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Seymour Hersh: A Life in Investigative Journalism

Seymour Hersh

Seymour Hersh

Seymour Hersh is one of America's premier investigative reporters and has uncovered some of the most important news stories of our times. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 1970 for exposing the My Lai massacre and its cover-up during the Vietnam War.

Hersh is the author of several books, most recently Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, which was published in 2004. He writes regularly for The New Yorker on military and national security issues.

In this interview with Asia Society, Hersh discusses "embedded" reporters; the changes underway in the US military and security establishment; the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and the implications of a possible American military strike against Iran.

Having been in the profession for as long as you have, could you comment on what is widely perceived as a relative decline in journalistic standards? To what do you attribute this alleged decline?

You're convinced I'm into self-immolation, I think; I can hardly go around denigrating my own profession in this way!

Look, I know, we've just recently come out of the elections in Baghdad where the coverage was, to put it mildly, incredibly fawning. The television coverage was beyond the pale. All the problems are suddenly resolved because everybody behaved exactly as predicted: the Kurds voted in the high percentage, the Shiites voted in a high percentage and nobody else voted. In any case, to answer your question in brief: yes, it's bad.

Do you have a take on why journalists are not as critical of the government as they once were?

They can still be very critical but I think, for one thing, this government is very good at manipulating and moving people. For example, the other night, very quietly right on the eve of the election - the document was literally dated January 30th - they put out an audit report which showed that - hold on to your hats! - $8.8 billion was missing from the Iraqi Oil for Peace accounts. So while Bremer was running the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), $8.8 billion disappeared from the known Iraqi funds. What are we talking about? And they put this out on a Sunday night; the night of the election, they announce: it's gone! There's still a lot of heat about the $1.6 billion that was squandered or can't be fully accounted for in the UN Oil-for-Food program. And here's $8.8 billion without a whimper. So, these guys are good.

The planning for the election was brilliant. They bring the television crews out there. They put them inside, they're all confined, and there are only a few. I have heard accounts from reliable sources that most of the major television networks could not go to any more than 4 precincts, 4 Shiite precincts and one Sunni precinct in a wealthy area. So what you see is not necessarily what is. I think 9/11 changed everything. I think it terrified the media as much as it terrified the soccer moms.

What in your view prompted the US government to alter the means of war reportage with embedded journalists in Iraq? Do you think that this was the natural culmination of a growing tendency since Vietnam to closely monitor the kind of information given to the public from war zones in which the US military is active?

It was a brilliant move because this way you do control the media. With embedded journalists you only see what the government wants you to see. It's very hard, anybody who has covered the Pentagon will tell you that our soldiers are very likeable and our officers are likeable when they want to be. So you get the Stockholm Syndrome. And then you got the kind of reporting you wanted when you thought you were going to have a fast, quick war. And so everybody missed an awful lot about what was going on and I thought it was a brilliant stroke of genius, absolutely brilliant. I couldn't run a news agency because I would have been hard pressed to understand why we wanted to do it. But I would have been in a distinct minority because you're giving up so much control. You're basically giving up your right to be a discriminating viewer of the whole picture. We didn't get the whole picture. But it was brilliant. The woman running the Pentagon press office at that time was Victoria Clarke, and she's had many high-power public relations jobs and she's obviously very good at what she does.

But the answer, in brief, is: No, I don't think the press should be embedded. No. I understand the security reasons, the need to protect journalists in war zones, but if part of the embedding process is that your stuff has to be reviewed by a senior officer before you file it, that's too high of a price.

But do you think that being embedded was a dramatic shift in war reportage? Or had this trend been developing, this way of monitoring information where US military were involved?

There's always some tension with controlling information. I mean there was censorship in World War II and then there were complaints during Vietnam, so there is always that tension. I just think that we shouldn't voluntarily give up something. In other words, because we had access through a military unit didn't mean that we should give up the right, that we should allow them to censor our materials and feel that they're always right.

Was there overt censorship? I don't think there was. I think everybody understood that you don't describe where you are and all but still it's a great big inhibitor. It's very hard when you're with a group of guys for two weeks or three weeks or a month before they go into combat and the third day of combat, they panic and shoot up a carload of people at an intersection. You're not going to tell that story because if you do it right, you're not going to be with that unit anymore. You're going to be a rat. You have ratted them out. So these are all very complicated matters that cut into the ability of reporters to be reporters.

As someone who has covered the US military and security apparatus for decades, could you comment on the extent to which the institutional logic of the foreign and security policy establishment has changed to reflect the new threats now confronting the US?

The big change right now is the one I've been writing about: the turf war between Rumsfeld and the CIA. So the change isn't so much in terms of the foreign policy establishment, it's the old cliché about Washington: all politics is local. I'm sure it's based on very strongly held profound views but Rumsfeld is convinced that the CIA simply isn't capable of dealing with the terrorism in the world. They're Cold War mentality, they don't get it. And so from the very beginning of 9/11, Rumsfeld has been trying to get control of covert ops and as I wrote recently in The New Yorker, he's done it.

That's one of the huge changes now: we are facing different threats, not a state or even group of states, and the agency, the CIA, hasn't done very well at coping with it; nobody has. It's a whole new ballgame really, stateless threats, and we are incapable of penetrating these kind of operations no matter how much they may crow and claim that they're going to do it and they're going to start programs to do it. We really aren't going to be ready, we have to anticipate that we're not going to know very much about what they're doing until they do it in many cases. So, it's a whole different ballgame, we can't be as preemptive as we want because we won't get the good intelligence. It's a very complicated set of new demands and new requirements and we're not coping very well with it. Rumsfeld's solution is to go beat up everybody and that doesn't work either. And overrunning the Congress and the Constitution because they're too slow isn't going to help. These guys in the Congress, they want to deliberate about what we're doing and that's just too slow for Rumsfeld. He's got to get on with it.