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.”

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Ilie Nastase, the Romanian George Best

City of London, summer 2004, to publicise the publication of his autobiography, Mr Nastase. By Alastair McKay

The waitress comes to the table where I am sitting with Ilie Nastase.
“Whatever,” he says in his Bond-villain voice, rejecting the menu. “Hamboorger. With a Coke.”
The waitress motions to the next table, where Jane, Nastase’s PR, and Debbie, his ghost-writer, are sitting.
“Did you not want to sit together?” she asks.
“No,” says Nastase. “We don’t like women. We are gay.”
“Well I’ll make it nice and romantic and light your candle for you,” the waitress says.
“Thank you very much,” says Nastase. “A Coke please. Diet Coke.”
The waitress lights the candle, leaning in front of Nastase’s face.
“Actually,” he says, “we try to get married.”
“Well,” she says, smiling demurely, “you came to the right place.”

Nastase is perhaps the least gay man in the world, and proud of it. In his autobiography, Mr Nastase, he calculates he has slept with 2500 women, but admits to only one chat-up line: “My problem starts if you say ‘yes’ to me. Then I don’t know what to do to you. I get nervous.” He also claims to be shy, and says that he never exploited his fame. He is a riddle inside an enigma inside an Adidas shell-suit.
“Girls,” I say to him.
“There was a lot of girls,” he replies flatly, almost as if I had asked him to recall a particularly fine biscuit. “Exact number I don’t know. Maybe more than 2500, I don’t know. I pick a number which I thought was close.”
And these girls: did none of them ever get back in touch, asking for money, or carrying babies?
“It never came out,” he says cryptically. “But also I have to say the relationship was not important. Most of them I see them one night and then I leave for another tournament. Maybe my performance was no good.”
He allows himself a laugh. “You know, I have a great thing. When I don’t like a girl I say: ‘Listen darling, I have to play tennis in the morning,’ even if I don’t have to play. That’s my great excuse if I don’t like a girl. ‘Oh, God, I have to play tennis… I forgot to tell you. Please go.’”
Today, Nastase is tired. It is not the 2500 women, or the 500 books he just signed. He recently moved apartments, and on 5 June was married (to Amalia – a cigarette girl he met at a Sting concert) at a Greek Orthodox church in Paris, with a further ceremony by the centre court at Roland Garros. The wedding - at which the bride wore Dior, and guests such as Alain Delon and Omar Sharif were photographed for Hello! - followed last July’s civil event, which may explain why he is enduring a month of self-promotion rather than honeymooning.
If it is hard to be precise about the number of weddings, Amalia is his third bride. Nastase’s first wife, Dominique, and his second, Alexandra, were unable to cope with his lifestyle, in which constant travel led to frequent and unapologetic unfaithfulness. Still, with such a heavily-notched headboard, his faith in marriage is quite endearing.
“I believe in the right person when I meet them and, you know, there is no guarantee. At least I have to believe in somebody. This one might last maybe. Maybe it won’t be forever. I don’t know. To me I find the right person and I have a beautiful daughter, and things are more organised with her now. I have a really normal life which never happened before.
“The only thing I regret now is that I am not younger. Because finally I live like a normal person but it is right at the end of my life. Maybe I don’t have the time to enjoy. You never know. Some people have a normal life as soon as they start to live. But I am not complaining. It was a good life. I wanted to do that. Nobody forced me to break anything.”
Nastase is fond of such circular pronouncements, but he repeats the line about enjoying a “normal” life often enough to suggest that he has grown to believe it, and acknowledges that he had trouble accepting the life that came after his athletic decline. Possibly the autobiography is a way of containing his pre-normal existence.
It is an extraordinary story. His father was a policeman for the Romanian bank under Ceausescu. Nastase’s older brother played in the Davis Cup team. At the age of six he picked up a racket. By 11, he had a coach. At 13, he won a National Championship in his age group.
“I was lucky. My father was a groundsman of a tennis club. My brother was playing, and we had some animals, and the property there, so we don’t have a problem with the food. I was happy just to go on the tennis court all day. Maybe it was a good thing that I don’t have to worry about what to eat the next day.”
Oddly, Nastase’s parents did not take much interest in his career. “They don’t dislike sport but they are not enthusiastic about it. They don’t say: ‘Son, you have to go and win the tournament’. They find out from their friends if I won a tournament. They know that I have to leave them for a long time, and they accept that.”
Nastase’s statistics suggest that while he may have been the best player in the world, his temperament contrived to make him less successful than he should have been. He won only two grand slam events, though there were some memorable near things, most notably his defeat by Stan Smith in the rain-delayed Wimbledon final of 1972. His enduring reputation has much to do with his capacity for mischief. Long before John McEnroe, Nastase was the dark star of tennis. So frequent were his outbursts that a new code of conduct was introduced.
Nastase remains unapologetic, believing his talent was fuelled by anger. “[Bjorn] Borg told me when he was young, he played table tennis first, and then he started to play tennis. And in one match he lost control, he started to swear at the umpire and he threw his racket over the kids’ heads, and he woke up the next day and he thought: ‘I’m crazy, what am I doing?’ So he went from crazy to good.
“I don’t think that can happen to me. Being shy made me do all those crazy things on the court. To get rid of the shyness I had to perform, I had to do something. Not for the people, for me. To be comfortable with myself.”
Nastase’s bad behaviour was limited to the tennis court. When the game was over, he was a different man. “Imagine me being a crazy person off the court. I would be dead by now. Somebody would kill me in the street. But also it would not be healthy to live like that. I lost control, I lost my nerve. That’s the situation of every player. When you are off the court you cannot be like that. You want to relax.”
Asked where he got his attitude towards authority, he shrugs.
“I don’t know. You born with this. I don’t know. I’m wondering myself.”
The waitress arrives with Nastase’s burger.
“Oh my God!” he exclaims. “You bring it from America! Straight from America!”
He gulps at the cola.
“My mentality is that whatever tragedy happens, you don’t forget but you don’t need to go over it. Because then you stop there.” He points at his temples. “My mother told me that when I was born, the first thing I did was smile when I came out. My daughter when she born, the first thing she did when she opened her eyes was start to laugh. I guess she gets it from me.”
He chews down a chunk of burger, poking the bacon with his knife. We talk about drugs. The book tells how Vitas Gerulaitis used to play tournaments after cocaine-fuelled nights in Studio 54. Nastase was happy to brush shoulders with the likes of Andy Warhol, and to add Margaret Trudeau (but not Bianca Jagger) to his little black book, but claims he was never interested in chemical recreation.
“In Romania there was no drugs. I remember the day when Vitas came to the Borg wedding [north of Bucharest]. He told me after he passed customs with another friend from New York that he had some cocaine with him. I just said to him: ‘Vitas, you better throw it away because in Romania they can put you in jail for 100 years.’ So he threw the thing away. Ceausescu was very hard on drugs, and on homosexuals. Romania was a very clean country. I didn’t know drugs until I came to America.”
What did you think?
“I did not understand, and I never wanted to try. I think it was in 1966, it was my first time in America, with [his mentor, Ion] Tiriac, we were in this guy’s apartment, and we had a nice dinner, and we wake up at six in the morning, and they were still around the table. And there was cocaine there. We took our bags and left. We didn’t understand. Once you try it, maybe you like it, but once you like it you are dead. It finishes you.
“For me it didn’t do anything. I was happy. Why should I try?”

Only now - with his life between hard covers and his attention diverted to a new wife and ten month-old daughter - does Nastase see his life in context.
“When you play you think it lasts forever. You think it’s great. And then you don’t even think about it.
“I didn’t realise until I stopped playing how good things were for me. Of course, I was number one, but I didn’t go around saying it. You don’t have time to enjoy it because your head is going to another tournament. But I appreciate it much more now. When people come up to me and recognise me, I appreciate it. There are other players, much better than me, they don’t recognise anymore. [Ivan] Lendl is disappeared, even [Jimmy] Connors. They were better players than me, so I am lucky.”
He still plays, because he likes to keep in touch with the tennis world. When he does, he plays: “like I am 57. Not like the number one in the world. If I think like that I will never play. That would be ridiculous, to go from number one to what I am today. But I’m thinking: ‘I am 57, and I am playing’. I think I’m the best 57 year-old player in the world.”