few times with Stefan Aust when he was editor of Der Spiegel and followed his career. According to Hersh, he knew Aust to be someone who was unafraid of the consequences of publishing stories that, when verified and checked, he knew to be true. It was a natural move to send the story, as edited, to him.
It was a situation that Seymour Hersh had experienced before. At the very beginning of his career, no publication wanted to print his My Lai story either.
What exactly happened in western Syria on April 4, 2017, when Khan Sheikhoun was bombed, is still not entirely clear. The events continue to be obscured by the thick fog of war.
A Russian-Syrian-Iranian alliance is fighting against militia groups, both jihadist and otherwise, in the Idlib region. All parties to the war have one thing in common: They reject democracy and view journalists as enemies, making it extremely difficult to report freely from this battlefield.
As such it is quite surprising that, just hours after the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, politicians and the majority of media outlets had established such a clear picture of what had happened: that Assad's troops had attacked the town with the dreaded poison gas sarin. But the town is under the control of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a militia affiliated with al-Qaida. It is impossible to know precisely how freely people can move about -- including doctors and members of Syrian relief organizations -- in this region and how openly they can report on the war.
Even in the very first interviews that were said to have come directly from Khan Skeikhoun, all of those interviewed agreed that sarin had been used. One doctor in town, who was quoted frequently throughout the day, took the time to film extensive video footage, conduct Skype interviews and, shortly after the attack, tweet: “OUR HOSPITAL GETTING FULL FROM THE SARIN ATTACK TODAY. ANYONE THAT WANTS EVIDENCE, I WILL VIDEO CALL YOU.”
It is in fact quite difficult to ascertain at first glance whether sarin, another toxic gas or a chemical agent was used. The first reporter from a Western newspaper to reach the town worked for the British Guardian. His article included several quotes from people who claimed to be eyewitnesses: "We could smell it from 500 meters away," one said, referring to the gas. Yet sarin is odorless.
To clear up the contradictions and questions, an independent investigation on site is needed. Were that to happen, it would be quite possible to determine if sarin was used, but such a process takes time in an active war zone like Idlib. Yet on April 6, when the American military launched cruise missiles at the Syrian airport, the process of initiating an independent investigation hadn't even been started.
By bombing the Syrian airport, Trump set the tone for how the attack on Khan Sheikhoun would ultimately be interpreted and America's Western allies quickly concurred with the president's viewpoint. France published a classified intelligence report that claimed there were no doubts that Assad's military had deployed sarin. Two hours earlier, then-French President François Hollande had already committed to this position. He and German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a joint statement about “the massacre with chemical weapons” following the American retaliatory strikes. "President Assad bears sole responsibility for this development," the statement read. "His repeated use of chemical weapons ... demanded sanctions." Their position was clear.
Ultimately, though, it is up to a United Nations commission to decide whether an attack in Syria should be considered a war crime. The commission was formed in 2011 to investigate the war in Syria. The statement it issued after the April 4 attack was carefully worded, and the commission has been silent since.
Members of the Geneva-based Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic are also aware of the complexities of the situation in the war zone. Analyzing, comparing, verifying and rebutting statements, data and reports takes time.
It was a different organization, though, that pushed to the forefront to provide the quick answers everyone was asking for: the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), an intergovernmental organization financed by the signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention that works together with the United Nations. The organization has become more careful since Syrian rebels took an OPCW team hostage in 2014 and after the April attack, an OPCW team traveled not to the location of the presumed gas attack, but to the neighboring country of Turkey. Team members were able to observe the autopsies of three alleged victims of the poison gas attack. An NGO had delivered the bodies to the hospitals, though OPCW will not publicly comment on the identity of the NGO. Samples from the bodies were provided to two separate laboratories, which independently confirmed indications of sarin or sarin-like substances.
In criminal proceedings, though, which are similar to the process followed by the UN in determining a war crime, it is a fundamental principle that all evidence be under the control of investigators at all times. That didn't happen in this case. Indeed, the UN Syria commission doesn't intend to report its version of events to the General Assembly until September, after it investigates all sources, particularly those on site in Khan Sheikhoun. Fighting through the fog of war to discover the truth takes time.
But on April 4, when the U.S. president awoke and saw photos of dead babies and decided to respond immediately, the final results of a thorough investigation were as far away as peace in Syria.
Asked, if government lies still make him as angry as in his first days of his career, Hersh replied: „It is more than being upset about lying – it’s about the reluctance of us in the press to hold the men and women who run the world's governments to the highest possible standards. We have a President in America today who lies repeatedly about the most meaningless of information, but he must learn that he cannot lie about the intelligence relied upon before authorizing an act of war.
There are those in the Trump administration that understand this, which is why I learned the information I did. If this story creates even a few moments of regret in the white house it will have served a very high purpose.“
Translation: Charles Hawley