It's Saturday, the afternoon after I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the U.S. vice president's chief of staff, was indicted for lying in the investigation of the leak of a covert CIA operative's identity.
On the phone from his Washington home, Seymour Hersh is cranky. He's on edge partly because he just got off the red eye from San Francisco, partly because the cleaning lady is vacuuming and partly because I'm asking about things that rile him.
But mostly, the controversial investigative reporter is exercised over the fact that journalists connected to the Libby case have "a very strange value system" if they protect people who they know used and abused them.
Which is exactly what the New York Times' Judith Miller did when she served 85 days in jail rather than give up her source in the outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent.
That outing was clearly designed to smear Plame's husband, former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson, who, in 2003, had attempted to discredit the White House's weapons-of-mass-destruction case for invading Iraq.
"You got reporters saying they're willing to go jail to defend the right of somebody to lie to them about something that leads to the deaths of thousands of people," Hersh says. "Do you understand the crazy value system? It's pretty bad."
It's because Hersh gets so worked up about these matters — and because of his work on these matters — that he is the ideal keynote speaker for tonight's Canadian Journalists for Free Expression International Press Freedom Awards event in Toronto.
"I was fascinated by today's Washington Post," Hersh continues. "There's about 88 pages of coverage on Libby and then, way in the back, there is about a 10-inch story: `Five GIs killed in Iraq; Shia family found slain.' One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine graphs. Oh man. Five Americans killed and it's not even a story. It's a tagline.
"There is an irony in this."
Hersh, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for exposing the My Lai massacre by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, knows about Iraq. He's the reporter who wrote the book on the abuses at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, Chain of Command.
More recently, he wrote the foreword to Iraq Confidential: The Untold Story of the Intelligence Conspiracy to Undermine the UN and Overthrow Saddam Hussein, by former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter.
"He's got some great stuff," says Hersh. "Some amazing stuff about how his own government worked against him and how often the Brits tipped him off about what our CIA were doing, they were so appalled. It's a great story but neither the Times nor the (Washington) Post has written a word about his book. They continue to ignore him. It's totally amazing."
In his work for The New Yorker, Hersh is known for his take-no-prisoners style. That's why neocon Richard Perle, former chair of the Defense Policy Board, called him "the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist."
Others think of Hersh as courageous, praise that clearly embarrasses him.
He says he is just doing his job.
Which brings us back to protecting the powerful. While Hersh believes in protecting sources, he would never do time for a liar, no matter how well-connected.
"That's the one difference: I don't want that connection," he admits. "I am not interested in what people who are dishonest would say to me. I talk to people in the government, but the people who I talk to don't agree with everything being done."
As for freedom, Hersh has some very strong ideas.
"Who in the hell is (President George) Bush?" he demands. "My parents came here to get away from stuff that he's recreating. Who is he to deconstruct 250 years of the constitution? If you were a Muslim in America after 9/11, you were presumed guilty of something. He prosecuted 2,000 Muslims — and not one conviction for terrorism. They got a couple of guys on credit card fraud and a couple of guys on overstayed visas. Right now this government is going around and anywhere in the world we think there's a member of the `global war on terrorism' we can snatch him and take him somewhere where the sun don't shine on him.
"That is enraging."
Tonight's sold-out dinner will honour Marlys Edwardh, the Toronto criminal lawyer who has acted in many big media cases.
Receiving the CJFE's International Press Freedom Awards are Gambia's Alagi Yorro Jallow and Ukraine's Mykola Veresen, both journalists who have faced intimidation and risked persecution in their countries.
© 2005 Toronto Star