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Vox’s Max Fisher Is Wrong About Seymour Hersh, Explained

Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published a report on how the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff deviated from President Barack Obama’s policy on Syria by sharing military intelligence indirectly with Bashar al-Assad’s government. It also indicated the Joint Chiefs dissented against Obama’s “insistence that ‘moderate’ rebel groups” could defeat Assad because they were all primarily extremists.

Well over twenty-four hours later, there are zero establishment media outlets that have run follow-ups or coverage of Hersh’s reporting. Only “Democracy Now!” had Hersh on their December 22 show and asked him about what he uncovered. Instead, a critique produced by Max Fisher and published at Vox has given U.S. journalists the justification to dismiss all of the major claims and issues raised in Hersh’s report.

Fisher, who is Vox’s resident Seymour Hersh critic, outlines in an op-ed or “explainer” why he believes Hersh’s report is nothing but a “bizarre conspiracy theory.” His representation of the claims in the report is entirely overwrought.

The explainer extraordinaire calls the actions of the “senior-most leaders of our military” a “mass act of treason.” He suggests the military effectively allied the United States with Assad, which “sounds like an act of treason.” He accuses Hersh of portraying “what would appear to be the highest act of treason in modern American history” as “necessary and appropriate.”

At one point, Fisher maintains the report “alleges that many or all (it is unclear) members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top of American military leadership, conspired jointly to undermine their own president’s foreign policy and secretly ally America with its adversaries. The claim would go against everything we know about how the military leadership works, and would demand us to radically transform how we see the relationship between the U.S. military and the U.S. government — all despite the fact that there is no apparent precedent for such a conspiracy.”

On “Democracy Now!”, Hersh reacted to this criticism and argued there are “so many instances where the military disagree with the president. We’ve seen this in World War II.” He mentioned General Douglas MacArthur. He noted the military takes an oath to defend the Constitution, not an oath to the President of the United States.

Additionally, there is no presidential order cited by Fisher to substantiate the notion that this was a Mass Act of Treason (if Fisher even believes what Hersh reported happened).

As Hersh reported, in the summer of 2013, a “highly classified” defense intelligence assessment produced by the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Joint Chiefs warned of what would happen if “jihadi extremists” took over Syria. It determined Turkey had “co-opted” the program to arm opposition by “morphing” the program into an “across-the-board technical, arms, and logistical program for all of the opposition, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State.” It warned there was “no viable ‘moderate’ opposition to Assad, and the U.S. was arming extremists.”

Fisher chose to ignore comments by former DIA director Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who spoke to Hersh on the record. Flynn shares his belief that the Obama administration did not want to hear the truth about Syria. DIA and the Joint Chiefs were concerned about the Islamic State’s long-term strategy and how jihadists controlled the opposition. They feared what would happen if Assad was toppled. So, according to a former Joint Chiefs adviser, they took the step of indirectly passing intelligence to Assad in order to possibly prevent a feared outcome.

“The Joint Chiefs felt that a direct challenge to Obama’s policy would have ‘had a zero chance of success’. So in the autumn of 2013 they decided to take steps against the extremists without going through political channels, by providing US intelligence to the militaries of other nations, on the understanding that it would be passed on to the Syrian army and used against the common enemy, Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State,” an anonymous Joint Chiefs adviser told Hersh.

From Hersh’s report:

‘We weren’t intent on deviating from Obama’s stated policies,’ the adviser said. ‘But sharing our assessments via the military-to-military relationships with other countries could prove productive. It was clear that Assad needed better tactical intelligence and operational advice. The JCS concluded that if those needs were met, the overall fight against Islamist terrorism would be enhanced. Obama didn’t know, but Obama doesn’t know what the JCS does in every circumstance and that’s true of all presidents.’

Fisher declines to contemplate the realpolitik nature of sharing intelligence indirectly with Syria, and contends it is impossible for retired JCS Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey to be an opponent of arming the “moderate” rebel groups.

“While in office, Dempsey famously and publicly clashed with Obama over Syria because Dempsey wanted to do more to arm Syrian rebels. Contemporaneous accounts of arguments within the White House support this, with Dempsey arguing the US should more robustly arm Syrian rebels, and Obama arguing for less,” Fisher writes.

One major flaw in this rebuttal is that the story linked to is a New York Times report on statements Dempsey made in February 2013. When was the DIA’s defense intelligence assessment put together? Summer 2013.

As Hersh pointed out on “Democracy Now!”, Dempsey favored arming “vetted” groups. He was concerned about the inability to vet and prevent extremist groups from obtaining arms.

Fisher, like most of the people who mock and dislike Hersh’s reporting, points out that the report depends on one source—a former Joint Chiefs adviser.

“The entirety of Hersh’s allegations here are sourced to ‘a former senior adviser to the Joint Chiefs.’ We are not told the capacity of the adviser’s role, nor how the adviser acquired this information, nor how a former adviser would know what is still happening. Hersh provides no other sources — anonymous or otherwise — who support the story,” Fisher argues.

Hersh replied to this aspect of critiques against him while on “Democracy Now!”:

It’s usually anonymous sources you get criticized for, and that’s always been traditionally, although any day in The New York Times or The Washington Post they’re full of anonymous sources. That’s an easy way out. I wish I could tell you that I haven’t been relying on this particular person since 9/11, but I have been. Many of the stories that I wrote for The New Yorker about what was going on inside Iran, there was no bombs inside of Iraq, part of those early stories I was writing—All came from one particularly well-informed person, who for a lot of reasons I can’t make public. One of them is the government would prosecute him.

Fisher used to work for the Post and should know that reporters develop sources they can trust for bombshell stories of this nature, but he seems to have spent so much time explaining the news that he has forgotten some key aspects of investigative journalism.

Hersh goes on to describe how he wrote a number of his award-winning stories on Watergate and the Vietnam War while working for the Times, which were based on “one single source.” This is actually reporting, which people like Fisher agree deserved all the praise and awards Hersh received. But, apparently, in the present day, even though Hersh’s editors check his sources independently before publication, it no longer is journalism but “bizarre conspiracy.”

Someone like Fisher plays a key role when discrediting someone like Hersh. He helps various reporters at outlets throughout the U.S. justify their decision to not follow-up on any of what Hersh reports. It makes it easy for them to not explore whether there was major dissent among the ranks of top Pentagon officials or whether the Obama administration rejected key assessments by military officials. This way the journalists do not have to worry about pursuing a sensitive story that might lead to the loss of access to sources.

He essentially played this role when Hersh reported what he uncovered on the raid against Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. Rather than do follow-up reporting, as NBC News actually did, he chose to focus on discrediting Hersh’s journalism through the same kind of overwrought and hyperbolic exaggeration he applied to Hersh’s report on Syria this round. (In fact, there are few aspects of Hersh’s journalism on Syria in which Fisher believes. Meanwhile, he pushes the inaccurate idea that Assad is responsible for the rise of the Islamic State while overlooking how U.S. policy in the Iraq War was the biggest contributor.)

This “boiler plate” template used by critics to kill the messenger and cast Hersh as some kind of loon journalist in his twilight years only serves the interests of high-ranking officials. Columns solely focused on Hersh should be regarded as attacks on an investigative journalist, who has dared to poke holes in establishment media presumptions about Russia, Syria, and the “moderate” rebel groups the U.S. supports.

Individuals like Fisher should be inspired to dig deeper when Hersh publishes investigative reports, but instead, they publish hammy explainers and demonstrate they are nothing more than ornamented stenographers of power.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."