Seymour Hersh: A Life in Investigative Journalism

Seymour Hersh
Seymour Hersh

Seymour Hersh is one of America's premier investigative reporters and has uncovered some of the most important news stories of our times. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 1970 for exposing the My Lai massacre and its cover-up during the Vietnam War.

Hersh is the author of several books, most recently Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, which was published in 2004. He writes regularly for The New Yorker on military and national security issues.

In this interview with Asia Society, Hersh discusses "embedded" reporters; the changes underway in the US military and security establishment; the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and the implications of a possible American military strike against Iran.

Having been in the profession for as long as you have, could you comment on what is widely perceived as a relative decline in journalistic standards? To what do you attribute this alleged decline?

You're convinced I'm into self-immolation, I think; I can hardly go around denigrating my own profession in this way!

Look, I know, we've just recently come out of the elections in Baghdad where the coverage was, to put it mildly, incredibly fawning. The television coverage was beyond the pale. All the problems are suddenly resolved because everybody behaved exactly as predicted: the Kurds voted in the high percentage, the Shiites voted in a high percentage and nobody else voted. In any case, to answer your question in brief: yes, it's bad.

Do you have a take on why journalists are not as critical of the government as they once were?

They can still be very critical but I think, for one thing, this government is very good at manipulating and moving people. For example, the other night, very quietly right on the eve of the election - the document was literally dated January 30th - they put out an audit report which showed that - hold on to your hats! - $8.8 billion was missing from the Iraqi Oil for Peace accounts. So while Bremer was running the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), $8.8 billion disappeared from the known Iraqi funds. What are we talking about? And they put this out on a Sunday night; the night of the election, they announce: it's gone! There's still a lot of heat about the $1.6 billion that was squandered or can't be fully accounted for in the UN Oil-for-Food program. And here's $8.8 billion without a whimper. So, these guys are good.

The planning for the election was brilliant. They bring the television crews out there. They put them inside, they're all confined, and there are only a few. I have heard accounts from reliable sources that most of the major television networks could not go to any more than 4 precincts, 4 Shiite precincts and one Sunni precinct in a wealthy area. So what you see is not necessarily what is. I think 9/11 changed everything. I think it terrified the media as much as it terrified the soccer moms.

What in your view prompted the US government to alter the means of war reportage with embedded journalists in Iraq? Do you think that this was the natural culmination of a growing tendency since Vietnam to closely monitor the kind of information given to the public from war zones in which the US military is active?

It was a brilliant move because this way you do control the media. With embedded journalists you only see what the government wants you to see. It's very hard, anybody who has covered the Pentagon will tell you that our soldiers are very likeable and our officers are likeable when they want to be. So you get the Stockholm Syndrome. And then you got the kind of reporting you wanted when you thought you were going to have a fast, quick war. And so everybody missed an awful lot about what was going on and I thought it was a brilliant stroke of genius, absolutely brilliant. I couldn't run a news agency because I would have been hard pressed to understand why we wanted to do it. But I would have been in a distinct minority because you're giving up so much control. You're basically giving up your right to be a discriminating viewer of the whole picture. We didn't get the whole picture. But it was brilliant. The woman running the Pentagon press office at that time was Victoria Clarke, and she's had many high-power public relations jobs and she's obviously very good at what she does.

But the answer, in brief, is: No, I don't think the press should be embedded. No. I understand the security reasons, the need to protect journalists in war zones, but if part of the embedding process is that your stuff has to be reviewed by a senior officer before you file it, that's too high of a price.

But do you think that being embedded was a dramatic shift in war reportage? Or had this trend been developing, this way of monitoring information where US military were involved?

There's always some tension with controlling information. I mean there was censorship in World War II and then there were complaints during Vietnam, so there is always that tension. I just think that we shouldn't voluntarily give up something. In other words, because we had access through a military unit didn't mean that we should give up the right, that we should allow them to censor our materials and feel that they're always right.

Was there overt censorship? I don't think there was. I think everybody understood that you don't describe where you are and all but still it's a great big inhibitor. It's very hard when you're with a group of guys for two weeks or three weeks or a month before they go into combat and the third day of combat, they panic and shoot up a carload of people at an intersection. You're not going to tell that story because if you do it right, you're not going to be with that unit anymore. You're going to be a rat. You have ratted them out. So these are all very complicated matters that cut into the ability of reporters to be reporters.

As someone who has covered the US military and security apparatus for decades, could you comment on the extent to which the institutional logic of the foreign and security policy establishment has changed to reflect the new threats now confronting the US?

The big change right now is the one I've been writing about: the turf war between Rumsfeld and the CIA. So the change isn't so much in terms of the foreign policy establishment, it's the old cliché about Washington: all politics is local. I'm sure it's based on very strongly held profound views but Rumsfeld is convinced that the CIA simply isn't capable of dealing with the terrorism in the world. They're Cold War mentality, they don't get it. And so from the very beginning of 9/11, Rumsfeld has been trying to get control of covert ops and as I wrote recently in The New Yorker, he's done it.

That's one of the huge changes now: we are facing different threats, not a state or even group of states, and the agency, the CIA, hasn't done very well at coping with it; nobody has. It's a whole new ballgame really, stateless threats, and we are incapable of penetrating these kind of operations no matter how much they may crow and claim that they're going to do it and they're going to start programs to do it. We really aren't going to be ready, we have to anticipate that we're not going to know very much about what they're doing until they do it in many cases. So, it's a whole different ballgame, we can't be as preemptive as we want because we won't get the good intelligence. It's a very complicated set of new demands and new requirements and we're not coping very well with it. Rumsfeld's solution is to go beat up everybody and that doesn't work either. And overrunning the Congress and the Constitution because they're too slow isn't going to help. These guys in the Congress, they want to deliberate about what we're doing and that's just too slow for Rumsfeld. He's got to get on with it.

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.

A number of your critics argue that your sources are dubious, most are anonymous, your reporting inaccurate, your facts distorted. How do you respond to these claims?

Sticks and stones can break my bones but words cannot hurt me! What can I tell you? I've been hearing about anonymous sources forever. The thing that's amazing about the anonymous source issue is that it's always been the case. In the New York Times recently there were elaborate briefings by "unnamed" sources about what was going to be in the State of the Union address. "Unnamed" sources have been a staple of the American reporting scene in Washington since I can recall, since I got here. I got here in the Vietnam War days, McNamara and Cyrus Vance were running the Pentagon and when I was covering the war for the Associated Press, we used to go and see McNamara all the time for background briefings. We would discuss what we could say. We couldn't say "defense officials", we could say "American officials" or "government officials" and sometimes we were instructed just to write it ourselves and not mention any sources. I mean come on! I've been doing that ever since I've been in the business. And the only way you measure my stories in any reasonable way is to say that I've been writing an alternative history of the war, whatever I've said about Chalabi, about Niger, about no WMDs, about intelligence collection. And the question is: Is it basically right? And I think overwhelmingly it's right. If you had any rational sense of fairness, you have to agree that there has been much more right than wrong. There were wrong things certainly, I'm writing about a secret world and they don't have access to the papers. But clearly something is going on. So those critics are just being uncharitable, and as critics of course they have every right to be uncharitable!

What do you think accounts for the extraordinary access you've had all this time to people in the American security and military establishment? And not only here: your last New Yorker article also cites a retired Pakistani diplomat who tells you about Iran and Musharraf.

Well, because I've been doing it a long time. Don't forget I'm long of tooth and the New Yorker has this great system where people are checked pretty carefully. For them, there's a certain safety in it. They know they're going to get a chance to hear what's being said about them and in some cases, between the time people talk to me and the story gets published, the phrase may have been used at a very important meeting in the White House three days before the article comes out. So they have a chance to review some phrase that they mention to me a month earlier and get out. So there's a certain safety in that for them and also, what can I tell you? You're dealing with the government. It's really not so complicated. If you're somebody on the outside, in the community, you work for the Pentagon or the CIA and you're used to having enormous access to the top level and saying what you think with great openness about major issues or things that would take place, with this administration, you can't get to the table unless they know that you agree. In other words, you have to drink the Kool Aid to get to the table.

I've read that phrase of yours in several places. I'm not sure what the expression means "to drink the Kool Aid…?"

Jimmy Jones and the famous Jonestown, Guyana suicide. Jimmy Jones asked everybody to drink the Kool Aid if they believed in him, and it was laced with cyanide, and all 900 people drank the Kool Aid and died.

So by that I simply mean you have to be with them. If you're with these guys, you're a genius. If you disagree with them, you're a traitor. There's no middle ground with these guys. So if you're in the bureaucracy and you start writing papers that object to what they're thinking or doing, you find that your subordinate or a peer will suddenly start going to meetings because he's figured out the right memo saying we agree. And they get the promotions. So eventually the word gets through after a couple of years that if you want a career, stop arguing, or if you keep arguing, you leave. That's what happens in the bureaucracy. So that's why people talk to me because this trend alarms a lot of people because the guys in the top are only talking to themselves.

Your sources have suggested that the CIA is diminishing in importance and the Pentagon is taking over more of its traditional mandate. You seem to suggest that this is problematic because now there will be no Congressional oversight exercised on what the Pentagon does. Is that correct?

Yeah.

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.