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Seymour Hersh: A Life in Investigative Journalism

Seymour Hersh

Seymour Hersh

How would you explain the greatest intelligence failure in this country's history, namely the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001?

I don't think so, I think it would have been almost counterintuitive no matter how much we knew. Somebody could have come in with a report on September 5th and said, "You know, they're coming, they're coming," and everybody would have said, "What? Go away, no way, go look at it again." I'm sorry to tell you that. In my belief it's inevitable. Something that is as off the wall as this, taking down four planes, hitting those targets, three of them, nobody would have believed that. You could have laid out the plans to us in advance and we wouldn't have accepted it. It would have struck as too incredible.

There was a lot of stuff that they could have done. They could have put a lot of dots together but to come to this conclusion would've been almost impossible. Look at the classic case of Israel in '73, they were told time and time again that the Egyptians are coming across the Gaza. And they said, "Oh come on!" It's just human nature.

There's no question that the CIA doesn't get along with anybody else. They always thought they were top dog and treated everybody else pretty lousily and an FBI report would be relegated to the bottom of the bin because it was FBI and there was all this internecine warfare and competition as there is in my profession. And yes, if we had been living in Plato's Republic and everything had been inside the cave and everything had been perfect, we would have been able to see what's going on because the people that did it to us, al Qaeda, are not geniuses either. They were operating in plain sight. But the fact of the matter is that nobody could anticipate it. Now we can, and I think that'll make it much harder for it to happen again. Somebody could always walk into a mall with something awful but the kind of organized stuff that they had before, I think it's basically going to be much harder to do because everybody is more on alert for this kind of thing. You won't be able to get these kinds of clowns past the security guards anymore. As bad as the security guards may be at airports, but you know we all saw the photographs: they were letting people through who had no language and no baggage getting on a plane in a hurry. I mean when you look at it, it's sort of comical. But it's human nature.

As a journalist, did you find that the events of September 11th, 2001, made subsequent access to information from US government agencies more difficult? Would you agree that 9/11, in combination with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has enabled state officials to legitimately conceal more information from the public in the name of national security?

You're asking about stuff that's always happened. People think that there's been nothing as bad as the Bush administration with respect to retrenching and government officials making themselves unavailable and being misleading and not telling the truth as they know it and all these problems. I would say to you that the single worst collection of American documents about mendacity are the Pentagon papers that began in the Kennedy administration and went on through Johnson and Nixon, mostly Kennedy and Johnson. I think they stopped in '67. But it's the single collection of the most serial lying I've ever seen. That doesn't mean we don't have the same kind of stuff going on but I doubt if we're going to document it like we did that. So this goes with the turf. There's always this inevitable tension, particularly in war time, the government doesn't want their mistakes known. They cover up stuff. They mislead. Frankly these people to me are more alarming because I think they believe the stuff they say in a strange way.

Which you don't think was the case with Kennedy or Johnson?

No. When they would mislead about the number of troops there, and not talk about what they really intended to do, hell no. I mean that's empirical, it's in the Pentagon papers, an amazing collection of documents about lying and the arrogance of the people in power in not telling anybody. These guys, Bush and all, they believe what they say. I take them at their word that they didn't go into Iraq for oil or for Israel primarily although those are issues. They went in because Bush sees it as his manifest destiny. I wish the real reason was oil, I would be so much happier because then I'd say, "Okay, just another cynical, scheming, misleading President and National Security Advisor like we've had forever." That's just in the ballpark but at least you know that there was somebody there with enough sense to know what the reality was. This guy believes what he's doing. I mean look, this is a word that would never cross his lips, but he's a true Trotskyite who leads a permanent revolution. He doesn't know what that concept is but he believes it. And chaos works for him, it all works. Basically what's going on now is sort of a plus for all these guys.