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. (An excellent Slate article by former Naval intelligence officer Scott Shuger found multiple flaws in Hersh?s reporting.)
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 sixteen 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 U.S. 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.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Pentagon has vehemently denied the allegations made in Hersh?s article. Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita issued a statement calling the claims ?outlandish, conspiratorial, and filled with error and anonymous conjecture.?
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, unbeknownst 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.
Joel Mowbray, who got his start with Townhall.com, is an award-winning investigative journalist, nationally-syndicated columnist and author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America's Security.
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