Across the Bay

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Sylight Zone

That Seymour Hersh's reporting is shrill, hilariously conspiratorial, thin, ideologically skewed, and based on dubious sources is hardly news. His latest doesn't break with that shoddy tradition. It does, however, reflect a bonus trait to add to his pieces: seamless meshing with the propaganda and ideological agenda of the Syrian regime and Hezbollah -- the fruit of his recent trip and dinner parties, as well as his sources.

There are several things I can rip apart in this typically ridiculous piece, but I will confine myself to Lebanon-related material.

In order to fully understand the piece, you must read it with Hersh's comments to Wolf Blitzer earlier today, where Hersh offered the "interpretive key" so to speak, as well as an interview with the pro-Syrian as-Safir daily. It also gives you a sense of the unfiltered, wide-eyed lunacy that got edited out in the New Yorker piece, and shows just how ludicrous Hersh's "reporting" is, amounting to little more than wholesale, verbatim regurgitation of Hezbollah and Syrian propaganda.

Hersh immediately presents the underlying, pathetically reductionist and silly premise: who is the "real" enemy and the "real" danger, Iran or the Sunnis? It was succinctly summarized in his as-Safir interview: "we are against Sunni jihadism, for it was responsible for 9/11, not the Shi'a." This was reflected in the article in a quote by Vali Nasr (who along with other Iranian analysts -- Ali Ansari, Kaveh Afrasiabi, Hossein Askari, Ray Takeyh, et al. -- has been pushing this line from that particular trench): "It seems there has been a debate inside the government over what’s the biggest danger—Iran or Sunni radicals." It was also "confirmed" by the useless Flynt Leverett in a side-splitting comment dripping with conspiracism and Flynt's usual narrow, shallow nonsense: "The Administration is trying to make a case that Iran is more dangerous and more provocative than the Sunni insurgents to American interests in Iraq ... The idea is that at some point the Iranians will respond and then the Administration will have an open door to strike at them." The latter part is really the part that concerns Hersh the most.

The next step in Hersh's mental construct -- guided by overt hatred of the Bush administration -- is how this is setting the stage for war with Iran. This translates into covert (naturally!) action by the US against Iran and its allies and interests in the region. The basic idea is that the United States (namely the NSC, the OVP, and the DoD) are going after Iran and the axis it leads in cooperation with the Saudis, namely Prince Bandar. How are they going about it? By funding and arming Sunni extremist groups to counter pro-Iranian Shiites and Iran's sidekick, Syria. And the fun begins!

Again, Nasr provides the hook: "The Saudis have considerable financial means, and have deep relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis." We've almost reached the heart of the theory. The next step: How does this relate to Lebanon and Syria?

Bandar and other Saudis have assured the White House that "they will keep a very close eye on the religious fundamentalists. Their message to us was ‘We’ve created this movement, and we can control it.’ It’s not that we don’t want the Salafis to throw bombs; it’s who they throw them at—Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iran, and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran."

Now, you are entitled to wonder here who Hersh's source is on this. Who is the person privy to this sensitive information? Surely, an NSC or OVP official. Perhaps even a DoS official, or perhaps someone from the DoD. What about a Saudi source? No, it's even better than that! It's a "U.S. government consultant." It's air tight!

But why stop there? Hersh insists on dazzling us with his -- and this "consultant's" -- superior knowledge of things relating to Lebanon. The "plan," known in its entirety to the "consultant," has "at least" four points. Might as well jump to the fourth!

Fourth, the Saudi government, with Washington’s approval, would provide funds and logistical aid to weaken the government of President Bashir Assad, of Syria. The Israelis believe that putting such pressure on the Assad government will make it more conciliatory and open to negotiations. Syria is a major conduit of arms to Hezbollah. The Saudi government is also at odds with the Syrians over the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese Prime Minister, in Beirut in 2005, for which it believes the Assad government was responsible. Hariri, a billionaire Sunni, was closely associated with the Saudi regime and with Prince Bandar. (A U.N. inquiry strongly suggested that the Syrians were involved, but offered no direct evidence; there are plans for another investigation, by an international tribunal.)

Um, Sy, if you want people to take your theories seriously for more than five seconds, it might help to actually get some basic facts rights, like perhaps Assad's name (Bashar), or that the international tribunal is not "another investigation," but, er, as its name suggests, an "international tribunal" as in "trying" suspects in the murder. If you're picky, you might want to discuss that issue a bit more, but you know, I'm sure it wasn't the topic of choice at Imad Moustapha's dinner table. But certainly tying Hariri to Prince Bandar (based on what information?) might be something Moustapha could pander to people. After all, his boss's internet propaganda tool, Cham Press, has been doing just that with Hariri's son, Saad. We'll get to that later.

Also, perhaps you could've spent more time on the reason for Syrian-Saudi tension. After all, you are suggesting that Saudi Arabia is about to fund Salafis to take down Assad's regime. I'm sure there's more at stake there than Hariri's murder. Details, details... Who has time for that?

But Hersh hasn't yet provided us with the juice. It's just a tease. The rest is coming: "The focus of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, after Iran, is Lebanon, where the Saudis have been deeply involved in efforts by the Administration to support the Lebanese government."

Now, the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese Sunnis, Druze and Christians who took to the streets to support Seniora's government might be surprised to learn that "[m]any in the Arab world" view "Siniora as a weak politician who relies on America’s support." And perhaps, King Abdullah (of KSA and of Jordan), Hosni Mubarak, France and a host of Paris III donor countries might also take issue with Hersh's contention that Seniora relies on "America's support" to survive. Furthermore, one could also argue that Nasrallah is also seen by "many in the Arab world" as a Shiite tool of Iran's Khamenei. But this (Nasrallah = supported by the Arab world vs. Seniora = propped by America) is part and parcel of what I described as pathetic reductionism and a penchant for facile dichotomies, which I will explore further below.

But there's more than just the US supporting a democratically elected government. Here comes the heavy stuff, based on what "American, European and Arab officials" told Hersh. The basic idea was summarized in his CNN interview:

My government, which arrests al Qaida every place it can find them and sends -- some of them are in Guantanamo and other places, is sitting back while the Lebanese government we support, the government of Prime Minister Siniora, is providing arms and sustenance to three jihadist groups whose sole function seems to me and to the people that talk to me in our government, to be there in case there is a real shoot-'em-up with Hezbollah and we really get into some sort of serious major conflict between the Sunni government and Hezbollah, which is largely Shia.

Yes, "largely" Shia. But where were we? Ah. The Seniora government is "providing arms and sustenance" to jihadist groups! Evidence? Oh yes, "American, European, and Arab officials." Who exactly? Let's start with the "European" one, Hezbollah-hugger Alastair Crooke!

"The Lebanese government is opening space for these people to come in. It could be very dangerous.” Crooke said that one Sunni extremist group, Fatah al-Islam, had splintered from its pro-Syrian parent group, Fatah al-Intifada, in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, in northern Lebanon. Its membership at the time was less than two hundred. “I was told that within twenty-four hours they were being offered weapons and money by people presenting themselves as representatives of the Lebanese government’s interests—presumably to take on Hezbollah," Crooke said.

The largest of the groups, Asbat al-Ansar, is situated in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp. Asbat al-Ansar has received arms and supplies from Lebanese internal-security forces and militias associated with the Siniora government.

Come again!? The pro-Hezbollah Crooke "was told"?! OK, how about this. "It was reported" that in fact, members from Fateh al-Islam were arrested by the government and during interrogation, two of them (one of whom was Syrian) confessed to receiving orders from Syria to assassinate Lebanese figures associated with the anti-Syrian coalition, and also to plan operations against UNIFIL, as many a Syrian official, including "Bashir" Assad himself, have threatened (specifically about unleashing such groups in Lebanon). The other members of the group, "it was reported," were smuggled into Lebanon, via Syria, after participating in action (again, via Syria, who in Hersh's facile scheme is on the receiving end of Salafi attacks!) in Iraq.

ّIn fact, about two weeks ago, the government forces clashed with Fateh al-Islam members who managed to capture three policemen (ISF) on patrol near the Nahr el-Bared camp and hold them for two hours. Maybe they thought they were Hezbollah! But wait, I thought the ISF was "the Sunni militia" that the US was arming, as irresponsible reporters like Megan Stack and Michael Slackman propagated in recent months.

Sultan Abul Ainein, the representative of Fateh (the original one) in Lebanon, strongly criticized this new phenomenon of Fateh al-Islam and gave support for the Lebanese Army to take the necessary measures to preserve stability. Maybe he didn't get the memo from Alastair Crooke.

What about Asbat al-Ansar? ّIs Alastair Crooke the source for that claim as well? What is the evidence? Was he "told"!? This is flat out preposterous reporting. We have now gone from Stack's and Slackman's "the ISF -- an official institution -- is a Sunni militia" to "the ISF is arming Asbat al-Ansar and Fateh al-Islam." Simply pathetic.

But Hersh added that not only is the ISF responsible for arming these groups, but also "militias associated with the Siniora government"! Apparently, what Hersh wanted to put here was edited out by the New Yorker. But never fear, he revealed it in all its hilarity to as-Safir. Who is this "militia associated with the Siniora government"? Samir Geagea's Lebanese Forces! Why, of course! They are known to arm and support Salafist groups in Palestinian camps!

Naturally, Hersh's evidence and sources for such a preposterous claim are typically impeccable. Here's what he told as-Safir (emphasis mine):

Samir Geagea was strongly opposed to Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and to his agreement with Michel Aoun. His Lebanese Forces were involved, I was told, in directly or indirectly helping a Sunni jihadi group that snuck in [to Lebanon.] The problem is that when my government distributes money to people in order to "take care of Hezbollah," we don't always know where it ends up. One of the theories of one of my sources, was that the money received by the security services and the Lebanese Forces comes from American aid unappropriated by Congress for this purpose. This is a very important point.

AS: Is this aid simply money or arms also?

SH: Money buys arms. There is a point I didn't write about. Money always flows in Lebanon, mainly from the Gulf states.


Simply impeccable reporting. What utter garbage. "One of the theories" of one of my sources?! Unappropriated funds sent to the Lebanese Forces?! Just what the hell is this nonsense? Oh wait, Hersh has an irrefutable response to such criticism. He conveyed it to Wolf Blitzer:

And a lot of this money, and I can't tell you with absolute assurance how, exactly when and how, but this money has gotten into the hands, among other places, in Lebanon, into the hands of three, at least three jihadist groups.

There's three Sunni jihadist groups whose main claim to fame inside Lebanon right now is that they are very tough. These are people connected to al Qaida who want to take on Hezbollah. So this government, at the minimum, we may not directly be funneling money to them, but we certainly know that these groups exist.

As Triumph the Insult Comic Dog would put it: "Oh Yes!" You gotta love Hersh. He starts with the assertion that the money "has gotten into the hands" of "at least" three jihadist groups, but he can't tell us with absolute certainty! Then asserts the purpose of these "funds" to these jihadist groups: to take on Hezbollah. And then, the coup de grace: the government, "at the minimum," we may not directly be funneling money to them, "but we certainly know these groups exist"! Oh Yes! That we know for sure! Such compelling Cartesian logic: I exist, therefore I am a jihadist funded by the Americans through the Seniora government! And people respect this guy?!

OK, Hersh, give us another one. Who's the American "official" who told you these things? Oops! No one else is quoted to that effect aside from Crooke. But don't worry, we'll take your word on it. Or rather, we'll take your word on one of the theories of one of your anonymous sources who is not quoted on this issue.

All joking aside, there is something incredibly disturbing about all this. For anyone familiar with the situation in Lebanon, and who follows the political discourse closely, as I do, will immediately realize that Hersh is internalizing and uncritically disseminating the propaganda of Hezbollah and its allies. There are unmistakable key words and claims used by Hersh that are a dead give away. The rest was supplied by Syria's ambassador to the US, Imad Moustapha, I'm sure.

In fact, I bet you that the "Middle East ambassador" quoted in the piece is none other than Moustapha. That too might be discernible for those who follow the Syrian political discourse and official statements. For instance, the ambassador told Hersh:

Bandar’s mission—which the ambassador said was endorsed by the White House—also aimed "to create problems between the Iranians and Syria." There had been tensions between the two countries about Syrian talks with Israel, and the Saudis’ goal was to encourage a breach. However, the ambassador said, "It did not work. Syria and Iran are not going to betray each other. Bandar’s approach is very unlikely to succeed."

Anyone who reads the official Syrian leaks, which usually are put out by the Syrian regime through their man in al-Hayat, Ibrahim Hamidi, would suspect that the speaker is probably Syrian, as the same exact line was put out by Hamidi. Syrian functionaries, like the hapless Moustapha, are hardly the "free thinkers" who make statements on their own. They are people who follow the official line and regurgitate it. This is a perfect example. My money is on Moustpaha.

Therefore, all of Hersh's claims come either directly from Hezbollah, or from Hezbollah sympathizers, or functionaries of Hezbollah's regional allies.

To give you an example of the kind of "information" Hersh got from his meeting with Nasrallah. In December, Walid Jumblat revealed in a press conference that when he met with Hersh, he [Hersh] told him that Nasrallah had told him [Hersh] that when Jumblat and Marwan Hamade went to the US in March (before the summer war, started by Hezbollah), they went there in order to plan the summer war with the Americans!

The "information" put out by Hersh in this piece and in his interviews is of the same caliber, from the same sources, and is equally unprocessed.

Take this other claim for instance, attributed to seemingly two people, who may actually be the same person:

A former high-ranking C.I.A. officer told me, "The Americans have provided both political and financial support. The Saudis are taking the lead with financial support, but there is American involvement." He said that Khaddam, who now lives in Paris, was getting money from Saudi Arabia, with the knowledge of the White House. (In 2005, a delegation of the Front’s members met with officials from the National Security Council, according to press reports.) A former White House official told me that the Saudis had provided members of the Front with travel documents.

Let's start with the basics. The delegation of the NSF met with members of the NSC in 2006, not 2005 (it wasn't yet formed in 2005). Now, again, my hunch is that this "former" CIA officer and "former" White House official is none other than the above-mentioned Bashar cheerleader, Flynt Leverett. As for the information, Hersh needn't have talked to Leverett (oops, I meant the "former CIA officer" and the "former White House official") about it. He could've asked me, and I would've told him that Bashar's internet propaganda tool had put out the same exact "information" months ago! My feeling is that once again the source of this "information" is probably the same.

As for the "travel documents," Khaddam doesn't need them. He holds Saudi citizenship. Did Hersh even try to confirm any of this "information," if not with someone from the NSF (Ammar Abdulhamid lives in the DC area), at least with a "current" official or CIA officer (they could even be two different people!)? Details, details...

Speaking of Cham Press, that bit of unchecked "information" fed to Hersh by (who else) Narallah's aides about how "they believe he is a prime target of fellow-Arabs, primarily Jordanian intelligence operatives" was also available on Cham Press in the summer! Wouldn't you know it, Cham Press also claimed that Jordan was training Hariri and Geagea militias and had set up offices in Lebanon for such purposes! What a surprise! Hell, I believe I could've written Hersh's entire article myself -- including the Leverett and Moustapha quotes -- based on Cham Press and Hezbollah "reports" and official Syrian leaks!

Although, I must admit, I can never make up the kind of stuff given to Hersh by Robert Baer. I mean who else could've provided this gem: "we’ve got Sunni Arabs preparing for cataclysmic conflict, and we will need somebody to protect the Christians in Lebanon. It used to be the French and the United States who would do it, and now it’s going to be Nasrallah and the Shiites."

Yeah, let the militant Khomeinist Islamist group -- who burned tires and blocked roads and attacked Christian neighborhoods after a program on a Christian TV station satirized their leader -- be the "protector" of the Christians! Why didn't I think of that one!? Hell, let's also make Moqtada Sadr's Mehdi Army the "protector" of Christians in Iraq too! Sometimes I wonder if Hersh's articles, and this type of quotes, isn't just dark humor, or The Onion-style writing. Yet it's not a joke. This too is part of the Syrian and Hezbollah propaganda. That the "crazies" are the Sunnis, who are the real threat to the Christians. Hezbollah, on the other hand, is disciplined, pure, not seeking an Islamic state, etc. This is how Michel Aoun is trying to sell his unnatural alliance with Hezbollah to the Christians as well.

Moreover, this is the result of the facile dichotomies that I mentioned earlier and which underline the entire piece. The entire premise predicates that Iran and Syria are not themselves active supporters of Sunni Islamists and jihadists. That it's the exclusive realm of Saudi Arabia and the Lebanese Sunni Hariri! This approach is dangerously silly.

For one, a recent report (and earlier ones) noted how Iran is in fact actively supporting both Shiite militias and Sunni jihadists in Iraq. As for Syria, well, its alliance with Sunni jihadists and Islamists needs no introduction. Just ask the Syrian regime's US-based flack. I quote: "The al-Qaeda type jihadist groups are not emerging in Syria because Syria encourages them in other countries." That they do, especially in Iraq, where Bashar actively aided jihadists, and his regime worked openly with recruiters. Also don't forget the above-mentioned Fateh al-Islam and other Palestinian Islamists, pace Mr. Alastair Crooke. This is not to mention Hamas, because we don't want to upset Mr. Crooke, who is also a Hamas cheerleader.

There's also one other interesting Salafi Islamist allied with Hezbollah in Lebanon and who was received like royalty by Bashar Assad himself. He is one of the very few Sunnis in Lebanon who are openly allied with Hezbollah. He is also an open supporter of Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama Bin Laden. His name is Fathi Yakan. Check him out sometime, Sy.

So you see, it's hardly the clear-cut scheme that Hersh and his one-sided sources want to make it out to be. But then again, without that neat configuration, how would we get the stellar conspiracism and all the "supportive" florilegium of priceless quotes!? I should also note though that some other quotes in there, like those by Patrick Clawson and the one by Leslie Gelb are rather interesting.

I could go on and demolish other parts of this ridiculous piece, especially the section on Nasrallah, but I don't want to ruin the fun for you. Just make sure you can find your way back out of the Sylight Zone.