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seymour hersh

An investigative journalist for more than three decades, Seymour Hersh has reported on some of the most important stories of our time, from the Vietnam War's My Lai massacre to the Iraq war's detainee abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison. He currently is a contributing writer to The New Yorker covering national security and the war on terror. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 8, 2007

Why did you get in this business?

Flunked out of law school, nothing else to do.

Flunked out of law school?

Hated it. Didn't like it. Didn't like memorizing. Newspapers seemed like fun. Got into it. Had an affinity for it -- you know, BSing people, reading their minds.

What do you mean, "reading their minds"?

Well, I think a good reporter has to sort of sense the other person.

But you said to me that you went to college, and 10 years later you're sticking your fingers in Richard Nixon's eyes.

Well, I was just talking about the virtue of being an American. I'm almost an innocent in terms of thinking that the system can work if you only give it enough information. I don't know why I still think so, but I still think so.

You know, I wasn't editor of The Harvard Crimson or the Yale Daily News. I didn't do any newspaper work until relatively late, three or four years out of school. I became a police reporter first.

“If you have a good story, you can still get it out. I still think that's true. It's a little tarnished, but I still think it's true. ”

Then here I am, 10, 11 years after graduating from college in 1969; I'm with the My Lai story, writing about the mass murder by Americans of Vietnamese, a terrible war crime, and right into sticking fingers into the eyes of Richard Nixon and being celebrated for it with a prize, fame, fortune, glory.

There aren't many countries I'm aware of where you can do that and where you're judged by what you write. It's not who you are; it's if the story's good. And I still think today, with all the cynicism about the press and media, I still think what drives it isn't necessarily the economic issues -- which are so important, of course -- but basically, a good story is still a good story. If you have a good story, you can still get it out. I still think that's true. It's a little tarnished, but I still think it's true.

You say you started out as a crime reporter? So how does that relate to national security reporting?

Well, I think basically you hold people to certain standards, and in crime reporting, it's real easy, it's very clear what the issues are. It's much more complicated when you're talking about the president and national security adviser.

Basically -- this is not an original thought -- we all value trust and honesty. We don't lie to our children and don't want them to lie to us. [But] all of us in America for the last 50 years -- the same values we want so much at home, we don't begin to expect of the people at the top of government. We understand they're different; that the Kissingers will lie like most people breathe, and the Johnsons will put us into a war and maybe continue it for ego reasons.

We're having the same thing today with this president in Iraq, that there's no quitting because you can't admit [you're] wrong. So it's a bad bargain for all of us. It's a very bad bargain. What I think we in the press should do is hold officials at the top to the highest possible standard. That's all.

But doesn't the nation or the government deserve to have secrets, to be able to hold onto information to defend the country?

It's not about secrets; it's about integrity. I mean, there's no secret that the war isn't going well in Iraq. ...

But what about, for example, NSA [National Security Agency] eavesdropping program … they're saying you're giving aid and comfort to the enemy; you're letting the terrorists know what we're doing.

That's apples and oranges. You're talking about something else. I'm talking about the notion -- look, most of the real secrets in America, as far as I'm concerned, aren't publishable in the sense that, who cares? I remember one time when I was working at The New York Times, somebody sent me at the height of the Vietnam War … [material] on our satellite system: where they were going to be in space at a certain time, the high point, the low point, the five seconds they're going to be looking down the main street of this city in the Soviet Union . ... And who cares? I mean, that's not a story.

Or where attack submarines are at any given time -- that's not a story because it's just not a story. It's sort of like a factoid. Most of the stuff that's secret isn't in our purview. …

You're saying that it's not really worth anything to anybody to know that other than the people who are doing it, so why publish it?

Most of the important secrets that I've known about, the real secrets that are known about aren't worth publishing. They're not worth it. Even now I'll write something about what we're doing in Iran. I don't know much more about literally what we're doing, perhaps, than I write.

It's not me being a censor. It's just saying that everybody doesn't have to know everything. I'm not convinced that every secret has to be published. I think there are secrets worth keeping, and I think there are secrets not worth keeping.

Basically my approach is sort of the Jeffersonian approach: It's their job to keep a secret and my job to publish it, if it's worth publishing.

Why would they then want to do things like prosecute you under the Espionage Act or call your editors and tell them not to run the story -- there's documentary histories out there, Sy, on the public record.

Well, it's not different now under this guy [Bush] than it was 30 or 40 years ago. Then it was that if you write this story, why, the Communists will be sending paratroopers into the foothills of San Francisco.

It's the same story. What we do in the business is pretty simple. We get a lot of secrets, and some we publish, and some we don't publish. Where the problems get in, as you know, is sometimes when there's stuff that should be published that isn't published. I think that's more of a problem. ...

What do you mean?

Well, it's the classic stories like the NSA story not being published for a year, the Times story not being published for over a year, etc., etc. You know, I generally think you publish.

You think that the NSA story should have been published a year and a half earlier?

I really don't know all the facts of it. I know what I think are the public facts. I'm like a lot of people. I'm generally inclined to think you should publish, and that's why I'm a reporter and not an editor.

Most editors are different than you and me. I always think that they're all mice training to be rats, basically. So editors have a different point of view, and reporters have a different point of view, and that's the way it works.

There's been a truce, in effect, hasn't there, since at least 1974, when the [Justice Department] guidelines went in about subpoenaing reporters?

I'm not a legal scholar. I don't really know. I sure have been threatened enough with action, so I'm not sure there's much of a truce.

Lowell, I've been reporting, what, for about 40 years now on national security, some heinous events -- My Lai, Abu Ghraib. I don't think I've ever met a public official that didn't think he was doing the right thing. I can't think of one.

It's just the way it is. It's the inevitable, horrific conflict. You've got people in power, people in the public life, who are absolutely convinced they're doing the right thing, just like they were in Vietnam, just like they are in Iraq, just like they were at Abu Ghraib. ...

But the bottom line is people tend to think that they're always virtuous, and we always look at people as less than virtuous. That's our job. You can call it chasing conflict, but it's sort of chasing -- that's what we do for a living. We're there to say, "Hey."

So there's going to be horrific consequences always. And sometimes it will spill over in jail, and sometimes it won't. But none of this is going to change the structure. I think the moment anybody seriously tampers with the First Amendment you're going to see an outcry.

I've spent my life hearing that reporters [are] not popular in any way -- until somebody really challenges the First Amendment. Then all of a sudden you're going to see this country rise up, because it's really inherent. It's a great, powerful fact that we have on our side, which is that this is a nation that publishes. That separates us from a lot of other nations, and I don't think you can change it. I don't think this president can change it ... or one trial can change it, or some reporter's doing something right, or some reporter's doing something wrong. It's just there.

It's very, very powerful. And that's why, ultimately, whether the government likes it or not, we wear the white hat, because we are there, ringing the little bell, saying, "Truth, truth, truth," or at least our version of it. And it works.

So if you were to compare what's going on today to the Nixon era?

Same stuff. Remember they had the enemies list there? A lot of reporters were on it. We're never going to be popular with people that think they're doing the right thing that aren't doing the right thing. And of course, we ultimately have the ultimate say. We can shape public opinion, and we do.

Unfortunately, the sad thing for me is the media is so much dumber, in a crass sense. I can't get news at night on television that's valuable. ... I think there's been a lowering of standards, and that's very troubling. But that's a separate issue.

No, it's not, actually, in this overall [FRONTLINE] series on the press, for it seems that this may be a unique moment. The press is not only under pressure, let's say, in court or from the administration, but also the economic underpinnings of this business, this news-gathering business that when you joined up, it was growing, and then it had more public support. But now it has less public support and less profit. ...

... Yeah. Again, what comes up? In the middle of all this drive to squeeze newspapers and make them less useful and less interesting, because you're cutting out some of the stuff that people enjoy reading, the cultural sections and more in-depth reporting, at the same time look what else is going [on]: You've got this Internet; you've got this blog business; and you've got this huge accumulation of information that's flowing. We got sort of a real look at how Saddam Hussein died from one of those cell phone cameras.

I presume in another five years there will be a channel that would have recorded it, Channel 1,348, you know, featuring assassinations, when we won't have a warning that won't be covered by some channel. The Arab world is exploding with information in a way it hasn't been before, which is also sort of an antidote to some of our policies just in terms of demonstrating that it's a big world out there.

So you have competing interests. I don't see it as bleak at all. I think it's all very interesting.

My understanding was that prior to some of your reporting in the early '70s, and particularly in The New York Times starting in 1972, that The New York Times really didn't use confidential sources, or at least quote them.

I don't know that. I do remember during Watergate when I was playing catch-up to [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein, who had done such spectacular work and then just sort of dazzled the city in '72, and I was asked in the spring of '73 to do something, I remember thinking, "Are you crazy?" These guys are writing front-page stories about people whose names I'd never heard of. I didn't cover the White House; I covered the Vietnam War.

But I remember when I got into some grand jury stuff, and basically the sources were, you know -- if I happened to be standing next to the urinal with somebody who knew something about grand jury, it was in The New York Times. That had never happened before. They'd never had grand jury information filtered into the newspaper. I remember that was a big, big issue. I remember senior editors padding up to me as I was writing the story and saying, "We don't do this at The New York Times." So it was a sea change.

We don't do what?

We don't run stories based on secondhand information from a grand jury. We don't trust grand juries. We don't do it. It's just not The New York Times' style. So it was different. It was different. But they changed. We all changed, because what do you think happened externally? You had a president that was in a grand jury.

What do you mean? I don't understand.

I'm talking about ultimately that some people in The New York Times think that stories [written] about the grand jury before a grand jury issued a formal report, did they think it was crawling in the gutter? They absolutely did. Talking about in '73 and '74. There was a useful debate inside the paper about what to do with some of these stories. Eventually they published them because the market was so hot.

But who crawled into the gutter first, we or the White House? And what's happening now, when you have this kind of leaking and manipulation of the press that go [on] so overtly now? I don't know what the truth is at all in the current case, the Valerie Plame case, who did what.

Well, it's clear that the White House was trying to disparage or spread gossip.

This is not new. It's just these guys did it in a way that was uniquely incompetent and sure to bite them back, and in a way that lowered the standards, because it was also sort of tawdry and cheap. You're dealing with somebody in the CIA presumably leaking information about somebody about whom he really didn't know much. Maybe there's no real mens rea [criminal intent]. Maybe the people in the White House didn't understand. But that's a whole new level of payback -- outing somebody in the CIA, if that's what happened.

So we're just a symptom. The problems we're having in the press with all these issues is the symptom of the problems they're having at the top of the government.

But again, you don't think that the introduction of waivers, the fact that some of your colleagues here in the city have gone in and testified, that all that hasn't weakened your ability to report?

Not even relevant. There's always been reporters that climb into the pocket. Come on. We all know reporters that take feeds, and, you know, in this town, that's sometimes the business. You can't cover the White House and be much of an oppositionist. You can't. It's just impossible [with] this White House.

But when you see then the Justice Department issuing subpoenas in San Francisco for reporters who are reporting on steroids in baseball or jailing a blogger [Josh Wolf], isn't that change?

There's always been tension between us and the people we cover. There's always been threats [of] ... action. I still think the overriding principle is the First Amendment -- I mean, Jeffersonian, classic. I still think any case that gets to the Supreme Court, if it gets there, can only be decided one way. That's my naivete, but you know.

Again, when you have an unpopular war like we have, and a war about which there's a huge amount of disagreement inside the community, inside the intelligence community, inside the military, I would tell you even inside agencies like the National Security Agency -- huge disagreements about what we're doing and how we're doing -- it's just manifest.

So for all of the pressure you're talking about, the fact is there's much more potential to report because there's much more dissention. It's an unhappy war. So I don't see it as relevant at all. I'm not trying to walk on your story here, fella.

No, no, you're not walking on the story. The story is where it goes. You ever been scared?

Scared of what?

You were going to get prosecuted for espionage; you were going to get raided; they're going to take your files, take you.

No.

Never?

Nope, never.

Even after you found out that [then-Deputy Chief of Staff to President Ford] Dick Cheney wrote a memo saying that you should be prosecuted for espionage?

He wanted people to go into my house -- he called it my apartment, but I had a house. You know, you're talking about that '75, '76 thing. I was told about it. At the time, I didn't think it was serious. ...

You were told?

Somebody in Justice warned me that they were looking at me. Duh. Big deal. It didn't happen. Anyway, I've got other fish to fry with Mr. Cheney, so who cares about what happened or didn't happen? It didn't happen is the point. I later learned -- I was interviewing somebody many years later, a young aide in the National Security Council working for Henry Kissinger, [who] once had told [then-Chief of Staff] Al Haig that I would take the bus. And Al Haig instructed him to make sure he sat behind me on the bus. I thought that was pretty funny -- I mean, high camp.

Listen on my phone -- what do I care? I'm still doing my business. It's still America. I'm not afraid. I don't think they're out to get me. I just don't, period. And maybe it's just the way you just do it. I'm not naive about these things. The political cost of moving against me -- I don't mean that arrogantly, not about moving against somebody who's prominent -- in terms of being a critic -- is too high. They're just not gonna take it. You can't trample the Constitution. And if they do, I'm gonna scream and moan and-- be a hero, and give more trouble than they would if they'd just left me alone, which is the same thing they did in this case. When Cheney and Rumsfeld were looking at me, the attorney general said, "Get outta here. I decide what to do. You guys in the White House can't decide whether to open a case."

When you hear the attorney general [Alberto Gonzales] say -- and I don't think any attorney general has ever said it in public before -- that they could use the Espionage Act [to prosecute reporters], you don't think that's a change?

I don't think they'd dare do it. Even [John] Ashcroft, at his worst days. I was told by a couple of people on Sept. 12, 2001, the day after 9/11, two different people called me, one from the military and one from a federal agency, saying these guys are going to ruin the Constitution. They'd gone to a meeting --"You can't believe…." Obviously he was talking about the wiretaps, the NSA stuff. And so I know.

But I say that underneath all of this bluster and talk and threats, anybody knows that if they make a serious move on the First Amendment, they do so at their political peril, because there's a real core in this country -- it may not be articulated very often, but there's a real core -- that if anybody ever really steps on our neck too hard, they're going to suffer; we won't. I do believe that.

I can hear somebody out there saying, "Who does this guy think he is to determine what's national security and what's not?" You have the right to report on something like the Glomar Explorer [mission to salvage a sunken Soviet submarine], or the bugging of Soviet undersea cables, or the NSA bugging in the United States itself. Who are you to decide?

But that decision was made hundreds of years ago when our country was formed; that the ultimate arbiter of secrecy would be us, in a funny way. Government's job [is] to keep it secret. ...

I remember having this fight. I was speaking at the Navy War College, I think it was in Rhode Island, to a bunch of generals and admirals who were having a conference, and I articulated this view: "Hey, guys, it turns out, make all the top-secret documents you want, but ultimately, if we get our hands on it, we decide what to publish, and we use common sense."

They all attacked me and said, "Oh, now." ... We had a great fight about it with all these guys saying, "No American would say that." But of course you do, because that's where it's at. And it's really very powerful. I think everybody underestimates the First Amendment. It's just really a strong, strong principle.

You can have all the trials you want to. You can have all the presidents defending all the terrible wars and almost delusionally reinventing what's going on, which happens unfortunately -- too many of our presidents get that way -- and it doesn't matter. We have in our back pocket this great document.

But even if some of our colleagues, let's say, do things that we find reprehensible or fabricate, you still think that same power exists today?

I still think that those reporters who do things I find heinous believe they're doing the right thing, just like I think people in the government who do heinous things think they're -- you don't find many people that really say, "I'm going to sell out."

They do it for whatever reasons. People get closer to public officials all the time in Washington and check everything with the public official. Sometimes newspapers will check their stories with public officials, to their detriment, I think, thinking they're doing the right thing.

So yes, there are reporters that [have] these terrible relationships. You read about reporters having private meetings with senior people in the middle -- that happens all the time. We're just happening [to] learn more about it. It's a 24-hour news cycle, so there's more being learned, and it's more attention being paid to stories that we might not pay attention to in the past.

When you guarantee official confidentiality, is that the same kind of confidentiality that you would give to anyone else in order to have that meeting?

It's absolutely the same, absolutely. You're making a commitment to protect them. The problem you have is there's incredible degrees of integrity with which this practice is practiced. In other words, it's very troubling, because an anonymous official -- sometimes it's a way of disguising a weak source. I used to see that at The New York Times and other places I worked, too, the Associated Press. You disguise a not-very-good source by not identifying them. That's another chronic problem with our business.

But I'm just trying to get down the principle. The difficulty of the whole Valerie Plame story is that it is confidentiality for powerful officials who are trying to spin the press --

Oh, my, I am shocked. I am just shocked that that happened.

-- and a kind of coziness between various reporters and their sources, right? So in that situation, is the guarantee of confidentiality, in your mind, the same as, let's say, with a whistleblower or someone speaking who is not a powerful official, who's just trying to get to the truth of what they see?

It doesn't matter what's in my mind. In my mind, it shouldn't be the same. In my mind, if you have somebody that doesn't tell you the truth, and you're sure he's not telling the truth, you really don't have an obligation anymore.

But that's in my mind. I don't act on it. I assume it's the same. I don't out people. I just won't deal with certain people anymore. ... The fact of the matter is people are always going to be manipulated by sources. Sources are always going to try and manipulate us, particularly the higher up in the government. They're trying to spin you. That's the way it is.

It's sort of a crude, crazy system that sort of works. But ultimately I think something approximating truth gets out, because you can't stop what's facts on the ground. So I just don't see it as much of an issue. I think it's part of the business.

And this, too, will pass.

It always does. We'll survive. And will we learn a thing from the history? We don't learn any more in the press from history than presidents do from history, which is basically very little. We go right ahead doing the same thing.

There are reporters tomorrow that will be cutting a deal with somebody in the White House and being misled and believing that they're not being misled, and believing even when they're shown not to have been misled that they weren't misled. Or if they were misled, it wasn't their fault. It's going to happen all the time. That's just the way it is. So what? It's a huge business with thousands and thousands of people.

You know, but in this case, there was a newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, that decided that for economic and other reasons, it wasn't going to publish a story about municipal corruption involving a federal grand jury, because it saw what happened with Branzburg [v. Hayes] {being applied to the Plame case] in Washington, and they didn't want to go through it. So the public doesn't learn.

Yes, that's a chronic issue. It's worse in Europe actually, where the standards are different. There's no malice [test for libel]; there's no public figure [test]. But in Europe, a lot of people that should be exposed get away by threatening to sue. And if you don't have deep pockets, as most newspapers have -- the pockets are not as deep as they were -- that's always an issue: not publishing things because you're afraid of the economic consequences.

It may happen more now, but it's always been part of the business. This is a big, huge, crude, flawed business -- and it's worse now because of cable, because they accentuate so much of the trivia.

But the threat of using the Espionage Act against the press's reporting, the question is whether it's real or not, and reporters going to jail.

Yeah. What I'm saying about it is, it's a vehicle for them, the government. The way I look at the government is [it] doesn't like certain stories to be reported. And they have very little control over what happens. They can spin stuff. They can do stuff with the guys on the beat who are sort of -- they can't swing out much anyway.

But there's a great tradition in America of the newspapers -- we're the leaders in the world [in] really good, tough reporting, and you can't stop it. So they always resort to all sorts of "We're going to make this threat." That's always part of the game.

And I think it's just that, and what stops the government from taking the step that you're talking about, really actively crunching, is the First Amendment. It's the notion that you can't sustain this in any rational Supreme Court decision, and you can't sustain it with the public.

If you really move on the press in America, you're going to be in real political trouble -- not legal trouble, political trouble. It's politically untenable to crack down too hard.

So is it a game? No, it's more than a game. But there's a dance that goes on that has always gone on between us and them. We push it as hard as we can -- I'm talking about the good reporters, and there's a lot of [them] in this town who are doing their best to push it right now on this war. And the public knows a lot about the internecine warfare going on inside this government because the press is doing a much better job, let's say, than it did three years ago, before the war began in Iraq.

So there's always this tension, and sometimes it's ratcheted up. The new element is now the economic problems that the newspapers are having, which makes them more vulnerable to a lot of things. But on the other side, you also have a Web and a blog that fills in, that makes up.

So I don't see us being in a huge crisis any worse than usual. It's always a crisis when there's a terrible war. And again, this war is more frightening to me than the other war, Vietnam, [which] I always saw as a tactical war. Five years later we lose that war. and we're playing Monopoly with the Vietnamese, building hotels.

This is different. You're talking about 2 billion Muslims out there that are going to want payback for a long time. So we're into a different issue right now. But it's always been that way. And no, I'm not afraid of what's going to happen to me, because I think the political cost of moving against me -- I don't mean that arrogantly; not about moving against me or you, [but against] somebody who is more or less prominent in terms of being a critic, as you are, too -- is too high. They're just not going to take it.

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posted feb. 13, 2007

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