February 16, 2023 - 5:00pm

Since he published an explosive Substack piece earlier this month, arguing — in great detail — how the United States was responsible for the sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipeline between Russia and Germany last year, the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has received both enthusiastic support and dismissal. The White House responded quickly to label Hersh’s claims ‘utterly false and complete fiction’, an assessment which the CIA and State Department echoed. Russian state representatives have, unsurprisingly, been more open to the theory. Indeed, the State Duma today proposed an urgent UN investigation into the attack based on the article. 

Where some rebuttals of the Substack post have used as their reasoning Hersh’s supposed history of conspiracism, as well as his reliance on anonymous sources, more substantial and evidence-based criticisms have now emerged, based on the use of open-source intelligence, or OSINT.  

One such response was published, also on Substack, by Denmark-based OSINT analyst Oliver Alexander at the end of last week. While insisting that he makes no accusations himself as to who was responsible for the pipeline explosion under the Baltic Sea, Alexander writes that Hersh’s account has ‘massive glaring holes’, such as the suggestion that the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, ‘had cooperated with the American intelligence community since the Vietnam War’. Stoltenberg had, as it happened, just turned 16 when the conflict ended. 

Alexander also takes issue with Hersh’s implication that the pipeline explosions took place in close proximity to one another, when really there was 80 km between the Nord Stream 1 blasts and the area targeted along Nord Stream 2. What’s more, Hersh’s claim that the Biden administration colluded with the Norwegian Navy doesn’t stand up to scrutiny either, given the ‘exceptionally high level of secrecy for this operation’. 

Hersh argues that the Nord Stream attack was executed on 26th September 2022 when a Norwegian aircraft dropped a sonobuoy (a ‘sonar buoy’) to trigger detonators allegedly earlier planted by a team of US Navy divers during the NATO BALTOPS 22 exercise in June of that year. But the Alta ship which, in a filmed interview earlier this week, Hersh says carried out the mission last actively moved under its own power — as opposed to being towed — over a decade ago. 

In Alexander’s words, ‘if we argue that Hersh misspoke and means one of the other ships in the Alta or similar Oksøy class, we need to also look at those’. Yet the analyst’s data shows that all of these possible alternatives were accounted for at the time of the operation. His post builds on an earlier Twitter thread, posted by OSINT journalist Joe Galvin, which displays vessel tracking data to explain how Hersh’s account is inaccurate. For Galvin, the suggested involvement of Norwegian P-8 Poseidon aircraft is contradicted by open-source analysis of the area on the day of the sabotage, while the minesweepers cited by Hersh were apparently not present in the vicinity of the pipeline at the time of the BALTOPS mission in June.

After Western leaders were quick to point the finger of blame at the Kremlin, in December American and EU officials conceded there was no conclusive evidence that Russia was the Nord Stream culprit. Hersh has claimed both in his Substack piece and in subsequent interviews that, besides American and Norwegian involvement, Sweden and Denmark were partially briefed about the sabotage in advance. The Norwegians, in his view, are ‘anxious to increase the amount of natural gas they can sell to Western Europe and Germany’. As with the US, they were also, he claims, motivated by an animosity towards Russia. Speaking to New Left Review about the establishment media’s reluctance to cover his story, Hersh said:

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.
- Seymour Hersh

Oliver Alexander, in his Substack post, had another explanation for the suspicion directed at a writer he elsewhere labels ‘a liar at best or a Kremlin asset at worst’:

Seymour Hersh’s story would have been a lot harder to pull apart, had he decided to be more sparing with the details instead of going into depth with meaningless details that make little sense. A simpler story could have been believable, but this piece of Tom Clancy fan fiction is subpar.
- Oliver Alexander

is UnHerd’s Assistant Editor, Newsroom.