Methane gas, Nord Stream
Methane gas leaking from the Nord Stream gas pipelines near the Danish island of Bornholm, Denmark. Photo credit: Swedish Coast Guard / © Cover Images via ZUMA Press

Why does the Hersh story — which relies on a single inside source — have so few details of the sort that only an insider would know?

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A small but vocal cohort keeps asking me, “Who do you think blew up the Nord Stream,” or more often, “Why don’t you admit the US blew up that pipeline?” One fan of hyperbole even wrote to say that certainly the US did it, and called it “the worst act of terror in history.” 

I am well aware of the real possibility that the US was behind the September 26, 2022, explosion. The US has done worse in the past. And certainly, the Biden statement back in February 2022 — warning Russia of possible action to shut down the Nord Stream were it to invade Ukraine (see below) — provides powerful grist for the mill. 

But what really bothers me are all the unwarranted assumptions in this case on the part of many: First, that the US is definitely responsible. Second, that this act is morally equivalent to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Third, that this is a reason to bar further US military aid to Ukraine.

The attack on the natural gas pipeline — which happened more than half a year after Russia invaded Ukraine — has receded from the news. But with growing GOP pressure to reduce or cut off funding for the defense of Ukraine, the issue will come up again, perhaps as a core piece of the overall debate.

And more people may be receptive to anything that justifies a reduction of funding, and just the general desire to “move on.” This is exactly what Putin, in my view, fervently hopes will happen, and really the only possible way he wins or even survives politically. 

Who Done It?

As a journalist in the agnostic tradition, I believe in being open-minded on the fascinating issue of who done it, and on the equally intriguing question, how do we know? 

The US is certainly capable of doing such a thing. However, I don’t know that it bombed the Nord Stream, and neither do those who are so certain it did.

Even Seymour Hersh, who reported that the US is responsible for the Nord Stream explosion,   cannot know for sure, although he treats it as a certainty. He says the information is from “a single source with direct knowledge of the operational planning.”  

That’s different from knowing. And as Hersh is well aware, news organizations rarely publish stories based on a single source because the risk of error is too high.  

Seymour Hersh, 2009

Seymour Hersh, 2009. Photo credit: Institute for Policy Studies / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Although Hersh’s status as a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, plus the particulars cited in his article, are proof enough for many, there are legitimate reasons to consider other possibilities. 

These range from Hersh’s source being mistaken, having misinterpreted the data or overstating what they actually know, to being partially right, to being wholly right — to having an agenda and simply lying. 

Because of Hersh’s track record, one wants to give him the benefit of the doubt, to believe that his vetting was impeccable. But a number of things make me uncomfortable, none more so than the unique access required to know this, and the significant risk to the source of exposing it publicly. If indeed the source is correct, then we want to ask: 

  • How did this person get that information? 
  • Why did they tell Hersh instead of a journalist with a major news organization? (I know some may say that no mainstream entity would report this story, even with adequate proof, but I am not so sure that is true.)

The penalties and likelihood of discovery are very high, as we’ve seen with The Guardian and The Intercept and the sources they used who were eventually discovered. Consider the penalties faced by the likes of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Reality Winner, et al., who received long prison sentences or, in the case of Snowden, had to flee and may never be able to come home to the US again.   

And assuming Hersh got someone close to the pinnacle of the national security establishment to talk — someone privy to planning meetings and what was said at them — that means this source would have to be someone much, much higher in the establishment than past whistleblowers who were actually at very low levels, contractors for outside firms, etc. 

That would make this apparent breach of security protocol a major historic occasion.

Yet Hersh’s source has not been treated as such a red-letter, outsized figure, something of the magnitude of a Daniel Ellsberg. Not by any major media, and not even by Hersh, who, as shown below, characterizes his source’s credibility with boilerplate language and does not address the remarkable fact that such a high-level military insider actually blew the whistle. 

I wanted to know more, so I emailed Hersh, whom I know professionally. He typically holds his cards close to his chest even with lesser matters, so I had no real expectation that he would shed light on this. 

He did write back, but only to say, “russ…i wrote what i wrote…not much i can add…sy.”

The risk of being caught cannot be overstated. In today’s information age, while whistleblower-masking technologies exist, so do enhanced methods of uncovering cloaked identities. 

Getting back to the single source on this with “direct knowledge of the operational planning”: My first problem is the extraordinary risk an insider would have taken to speak with Hersh, as mentioned above. 

I find people currently working for intelligence and military organizations at high levels tremendously tight-lipped — and profoundly anxious about the prospect of going to jail for violating security oaths by exposing ultra-sensitive matters, as well as other “high crimes and misdemeanors.” 

The risk of being caught cannot be overstated. In today’s information age, while whistleblower-masking technologies exist, so do enhanced methods of uncovering cloaked identities.

In addition, this person would presumably be charged with an especially serious crime. She or he is not a “whistleblower” in the mold of, say, Chelsea Manning, who exposed American war crimes in a manner consistent with trying to fix the American system. Instead, Hersh’s source has allegedly exposed covert military operations against an aggressor state during a time of war, albeit a proxy war.

Exposing US military operational tactics against a major power that had just invaded a sovereign nation could be treated as akin to the action of an enemy agent and, therefore, subject to much harsher consequences. 

Further, in my experience of covering CIA and covert operations, this kind of source almost never comes along, period. The best a reporter usually ever gets, beyond an authorized leak, is the speculation of retirees without direct knowledge of current operational planning, and direct knowledge only of past related operations. Even today, when I interview long-retired intelligence figures, they are extremely cagey and limited in what they will reveal. 

Another thing: Hersh is usually skeptical of even well-documented conspiracy claims. (Unlike myself, he supports the Warren Commission’s conclusion that “Oswald did it and acted alone”). But the case of the Nord Stream is different. Hersh has some insider who knows all about it, we are told, and we simply have to take him at his word on this. It’s a big ask.

Also, much of the insider information is not really that juicy or specific. For example, Hersh writes:  

Nevertheless, in early 2022, the CIA working group reported back to [National Security Advisor Jake] Sullivan’s interagency group: “We have a way to blow up the pipelines.”

That may sound kind of like inside information, but anyone — you or I — could write up such a sentence without any real knowledge. Much of the rest of the material reads like something anyone could have put together with some generalized knowledge, common sense, and even googling. I really don’t see anything that strikes me as highly specific, obviously exclusive inside information, like names of operatives or managers of the project on the ground, or hotels or safehouses, or technical details of how the operation was pulled off. Neither does the material below, which could all be informed speculation presented as witnessed fact: 

Biden’s decision to sabotage the pipelines came after more than nine months of highly secret back and forth debate inside Washington’s national security community about how to best achieve that goal. For much of that time, the issue was not whether to do the mission, but how to get it done with no overt clue as to who was responsible.

There was a vital bureaucratic reason for relying on the graduates of the center’s hardcore diving school in Panama City. The divers were Navy only, and not members of America’s Special Operations Command, whose covert operations must be reported to Congress and briefed in advance to the Senate and House leadership — the so-called Gang of Eight. The Biden Administration was doing everything possible to avoid leaks as the planning took place late in 2021 and into the first months of 2022.

Let’s examine what it says above. The existence of a Navy diving school in Panama City, Florida, is public information. So is the fact that Special Ops covert operations are supposed to be reported to Congress. And it’s not surprising — at all — that anyone planning such an operation would want to avoid leaks. So while at first glance that may look to some as corroboration that a source had intimate knowledge of the operation, it actually is nothing of the kind. I could have written all that just on a guess. 

Of course, one can retort that the specifics had to be withheld to protect the source’s identity, but Hersh could have made that claim about withholding and did not. 

Certainly, there are specifics, not always in Hersh’s favor. For example, the source claims that Norway was the base of the operation, and that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, a Norwegian, “had cooperated with the American intelligence community since the Vietnam War. … He is the glove that fits the American hand.” Since Vietnam? Stoltenberg? Who was born in 1959!  

That’s a pretty big mistake both by the source and by Hersh. If an editor were involved, they would have been asking probing questions and vetting the details and the reliability of that source. 

Putting all this aside, we come down to the ultimate question: Who did bomb the Nord Stream pipeline? 

Take your pick: 

  • The US did it, and someone inside took an extraordinary personal risk to tell Hersh. Disclosures of this kind result in investigation, prosecution, and prison time, as happened to John Kiriakou
  • The US did it, had to publicly deny its involvement, but wanted it known for political and strategic purposes — and decided to make Hersh the messenger. Any journalist would be hard-pressed to turn down a huge “scoop” like this. 
  • Russia did it, knowing that once it was blamed on the US, it would make Russia look better and provide fodder to its defenders and to critics of the US. And, as if to nail down the impression the US did it, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called on the White House to comment on the “facts” Hersh had presented.
  • Some other party, neither Russia nor the US, did it for some unknown reason

Why Do It? Wade in Deeper

Critics of US policy in the region cite that dramatic, threatening statement by Biden warning Russia as proof that the US is the culprit. Biden said over a year ago: 

If Russia invades … that means tanks and troops crossing the border … of Ukraine, again, then there will no longer be a Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it. We will shut down the pipeline.

Asked how, exactly, he could do that, since the pipeline is under German control, he replied simply:  

“I promise you, we will be able to do it.”

And he said it while meeting in Washington with the German chancellor, who was clearly taken aback. That was certainly an extraordinary scene. 

If you were Putin, you might conceivably see that statement and recognize a great opportunity to attack your own pipeline, blame it on Biden, and watch some segment of the world rally to your “defense.” 

Would Putin have the temerity to do something like that? Would the ex KGB agent fail to calculate the value of this kind of covert operation? A self-inflicted injury to wound the opposition? 

We know from his recent history that he’s all too willing to take enormous risks without excessive concern for harming Russia, Russians, or the Russian economy. Also, Russia under Putin has a documented history of employing “false flag” attacks for propaganda and other purposes. (The US does too — see, among other things, Operation Northwoods.)

If Putin did it, this would be a riff on how Hitler kicked off World War II. That began with an invasion of Poland to “defend” the German homeland in “response” to what was actually a false-flag attack on a German radio station near the Polish border (the so-called Gleiwitz incident) — by a detachment of SS troops dressed as Polish soldiers. 

In the case of the pipeline, of course, the incident in question became in some people’s minds a kind of justification after the fact. 

Even more striking is the timing. At the very moment the pipeline blew up, Russia was experiencing its worst military humiliations of the war. Just 20 days earlier, Ukraine had begun a counteroffensive that was rolling back many of Russia’s territorial gains. It was a clear disaster for Putin. Would a pipeline explosion have been a useful distraction? 

And who really needed — or would want such a distraction — right at that moment? Not Biden. 

If, in fact, Putin made that bet, he bet correctly. Just look at the response to “the US taking out the pipeline” — and how that story has helped efforts to defund the defense of Ukraine. 

The issue of who stood to gain from the pipeline situation is complicated. This was noted in an article by Sergey Vakulenko (one of the few Gazprom execs who has not enjoyed a planeless flying lesson or a polonium smoothie), who until last year was head of strategy and innovations at Gazprom Neft, one of Russia’s largest energy companies, whose parent company, Gazprom, is part of the Nord Stream consortium. 

The article, which was published shortly after the bombings on the website of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, compared the affair to an “Agatha Christie mystery”:

One irony of the attack is that Russia’s Gazprom potentially stands to benefit: it will no longer need to invent excuses not to supply Europe via Nord Stream 1. Now it can claim a force majeure, which will dramatically reduce the risk of compensation claims for non-delivered volumes. This logic, however, does not explain the damage caused to Nord Stream 2. On the other hand, the Nord Stream consortium companies and eventually Gazprom might even hope to collect some insurance for the damaged pipelines. Given that they already looked set to become a stranded asset, that would be far from the worst outcome for the giant company. 

Much more, back and forth, can be said, and indeed, a very fair Vakulenko also points out the advantages to Ukraine of the bombing. 

The upshot of all this is how difficult it is, in reality, to assign responsibility — given what is known so far. 

As the saying goes: When it comes to absolute certainty, doubts are in order. 

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  • Russ Baker

    Russ Baker is Editor-in-Chief of WhoWhatWhy. He is an award-winning investigative journalist who specializes in exploring power dynamics behind major events.

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