During the past few weeks huge numbers of people have become convinced the United States was responsible for explosions that wrecked three of the Nord Steam pipelines in the Baltic Sea last September. Many of the believers can be found on social media, proclaiming it as established fact.
Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. But the US is not the only potential culprit and so far there isn’t enough evidence to draw conclusions about who was responsible.
Those blaming the US rely almost entirely on a 5,000-word article posted on Substack early in February by the celebrated journalist Seymour Hersh. Based on information from an anonymous source “with direct knowledge of the operational planning”, Hersh accused President Biden of ordering the attack.
Hersh is famous (some would say notorious) for his use of anonymous but seemingly well-placed sources and the people persuaded by his account of the Nord Stream attack seem to believe it mainly because it tells them what they want to hear.
Since writing his controversial article, Hersh hasn’t been silent. He has given a series of interviews, published more posts on Substack and responded, up to a point, to email enquiries. Far from bringing clarity, though, this has raised more questions about the accuracy of his claims.
So let’s take stock of where Hersh’s version of the pipeline sabotage stands now, in the light of what he has been saying since he wrote his initial article.
The ‘cover story’
Every year for the past half-century Nato has held a large-scale naval exercise in the Baltic Sea. Sixteen countries took part in last year’s exercise, held in June and known as BALTOPS22. It included the usual practice in laying and detecting mines, but on this occasion the US was also seeking to test “the latest advancements in unmanned underwater vehicle mine hunting technology”.
A headline in Seapower magazine described BALTOPS 22 as “A Perfect Opportunity for Research and Testing New Technology.” According to Hersh, though, the US also saw it as a perfect opportunity to secretly plant explosives on the underwater pipelines — using BALTOPS22 as cover.
Regarding the sabotage itself, Hersh’s article makes three significant claims:
● US Navy divers planted explosives on the four Nord Stream pipelines.
● The divers were “operating from a Norwegian Alta class mine hunter”
● The explosives were triggered by a Norwegian Navy P8 surveillance plane dropping a sonar buoy into the sea.
Eight bombs, two divers
Hersh’s article doesn’t specify how many divers it took to plant explosives on all four pipelines but in an interview with Fabian Scheidler for the Berliner Zeitung he says there were just two of them and that the job “only took a few hours”.
It would have been a laborious task, though, because although only three pipelines were blown up Hersh tells his interviewer that the divers planted eight bombs altogether (presumably two for each pipeline). He adds that two of them later failed to explode, having spent too long under water.
In a subsequent interview, however, we find Hersh talking of one unexploded bomb, not two — and he claims the US, fearful it would be discovered, went back to retrieve it “within a day or two” after the blasts. This is an intriguing bit of new information but it invites more questions. For example, how did American efforts to retrieve the bomb go unnoticed when Denmark and Sweden had imposed exclusion zones in the area?
A Norwegian mine-hunting vessel
In his article and in interviews, Hersh insists that Norway had an important supporting role in the sabotage. For example, in an interview with the Postil website he says:
“The big point that everybody misses is Norway was very important. It was Norwegian ships, Norwegian training, Norwegian involvement. We [Americans] don’t know the Baltic Sea. And you’re suddenly going to have a bunch of divers jumping around the Baltic Sea where there’s been no oil or gas below the surface, ever. What? And the Russians certainly have surveillance.”
Evidence of Norway’s involvement in the actual sabotage looks increasingly thin, however. In his initial article, Hersh wrote that the divers operated from an “Alta class mine hunter” belonging to the Norwegian navy, though he didn’t identify it by name. There were two Alta class vessels in service at the time — the Otra and the Rauma — but neither of them took part in BALTOPS22 and both were in Norwegian waters, not the Baltic Sea, at the relevant time (details here).
Hersh appeared to clarify the situation an interview with Democracy Now when he said the Norwegian ship used by the divers was called the Alta, but that explanation soon ran into difficulties too. As the name suggests, the Alta was an Alta class vessel but it had been out of service for years and at the time of BALTOPS22 waiting for tugs to tow it to a scrapyard.
When OSINT analyst Oliver Alexander queried Hersh’s naming of the Alta in an email exchange, Hersh suggested it was just a slip of the tongue — “an obvious mistpeak [sic] in the god knows how many intvs since the article came out”. He explained: “i wrote alta class in my original article..which of courts is much different than the long gone Alta, whose history i clearly knew…”
Another new claim from Hersh in interviews is that one of the Alta class boats had “a big bay, big enough that you can put a decompression unit in it … You have a decompression chamber hidden in the Alta-class boat that’s not seen by anyone. The CIA flew a special flight with the decompression chamber.”
The depth of water in the chosen area was around 80 metres, so divers would have needed to decompress and a decompression chamber would be an obvious solution. The alternative would be for divers to pause periodically in the water while ascending to the surface. The puzzle, though, is why the presence of a decompression chamber had to be kept secret. It’s a piece of equipment normally associated with diving and, according to Hersh, diving to plant mines during BALTOPS22 was part of the official cover story.
A mystery plane
Hersh wrote in his initial article that the Nord Stream bombs were detonated when “a Norwegian Navy P8 surveillance plane made a seemingly routine flight and dropped a sonar buoy”. This was an important point in his story because it directly implicated Norway in the attack, but Hersh now seems less sure.
“The plane could have been flown by anybody,” he says in an interview with the Postil website. “Whatever I wrote is due to what the information I had [sic]. I think it was a P8-A, flown by Americans; in an American P8-A. And somebody said there were no such planes in Norway. Well, not to their knowledge, maybe; but there were. So, there you are. What happened, happened, period.”
The Andromeda yacht
A month after Hersh’s article blaming the US, the New York Times suggested a pro-Ukrainian group had carried out the attack. This was said to be based on “new intelligence reviewed by US officials”.
In Germany, on the same day, Die Zeit published a story that journalists from several news organisations had been working on for some time. The gist of it was that suspicion had fallen on a yacht hired in the German port of Rostock. The six people on board were said to be a captain, two divers, two diving assistants and a doctor — allegedly using false passports. The boat — later identified as the 15-metre Andromeda — had been rented by a company based in Poland, “apparently owned by two Ukrainians”.
Adding to the suspicions, it emerged that the yacht had called at the tiny Danish island of Christiansø during its fortnight at sea. Christiansø happens to be the closest land to the area where most of the explosions occurred. Also, traces of explosives were said to have been found on a table in the yacht’s cabin.
There are still a lot of unanswered questions about the Andromeda and its role — if any — in the Nord Stream bombing. Could such a small boat carry a tonne or more of explosives (the quantity widely believed to have been used)? How could divers manoeuvre them off the boat and on to the seabed? If the Andromeda group were the bombers, were they acting alone and who were they working for? If they weren’t the bombers, were they deliberately laying a false trail to divert investigators from the real culprits?
Hersh, though, has decided that the yacht theory is nonsense from start to finish. In his latest Substack post he is not so much arguing that it’s wrong but that it’s a complete work of fiction: the yacht and its divers don’t exist — because they were dreamed up by the CIA. He writes:
“By creating a story of deep sea divers and a crew who did not exist, the agency was following protocol, and the story would have been part of the first days of secret planning to destroy the pipelines. The essential element was a mythical yacht ironically named the Andromeda — after the beautiful daughter of a mythical king who was chained to a rock, naked.”
For support with this claim, Hersh turns to another of his famously anonymous sources — this time an “intelligence expert” (or, as he says later, an “intelligence export”). Presumably this person knows something about intelligence but Hersh would have done far better talking to people who know about sailing or diving.
In the Substack post Hersh’s intelligence expert raises a series of objections to the Andromeda narrative which, to put it bluntly, are laughably naive. One of them is this:
“How does a 49-foot sailboat find the pipelines in the Baltic Sea? The pipelines are not that big and they are not on the charts that come with the lease.”
The simple answer is that the locations of the pipes are not secret. They are marked on nautical charts because anchoring and fishing there is prohibited for safety reasons.
Expert diver Achim Schloeffel offers further advice for finding the pipes in an interview with the Ostsee Zeitung: the crew could use a device known as a fish finder which scans the seabed and displays it graphically on a screen. “I have a device on my boat for around 3,000 euros that would easily locate the pipeline,” he says.
The sea in the area where most of the bombs were planted is about 80 metres (260 feet) deep and Hersh’s intelligence expert comments:
“Any serious student of the event would know that you cannot anchor a sailboat in waters that are 260 feet deep.”
Though factually correct, this is a silly thing to say: the boat wouldn’t need to anchor, as diver Schloeffel explains:
“You use the fish finder to look for the spot and then cast a so-called shotline there. This is a heavy weight, about 15.20 kg. There, in turn, there is a line attached and a buoy at the back. The weight goes to the bottom quickly and the buoy above the water marks the spot where you want to dive. This step is important: if the diver were to simply jump into the water, the wind and current could cause the diver to miss his target. The shotline is completely different: the perpetrators dive down the line and arrive exactly where they threw the weight.”
Meanwhile, the boat doesn’t have to stay in a fixed position waiting for the divers to complete their task: they release a marker buoy when they are about to resurface and the boat picks them up.
The intelligence expert continues:
“You cannot just walk off the street with a fake passport and lease a boat.”
The captain and the divers would need to show proof of their competence, but it’s unclear why the expert thinks this would be a problem. If you want to blow up pipelines it’s best to have competent people to do it. They wouldn’t want to have their real names on the certificates, but for people who know how to get false passports getting the extra documentation shouldn’t be too difficult.
The Andromeda is currently in storage on dry land. Photographs have been published but Hersh still seems doubtful about its existence. He writes in his Substack post:
“The stories in the New York Times and the European press have given no indication that any journalist was able to board and physically examine the yacht in question.”
REALLY??? Here’s a photo of a Bild journalist doing exactly that. And there’s a video of it too.
Although Hersh is now self-publishing on Substack he says his work is going through checking and editing processes that are similar to those of The New Yorker:
“I’ve hired one of the best editors I work with here in Washington, New York, and also in the London Review. And I have a fact checker. The New Yorker had superb fact checkers. Every line was checked. I hired the very best fact checker that worked with me ten years ago when I worked at The New Yorker.”