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 Jan. 17 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 Gen. 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 Co. in 2008.
That same day, FP associate editor Joshua Keating provided an "FP Explainer" piece titled "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
Known formally as the "Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta," the Knights of Malta is a Roman Catholic order founded in roughly 1048. Though the Knights operated as a military order during the First Crusade, today their approximately 12,500 members, 80,000 volunteers and 20,000 medical professionals work "in the field of medical and social care and humanitarian aid." According to their website:
The Order also runs hospitals, medical centres, day hospitals, nursing homes for the elderly and the disabled, and special centres for the terminally ill. In many countries the Order’s volunteer corps provide first aid, social services, emergency and humanitarian interventions.
Malteser International, the Order's worldwide relief service, works in the front line in natural disasters and armed conflicts.
So far, so good. In fact, Foreign Policy’s description of the Knights cribs heavily from the Order’s own benevolent self-description. Josh Keating’s "explainer" piece accounts for the litany of paranoid theories surrounding them as merely a byproduct of the Knights' "secretive proceedings, unique political status, and association with the Crusades." Former CIA directors William Casey and John McCone, Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, and GOP fixture Pat Buchanan have all been "alleged members," he claims, "though none have ever acknowledged membership."
Keating’s use of "alleged" here is curious, given that the membership of Reagan-era CIA director Bill Casey in the Knights of Malta has been a fact widely reported in the press and never denied by Casey himself. Historian Joseph E. Persico, a former Republican speechwriter for Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and the co-author of Colin Powell’s autobiography, includes Casey’s membership in a routine list of charitable accomplishments, in his sympathetic biography Casey: from the OSS to the CIA (Penguin 1990). (Casey’s membership is asserted on Page 105 of the paperback.)
Years earlier, Casey was listed publicly as a member in both Mother Jones (07/1983) and the Washington Post (12/27/1984). The implications of Casey’s membership are even alluded to in Bob Woodward’s "Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987," in which Casey’s deep Catholicism and the Catholic Church’s opposition to Nicaragua’s left-leaning Sandinista government are both recurring topics. In short: Casey’s membership has been undisputed for so long and across such a broad cross-section of the political spectrum that it raises serious questions about Foreign Policy’s standards for "facts" and "allegations."
(One might also reasonably ask Keating what difference it makes if an outed member of any secret society does not then publicly acknowledge membership. Isn’t that one of the major duties of being in a secret society?)
In addition to Casey and McCone, the Knights of Malta also counted among their members former CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton -- a fortuitous alliance as Angleton led the postwar intelligence efforts to subvert Italy’s 1948 elections. His success partnering with organized crime, right-leaning former fascists and the Vatican not only marginalized Italy’s homegrown Communist Party, it also encouraged Congress in the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Conservative luminary and National Review founder William F. Buckley -- who spent two years after college as a CIA "political action specialist" in Mexico City -- was also a Knight, as was none other than William "Wild Bill" Donovan, the head of the CIA’s precursor organization, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). From 1970 to 1981, France's intelligence agency was also headed by a member of the Order, Alexandre de Marenches. De Marenches would go on to be a co-founder of the Saudi-funded private intelligence group the Safari Club -- one of George H. W. Bush’s many end-runs around congressional oversight of the American intelligence establishment and the locus of many of the worst features of the mammoth BCCI scandal.
So, while crackpot speculations about this particular Catholic order are legion, its ties to intelligence organizations in the U.S. and Western Europe are well-documented. It's also perfectly understandable: with their unusual status as a recognized sovereign state without territory, the Knights of Malta enjoy full diplomatic rights in many countries -- including the ability to bypass customs inspectors by secreting items across borders via "diplomatic pouch." Sharing far right sympathies, the Roman Catholic Church and Cold War-era Western intelligence officials became natural allies, and the Knights of Malta became a natural conduit for their collaboration. With a lengthy, strategic partnership already forged in the name of anti-communism, a strengthening of this network in the name of the "War on Terror" ought to sound more predictable than paranoid to a student of U.S. foreign policy -- particularly given the current pope’s record on Islam.
With "medical missions in more than 120 countries," as Keating points out, a teeming network of government spooks operating under the diplomatic protection afforded the Knights of Malta would certainly have plenty of breathing room to operate unnoticed. And yet, Keating instead positions the Order’s charitable work as evidence that the Knights have left their old military function behind -- pointedly ignoring years of charitable work tied to U.S. strategic goals and covert activities during the heady days of the Reagan/Bush era.
AmeriCares in Its Own Way
Beginning in 1982, the Knights of Malta began an intensely collaborative partnership with the international aid organization AmeriCares -- a charity group unique in its selective disaster relief to countries friendly to both U.S. business investment and foreign policy objectives. Literally billing itself as "the humanitarian arm of corporate America," AmeriCares was founded and headed until 2002 by Robert Macauley: a college roommate of George H.W. Bush, a paper mill millionaire and a self-described (then self-denied) agent in the CIA’s WWII-era precursor, the OSS. Macauley was also the first non-Catholic to receive the coveted Cross of the Commander of the Order of Malta.
A look at AmeriCares activity during this period gives the unavoidable impression that Macauley was running the charity, first and foremost, as the velvet glove to Reagan and Bush’s radical hard-line approach to communism and indigenous left-wing political movements across the globe. In January 1990, AmeriCares and the German and Hungarian Knights of Malta supplied $1.4 million in supplies to pro-Western factions immediately following the collapse of Romania’s communist regime -- proclaiming it "the first privately organized, large-scale relief effort following the revolution." The partnership frequently worked with the infamous CIA front company Southern Air Transport. And during the Soviet-Afghanistan conflict in 1984, AmeriCares brazenly took sides, evacuating wounded members of the mujahideen to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington D.C. (One likely explanation: President Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski -- the man responsible for pairing the CIA with these future leaders of Al Qaeda -- was an honorary chairman at AmeriCares.)
Nowhere was the alliance between the Knights of Malta, AmeriCares and U.S. Intelligence more pervasive and troubling than in Central America.
AmeriCares and the Order held off on relief to an economically crippled Panama in 1989 for six whole months, shuttling $2.5 million worth of medical supplies only after the conclusion of Bush Sr.'s lightning war against (former ally) Manuel Noriega.
AmeriCares and the Knights declined to participate with the Red Cross in a 1988 hurricane relief effort in left-leaning Nicaragua, only to change on a dime two years later, once the Sandinista government fell. (The group sent 23 tons of medical supplies just three days after the election.) Prior to regime change, AmeriCares also provided one-sided medical aid to the Sandinistas' bête noire, the right-wing, CIA-backed contras, through a program controlled by the Iran-Contra scandal's walking nerve center, Oliver North. They even attempted to fly in a planeload of newsprint to the anti-Sandinista newspaper La Prensa.
In Guatemala, AmeriCares and Knights of Malta joint activities were handled by the wealthy, right-wing paramilitary figure, Roberto Alejos Arzu, whose plantation had served as a training ground for the CIA’s bungled "Bay of Pigs" invasion of Cuba.
On occasion, AmeriCares and the Knights’ humanitarian work served not just as an adjunct to U.S. covert action but also as a welcome excuse for pharmaceutical companies to dump surplus product as charity, netting a high tax writeoff. One massive AmeriCares vaccine shipment to the Philippines, where the Knights were supposed to handle distribution, was rejected by local governments as useless. AmeriCares' sloppily labeled and overwhelming bulk medical shipments to Armenia were roundly criticized by a leading British medical journal, the Lancet.
Overall, the group spent the 1980s and 90s in uncomfortable collaboration with the rest of the humanitarian aid community. Many relief groups expressed frustration with AmeriCares’ refusal to coordinate activities, so as to avoid squandered duplicated efforts. Many also expressed private fears of angering its powerful, Bush-connected founder. Doug Siglin, public policy director of the humanitarian community’s umbrella group, InterAction, cautiously summed up their unusual behavior this way: "[AmeriCares'] approach is not the same as other groups."
Seymour Hersh and the Silent Crusade
Seymour Hersh is in the middle of researching and writing a lengthy book on America's wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has something of a history of playing looser with his facts in speeches than in print -- partially to preserve his scoops pre-publication -- and his speech in Doha hewed close to that tradition. In addition to the Knights, for example, he also made claims regarding Opus Dei, another secretive far right Catholic group steeped in just as much rumor and conspiracy theory. However, Hersh is a five-time Polk winner and recipient of the 2004 George Orwell Award -- a reporter with a record that is well-burnished and nearly sterling.
Given the late 20th century history of the "Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta," how strange would it really be to find members of the Order, in and out of the military, collaborating on a new silent crusade with their old Cold War allies?
It would certainly complement the Christian fundamentalist version of the war, as prosecuted by Erik Prince, the former CEO of the military’s most notorious civilian contractor Xe (formerly Blackwater). His views -- as depicted in one affidavit from the court case against him -- certainly echo much of what Hersh ascribes to the JSOC and the Knights of Malta:
To that end, Mr. Prince intentionally deployed to Iraq certain men who shared his vision of Christian supremacy, knowing and wanting these men to take every available opportunity to murder Iraqis. Many of these men used call signs based on the Knights of the Templar, the warriors who fought the Crusades.
Mr. Prince operated his companies in a manner that encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life. For example, Mr. Prince’s executives would openly speak about going over to Iraq to "lay Hajiis out on cardboard." Going to Iraq to shoot and kill Iraqis was viewed as a sport or game. Mr. Prince’s employees openly and consistently used racist and derogatory terms for Iraqis and other Arabs, such as "ragheads" or "hajiis."
Hersh’s assertions would also add context to the curious case of former U.S. deputy undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, Gen. William Boykin, who drew fire during his tenure for calling the war against Islamic extremism a struggle against "a spiritual enemy called Satan."
(In defending his original review of Hersh’s speech, FP's Blake Hounshell demotes both of these cases from "data" to mere "anecdote." The devaluation would appear to be premature in the case of Erik Prince, whose court case is still pending -- while related Xe cases are being mysteriously ignored by the same Eastern District of Virginia task force convened to prosecute them. And, given that Boykin was operating near the heart of exactly the institution Hersh is accusing, trivializing his statements comes across as extremely optimistic, if not downright naive.)
Until Hersh’s book-length treatment of the subject is published, at least we can all agree with Foreign Policy's Joshua Keating that the Knights of Malta have been "an anomalous presence in international politics and have provoked their share of conspiracy theories."
This time around, they’ve practically goaded us into it.