How to Blow Up a Pipeline

In the late 1960s, Seymour Hersh established himself as one of America’s most courageous investigative journalists, exposing covert US chemical and biological weapons programmes and uncovering the massacre of civilians in Mỹ Lai. He went on to work for the New Yorker and New York Times, breaking stories on the CIA’s domestic spying operations, the Watergate scandal, and the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. His 1991 book The Samson Option detailed the secret methods by which Israel acquired its nuclear arsenal. Over the past decade, essays for the London Review of Books have examined US involvement in the Middle East: challenging the official account of Bin Laden’s killing and highlighting fractures within the American security state over the Syrian war.

Hersh’s latest article ‘How America Took Out The Nord Stream Pipeline’, was published on Substack last week. Citing a source with direct knowledge of the operation, it claims that US Navy divers – acting on orders from the Biden administration – used remotely triggered explosives to destroy the natural gas pipeline that runs from Russia to Germany. If this is true, the attack – targeting the crucial energy infrastructure of an ally – would constitute a major violation of sovereignty, if not an outright act of war. It would also mean that the US government is culpable for a major environmental catastrophe: the release of 300,000 tonnes of methane into the atmosphere – perhaps the largest leak in history.

The White House initially described the Nord Stream explosion as an ‘act of sabotage’, with Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm suggesting that Putin was responsible. Her claim was echoed by a chorus of European leaders, intensifying the demand for further escalation in Ukraine. Yet, by the end of 2022, Western officials conceded there was no evidence that Russia had detonated its own pipeline, nor was there any plausible motive for it to do so.

Since the appearance of Hersh’s story, the Kremlin has appealed for an international investigation into the attack, while Washington has dismissed his narrative as ‘utterly false and complete fiction’. Earlier this week, Hersh spoke to NLR editor Alexander Zevin about the possible rationale for the Nord Stream operation, the conflict within the Biden administration over the war in Ukraine, and the current state of the American media landscape.


Alexander Zevin: Your most recent story describes the alleged US operation to blow up the Nord Stream pipelines last September. In the final line of the piece, you quote your source as saying that the only flaw in Biden’s plan was ‘the decision to do it’. Can you talk a bit about why you think this decision was ultimately made? Wouldn’t the risk of detection outweigh the potential benefits?

Seymour Hersh: The chronology here is quite simple. Before the Russian invasion, Jake Sullivan convened an interagency group with all the usual people: NSA, CIA, State Department, Justice, Treasury people, Joint Chiefs. And my perception is that they wanted to come up with options to forestall Putin and Russia. So this team was created and they asked themselves, Do we want to pursue a reversible or an irreversible course of action? Sanctions are reversible, whereas kinetic operations – attacks on infrastructure and the like – are not.

On January 26th 2022, Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland said in a press conference that, one way or another, Nord Stream 2 ‘will not move forward’ if Russia invades Ukraine. Which suggests that, by then, the administration was using the pipeline as a threat to make Putin think twice. Putin is, of course, picking up an incredible amount of money from the parent company Nord Stream AG, 51% of which is owned by his allies at Gazprom, with the remaining 49% shared between four different European companies which control downstream sales of the gas. So there’s a clear reason for targeting the pipeline.

The US then goes to the Norwegians, who end up playing a very important role in figuring out how to execute the plan. To plant the explosives, they needed to send Navy divers down 260 feet, with a complicated mixture of helium and nitrogen and oxygen, and bring them back up fast. This is a difficult manoeuvre, particularly when they’re releasing what’s probably the largest load of C4 ever dropped in the ocean: I mean, huge enough to take down a downtown building practically. And they had to do all this in two hours, taking care to avoid detection.

The Navy found the time to carry out the operation during an upcoming NATO Baltic exercise, and they were going to do it in early June, but instead they got waved off. The team is waved off, the sailors are waved off, and they’re told that the president wants the capability to do it at will. At that point, I have a feeling there was a lot of tension inside the interagency group – a sense of, what is this all about? Why destroy a pipeline that’s basically shut down anyway, after all the sanctions? Well, I think the Biden administration overruled these concerns for a couple of reasons. By September, even though the American press wasn’t telling you this, everybody I knew on the inside, and I know some people on the inside on this stuff, was saying the war is going to be a disaster. Of course, the Russians underestimated the strength of the Ukrainian resistance and their forces were pushed back, but the press greatly exaggerated the extent of their losses. The longer-term outlook for Ukraine was always bleak – partly because it’s still an extremely corrupt country where Western aid is often misused. So I think Biden had a tactical interest in destroying the pipeline, because this would prevent Germany from changing its mind when the going got tough and withdrawing its support for Ukraine. If there was a cold spell in November or December, that could’ve halted the Ukrainian counter-offensive and put pressure on Germany to lower gas prices by opening up the line. So that might have been one of the administration’s most immediate fears.

But there’s also a long history of American hostility towards this pipeline, stretching back to Bush and Cheney, who saw it as a strategic weapon that Russia could use to keep Germany and Western Europe from supporting NATO. Biden’s thinking was very much in line with this. Now, I don’t know if he wants a war with Russia. I don’t know if he wants a war with China. I don’t know what he wants. But it’s scary as hell, because maybe he doesn’t even know.

AZ: How do you square the overt statements or threats about Nord Stream – made by Biden, Nuland and Blinken – with the apparent need for utmost secrecy?   

SH: That would be a striking contrast if these American officials had a slightly higher IQ. But you know, Nuland is not a rocket scientist. She tends to blurt things out – like just a couple of weeks ago at the Senate hearing, where she commented to everyone’s favourite Senator from Texas that the administration was gratified that Nord Stream 2 was now ‘a hunk of metal at the bottom of the sea’. And Biden of course does it too. On February 7th 2022 he met with Olaf Scholz at the White House, and at the press conference afterward he said ‘If Russia invades . . . there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it.’ If I were in the German Bundestag, I would want to have a public hearing and ask the Scholz government what they knew about the American plan, given that these remarks were being made back in January and February.

AZ: In many of your stories, one of the reasons sources are willing to speak up is that there are conflicts and disputes within the state apparatus.  This was the case in some of your reporting on Syria from 2014, where military leaders clashed with the White House over its ‘red lines’ and the wisdom of bombing the country, given the risks this entailed of setting up a direct clash with the Russians. What is your sense of the potential internal sources of conflict over the Nord Stream operation – or the policy of military escalation in Ukraine generally?  

SH: There can’t have been much happiness about popping it off in late September. I mean, what’s the political goal? Was it strategic for negotiations or is it just to keep Germany and Western Europe in thrall to America? At some point, for economic reasons, Scholz may well have said: I’m out of the game – Ukraine can have a couple more German tanks, but I’m opening up the gas because I’ve got to keep my people warm and keep businesses going. But by putting an end to Nord Stream, Biden took that option off the table. And at that point, if you were a rational person working within the US state, you would say to yourself, this guy has made a choice that’s going to really hurt him in the long run. This kind of action might make it impossible for America to maintain its influence in Western Europe. Because with energy prices skyrocketing, and with little being done to ameliorate the decline in living standards, you’re going to see the far right gaining popularity across various countries.

The US is still sending liquefied natural gas to its European allies, but is charging three to four times more for it. So the president’s basically made a toss, you know, between severing the Germany–Russia link and losing political support for America and some of the states we most value. That would give any rational person in the intelligence community pause for thought. But, obviously, the story shows there were lots of people in that world who believed that developing the capability to destroy the pipelines would be useful to send a message to Putin. Certainly he knew that the US was discussing these options, and he probably knew about the training that was going on in the Baltic. We can’t be certain of this, but it’s hard to do something on that scale in the Baltic Sea without being noticed. Which also makes it unlikely that Sweden and Denmark were completely innocent.

AZ: Can I get your perspective on how the media landscape has changed since you broke a story like Mỹ Lai – or even since the 2000s, when you wrote several major investigative pieces about the War on Terror. Whether you published with a wire service as in Mỹ Lai, or in the Times, New Yorker or LRB, these stories were picked up, heaping pressure on the authorities to do more than issue a bland denial. But so far there has been a cordon sanitaire around this Nord Stream report, at least in the mainstream press. What’s changed?

SH: In 2007 I published a piece called ‘The Redirection’, about how the US had sided with the Sunnis against the Shias in the Middle East. That was very widely circulated. Reporters ambushed the White House spokesperson at the press briefing and asked ‘Is Hersh’s story true? Will you deny it?’ Years later people were still writing to me about it. A few of my New Yorker and New York Times articles had a similar reach – although of course I couldn’t get a paper to take the Mỹ Lai story, which is why I brought it to the Dispatch News Service.

But now you’re talking to a guy who recently learned second-hand about something called Substack and decided to publish there. I mean, we’re very adaptable in this industry. 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. These major outlets have run some of the dumbest stories I’ve ever seen in recent years. Back in 2021 there was one about Putin offering bounties to Afghan militants to kill US soldiers during the occupation. And more recently we’ve heard that he’s on steroids, that he has leprosy, that he has various kinds of cancer. You know, just crazy stuff.

So the only thing I can say about what’s changed is, this time I didn’t think of butting my head up against the system. I just went to this new platform and I’m told that the story has had over a million hits already: more than any other post – although the only mainstream media figure who’s called me up about it so far is Tucker Carlson. Self-publishing is terrifying for me, because I come from a very different world. In the old days of the New Yorker, the fact-checking was rigorous, really tough, and that was a great lesson for me. I was hired by the great New Yorker editor William Shawn five minutes after I walked into their offices off the street, and I worked there for two years before eventually leaving to go to the New York Times. Not many people would’ve made that change in the early seventies, since working at the New Yorker was supposed to be the best job in the world. But at the Times, there was a little period of heaven when Nixon was on the rocks, and I had the freedom to write stories that they would run. But by the time Ford got in it was back to the same old shit, so I had to get out of there.

Read on: Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire is available from Verso.