Update Your Address Books, I’m In India

My personal Brexit commenced last week with a move to rural India.

I’m living in a refurbished 1960s hotel compound in Bihar, one of the poorest states in India, and the most prone to flooding. Flying in to Patna airport, what my brain first registered as a large expanse of sand was actually the silty brown water of the overflowing Ganges. The town I’ve moved to, Rajgir, is on somewhat higher ground and abuts some striking mesa-like mountains dotted with caves where the Buddha lectured. The locals have been friendly and welcoming so far and I’m sure they will be even more so once I learn some Hindi beyond “yes,” “no,” “hello” and “thanks.” Until then, I’m that guy.

Once my stomach settles I’ll get started on my backlog of journalism assignments. This year, keep an eye out for more of my Magical Thinking columns in The Baffler and some new outlets, including other national magazines and indie efforts like Ken Silverstein’s new Washington Babylon website. Next year, according to the publisher, you can expect to see my Silicon Valley book on store shelves. Lastly, I hope to take advantage of my new social and geographical isolation and see a work of fiction to completion. I have a story in mind.

There aren’t many distractions here, which should help. The internet cuts out as often as the electricity—although not on the same schedule—and alcohol has been banned by the state government. But don’t let that put you off from a visit, especially if you already happen to be traveling in the region. Give me a heads-up and I will give you a short list of items I require.

If you won’t visit, at least sign up for my mailing list.

A Post-Brexit Reading List

My American friends are still confused about Brexit and what it means, and my British neighbors, with a few notable exceptions, are in despair.

First thing this morning, I wrote a Leave lament, which ran in The Baffler. An excerpt:

Economists have predicted recession for post-Brexit Britain, but I get paid in US dollars, and the immediate consequence of the Leave victory was for the Great British Pound to fall to a thirty-year low. When I went to bed, the tenner on my dining table was worth $15. When I woke up, it was worth $12. Thus Farage effectively bought my next pint. If I had the chance, though, I’d throw it in his face.

Although the near-term consequences of Leave’s victory may accrue in my favor, I would happily trade my Brexit bonus for a world in which this noxious and disastrous referendum never took place. Do not be misled by the muddled centrist or leftish arguments that favored secessionism: this vote is a victory for the reactionary right and a bad omen for the world in the years to come.

Please read the whole thing, it’s fairly short.

I’ve also come across some smart reaction pieces amid the usual flood of nonsense while obsessively scouring the news today. Here are a few:

Dawn Foster in The Nation:

The EU referendum became a conduit for anger on many issues: immigration, economic inequalities, London’s disproportionate economic boom, and disenfranchisement by an aloof political elite, an elite that after the vote appears shaken.

David Dayen in Prospect magazine:

The post-World War II social order has failed too many, and people are desperate for an alternative. As much as the toxicity of right-wing populism is driving this disruption, ultimately the blame must be laid at the feet of those who bungled the European project so completely.  

Felix Salmon at Fusion:

The Brexit referendum—the referendum that sealed the fate of an entire continent—should never have happened in the first place. But even though the decision to call the referendum was truly idiotic, the responsibility for the outcome still rests on the shoulders of the British people—and, specifically, of the English people.

Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times:

The country that prides itself on sober moderation has made one of the most impulsive moves ever undertaken in a developed democracy. The stiff upper lips have parted and released a wild and inarticulate cry of rage and triumph.

Make no mistake: this is an English nationalist revolution.

I agree with all of these writers’ points, at least in part. I’ll keep an eye out for other worthy articles and update this list when I find them.

Update: More:

Wolfgang Münchau in the Financial Times:

While I continue to believe that the case for European integration is overwhelming, I have to accept that this case was simply not made in the campaign. … 

David Cameron was elected Conservative leader after giving a Eurosceptic speech to a Tory party conference. If you are a genuine supporter of EU integration, you do not need enemies with friends like these. This was not really a contest between Leave and Remain. It was a choice between two variants of Euroscepticism.

Ed Caesar in the New Yorker (reporting from the memorial service for the assassinated Remain campaigner and Labour MP Jo Cox):

At the Batley Conservative Club, a vast and formerly grand establishment at odds with its dwindling clientele of mostly old, white men, two members, named Darren and Stuart (they declined to offer their surnames), sat at the bar discussing how they had both voted Leave. Darren knew Jo Cox from school and said she was “a lovely lass.” But both men spoke repeatedly about how they had been let down by politicians, particularly on the issue of immigration. Their complaint did not just concern the recent migrants from the E.U. but the older Muslim residents of Batley. Darren put his wish to leave the E.U. partly down to “the change in the town and the feeling in the town. There are certain people who don’t integrate.” Stuart said that “it’s a sad thing what happened last week,” but added, “We just want our country back.”

Nadine El-Enany on “Brexit as Nostalgia for Empire“:

The racist discourse that has defined the Brexit campaign must be understood in the context of Britain’s imperial legacy. The terms on which the debate around the referendum have taken place are symptomatic of a Britain struggling to conceive of its place in the world post-Empire. …

Being faced with a choice between between David Cameron and Nigel Farage is a nightmare scenario for any anti-racist and anti-capitalist. With the debate on the referendum eclipsed by the topic of migration, it is no surprise Cameron is struggling to hold the fort having spent the last five years peddling the lie that migrants are to blame for society’s ills rather than his government of millionaires and their penchant for cuts to vital public services.

Stephen Marche in Esquire:

But Brexit itself was not inevitable, despite the national trait of a suspicion of foreigners. Britain, so far from being a model of xenophobia, was one of history’s models for incorporating difference into a single political unity. The United Kingdom had kept peoples with different cultures, even with different languages, gathered around a common purpose. It has been the foremost proponent of the freedom of trade for most of its history, and it has created the world’s most cosmopolitan city. That is exactly what is so terrifying this morning. The nativist nightmare has come to roost in the country at the heart of the modern world order. If it could happen there, if it could happen in London, it could happen anywhere.

Bad Dreams And Good News

The Silicon Valley book proceeds apace. So apace in fact I neglected to announce here that I am writing a regular column for The Baffler‘s website called Magical Thinking. That’s my good news.

The latest installment of the column went online today. It’s an expedition into one corner of the collective unconscious that is obsessed with the US Presidential election. To get there, I read through thousands of people’s dreams about Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

The contents were as twisted and disturbing as you might expect, and I took note of certain undeniable patterns.

Apocalypse is a fixture of the Trump Wins Nightmare. Subtle it ain’t, but neither is the inspiration. The Nightmare is a logical extrapolation of Republican campaign rhetoric, as in this dream: “Trump placed a giant dome over the U.S. and then bombed every other continent.” Others see past World War III to the fallout: “Trump had giant, mutant, worms attack the city and then blamed the Russians.” Finally, there are those who see how it all ends, in a Great Flood: “I had a dream that Donald Trump murdered his wife and blamed it on a Mexican and then the whole world was flooded.”

Full story here:

• ‘I Dreamed President Trump Tweeted the Nuclear Launch Codes’

The previous two Magical Thinking columns covered similar territory. The first, a Jungian analysis of the Trump phenomenon, really made the rounds. I figure I must be on to something if both Van Jones and The American Conservative endorsed my analysis.

• Donald Trump, Trickster God

• Primary Lessons in Propaganda

I also had a long report on the strange cult of cryonics in Baffler No. 30, no longer on newsstands, but online here:

• Everybody Freeze! The extropians want your body

As I’m between edits on the book, I’ll be publishing more frequently here and elsewhere, if Allah wills it.

Dumb Hacks Will Be The Death Of Us

I’m still writing my Silicon Valley book, but the end is near and I can’t help but watch. A friend put this clip on Facebook. It’s as “awful and incoherent” as Slate said.

Jake Tapper got steamrolled. The sad thing is he puts up more of a fight than most TV interviewers.

If Donald Trump wins everything will become an informercial for the big, beautiful wall and only bootlickers like Joe Scarborough will be allowed to ask the leader how amazing he is, on the strict condition that they never, ever interrupt.

Tapper also says, at one point, “I don’t really want to litigate the case of Trump university”—when that’s exactly what someone in his position, sitting across from Trump with cameras rolling, needs to be doing. Instead of squeezing this crook until he pops by forcing him to defend the ins and outs of a transparently fraudulent scheme, Tapper asks Trump to respond to remarks by Hillary Clinton. What sort of answer does he expect? It may seem innocuous but in the context of this campaign asking Trump to comment on his opponent is just begging him to do his crowd-pleasing Archie Bunker routine—again, again! Pleeeeeaaase?

In conclusion, only Wayne Barret should be allowed to interview Trump.

Update: The smug toad Mark Halperin makes Tapper look like Socrates.

Trump Means It: Time To Make Plans For The American Nightmare Scenario

I stayed up late watching the early Super Tuesday exit polls and spent this morning writing an even longer version of this post that explained and defended all of the assumptions built in to the argument. I anticipated the strongest criticism would come from comfortable, well-intentioned liberals who, it seems to me, are in a dreamlike state of denial regarding the vicious drift of American politics, and whose Pollyannaish attitude in this election cycle has been proven wrong time and again.

Here’s one example of the kind of thing I’m talking about, from the economist James Galbraith, who is as smart as they come among Democratic Party muckety-mucks. “There is a difference between a carnival barker and the leader of a neo-Nazi party,” Galbraith said on the radio yesterday. “We don’t have the militias, we don’t have the brownshirts.” Another guest on the program, UPenn scholar Anthea Butler, who happens to be a black woman, was not convinced that heavily armed Americans with a hatred of minorities and a growing lust for violence, some of whom self-identify as militia members, don’t bear comparison to the paramilitary squads who terrorized the Weimar Republic. Neither am I.

Watch this clip of a woman being physically assaulted at Donald Trump rally in Kentucky, and draw your own conclusions about how quickly such scenes might devolve into lynch mobs.

It sure doesn’t look like a carnival to me. Neither was it an isolated incident of violence by Trump supporters at one of his rallies. Obviously.

What I really want to say to my friends back home in America is this: if you really don’t want to let bullies and thugs take charge of your country, you must not hide behind smug complacency, nor succumb to helplessness.

It is still entirely possible that a positive outcome—or at least a temporary extension of the steady imperial declension that is the status quo—will emerge from the electoral process, farcical though it may be. So you should definitely vote.

However, it is also my sense that the best and brightest of the Ivy League have once again misread the situation and that the worst outcome, a Trump presidency, is far more likely than salaried, mortgage-holding Serious People in the coastal states will admit. At this point, I don’t think they’ll admit it until it hits them in the face with a truncheon.

If Trump becomes the Republican nominee for president only to lose in the general election, it does not follow that the raving racist mobs he has emboldened will turn around, go home and console themselves by watching reruns of The Apprentice. No. The next American fascist leader will be more organized, disciplined and aggrieved—and therefore more dangerous. This will be true even if Trump somehow evaporates like a mirage and fails to secure the Republican nomination.

Which leads to the other thing I want to say: it is important to start thinking now about what you, personally, plan to do in the event that Trump or someone like him contrives to throw the full weight of the federal government behind a campaign of racist persecution against millions of innocent people. That is what Trump has promised, and that is what his supporters want. It could happen next year, in five years, in nine years—or never. But it is time to seriously reckon with the possibility.

Stop pretending it can’t happen in America. The country was founded on an act of genocide. Modern governments, too, have proven that they can manage forced population transfers. Whenever you hear a genteel discussion on the merits of Trump’s “immigration policy,” you should picture a concentration camp, because that is the real, unmentionable subject of the conversation. Picture your friends and neighbors being taunted, hunted, captured, thrown in cages and disappeared following “minimal, minimal, minimal torture.”

We may need to build a new underground railroad to save the targets of such persecution from immediate harm. This would be a formidable undertaking, requiring the commitment of personal resources, the extension of trust toward strangers and acts of personal courage.

It may seem daunting, but it’s actually easy to get started, and I’ll tell you how: talk about it with your friends. Ask them that question: what do you plan to do if Trump somehow made good on his campaign promises?

I’ll go a little farther. If you are white, do you have any personal contacts with the people in your community who would most likely be targeted? Do they know that yours is a friendly face? Do they have your phone number? Do you have a spare room? Do you know anyone who does? If you are brown, black or Muslim, you may have been thinking along these lines for a while, perhaps since you got The Talk. It’s not a bad idea to keep a go-bag packed—they aren’t just for redneck survivalists anymore!

Lest this seem an alarmist follow-up to the Super Tuesday results, recall the frank and disturbing comments made by a former director of both the CIA and the NSA, Michael Hayden, on Bill Maher’s show. Don’t think for a minute that the bureaucrats in charge of the national security apparatus aren’t thinking and talking about how they would respond to an order to deport millions of people—and don’t presume that guys like Hayden would win out over the unknown numbers of Trump supporters and deceptively named “Oath Keepers” in uniform. I mean, just look at Col. Sanders here, from that ugly scene in Louisville:


Speaking of people in uniform, do you have any friends or relatives on your local police force, or in the National Guard? Have you had a conversation with them about what constitutes an unlawful order? You might open it up by asking, “Hey, what do the people you work with think about all of this?” so as not to put them in a defensive posture.

Don’t resign yourself to defeat, but do have a Plan B and a Plan C. The discussions necessary to the formation of those plans will form the networks that will enable survival in the worst case or, should we see a better result, a movement toward positive change.

Black Sheep Down

Use It and Abuse It

Extreme Ownership tails the Hollywood success of American Sniper, which was based on the memoir of late Navy SEAL and serial fabulist Chris Kyle, who served with Willink and Babin in the 2006 Battle of Ramadi. The authors gamely puff up their “liberation” of that pivotal Iraqi city as an unalloyed success story and a vindication of the Iraq war…

When the book came out in October 2015, ISIS had controlled Ramadi for five months.

The Baffler

Sy Hersh Knows More Than Vox About Osama Bin Laden

There are many other things I’m supposed to be working on, but I was so impressed by Seymour Hersh’s story on the Osama Bin Laden killing in the London Review of Books, and so pissed off by the predictably spineless reaction to that story by some Beltway media, that I spent the morning writing an old-fashioned fisking. My target: Vox dot com’s hot take on the Hersh piece.
Let us begin with the headline:

The many problems with Seymour Hersh’s Osama bin Laden conspiracy theory

Updated by Max Fisher on May 11, 2015, 8:45 a.m.

Straight away, the title frames Hersh’s 10,000-word, years-in-the-making report as a nutbar conspiracy theory—the product of an unserious, unstable mind. In reality Hersh remains, even in his golden years, the premier American investigative reporter, and this latest story affirms that status by revealing previously unknown information of tremendous public importance about America’s pursuit of Bin Laden, who was public enemy No. 1 for more than a decade.

Hersh has a decades-long track record of demonstrating subterfuge at the highest levels of American power as well as uncovering carefully guarded evidence of war crimes and atrocities including civilian massacres and systematic torture. Hersh is old-school. Although some of his stories must certainly begin with tips and leaks from various factions of officialdom, his method entails patient work identifying the disparate pieces of much larger puzzles. For an extended illustration, listen to this lecture in which he recounts the process that led him to uncover the My Lai massacre. In short, Hersh spends his days ferreting out information that powerful people don’t want you to know about because you might recognize it as shocking, immoral or illegal.

By contrast, the author of this pissant blog post, Max Fisher, is an “explainer” journalist who spends his time restating the conventional wisdom of the establishment in an aggressively casual and obnoxiously overconfident tone, because supposedly that is what appeals to the valuable Millennial demographic. (I too could be described as aggressively casual, obnoxiously overconfident and Millennial, but I despise conventional wisdom.) Fisher found success writing intelligence-insulting listicles and divining AP English-level essays from Microsoft Excel charts. Currently he occupies the plum spot of chief Wikipedia rewriter at Vox, founded by his former Washington Post colleague and fellow milquetoast, Ezra Klein.

Some might see these guys as fresh and edgy in their approach to the news, but in reality they are the Thomas Friedmans of my generation: Entitled, arrogant and, above all, clueless.

On Sunday, the legendary investigative journalist Seymour Hersh finally released a story that he has been rumored to have been working on for years: the truth about the killing of Osama bin Laden. According to Hersh’s 10,000-word story in the London Review of Books, the official history of bin Laden’s death — in which the US tracked him to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan; killed him in a secret raid that infuriated Pakistan; and then buried him at sea — is a lie.

Hersh’s story is amazing to read, alleging a vast American-Pakistani conspiracy to stage the raid and even to fake high-level diplomatic incidents as a sort of cover.

Fisher begins with an accurate, if underwhelming, summary of the Hersh blockbuster. Then we get to the “but.”

But his allegations are largely supported only by two sources, neither of whom has direct knowledge of what happened, both of whom are retired, and one of whom is anonymous. The story is riven with internal contradictions and inconsistencies.

Okay, so Fisher has some complaints about Hersh’s sourcing. That’s a fair line of argument but, as I’ll show, Fisher fails to demonstrate much beyond the fact that he doesn’t approve of Hersh’s use of anonymous sources. Believe them or not, anonymous is what they are. Given the current climate in the US, it’s hard to imagine worthwhile investigative reporting on intelligence and foreign policy that doesn’t make some use of such sources.

Anyway, it is irrelevant that Hersh’s key sources are retired. Fisher’s implication is that they are out of the loop. Not so, not necessarily. Hersh specifically addresses the intelligence community’s routine employment of “retired” agents in his piece.

Fisher proceeds to overstate his own case by calling Hersh’s story “riven with” problems. He is forced to juice up the phrasing here because he possesses no new facts to counter Hersh’s own reporting. Bear in mind, too, that for a story to contain “internal contradiction” and “inconsistencies” does not mean that it is wrong. Even if Fisher is right in his assessment, he hasn’t struck a mortal blow to the Hersh story—and Fisher is not right. He is lost deep in the weeds.

Like most other journalists, including myself, Fisher cannot say whether Hersh’s story is true or false, because we don’t know—we haven’t done the reporting. However, Fisher must come up with something to say about Hersh’s big scoop, and, given his previously discussed predilections, the best he can come up with is, “conspiracy theory”—nothing to see here, folks!

The story simply does not hold up to scrutiny — and, sadly, is in line with Hersh’s recent turn away from the investigative reporting that made him famous into unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.

It is unclear what Fisher means by “scrutiny.” It is clear, however, that Fisher doesn’t know the first thing about investigative reporting. His post is one of the first lengthy responses to the Hersh story. Why the rush to knock it down? Why not wait for other reporters to confirm or disconfirm Hersh’s report? Because that’s not what Vox is all about. It’s about “explaining” things. And quickly. So when Fisher writes that Hersh’s story does not hold up to scrutiny, he is merely saying that the story does not hold up to Fisher’s own reading of it. Behold the grotesque arrogance of explainer journalism.

A decade ago, Hersh was one of the most respected investigative journalists on the planet, having broken major stories from the 1969 My Lai massacre to the 2004 Abu Ghraib scandal. But more recently, his reports have become less and less credible. He’s claimed that much of the US special forces is controlled by secret members of Opus Dei, that the US military flew Iranian terrorists to Nevada for training, and that the 2014 chemical weapons attack in Syria was a “false flag” staged by the government of Turkey. Those reports have had little proof and, rather than being borne out by subsequent investigations, have been either unsubstantiated or outright debunked. A close reading of Hersh’s bin Laden story suggests it is likely to suffer the same fate.

Here we have an insincere nod to past accomplishments, to soften the blows to come. Hersh’s stories, Fisher says, “have become less and less credible.” He proceeds to list a few recent stories that Fisher’s particular clique—a sad bunch of Beltway captives who imagine themselves to be dashing Lawrences of Arabia, but with iPhones—have taken objection to.

He’s claimed that much of the US special forces is controlled by secret members of Opus Dei.

In 2011, Hersh was mocked for a public statement that senior military special operations commanders belonged to a couple of secret religious orders and viewed themselves as modern-day Crusaders. At that time, other journalists had reported on the spread of Christian fanaticism in the military ranks—and if I recall correctly, there had been a cover story in Harper’s magazine about those linkages—so I didn’t think much of Hersh’s comments. However, Blake Hounshell, then an editor at Foreign Policy, started mocking Hersh as a loon and pretty soon there was a total merciless dogpile on Hersh by the Lawrences of Explainittoya. A spokesman for one of the generals Hersh named denied being a member of Opus Dei. Of course a denial is not the end of any story. I’ll grant that Hersh didn’t do himself any favors by speaking off the cuff, but I don’t recall anyone proving him wrong, either. The mockery did its job and the story went away. Then as now, the lazy substitution of dismissive “takes” for determined follow-up reporting, or at least curiosity and an open mind, overshadowed Hersh’s point. “My point,” Hersh said after that episode, “is that some leaders of the Special Forces have an affinity for that notion, the notion that they’re in a crusade.”

That much certainly is true, and should be obvious to anyone who’s been paying attention. But the idea that Hersh is an easily dismissable nutter got some traction, and when Fisher saw that Hersh came out with a big story about the killing of Osama Bin Laden, his early reaction was a cheap Twitter joke alluding to the Opus Dei affair.

Fisher brings up a few other recent Hersh stories, which he claims were “either unsubstantiated or outright debunked.”

Which is it? Surely Fisher does not mean that Hersh’s reports are “unsubstantiated.” He must mean “unconfirmed by other reporters.” Later, deep in his post, Fisher himself acknowledges that, “To be clear, [another recent Hersh] story was never specifically discredited, but neither has it ever been confirmed.”

That’s a long way from “outright debunked.” Fisher is just, as the kids say, “throwing shade.”

For evidence of past Hersh debunkings, Fisher leans on the blogger Eliot Higgins. I was inclined to favor Higgins blog, Brown Moses, until I heard Higgins speak at a journalism event, and he claimed that he could reconstruct the scene from a war zone with “100 percent” accuracy based chiefly on the content of YouTube videos uploaded by various partisans. Talk about overconfidence. If you want to go down the rabbit hole with this, go read the links Fisher supplies. Here’s one. They aren’t refutations of Hersh’s other recent work, they’re more like objecting op-eds, filled with guesswork and hypotheticals. I won’t spend too much time with them here, because they aren’t actually germane to the Bin Laden story.

Bottom line, Fisher is mistaking his own incredulity, and the incredulity of his clique, as a lack of competence or integrity on Hersh’s part. Every instinct I have, and every experience I’ve had as a journalist, tells me Hersh is the one with integrity and chops, and his nags are the craven incompetents.

Back to the Bin Laden story:

What is the proof?

The evidence for all this is Hersh’s conversations with two people: Asad Durrani, who ran Pakistan’s military intelligence service from 1990 to 1992, and “a retired senior intelligence official who was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad.” Read that line again: knowledgeable about the initial intelligence. Not exactly a key player in this drama, and anonymous at that.

Hersh produces no supporting documents or proof, nor is the authority of either source established. We are given no reason to believe that either Durrani or the “knowledgeable official” would have even second- or thirdhand knowledge of what occurred, yet their word is treated as gospel. His other two sources are anonymous “consultants” who are vaguely described as insiders.

Fisher proceeds to demonstrate that his own “close reading” of the Hersh story was not that careful at all. I can’t say that it was a willful misreading of Hersh’s piece, but I imagine Fisher greedily skimming it looking for cheap shots to fill out his inevitable Vox post.

Fisher says Hersh offers “no reason to believe” his sources “have even second- or thirdhand knowledge of what occurred.” Hersh in fact says his key US source “was privy to many aspects of the Seals’ training for the raid, and to the various after-action reports.” So Hersh is making a direct claim about his sources’ level of knowledge. Fisher doesn’t go so far as to accuse Hersh of lying about this, because Fisher could not support such an allegation. But Fisher misleads his own readers in regards to the contents of the Hersh article when he writes that Hersh supplied “no reason to believe” his sources.

Here we come to the question of reputation and credibility. Hersh hasn’t made a career out of fabulism or spinning malicious lies. He would have been sued to oblivion long ago, if that were the case. Indeed, if Hersh is lying about his source—and why would he? Out of hatred for Obama?—then surely such damaging falsehoods as contained in the LRB article would meet the high standard necessary for US government officials to secure a libel judgment against him. That is to say, if Hersh made up the story, any number of people implicated in the alleged cover-up could sue him for libel and win. They would have every reason to, as Hersh is accusing them of galling misconduct.

Don’t hold your breath.

Also on the subject of sourcing, it occurs to me that explainer journalists like Fisher simply can’t fathom that there’s another way of working that doesn’t involve hastily scouring official handouts, negotiating PR embargoes and trafficking in Twitter gossip. Hersh makes clear that he pieced the story together from many sources over a period of years. Such meticulous craft is completely alien to the Vox Media world of quick-hit viral whoring.

Fisher whines about the lack of documents can be highly useful, but having a document is not the same as having proof. Documents can be forged. Documents can be destroyed—and, as Hersh notes in his story, many were. Does Fisher think the White House is going to put out a press release saying, “upon reflection, we lied about everything”? Again, clueless.

Hersh clearly states he did not rely on a single source. He cites multiple sources in the US and Pakistan. Granted, they are anonymous. Could it be otherwise? For the Pakistani officials, speaking openly of such things would be akin to suicide. The American officials could face prosecution for revealing classified information. Consider Petraeus, who got railroaded with Espionage Act charges for far less. Consider the fate of many lowly whistleblowers.

Finally, I detect a reluctance to give credence to Hersh’s sources in Pakistan, simply perhaps because they are Pakistani. Which doesn’t mean racism is at play here, merely a navel-gazy imperial attitude that blithely discounts the voices and experiences of anyone outside the seat of power.

Moving on:

Beyond that, Hersh’s proof is that he finds the official story of the Osama bin Laden raid to be unconvincing. And he points out that in the first days after the raid, the administration released details that cast bin Laden in a negative light — saying he tried to use one of his wives as a shield, for example — that it later walked back. But raising questions about the official story is not the same as proving a spectacular international conspiracy.

Hersh did not present his own skepticism as proof. Rather, he detailed the discrepancies of the official Bin Laden raid story in his own story to demonstrate that there was a clear basis to doubt the official account. Then, he supplied an alternative narrative based on sources he obtained who had knowledge of the situation. That’s investigative journalism. It begins with doubt. Fisher seems to reserve all of his doubt for Hersh. Does he have any left for the White House? The Pentagon? The CIA? It’s strange how explainer journalists like Fisher never betray a penchant for skepticism until some heretic like Hersh challenges what they think they know about the world.

If that seems like worryingly little evidence for a story that accuses hundreds of people across three governments of staging a massive international hoax that has gone on for years, then you are not alone.

On Sunday night, national security journalists and analysts on Twitter picked through the story, expressing dismay at its tissue-thin sourcing, its leaps of logic, and its internal contradictions.

Now we’re getting to the meat of the post. Hersh must be wrong because Fisher’s Twitter friends think so. Could it be they were embarrassed about being scooped? Could they be covering for their own complicity in the spread of official misinformation? Could it be that they value their relationships with powerful people more than they value their commitment to pursue the truth, and that the price of preserving those relationships is to stick close to the official line?

I think it could. Now you know what I think.

Perhaps the most concerning problem with Hersh’s story is not the sourcing but rather the internal contradictions in the narrative he constructs.

Most blatant, Hersh’s entire narrative turns on a secret deal, in which the US promised Pakistan increased military aid and a “freer hand in Afghanistan.” In fact, the exact opposite of this occurred, with US military aid dropping and US-Pakistan cooperation in Afghanistan plummeting as both sides feuded bitterly for years after the raid.

Here Fisher seems to be confusing “US military aid,” which comes in many forms and flavors, with the specific sort of “aid” Hersh discussed in his story. According to Hersh’s source, the Pakistani intelligence officials who handed bin Laden to the US were most concerned with continued US funding for their own “personal security, such as bullet-proof limousines and security guards and housing for the ISI leadership,’ the retired official said. He added that there were also under-the-table personal ‘incentives’ that were financed by off-the-books Pentagon contingency funds.”

Sounds fairly compelling, no? A great power backs the corrupt elite of a client state against their own people. It’s certainly happened before. But Fisher looked at some charts based on official published figures and went, “nah, can’t be.” He’s making an apples-to-oranges comparison.

Hersh explains this seemingly fatal contradiction by suggesting the deal fell apart due to miscommunication between the Americans and Pakistanis. But it’s strange to argue that the dozens of officials on both sides would be competent enough to secretly plan and execute a massive international ruse, and then to uphold their conspiracy for years after the fact, but would not be competent enough to get on the same page about aid delivery.

Again, this is a misrepresentation of what’s actually in Hersh’s story. Hersh never claimed that actors in his tale were especially competent. Indeed, he made the opposite claim in regards to the execution of the ruse, especially where the White House got directly involved.

Here’s Hersh on that:

The backroom argument inside the White House began as soon as it was clear that the mission had succeeded. Bin Laden’s body was presumed to be on its way to Afghanistan. Should Obama stand by the agreement with [Pakistani intelligence officials] and pretend a week or so later that bin Laden had been killed in a drone attack in the mountains, or should he go public immediately? The downed helicopter made it easy for Obama’s political advisers to urge the latter plan. The explosion and fireball would be impossible to hide, and word of what had happened was bound to leak. Obama had to ‘get out in front of the story’ before someone in the Pentagon did: waiting would diminish the political impact.

Fisher’s contention that Hersh’s narrative doesn’t add up because the US and Pakistan weren’t “on the same page about aid delivery” is such a weird non-sequitur, I’m not exactly sure what to make of it. It doesn’t prove anything, except maybe that Fisher could benefit from a solid, skeptical editor to mend his own gaps in logic. The horror of it all is that Fisher is a high-ranking editor, which explains why you won’t see a story as important as what ran in the LRB anywhere on Vox.

And there are more contradictions. Why, for example, would the Pakistanis insist on a fake raid that would humiliate their country and the very military and intelligence leaders who supposedly instigated it?

Once again, Fisher misstates what Hersh actually wrote. Hersh says clearly and repeatedly that Pakistan wanted the cover story to involve a drone strike, rather than an assassin squad, to obscure their own involvement.


The initial plan said that news of the raid shouldn’t be announced straightaway. All units in the Joint Special Operations Command operate under stringent secrecy and the JSOC leadership believed, as did Kayani and Pasha, that the killing of bin Laden would not be made public for as long as seven days, maybe longer. Then a carefully constructed cover story would be issued: Obama would announce that DNA analysis confirmed that bin Laden had been killed in a drone raid in the Hindu Kush, on Afghanistan’s side of the border. The Americans who planned the mission assured Kayani and Pasha that their co-operation would never be made public. It was understood by all that if the Pakistani role became known, there would be violent protests – bin Laden was considered a hero by many Pakistanis – and Pasha and Kayani and their families would be in danger, and the Pakistani army publicly disgraced.

Hersh repeated this point later, writing that in “the initial plan it was to be announced a week or so after the fact that bin Laden was killed in a drone strike somewhere in the mountains on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border and that his remains had been identified by DNA testing.”

The takeaway is that one of Fisher’s central knocks on the Hersh story—his clearest example of its problematic “contradictions”—is actually based on an apparent misreading of it.

Yet Fisher stumbles onward.

A simpler question: why would Pakistan bother with the ostentatious fake raid at all, when anyone can imagine a dozen simpler, lower-risk, lower-cost ways to do this?

Why not just kill bin Laden, drive his body across the border into Afghanistan, and drop him off with the Americans? Or why not put him in a hut somewhere in Waziristan, blow it up with an F-16, pretend it was a US drone strike, and tell the Americans to go collect the body?

Come on. Now he’s just spitballing.

(Indeed, when I first heard about Hersh’s bin Laden story a few years ago from a New Yorker editor — the magazine, the editor said, had rejected it repeatedly, to the point of creating bad blood between Hersh and editor-in-chief David Remnick — this was the version Hersh was said to favor.)

This parenthetical note is, as far as I’m concerned, the heart of Fisher’s entire post. It’s a little bit of trade gossip, and what it signals to any journalists reading along is that Hersh is on the outs with Remnick over this whole Bin Laden thing. Ergo, if you want to be on good terms with Remnick and the New Yorker—who doesn’t?—then it’s probably unwise to show too much sympathy to Hersh in this matter.

Fisher’s little aside on the New Yorker also insinuates that if Remnick refused to publish Hersh’s story, it did so because it believed the story to be untrue. There were many other reasons the New Yorker might have refused the story, some of which might give Hersh cause to be righteously angry.

Hersh himself hinted at this tension a couple of years ago when he went on a rant about all of the “chicken-shit editors” in America who insist on covering their asses with official documentation for every mildly contentious story. Man, I sympathized.

Back to Fisher’s burble of what-ifs:

If Pakistan’s goal is increased US aid, why do something that will virtually force the US to cut aid, as it indeed did? For that matter, why retaliate against the US for the raid that you asked them to conduct? Pakistan’s own actions against the US, after all, ensured that it had less influence in Afghanistan.

Here Fisher’s argument descends into a rather revealing display of confusion about the realities of face-saving public diplomacy versus the nitty-gritty of foreign policymaking that goes on behind closed doors. This confusion applies to his grasp of the mechanics of international politics, as well. I mean, it’s just bizarre that Fisher seems to think that by acting against the US, Pakistan somehow loses influence. I suppose it might seem that way to someone who’s idea of influence is based upon maintaining cozy relationships with the powers that be in Washington, DC.

Finally, once again, Fisher conflates “aid” to Pakistan with what Hersh described more accurately as personal security. There really is a difference.

By the same token, why would the US cut a secret deal with Pakistan to allow that country a “freer hand” in Afghanistan — essentially surrendering a yearslong effort to reduce Pakistani influence there — rather than just taking out bin Laden without Pakistan’s permission?

At this point, I’m starting to doubt Fisher’s reading comprehension. All of this is addressed in the original Hersh article. I also suspect he watches too many TV dramas. How does Fisher imagine the US would have “just tak[en] out bin Laden without Pakistan’s permission?” Just think, without Pakistani cooperation, the government there might have fired on the American attack squad on its way to the bin Laden safehouse. What if Americans were killed? What if Americans killed Pakistani soldiers on their way to “just take out Bin Laden”? Any number of the imaginable scenarios Fisher proposes—conveniently, without going into the details—would require the creation of a cover story by American officials. It’s almost like Fisher is advocating for the very sort of official deception that he claims doesn’t actually happen. Just odd. Lewis Carroll odd.

There are smaller but still troubling inconsistencies. Why, for example, would the US need to construct a massive double of the Abbottabad compound for special forces to train in, if the real compound were going to be totally unguarded and there would be no firefight?

No firefight requires no training? Fisher proves there is such a thing as a stupid question, after all. Again—again!—Fisher complains about missing information that is actually contained in the Hersh article. Here is Hersh quoting his source:

“The agreement was struck by the end of January 2011, and Joint Special Operations Command prepared a list of questions to be answered by the Pakistanis: ‘How can we be assured of no outside intervention? What are the defences inside the compound and its exact dimensions? Where are bin Laden’s rooms and exactly how big are they? How many steps in the stairway? Where are the doors to his rooms, and are they reinforced with steel? How thick?’ The Pakistanis agreed to permit a four-man American cell – a Navy Seal, a CIA case officer and two communications specialists – to set up a liaison office at Tarbela Ghazi for the coming assault. By then, the military had constructed a mock-up of the compound in Abbottabad at a secret former nuclear test site in Nevada, and an elite Seal team had begun rehearsing for the attack.

Now, some semantics. Note Hersh’s construction, after the bit about the Pakistanis agreeing to the American assault: “By then, the military had constructed a mock-up of the compound in Abbottabad.”

“By then” could suggest that that the mock-up was prepared before the agreement with Pakistan was finalized. Also note the first question JSOC posed to the Pakistanis: “How can we be assured of no outside intervention?” The military trains for many possibilities in case something goes wrong. It’s a stretch to call this an “inconsistency” and it in no way undermines Hersh’s narrative.

See also, for example, the intelligence material that the US brought back from bin Laden’s compound and then displayed to the world. Hersh says that, in fact, bin Laden had spent the previous five years a hostage of Pakistani intelligence rather than an active member of al-Qaeda. The intelligence “treasure trove” was thus a fabrication, cooked up by the CIA after the raid to back up the American-Pakistani conspiracy.

This is a strange thing to argue, as Carnegie Endowment Syria research Aron Lund points out, because al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri subsequently said the intelligence materials were real, and had quoted from them himself. So either Hersh is wrong or, Lund writes, “Zawahiri is helping Obama forge evidence to boost US-Pakistan relations, which seems like an unusual hobby for an [al-Qaeda] leader.”

In other words, for Hersh to be correct that the intelligence material was faked, and thus that bin Laden was a secret prisoner of Pakistani intelligence, and thus that the raid to kill him was a staged American-Pakistani ruse, then al-Qaeda would have had to be in on it — even though al-Qaeda was also the supposed victim of Pakistan’s plot.

Now who’s spinning conspiracy theories? Fisher and his Twitter pal assume far too much. Hersh does not claim that the intelligence “trove” supposedly found in Bin Laden’s compound was fabricated—as in, forged or concocted from whole cloth. Indeed, Hersh makes no claims on the supposed Al Qaeda document “trove” except to say that his source doubted their authenticity as having originated in the Bin Laden compound.

Here is one relevant passage:

The retired official disputed the authenticity of the West Point materials: ‘There is no linkage between these documents and the counterterrorism centre at the agency. No intelligence community analysis. When was the last time the CIA: 1) announced it had a significant intelligence find; 2) revealed the source; 3) described the method for processing the materials; 4) revealed the time-line for production; 5) described by whom and where the analysis was taking place, and 6) published the sensitive results before the information had been acted on? No agency professional would support this fairy tale.’

In other words, the documents might be part real and part fabrication, or totally genuine but placed at the scene later for the purposes of the cover story. Once more, Fisher’s litany of hypotheticals do not constitute a debunking, no matter how often he says that they do.

As for Hersh’s story of what really happened to bin Laden’s body — “torn to pieces with rifle fire” and thrown bit by bit out the door of the escaping helicopter, until there was not enough left to bury — it is difficult to know where to begin. It is outlandish to imagine small arms fire reducing a 6-foot-4 man “to pieces,” not to mention the sheer quantity of time and bullets this would take. Are we really to believe that special forces would spend who knows how long gleefully carving up bin Laden like horror movie villains, and then later reaching into the body bag to chuck pieces of him out of a helicopter, for no reason at all? On the most sensitive and important operation of their careers?

This passage is also unwittingly revealing. Fisher simply doesn’t want to believe bad things about Americans. Was he asleep for the Iraq war? Has he really reflected upon what happened not only in My Lai, but many other villages in Vietnam?

Hersh has confronted this manner of naivety bordering on blind jingoism for his entire career. In that lecture I linked to earlier, Hersh says he knew what he would be up against when he broke the My Lai story. He knew that “Americans did not want to hear that we fought our wars like the Nazis and the nips did.”

Yes, he used the slur “nips” to refer to the Japanese. I’m repeating it here to demonstrate that I know full well Hersh is not without flaws. As you might say of your casually bigoted grandparent, he belongs to another generation. He need not be forgiven such slurs, but when it comes to his investigative work, he has earned a higher caliber of adversary than the likes of Fisher.

Or this buffoon on CNN. Watch Hersh scold him in the clip. (I’m not impressed that CNN’s Peter Bergen got a quote from one of Hersh’s named sources in Pakistan walking back his claims in the LRB article. Hersh seemed unsurprised. “I’m not on a limb on this,” he responds. The source, Durrani, he says, “was under pressure.” Also under pressure is Bergen, whom Hersh has made to look a fool.)

Hersh also deserves better than the response from the White House, which declined comment to Hersh before publication, and now disingenuously claims that “there are too many inaccuracies and baseless assertions in this piece to fact check each one.”

Fisher concludes his post with a recap of other recent stories his blogger clique didn’t like. He calls it “Seymour Hersh’s slide off the rails.” It’s more rehash.

As time goes on, Hersh’s stories seem to become more spectacular, more thinly sourced, and more difficult to square with reality as we know it. Perhaps one day they will all be vindicated: the Opus Dei special forces cabal, the terrorist training in Nevada, the American plan to nuke Iran, the Turkish false flag in Syria, even the American-Pakistani bin Laden ruse.

Maybe there really is a vast shadow world of complex and diabolical conspiracies, executed brilliantly by international networks of government masterminds. And maybe Hersh and his handful of anonymous former senior officials really are alone in glimpsing this world and its terrifying secrets. Or maybe there’s a simpler explanation.

And we are back to the ad hominem of the headline. It’s ad hominem because, while Hersh does detail a conspiracy in his report, he is not a conspiracy theorist. He does not claim the Bin Laden killing was “executed brilliantly.” In fact, what Hersh describes is a complete cock-up: A faux commando “raid” that, while totally unopposed, still resulted in the loss of a pricey high-tech stealth helicopter, followed by the slapdash concotion of a public cover story and shameful gloating by amoral politicians who rushed to claim credit against the wishes of their military and intelligence advisers as well as their foreign allies.

It’s not a conspiracy theory. It’s a bread-and-butter journalistic expose.

That is, until someone proves otherwise.

Friday News Dump

I had a pretty good summer.

I got to see some old friends in Portland and Seattle. I visited a few countries I’d never been to before (I’ll post pictures eventually). I wrote some fun pieces for The Baffler (most recently this digression about the Bud Light conquest of Colorado).

Autumn’s looking even better.

This week I picked up a publisher for what will be my first book-length work of journalism.

The tentative title is How To Make $30 Billion The Silicon Valley Way. The publisher is Metropolitan Books. The book won’t be finished for many months. And that’s about all I can say at this stage, except, maybe I’ll see you in San Francisco next year.

When Journopreneurs Attack

I took aim at the “entrepreneurial journalism” trend, as well as its leading thinkfluencer and advocate, Jeff Jarvis, in a new essay for The Baffler. The piece has provoked quite a response (although nothing yet from Jarvis, who’s been busy fumbling around with a new printer).

Digital First Media CEO and CUNY journalism school advisory board member John Paton did not care for my characterization. I wrote that Paton “may have consumed more of the tech-cult Kool-Aid than any preceding old-media executive.” Or perhaps what perturbed him was my statement that innovation “is the new code word for ‘looming layoff massacre designed to accelerate the upward transfer of wealth.”

In any case, Paton implied on Twitter that I have “achieved nothing” in life, unlike real doers such as himself. After a little prodding from skeptical followers, he went on to boast about his board memberships (all prominently featured in his Twitter profile) and the fact that he personally funds two student scholarships.

Touché, John: You definitely make more money than I do.

Continue reading “When Journopreneurs Attack”

Give Dictatorship A Chance?


My latest piece for The Baffler tackles what one reader described, on Twitter, as the “creeping fascism in tech”. It’s titled, Mouthbreathing Machiavellis Dream Of A Silicon Reich and, yes, I wrote that title. The article concerns a group of people who advocate, more or less openly, for the abolishment of democracy and the institution of absolute dictatorship, ideally led by some billionaire Silicon Valley CEO. It happens that a number of Silicon Valley CEOs are totally on board.

The early reactions have been gratifying, even the hostile comments from the pro-dictatorship camp. You may know me by my enemies, and all that.

Here is my favorite:

Please note that the author of all these knee-jerk reactions to supposed ‘racism’ is a well-dressed middle-upper class male in Corey Pein. Do we really need successful white male journalists to fight racism and hierarchy in print and label everyone who does not as ‘Moldbug’ or a potential member of Stormfront?

“Well-dressed…successful…” Now that’s my kind of detractor!
Continue reading “Give Dictatorship A Chance?”