Tuesday, November 6, 2001

The New Yorker magazine is standing by its man. Writer Seymour Hersh claims this week that ferocious Taliban troops attacked the U.S. Army’s elite Delta Force on Oct. 20, wounding a dozen troops and prompting a hasty retreat. He also builds the case that the special-operations unit is plagued with discord and internal problems.
“The facts have been checked and we stand by our story and the author,” said New Yorker spokeswoman Perri Dorset.
But the Pentagon says it’s all hooey.
“The reports I’ve seen just don’t support that article’s supposition,” Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Staff, said yesterday. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard B. Myers agreed on NBC Sunday.
The New Yorker story “portrays that we ran into some stiff resistance. That’s simply not true. There was no resistance. The Taliban were in complete disarray,” Gen. Myers said, adding that “every soldier who came back from that particular raid is back on duty today none of them were injured by the Taliban.”
He went on to deny there was a firefight, problems within the unit, lack of planning or a failed mission. “It went, from my view, flawlessly,” Gen. Myers said.
There will be other pieces, most likely. Mr. Hersh’s skills were honed in the “gotcha” investigative media dynasty that eventually spawned Watergate. Once described by Salon as “the hardest-working muckraker in journalism,” he made a startling press debut in 1969 by uncovering the My Lai massacre. Eight provocative books and countless articles followed, dishing on Marilyn Monroe, the Kennedys, Henry Kissinger and former U.S. anti-drug chief Barry McCaffrey, among others.
This week’s New Yorker story is what armchair commandos might call a “thumping” good read. In a post-September 11 world, Mr. Hersh employs his standard techniques in a media marketplace that finds journalists struggling to balance the nation’s security with First Amendment rights.
This week’s New Yorker piece is classic Hersh: rife with gritty details, acronyms, cuss words, historic background and authentic quotations from Pentagon briefings and current press reports. All 16 sources in the story, however, are unnamed. Mr. Hersh quotes “one general,” “a senior military officer,” “one Delta Force soldier” and other generic personnel who recount events or offer the insider’s skinny on strife within the unit.
“New Yorker readers may be at the mercy of a story which is loose in its sources and less compelling in its authenticity,” notes Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based media studies group. “Credibility can suffer. Writers who use anonymous sources must tell more about the process of their reporting and explain the credibility and connection of the source.”
While he cautions journalists against flippant use of anonymous sources, Mr. Steele adds that “some stories are so important that they warrant careful and sparing use of anonymous sources to get information to the public.”
Mr. Hersh does lend one source some context, quoting a “high-ranking officer who has access to debriefing reports” offering an opinion on Taliban weapons, official procedures and the failure of the Delta team to leave an undercover team behind.
This is Mr. Hersh’s fourth story covering the war on terrorism. The earlier reports told readers about poor intelligence gathering, an unstable Saudi Arabian government and the perils of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. The timely reports are peopled with a mix of nameless sources; they connect the conspiratory dots with brusque finesse.
“We’re going to see a lot more use of unnamed sources as the war progresses. Information has been hard to come by for many journalists,” said Lorie Robertson, editor of the American Journalism Review.
“There’s no clear-cut answer on what’s right here, other than to advise to stay skeptical. They should compare Hersh and Pentagon and try to make a reasonable judgement about viability. They should take away the information, and then just move on. There’s a lot more to come.”
Contact Jennifer Harper at jharper@washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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