Enigmas abound in Joseph Biden’s America. Within a month of his victory over Trump, the president-elect suffered an odd injury; as he later clarified, he had broken his foot attempting to pull a dog’s tail while exiting the shower. Before long the First Family abandoned Major, their German Shepard, after FOIA requests by the conservative advocacy group Judicial Watch uncovered a spree of biting attacks and concomitant White House ‘cover up’. Subsequent events have proved no friendlier to the octogenarian incumbent’s promise to ‘bring transparency and truth back to government’. He is currently under investigation for mishandling classified documents (conveniently disclosed after the November mid-terms) found at a Wilmington home let out to his crackhead son, himself the target of a separate DOJ enquiry (revealed to the public on the morrow of the 2020 election) into nebulous business dealings in China and Ukraine.
Puzzlement is not confined to the garages and bank vaults of Delaware. Early in 2023, NORAD made known the existence of unidentified vessels flying over the continental US. Four were shot out of the sky by Air Force pilots in the first weeks of February, at an estimated total cost of $8 million (the AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles used go for $400,000 a piece). The identity of the dirigibles remains unclear: the headmost, downed over the coast of South Carolina, was a weather blimp – authorities warned of Chinese spycraft – and one at least seems to have been a party-style ‘pico-balloon’ loosed by hobbyists in Illinois. The government has acknowledged that the other two likely had a ‘benign purpose’. ‘Make no mistake’, declared the commander in chief, ‘if any object presents a threat to the safety and security of the American people, I will take it down’.
Days after a F-22 Raptor Top Gun felled his first inflatable foe, news broke concerning another conundrum, the explosion of the Nord Stream natural gas pipelines in September 2022. This was, the New York Times had reported at the end of the year, a genuine ‘wartime mystery’. How, in one of the most closely surveilled waterways on earth, did the perpetrators manage to execute their attentats and escape without a trace? What might have been the motive? Initial statements from NATO politicians insinuated that Moscow was to blame, yet no evidence emerged to substantiate the charge, and the idea that Russia would destroy its own critical infrastructure – and potential source of leverage over Western Europe – vexed even trusting souls. Bruits in December that the majority Russian-owned Nord Stream AG was soliciting estimates to repair the damaged pipes only added to the confusion. Amidst such perplexity, a 5,000-word story by the legendary reporter Seymour Hersh, contending that the sabotage was a CIA operation executed on orders from the US president, might have been thought a bombshell. Yet response to the piece, self-published as a Substack post on 8 February, was muted. In the week after it appeared, the New York Post was the sole US daily to treat Hersh’s story as a news item, while a representative squib on the Springer-owned website Business Insider ran under the headline ‘The Claim by a Discredited Journalist That the US Secretly Blew up the Nord Stream Pipeline is Proving a Gift to Putin’.
In mid-February, New York Times op-ed writer Ross Douthat broke the prevailing silence. Titled ‘U.F.O.s and Other Unsolved Mysteries of Our Time’, Douthat’s column identified a host of phenomena – from the recent balloon scare and putative sightings of extra-terrestrial life to the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus – with ‘one of the patterns of our era, which is what you might call the incomplete reveal’. ‘Sometimes’, Douthat wrote, ‘a phenomenon goes from being the subject of crank theories and sub rosa conversations to being more mainstream, but without actually being fully explained or figured out’. Other times, he added, ‘a controversy takes centre stage for a little while, a great deal seems to hang upon the answer, and then it isn’t resolved and seems to get forgotten’. The activities and expiry of the late Jeffrey Epstein were one example, the Nord Stream attacks another.
Hersh’s story, with its anonymous source and ‘various factual and plausibility issues’, strained the imagination. Yet who did blow up the pipelines? No serious argument implicating Russia could be adduced, Douthat allowed. But if the US clearly possessed a motive, the White House had not only denied involvement, ‘it would have been quite the act of recklessness for an administration that’s been very cautious about direct engagement with the Russians’. For Douthat, frequently trenchant and capable of scepticism concerning America’s role in the Ukraine conflict, this foray signalled conspicuous equivocation. A devout Christian, the columnist admits to ‘cautious interest in outré spiritualities’. But ideology, not occultism, is at issue here. (Curiously, Douthat – whose latest book discusses his own struggle with ‘chronic Lyme disease’, an ailment unrecognized by modern medicine – found no room in his volvelle for ‘Havana syndrome’, recondite complaint of US intelligence officers abroad, since determined after a years-long CIA inquiry to be psychogenic in nature).
Whilst critics queried details of Hersh’s account, which describes how US Navy frogmen exploited the June 2022 BALTOPS exercise to lay charges later detonated remotely off the coast of Sweden, it drew plausibility from an embarrassment of circumstantial evidence. Energy politics along the Baltic littoral have been a crucible of tension between Russia and the so-called West for decades. After Moscow briefly suspended the gas flow through Ukraine at the turn of 2006, Senator Richard Lugar proposed in the lead-up to NATO’s Riga summit that disruptions of this type should trigger the alliance’s Article 5 provision for collective defence. The rise of the American fracking industry gave fresh momentum to initiatives aimed at substituting LNG for Russian pipeline gas, further encouraged by the Ukraine crisis in 2014, which saw US sanctions torpedo another pipeline project (South Stream, which would have run through the Black Sea) and Congress move to hasten exports in the name of Europe’s ‘energy security’. Trump’s hectoring of European leaders to end their reliance on Russian fossil fuel prompted s######s from the German UN delegation in 2018. Who is laughing now?
The next year, after Washington levied sanctions on Nord Stream 2, Energy Secretary Rick Perry announced that America’s export capacity was expected to double by 2020. Seventy-five years after the Normandy landings, Perry remarked, ‘the United States is again delivering a form of freedom to the European continent. And rather than in the form of young American soldiers, it’s in the form of liquefied natural gas.’ Poland has manoeuvred with particular brio to position itself as the re-export hub for American ‘freedom gas’. Prior to the construction of Nord Stream 1, then Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski likened the pipeline to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. When reports began to circulate of its destruction, Sikorski posted a photograph of the resulting methane plume – the most catastrophic such leak in history – on his Twitter account, accompanied by the legend, ‘Thank you, USA’.
As Hersh observes, American officials repeatedly threatened to destroy the pipelines. In January 2022, Victoria Nuland – architect of the post-Maidan government in Kiev and Zelig-like fixture of bipartisan warhawkery – pledged in a State Department briefing that ‘If Russia invades Ukraine, one way or another Nord Stream 2 will not move forward’. At a press conference alongside German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, in early February 2022, an unusually cogent Biden reiterated the threat. Post-explosion comments have been scarcely more edulcorant: Secretary of State Antony Blinken hymned the sabotage as a ‘tremendous opportunity’ to ‘wean’ Europe off its sinister dependency on Russian hydrocarbons, while in congressional testimony earlier this year the irrepressible Nuland expressed contentment, on behalf of the whole administration, that Nord Stream 2 was now but ‘a hunk of metal at the bottom of the sea’.
Spies, as the ‘intelligence community’ used to be called, have their own term of art for Douthat’s ‘incomplete reveal’: a limited hangout. As long as clandestine operations go to plan, they are protected by a cover story. When this cover is blown, however, alternative strategies may be deployed – the release of partial information, for example, to confound or misdirect. Alternatively, entirely fictitious events or scandals can be confected to distract unwelcome scrutiny. In the words of a GCHQ manual on ‘designing deceptive action’, leaked by Edward Snowden, ‘the big move covers the little move’.
The New York Times’s alt-history of the pipeline affair, ventilated earlier this month, invites speculation on similar lines. Recall that at first US authorities denied any knowledge of or involvement in the Nord Stream sabotage. It now transpires that American officials believe a ‘pro-Ukrainian group’ carried out the demolition. Evidence to this effect has been concealed, we are told, for fear that ‘Any suggestion of Ukrainian involvement, whether direct or indirect, could upset the delicate relationship between Ukraine and Germany, souring support among a German public that has swallowed high energy prices in the name of solidarity’. Whatever the plausibility of the Times version, supplemented by German coverage – divers are said to have been conveyed aboard a chartered yacht smaller than Tony Soprano’s Stugots – its timing raised eyebrows. Why now? And what of potential discord between Berlin and Kiev? Hersh, for his part, has delivered a rejoinder: the Times version, according to an informed source, is itself a fabrication by the CIA (in conjunction with the Bundesnachrichtendienst) devised to ‘pulse the system’ and redirect attention from Hersh’s findings.
In Germany, the Times ‘scoop’, buttressed locally by the combined efforts of Die Zeit and public broadcasters ARD and Südwestrundfunk, elicited more discomfort than relief. ‘It may just as well have been a false flag option staged to blame Ukraine’, ventured Defence Minister Boris Pistorius, while Annalena Baerbock, the bellicose foreign minister, likewise affirmed that the government would not ‘jump to conclusions’. Hersh’s reporting itself, ignored in the US, had raised greater alarm in the Bundesrepublik. Die Linke, the CDU and the AfD all submitted formal requests for information concerning the pipeline explosions, including the location of US and NATO air and naval forces in theatre at the time. These were, as Wolfgang Streeck has noted, dismissed on grounds of raison d’État. Ralf Stegner, a MP for the SPD and chair of the parliamentary intelligence oversight committee, voiced his incredulity that ‘a terrorist attack like this, in international waters, in a sea that is observed by many different surveillance systems … could happen without anybody taking notice’. ‘That’s hard to believe’, Stegner observed. ‘It wasn’t an attack on Mars, it was in the Baltic Sea.’
Alexander Cockburn once remarked that the purpose of newspaper corrections is to persuade the reader that the rest of the contents are true. Rescued from insolvency by the election of Trump, the New York Times promptly abolished the position of ombudsman and sacked half the copy editors just as it embarked on a jihad against ‘fake news’. The results cannot have surprised. When Hersh first made a name as the finest American investigative journalist of his generation, reporting on US crimes in Indochina and CIA meddling in domestic affairs, psychological operations still obeyed a classical logic, consent manufactured through the despatch of propaganda to discrete ends. Eye-wash was coordinated centrally and deployed along clear axes. Today, ataxia disorganizes a scene cleft by duelling fractions of state apparatuses. Simulation begets ‘messaging’, ‘narrative’ vies with ‘conversation’, platoons of ‘explainers’ call in airstrikes on company HQ. Deceit commands a mobile army of its own. Counter-disinformation, as operating principle and moral warrant, requires neither pretence to neutrality nor the charade of disclosure. While the phobia of foreign ‘meddling’ promotes politicization of the intelligence services and inter-penetration of Außen- and Innenpolitik, information warfare enlists the media as willing foot soldiers on the militarized frontier of falsehood.
The brief career of the US Department of Homeland Security’s Disinformation Governance Board, introduced last spring by the Biden regime and abandoned weeks later under a volley of criticism, is symptomatic. Per its remit, this organ was to counteract both Russian influence and inducement to refractory migrants on the southern border. Its head, Nina Jankowicz (former communications adviser to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry and veteran of American ‘democracy assistance’ to Russia and Belarus) issued a more adventuresome prospectus in a TikTok ditty, to the tune of ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’, hit single off the 1964 Disney musical Mary Poppins:
Information laundering is really quite ferocious
It’s when a huckster takes some lies and makes them sound precocious
By saying them in Congress or a mainstream outlet
So disinformation’s origins are slightly less atrocious
It’s how you hide a little lie, little lie
It’s how you hide a little lie, little lie
It’s how you hide a little lie, little lie
When Rudy Giuliani shared bad intel from Ukraine
Or when TikTok influencers say Covid can’t cause pain
They’re laundering disinfo and we really should take note
And not support their lies with our wallet, voice or vote – oh!
Bruised by controversy stateside, Jankowicz decamped for the UK Foreign Office-funded Centre for Information Resilience, where she stewards something called the ‘Hypatia Project’ – named after the spätantike Platonist and astrologer murdered by Christians as a sorceress – that seeks to ‘document the relationship between gendered disinformation and coordinated hostile state activity online’. In an interview with CNN, Jankowicz explained that the ill-fated DHS Board had fallen prey, Pharmakon-like, to the menace it was conjured to dispel. ‘Unfortunately and ironically’, she lamented, ‘we were undone exactly by a disinformation campaign coming from folks who apparently want to put our national security behind their own personal political ambitions’. Failure could be seen to vindicate the urgency of the mission. Skim the news and you might wonder whether it was not surplus to requirements.Clio the cat, ? July 1997 - 1 May 2016 Kira the cat, ? ? 2010 - 3 August 2018 Jasper the Ruffian cat ? ? ? - 4 November 2021
Interesting article at the very end .. Hersh interviewed on 15th Feb
In the late 1960s, Seymour Hersh established himself as one of America’s most courageous investigative journalists, exposing covert US chemical and biological weapons programmes and uncovering the massacre of civilians in Mỹ Lai. He went on to work for the New Yorker and New York Times, breaking stories on the CIA’s domestic spying operations, the Watergate scandal, and the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. His 1991 book The Samson Option detailed the secret methods by which Israel acquired its nuclear arsenal. Over the past decade, essays for the London Review of Books have examined US involvement in the Middle East: challenging the official account of Bin Laden’s killing and highlighting fractures within the American security state over the Syrian war.
Hersh’s latest article ‘How America Took Out The Nord Stream Pipeline’, was published on Substack last week. Citing a source with direct knowledge of the operation, it claims that US Navy divers – acting on orders from the Biden administration – used remotely triggered explosives to destroy the natural gas pipeline that runs from Russia to Germany. If this is true, the attack – targeting the crucial energy infrastructure of an ally – would constitute a major violation of sovereignty, if not an outright act of war. It would also mean that the US government is culpable for a major environmental catastrophe: the release of 300,000 tonnes of methane into the atmosphere – perhaps the largest leak in history.
The White House initially described the Nord Stream explosion as an ‘act of sabotage’, with Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm suggesting that Putin was responsible. Her claim was echoed by a chorus of European leaders, intensifying the demand for further escalation in Ukraine. Yet, by the end of 2022, Western officials conceded there was no evidence that Russia had detonated its own pipeline, nor was there any plausible motive for it to do so.
Since the appearance of Hersh’s story, the Kremlin has appealed for an international investigation into the attack, while Washington has dismissed his narrative as ‘utterly false and complete fiction’. Earlier this week, Hersh spoke to NLR editor Alexander Zevin about the possible rationale for the Nord Stream operation, the conflict within the Biden administration over the war in Ukraine, and the current state of the American media landscape.
* Alexander Zevin: Your most recent story describes the alleged US operation to blow up the Nord Stream pipelines last September. In the final line of the piece, you quote your source as saying that the only flaw in Biden’s plan was ‘the decision to do it’. Can you talk a bit about why you think this decision was ultimately made? Wouldn’t the risk of detection outweigh the potential benefits?
Seymour Hersh: The chronology here is quite simple. Before the Russian invasion, Jake Sullivan convened an interagency group with all the usual people: NSA, CIA, State Department, Justice, Treasury people, Joint Chiefs. And my perception is that they wanted to come up with options to forestall Putin and Russia. So this team was created and they asked themselves, Do we want to pursue a reversible or an irreversible course of action? Sanctions are reversible, whereas kinetic operations – attacks on infrastructure and the like – are not.
On January 26th 2022, Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland said in a press conference that, one way or another, Nord Stream 2 ‘will not move forward’ if Russia invades Ukraine. Which suggests that, by then, the administration was using the pipeline as a threat to make Putin think twice. Putin is, of course, picking up an incredible amount of money from the parent company Nord Stream AG, 51% of which is owned by his allies at Gazprom, with the remaining 49% shared between four different European companies which control downstream sales of the gas. So there’s a clear reason for targeting the pipeline.
The US then goes to the Norwegians, who end up playing a very important role in figuring out how to execute the plan. To plant the explosives, they needed to send Navy divers down 260 feet, with a complicated mixture of helium and nitrogen and oxygen, and bring them back up fast. This is a difficult manoeuvre, particularly when they’re releasing what’s probably the largest load of C4 ever dropped in the ocean: I mean, huge enough to take down a downtown building practically. And they had to do all this in two hours, taking care to avoid detection.
The Navy found the time to carry out the operation during an upcoming NATO Baltic exercise, and they were going to do it in early June, but instead they got waved off. The team is waved off, the sailors are waved off, and they’re told that the president wants the capability to do it at will. At that point, I have a feeling there was a lot of tension inside the interagency group – a sense of, what is this all about? Why destroy a pipeline that’s basically shut down anyway, after all the sanctions? Well, I think the Biden administration overruled these concerns for a couple of reasons. By September, even though the American press wasn’t telling you this, everybody I knew on the inside, and I know some people on the inside on this stuff, was saying the war is going to be a disaster. Of course, the Russians underestimated the strength of the Ukrainian resistance and their forces were pushed back, but the press greatly exaggerated the extent of their losses. The longer-term outlook for Ukraine was always bleak – partly because it’s still an extremely corrupt country where Western aid is often misused. So I think Biden had a tactical interest in destroying the pipeline, because this would prevent Germany from changing its mind when the going got tough and withdrawing its support for Ukraine. If there was a cold spell in November or December, that could’ve halted the Ukrainian counter-offensive and put pressure on Germany to lower gas prices by opening up the line. So that might have been one of the administration’s most immediate fears.
But there’s also a long history of American hostility towards this pipeline, stretching back to Bush and Cheney, who saw it as a strategic weapon that Russia could use to keep Germany and Western Europe from supporting NATO. Biden’s thinking was very much in line with this. Now, I don’t know if he wants a war with Russia. I don’t know if he wants a war with China. I don’t know what he wants. But it’s scary as hell, because maybe he doesn’t even know.
AZ: How do you square the overt statements or threats about Nord Stream – made by Biden, Nuland and Blinken – with the apparent need for utmost secrecy?
SH: That would be a striking contrast if these American officials had a slightly higher IQ. But you know, Nuland is not a rocket scientist. She tends to blurt things out – like just a couple of weeks ago at the Senate hearing, where she commented to everyone’s favourite Senator from Texas that the administration was gratified that Nord Stream 2 was now ‘a hunk of metal at the bottom of the sea’. And Biden of course does it too. On February 7th 2022 he met with Olaf Scholz at the White House, and at the press conference afterward he said ‘If Russia invades . . . there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it.’ If I were in the German Bundestag, I would want to have a public hearing and ask the Scholz government what they knew about the American plan, given that these remarks were being made back in January and February.
AZ: In many of your stories, one of the reasons sources are willing to speak up is that there are conflicts and disputes within the state apparatus. This was the case in some of your reporting on Syria from 2014, where military leaders clashed with the White House over its ‘red lines’ and the wisdom of bombing the country, given the risks this entailed of setting up a direct clash with the Russians. What is your sense of the potential internal sources of conflict over the Nord Stream operation – or the policy of military escalation in Ukraine generally?
SH: There can’t have been much happiness about popping it off in late September. I mean, what’s the political goal? Was it strategic for negotiations or is it just to keep Germany and Western Europe in thrall to America? At some point, for economic reasons, Scholz may well have said: I’m out of the game – Ukraine can have a couple more German tanks, but I’m opening up the gas because I’ve got to keep my people warm and keep businesses going. But by putting an end to Nord Stream, Biden took that option off the table. And at that point, if you were a rational person working within the US state, you would say to yourself, this guy has made a choice that’s going to really hurt him in the long run. This kind of action might make it impossible for America to maintain its influence in Western Europe. Because with energy prices skyrocketing, and with little being done to ameliorate the decline in living standards, you’re going to see the far right gaining popularity across various countries.
The US is still sending liquefied natural gas to its European allies, but is charging three to four times more for it. So the president’s basically made a toss, you know, between severing the Germany–Russia link and losing political support for America and some of the states we most value. That would give any rational person in the intelligence community pause for thought. But, obviously, the story shows there were lots of people in that world who believed that developing the capability to destroy the pipelines would be useful to send a message to Putin. Certainly he knew that the US was discussing these options, and he probably knew about the training that was going on in the Baltic. We can’t be certain of this, but it’s hard to do something on that scale in the Baltic Sea without being noticed. Which also makes it unlikely that Sweden and Denmark were completely innocent.
AZ: Can I get your perspective on how the media landscape has changed since you broke a story like Mỹ Lai – or even since the 2000s, when you wrote several major investigative pieces about the War on Terror. Whether you published with a wire service as in Mỹ Lai, or in the Times, New Yorker or LRB, these stories were picked up, heaping pressure on the authorities to do more than issue a bland denial. But so far there has been a cordon sanitaire around this Nord Stream report, at least in the mainstream press. What’s changed?
SH: In 2007 I published a piece called ‘The Redirection’, about how the US had sided with the Sunnis against the Shias in the Middle East. That was very widely circulated. Reporters ambushed the White House spokesperson at the press briefing and asked ‘Is Hersh’s story true? Will you deny it?’ Years later people were still writing to me about it. A few of my New Yorker and New York Times articles had a similar reach – although of course I couldn’t get a paper to take the Mỹ Lai story, which is why I brought it to the Dispatch News Service.
But now you’re talking to a guy who recently learned second-hand about something called Substack and decided to publish there. I mean, we’re very adaptable in this industry. If the big boys want to cosy up to the state, if their idea of an ‘exclusive source’ is a presidential spokesman who whispers something to them after a press conference, then they can continue publishing in their outlets and real investigative journalism can happen elsewhere. These major outlets have run some of the dumbest stories I’ve ever seen in recent years. Back in 2021 there was one about Putin offering bounties to Afghan militants to kill US soldiers during the occupation. And more recently we’ve heard that he’s on steroids, that he has leprosy, that he has various kinds of cancer. You know, just crazy stuff.
So the only thing I can say about what’s changed is, this time I didn’t think of butting my head up against the system. I just went to this new platform and I’m told that the story has had over a million hits already: more than any other post – although the only mainstream media figure who’s called me up about it so far is Tucker Carlson. Self-publishing is terrifying for me, because I come from a very different world. In the old days of the New Yorker, the fact-checking was rigorous, really tough, and that was a great lesson for me. I was hired by the great New Yorker editor William Shawn five minutes after I walked into their offices off the street, and I worked there for two years before eventually leaving to go to the New York Times. Not many people would’ve made that change in the early seventies, since working at the New Yorker was supposed to be the best job in the world. But at the Times, there was a little period of heaven when Nixon was on the rocks, and I had the freedom to write stories that they would run. But by the time Ford got in it was back to the same old shit, so I had to get out of there.
Read on: Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire is available from Verso.