Seymour Hersh, Spy-Lover?

What’s gotten into Sy Hersh? In the Oct. 8 New Yorker, Hersh moans that the glory days of the Central Intelligence Agency are over:

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, in 1991, the C.I.A. has become increasingly bureaucratic and unwilling to take risks, and has promoted officers who shared such values. (“The consciousness of kind,” one former officer says.) It has steadily reduced its reliance on overseas human intelligence and cut the number of case officers abroad–members of the clandestine service, now known formally as the Directorate of Operations, or D.O., whose mission is to recruit spies. (It used to be called the “dirty tricks” department.)

Till now, Hersh spent most of his time exposing and decrying the CIA’s dirty tricks. Here’s how David Rubien put it in an admiring Hersh profile published last year in Salon:

The CIA still hasn’t recovered from the thrashings Hersh administered. First he brought to light the CIA’s surveillance of domestic organizations it deemed subversive–a blatant violation of the agency’s charter to gather foreign intelligence only. Then he revealed the CIA’s covert role in overthrowing Salvador Allende in Chile.

Hersh’s 1983 book, The Price of Power, is primarily a savage portrait of Henry Kissinger, but secondarily a savage portrait of a grotesquely can-do CIA:

Roger Morris recalls at least two casual conversations with fellow Kissinger aides about the killing of Nguyen Van Thieu, South Vietnam’s President, who was seen as a key stumbling block to the success of the Paris peace talks. In one case, Morris says, he mentioned plaintively to a colleague that Thieu’s “assassination is one that the American government ought to look at with interest.” To his amazement, his colleague, who worked in Kissinger’s personal office in the White House, responded seriously: “They have.” [In the event, the CIA did not kill Thieu, who died last month of natural causes at age 78.]

It is, of course, possible to believe, on the one hand, that the CIA ought not to have assisted in the assassinations of the Belgian Congo’s Patrice Lumumba and the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo, and also to believe, on the other hand, that the CIA ought to assassinate Osama Bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders as swiftly as possible. Indeed, Chatterbox believes both of these things. (Bin Laden, after all, has more or less confessed to being a mass murderer and said that he aspires to rain even more death on the United States; killing him and his lieutenants would amount to self-defense.) Still, Chatterbox found himself rather taken aback by Hersh’s glowing description of how the Jordanians handle groups like al-Qaida:

One hard question is what lengths the C.I.A. should go to. In an interview, two former operations officers cited the tactics used in the late nineteen-eighties by the Jordanian security service, in its successful effort to bring down Abu Nidal, the Palestinian who led what was at the time “the most dangerous terrorist organization in existence,” according to the State Department. Abu Nidal’s group was best known for its role in two bloody gun and grenade attacks on check-in desks for El Al, the Israeli airline, at the Rome and Vienna airports in December, 1985. At his peak, Abu Nidal threatened the life of King Hussein of Jordan–whom he called “the pygmy king”–and the King responded, according to the former intelligence officers, by telling his state security service, “Go get them.”The Jordanians did not move directly against suspected Abu Nidal followers but seized close family members instead–mothers and brothers. The Abu Nidal suspect would be approached, given a telephone, and told to call his mother, who would say, according to one C.I.A. man, “Son, they’ll take care of me if you don’t do what they ask.” (To his knowledge, the official carefully added, all the suspects agreed to talk before any family members were actually harmed.) By the early nineteen-nineties, the group was crippled by internal dissent and was no longer a significant terrorist organization. (Abu Nidal, now in his sixties and in poor health, is believed to be living quietly inEgypt.) “Jordan is the one nation that totally succeeded in penetrating a group,” the official added. “You have to get their families under control.”Such tactics defy the American rule of law, of course, and the C.I.A.’s procedures, but, when it comes to Osama bin Laden and his accomplices, the official insisted, there is no alternative. “We need to do this–knock them down one by one,” he said. “Are we serious about getting rid of the problem–instead of sitting around making diversity quilts?”

Hersh would probably argue that his New Yorker story is reportage rather than opinion journalism and therefore doesn’t have to explain in detail what the CIA should and shouldn’t do. By letting his CIA source’s crack about “making diversity quilts” go unchallenged, however, Hersh leaves the impression that he wouldn’t mind seeing Osama Bin Laden’s mother stare down the barrel of a CIA spook’s gun. Similarly, by sprinkling his piece with various anonymous quotes mocking CIA director George Tenet for being an inept wimp who won’t, for example, give the agency free rein to hire criminals, Hersh leaves the impression that the 1995 furor over the CIA hiring a paid Guatemalan informant who’d killed an American innkeeper and the Guatemalan husband of an American lawyer was a silly tempest in a teapot. Even though he probably didn’t mean it that way, Hersh’s New Yorker piece reads like a plea to make the CIA a rogue elephant once again.