Seymour Hersh: The Man Who Knows Too Much

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The Guardian/UK

Seymour Hersh: The Man Who Knows Too Much

He exposed the My Lai massacre, revealed Nixon's secret bombing of Cambodia and has hounded Bush and Cheney over the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib... No wonder the Republicans describe Seymour Hersh as 'the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist'. Rachel Cooke meets the most-feared investigative reporter in Washington

by
Rachel Cooke

American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. Photograph: Martha Camarillo

Every so often, a famous actor or producer will contact Seymour
Hersh, wanting to make a movie about his most famous story: his
single-handed uncovering, in 1969, of the My Lai massacre, in which an
American platoon stormed a village in South Vietnam and, finding only
its elderly, women and children, launched into a frenzy of shooting,
stabbing and gang-raping. It won him a Pulitzer prize and hastened the
end of the Vietnam war. Mostly, they come to see him in his office in
downtown Washington, a two-room suite that he has occupied for the past
17 years. Do they like what they see? You bet they do, even if the
movie has yet to be made. 'Brad Pitt loved this place,' says Hersh with
a wolfish grin. 'It totally fits the cliché of the grungy reporter's
den!' When last he renewed the lease, he tells me, he made it a
condition of signing that the office would not be redecorated - the
idea of moving all his stuff was too much. It's not hard to see why.
Slowly, I move my head through 180 degrees, trying not to panic at the
sight of so much paper piled so precipitously. Before me are 8,000
legal notepads, or so it seems, each one filled with a Biro Cuneiform
of scribbled telephone numbers. By the time I look at Hersh again - the
full panorama takes a moment or two - he is silently examining the wall
behind his desk, which is grey with grime, and striated as if a billy
goat had sharpened its horns on it.

And then there is Hersh
himself, a splendid sight. After My Lai, he was hired by the New York
Times to chase the tail of the Watergate scandal, a story broken by its
rival, the Washington Post. In All the President's Men, Bob Woodward
and Carl Bernstein's book about their scoop, they describe him - the
competition. He was unlike any reporter they'd ever seen: 'Hersh,
horn-rimmed and somewhat pudgy, showed up for dinner in old tennis
shoes, a frayed pinstriped shirt that might have been at its best in
his college freshman year and rumpled, bleached khakis.' Forty years
on, little has changed. Today he is in trainers, chinos and a baggy
navy sweatshirt and - thanks to a tennis injury - he is walking like an
old guy: chest forward, knees bandy, slight limp in one leg. There is
something cherishably chaotic about him. A fuzzy halo of frantic
inquiry follows him wherever he goes, like the cloud of dust that
hovers above Pig Pen in the Charlie Brown strip. In conversation, away
from the restraining hand of his bosses at the New Yorker, the magazine
that is now his home, his thoughts pour forth, unmediated and - unless
you concentrate very hard - seemingly unconnected. 'Yeah, I shoot my
mouth off,' he says, with faux remorse. 'There's a huge difference
between writing and thinking.' Not that he has much time for those who
put cosy pontification over the graft of reporting: 'I think... My
colleagues! I watch 'em on TV, and every sentence begins with the
words: "I think." They could write a book called I Think.'

But we
must backtrack a little. Before the office, there is the breakfast
joint. Hersh and I meet at the Tabard Inn, a Washington hangout so
gloomily lit I could do with a torch. He has poached eggs and coffee
and 'none of that other stuff, thanks'. (I think he means that he
doesn't want potatoes with his eggs). Like everyone in America just
now, he is on tenterhooks. A Democrat who truly despises the Bush
regime, he is reluctant to make predictions about exactly what is going
to happen in the forthcoming election on the grounds that he might
'jinx it'. The unknown quantity of voter racism apart, however, he is
hopeful that Obama will pull it off, and if he does, for Hersh this
will be a starting gun. 'You cannot believe how many people have told
me to call them on 20 January [the date of the next president's
inauguration],' he says, with relish. '[They say:] "You wanna know
about abuses and violations? Call me then." So that is what I'll do, so
long as nothing awful happens before the inauguration.' He plans to
write a book about the neocons and, though it won't change anything -
'They've got away with it, categorically; anyone who talks about
prosecuting Bush and Cheney [for war crimes] is kidding themselves' -
it will reveal how the White House 'set out to sabotage the system...
It wasn't that they found ways to manipulate Congressional oversight;
they had conversations about ending the right of Congress to intervene.'

In
one way, it's amazing Hersh has anything left to say about Bush, Cheney
and their antics. Then again, with him, this pushing of a story on and
on is standard practice. Though it was Woodward and Bernstein who
uncovered the significance of the burglary at the Watergate building,
Hersh followed up their scoop by becoming one of Nixon's harshest
critics and by breaking stories about how the government had supported
Pinochet's 1973 coup in Chile, secretly bombed Cambodia and used the
CIA to spy on its domestic enemies. His 1983 book about Nixon, The
Price of Power, is definitive. So far as the War on Terror goes, Hersh
has already delivered his alternative history - Chain of Command, a
book based on the series of stories he wrote for the New Yorker in the
aftermath of 9/11 and following Bush's invasion of Iraq. Among other
things, Hersh told us of the bungled efforts to catch Osama bin Laden
in Afghanistan; of the dubious business dealings of the superhawk
Richard Perle - a report that led to Perle's resignation as chairman of
the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board (Hersh alleged that Perle
improperly mixed his business affairs with his influence over US
foreign policy when he met the Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi in
2003. Perle described Hersh as 'the closest thing American journalism
has to a terrorist' and threatened to sue before falling oddly silent);
and of how Saddam's famous efforts to buy uranium in Africa, as quoted
by President Bush in his 2003 State of the Union speech, were a
fiction. Most electrifying of all, however, was his triple salvo on the
abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib. It was Hersh who first revealed
the full extent of this torture, for which he traced the ultimate
responsibility carefully back to the upper reaches of the
administration. 'In each successive report,' writes David Remnick, the
editor of the New Yorker, in his introduction to Chain of Command, 'it
became clear that Abu Ghraib was not an "isolated incident" but,
rather, a concerted attempt by the government and the military
leadership to circumvent the Geneva Conventions in order to extract
intelligence and quell the Iraqi insurgency.' As Remnick points out,
this reporting has 'stood up over time and in the face of a president
whose calumny has turned out to be a kind of endorsement'. Bush
reportedly told Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, that Hersh was
'a liar'; after the third of his reports on Abu Ghraib, a Pentagon
spokesman announced that Hersh merely 'threw a lot of crap against the
wall and he expects someone to peel off what's real. It's a tapestry of
nonsense.'

Earlier this year, Hersh turned his attention to Iran:
to Bush's desire to bomb it and to America's covert operations there.
But while Hersh believes the President would still dearly love to go
after Iran, the danger of that actually happening has now passed.
Events, not least the sinking of the global economy, have moved on. So
he is shortly to write about Syria instead, which he has recently
visited. In the dying days of the Bush administration, he says, it is
noticeably easier to meet contacts - Cheney, the enforcer, is a lot
less powerful - and the information he is getting is good. By
coincidence, it was in Syria that he first heard about what was going
on inside Abu Ghraib, long before he saw documentary evidence of it. 'I
got in touch with a guy inside Iraq during the Prague Spring after the
fall of Baghdad, a two-star guy from the old regime. He came up to
Damascus by cab. We talked for four days, and one of the things we
talked about was prisons. He told me that some of the women inside had
been sending messages to their fathers and brothers asking them to come
and kill them because they'd been molested. I didn't know whether it
was GIs playing grab ass or what, but it was clear that the women had
been shamed. So when I first heard about the photographs, I knew they
were real. Did I think the story would be as big as it was? Yeah. But
was it as big as My Lai? No.' Only a handful of relatively lowly
military personnel have so far been punished for their part in the
abuse, and Colonel Janis Karpinski, the commander of the Iraqi prisons,
was merely demoted (from Brigadier General), in spite of the fact that
the Taguba Report, the internal US army report on detainee abuse that
was leaked to Hersh, singled her out for blame. 'And John Kerry
wouldn't even use it [Abu Ghraib] in his campaign. He didn't want to
offend the military, I assume.'

Four decades separate My Lai and
Abu Ghraib. You have to ask: wasn't it appalling for him to be
investigating US army abuses of civilians all over again? Didn't he
think that lessons might have been learnt? Yes, and no. It made him
feel 'hopeless', but on the other hand, war is always horrible. In
1970, after his My Lai story, he addressed an anti-war rally and, on
the spur of the moment, asked a veteran to come up and tell the crowd
what some soldiers would do on their way home after a day spent moving
their wounded boys. With little prompting, the traumatised vet
described how they would buzz farmers with their helicopter blades,
sometimes decapitating them; they would then clean up the helicopter
before they landed back at base. 'That's what war is like,' he says.
'But how do you write about that? How do you tell the American people
that?' Still, better to attempt to tell people than to stay feebly
silent. What really gets Hersh going - he seems genuinely bewildered by
it - is the complicit meekness, the virtual collapse, in fact, of the
American press since 9/11. In particular, he disdains its failure to
question the 'evidence' surrounding Saddam's so-called weapons of mass
destruction. 'When I see the New York Times now, it's so shocking to
me. I joined the Times in 1972, and I came with the mark of Cain on me
because I was clearly against the war. But my editor, Abe Rosenthal, he
hired me because he liked stories. He used to come to the Washington
bureau and almost literally pat me on the head and say: "How is my
little Commie today? What do you have for me?" Somehow, now, reporters
aren't able to get stories in. It was stunning to me how many good,
rational people - people I respect - supported going into war in Iraq.
And it was stunning to me how many people thought you could go to war
against an idea.'

As for the troop 'surge' and its putative
success, he more or less rolls his eyes when I bring this up. 'People
are saying quietly that they are worried about Iraq. This is nothing
profound, but by the time the surge got going, ethnic cleansing had
already happened in a lot of places. There was a natural lull in the
violence. The moment we start withdrawing, and relying on the Shia to
start paying members of the Awakening [the alliance of Sunni insurgents
whose salaries were initially paid by the US military, and who have
helped to reduce violence in some provinces]...' His voice trails off.
'And the big bad bogeyman is Saudi Arabia. There's an awful lot of
money going to Salafist and Wahabist charities, and there's no question
they'll pour money into the Awakening, and they're so hostile to
Shi'ism and to Iran that how can you possibly predict anything other
than violence? How do we get out of this? There is no way out. We have
a moral obligation to the people of Iraq that goes beyond anything that
anyone's talking about. The notion that it's their problem, that we
should just leave... I mean, can you believe what we've done to their
society? Imagine the psychosis, the insanity, that we've induced.' He
stabs the yolk of one of his poached eggs, and sets about his toast
like he hasn't eaten in days.

Seymour M Hersh (the M is for
Myron) was born in Chicago, the son of Yiddish-speaking immigrants from
Lithuania and Poland (he has a twin brother, a physicist, and two
sisters, also twins). The family was not rich; his father, who died
when Seymour was 17, ran a dry-cleaning business. After school he
attended a local junior college until a professor took him aside, asked
him what he was doing there and walked him up to the University of
Chicago. 'Chicago was this great egghead place,' Hersh says. 'But I
knew nothing. I came out of a lower-middle-class background. At that
time, everyone used to define themselves: Stalinist, Maoist, whatever.
I thought they meant "miaowist". Seriously! Something to do with cats.
Among my peers, they all thought I would write the great novel, because
I was very quick and cutting. I've just read Philip Roth's new novel
[Indignation], and the arrogance of his character reminded me of that
certitude. I was always pointing out other people's flaws.' He went to
law school but hated it, dropped out and wound up as a copy boy, then a
reporter for the local City News Bureau. Later he joined Associated
Press in Washington and rose through its ranks until he quit for a
stint working for the Democrat senator Eugene McCarthy. Pretty soon,
though, he was back in journalism. 'Using words to make other people
less big made me feel bigger, though the psychological dimension to
that... well, I don't want to explore it.' His wife of 40 years,
Elizabeth, whom he describes as 'the love of my life' in the
acknowledgements of Chain of Command (they have three grown-up
children), is a psychoanalyst. Doesn't she ever tell him about his ego
and his id? He looks embarrassed. 'No, no... marriage is... different.
When you live with someone you don't... The hardest part for her is
when she tells me to take out the garbage and I say: "Excuse me? I
don't have time. I'm saving the world."' Later, however, he tells me
that journalism, like psychoanalysis, is about 'bringing things into
focus'.

He was a broke freelance working for a new syndication
agency when he got wind of My Lai. A military lawyer told him that a
soldier at Fort Benning, a Georgia army base, was facing a court
martial for murdering at least 109 Vietnamese civilians. Hersh rocked
up in Benning and went on a door-to-door search, somehow avoiding the
officers on base, until he found Lieutenant William L Calley Jr, a
boyish 26-year-old otherwise known as Rusty. He asked the former
railway pointsman if they could talk, which they did, for three hours.
They then went to the grocery store, got steaks, bourbon and wine, and
talked some more at the apartment of Calley's girlfriend. Calley told
Hersh that he had only been following orders, but nevertheless he
described what had happened (it later turned out that soldiers of the
11th Brigade killed 500 or more civilians that morning). Soon after, 36
newspapers ran the story under Hersh's byline. Some, however, did not
carry it, in spite of the fact that Calley's own lawyer had confirmed
it, among them the New York Times. The scoop caused not only horror but
disbelief. Hersh, though, was not to be put off. 'By the third story, I
found this amazing fellow, Paul Meadlo, from a small town in Indiana, a
farm kid, who had actually shot many of the Vietnamese kids - he'd shot
maybe 100 people. He just kept on shooting and shooting, and then the
next day he had his leg blown off, and he told Calley, as they
medevac-ed him: "God has punished me and now he will punish you."'
Hersh wrote this up, CBS put Meadlo on the TV news, and finally the
story could no longer be ignored. The next year, 1970, he was awarded
the Pulitzer prize.

How does Hersh operate? The same way as
he's always done: it's all down to contacts. Unlike Bob Woodward,
however, whose recent books about Iraq have involved long and somewhat
pally chats with the President, Hersh gets his stuff from lower down
the food chain. Woodward was one of those who was convinced that WMD
would be found in Iraq. 'He does report top dollar,' says Hersh. 'I
don't go to the top because I think it's sorta useless. I see people at
six o'clock in the morning somewhere, unofficially.' Are they mostly
people he has known for a long time? 'No, I do pick up new people.' But
with new contacts he must be wary; there is always the danger of a
plant. His critics point to what they regard as his excessive use of
unnamed sources. Others accuse him of getting things wrong and of being
gullible. A low point came in the Nineties, when he embarked on a book
about Kennedy, The Dark Side of Camelot. Hersh was shown documents that
alleged the President was being blackmailed by Marilyn Monroe, and
though he discovered that they were fake in time to remove all mention
of them from his book, the damage to his reputation had already been
done - and the critics let rip anyway, for his excitable portrayal of
JFK as a sex addict and bigamist. There was also the time, in 1974,
when he accused the US ambassador to Chile, Edward Korry, of being in
on a CIA plot to overthrow President Allende. Some years later, Hersh
had to write a long correction; it ran on page one of the New York
Times. As a Jew, his mailbag since 9/11 has also included letters from
readers who denounce him as a self-hater (later, at this office, he
shows me one of these: its author, an MD with a Florida postcode,
accuses him of being a 'kapo' - the kapo were concentration camp
prisoners who worked for the Nazis in exchange for meagre privileges).

His
supporters, though, believe that his mistakes - and even the wilder
allegations he sometimes makes in speeches - should always be put in
the context of his hit rate. A former Washington Post reporter, Scott
Armstrong, once put it this way. Say he writes a story about how an
elephant knocked someone down in a dark room. 'If it was a camel, or
three cows, what difference does it make? It was dark, and it wasn't
supposed to be there.' Hersh himself points out that, since 1993, he
has been up against the stringent standards of the New Yorker and its
legendary team of fact checkers. 'By the way, all my inside sources
have to deal with the fact checkers, and they do. People find it hard
to believe that, I don't know why.' And then there is his editor, David
Remnick. 'I never love editors,' he says. 'But David is smart and he
has great judgement.' How often does he check in with Remnick? 'I'm
sure he would tell you less often than I should. He gets pretty angry
with me. Sometimes we have these rows where I won't take his calls. He
says no to a lot of stuff - stuff I think the editor would die for!
Admittedly, it is not the Seymour Hersh weekly. But sometimes he'll
say: "We are not going to publish this kind of stuff 'cos it's frigging
crazy."' It was Tina Brown, formerly of Tatler and Vanity Fair, who
brought him to the New Yorker. 'What's-her-name... yeah, Tina. She gave
me a lot of money, and she said: "Just go do it!" But she used to
worry. She'd call me up and say, "I sat next to Colin Powell at dinner
last night and he was railing about how awful you are." So I would say,
"Well, that's good." And she'd say, "Is it?" And I'd tell her, "Yes, it
is."'

Does it worry him that he is sometimes described as the
'last American reporter'? Who is coming up behind him? 'A friend of
mine wants to put $5m into a chair for investigative journalism for me,
but why would I want to do that? Look, the cost of running my kind of
work is very high, and a lot of stories don't even work out. I know a
wonderful journalist who works on the internet. I called friends of
mine at the Times and the Post. But he hasn't been hired because he
would cost a lot of money.' But Hersh is in his seventies (he is a year
younger than John McCain, though you'd never know), he can't keep going
forever. Or can he? Most reporters start out hungry but somewhere along
the way are sated. Not Hersh. 'I have information; I have people who
trust me. What else am I going to do? I love golf and tennis and if I
was good enough, I'd be professional. Since I'm not, what am I gonna
do? Why shouldn't I be energetic? Our whole country is at stake. We
have never had a situation like this. These men have completely ruined
America. It's so depressing, my business!' Yet he seems chipper. 'No,
I'm not chipper. I don't know how to put where I am... I don't take it
that seriously. I've been there: up, down, back up. I do a lotta
speeches, I make a lotta money, I proselytise.' Does he like making
money? 'Are you kidding? I do!'

After we finish breakfast, he
takes me to the office. He is eager to put off the moment when he must
get on with his Syria piece. The more time he wastes with me... well,
the morning will soon be over. Inside he points out a few choice
interior-design details - the Pulitzer (it nestles among dozens of
other awards), the framed memo from Lawrence Eagleburger and Robert
McCloskey to Henry Kissinger, their boss at the State Department, which
is dated 24 September 1974, and reads: 'We believe Seymour Hersh
intends to publish further allegations on the CIA in Chile. He will not
put an end to this campaign. You are his ultimate target.' Then he
roots around in a cairn of paper for a while - quite a long while -
eventually producing a proof of one of his articles with Remnick's
editing marks on it. I've never seen anything so harsh in my life.
Practically every other sentence has been ruthlessly disembowelled.
'Yeah, pretty tough, huh?' He also shows me one of his own memos to a
contact. It makes reference to the current administration. 'These guys
are hard-wired and drinking the Kool-Aid,' it says, deadpan. He laughs.
He's getting cheerier by the minute. Soon it will be time for lunch!
Now he puts his feet on the desk, removes one training shoe and
jauntily waves the sweaty sole of a white sock at me. A couple of calls
come in. He is concise bordering on cryptic. Finally an old Times
colleague arrives. 'I knew this guy when he had hair!' Hersh shouts as
this fellow and I pass in a small area of floorspace not yet covered by
books or papers. I'm leaving, but Hersh doesn't get up and he doesn't
say goodbye. A breezy salute - and then his eyes fall ravenously on his
pal.

 

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