It seems unusual for a staid, respected publication (one that has received three National Magazine Awards in just this past decade) to start treating a celebrated journalist (who himself has won two National Magazine Awards in just this past decade) as if he were nothing more than a paranoid crank.
It seems unusual, but it’s exactly what the staff of Foreign Policy has done to Seymour Hersh, following a lecture the venerated reporter gave at Georgetown University’s campus in Doha, Qatar. You may know Hersh as the dogged investigator who exposed the My Lai Massacre during Vietnam. You may know him as the staff writer for The New Yorker who published some of the earliest pieces on Abu Ghraib in May 2004. You might even know him as the man derided and then vindicated for claiming that Dick Cheney was running a secret assassination squad right out of the Vice President’s office. (In truth, the squad was and is a bipartisan affair, initiated under Clinton and still operative under Obama.)
Yet, given the Foreign Policy staff’s derisive commentary on Seymour’s January 17th talk, you would think he was some credulous rube midway through his first Dan Brown novel.
Hersh “delivered a rambling, conspiracy-laden diatribe here Monday,” Blake Hounshell reported on the magazine’s Passport blog. His delusional fantasia: The existence of ties between the U.S. Military’s Joint Special Operations Command and a secretive Catholic order called the Knights of Malta. As Hounshell elaborates:
[Hersh] charged that U.S. foreign policy had been hijacked by a cabal of neoconservative “crusaders” in the former vice president’s office and now in the special operations community:
That’s the attitude,” he continued. “We’re gonna change mosques into cathedrals. That’s an attitude that pervades, I’m here to say, a large percentage of the Joint Special Operations Command.”
He then alleged that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who headed JSOC before briefly becoming the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and his successor, Vice Adm. William McRaven, as well as many within JSOC, “are all members of, or at least supporters of, Knights of Malta.”
Hersh may have been referring to the Sovereign Order of Malta, a Roman Catholic organization commited [sic] to “defence [sic] of the Faith and assistance to the poor and the suffering,” according to its website.
“They do see what they’re doing — and this is not an atypical attitude among some military — it’s a crusade, literally. They see themselves as the protectors of the Christians. They’re protecting them from the Muslims [as in] the 13th century. And this is their function.”
“They have little insignias, these coins they pass among each other, which are crusader coins,” he continued. “They have insignia that reflect the whole notion that this is a culture war. … Right now, there’s a tremendous, tremendous amount of anti-Muslim feeling in the military community.”
Hounshell, Foreign Policy’s web editor, has questioned Hersh’s reporting before, first speculating on the identity of a Hersh source, then on that hypothetical source’s credibility. However, this particular incident was unique in that it has yielded a small brushfire of attention, including three additional response pieces at foreignpolicy.com, reblogging by angered Catholic groups and a write-up in the Washington Post.
The next day, the post was followed by an elaborately sarcastic “hot tip,” written to Hersh open-letter style by Foreign Policy contributing editor and Washington Post special military correspondent Tom Ricks:
Hey Sy, a friend with good military connections tells me that U.S. special operations forces were covertly involved in the Knights of Malta’s stalwart defense of the island in 1565 against the Ottoman Turks. Lifting the siege was easy because the Turks turned tail when they saw those Ma Deuce .50 caliber machine guns.
This categorically high-handed snark came with the added force of Ricks’ being a Pulitzer Prize winner himself and the author of two blistering accounts of the Iraq war: Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq and its General Petraeus-centered sequel, The Gamble. He has been covering the military beat for the Post since 2000, performing double duty there and at Foreign Policy after it was acquired by The Washington Post Company in 2008.
That same day, FP associate editor Joshua Keating provided an ‘FP Explainer’ piece entitled “Who Are the Knights of Malta — and What Do They Want?” dismissing Hersh’s claims with the conclusion that:
There’s not much evidence to suggest that the Knights of Malta are the secretive cabal of anti-Muslim fundamentalists that Hersh described. (For the record, when contacted by Foreign Policy, McChrystal said that he is not a member.) But they are certainly an anomalous presence in international politics and have provoked their share of conspiracy theories over the years.
Then, two days later, Hounshell produced a supplemental post defending himself from a chorus of disgruntled commenters and Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald. “I thought it was self-evident that several points Hersh made were off-base and conspiratorial,” Hounshell began, “but perhaps it’s worth spelling things out for everyone.”
Let’s do the same.
Just how “off-base and conspiratorial” are Hersh’s claims? Who are the Knights of Malta, exactly, and what has been previously reported of their ‘special operations’ and government ties?
The Holy Ghosts
(from left to right) James Jesus Angleton, chief of the CIA’s counter-intelligence staff from 1954-1975, and Reagan-era CIA Director William Casey were both members of the Knights of Malta. Image: WhoWhatWhy.com
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