Q&A with Investigative Journalist Seymour Hersh
From the blog The Constant American, September 21, 2007. Journalist Seymour M. Hersh, 70, announced his arrival in Washington nearly four decades ago by uncovering the U.S. military massacre of Vietnamese women and children at My Lai and winning the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. As a freelancer for the tiny Dispatch News Service, he did all this without even leaving the country. Newsweek dubbed him the "scoop artist," and from the start he has served as the official executive pain in the neck -- breaking such stories as the CIA's bombing of Cambodia and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's wiretapping of his own staff.
Recently ranked 26th on GQ's list of "50 Most Powerful People in D.C.," Hersh was among the first to expose the Abu Ghraib prison scandal (chronicled in his latest book, "Chain of Command: The Road From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib"), and he continues today to detail the Bush administration's alleged march to bomb Tehran. Persona non grata in this highly secretive White House, The New Yorker writer was recently dubbed "Cheney's Nemesis" by Rolling Stone magazine, and a former Bush insider told CNN's Wolf Blitzer in early 2003, "Look, Sy Hersh is the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist, frankly."
The Jewish Journal recently spoke with Hersh in advance of his Oct. 4 appearance at UCLA Live, at which he will discuss American foreign policy and the abuse of power under the guise of national security:
Jewish Journal: You wrote in The New Yorker in the spring of 2006 that the United States might not have much more time to focus on Iraq because they had started planning to bomb Iran. That hasn't happened yet. Do you still think it will?
Seymour Hersh At that time it was considered far out. But it's not anymore. I'm still writing about Iran planning. It is very much on the table. And I can tell you right now that there are many Shia right now in the south of Iraq, in the Maliki party, that believe to the core that America is no longer interested in Iraq, but that everything they are doing now is aimed at the Shia and Iran.
JJ: You're not a fan of President George W. Bush. Do you look at things in terms of Jan. 20, 2009?
SH: Absolutely. Absolutely. No matter who will be there.
JJ: Do you have one of those countdown clocks on your desk?
SH: No. Somebody gave me one, but I thought it would be too cute. You know, he's got power. He's still president.
JJ: You mentioned that there are plenty of things you know that you can't write about.
SH: The bottom line is nobody in this government talks to me. I've been around for 40 years -- in Bush I, in the Reagan years, certainly in Democratic regimes, but even in Republican regimes where I am more of a pain -- I've always had tremendous relationships with people. This is the first government in which in order to get my stories checked out to make sure I'm not going to kill some American, I have to go to peoples' mailboxes at night, people I talk to and know, and put it in their mailbox before turning it into The New Yorker, to get them to read it and say, "Oh, Page 4, you better not say that, Hersh."
I can't do that with the government. I used to always go and sit down and talk with the heads of the CIA and heads of other agencies. These guys are just really quantitatively different. You are either with us or against us across the board. And this is why I count days.
JJ: New York magazine has a profile this week of Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report, and they call him "America's Most Influential Journalist." What have bloggers like Drudge done to journalism, and how do you think it compares to the muckrakers that you came of age with?
SH: There is an enormous change taking place in this country in journalism. And it is online. We are eventually -- and I hate to tell this to The New York Times or the Washington Post -- we are going to have online newspapers, and they are going to be spectacular. And they are really going to cut into daily journalism.
I've been working for The New Yorker recently since '93. In the beginning, not that long ago, when I had a big story you made a good effort to get the Associated Press and UPI and The New York Times to write little stories about what you are writing about. Couldn't care less now. It doesn't matter, because I'll write a story, and The New Yorker will get hundreds of thousands, if not many more, of hits in the next day. Once it's online, we just get flooded.
So, we have a vibrant, new way of communicating in America. We haven't come to terms with it. I don't think much of a lot of the stuff that is out there. But there are a lot of people doing very, very good stuff.
JJ: Some people have a problem with muckrakers. Why do you think it is important to shine a light on filth?
SH: I can't imagine what else there is to do in the newspaper business today right now but to write as much as you can about what is going on. Like it, don't like it, what you call filth is the normal vagaries of government and foreign affairs these days.
JJ: Bush recently compared Iraq to Vietnam in a positive way. What do you think he learned from the Vietnam War?
SH: He seems to have learned from lessons that were not very valid. Nobody wants to be a loser. Bush is going to disengage to some degree, and he's going to claim the country is more stable. He's just going to say whatever he wants, and he's going to get away with it because who knows what is going on in Basra. Nobody I know in their right mind would go down there. You'd get whacked.
And the Democrats have fallen into the trap of saying, "We shouldn't get out." As far as I am concerned, there are only two issues: Option A is to get out by midnight tonight, and Option B is to get out by midnight tomorrow.
JJ: Having grown up in a Yiddish home, the son of Polish and Lithuanian immigrants, how would you describe your Jewish identity?
SH: Vague. I like a lot of the historical stuff; I'm agnostic about the religion. But I certainly understand the power of faith, and I wish the American Jews could talk more to some of the Israelis I know and see how open-minded they are about many issues American Jews are not. There is tremendous diversity in Israel. Here the stuff of conversation ends up in a bloody fight; there you can discuss anything.
My [three] children chose: Some went through the bar mitzvah process; some did not. I'm a believer in you do what you want to do. For me, my Jewish heritage comes mainly in literature. I identify very strongly with the Saul Bellows and Philip Roths of this world. But it's so irrelevant that I am Jewish when I write about Jewish issues. It really is for me. It's just like it is irrelevant what my personal opinion is on things.
JJ: I was going to ask if your being Jewish has in any way affected your coverage of Israeli politics, particularly security?
SH: No, no. It gets me in more fights.
JJ: The book "The Israel Lobby" just came out. How would you characterize Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer's assessment of the power of the pro-Israel community?
SH: You can't touch them in terms of being anti-Semitic. They are realists. They are from the realists' school. I haven't read the book, but it's not either/or, either support Israel or don't. It's: try and use the tremendous support and relationship we have to modify their behavior more than we do. But this government and that relationship [with Israel] is really profound, and it is just very secretive between us and Israel. It is not transparent, and that is not healthy for anybody.
JJ: You turned 70 this year. Why keep working so hard?
SH: I don't work that hard. I write four or five pieces a year. Secondly, what do you want me to do? Play professional golf? I can't do that. You do what you can do. And I'm in a funny spot because I have an ability to communicate with people I have known for a number of years. They trust me, and I trust them, so I keep on doing these little marginal stories.
JJ: That's all they are? Marginal?
SH: With these stories, if they slow down or make people take a deep breath before they bomb Iran, that is a plus. But they are not going to stop anybody. This is a government that is unreachable by us, and that is very depressing. In terms of adding to the public debate, the stories are important. But not in terms of changing policy. I have no delusions about that.