As a rule, I don’t criticize Sy Hersh pieces. Reporters do not have the right to fuck with Hersh until they’ve run through a Georgia barracks trying to find Calley or learned about an entirely secret war that Congress never dreamed of or published excerpts of the Taguba report. You do this, you can criticize. Me, I shut up and watch the journalistic version of Nas do his thing.

There are, however, those who believe that with his Iran reporting, Hersh is going through a Nastradamus phase. Every six months Hersh writes another piece that says there’s going to be an attack on Iran in six months! they say. LOL he’s fallen off! Well, look. Here’s how you read a Hersh piece.

Editors need a hook. They need what’s known in the biz as a Strong Lede. In other words, they want to be able to answer the question: What’s This Piece About? It’s a journalistic convention that your answer can’t be Well, shit, Hersh is the best in the game, let’s just let him spill his notebook into print. But that’s the actual answer! So there has to be this veneer, this patina, this glossy sheen put atop the piece. It’s like an R&B hook grafted into a really hot freestyle. Unfortunately, people judge the product by the hook, not by the freestyle.

So read deep into the piece, because you find its real rationale there — not that we’re definitely going to attack Iran, but an on-the-record interview last month that Hersh did with Fox Fallon, for instance:

Admiral Fallon acknowledged, when I spoke to him in June, that he had heard that there were people in the White House who were upset by his public statements. “Too many people believe you have to be either for or against the Iranians,” he told me. “Let’s get serious. Eighty million people live there, and everyone’s an individual. The idea that they’re only one way or another is nonsense.”

When it came to the Iraq war, Fallon said, “Did I bitch about some of the things that were being proposed? You bet. Some of them were very stupid.”

Hot fire. Or CIA Director Michael Hayden telling Congressional Democrats, who acquiesced to some fateful changes of language in last year’s defense bill viz. Iran, not to worry about never knowing precisely what sort of covert operations that Special Ops forces will be doing (never mind that until Rumsfeld, they did clandestine operations, not covert shit):

“The agency says we’re not going to get in the position of helping to kill people without a Finding,” the former senior intelligence official told me. He was referring to the legal threat confronting some agency operatives for their involvement in the rendition and alleged torture of suspects in the war on terror. “This drove the military people up the wall,” he said. As far as the C.I.A. was concerned, the former senior intelligence official said, “the over-all authorization includes killing, but it’s not as though that’s what they’re setting out to do. It’s about gathering information, enlisting support.” The Finding sent to Congress was a compromise, providing legal cover for the C.I.A. while referring to the use of lethal force in ambiguous terms.

The defensive-lethal language led some Democrats, according to congressional sources familiar with their views, to call in the director of the C.I.A., Air Force General Michael V. Hayden, for a special briefing. Hayden reassured the legislators that the language did nothing more than provide authority for Special Forces operatives on the ground in Iran to shoot their way out if they faced capture or harm.

If you need any more convincing about the value of Hersh’s Iran stuff, consider that people are most likely telling Hersh this stuff in order to forestall an attack by making the administration’s conniving a matter of public record. (For a mostly-skeptical take on an Iran attack, check out this roundtable Laura Rozen assembled for MoJo.) His pieces — or at least their toplines — are self-refuting! It’s all very Derridean.

One day, journalistic convention will decide that placing reporters like Hersh within the box of a lede for a piece that needs no lede is a silly idea. Then, my friends, we will finally have the free play of notebook material. But until then, we have to read Hersh with a bit of a knowing eye. You can hate all you like, but GOD’S SON is across the belly and he’ll prove you lost already.

Update: More on the latest Hersh piece from Marcy here and here.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman