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.