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Seymour Hersh: A Life in Investigative Journalism

Seymour Hersh

Seymour Hersh

A number of your critics argue that your sources are dubious, most are anonymous, your reporting inaccurate, your facts distorted. How do you respond to these claims?

Sticks and stones can break my bones but words cannot hurt me! What can I tell you? I've been hearing about anonymous sources forever. The thing that's amazing about the anonymous source issue is that it's always been the case. In the New York Times recently there were elaborate briefings by "unnamed" sources about what was going to be in the State of the Union address. "Unnamed" sources have been a staple of the American reporting scene in Washington since I can recall, since I got here. I got here in the Vietnam War days, McNamara and Cyrus Vance were running the Pentagon and when I was covering the war for the Associated Press, we used to go and see McNamara all the time for background briefings. We would discuss what we could say. We couldn't say "defense officials", we could say "American officials" or "government officials" and sometimes we were instructed just to write it ourselves and not mention any sources. I mean come on! I've been doing that ever since I've been in the business. And the only way you measure my stories in any reasonable way is to say that I've been writing an alternative history of the war, whatever I've said about Chalabi, about Niger, about no WMDs, about intelligence collection. And the question is: Is it basically right? And I think overwhelmingly it's right. If you had any rational sense of fairness, you have to agree that there has been much more right than wrong. There were wrong things certainly, I'm writing about a secret world and they don't have access to the papers. But clearly something is going on. So those critics are just being uncharitable, and as critics of course they have every right to be uncharitable!

What do you think accounts for the extraordinary access you've had all this time to people in the American security and military establishment? And not only here: your last New Yorker article also cites a retired Pakistani diplomat who tells you about Iran and Musharraf.

Well, because I've been doing it a long time. Don't forget I'm long of tooth and the New Yorker has this great system where people are checked pretty carefully. For them, there's a certain safety in it. They know they're going to get a chance to hear what's being said about them and in some cases, between the time people talk to me and the story gets published, the phrase may have been used at a very important meeting in the White House three days before the article comes out. So they have a chance to review some phrase that they mention to me a month earlier and get out. So there's a certain safety in that for them and also, what can I tell you? You're dealing with the government. It's really not so complicated. If you're somebody on the outside, in the community, you work for the Pentagon or the CIA and you're used to having enormous access to the top level and saying what you think with great openness about major issues or things that would take place, with this administration, you can't get to the table unless they know that you agree. In other words, you have to drink the Kool Aid to get to the table.

I've read that phrase of yours in several places. I'm not sure what the expression means "to drink the Kool Aid…?"

Jimmy Jones and the famous Jonestown, Guyana suicide. Jimmy Jones asked everybody to drink the Kool Aid if they believed in him, and it was laced with cyanide, and all 900 people drank the Kool Aid and died.

So by that I simply mean you have to be with them. If you're with these guys, you're a genius. If you disagree with them, you're a traitor. There's no middle ground with these guys. So if you're in the bureaucracy and you start writing papers that object to what they're thinking or doing, you find that your subordinate or a peer will suddenly start going to meetings because he's figured out the right memo saying we agree. And they get the promotions. So eventually the word gets through after a couple of years that if you want a career, stop arguing, or if you keep arguing, you leave. That's what happens in the bureaucracy. So that's why people talk to me because this trend alarms a lot of people because the guys in the top are only talking to themselves.

Your sources have suggested that the CIA is diminishing in importance and the Pentagon is taking over more of its traditional mandate. You seem to suggest that this is problematic because now there will be no Congressional oversight exercised on what the Pentagon does. Is that correct?