Saturday, February 4, 2006

Interview with Seymour Hersh, chronicler of My Lai and Abu Ghraib


Covent Garden Hotel, London, on the publication of Hersh’s book Chain of Command, September 2004. By Alastair McKay

Seymour Hersh is cradling a whisky from the honesty bar when his cell phone rings. “Yuh?” he says. “How am I doin’? I’m pippin’ away. How are you doin’ for chrissake? Can I help you? Do you know what I say when people ask me? ‘There’s two sides to every story and I know you have your side, but you’re not telling it. I hope you will sometime, right?”
There is a pause while the voice on the phone yarbles on.
“Yeah,” Hersh says. “I’m gonna bet that your side of the story is very, very explicable. Because you’re too smart of a guy.”
Sadly, the caller must remain anonymous, but he was someone from a different political perspective to Hersh, and the call was an illustration – though none was needed – that his connections go deep.
Seymour “Sy” Hersh is the foremost investigative journalist in America. His reputation rests on his reporting of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, in 1968, when an American infantry brigade killed 350 civilians. My Lai won Hersh a Pulitzer prize and convinced him of several things: “It showed me that there are no limits. America is really open to innovation, and not afraid of it. It also convinced me that, goddamnit, I can be a critical reporter, I’m as valuable to this country as any four star general or president. I have as much right to do what I do.
“It was an amazing thing. Nobody knew me from Adam. We sent that story collect, from Western Union. This was before the internet. It was about a dollar every word or so. We sent a 1500 word story to 50 newspapers. 37 newspapers led the front page with that story. And so I thought to myself: ‘this isn’t so hard’.” He allows himself a theatrical laugh. “Little did I know.”
Since then, Hersh’s fortunes have fluctuated. He was thereabouts during Watergate: the New York Times assigned him to chase Woodward and Bernstein. He published books on Kissinger and JFK. The former is well-regarded by Kissinger’s enemies, but the JFK book almost undid Hersh: he was nearly duped by a forged document purporting to show that Kennedy paid hush money to Marilyn Monroe.
Lately, Hersh has been re-born. Since 9/11, he has written 26 lengthy pieces, many of which are reworked in his book Chain of Command. His post 9-11 writing is remarkable, not least because it appeared in the New Yorker, a sedate organ which usually takes the high road when it comes to current affairs. The editor, David Remnick, studied the magazine’s response to Pearl Harbor, and realised that something more urgent was needed. He retooled Hersh, from a thoughtful, politically-motivated reporter, to a deadline-driven reporter.
Hersh gets tongue-tied when asked what he thought of this change, and even appears to fall asleep. When he recovers, he asks for the question to be rephrased.
“Can’t really think about it. Do something else.”
More remarkable still is the fact that Hersh’s reporting is subject to the magazine’s rigorous regime of fact-checking. “Why would somebody talk to a checker? Because a lot of these guys are going to meetings, and a lot of times they’ll have a pet phrase that they’ll use. When they talk to me, it’s an accurate quote, but it’s a pet phrase.” On hearing their quotes read back, Hersh’s sources sometimes realise that their words may have given clues to their identity, so they are able to revise it. On occasion, they may also reveal more of the story in the checking process.
“The other concern is that we don’t want to run across an operation that’s ongoing. Our guys are inside. Some of them have best friends, kids, serving in units. I’m very sensitive to that crap. There’s no story that’s worth jeopardising a life for. That’s why I get along with these guys, because I really worry about that stuff.
“They respect the checking process. They want somebody to come and say ‘is this right?’ It doesn’t make you the house whore to do that.”
Needless to say, Hersh’s less than conventional working methods make his editors nervous, particularly when the stories concern matters of war and peace.
“I had an editor once, Abe Rosenthal, when I was at the New York Times. I used to go off and make speeches and mouth off about things in the paper. I just would. And he would go nuts if I was criticising the paper.
“Let’s say there’d be an annual meeting of the Associated Press Managers: I would go and do a talk sometimes because I was doing a lot of Watergate and Vietnam stuff. And people would ask me stuff. Somebody said: ‘Isn’t it true you always have two sources for every story?’ I said once: ‘Are you kidding? When it comes to Watergate, if the guy next to me who is taking a leak says something to me, it’s in the paper the next day.’ I was just making a joke. Rosenthal went nuts. He writes me a memo, which says: ‘I want to know if this is indeed what you said, comma, or think.’”

The most compelling part of Hersh’s book details the abuses inflicted by US troops on Iraqi prisoners inside the Abu Ghraib prison, a story on which he led the world.
According to Hersh, these were not the isolated misdeeds of a few bad soldiers: the torture was a deliberate strategy designed to humiliate prisoners so they could be forced to infiltrate the insurgency in Iraq and gather intelligence. The habit of torture began with Afghani prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, where it was excused on the grounds of national security.
“I’ve been told that the Israelis have had some success with this,” Hersh says. “So we tried to adopt it. But we’re like General Motors, and the next thing you know, it morphs into this madness.”
The abuses were in violation of the Geneva convention, but this was justified by the US government on the grounds that 9/11 had redrawn the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. (“Because they hurt us. Nobody fucks with America.”) Meanwhile, Donald Rumsfeld (“Rummy”) authorised a secret group to hunt down terrorism suspects. Suddenly, says Hersh, “we’re in the disappearing business”.
The question of who knew what, when, is one Hersh can’t answer. He has evidence that reports of abuse reached Condoleezza Rice, but the trail stops there.
“Say you’re a whiz-kid at some intelligence agency, you’ve got this super-hot report to write. You write a 12 page zinger. You send it to the National Security Adviser, ba’am! Secure channels, comment channels, No Eyes Only. Her aide gets it and he writes an executive summary. He gives it to the aide closest to her, and as she’s walking to a meeting another aide will read her highlights from the page and a half summary. So how do you know what she knew? How do you know what she focused on or didn’t focus on? You think she should have known, and I have a hunch she did, but I don’t know.
“It’s like, in the Vietnam war, a legal defence for killing a Vietnamese, was the MGR: the Mere Gook Rule. You would do something bad in the village, the captain would hear about it, and you would say, ‘Sir, it was just a gook’. ‘OK, carry on soldier.’
“So you have the instinct to dehumanise the other side, particularly when you’ve been hurt grievously, as we were with the World Trade Center, and you’re terrified, scared, not knowing when they’re coming again.
“When you see this happening, any rational set of leaders would say ‘stop this now’. The first thing we have to do is differentiate who’s good and who’s bad. We cannot mistreat people who are not our enemy, because if you do that you will lose it all.”
The sense that Iraq has spun out of control is intensified by the recent spate of hostage taking, which Hersh believes to be a tragic consequence of US foreign policy.
“I don’t think you can separate anything from American foreign policy. We’re the occupier and there’s been a steady increase in insurgency. As the insurgency increases and our lack of intelligence remains the same, the American answer has been more force. More bombs, more artillery. What we call force protection. We’re not even doing what we were doing nine months ago – sending boys in to knock down doors – because we know that that’s death. We’re learning what the French learned with the Viet Min and we learned with Viet Cong. Some lessons just have to be taught every other generation, it seems. This is not a winnable war.”
There is a contradiction in Hersh’s argument. He states that the US government bumbled into the Iraq crisis with no clear idea of where it was going. At the same time, he is a supporter of the notion that the presidency is in the grip of neoconservatives with an ordered programme for the roll-out of free markets and democracy.
“The question is: how did 8 or 9 neoconservatives take over the government; muzzle the congress, the bureaucracy, the press and the military? How weak is our democracy that they could do it so easily? Because in the beginning, Bush certainly wasn’t a neoconservative. Neoconservative is a complex position, with a lot of academic roots. Well Bush and Cheney and Rummy: that’s not their bag, but they joined in. They got persuaded by the neocons. How? How did they get away with it?”
Hersh seems a little mystified by his own inquiry. For a moment, in mid-sentence, he seems to drift into sleep again, lulled, perhaps, by whisky and jetlag. On waking, he straightens his glasses and re-launches himself.
“The plan seemed to be this. That, first of all, the answer to international terrorism, the road to solving it, is through Baghdad. They thought you could go with 15-25,000 troops, a little bombing, a lot of flags – it’s a joke, but they were serious. Saddam would go; a new government would take his place. Duh, how? Nobody planned for it. Where’s it going to come from?
“And democracy would flow like water from the fountains. Not only in Iraq. Syria would then become democratic, Iran would realise the error of its ways, the Saudis would move to become more democratic, occupied Lebanon, as they call it, would change. They believed it. And you have to understand, they didn’t do it for Israel, they didn’t do it for oil, they did it because they’re utopians, and that’s what’s so scary. Not only are they utopians, they’re misguided and wrong and uninformed.”
He tells me the story of a friend of his, “a heavy hitter, Special Ops, worked inside Russia, worked with Delta Force, worked inside Iraq on some very sensitive stuff.” This friend was asked by the CEO of an American corporation to go into Iraq and work on “sophisticated, hard-nosed security”. He replied that he could not work for an American company in Iraq. “It’s over,” the friend told the CEO. If you were Canadian I’d work for you. But for America, we’re done.”
Hersh draws a parallel with Vietnam. There is a base, he says, in Eastern Iraq, which the US established at a cost of a billion dollars. “It’s apparently underground, near Jordan, to replace the bases we gave up in Saudi Arabia. And we’re gonna walk away from it, just like we did in Cameron Bay in Vietnam. I laugh about it, but it’s really pitiful. It’s probably the single worst foreign policy mistake. It’s worse than Vietnam. Vietnam was dumb, but it was always a tactical problem. War ends, we’re defeated, two years later the Vietnamese say ‘come and set up hotels and let’s do business’. These guys [in Iraq]: are you kidding? After Abu Ghraib?”
Oddly, a central character is absent from Hersh’s narrative: President Bush. “He’s absent from everything. He’s always the man off in the corner. You don’t know what he knows. You don’t know what he thinks. You know he still thinks that the reason everybody in the world is mad at America is because they’re jealous of what we have. You know he thinks that 55 million people in Iraq and Afghanistan are free.”
Hersh’s critique differs from that of, say, Michael Moore, in its sophistication and in his attitude towards Bush. He does not think the President is stupid.
“It’s the wrong word. He’s got a tremendous amount of moxie and a real charm. He’s completely uninformed. And he’s completely incurious. He’s not the kind of guy that reads all your cables. Jack Kennedy, whether you liked him or not, used to call up desk officers sometimes, and say, ‘Son, what’s this report?’ It would terrify them. But they would answer. So he was a reader. Clinton was a vacuum cleaner.”
Nor does he argue that the Bush administration has deceived the electorate. Despite global scepticism, it believed in the link between Iraq and 9/11.
“Oh yeah. They believed. I never thought I’d say it, but if you had Kissinger in this government you’d know that everything was being done for a reason. These guys [Bush et al] live in a dream world. I mean it when I say they’re not liars. But they live in a world that doesn’t exist. It’s a world of: things aren’t going well now, but democracy’s coming, give it time.”
On the future of Iraq, Hersh’s pessimism is absolute. “We’ve done it to ourselves, and I don’t know how to get out of it. And these guys don’t know either.”
He has a slight hope that if John Kerry presents himself as the anti-war candidate, he might win the election, though this is faintly expressed, which leaves Hersh with a jaded countenance, hoping for a Republican victory.
“Re-elect Bush and have him say to the American people in a year: ‘We’ve lost another 2000 men, we need to install the draft.’ See what happens. They’ll run him out of town on a rail, and not because of some dress with semen on.”