Media

The Assassins Debate

Why Seymour Hersh is still wrong about Cheney's hit squad

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A few months ago on this website, I cast doubt on a claim by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh that former Vice President Dick Cheney was running "an executive assassination ring" out of his West Wing office. Urging caution when repeating such claims—predictably, outside of the conspiracy-friendly websites like Raw Story and Digg, only MSNBC's Keith Olbermann reported this dubious "scoop"—I argued that because Hersh had previously admitted exaggerating stories in order to "convey a larger truth," a healthy dose of skepticism was warranted.

The story quickly disappeared, only to be reanimated this week by CIA director Leon Panetta's revelation that the Bush administration deliberately obscured an unnamed secret CIA program from Congress. A flood of stories from the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, and The New York Times followed, revealing that the CIA plan involved the targeted assassination of al-Qaeda targets. Many observers quickly connected the dots back to Hersh. The Huffington Post's Sam Stein wondered if the CIA, with whom the Bush administration famously battled, was "hiding Cheney's executive assassination ring." A handful of indignant emailers, claiming vindication on behalf of Hersh, demanded a retraction of my blog post.

Not a chance.

Let's briefly revisit Hersh's bombshell assassination claims. Last March, during a speech at the University of Minnesota, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist revealed that the CIA "was very deeply involved in domestic activities against people they thought to be enemies of the state (emphasis added)." He offered the following as evidence: "[T]here was a story in the New York Times that if you read it carefully mentioned something known as the Joint Special Operations Command—JSOC it's called…They do not report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days, they reported directly to the Cheney office…It's an executive assassination ring essentially."

But this is a non-sequitur. Hersh first references a secret, as-yet-unreported CIA program focusing on domestic targets after 9/11—which, as of this writing, hasn't been uncovered by those investigating the Panetta story, though it certainly doesn't strain credulity—and quickly shifts gears to a discussion of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a special unit of the United States Special Operations Command known for tracking and assassinating the Jordanian al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

As pointed out by sources familiar with the program, Panetta cancelled the CIA operation before it became "fully operational," though Hersh claims the Cheney "executive assassination ring" has been "going on and on and on" for years. Here is Newsweek's Mark Hosenball and Michael Isikoff, describing the lumbering and troubled evolution of the program:

Top CIA officials ultimately concluded the program posed an unacceptable risk of failure or exposure, according to another former official. As a result, the initial plans proposed by officers of the Directorate of Operations—now known as the National Clandestine Service—were put on hold by CIA Director George Tenet before he left office in 2004, former officials said. Tenet's two successors, Porter Goss and Gen. Michael Hayden, kept the plans in the deep freeze. But a former official said that until Panetta killed the program outright last month, the CIA never totally abandoned the plans for kill teams…

One journalist looking into the program—a person, it is worth noting, deeply critical of Bush and Cheney's terrorism policies—suggested a more logical explanation. Hersh, he informed me, might have stumbled across the program exposed this week but perhaps "didn't understand what his sources were telling him." When asked if these revelations vindicated the "executive assassination ring" claim, another journalist working on the story told me that those who connect the Panetta revelations to Hersh's breathless talk in Minneapolis "have no idea what they are talking about."

Simply put, Hersh's narrative of an operational, domestic cadre of assassins doesn't fit with what we know about the plan scuttled by Panetta.

Nevertheless, The Daily Beast's Benjamin Sarlin huffed that Hersh "was mocked in March when he referred to Dick Cheney's secret squad of CIA assassins" but now it appeared that Hersh was "prescient," the "man who knew Cheney's secret." Those who distrusted Hersh would soon be forced to eat crow: "Yesterday, the New York Times reported the hidden program in question was a death squad authorized by Dick Cheney without Congressional approval—almost exactly what he described."

But as The Daily Beast editors soon realized, the Times story said nothing about domestic operations, didn't mention JSOC, a group not even under CIA command, and told a very different story than Hersh. An editor's note was tacked on to the piece, telling readers that the article "was updated to reflect differences between Hersh's story and The New York Times'." The claim that Hersh's story was "exactly" what the Times reported vanished (though it can be viewed via Google's cache), replaced with a more equivocal sentence: "Now, there are key differences between Hersh's reporting and the Times' latest piece."

In an attempt to keep the "executive assassination ring" angle in play, Sarlin's updated story concluded gamely that "The Times and Hersh could conceivably be reporting two distinct squads." MSNBC's Keith Olbermann offered a similar conclusion, telling a guest that "Seymour Hersh's hint of the story in Minnesota in the spring was about stuff run out of the Pentagon and specifically not tied to the CIA," though there might be "two secret assassination squads."

The desire to eschew these contradictory facts in pursuit of a political point spread throughout the blogosphere. Soon after Cheney's former national security adviser John Hannah told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that it was "certainly true" that the there was a "well-vetted process, interagency process" targeting "those that have committed acts of war against the United States," Center for American Progress blogger Satyam Khanna wrote that "a former Cheney aide suggests that Hersh's account of [an] 'executive assassination ring' is 'certainly true.'" Well, no he didn't.

My concern here is not with the efficacy, legality, or existance of Dick Cheney's program to rub out members of al-Qaeda, but with those who warn us that journalism in the run up to the Iraq War failed the American people because its practitioners placed furthering a political agenda over the supremacy of truth. If the mainstream media in 2002 was hamstrung by sloppy and biased reporting, thereby necessitating a counterrevolution in blogging and online reporting, have the Enragés, the young bloggers who demanded higher standards and an upending of the old order, already become Robespierres? Is it now OK to engage in sloppy and lazy journalism, provided that the stakes are smaller and your target is widely considered to be a bastard?

In reporting the Panetta story, it was "old media" print journalists like Siobhan Gorman, Eli Lake, Joby Warrick, and Scott Shane that informed and illuminated, while the partisans of the new media took up the rear, pounding round pegs into square holes.

During the 2008 election, one writer praised the new breed of online journalists while cautioning that in rushing to scoop the mainstream media, Internet upstarts often risk missing "nuance and context," valuing quantity over quality. Web journalists, he continued, often settle "for a timely article rather than a complete one," though this is "an avoidable problem."

Indeed it is. And the author, Huffington Post political reporter Sam Stein, might want to start taking some of his own advice.

Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason magazine.

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  1. Because he is a stupid Leftist and they are stupid Leftists.

    These are the same ilk that defended Stalin.

    Sick, sick people.

  2. I just don’t understand what is so controversial about an assassination squad. Like we don’t assassinate AQ members with predator drone attacks right now?

  3. I don’t know much about this, but if I understood the article right Hersh made this claim in a speech, not an article, right? I’m not sure then that this is sloppy “reporting” necessarily…

  4. “These are the same ilk that defended Stalin.”

    JB, first, iirc Hersh has exposed a fair amoung of government chicanery in his career, and you’d think a libertarian would appreciate that.

    Second, just like not all on the right supported anti-communist thugs like Franco, Mussolini, Suharto, etc., not all folks on the left defendend Stalin.

  5. If it’s on the internet there’s at least a 70% chance it’s bullshit. The new media craze is what it is and the people that don’t wear a helmet and drool bib can filter out the stupid crap. HuffPo isn’t exactly a shining beacon of intellectual fury, insight, and logical analysis.

    The Cheney is evil Bush is the debil is all some people have. It’s like getting your kid to let go of their binky.

  6. Sometimes it is more helpful to point out where your adversary is correct in order to establish where he went wrong. After 1,200 words, Moynihan’s article gives me the impression that Hersh saw something bad but couldn’t get it into focus. Moynihan’s response is that if it isn’t in perfect focus, it doesn’t exist. I’m not defending Hersh, but the real question is what Moynihan’s purpose in this story is. What have we learned? It seems like the story had no purpose other than to kick Hersh in the balls, which is why Moynihan took on that “new media vs. old media” angle.

    Quality journalists look down on writers who kick people in the balls for no reason just like lawyers look down on ambulance chasers.

  7. Let’s call it ecru journalism.

  8. I,for one,expected the government to target these guys and I’m sure I’m not alone.

  9. “what Moynihan’s purpose in this story is.”

    What it always is, pandering to his intended audience, the right, while styling himself a neutral libertarian…

    And surely some old fashioned jealousy. Hersh has had some of biggest stories of the last few decades.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seymour_Hersh

  10. The purpose of the story is because Moynihan criticized Hersh in the past, and now that recent leaked stories have backed up Hersh’s claim Moynihan doesn’t want to admit it.

    So basically Moynihan has wasted space writing a post claiming that Hersh was dead wrong because he used hostile language to describe the program, while people inside the government use shiny, happy language to describe it. Since Hersh’s language doesn’t line up exactly to the language used by apologists, Hersh is “still wrong” to Moynihan.

    I think it’s worth pointing out in any event that we still have no idea what the program Panetta shut down was. We have a series of anonymous leaks claiming it was one thing or another. Unfortunately, the sources of those leaks are almost certainly people who have every incentive to continue to hide and to downplay the program. We have no real proof of what it was, or whether it had anything to do with assassination at all. Reveal the actual details of the actual program on the record, and then we can talk about it.

  11. Moynihan’s article gives me the impression that Hersh saw something bad but couldn’t get it into focus.

    If you are tasked at work to analyze something and can’t quite come to a conclusion on the subject do you tell your boss:
    a) say, “Something here is fishy, not sure what, but it doesn’t pass the smell test.”
    b) say, “Cheney had assassination hit squads reporting directly to him. I don’t have proof, but I know it.”

    This sort of half assed, from the hip attitude has been creeping into old media more and more. The internet is one thing, it’s like the wild west where you expect gunslinger dipshits. You don’t expect your major journalists to shoot first with absolutes then start the investigation. Question first yes, shoot first no. The Bush era seems to have created a few journalists (some once quite good at their jobs) that just whip it out and start firing rather than asking questions or actually investigating. The internet is partly to blame. Eight years of a completely dipshit administration didn’t help either. But regardless of the reasons, it looks bad on the old skool media.

  12. hmmm you are correct sir. The reality is, there is plenty of crazy shit Bush/Cheney actually DID do. Why folks decide it is worth losing credibility by making things up when they don’t need to, I’ll never know.

    Look at how Dan Rather’s hatred sent him out on a crap note. Also this stuff when it is easily exposed just gives ammo to defenders of Bushes known policies. It is just stupid.

  13. why…are the new media types now so ready to defend the sloppy reporting of Seymour Hersh?

    They defend and propagate anything that–true or not–reinforces their worldview. Perennial cable news underachiever MSNBC has openly aligned itself with the left and serves as its propaganda bureau. They report as fact any bit of gossip–proven or not–that serves their masters.

  14. “If you are tasked at work to analyze something and can’t quite come to a conclusion on the subject do you tell your boss:

    a) say, ‘Something here is fishy, not sure what, but it doesn’t pass the smell test.’
    b) say, ‘Cheney had assassination hit squads reporting directly to him. I don’t have proof, but I know it.'”

    Perhaps we’re talking past each other. If I’m the one who discovered the fishiness, and I think it was a hit squad, but it turns out to be something different, I would still get credit for discovering it. Not every story has a Deepthroat.

  15. The premise here seems slightly off. The standard critique is not that “journalism in the run up to the Iraq War failed the American people because its practitioners placed furtherance of a political agenda over the supremacy of truth”, it’s that it failed because IRAQ WAR BAD OMG!!! and journalists didn’t stop it.

    Vaguely related to this, “new media types” are “now so ready to defend … Seymour Hersh” because he is a fellow-traveler who hates Bush, while Moynihan and his ilk are weirdos who don’t even reliably pull the “D” lever. QED.

  16. Fluffy,

    Well, Panetta didn’t really shut it down; it was already shut down, because it never became active. As best as I can tell, this was almost a kin to an internal trial balloon where some resources were put to studying the idea. I would guess from what little that I have read that it was never actualized because they had a better way to kill people – via the drones.

  17. Anyway, as much as I loathe the Bush administration I just don’t see what the big deal here is.

  18. Targetting AQ leadership with Hellfire missiles fired from drones: A-OK.

    Targetting AQ leadership with bullets fired by spec ops/intelligence agents: teh horror!

    Not telling Congress about every single goddam thing you are thinking about but eventually decide not to do: to the guillotine, sirrah!

    Cheap shots on Cheney McSatan and his lapdog Bush: priceless.

  19. Maybe the new media is running with this story because it’s so believable. And what about this doesn’t seem possible? We are talking about Cheney, who has continued to aggressively defend the use of torture even as more and more details have come to light of how depraved these techniques actually were. Now if only Jason Bourne would come along to blow the lid off this whole mess.

  20. journalism in the run up to the Iraq War failed the American people because its practitioners placed furtherance of a political agenda over the supremacy of truth

    Well, since major journalists themselves admit that they refrained from subjecting the Bush administration’s statements to rigorous criticism because they wanted to be patriotic or “responsible”.

    In any event, journalism as it is practiced today effectively enables corrupt and deceptive policies [whether by the left or the right, it doesn’t really matter] because its practitioners subscribe to the wrong model of “objectivity”.

  21. Not telling Congress about every single goddam thing you are thinking about but eventually decide not to do: to the guillotine, sirrah!

    You have absolutely no evidence that this program was only in the “thinking” stage, and there is absolutely no evidence that it “started and stopped a couple times” [the other “minimizing” meme that has been pushed on this story].

    Produce an on-the-record definitive statement of the exact parameters of the program, and I’ll accept this. Until then, I don’t.

    And yes, frankly, if the CIA conceals any aspect of any program that money is spent either developing or executing, then although we shouldn’t send people to the guillotine they should certainly go to the federal pen.

    The entire arrangement of only notifying intelligence committee chairpeople or committee members of these activities is almost absurdly corrupt in the first place. What, if my congressperson isn’t on that committee, neither he nor I even is ALLOWED TO FUCKING KNOW about the program? Fuck that. If you’re not going to tell me personally about the program, you fucking-ay better at least tell my representative. Not somebody else’s representative. And to take this already corrupt and tyrannical process and make it worse by not even telling the small subset of congresspeople you deign to tell about shit on a semi-regular basis? Give me a break.

  22. Fluffy,

    I agree there is way too much secrecy regarding what the various intelligence services do; most of it having to do with CYA and not with national security. So the secrecy angle is something to be troubled about. As far as the proposed program is itself concerned, well, it just doesn’t bother me.

  23. As far as the proposed program is itself concerned, well, it just doesn’t bother me.

    Frankly, there are ways you could construct an assassination program that wouldn’t bother me either.

    But if you don’t tell either the public or the people’s representatives about the program, there’s no way for us to vouchsafe its merits.

    Here’s an example of what I mean:

    If Osama bin Laden is strolling around some part of Pakistan where the writ of the government has ceased to run, and we can sneak somebody on to a nearby hill to shoot him in the head, hey – fine.

    But if someone is hanging out in Paris, and we think he’s in Al Qaeda, but we don’t have enough evidence to convince the French to arrest and extradite him, then it’s not fine to send an agent in to assassinate the guy. Sorry.

    And if the program is kept hidden and has no legal framework, we don’t have any way to know if the government is acting in a way we would or would not consent to. Which makes its actions automatically illegitimate.

  24. Who killed Gary Webb?

  25. Perhaps we’re talking past each other. If I’m the one who discovered the fishiness, and I think it was a hit squad, but it turns out to be something different, I would still get credit for discovering it. Not every story has a Deepthroat.

    Your assuming, as did the original commenter, that he discovered anything. Hence the problem.

    The portion you are referencing?

    Hersh, he informed me, might have stumbled across the program exposed this week but perhaps “didn’t understand what his sources were telling him.” When asked if these revelations vindicated the “executive assassination ring” claim, another journalist working on the story told me that those who connect the Panetta revelations to Hersh’s breathless talk in Minneapolis “have no idea what they are talking about.”

    Until we get a band of Cheney assassins I’m going to have to call at the least hyperbole and at most 100% bullshit.

  26. “Until we get a band of Cheney assassins I’m going to have to call at the least hyperbole and at most 100% bullshit.”

    So Panetta didn’t shut down any program before it became operational because it was all 100% bullshit in the first place?

    I think “hyperbole” might be a good accusation to level.

  27. It just seems like people are caught between:

    1. Of course there was a program to hunt down and kill Al Qaeda operatives. The Bush Administration did everything they could to keep us safe, and

    2. There’s no proof that any program to hunt down and kill Al Qaeda operatives existed, and its all a fabrication of the leftie, pinko, commie, elite effete liberals who call themselves reporters.

    FWIW, I tend to think that #1 is correct. Just an opinion though.

  28. The program was shelved 5 years before Panetta, it just wasn’t closed. The program never went operational, it was an idea. You are doing a close second to what Hersch did. You are omitting relevant facts to the discussion to make it look like Hersch had a point. There were no assassin teams that we know of. The program never left the development stage according to reports. To turn around and say that the CIA program is justification for Hersh’s accusation that Cheney had assassin squads is bullshit. It’s a a bit more than hyperbole or a stretch and blatant omission of facts.

  29. Over simplifying the discussion is silly.

    Of course the intelligence agencies, no matter how misguided are waging a war on AQ and other things. Of course we are killing bad guys, we have thousands of guys with guns running around Asia, people are gonna get dead. Of course the left is going to blow any stupid ass link to Bush/Cheney doing something dubious out of proportion, they are still hooked on the last retarded administrations crack rock of stupidity. Just like the right goes ape shit over every BO statement. To assume that one is right and one is wrong is goofy. This isn’t a zero sum game.

  30. Second, just like not all on the right supported anti-communist thugs like Franco, Mussolini, Suharto, etc., not all folks on the left defendend Stalin.

    But a large number did and a large number still defend communism.

  31. “The program was shelved 5 years before Panetta, it just wasn’t closed.”

    So there was a program?

  32. This is OT, but it took the pact with Hitler for the Western left to start questioning the appropriateness of supporting Soviet Russia. Certainly there were some on the left that were horrified before then, when there was plenty of evidence from the well publicized show trials, etc. that things were going down the shitter there in the 1920s and 1930s, but it took the alliance with Hitler for things to start changing. Incidentally, it was also that alliance which prompted the ACLU to start booting communists from its board and membership.

  33. The program was shelved 5 years before Panetta, it just wasn’t closed. The program never went operational, it was an idea. You are doing a close second to what Hersch did. You are omitting relevant facts to the discussion to make it look like Hersch had a point. There were no assassin teams that we know of. The program never left the development stage according to reports.

    Here’s the problem: the only reason we have “reports” claiming that the program never went operational is because of anonymous leaks.

    So we have a series of events that goes like this:

    1. Panetta discloses to the Congress that the CIA failed to brief them on some operation, the nature of which is undisclosed.

    2. Lots of speculation appears in the press as to what that program might have been.

    3. Anonymous leaks appear claiming that it was an assassination program that never got past the planning stages and was only intermittently discussed.

    The problem is that since the program was secret, it is likely that the people who are the leakers in #3 are themselves at CIA, or were themselves in the chain of command at the White House or in Cheney’s office. And since those are the people who did the lying and concealing in the first place, they have every incentive to minimize the scope of what they did to try to make this story go away.

    That’s why until we get some clarity on what the program actually was, I will regard all of this “It wasn’t a big deal” or “We never went live with the program” whispering as self-serving obfuscation.

  34. Since the Left and Right are perfectly fine with pretending we are “at war” with Al Qaeda, making a mockery of language, common sense, and International Law, I don’t see how anyone can oppose training people to kill the leaders of the other side in a war. What is the big deal?

  35. The way I see it, Moynihan said that Hersh was talking out his ass. So far, there’s no evidence saying Moynihan was wrong, but plenty of bloggers are spouting that Hersh was dead on the money. Unfortunately for those turdnuggets, there’s not any evidence supporting Hersh’s crap either.

    Hersh probably was talking out of his ass anyways, but maybe not on purpose. Disinformation perhaps?

  36. The real problem here, IMO, is the use of “intelligence agencies” for covert operations. This dates back to WWII, BTW, but it has seriously corrupted the intelligence agencies themselves.

    Unfortunately, though, oversight of intelligence agencies now requires disclosure of these covert operations, a contradiction in terms.

    Worse, it requires disclosure to Congresscritters, who, having the manners and morals of rattlesnakes, can’t be trusted to keep their fucking mouths shut, even if the price of their soundbite on the evening news is American agents facedown in the mud.

  37. While I think this is a non-story, it is still a bit disingenuous to write “…JSOC, a group not even under CIA command.” Personnel from various members groups of JSOC are frequently detached to the CIA for paramilitary tasks.

  38. Anyone ever think this is just bs to provide Nancy Polosi cover for lying about the CIA breifings on waterboarding? Pretty convenient timing, eh?

    A proper analysis for an investigative journalist would be to look at past administrations for precedence. Find 10-20 declassified “programs/ideas” that reached a similar level of development(and fate) within the CIA decision-makeing structure. For how many of those 10-20 programs/ides were congress breifed? All? None? Some?

    This simple analysis could answer the question as to wether this was some extrodinary power-grab by Chenny.

    Just a thought.

  39. To my understanding, the CIA isn’t competent to assassinate anyone, much less organize a group that does so or cover it up effectively. The CIA is where covert operations go to die these days.

  40. Maybe the new media is running with this story because it’s so believable.

    Yay, fake but accurate! If a thing seems plausible, you can’t prove it didn’t happen.

  41. I never made any statements about the validity of covert operations. Every administration in the US floats ideas and sets up programs to vet ideas. There is clearly a program to kill AQ leaders. Actually there are four of them at the moment. The Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Marines. So going ape shit over a program designed to find and kill people your country has gone to war with (another argument) is fucking silly. It’s down right retarded to point at that program and then say that is what Hersh found. Either Hersh is a moron and doing just what I said, jumping the Bush/Cheney shark or he.

    There’s a giant gray area that exists between covert activity and Congressional oversight. I personally don’t feel any better if Congress knows or not. I know the motives of the crazy ass CIA people. Congress on the other hand is far more devious and malicious.

  42. It’s an assumption to assume anyone was lied to. I haven’t seen anything to that effect.

  43. While I agree that this doesn’t prove what Hersh claimed earlier on, it also doesn’t disprove it.

    There could still be an assassination squad for domestic enemies that remains a secret.

  44. nice post..
    ___________________
    Britney
    Entertainment at one stop

  45. the britney bot gets around.

    i don’t know about you, but i’d be shocked to find that there wasn’t a targeted assassination program. is it better to bomb the shit out of cities or just shoot the appropriate folk?

  46. Hersh had previously admitted exaggerating stories in order to “convey a larger truth,”

    That’s a very delicate way of saying that he’s a politically-motivated liar.

    -jcr

  47. The CIA is where covert operations go to die these days.

    Maybe they can sub it out to Mossad or something. I would certainly expect those guys to have their act together.

    -jcr

  48. Careful using the M word you will be tagged and wiretapped.

  49. Some thing just arent up for debate. Certain people foreign and domestice must go.

  50. CIA operations fail on purpose to protect those who accomplished their missions.

  51. I, get to washington.

  52. Assassins are targetting psychological warfare terrorists only.

  53. “Maybe the new media is running with this story because it’s so believable. And what about this doesn’t seem possible?”

    All the things that seem possible that are fit to print? Yeah, that sounds about like the media standard these days.

  54. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it’s literally a labyrinth, that’s no joke

  55. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp.

  56. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane.

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