In 1969, a young freelance reporter named Seymour Hersh got an interesting tip. On an early spring day the previous year, it seemed, something had taken place in a Vietnamese village that exceeded even the brutal bounds of the Vietnam war.
Hersh got on the case. He began travelling the country in search of soldiers from the company mentioned in the tip-off. He wound up tracking down and speaking to more than 60 of the men, including platoon leader William Calley, who was living on the army base in Fort Benning, Georgia. Hersh and Calley, a diminutive, 26-year-old college drop-out from Miami, spoke for several hours. Then they went to buy steaks, beer and bourbon at the local grocery store, made dinner at Calley’s girlfriend’s apartment, and talked some more. The story Hersh strung together from that conversation and others was not so convivial: on March 16 1968, Calley’s men stormed into the village of My Lai, in South Vietnam, expecting to find members of a Viet Cong battalion that had taken part in the recent Tet Offensive. The Americans found no enemy soldiers. Instead, they shot, stabbed and gang-raped the village’s elderly, women, children and babies. A day later, they burned the place down. Hundreds of people were killed.
Hersh began publishing the story bit by bit, in newspapers around the country. His first report appeared on November 12 of 1969; in the next weeks, big magazines such as Time and Newsweek followed up. As the details of My Lai became public knowledge, through Hersh’s work and, more slowly, a government report bogged down in cover-ups, Americans were horrified. The story eventually helped end the Vietnam war. Calley, meanwhile, argued before a military court that he was merely carrying out orders; he served three and a half years’ house arrest. After that he became a prosperous Georgia jeweller, and last year was unearthed by a British tabloid living quietly with his adult son in Atlanta.
If Calley has moved on, Hersh hasn’t. He still brings to light the secrets of American foreign policy, and since September 11 2001 his beat has become the world’s story. We met this spring in Barcelona, where he was collecting the Manuel Vázquez Montalbán award for journalism (Hersh spends a fair chunk of his time collecting prizes) and where he would recite the tale of My Lai to yet another audience. Nearly 40 years after his big break, Hersh still covers stories – the Iraq war, torture at Abu Ghraib – that echo My Lai.
Who, in Hersh’s opinion, has been the worst person in the US government these past 40 years? Which official really harmed the world? From Hersh’s point of view, knee-deep in American wrongdoing since Vietnam, it might be a tough question. Was it Richard Nixon, whom Hersh helped to impeach through his part in exposing the Watergate scandal? Or Henry Kissinger, whom Hersh calls a war criminal? How about the popular choice, George W. Bush? None of the three, it turns out. Rather, he answers: “Cheney. Easy.”
It’s telling that Hersh chooses America’s current vice-president over past enemies. Rather than enjoy a valedictory lap, he has spent the past decade producing books and articles that have made him practically an element of the US’s constitutional system of checks and balances. Since the Iraq war began, he has revealed America’s abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Washington’s secret plans to attack Iran. He also asserted, in May 2003, before any other American journalist, that weapons of mass destruction would not be found in Iraq. Each of his articles is a thicket of quotes from often unnamed “retired senior CIA officials” or “Middle Eastern security officers”. Taken together, his work adds up to a secret history of a “war on terror” conducted by a dysfunctional Washington. Yet his writing is strangely limited in scope. Hersh just tells his stories, rarely pausing to raise broader issues: who is boss inside the Bush administration? What would a President Obama do differently?
On paper, Hersh may be circumspect with his opinions, but in person in Barcelona, he throws them out rapid-fire. “I swear, as much as I couldn’t stand Kissinger, if Kissinger were in the [current Bush] government, I’d be easier – because I know this madness that’s played out in front of us every day would be tied to whatever Kissinger’s game would be, probably to some contract or oil deal. Somebody would know what the reality is.”
Reading Hersh, I’d pictured him as a thin, austere, Victorian schoolmaster frowning down upon a bad world. In fact, he’s thin but gregarious, and one of the fastest talkers around. Many sentences go unfinished for want of an extra second. “This group just doesn’t want to hear. Bush thinks the road from al-Qaeda leads from Afghanistan through Baghdad. Are you kidding me? Secular Baghdad?
“And he believes it. So he’s ineducable. What does the president say when asked about torture? ‘We don’t torture.’ They’re just words! Words mean nothing to him! So I think he’s a believer. And I find that much more frightening.”
. . .
Hersh was born in Chicago in 1937 to Yiddish-speaking immigrant parents who ran a dry-cleaning store on the city’s poor South Side. He was the elder of twin brothers, and his elder sisters were twins, too. He studied at the University of Chicago, and went on to become a police reporter in his hometown.
After My Lai, Hersh was hired by The New York Times, in 1972. When Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post began covering a curious burglary at the Watergate hotel headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, the Times put Hersh on the story. In All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein described their occasional confabs with the competition: “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. He was unlike any reporter [we] had ever met. He did not hesitate to call Henry Kissinger a war criminal in public and was openly attracted and repelled by the power of The New York Times.”
Indeed, Hersh was never comfortable at the Times. He was not a company man, not someone who played well with others, and he left the paper in 1979. After the Times, he became best known for his books, most of which received high praise. Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the Times, said of Hersh’s multiple-prize-winning dissection of Kissinger, The Price of Power: “There is more solid history in that book than any book I know of on that era.”
Kissinger, less pleased, accused Hersh of “slimy lies”, and said he had damaged the US by revealing military secrets.
Hersh, left to his own devices, without much input from editors, sometimes stretched himself too thin. His 1997 book about the Kennedy administration, The Dark Side of Camelot, contained enough errors for Arthur Schlesinger, John F. Kennedy’s former adviser, to label him “the most gullible investigative reporter, perhaps, in American history”. Gary Wills wrote in the New York Review of Books: “Hersh has with precision and method disassembled and obliterated his own career and reputation.”
In 1998, Tina Brown brought Hersh on staff at The New Yorker just before her own departure; when she left, he remained – and has to this day – and is now edited by David Remnick. Remnick offers him freedom to report as he’d like, but insists on knowing who all Hersh’s anonymous sources are. In addition, the magazine’s thorough fact-checkers give Hersh the credibility his critics have tried to deny him.
Still, Hersh, who lives in Washington with his psychoanalyst wife (with whom he has three children), operates much like he did in those early Chicago days. In Barcelona, he shows me a yellow legal notepad crammed with tight script: he writes down his interviews here rather than on a computer, partly because he’s afraid of having his messy one-and-a-half room office burgled. From that office, he works the phones to intelligence officials of many countries, some of whom he has known for 30 years. “I don’t like people calling me up with things now. Because I’m so worried about having somebody walk something in” – that is, plant a story on him.
“So I deal with my tried and true people, mostly.” He builds his network of sources partly by watching who retires: “I like it when a three-star general retires. That means he didn’t make four. And everybody’s mad about that,” he chuckles.
Still, how does he persuade his “guys” to tell him secrets about the US? “What you have to do is: tell them something they don’t know. If you’re a bright guy and you’re working in the intelligence community, you could be making three times as much outside. And here you are, inside, and the only reason you’re there is you get to know these secrets, and here comes this punk reporter who knows a really good secret. What the hell is this? You’re going to show him what a secret is.”
There are few real secrets out there, Hersh says. Much of what the US is doing right now would be clear to all of us if we read the foreign press carefully enough. “The countries are screaming about it.” But because there’s a language problem, “little of the newspaper reporting in the Middle East gets reported in America”.
For Hersh, a good story arises when a source tells a journalist a genuine secret. It certainly doesn’t come from a top official inviting a journalist to the back of the plane for an “exclusive” intended to put the government’s spin into the newspaper. As he sees it, that method got American media to run the bogus stories about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. “We failed on the biggest moral issue,” he says of the media. “It wasn’t our job to cheerlead [the US] into Iraq. Our job was to raise questions about why this guy was going!”
What about Watergate, American journalism’s crowning moment? Doesn’t it annoy him that Woodward and Bernstein got all the credit? Hersh laughs. Look at the queue of journalists waiting in this hotel lobby to interview him, and you see he has not done too badly. “Yeah, it wasn’t so much Woodward and Bernstein as it became… It wasn’t just The Washington Post. I mean, they made the story happen, it is one of the greatest feats of journalism, what they did, but Nixon won [the 1972 election] 61-39 and then the story was dead. And then The New York Times [and] Jack Nelson of the LA Times, did incredible work, a lot of people began to bang in, so it became more of a collective thing. The bringing down of the president actually took place the next year.”
Woodward remains Hersh’s colleague and rival today. But whereas Hersh has stuck with the Watergate approach of hearing out mid-ranking discontents within government, Woodward has used his fame to speak to the people at the very top. To Bush, he is “Woody”. Inevitably, Woodward often ends up repeating the top people’s spin.
What does Hersh make of Woodward now? “Look, I’m not saying anything I haven’t said to him: I think he was dead wrong in his respect and support for Bush. I think he’s now come to that sense. And so I don’t think he could feel so good about the first two books [about Iraq]. But if he hadn’t written [them], we wouldn’t know half the things that were going on inside the White House. He still is the source for a lot of the president’s thinking. He gets things right.”
Hersh has got some things wrong about the “war on terror” – for instance, predicting that the US army would get bogged down on the road to Baghdad – but he has been right on the big issues. His revelations on Abu Ghraib or the US’s plans for war in Iran or the puzzling Israeli bombing of a Syrian plant are read by policymakers everywhere. When Pakistan’s president Pervez Musharraf asked Bush about a Hersh article that described American contingency plans to seize Pakistan’s nukes, Bush replied: “Seymour Hersh is a liar.”
In fact, Hersh says, Bush repeated the words: “Seymour Hersh is a liar, is a liar.” The remark is quoted in one of Bob Woodward’s books, I point out, so it must be true. “Must be true,” Hersh laughs.
“By the way,” he says, ”I’ve done some really horrible stories in my time, too. I had a front page story in The New York Times saying that John Dean [Nixon’s White House counsel, who manipulated the cover-up of Watergate] had nothing to say, before Watergate.” Hersh seems able to handle the criticism (“Certainly I got massacred on the Kennedy book,” he admits), and relishes his enemies. He and Cheney go back at least to 1975, when Cheney, then an aide in the Ford Administration, handwrote a memo headed: “Problem. Unauthorized disclosure of classified national security information by Sy Hersh and the NYT.” Cheney jotted down five options, including: “Search warrant: to go after Hersh papers in his apt.”
Hersh calls Cheney “first-rate”. ”He’s really smart, he had very smart people working for him and he kept ties to all of them. He said – I think it was the first Sunday after 9/11: ‘We’re going to have to go to the dark side.’ Well, we had no idea what he meant. But you know: renditions, sanctions, murders. At least 12 countries as of now are free-fire zones. Our Special Force teams can go in and hit anybody without the ambassador knowing it, the CIA station chief knowing it.”
. . .
Recently Hersh has turned his focus to Iran. When he wrote that Bush was seriously considering attacking the country because of its supposed plans to develop nuclear weapons, Bush responded: “What you’re reading is wild speculation, which … happens quite frequently here in the nation’s capital.”
Hersh remains worried about Iran, even as Bush apparently defies Cheney by sending negotiators there. He says, “We’re still doing crap there. A lot of stuff that’s not publicly known. And our intentions are not good. And now we have the Israelis with us, who see Iran as an existential threat. You’ve got the clock running. You’ve got a guy running, Obama, that neither the Israelis nor the White House wants to win. He’s a different kettle of fish. He doesn’t collect $50m a year from the American Jewish contributors in New York. They don’t have their hooks in him as much.”
So will the Bush administration bomb Iran before leaving office? Hersh thinks the chances of that happening shrank this spring, when the US’s National Intelligence Estimate suddenly said that Iran wasn’t making a nuclear bomb after all. “But I’m still kicking the can around,” he adds. He’s heard that Washington has been warning other Middle-Eastern countries, “Tell your friends the Iranians that if Israel does something stupid, not to respond. Because if they respond, we can’t guarantee what we’re going to do. You know what side we’re going to come in on.” He explains: “Cheney has said many times privately, ‘If Israel goes by itself, we’re going to be blamed. So we might as well be in it anyway.’”
American intelligence’s change of mind on the Iranian bomb was only its latest blunder. Given that it failed to predict the Soviet Union’s collapse and the attacks of September 11, and that it’s still trying to find Osama bin Laden, does Hersh think the sector he covers simply isn’t very good?
“Yes,” he answers. ”I had an old, tough CIA guy say to me before the baseball playoffs, ‘Sy, for all we know, bin Laden could be selling hot dogs outside Yankee Stadium today.’
“You guys” – he means Britain – “seem to be doing better with your security.”
Why is that? “Because you’re more intrusive,” Hersh laughs. “I don’t think I’d use a payphone in London. My God, you’ve got that place wired. But it seems to be working. You did well with the subway stuff and others. I think you are more intrusive. And maybe we’ll end up that way too. It’s sad, because it does change your quality of your life.” It’s also sad because there’s another way to do it, he says: great police work.
Many great reporters burn out by their mid-forties and morph into “pundits”. Hersh has somehow avoided that fate. “It’s a genetic thing, I guess. My legs haven’t gone. I don’t get bored. And I still make that last call. You know, when you really don’t want to make the call?”
In any case, he knows he’s not cut out to be a pundit. “I hate saying ‘I think’. I can’t stand the talking heads on television. I was giving a speech somewhere, and somebody asked me a question and I actually said, ‘I don’t have a goddamn idea.’ And people began to applaud, almost. Nobody ever says they don’t know.” Hersh understands that his genius is as a sleuth, not a thinker.
But he does have an opinion on his own body of work. Which of his articles did most to change the world? My Lai, he says – much more than Abu Ghraib. “My Lai led to a court-martial for Lieutenant William Calley in 1971. A court of Lieutenant Calley’s peers, his fellow officers, found him guilty of premeditated murder. After that, Bush [a Freudian slip: Hersh means Nixon] couldn’t rally the public any more. The war was over.
“We didn’t have that in Abu Ghraib. Many Americans said, ‘You’ve got to do that, you get intelligence.’”
Hersh plans to keep covering Bush until the minute the next president is inaugurated – “these guys will be dangerous until 11.59 on January 20th, 2009” – and then do something else. His work at the moment is dispiriting, he says, and he’s “sick of this crowd”. Yet they’ll remain part of his life even if he takes a break from the investigative beat: he’s thinking of writing a book that explains how eight or nine neocons could take over the US government. Later he e-mails me with more detail: “My guess is that it’s much more than blind patriotism and payback that enabled the neocons to change the structure of american government. I think (and I know this sounds a little whacko) that there was big money to be made by joining in in the black world of covert ops and special access programs. Mind you, I’m only talking about the secret worlds of black ops, etc., which is now a huge huge enterprise – making careers and millionaires every day. Very tough case to make, for sure, but also original and interesting.”
That evening in Barcelona, a couple of hours after our interview, Hersh hops on to the podium at the Catalan government’s palace to accept his prize. He gives a speech about My Lai. It’s one he’s given dozens of times, and he recites it without notes, the worst story in the world. As he leans into the lectern to recount how he tracked down one of the killers on an Indiana chicken farm, he sounds as eerie as Norman Bates in Psycho.
Afterwards, Hersh comes along for beers in a tiny tapas bar. He does not flag. The next morning he’s flying to Paris, to meet an interesting Syrian he’s known forever. Simon Kuper, Financial Times