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Seymour Hersh: Man On Fire

In an astonishingly candid and far-ranging interview, the journalist who exposed major stories from the My Lai massacre to the Abu Ghraib scandal, proves that his voice is every bit as powerful as his pen.
 
 
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An interview with Seymour Hersh is never dull – to put it mildly. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist can be contentious, just as willing to challenge a question as answer it. He can be unpredictable, ever able to throw a hapless reporter off-balance with the unexpected. "Did you ever take a stewardess' course?" he might inquire just as you're trying to get him to discuss the role of the media.

When Hersh does answer the question – which he will, with eloquence and at great length – he is likely to make your head reel as he follows four separate lines of thought – at the same time. In other words, it's a bit like being on a roller-coaster: often disorienting and a little daunting, but always a hell of a ride.

For when Seymour Hersh speaks, he does so with unparalleled insight, passion, and candor. He is willing to say what most other star journalists rarely permit themselves to even think in this era of celebrity journalism, when image is king. When Hersh speaks, it's for two simple reasons: it's important and he cares. It's why we care to listen.

Be it his coverage of the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War or his recent work exposing the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq, Hersh has been a dedicated watchdog for democracy. His latest book, " "Chain of Command: The Road From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib," builds on his reporting as a staff writer at The New Yorker. The book – among other things – reveals how National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was made aware of human rights abuses in Guantanamo Bay two years before the torture in Iraq took place. It is a searing indictment of the Bush administration for its willful ignorance, ideological agenda, and above all, a profound failure of leadership.

He spoke to AlterNet from his office in Washington D.C.

So what does the Abu Ghraib scandal say – the fact that it happened and the way it was handled by the Bush administration ...

Oh, c'mon. You can ask a better question than that.

No, no, no, does it reveal a deeper truth ...

OK, fine. Abu Ghraib is a symptom, a terrible symptom of a system that went bad from the beginning. From the first days of the war, the attitude was 'We can do anything we want.' When John Walker Lindh – that young boy who was captured with al Qaeda, that lost kid from California – was first captured, the mistreatment was astonishing. He was stripped, thrown around. There was a bullet they didn't take out for days. The soldiers spit on him. There were people at the time who thought it was just madness what we were doing and that it would stop soon. But the American public liked it.

So in a funny way, we got what we wanted. We wanted payback, we wanted revenge. And we saw everybody in al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Muslim world as our enemy.

So you're describing a blood-lust on the part of the American people.

No, what I said was what happened is ... OK, one of the amazing things is the first report [on Abu Ghraib] that was done by Antonio Taguba, a wonderful, highly motivated, brilliant officer. And he traced the tracks of Abu Ghraib back to Afghanistan. The prisoner abuse began then.

And here's my complaint about Bush, and Cheney and Rumsfeld. Of course, none of these people knew about Abu Ghraib – all that madness, piling up naked people. But at no time did the people at the top of the chain of command say, "You will not mistreat people."

In an article in the New Yorker, you included the testimony of one of the soldiers who was one of the whistleblowers that exposed the abuses in Abu Ghraib. Yet in the bit that you quoted, he referred to the prisoner as an "it." And this is someone who was appalled by what he saw around him. Doesn't that reflect the larger environment within the prison – where these prisoners were simply not seen as human beings?

Ah, I think you may be over-intellectualizing. You can't begin to know what's in their head. Look, America is a very racist country and war brings out the worst in it. I have said – several times, publicly – that the one thing I've always liked about Bill Clinton is that he was the first American president since World War II to bomb white people.

There's a lot of racism. And when you fight a war, you dehumanize the other side – that's inevitable. And that's why you need leadership from the president. That's why you need clear guidelines to be established.

The reality is that anybody could do what they goddamn wanted in that prison. They couldn't kill them, but they could do anything else they wanted. And that's exactly what happened. It was just awful.

And we will discover that as bad Abu Ghraib was, the torture in the prison in Guantanamo is going to turn out to be more systematic, more brutal.

So you're saying that racism is a given fact and it takes rules in order to ...

Of course. Is there anything more dangerous than a 20-year-old with a weapon? C'mon! In a war zone, you'll steal and kill and do pretty much anything.

The interesting thing to me with this war is that the American public – left, right, and center – is not mad at the soldiers as they were in Vietnam. In this war, there seems to be an understanding that these Army reservists and National Guard members are as much victims as the people they have to kill and shoot and maim. This is the war that the president wanted and he made people go to battle – and the public seems to understand that.

Why has Abu Ghraib not had any political impact? I just read this piece in the American Prospect which shows that many of the senior officers implicated in the scandal have been promoted. What's more, neither presidential candidate has even mentioned Abu Ghraib.

Why should they? Since when is having a disciplined, finely-tuned sense of morality an element in the presidential campaign?

But do you think it is also because the American public is not interested in hearing about Abu Ghraib?

What I was trying to say with the previous remark is that one of the things that a leader does is lead. And yes, neither leader is taking the chance for the reason that you mention.

As for the American people, look, you're never going to be able to persuade me that even the most rabid Bush supporter in Texas wasn't horrified by what he saw. The question though is how do you deal with it. And for a lot of people in America, they simply expunge it or deny it.

When I wrote my first stories about My Lai, I remember vividly a Minnesota public opinion poll that showed that more than half of the American people didn't think I should have published that story. They weren't accusing me of doing anything wrong, but they didn't think I should have written about it. So you always have this resistance to an ugly truth.

I think it would take enormous amount of guts and integrity for Kerry to have pushed the story. But he didn't. On the other hand, he's trying to win an election. Kerry has nothing to gain, politically – anybody who hates Abu Ghraib is not going to like the war. And if he raises this issue, people will interpret him as being anti-military – which he doesn't want and in fact is not true.

So you're not surprised that the scandal didn't have a bigger fallout than other ...

What I'm saying to you is that it did have a bigger fallout. It just didn't come the way that you'd see it. It left an enormous scar not just here, but around the world.

Even the most devout Bush lover in the Deep South knows what those pictures mean – whether they want to acknowledge it or not. It's completely implausible that anyone could look at those pictures [of torture] without an enormous sense of shame.

The thing that drives me crazy is that Bush has won on this issue. He's prosecuting seven or eight "bad seeds." This one guy [Ivan "Chip" Fredricks] got eight years yesterday – are you kidding me? Eight years? They're prosecuting the hell out of them and I still don't see any officers charged. At most they're talking about doing reprimands. And I haven't even seen anyone getting reprimanded yet.

Bush has gotten away with it. He won the public relations battle and we're all happy. It's a little traumatic, a little horrible, a little discouraging.

And that's because we live in this post-9/11 era where there is a sense there should be no limit in what we can do to keep ourselves safe.

The mistreatment began immediately and why is that crazy? Real simple, you don't want their prisoners treated any differently than you want our prisoners treated. And two, you can't get good intelligence by coercion – with bombs or bullets or breaking fingers with people who are willing to die.

It was a really, really dumb decision.

You've said in other interviews that it would be better to have a realist like Henry Kissinger in the White House than utopians like the neoconservatives. So is there a lesson in Iraq then for the so-called humanitarian hawks – the liberal hawks who believe in going to war for moral reasons?

I'm one of those people who believes that Bush really did go to war to free the Middle East and turn these nations into democracies. I don't think he went to war for oil primarily or Israel. He went because he has this idee fixe that it was his mission, his crusade to change the Middle East – to turn it into a democratic stronghold of good, well-meaning people who would buy American and support Israel against the Palestinians and keep the oil flowing.

It's idealistic. It's utopian. Is there anything more dangerous than an ideologue who doesn't know he's wrong?

Now, one of the things I've heard from people who found themselves supporting the war is that whether the UN went in or not, the fact is that there was a moral imperative. That Saddam was doing terrible things to his people and suppressing the Shi'ites, violating human rights and so on.

The only problem with that thinking is that it's been more than a year and a half since we went in. And right now, the abuses in the prisons, the bombings, and the attacks, the violence in the country are now being caused by us. Is that a moral position we want to be in? Of course, it is an unintended consequence, but it is still very much a consequence.

If Bush wins re-election, he will bomb and bomb and bomb. He's been doing that steadily every since the Allawi government was put in place by us. Since June 28, the bombing has gone up exponentially. Bombing, bombing, bombing. Civilian targets, civilian neighborhoods.

But I don't see anyone in the press worrying about it. I don't see them demanding to know how many sorties we're flying – have they grown? Are more bombs being dropped? What's the tonnage? We don't know any of that, do we?

Michael Ignatieff's review of your book posited you as the mirror-image of Bob Woodward. Where Woodward's writing is based on his access to the inner circle, your reporting is based on relationships you've built with insiders who make up the rank-and-file. But then he goes on to say that both of you run the risk of being "played" by the sources. How do you respond to that?

Of course, it's absolutely true that both of us are vulnerable to being played by our sources. But the question is to what extent.

Bob was reflecting what he thought their views were. And I would bet he is pretty accurate about that. One of the things that amazed me about the first book ... So I read Bob's first book, "Bush at War," which begins with 9/11 and ends with the invasion [of Iraq] in March, 18 months later. And it was not until months later that I realized what it was about that book that really troubled me.

It was that at no point in these 300-400 pages of this book does any of the major players in the Bush administration say to one of his aides, "Hey, what's this Muslim thing here? And why don't you give me a little paper on this thing they call the [ putting on a Texan drawl ] Koh-ran."

This lack of curiosity about Arab motives. What the assumption was that the Muslim world was mad at us because we had what they wanted. The president still has this notion.

So Bob's books are really valuable. And I don't think he was played by his sources. He did exactly what he wanted to do – to play back what they gave him. And I think in my case, I've been dealing with people for a long time. And over the years, you establish trust. It doesn't mean someone can't or won't use me.

But since 9/11 I've been writing an alternative history of the war which is clearly being perceived – now – as having a lot of accuracy. It wasn't seen that way two years ago. I was considered to be out there – looney tunes, if you like.

Someone like Judith Miller (of the New York Times) seems a more likely anti-Hersh, so to speak. She represents the flipside of anonymous sourcing, where unnamed sources become a way to disguise sloppy reporting. So given these kinds of examples, what future do you see for your type of reporting – the kind which as you point out relies on ...

Do you really think I'm going to get into a discussion of this?

OK, you don't want to? We can move on.

I'll stay away. All I can say to you is I do find it absolutely, utterly amazing that Judy Miller is suddenly the poster child for the kind of reporting we want in America. But that's OK. [ hesitates]

Fine, we don't really ...

I didn't really like what she wrote about Iraq, but I think she's taken the right stance in the case she's involved in now. Anyway ...
I don't want to talk about that kind of stuff because it's ... It gets to be self-serving and I don't want to get into that aspect of it ...

Well, some people have sources and some people have real sources is all I'm saying. There are sources that tell you the White House spin and there are sources that tell you what's really going on. And that's a tough level to get to.

OK, let's talk about the media in general.

Let's, oh let's. Ask me something that I can answer so it isn't self-serving – that doesn't have me brushing snow from my mantle.

OK ...

Michael Gordon [the New York Times' war correspondent] has done an excellent three-part series, full of interesting information. Oh would be that he wrote some of that stuff or knew some of that stuff before the war – instead of the stuff he actually wrote before the war, which generally reflected the opinion of guys who were dead wrong about what was going to happen. What am I supposed to think? Am I glad he wrote it? Yes.

Look, I'm glad the New York Times and the Washington Post have done their mea culpa. I just think they should have done those mea culpas before March of 2003 – before the war began, because that would have been important.

Yes, there have been mea culpas, but do they get the fact that the media now faces a credibility gap? The public seems to have lost a certain amount of trust in the major media outlets, be it the New York Times or CNN, because of their coverage since 9/11, and especially during the war.

I've been speaking around the country quite a bit. I presume that most of the people who see me are pro-Kerry or on the fence about him. It's more than a credibility gap – it's utter disillusionment with the American press over this war. It's sort of shocking. The lack of respect for the press is pretty astonishing.

There is a sense that the press failed us. If you ask the good reporters, they'll tell you, "We did."

So do you think people in the media understand what a big crisis they're facing?

Ask the question again. Ask it differently ... Here's my issue. I don't feel good about putting down the tremendous number of good reporters in the press. But I do feel there was a collective attitude at the top of newspapers that after 9/11, we're going to be good soldiers. And there were guys coming up with rough nasty stories, who were not welcome. It was like farting in church. Even at the good newspapers, they want happy stories, [to] hear about our heroism. And the idea that [Saddam] didn't have weapons of mass destruction ... should have been reported on extensively before the war. There should have been a debate instead of accepting what the president said.

But the failure is really very significant and very depressing. I don't know how the mechanism failed. I just don't know.

The right wing was never very happy with the so-called "liberal" media. But now liberals – and not just the far left but moderate liberals – have lost faith in these same outlets. So what does that mean for the future? And how do they begin to win back the trust?

Just as long as it's going to take the United States – many more years than you want to believe – to win back the trust of the people in the Middle East. They are reeling from Abu Ghraib – it was stunning to them. They really did view us as preternaturally sexually perverse people.

In terms of the press ... [ sighs] I can't even begin to tell you what we have to do. I think time will heal things, like it always does – if we get a couple of years of no war and some prosperity between us. But in the short term, no one is going to believe the press very much any more. Just like no one is going to believe the United States if we start screaming about nuclear weapons some place. So I think we're in real trouble.

I hope it comes out the right way in the election. If it doesn't then we're all in trouble. The Europeans so far give us a pass on the grounds that, well, you've got these crazy leaders and they do crazy things. But if we re-elect them, then it's not just the president they're mad at. They're going to be mad at all of us.

Lakshmi Chaudhry is senior editor of AlterNet.