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Seymour Hersh: A Life in Investigative Journalism

Seymour Hersh

Seymour Hersh

But isn't it the case that in the past, despite Congressional oversight, the CIA also carried out all sorts of operations that were banned by Congress?

Yes, that's certainly true. And they cheat and they do what they can to avoid it and they have findings that are generalized findings. There's a finding for example that if you're doing counter-narcotics work, you don't have to go to Congress and it's a loophole and people have run up and down it. They will do an operation they could never sell to the Congress as an operation designed to do A but they'll tell Congress it's a counter-narcotics operation and then they get blanket approval. Yes, that happens all the time. That's a great abuse. But the reality is it shouldn't and now we've even removed that little restraint because if the Pentagon authorizes an operation, the Pentagon's view is that the President has a constitutional right as commander-in-chief to authorize any mission to prepare the battlefield and that's how they view these intelligence operations, they're preparing the battlefield. And so therefore, you don't have to get Congressional authorization. So it just makes it easier to break the rules.

What's the relationship of this trend to what happened in Abu Ghraib?

What happened in Abu Ghraib was sort of the end result. There are a lot of higher up decisions to, among other things, communicate the notion to everybody that one way to break an Arab or Muslim man is to photograph him and embarrass him, strip him nude and take photographs. That will diminish him enormously in his own eyes and it's basically a grave sin that he's committing and there's a tremendous sense of privacy in that world. And I think it's against the Koran to be exposed nude in the front. And so that's a way of breaking down people. So what happened is you have a policy that originated with some highfalutin thinking perhaps of ways to break people and it ended up in the field in the kind of madness you had at Abu Ghraib. But they stem from the same idea, which is that anything goes.

You've already said that of course there were abuses carried out even before but to a certain extent wouldn't one always expect the CIA to be subordinate to the President and so whatever Congressional oversight exists or doesn't exist, the CIA will eventually do whatever it is that the President wants them to do. Do you agree?

Well I don't think there's any question that the CIA is subordinate to the President. And if the President directs them to do something specifically as commander-in-chief, they do it. The question is if he directs the CIA to do something, does the CIA still have a legal obligation to get a finding for it? Yes. If he directs the military to do something covertly or clandestinely or with total deniability, the military doesn't need to turn to anyone, there are no legal requirements.

And that's the main distinction then?

That's a huge distinction.

In one of your New Yorker articles you cite a security official who said that the intelligence report about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction provided by the UN inspection teams and the IAEA were far more accurate than CIA estimates. Do you attribute this to the CIA capitulating to the executive branch or to genuine incompetence on the part of the agency or both?

I think it's part of the same sort of pattern I talked about: there was a pre-disposition to not believe that anybody could drive an airplane into a building like they did. Similarly, there's a predisposition in the CIA to believe the worst of Saddam. So it therefore became easy to conclude he was doing much more than other agencies could prove or demonstrate. There was a report done in the Fall of 1997 by a couple of people from the British nuclear and scientific community who were assigned to the IAEA and did a report that was dazzling and very specific about the fact that there was nothing there, they made it clear there was nothing there. But if you're an analyst in the CIA that's the kind of analysis that gets you in a lot of trouble. You're much better off just going along. Nobody ever got in trouble at any intelligence agency by calling out the worst, predicting the worst. People who go the other way, they get in trouble. I'm exaggerating but I think that's a fair thing to say.

Pakistan's Abdul Qadeer Khan was responsible for disseminating nuclear technology and expertise to at least Iran and North Korea. His subsequent pardon by Musharraf was extremely surprising. According to your article, is it true that this was the tradeoff: the US would let Musharraf pardon AQ Khan if Pakistan provided the US with information on Iran's nuclear sites and capabilities?

Well, no it wasn't that, that wasn't the tradeoff. What I describe in the article was that Musharraf had already decided to pardon him but we're not pressuring to get access to AQ Khan for interrogation. Once it became known from the IAEA and from the collapse of the Pakistani negotiations with Libya, once Qaddafi sort of turned in the packs, I mean turned in Iran, he made it clear that Pakistan was helping Iran, and it was clear that AQ Khan was in the middle of a smuggling operation, a black market operation, there was a lot of heat on Musharraf to produce AQ Khan. What is AQ Khan doing? Where else has he been? And instead Musharraf pardoned him. There was an apology, then a pardoning and now he's under house arrest and Musharraf claims that he doesn't have to turn over AQ Khan to any international group, the IAEA or the US, his great ally, because he's doing the interrogation, his people will handle it. And that's the issue: by helping us with information on Iran, he helps us to not push him on this question. And he's done it before. He helps us in Iran. He allows us to operate in Pakistan secretly. We're not supposed to do it. His military doesn't like it but by doing so we've agreed to look the other way about AQ Khan.

Do you think Pakistan actually has access to this information, that is information on Iran's nuclear capabilities and installations?

Well they've had people working there. They helped Iran set up its centrifuges in the '80s and early '90s. So they certainly have people there who could help.

What in your view would be the implications of an attack on Iran's nuclear installations either by the US or Israel?

Devastating. From my article, it was clear that there are people in the American government who think it would trigger a revolt, the beginning of a revolt that would lead to the toppling of the government, a regime change, which is, I think, fantastic, completely not rational. And I think the real result if we did do the attack would be a rallying to Iran, a hardening of the position, some sort of retaliation by the Iranians that they've obviously had a lot of time to think about. They could increase activities with the insurgency in Iraq, which is always a possibility, or cut off the oil, punish us that way.

By way of conclusion, could you say something about what you say has been the driving force behind the kind of investigative reporting you've done over these last decades?

Response to stimuli. I'm back in the public's eye because of what's going on in the world not because of anything I'm doing. I did the same in Vietnam, with My Lai, and I'm just responding to what's going on now with the same kind of stuff.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of Asia Society.