///Seymour Hersh: The Man Who Knows Too Much

Seymour Hersh: The Man Who Knows Too Much

Seymour Hersh 
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.

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 craft 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 psycho analysis, 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.

by Rachel Cooke, The Guardian.

Seymour Hersh was the 2004 recipient of the Lennon-Ono Grant for Peace,
presented by Yoko Ono.

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2008-11-12T04:55:40+00:00 November 12th, 2008|Yoko reads|