Did Seymour Hersh believe the wrong lies?

Hersh’s latest report is filled with inaccuracies and errors.

(This column originally appeared in the Toronto Sun)

By: Candice Malcolm

Everybody lies.

In the television series House, the fact everybody lies is the main character’s modus operandi. As a doctor trying to solve complicated medical anomalies, Dr. House’s diagnostic techniques worked only because he assumed all his patients were lying.

Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh is a bit like TV’s Dr. House. He bases his research on the assumption everybody in government lies. This belief is the basis of his latest report, released this week by the London Review of Books. In his 10,000-word article, Hersh alleges the Barack Obama administration’s version of events in the 2011 assassination of Osama bin Laden is a lie.

The truth, according to Hersh, is that bin Laden was actually captured by Pakistan’s intelligence agency back in 2006, and that he’d been held captive — with the support of Saudi Arabia — ever since. Hersh alleges Pakistan eventually agreed to sell bin Laden to the U.S. for ransom money and increased aid to Pakistan.

In order to believe Hersh, you must assume everybody lies.

This assumption has served Hersh well in his long and celebrated career. His instinct to mistrust official reports led him to uncover grave details of the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam; a revelation that ultimately landed Army Lt. William Calley with a life sentence for killing 22 civilians, and awarded Hersh a Pulitzer Prize. (Calley was eventually released from prison.)

The same instinct led Hersh to break key details in the Watergate scandal, and more recently, to uncover the abuse and torture of detainees at the American-run prison complex in Abu Ghraib, one of the most important stories of the Iraq war.

Unfortunately, Hersh’s latest report is filled with inaccuracies and errors. Its lack of identified and relevant sources, strange and rambling quotes, and an absence of coherent motives or proof to back up his claims suggest a serious fall from grace for the celebrated journalist.

His basic premise, for instance, is that Pakistan co-operated with the U.S. in exchange for increased aid. In reality, U.S. aid to Pakistan has steadily decreased since 2010.

Hersh’s instincts to question authority are sound. But there is a slippery slope between questioning supposed lies, and assuming everyone is lying. For Hersh, his allegations this time appear to have skidded from investigative journalism into outright conspiracy theory.

I’ve worked on political campaigns, as a press secretary in government, as a researcher for a news station, and as the head of a citizen’s advocacy watchdog group. I’ve seen political spin and half-truths packaged up and sold to the public from both sides.

I know governments lie.

The urge to question our government and uncover these lies is an important tenet of any functioning democracy. Equally important is our ability to debunk false reports.

According to a U.S. intelligence official with direct knowledge of the bin Laden operation, the Pakistanis were furious and embarrassed when American troops found bin Laden hiding in a compound near the capital of Islamabad. My sources in the U.S. intelligence community, who have no direct knowledge of this case, believe it is more likely Hersh was sold a false bill of goods by Pakistani officials desperately trying to save face by fabricating a revised history.

Everybody lies. Hersh’s instinct to question government officials is correct and indeed admirable. In this case, however, I’d suggest he may have believed the wrong lies.