In the pantheon of legendary journalists, Seymour Hersh stands out as a preeminent chronicler of US power. Born in Chicago in 1937, he came to international prominence with a 1969 report on the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. The report on the hundreds of civilians, primarily women and children, who were slaughtered by US troops energized the anti-war movement and won Hersh a Pulitzer Prize. In later years he wrote on Henry Kissinger, JFK, and Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli who was kidnapped by the Mossad in Rome and imprisoned for 18 years in Israel after exposing Israel's secret nuclear arsenal.
Famous for using high-level inside sources, Hersh's reports for the New Yorker on the Iraq War have become a must-read for their revelations on the inner workings of the Bush administration. Richard Perle, a leading neoconservative and one of the authors of the Iraq War, called Hersh the "closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist" after he exposed Perle's involvement in financial dealings designed to profit from the war. Perle lost his position as chair of the influential Defense Policy Board as a result of the report and threatened to sue Hersh for libel but never followed through. In 2005 Hersh reported that the US was conducting covert operations within Iran to locate targets for a possible attack. In 2006, he revealed that the administration was considering a nuclear strike on Iran, and reported that the US had encouraged Israel to plan and execute the war against Lebanon, in which more than a thousand Lebanese civilians were killed. More recently he has written about US and Saudi support for Sunni jihadists in Lebanon. If the aim of journalism is to hold the powerful to account, Hersh is a towering example on how to do just that. He spoke to Adbusters contributing editor Deborah Campbell from his office in Washington, DC.
DC: Your recent article on the stifling of General Taguba's inquiry into the Abu Ghraib prison scandal [in which Donald Rumsfeld was accused of misleading Congress] was pretty shocking. What was the most surprising revelation for you?
SH: I've given up being surprised by these guys. I would guess the bald affrontery of the contempt for Congress. We already know about their contempt for the press. Just going to Congress and misrepresenting what they know. And we all know they do it.
DC: Why do you think the Bush administration keeps getting away with this kind of behavior?
SH: That's a question you really have to direct at the Congress and at the mainstream press. Maybe we're just inured. There's just so much of this. When you have such a lack of, you know, the word that's never mentioned anymore is morality, and across the board you basically have people that are diminishing values, diminishing the constitution. To me it shows just how fragile the whole society is. These guys come in and we've had a collapse of the military, collapse of Congress, collapse of the press, collapse of the federal government. It's pretty shocking how easily it slips.
DC: With your story on Lebanon about the US and Saudi Arabia supporting Sunni jihadists, including Fatah al-Islam, we then see the Lebanese army start to fight Fatah al-Islam in a refugee camp in Lebanon. What happened there?
SH: Look, I'm not being querulous but it doesn't matter what I think. What obviously happened is that, assuming I was right, there's a pattern here. If you go back two decades, when the war against Russia was being fought in Afghanistan, the Saudis convinced us that they could control the Salafis – Osama Bin Laden, etc. – and we overtly and knowingly aided them and it ended up biting our ass. So it's not illogical to conclude that one of the things that happened is that people we thought we could control, we could not control. So, right now we are helping the Lebanese army fight people that we indirectly helped support. As usual, it's complete madness.
DC: You met Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon some time ago. Is fear of him and his popularity their reason for supporting Sunni jihadists at this point?
SH: Sure. Of course.
DC: He's been branded as a terrorist by the West and the media. What was your impression of him?
SH: I think in Europe he is seen much differently. The Germans certainly negotiated with him; the French do. In fact, Hezbollah was invited by the French government to a conference that may or may not take place on the whole Lebanese crisis. I hear it was delayed because of American protests. So basically this is an American point of view. I think the Brits even have a difference of opinion. And I don't think there's any question that, whatever he may have done two decades ago, today he's certainly playing it responsibly, and his response to the crisis most recently has been pretty interesting, supporting the Lebanese army, etc. So his record speaks for itself. He's also probably the most influential man in the Middle East right now.
DC: More so than [Iranian president] Ahmadinejad?
SH: Oh my God yes. I don't think there's any question. All the popularity polls show, particularly after the war against the Israelis, he was number one in the hit parade. I don't know if this is true, but I think Ahmadinejad even wanted Hezbollah to come visit him publicly in Tehran at one point in the last six months. He wouldn't do it, maybe for reasons as simple as his own security. But, he's quite an imposing figure. And he's somebody that, were we in the real world, we'd be dealing with. But we're not in the real world here in Washington DC.
DC: Is his popularity contributing to this whole shift now towards a Sunni-Shia split in the Middle East?
SH: That seems to be this administration's goal, to mobilize the moderate Sunnis such as they are in Egypt, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, to join with the United States, Great Britain and Israel, against the Shia. Pretty amazing stuff.
DC: Whether the Shia be in Iran or Lebanon or Syria.
SH: Well particularly because they're in Iran, and then if there's going to be negotiation between Israel and Syria, one of the Israeli hopes will be to wean the Syrians from Nasrallah and Iran, which I don't think is possible.
DC: Why the shift? Why is this the new front at this point? Is it because we see the Shia coming to power in Iraq?
SH: Probably. I don't have a chance to ask the president about this stuff, but it seems clear that it has to do with the failure in Iraq and the possibility that they're going to have a Shia government in Iraq and a Shia government in Iran. From the American point of view and also from the moderate Sunni point of view it's pretty scary.
DC: It seems that they never did the math and they realized that one person, one vote, was going to mean a Shia win in Iraq.
SH: Well of course they did the math but, I think that they thought they could control it better than it turned out they could.
DC: Is that a theme? That they seem to think that they can control situations and they consistently get out of hand?
SH: Again, it seems like it is, but it's also very possible that everything that's happening is also what they want. It could be, basically, the notion of chaos. Kissinger once said about the Iran-Iraq War back two decades ago when they were killing each other: "Let them kill each other." Let's help each side kill the other guy. And that may be one of the theories to explain the Sunnis versus Shia. It's almost impossible to figure out what they're thinking.
DC: When it comes to Iran, you've written about the internal policy battles where it seems that Cheney has been pushing for a more militaristic approach to Iran. Who do you think is winning the policy battles right now?
SH: I'm actually writing more on this eventually. I don't even think it's really been a policy battle; I think it's always been Cheney. Cheney, Cheney, Cheney. It's very hard to get reliable information on what the president believes and wants to do. I really do not know, other than that Rice speaks for herself. I've always been skeptical of her influence. But nobody really knows. This is the most submerged, hidden, unrealized government we've ever had.
DC: Given that you've been following US governments since basically Vietnam, how does this administration's foreign policy compare?
SH: Well, it's a joke. Look, even in Vietnam, in the worst days, you always had Kissinger. I never thought I'd say it, but if we had a Kissinger around, we at least could be reasonably sure that what seems to be an insane policy would have some protocol to fill. At one point, I remember Kissinger in the early 70s trying to strike a deal to buy, I think, 12 years worth of oil from the Shah of Iran at a bargain price, ten or 12 bucks a barrel, and that would have explained some of the huge arms deals that were going into this failing state. It was inexplicable except there was a side deal. So you always thought, okay, maybe you can't always see it. So if Kissinger were here, this insanity we're seeing right now concerning the war in Iraq might be tied to the argument that maybe it's hiding some complicated form that we just can't figure out. But without a guy like Kissinger, what you see is what you got.
DC: But you have to wonder if there is some underlying logic. You touched on the chaos model. Iraq appears to be a disaster for US foreign policy but it may not be to people on the inside. You've basically inoculated Iraq; you're close to Iran; you've got a big embassy going up; a permanent base in the Middle East; you're selling arms by the billions.
SH: I don't buy that. You could argue that the Israelis can move their anti-missile weapons from the borders in Iraq to other borders. But nah, it's a disaster. Of course they had planned to grab the oil, and they are building a new facility in the Green Zone. And they are probably building at least one base about which we don't know much. Apparently there is a lot of concrete being poured on the ground somewhere near the border with Iran. They are thinking about permanent bases. It was all part of the strategic plan, but they're not going to be able to hold any of it. The end will be pretty brutal. In the end the embassy will crumble. It will all fall down. The chaos theory, in broad terms, is simply to let it all go up in smoke. But I don't believe there is any way that this can work out in a way that makes sense. Even for the Straussian believers in controlled destruction. But again, it could be right. We don't get much straight talk from this president. One of the American enemies down the line will always be the Saudis. We know they've played games, they've financed a lot of Salafi groups around the world. And the idea that Saudi Arabia is a moderate state, that Jordan is a moderate state when Abdullah II is holding on by the skin of his teeth, or Mubarak in Egypt who is certainly anything but a democrat. All of these countries are pretty marginal. So I just don't know what's going to happen.
DC: Now, if we go back to the beginning of your career, and the story you broke on the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, was it easy to get that kind of story into the public eye?
SH: No. Nobody wanted it. I had to set up an independent news agency and sell it as a syndicated news column, and then tell everybody who bought it that we had the copyright, we had lawyered it, we were going to take responsibility for lawsuits. It was horrible. I mean, I had been a major writer, I'd been with the AP and upi, been a press secretary for a guy who ran for president, had written for a lot of magazines. I knew everybody. Yet I got that story and nobody wanted to touch it. But once we syndicated it and any newspaper who ran it could put a copyright and say, well, somebody else is responsible, then they ran it. But that was pretty horrible. I think we sent it to fifty papers over telex collect – that was the way you did it back then before email – and I think 35 or 36 ran it, most of them as the lead story. So the institution isn't totally dead. It's in trouble, but it's not totally dead.
DC: How do you see the media environment changing since that point?
SH: That's a big question. Basically, it's a little shocking to me that the mainstream press has so completely missed the story of this war in Iraq and this presidency. I think when we look back on this era we're going to be very critical of the press. They really missed one of the great moral issues of our time, just as they missed Vietnam for many years. So it's really pretty sad.
DC: Where do you see some good journalism happening right now?
SH: Dana Priest in the Washington Post did some good stuff. There's a kid named Nir Rosen who does some good stuff and has spent a lot of time out there. There are a lot of good journalists out there doing stuff, not all of them necessarily where we can see it. My old newspaper, the New York Times, is basically a huge disappointment to me, not only because of Judith Miller but because they continue to flack for the war. And that's sort of depressing. After all those years I spent there I am a little astonished that they haven't figured out a way to be more critical of Bush.
DC: Can you talk at all about what you're doing right now?
SH: No. Why would I? I'm doing the same thing I've been doing since this war began. I haven't written another story since 9/11. I hate it.