Truth will out? Really?

In a long article (at over 10,000 words) in the London Review of Books to be published next week (but available prematurely online here), veteran American journalist Seymour Hersch challenges the official story on the circumstances surrounding the death – or, as Hersch tells it, the ‘assassination’ – of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Central to Hersch’s story, based on a key but unnamed source, are (i) that bin Laden was being detained at the Abbottabad compound by Pakistan’s secret intelligence service, ISI; (ii) that the intelligence on bin Laden’s whereabouts came from a walk-in source at the intelligence desk of the US embassy in Islamabad who was seeking the $25 million reward offered by the US Government; and (iii) that the mission to assassinate bin Laden was known about at the highest levels of ISI and the Pakistani military.

Further, Hersch claims that the story that emerged from the White House immediately subsequent to the mission resulted from hurried attempts to concoct a credible story after President Obama strayed from the pre-agreed script by revealing the mission ahead of its scheduled and falsified announcement a week later; that bin Laden’s body was not evacuated to the USS Carl Vinson and subsequently buried at sea; and that little or no intelligence of value was recovered form the Abbottabad compound – indeed that bin Laden had no operational contact with al Qaida following his detention by ISI.

My reaction to reading the Hersch LRB article was to search out reaction from informed respondents. What had attracted me initially to the story was a strongly critical response on the Foreign Policy website, delivered to my inbox, by one Husein Haqqani, who, at the time of the 2011 mission, was Pakistan’s ambassador to the US. As a first stop, I read Mr Haqqani’s response. It was based on his interactions with senior Pakistani military and intelligence figures at the time and subsequently; it was also based on considerable supposition – quite within Mr Haqqani’s rights, given his position and involvement in the events as they had unfolded. Still I was unsatisfied. For additional comment and reaction, I read a opinion piece in yesterday’s Wall St Journal by then CIA deputy director Michael Morell and an article at online news site Politico which quoted former CIA “top spokesman” Bill Harlow rancorously dismissing the claims in the Hersch article and questioning Hersch’s credibility. Finally, I read another online article at The Intercept (with which I was not, previously familiar) in which the authors, in their turn, raised the issue of Harlow’s credibility and his veracity historically on matters of foreign policy, notably on the presence of WMDs in Iraq in 2003 and before. So, what and whom to believe?

When then UK PM Tony Blair told the House of Commons in September 2002 that the UK Government had intelligence that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed chemical and biological weapons and the ability to deliver them over 1,000 kms within 45 minutes and was developing nuclear weapons, I was profoundly skeptical. But, with casus belli in hand, the march to war was inevitable. That the intelligence on which the decision was founded proved false (and the material Blair presented to the Commons that day came to be known as the ‘dodgy dossier’) did not alter the reality of the task in Iraq. With the emergence of Islamic State group, the world lives still with the after-effects of the failure properly to reconstruct Iraq.

Immediately after its release in 2006, I read Frank Rich’s excellent critique of media coverage of the Bush Administration titled The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina. If you have not read it, I heartily recommend doing so (see Amazon here). And I am not alone: in a detailed review in the New York Times at the time of its publication, academic Ian Buruma agrees. A quote from Buruma’s 2006 review captures the issue well:

“Remember that White House aide, quoted by Rich in his introduction [taken from a 2004 pre-election NYT Magazine article by Ron Suskind about President Bush’s faith and his certainty], who said that a “judicious study of discernible reality” is “not the way the world really works anymore”? For him, the “reality-based community” of newspapers and broadcasters is old hat, out of touch, even contemptible in “an empire” where “we create our own reality.” This kind of official arrogance is not new, of course, although it is perhaps more common in dictatorships than in democracies. What is disturbing is the way it matches so much else going on in the world: postmodern debunking of objective truth, bloggers and talk radio blowhards driving the media, news organizations being taken over by entertainment corporations and the profusion of ever more sophisticated means to doctor reality.”

This brings to mind the marvellous Stephen Colbert neologism of the time: “truthiness.” But more, it recalled the depressing conclusion of Frank Rich’s book: that the best and most consistently questioning commentary on the Bush Administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was by a comedian, Jon Stewart. That a self-confessed comedian should be applying higher journalistic standards than the journalists covering the story beggars belief, then and now.

The problem is that the truth does not always ‘out’ (in Shakespeare’s phrase), whether in public or corporate settings; often, for truth to emerge requires close attention from a diligent and curious media or management and a robust process of questioning assumptions and challenging ideas. In either case, it requires what Thomas Jefferson called an “informed citizenry” to be the “repository of the public will.” Without an active and curious investigative media, we risk governments creating their own version of reality – ending boom and bust, as an example. In business, the best ideas emerge from challenging assumptions and allowing for adaptation and adjustment to changing market conditions rather than attempting to shut out the gale of creative destruction, of which Schumpeter wrote.

Whether his article is accurate or inaccurate, we all benefit from Mr Hersch’s diligence and curiosity, as we do from the debate that ensues therefrom. Most importantly, we benefit from his right and duty to undertake such journalism – to demand truth from power, rather than accepting ‘truthiness’. We must patronise and continue to fight for such journalism just as we must all seek truth from power and speak truth to power, to use Wildavsky’s great phrase, whether in public or private. In business, we all benefit from the debate that accompanies challenge and questioning; we need far more of it and reforms that encourage it rather than rules with which we must comply that perniciously and  insidiously undermine it. And, as Jon Stewart has shown us, we need humour.

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