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Read Seymour Hersh with a Grain of Salt

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Message Hussain Abdul-Hussain
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American reporter Seymour Hersh visited Syria and Lebanon last month and is in the process of publishing a story in The New Yorker “on Syria,” according to the British Daily The Guardian.

Pulitzer Prize winner Hersh, 71, is undoubtedly one of the finest investigative journalists America has produced. But Hersh has grown over confident and his accuracy rate has fallen down substantially.

Hersh has become like cult leaders who prophesize about the end of time. Followers of such cults believe their leaders once, maybe twice. But with prophecies repeatedly unfulfilled, the prophet loses credibility and, in Hersh’s case, audience.

Hersh has so far prophesized about an American attack on Iran so many times, often giving a date after another. All the dates have passed, and nothing happened. To put it in the words of The Guardian: “His supporters, though, believe that his mistakes - and even the wilder allegations he sometimes makes in speeches - should always be put in the context of his hit rate.”

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But a hit rate is no option for a region as sensitive as the Middle East, which has no room for error. Last time Hersh visited Lebanon, his story, which ran in The New Yorker on March 05, 2007 under the title “The Redirection,” was so inaccurate that one could not tell the difference between fact and faction.

Hersh strived to prove that the United States was instigating its allies, mainly Saudi Arabia, to fund Sunni radical groups around the region to counter Iran and its Shiite protégés. Lebanon was a case in point.

Hersh reported that lawmaker Saad Hariri used his parliamentary majority to release convicted Islamist radicals, a fact that was taken out of context. Hersh also wrote that the Lebanese government, supported by Hariri and his allies, offered weapons and money to Fatah Al-Islam in northern Lebanon.

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To substantiate his point, Hersh quoted Alastair Crooke, who Hersh introduced as a former agent who had spent nearly thirty years in MI6, the British intelligence service, and now works for Conflicts Forum, a think tank in Beirut. Crooker told Hersh: “One Sunni extremist group, Fatah al-Islam, had splintered from its pro-Syrian parent group, Fatah al-Intifada, in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, in northern Lebanon.” Fair enough.

According to Hersh, Crooke added: “I was told that within twenty-four hours they were being offered weapons and money by people presenting themselves as representatives of the Lebanese government’s interests—presumably to take on Hezbollah.”

Now here is the catch. Crooke “was told” that the government supported Fatah Al-Islam, to “presumably” take on Hezbollah.

Despite its rumor style, Hersh’s so-called investigative report instantly hit success with Syrian media and Syria’s Lebanese protégés, and was repeatedly quoted with the anti-Hariri crowd behaving as if they now have it on good authority that Hariri was funding radical Sunni groups.

With Damascus eager to send the new American administration signals of possible cooperation in the war on terror, the Syrian regime quickly put together a plan to this effect.

In early September Syrian President Bashar Assad received his French counterpart Nicholas Sarkozy. Assad implicitly blamed Saudi Arabia, and indirectly Hariri, for instigating and funding radical Sunni groups in northern Lebanon, calling on Lebanese President Michel Suleiman to deploy additional army units to the north.

When Suleiman ignored Assad’s request, a public stunt was needed and Syria deployed a massive force on its side of Lebanon’s northern border. When this Syrian move failed to convey any messages to the West, one of the clumsiest terrorist attacks in the history of terror took place: A suicide car bomb went off on a crossroads in Damascus killing only civilians.

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After the Damascus bombing on Sep. 27, the Syrian regime was waiting for Western sympathy, or was at least waiting for Hersh to confirm that Hariri-funded terrorism was spilling over from Lebanon to Syria, as Syrian analyst Sami Moubayyed, with known ties to the regime, repeatedly wrote in his Op-Eds in different English language media outlets.

When all of this failed, the Syrian regime put an all out media campaign to prove its point. Between Nov. 8 and Nov. 10, Hersh’s report was quoted five times by Syrian journalists and pro-Syrian Lebanese politicians.

On Nov. 8, Lebanese lawmaker Michel Aoun commented on Syrian TV footage on the so-called Hariri-funding of Fatah Al-Islam militants by referring to the Hersh report, saying Hersh had already proven such a link. On the same day, Moubayyed also referred to the Hersh report in his Op-Ed in Asia Times. On Nov. 9, Syrian columnist Saadallah Barakat followed suit in the state-run daily Al-Baath. A day later, Ahmad Dawwa echoed such comments in his editorial in the state-run daily Al-Thawrah.

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Hussain Abdul-Hussain (Arabic حسين عبد الحسين) is a journalist and expert on the Middle East. He is currently a correspondent with the Kuwaiti daily Al Rai (formerly (more...)
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