Then there’s the legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. From the My Lai massacre to Project Jennifer, Hersh has assembled a shelf-full of journalistic prizes by unearthing secrets, documenting cover-ups, and breaking stories that others dismissed as too crazy to be true. But critics allege that some of his work—particularly stories written without the fact-checking apparatus of The New Yorker, like his biography of JFK, or his investigation of the killing of Osama bin Laden—shows excessive credulousness.
Much of Flynn’s military career was equally brilliant and distinguished. As director of intelligence for the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, he fearlessly challenged convention. As Dana Priest has reported, when JSOC staged raids, Flynn had personnel gather scraps of intelligence—cell-phone numbers, addresses, pocket trash. They relayed what they found back to Flynn and his analysts, who took these disparate data points and drew connections among them, spotting patterns and creating actionable intelligence. JSOC began rolling up networks it hadn’t been able to crack.
But there was another ingredient, equally crucial to Flynn’s success. General Stanley McChrystal, then Flynn’s boss, harnessed his remarkable capacity for drawing connections while working to contain it, Priest reported:
He “boxed him in,” someone who had worked with both men told me last week, by encouraging Flynn to keep his outbursts in check and surrounding him with subordinates who would challenge the unsubstantiated theories he tended to indulge.
That reporting suggests that McChrystal saw the extraordinary value in Flynn’s sensitivity, recognizing that Flynn might spot things others would miss, so long as he was embedded in a system that could supplement it with specificity, knocking down suppositions and leaving only the solid claims standing. But, as The New York Times wrote, once Flynn found himself in command of the Defense Intelligence Agency, his sensitivity was no longer balanced by specificity—there was no one to steer him away from false positives:
His dubious assertions are so common that when he ran the Defense Intelligence Agency, subordinates came up with a name for the phenomenon: They called them “Flynn facts.”
Flynn soon found himself embroiled in controversy, and he was forced out of the DIA a year early. His allies blamed an intransigent bureaucracy, resistant to his efforts at reform. His critics tell a different story, describing a man who brooked little dissent, and indulged in conspiratorial thinking. Sources told The New York Times about one such incident, after the Benghazi attack:
Iran had a role in the attack, he told them. Now, he added, it was their job to prove it—and, by implication, to show that the White House was wrong about what had led to the attack.
Despite Flynn’s insistence, solid evidence tying Iran to the attacks never surfaced. To his critics, the episode illustrates a tendency to connect dots to form patterns that don’t exist. Flynn himself has perhaps reinforced that case by repeatedly claiming to have been pushed out over his views on radical Islam—despite a lack of evidence to support that claim.