By Fabian Scheidler / Substack
A year ago, on Sept. 26, 2023, three of the four strings of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines were blown up in the Baltic Sea. Since then, various reports have emerged about who is allegedly responsible for this largest act of sabotage in recent history, and a thicket of speculation has grown up around them. Time for an attempt to clear this jungle and check the plausibility of the stories.
The first report was an article on Substack by investigative journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Seymour Hersh on Feb. 8, 2023. Hersh, citing an anonymous source, claimed that the U.S. government was responsible for the attacks, backed by Norwegian military. A few days later, I had an extensive interview with him about his findings, published by Jacobin, the Berliner Zeitung and around the world.
Then, the New York Times, of which Hersh was once a star reporter, ran its own story on March 7, claiming that it was not the U.S. government but a “pro-Ukrainian group” using a rented sailboat that carried out the attacks. The sources, again, anonymous. The German weekly Die Zeit published a more detailed version simultaneously, which refers in part to information provided by the German Public Prosecutor General. On June 6, the Washington Post published a report alleging that an unnamed European intelligence agency had informed the CIA of a planned Ukrainian attack on the pipelines three months prior to the explosions. The article links this story to the earlier reports about the yacht.
Let’s start with the sailboat story, in which numerous inconsistencies have since been identified by military experts and journalists. Swedish and German investigative authorities had repeatedly pointed out that only a state actor could seriously be considered responsible for the crime. The boat and the circumstances do not really fit the logistical effort of a complex military operation. Placing hundreds of kilos of explosives underwater requires hoisting equipment and locating buoys. Several dives with hours of work at 80 meters depth need extremely long decompression times of up to several days; only a decompression chamber, which, however, does not fit on the boat, could have shortened these times. In addition, the yacht’s raised stern makes it unsuitable for launching divers with heavy equipment and half a ton of explosives. The long detour from Poland via Rostock to Bornholm hardly makes sense – and much more.
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Beyond these logistical questions, there is also another critical point. According to the German Public Prosecutor’s Office, traces of an explosive were found on the cabin table of the sailboat – the only concrete trace of evidence known so far. But why, if the perpetrators were supposed to be capable of carrying out such a sophisticated military operation, had they not even cleaned the boat? Holger Stark, head of the Investigative Research department at the German weekly Die Zeit, wrote: “Apparently the attackers were under pressure and did not have enough time to cover their tracks.” The site of the attack is hundreds of miles away from the port of Rostock, where the yacht was returned. Why should the perpetrators not have had time to remove their tracks on this long journey? Moreover, the investigations by the Prosecutor General did not take place until January, months after the attacks – time enough to cover tracks or lay new ones. What is even more important : explosives experts and investigators have repeatedly pointed out that military-grade underwater explosives must have been used to destroy such a massive concrete and steel structure. Such explosive devices are not assembled at the kitchen table, but are packed highly impermeable, they normally leave no traces.
In fact, the questionable story of the explosive traces opens up room for a completely different interpretation. Could it be a deliberately laid false trail to distract attention from the actual perpetrators? Jeremy Scahill, for example, co-founder of the The Intercept, considers this possible. Scahill, whose research into covert operations has already triggered several U.S. congressional investigations, wrote with regard to the traces of explosives: “This is either unbelievably sloppy tradecraft, evidence of total amateurism, or an intentional ‚clue’ left with the intent to deceive.“
If it was a red herring, the question is who could have laid such a trail and with what intent. According to the New York Times, the clues to the sailboat story came from U.S. officials, who in turn relied on intelligence sources. The timing is not unimportant, either. U.S. officials began spreading the new story only after Seymour Hersh’s article had made waves around the world, from the German Bundestag to the UN Security Council. The U.S. was under pressure, especially as President Biden’s February 2022 statements that the U.S. would put an end to the pipelines were being reevaluated around the globe. Scahill also wrote that the way the information was leaked to The New York Times “seemed reminiscent of other efforts by anonymous U.S. intelligence sources to launder a narrative under the guise of a news scoop.“ In an interview, he added, “I think (…) there are elements within the U.S. intelligence community who are spinning this story, and they’re doing it for one of two reasons: either to distract from Hersh’s report or because this is representative of some sort of a deception operation.”
Scahill’s reasoning is supported by Steven Aftergood, who directed the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists from 1991 to 2021. Aftergood points out that the dissemination of false alternative narratives, with the goal of covering up an operation, “is an established practice in military operations and intelligence activities.” It is often referred to as “cover and deception,” he said.
Deliberate misinformation from intelligence sources to press organs, which then disseminate it uncritically, is unfortunately not uncommon in U.S. history. In 1977, CIA whistleblower Frank Snepp revealed the methods he and his colleagues used to hoodwink the media during the Vietnam War. First, personal contacts with top journalists were initiated, then useful and true information was slipped to them in order to build trust, until finally false information was mixed in. By leaking this misinformation to other authorities at home and abroad, the fact-checking of the editors found false confirmation. In this way, it was possible to place fake news in renowned media such as Newsweek, the New York Times or the New Yorker.
The best-known case of such “fake intelligence” was of course the hoax about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. At the time, it was the New York Times that endowed this momentous lie with the respectability of quality journalism. A year later, after hundreds of thousands of people had died in Iraq, the Times apologized, saying, “Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims.”
Unfortunately, there is no question of an aggressive examination of the sailboat story in the current case either. Julian Barnes, one of the authors of the March 7 New York Times article, cheered on the newspaper’s podcast that his team now knew who was responsible for the attacks – only to say the opposite at the end of the broadcast: “I should be very clear that we know really very little. This group remains mysterious, not just to us, but also to the U.S. government officials that we have spoken to.” And then he adds a sentence that raises eyebrows: U.S. government officials “know that they [the group, ed.] are not affiliated with the Ukrainian government.” If this group is so mysterious, how will anyone know exactly who it is not connected to?
A closer look reveals the sailboat story to be at best rather implausible, at worst a false lead that some high-profile media have fallen for. This does not mean that it should not be pursued further. It is not at all impossible that the boat played a role, though not the suspected one. Even if it is a red herring, it could lead to the real culprit.
And that brings us to Seymour Hersh’s rival story and the question of how credible it is. The only concrete criticism of his statements beyond the expected denials from the U.S. government and the CIA has so far come from the field of open source intelligence (OSINT), i.e. from data collectors who evaluate freely available information on air and shipping traffic. By far the most cited article on this comes from Oliver Alexander. A centerpiece of Alexander’s article is the claim that Hersh’s theses are implausible because no Norwegian P-8 aircraft, which Hersh claims dropped the trigger for the bombs, was located over the scene of the detonations during the period in question. Hersh has repeatedly pointed out that the bypassing and deception of OSINT was part of the operational planning and is considered routine in such covert operations anyway. Oliver Alexander also states himself in his article that OSINT tracking can be technically bypassed on P-8 aircraft – thus invalidating his own argument.
Seymour Hersh’s story has so far been neither proven nor debunked, and it is advisable, as in any criminal case, to remain open to unexpected twists and turns. Hersh does, however, have one strong support, a second independent source, as it were: the statements of the U.S. president himself. On Feb. 7, 2022, Joe Biden announced in a White House press conference with German chancellor Olaf Scholz that the United States would “put an end” to the pipeline if Russia invaded Ukraine. Not only was the statement itself remarkable, but so was the reaction of the chancellor and, subsequently, almost the entire Western media landscape: silence. Hadn’t a U.S. president just said that he would take out a critical infrastructure of an ally on his own authority? Shouldn’t this have immediately prompted a discussion on questions of state sovereignty?
Even after the attacks, this remarkable part of the press conference received little attention. Yet for any unbiased investigator, the U.S. should have been the prime suspect based on these statements alone. This did not even require the confirmation of Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland, notorious for her “Fuck the EU” statement, who after the attacks remarked, “The U.S. government is gratified that Nord Stream 2 is now a hunk of metal at the bottom of the sea” – a strange reaction to one of the most serious cases of international terrorism in recent history.
Despite these clear words, to this day authorities and media on both sides of the Atlantic conspicuously shun the hints that the U.S. might be involved. This avoidance behavior is not at all surprising, because the stakes are enormous, both for the U.S. and for Europe. If it turns out that the U.S. did indeed order the destruction of an ally’s infrastructure, the future of NATO might be in question. No wonder people prefer not to touch this hot potato. But this is precisely why an independent international commission of inquiry into Nord Stream is needed. The NATO countries investigating so far must be considered prejudiced.
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Fabian Scheidler is the author of the book “The End of the Megamachine. A Brief History of a Failing Civilization,” which was translated into several languages (www.end-of-the-
megamachine.com). His most recent book is “The Stuff We Are Made Of. Rethinking Nature and Society”. Fabian Scheidler has written as a free lance journalist for the Berliner Zeitung, Frankfurter Rundschau, Wiener Zeitung, Taz, Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, Jacobin, The Progressive, Radio France and others. In 2009, he received the Otto Brenner Media Prize for critical journalism.