Standing up for Sy Hersh

From the Columbia Journalism Review:

First of all, denigrating a legendary reporter who has broken more major stories than almost anyone alive as a “conspiracy theorist” because his story contained a few details a little too implausible for some people’s taste is beyond insulting. A conspiracy theory in the traditional sense would be something like The US government is covering up the fact that bin Laden is still alive, not accusing the the administration of telling a story about a highly classified matter that differs from the truth—something it does all the time.

But beyond that, it is extraordinarily naive to think the government is incapable of keeping a large secret involving dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people. I am reminded of this passage from the memoirs of Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who knows a thing or two about how government secrecy works. Not only is the idea that you can’t keep secrets in Washington “flatly false,” Ellsberg writes, but by repeating it you’re doing the government’s work for them.

[Such sayings] are in fact cover stories, ways of flattering and misleading journalists and their readers, part of the process of keeping secrets well. Of course eventually many secrets do get out that wouldn’t in a fully totalitarian society. But the fact is that the overwhelming majority of secrets do not leak to the American public … The reality unknown to the public and to most members of Congress and the press is that secrets that would be of the greatest import to many of them can be kept from them reliably for decades by the executive branch, even though they are known to thousands of insiders. [emphasis added]As a simple example, which Hersh himself stated in this fascinating On The Media interview, how many people knew about the Bush administration’s manipulation of intelligence before the Iraq war? Hundreds? Over a thousand? How many knew about the NSA’s mass phone metadata program aimed at Americans until Edward Snowden revealed it? A thousand? Ten thousand? It stayed secret for more thanseven years until a single person—a contractor, not an NSA employee—exposed it.

If that doesn’t convince you, read about two other recent agreements about assassinations, one with Pakistan and another with Yemen. Both stayed secret for years without the public knowing. The old adage that “three people can only keep a secret if two are dead” is a fantasy, and journalists should stop mindlessly repeating it.

Go read it. Good work!