Seymour Hersh’s latest controversial piece concerns the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines last year. Citing a single unnamed source, he says this was carried out by U.S. Navy divers who planted explosive charges in June 2022 during a routine NATO training exercise that were then remotely detonated months later, on September 26th.
There are several problems with this story.
The most glaring issue is a legal one. Hersh’s source claims that – by using regular U.S. Navy divers instead of special forces like the Navy SEALs, and/or because Biden and Victoria Nuland possibly hinted at such an operation – the important Congressional oversight provisions contained in the National Security Act 1947 could be circumvented, making it unnecessary to inform the eight most senior members of Congress (the ‘Gang of Eight’) in advance of the operation. This is false. Covert action of that nature, conducted by any government official, military or clandestine officer or even civilian contractor or any other agent or operative of the U.S. Government is most certainly covered under the definition of “covert action” provided by statute, 50 U.S. Code § 3093(e). Furthermore, the situation is not changed even following a stated intention to carry out such an action; after all, no-one was in any doubt that the U.S. intended to kill Osama bin Laden, yet it was still a covert action under the law.
It’s useless to try to argue the exception for “traditional […] military activities or routine support to such [covert] activities”, since such action would be neither “traditional”, nor would it only involve “routine support”. We are talking about the clandestine destruction of a major foreign-owned gas pipeline, and it’s not about who carries out the action, it’s the nature of the action that matters – although the claims of Hersh’s source are further weakened by his assertions that the operation was planned by the CIA.
There’s also the question of why the Biden administration would want to keep the Gang of Eight out of the loop. Informing this bipartisan group implicates senior members of both parties, since they can’t veto it and are bound to secrecy. They could only distance themselves by resigning, without saying why. This effectively means the executive branch officials responsible for it can’t be impeached or sent to prison: it gives both political and legal cover to the operation. (And at the same time, Hersh claims that Norway was heavily involved in the operation, suggesting strict secrecy wasn’t that important anyway.)
Of course, it’s convenient for Hersh’s source if the Gang of Eight weren’t informed, since those eight mostly-credible public figures wouldn’t be able to deny his claims. But in itself, this one legal issue already completely undermines the credibility of Hersh’s source, since the use of regular U.S. Navy divers is central to the tale being told. However, the story is further lacking in credibility, since the regular U.S. Navy divers (rather than SEALs) were seemingly involved before the operation was supposedly “downgraded” to one that didn’t need to involve the Gang of Eight – a logical inconsistency.
Other aspects of the story are problematic too. The first is the supposed need to operate under the cover of a routine NATO training exercise (BALTOPS 22) to plant the explosives, diving from a Norwegian(!) minesweeper. Bear in mind that the precise locations of the ships taking part in these exercises would be known to Russian observers, and any vessels operating around the Nord Stream pipelines for the length of time needed to plant the explosives might look fairly suspicious – even if the explosives weren’t detonated there and then.
On the other hand, given the shallow-but-not-too-shallow depth of water in the Baltic Sea, the conditions would be good for a submarine with an underwater hatch to have remained hidden below a good thermocline while carrying out what would be a relatively swift operation involving Navy SEALs. The only hint in the article as to why this wasn’t done is that “the Baltic Sea [is] heavily patrolled by the Russian navy”, ignoring the fact that submarines can evade detection even relatively close to surface vessels (which is pretty much the point of a submarine), and in the unlikely event of detection, the mission could be aborted and rescheduled without great inconvenience.
I also have deep reservations about the remotely-triggered detonators that were apparently designed and manufactured for this one operation on short notice, that survived over three months submerged under battery power in the cold Baltic Sea, vulnerable all the time to discovery, and which were apparently triggered by a single sonar buoy dropped from a Norwegian(!) aircraft, despite the fact that the explosions happened about 50 miles and precisely 17 hours apart. Every detail of that story raises a number of questions, but perhaps Sweden (which is carrying out the investigation) can tell us whether evidence of these sophisticated trigger devices has been found.
Just to be clear, I’m not offering an opinion on which country carried out this attack. Certainly, the U.S. has the capability for it, as well as arguably a strong motive. However, the methods and motives of Hersh’s unnamed source, as well as Hersh himself, are also in question. I question whether it would be possible for his source to have direct knowledge of conversations between the Director of the CIA William Burns and the supposed internal CIA working group, as well as conversations at the higher-level inter-departmental group he claims were supervising the operation, besides all the other operational details. Possibly only a senior CIA officer like William Burns himself would fit the profile.
Depending to whom one speaks, Seymour Hersh is either a fearless crusader after truth, or one step removed from a fabulist. His early investigative journalism was impressive and entirely factual, but in recent years he seems to have spun a lot of tall tales, relying on anonymous sources who are always remarkably well-placed and willing to leak details about matters of current public interest that, if true, would be damaging to the reputation and standing of the U.S. His Wikipedia page is littered with pungent quotes from his critics, with the charitable assessment being that he’s simply rather gullible. But perhaps we should be kind:
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,Robert Browning
Or what’s a heaven for?