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Article’s accuracy can’t be resolved

Joel Mowbray Knight Ridder

Reading the hot new New Yorker expose – which has the rest of the media in a tizzy, and has many Democrats even hungrier for Rumsfeld’s resignation – can lead one to believe that the defense secretary had a hand in the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal.

Reading it more closely, however, leads one to realize that Rumsfeld knew, well, nothing.

Reading it with the author’s credibility problems in mind, and the Pentagon’s seemingly obligatory denials seem more credible.

Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has been a trailblazer on the Abu Ghraib scandal, breaking numerous stories. And his latest has tongues in Washington wagging.

In a piece titled “The Gray Zone,” Hersh lays the blame for the scandal at the feet of Rumsfeld, who, Hersh writes, expanded a secret operations unit into Iraq.

In the second sentence of the lead paragraph, Hersh leaves little doubt as to his personal conclusions: “Rumsfeld’s decision embittered the American intelligence community, damaged the effectiveness of elite combat units, and hurt America’s prospects in the war on terror.”

The article is quite damning, that is, until the reader gets to the obligatory disclaimer.

Buried 3,300 words inside a 4,500-word article is the following exoneration: “Rumsfeld may not be personally culpable.” And farther down near the end was another: “The former intelligence official made it clear that he was not alleging that Rumsfeld or Gen. (Richard) Myers knew that atrocities were committed.”

In Hersh’s line of work, opinion-based reporting, he is absolutely within bounds to attack Rumsfeld with as much tenacity as any rabidly partisan Democrat.

But the problem is the treatment then given by the rest of the media.

When mainstream news outlets reported on Hersh’s latest piece, there was nary a mention of Hersh’s left-leaning bias.

Even more troubling is that there are more than 25 quotes attributed to “former intelligence officials” and only five to current officials anywhere in government. And all, save for one public official, are anonymous.

Current officials deserve the cloak of anonymity, particularly when revealing information the public has a right to know and the act itself could cost the person’s job.

But what is the rationale for keeping nameless all the former officials? There are no jobs on the line, and former officials are routinely quoted on the record in most outlets. Does Hersh think this adds a layer of intrigue if names aren’t there to clutter up a good story?

Most important, how can others judge the credibility of nameless individuals who could be doing nothing more than settling old scores?

Readers, and the media at large, would also be wise to consider Hersh’s credibility in past stories. While much of what he has written has been well-researched and true, he has not been without substantial error.

In November 2001, Hersh penned a New Yorker piece that portrayed a Pentagon mission to strike Mullah Omar in Afghanistan as a “near-disaster,” completely contrary to the official line.

One fact from the story that numerous conservative publications, from National Review to Washington Times, were quick to expose was one that even a junior New Yorker fact checker should have caught: “The mission was initiated by 16 AC-130 gunships, which poured thousands of rounds into the surrounding area but deliberately left the mullah’s house unscathed.”

There almost certainly could not have been 16 AC-130 gunships in one battle; the military has a worldwide total fleet of 21.

In that November 2001 piece, the muckraker painted a bleak picture, leading the casual reader to believe that the United States might lose the campaign. The Taliban was toppled the next month.

And in April 2003, Hersh attacked the military capabilities of ground forces in Iraq (blaming, guess who, Rumsfeld). A week and a half later, Saddam’s regime was no more.

Maybe Hersh’s piece has quite a bit of truth in it. Even so, the worst that the article actually alleges (meaning with facts) is that Rumsfeld expanded a program that, unbeknown to him, spiraled out of control.

But with the nameless sourcing – apparently needlessly in most of the cases – determining the accuracy of Hersh’s reporting becomes an essentially impossible task.

Let’s hope that’s not why he used almost solely anonymous sources.

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