An Interview with Seymour Hersh

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Seymour Hersh is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist who regularly contributes pieces on military and security issues to The New Yorker. In 1969, Hersh won a Pulitzer Prize for his work revealing the cover-up of the My Lai Massacre in the Vietnam War. He has also been an outspoken critic of the Iraq War. In 1983, Hersh’s biography of President Richard Nixon, “The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House,” won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Hersh has also received five George Polk Awards, as well as the George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language.

The Politic: What is your opinion on the situation in Syria?

Bashar, period. It is all over. It has been over for a long time. There is so much hostility towards [President] Bashar [al-Assad], towards Hezbollah in America, you can’t see straight. Bashar is the only game in town. There are very few people I know in the intelligence community that would think otherwise. At the minimum, six, eight months. He is winning the war, he is going to win the war. Do you really think — and despite what Israel says and it screams and yells — do you really think you want Mouhawis or Salafists to get control of that country, and the Sunnis control the opposition? Israel would move in two minutes to strike them out. So I do not think there are any options but Bashar. He might take some FSA [Free Syrian Army], he might take some of the secular opposition in a coalition government with him. I think that would be great if he did, share a little power. But he might not. But the bottom line is there is no alternative.

The Politic: In an interview with the Guardian you expressed doubts as to the truthfulness of the reports on Osama Bin Laden’s death. What are your beliefs about the assassination of Bin Laden?

I was doing a speech this summer to a journalism convention or conference in London and this woman from the Guardian asked me about it and what I said was what I always say: Bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad north of a little resort area north of Islamabad in Pakistan, by our SEALs and Obama authorized it and having said that everything else is just hokum, it is just “re-elect the president” stuff. […] The bottom line is it became a political re-election vehicle for the President, a good one. He did kill him but I don’t think it justifies some of the great lies they told about it, and I have written a lot about it the book that I am doing. One of these days I will finish it.

Seymour-HershThe Politic: In 2011, you suggested that President Obama is very isolated. Could you develop on that?

My understanding is that he is surrounded by a few advisors he trusts, and you have a hard time getting to him. At one time in my life when I was a kid, I was against the Vietnam War, I covered the Vietnam War and on the job training I learnt how bad the war was: it was murder incorporated. And a Senator named Eugene McCarthy from Minnesota — a very attractive man, a Benedictine; he wanted to be a priest and was going to go to a seminary, but instead he went into politics — challenged Lyndon Johnson. Johnson was the sitting President, and McCarthy challenged him for the democratic nomination. It is amazing and so I went to work for him because he actually said that the war is immoral. I never heard of a politician talking about morality. We leave Iraq after nine, ten years; we have done our job, it is over. The country is in complete ruin. Do we have a moral obligation to that country? You bet! Are we doing anything about it? No. We have got a civil war going there again, we are just pulling out. What do you think we are going to do in Afghanistan? We are just pulling out. We are just going to get out. Meanwhile more guys are dying there. As far as I am concerned they should be on the President’s soul, anybody who was killed there. What are they dying for? Just get out. There is nothing there.

The Politic: You also said that the Obama administration “lies systematically” but that the media do not challenge him. Why do you think that is?

I used to work at The New York Times. It’s still the best newspaper in America, probably in the world, not so much for the way they cover the White House but they just do other things very well. Arts and drama, reviews, cultural stuff — they are great. Local stuff they do okay on, but when it comes to covering Washington it is comical. Look, this is the President who fired Stanley McChrystal for mouthing off within two days after he came back and he lets General Clapper, the guy who lied to Senator [Ron] Wyden about what the NSA is doing, he does not bother him. This is the President who, according to all the books I have read, had the most amazing Internet and computer operation in the re-election campaign. Guys have written books basically about this incredible operation in Chicago. And Obamacare, what happened there? I do not think he has held to a tough enough standard on a lot of stuff.

Look, I voted for him twice, I have no problem saying that. I just think that on foreign policy he is just a terrible disappointment, he has not changed the game. He was going to throw missiles at Syria? For what? He had not made the case that Syria did the gas warfare. He has not made that case. He has not made to me, he has not made it to any people in the government. It is a very strong possibility they did not. But the bottom line is that he certainly did not know when he was talking about firing missiles. I can tell you right now there are many people in the Pentagon who are most unhappy about that, that this guy was going to fire missiles to protect this red line. He was embarrassed, he later disavowed saying it. He is just a shocking disappointment. I do not know, I am not qualified, I have not read enough Melanie Klein or Anna Freud or Freud to know what the hell is going on with him but there is something wrong with the guy.

The Politic: In your opinion, how has American journalism changed since the 1960s? Has it been a positive evolution?

It was pretty bad in the sixties and eventually they got it going on the war. They did better by the end of the war, not great. The New York Times, where I was working then — I joined it in seventy-two — was totally behind on Watergate. I got onto Watergate. I did not want to, but The Times told me to. I wrote a story about the cover up. Once I started going on Watergate, the first person that came to thank me was Bob [Woodward], and we still maintain friendship, I still see Bob. He thanked me because he said that without The New York Times we were stuck – they did not want to do the story. My own personal guess is that they were much more interested in maintaining a relationship with people in the administration including Kissinger and Nixon and Agnew than they were in doing the story, unlike the Post. And so that started a good bunch of years, you could do a lot of stuff.

And then it went back to the old ways. I thought in the eighties, the American press did better on the war in Nicaragua. Reagan was determined to overthrow the government, he thought they were all Communists in Nicaragua. So he started something called the Contras and we supported him secretly, and against Congress’s approval and without congressional money, that led to the Iran Contra problem because Congress cut off the money so they tried to raise money by selling arms through Israel to the Iranians. Unbelievable. They got caught, it was a big scandal. The press did better on that war in the eighties than it did on the Vietnam War in the beginning. I don’t think it did well at all on the Iraqi War. I think the classic failure of the press would be the WMD issue. The press were cheerleaders for that war. The New York Times and the Washington Post both wrote apologies later.

The tendency of the American press is to believe what the government guys tell them. There is not enough criticism. And this whole thing with Iran right now. You think we have evidence Iran is building a bomb? We have absolutely none. They may be but we have no evidence for it. And every study we’ve done says that they are not. We can find no evidence of it.

The Politic: What is your opinion on the actions of Mr. Snowden?

Well, look, obviously he violated confidence, and you can’t reward somebody for that, but he certainly opened the doors. He got all of this issues sensitized. There were a lot of people — James Bamford, Matthew Aid — who were writing and saying: of course we copy everybody. What is the sense of having it if we don’t copy everybody? Why not Merkel, why not the Brazilians, why not the Chinese? I think cyber-war is a game. I wrote a long piece about it a couple of years ago for the New Yorker. I think it is way overrated. It is an issue but it is cyber espionage, it is not war. Nobody is going to start a war based on what you think the other guy is going to do in response to an attack. You are not going to go pulse a warship and think that is going to stop it. You just do not know what it is going to do. It is not rational stuff.

But for spying, getting intellectual information, and getting information about corporations, it is very handy. Snowden has not told us anything yet that we did not know. Another thing he has done is he has not said a single thing yet that makes you think that the guys in the NSA know what the hell they are doing what it comes to collecting information on people that want to hurt us. I think their record is abysmal and I think it is one the great scandals of our time how little they have done to actually stop a terrorist before it happens. Not 9/11, not the guys in Boston.  Let us see nine, ten years after 9/11 we got some guy who blows up his pants, his underwear on a plane and that is a panic? That is the best they can do after ten years? Gets on a plane and sets himself on fire. Come on, that is a big scare? Not to me.

The Politic: What advice would you have for aspiring Yale journalists?

Get a language, get a good language. It used to be French and Spanish of course is helpful. Get Farsi, or better yet Arabic, or Chinese. Even Russian, even now Russia is very important.  Get a language, one or two, get it so you can move. You do not have to be fluent in it. You will still have to use interpreters for the interviews, you do not want to miss the nuance. Get a language and get yourself free-lancing, get abroad. Among other things newspapers are cutting back on staff because they do not have money. Freelancers do not get the same benefits as the staff guys do. So freelance, get out there and live the world. Be careful, do not go where you should not go. Do not go to Northern Mali. But that is what I would do.

There is another way to do it, which is the way I did it. I started at the bottom; I was a police reporter in Chicago, in a city news agency that did nothing but report on crimes. […] You work for $35 a week and you cover, the police beat. You get brutalised by cops and you get brutalised by the editors. It was pretty horrible, it was actually like a boot camp. I was once in Chicago, it was thirteen below zero, the offices were downtown West Randolph street and there was this manhole fire, about two o’clock in the morning. The overnight editor — I was a copy boy — and he said, “cover it.” I said, “It is a manhole fire.” “Get you ass out there.” I went out there in the freezing cold. The cop, a local chief, said: “What are you doing here, this is no story.” I said: “Alright, give me your name and tell me what you’re doing.” Then I was sent back two more times for more information. I finally wrote up the story. When I wrote it all up, the editor looked at me and started tearing it into little strips. That is the kind of stuff you do. It is like boot camp, worse than the army. But that is another way to go: start working at a small newspaper.

When I worked at The New York Times, I was insulated from criticism. One thing about the press: even in a local newspaper, you can commit calumny. In seven hundred words you can really destroy somebody. And at The New York Times, I always would say: “I am sure I have got things wrong in stories, let me see the letters.” They just did not want to show them to you. So you went along not knowing when you screwed over somebody because of your stupidity or lack of information. But that is another way to go — start at a little newspaper.

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