An Interview with Seymour Hersh
Conducted by David Barsamian
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
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
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 Guantánamo 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
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 latest book is a collection of interviews from The Progressive,
"Louder Than Bombs." This interview was previously published in