May 2005 Issue
Seymour "Sy" Hersh is a legendary investigative journalist. The Pulitzer Prize-winner catapulted to fame when as a freelancer he broke the story of the infamous My Lai massacre of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops. These days, he says, he's been writing "an alternative history of Bush's wars." A regular contributor to The New Yorker, he helped expose U.S. torture of Iraqi prisoners. He used his writings in that magazine as the basis for his latest book, Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib. His recent article "The Coming Wars" revealed the Bush Administration's plans for Iran.
Born in Chicago, Hersh began his career in 1959 as a police reporter for the City News Bureau. He later worked for UPI, AP, and The New York Times. Since 1993, he's been at The New Yorker. His piece on neocon stalwart Richard Perle, "Lunch with the Chairman," provoked Perle to call him the "closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist." Perle threatened to sue him for libel but later backed off. Recently, Max Boot, another neocon favorite, called him "the journalistic equivalent of Oliver Stone: a hard-left zealot who subscribes to the old counterculture conceit that a deep, dark conspiracy is running the U.S. government." For Hersh, their criticism is a sign he's doing his job.
His book The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House won him the National Book Critics Circle Award. He doesn't have a lot of respect for the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who he says "lies like most people breathe."
Hersh has relentless energy. "I'm not one of those 9:00 to 5:00 guys during the week," he says. "I don't do much then because I can get people in trouble with a phone call. But at night and on the weekend I can call them." And he's restless, always on the lookout for a new lead.
Question: You go back to the Nixon era. You remember the wiretapping, the breaking and entering, the use of the IRS to pursue political opponents, the secret bombing of Cambodia. Compare this crew in the White House today with Nixon. What are the differences?
Seymour Hersh: It's interesting you say that because I think what's going on right now--and I'm not talking about the legal implications--is much more dangerous. Nixon clearly broke the law in the cover up of Watergate and hush money payments. That was all criminal activity. With these guys, we're not talking about the kind of common crimes that Nixon committed. I can't tell you whether they are technically breaking the law, but basically, the American government has been hijacked by neoconservatives. They are taking an awful lot of national security operations into the White House.
Few knew in 2000 that Bush was going to end up with neoconservatives all over the place. And once 9/11 happened, I think it's fair to say that eight or nine neocons have had an enormous influence. The whole solution to every problem was to go after Iraq. This had been a neoconservative mantra for ten years. There was no secret about it.
And then, of course, Bush won reelection, with everything out there, all of our complaints, all of the issues, all of the troubles with Iraq. So where are we? Bush certainly sees himself as having been given an endorsement. He was asked about accountability in an interview, about why Rumsfeld, Rice, and Wolfowitz have been promoted, these people who led us into the debacle in Iraq. Bush said there was accountability--it was the election. So there we are.
Q: What are the implications of the White House taking control of intelligence?
Hersh: Essentially Rumsfeld wins, Cheney wins, and the CIA and State Department lose. Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld have more centralized control over intelligence, analysis, and operations than ever before. And the way they interpret the law, if the President authorizes an intelligence mission to be run covertly by the Pentagon, they don't have to tell anybody, including Congress, about it because the President is the commander in chief.
The critical difference here is ever since the scandals of 1975 and the Church hearings, the CIA cannot do anything overseas covertly without getting approval from Congress. That's been vitiated by this new interpretation. So we can look forward to a lot of undercover activities by Americans. There are no restrictions on how they can operate.
Q: Talk more about Iraq.
Hersh: I say openly that I am an anti-war person, with the point being, show me some reason not to be against this war. You have to be sort of asleep at the switch not to be critical of it. And the parallel between one quagmire we went through in Vietnam and the one we're in now is clear for everybody to see.
Q: What do you make of Charles Graner, the guard at Abu Ghraib? Was he simply a bad apple?
Hersh: Graner is certainly guilty of terrible misjudgment. But the same week he was sentenced to ten years in prison, three GIs were sentenced to only a year and half for murdering a prisoner. Graner didn't murder anybody. Clearly there was a political element of what happened to him. He was doing these terrible things, but he was doing them for three or four months in a prison where officers were all over the place. General Sanchez, the general in charge of troops, was a steady visitor to Abu Ghraib, along with all sorts of other high-ranking officers. The only guys who get charged are eight enlisted men and no officers. If they do reprimand an officer, they'll write a reprimand with the caveat that if there are no further abuses, this letter of reprimand will be removed from your file in a year or six months. It's not a permanent thing. There's always a double standard. Everyone was happy to go to Graner's trial and write stories about how bad he is. And he is. But every time he tried to get an officer to testify, the officer either would invoke the Fifth Amendment or the judge would refuse to allow him to testify. We really didn't air out the issues. But what else is new?
Q: Is Bush in Iraq for strategic reasons, or is he a true believer?
Hersh: I'm worried about people who say Bush is lying. It's much more frightening that he's not lying, that he believes what he believes: that it's his mission to change the Middle East into a democracy. That's more unnerving.
Hersh: We'd be better off if the whole purpose of the adventure in Iraq was, say, to protect Israel or to protect the flow of oil to America and keep it at a reasonable price and try to get some more control. If it was about oil, going into Iraq, I guess, could have made sense. But at a certain point, when the insurgency began and we were in real trouble, there would have been some awareness that we were going to jeopardize the oil. And so there would have been someone who was realistic enough to say, we've got to cut our losses, let's talk to the insurgents and negotiate an end to the war. You understand that in 1965 during the Vietnam War anybody who said let's talk to the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese would've been called crazy, just like anybody who says let's talk to the insurgents now would be called crazy.
If Bush had gone into Iraq for cynical reasons, we could cut our losses now. What's frightening is that he did it for ideological reasons, and therefore he's not going to get out. So it isn't ultimately about oil or about Israel, it's about a belief. I don't know whether God talks to him or whether he's trying to undo what his father did. But he believes in the mission. The body bags aren't going to deter him. Public dissent isn't going to deter him. He's going to go ahead. And that's more frightening.
Q: What will it take for a majority of Americans to say no more torture, stop the war in Iraq?
Hersh: You're missing the point. It doesn't matter what a majority of Americans say. This President has four more years. He's going to do what he thinks he must do. And history may be tough on him in the next ten years but I guess he rationalizes that in fifty or 100 years they'll bless us because there will be--maybe not in his lifetime, but someday--a democratic Iraq emulating the United States in its liberalism, in its fair-mindedness, and that democracy will spread to Iran and Syria, and that whole part of the Middle East will be happy, and terrorism will be gone, and the Israelis will be flourishing, and the oil will flow. That's his vision.
Q: A faith-based policy?
Hersh: I don't know. But I can tell you one thing: It doesn't matter what the American people think. There's going to be an awful lot more body bags.
Q: You don't have a very high opinion of Condoleezza Rice. What's the basis of your criticism?
Hersh: Just the policy. I don't know her personally. I'm sure she's a nice lady, and I'm sure she plays the piano well. But she was a very bad National Security Adviser. The National Security Adviser is supposed to be an arbiter of policy and open minded in internal debates. But the playing field was never balanced. It was always tilted toward Rumsfeld's position, which is obviously the same as Bush's.
At a meeting in her office in the late summer of 2002, months before the war in Iraq, prisoner abuse at Guantanamo is discussed. Rice brings in Rumsfeld for a meeting, and they all agree they have to do something. Nothing gets done.
Do they see themselves as involved in it? No, they don't. Could they have done something? Of course. Did everybody understand we were going to be as tough as we could be with Al Qaeda and people we thought were Al Qaeda? Of course. Did people know that this was a stupid way to operate when you are trying to extract information from people who are willing to fly airplanes into buildings? If they are willing to die, can we torture them into giving information? No, nobody thinks about that. Is there a better way to get information, get their trust, establish rapport, try to change their views? Nobody wants to think about that. It's just, let's beat them up. And that attitude was widespread throughout the Administration.
Do they see themselves as being personally involved? Oh my God, no. What happened is just horrible to them and they can't believe it. They want an investigation. But of course they had millions of opportunities to stop it. It's the standard stuff, the way you go through life in Washington. People in power are always removed from the consequences.
Q: After you broke the story of the Abu Ghraib scandal, Rice put the blame on the uniform military who she said didn't get the orders right.
Hersh: Bush did the same thing. He kept on saying, we don't do torture, I've told everybody that torture is not acceptable. At the same time, he's running a regime in which there are no rules basically for prisoners. You can do what you want despite all this talk and the investigations. The bottom line on the prisoner issue is that there are no rules, just do what you want. Maybe they've insisted on a few since the scandals but certainly the Iraqi police and military seem to have no rules. There's still abuse there. Guantánamo still continues.
Rice just thinks that because the President said at one point publicly that torture is not acceptable, that's it, that's the answer. He told the military torture is not acceptable. If they did it, then it's their problem, as if somehow the President has no responsibility. It's like when Rumsfeld was questioned by the soldier about the lack of armor for the Humvees and other vehicles, he said, well, it's tough in war. The President backed him up, saying he's doing the best job he can, as if somehow he wasn't responsible, too, as much as Rumsfeld, for ensuring that soldiers have the proper equipment. We had a lot of time to plan for that war. It's like there's no there there with these people. Words are just words. They don't have any meaning. And often with Rice, that's true.
But I would recommend any American who wants to understand where the government is going in the next four years to get a copy of her confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It's a road map, and it's pretty frightening testimony. Their definition of where democracy should go in the Middle East doesn't include Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan; it only includes Iraq, Iran, and Syria.
Q: With the military overextended, how can they even contemplate military action against Iran?
Hersh: They're not contemplating an invasion; they are talking about a limited series of air strikes, which they hope triggers dissent that would overthrow the government. It would involve capabilities we have, missiles and airplanes and no troops. That's the thinking.
The whole purpose of my article "The Coming Wars," published in The New Yorker, was to get the debate about that out. Maybe a discussion about all of this will convince Washington to do something it hasn't been doing, which is joining in the European talks with the Iranians on finding ways to convince Iran to back off its nuclear ambition. Give them the goods, the carrots and sticks. But we won't join the talks, and without us, they're not going anywhere. How can you have a security guarantee? The Europeans can give their security guarantees to Iran all they want in return for their stopping their enrichment. But as long as America says we're going to stay out here and we're not going to drop the stick, we're going to pound you if we have to, it's not going to work.
Q: Pakistan's leading scientist A. Q. Khan was for years involved in proliferation of nuclear weapons. Musharraf claims he was shocked to learn about Khan's activities, much like Claude Raines, the police chief in Casablanca, was shocked. What kind of deal did Bush strike with Pakistan to essentially give Khan a walk?
Hersh: We discovered these horrible back dealings in the nuclear black market, but at that point the Bush Administration wanted Pakistan's help in finding Osama bin Laden. This is a year before the election. So at that time we gave Musharraf a pass and let him go on TV and do his thing and pretend that was good enough, that he would put Khan under house arrest and whatever he learned from him he would relay to us.
The deal was extended when Musharraf gave us intelligence on Iran and its nuclear posture. The payback for him was that we dropped the demand that Khan be turned over to the IAEA or us for interrogation directly. We've backed off on the ultimately more important issue of stateless nuclear arms, of a weapon getting into the hands of a terrorist group. That's a huge tradeoff, with enormous consequences.
Q: On Libya, the hawks in the Bush Administration would have us believe that Qaddafi gave up his nuclear weapons program because he was afraid he would be next and therefore it's a victory for their policy.
Hersh: The reality is that Qaddafi has been trying to talk to us about his weapons system for years, and we ignored him. The Libyans even came to me about two years ago and offered me a chance to go through their facilities because they couldn't get anybody's attention here.
Q: The Libyans came to you?
Hersh: Through an intelligence contact in London, who asked me if I'd like to go to Libya and take a look and see what they are up to. The contact said Qaddafi is not doing anything anymore, but nobody will listen to him, and he wants to prove to the West that he's a good guy. I said I'm not an arms controller. It was something I wanted to do but not then. I had too many other things going with Iraq. Eventually, somebody listened to them and Qaddafi started to cooperate, and suddenly he became a good guy in the American and British view.
Q: If a young person wanted to get into journalism today, what advice would you give?
Hersh: I think it's a great profession. It's complicated now. People talk about the demise of investigative reporting. I was a judge in some award contest recently, and the stuff that is being done by major newspapers, and local, regional papers around the country, is great. Newspapers play an amazing role in our society, and I still think they are important. I'm sorry newspaper circulation is down. Ultimately, the importance of newspapers can't be replaced.
Q: What about the problems in journalism?
Hersh: There's been a lot of talk about how bad the reporting was, particularly with the Bush Administration after 9/11. The general assumption, which I think is a valid one, is that a lot of the major media were on their heels a little bit and prone to share the grief of the nation and to give Bush all the support it could. When he attacked Afghanistan, it was widely hailed, and the failure of our war there wasn't understood. Within a few months of attacking Afghanistan, Bush clearly moved on to get ready for Iraq, long before Osama bin Laden or Al Qaeda were dispensed with. There was never any serious debate in the press about whether even the notion that every Taliban was our enemy was valid. A lot of assumptions about that war were never challenged.
Similarly, the press never tested many of the assumptions about WMDs. One of the great myths about the WMD issue is that everybody believed Iraq had them. Well, that's not true. There were a number of people in the intelligence community and the State Department who were skeptical, and many analysts in the Department of Energy were dubious about Iraq's nuclear capability. There were also people like Scott Ritter who were saying quite accurately what was going on.
Q: When talking with your sources who may have an axe to grind, how do you know you aren't being spun?
Hersh: The funny thing is, this is what everyone assumes, that anybody who talks has an axe to grind. I've been around a long time, and yes, there obviously are people who disagree with policy who talk to me, but it's less axes to grind than people who are really motivated. One of the terrible things about this Administration is that nobody wants to hear bad news. The neoconservatives are a small circle, and they're all sort of holding hands as they develop their policy, and outsiders aren't allowed. If you agree with the guys on the inside, you're a genius. If you disagree, you're a traitor, a pariah, you're an apostate, and you're not allowed in. Some people in government were used to, particularly in the Clinton years, being able to get their different points of view to the highest levels. Now they're cut out. It's some of those people. I don't know if that's really axes to grind. They are people who, by and large, think the Administration's policy--and the Iranian case is a classic one--is very stupid. They can't get that view in, and so by talking to me, they accomplish something. It's a way of saying, this ought to be discussed, we got to get this out. That's a form of patriotism, in a funny way.
David Barsamian is the director of Alternative Radio, based in Boulder, Colorado. His most recent interview was with Studs Terkel in the November issue. His latest book is a collection of interviews from The Progressive, "Louder Than Bombs."