The Nord Stream Pipeline: Media and Importance

Matthew P. Daley

For nearly a full week in February, much of the American population was busy hyperventilating over images of a Chinese surveillance balloon (CB) transiting the lower 48 while collecting intelligence.  A great deal of ink and airtime was devoted to the subject which, at the time, was novel and curious but without great import.   Admittedly, the CB gathered different types of intelligence, some of which may not have lent themselves to satellite collection.  At a minimum, the Chinese learned that our radars were not tuned to detect that type of intrusion, a situation that reportedly has since been corrected.  But it is unlikely that much of significance was gained Beijing and certainly compared to the full panoply of intelligence collection modalities, the CB amounted to precious little.  The main impact was political: the Administration was embarrassed, but after the shootdown, the issue had a very short half-life despite a week of concentrated media attention.

By contrast, in early February Sy Hersh, a well known and controversial journalist, published on a story that asserts the United States conducted a secret operation that destroyed three of the four Nord Stream gas pipelines.  The denials from various parts of the Administration were swift and unequivocal.  If true, the attack would mark the most dramatic and effectual US action to change political dynamics in Europe in recent memory.  (If not true, Hersh’s tale contains all the makings of a blockbuster Hollywood production.)  Nonetheless, the story had very short legs and more than a few folks who regard themselves as well informed were unaware of it.

Much of the commentary that did appear centered on Hersh himself.  Hersh has won a few awards for journalism, including the Pulitzer Prize, several George Polk awards and a couple National Magazine Awards as well as the National Book Critics Awards.  Hersh broke the story of the My Lai massacre, the secret bombing in Cambodia and its cover up, and the CIA’s recovery of a sunken Soviet submarine in 1974.  Several his stories prompted criticism and even lawsuits.  Hersh was skeptical of the Bush 43 Administration’s assertions that Saddam Hussein’s purported possession of weapons of mass destruction justified going to war and later broke the story of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison.  As time went on, criticism of Hersh for “sloppy” journalism and reliance on anonymous sources grew.  Some suggested that Hersh had been manipulated by sources to change an unpleasant narrative.  The reaction to his reporting on the killing of Osama Bin Laden is telling.  For more detail on Hersh and the criticisms he prompted, refer to Wikipedia.

But back to the Nord Stream story.  Decades of German foreign policy were invested to draw the Soviet Union and later Russia into closer economic and political relations with Germany.  Nord Stream I and Nord Stream II were the poster children for this policy and the effort generated concern in Washington, including within the Biden Administration, that Germany — as well as to a lesser extent other Western European countries — were becoming dependent on Russian gas.   Rupturing those pipelines would force a redistribution of Russian gas exports and end the direct German dependence on Moscow’s energy resources. This would be a major consideration, especially in the context or the Ukraine war.   

I personally find the purported motivation and rationale that Hersh attributes to the Administration plausible, while judge the reliance on a single source troubling.  Hersh does not indicate what steps he took — if any — to confirm the single source’s tale.  So, I withhold judgment.  But like many who seek more information, I will tune into the Committee for the Republic’s Nord Stream Salon on March 14 at 7:00pm at the National Press Club.  Sy Hersh will appear, and I suspect the Q&A session will be both energetic and informative.  If interested, RSVP

Postscript: Just after this article was posted, a story appeared in the New York Times with the headline “Intelligence Suggests Pro-Ukrainian Group Sabotaged Pipelines, U.S. Officials Say”

Matt Daley adds: This strikes me as a bit of a stretch.  A segment of a government that does not have a Navy carries out a sophisticated operation like blowing three different pipelines in relatively deep water, the surface and subsurface of which are subject to surveillance by several different countries without being detected?  Those guys have big cojones…

Like the Hersh story, this one needs a careful source scrub.  It would not be the first time that the Russians have planted a story and this one would benefit them by creating strains in the West’s alliances.

If one thinks I am skeptical about our own intelligence services, one is correct.

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