Sy Hersh is Calling!

Journalist Seymour Hersh speaks at Al Jazeera Forum

Sy Hersh is Calling!

Seymour Hersh, in his Buddy Holly eyeglasses, unmemorable suit and rumpled raincoat—a cross between Woody Allen and Columbo—was enough to set hardened bureaucratic lifers atremble. 

That episode followed Hersh’s lone foray into professional politics: his brief stint, in 1968, as press secretary to the insurgent Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. History records that McCarthy’s surprisingly strong showing in the New Hampshire primary catalyzed Lyndon Johnson’s retirement and Robert F. Kennedy’s late plunge into the race. Hersh’s unflinching portrait of McCarthy, poet and boor, includes the eyebrow-raising detail that it was Hersh who rounded up the marijuana when McCarthy and Jerry Brown got high for the first time. Ultimately McCarthy’s contempt—for staff, donors and process—sent Hersh back to journalism for good. “I had helped to get rid of a president,” Hersh records with glass-half-empty melancholy, “but not a war.”

“IF YOUR mother says she loves you, check it out.” This maxim of journalism Hersh attributes to one of his earliest editors, Arnold Dornfeld of City News in Chicago, and Hersh cites it repeatedly as the quintessential task facing every journalist. Yet this iron rule also falls casualty in Hersh’s hands—twice, in fact, and both in the author’s recounting of his award-winning exposure of the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

The first instance concerns the motivations that drove some of the U.S. military personnel who participated in the torture and humiliation of Islamic prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Hersh relates that it was not always pure barbarism at work but sometimes a calculated effort to conscript the prisoners into becoming double agents for the United States: blackmailing them with compromising photos to persuade them to penetrate Al Qaeda. In this, the Americans were said to have derived inspiration from a foreign ally. “While researching the Abu Ghraib story, I was told, but could not confirm,” Hersh writes, “that sexual extortion had been tried by the Israelis in an effort to get Palestinian prisoners to agree to join Hamas and similar radical groups and to spy on them.”

If Hersh could not confirm this allegation about Israel, and still hasn’t, why does he include it in his memoirs? Is it Hersh’s contention that because he is now an octogenarian, or tackling the new genre of autobiography, that the maxim of “check it out” no longer applies? Or does he believe he can publish unverified allegations when the subject is a nation-state, or Israel, specifically? If so, he should say so. A page later, in a footnote—often the location of Hersh’s finest thumbnail sketches—we are told the sad fate of Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, author of the internal report that catalogued the Abu Ghraib abuses.

“[Taguba] and I have talked many times since about war crimes and torture,” Hersh writes. “We still share lunch every few months” (a disclosure likely to wean some Sy Hersh fans from the desire to lunch with their hero). “His honesty is breathtaking,” Hersh adds in his account of how Taguba, for his candor, was forced to retire from the Army without further promotion. Hersh then relates an exchange Taguba claims to have had with Gen. John Abizaid, then commander of U.S. forces in Iraq:

Abizaid rolled up the glass separating the two of them from [their] driver and warned Taguba that he was going too far and too deep in his inquiry. “You and your report will be investigated.” “I’d been in the Army thirty-two years by then, and it was the first time I thought I was in the Mafia,” Taguba said.

End of footnote. Did Hersh check it out? Here again he is silent, failing to tell us whether he ever even reached out to General Abizaid for his side of the story; Taguba’s “breathtaking” honesty seems to have been all Hersh required to go to print.

Contacted for this article, General Abizaid told me, in a telephone call and subsequent e-mail correspondence, that “to the best of my recollection” he has never met or spoken to Hersh, and that he never threatened General Taguba. “I warned him that some in D.C. would not take kindly to his report which was a statement of the obvious. I have lots of respect for Tony,” Abizaid added, and “no threat was made to him nor did I ever disparage him or his report to the Army which chose not to select him for promotion.”

Whom should we believe—Taguba or Abizaid? Hard to say, but the reader deserves both accounts, not just one. Which is to say: The allegation that the top military officer running the Iraq War secretly threatened one of his subordinate generals, with a menace that conjured the Mafia and the unmistakable aim of suppressing alleged war crimes, is undoubtedly a matter of greater consequence, a claim worthier of verification, than the contention that Mrs. Hersh loved her son.

SUCH ARE the corners one might cut if a journalist’s ambitions are directed at specific policy goals rather than the establishment, for its own sake, of a more accurate record. Hersh might tell us, as he does in Reporter, “It was then for me, and still is, all about the story,” but compilation of the story is repeatedly relegated to secondary ranking on Hersh’s hierarchy of needs. He wants changes on the ground, not just history recorded. “It would be wonderful to say that my reporting on Abu Ghraib changed the course of the war and ended torture, but of course nothing like that happened,” Hersh laments, “just as the My Lai story had not ended the Vietnam War or its brutality.”

One of the biggest surprises is Hersh’s scathing portrait of the timidity of the New York Times in the 1970s, when the author was on a historic roll of front-page exclusives. “There was a strange Times pathology when it came to stories that touched the presidency,” Hersh writes. For too many at the paper of record, Henry Kissinger and Dick Helms, then the director of CIA, were not mere sources but friends, or something else altogether: figures of power for whom top executives and editors harbored a reverence that impinged on journalistic independence.

Max Frankel, the Washington bureau chief whose unenviable duty it was to manage Hersh in this frenzied period, once responded to one of his ace’s explosive story proposals by telling him to be sure to “run it by Henry and Dick.” “Run it by Henry and Dick? They were the architects of the idiocy and criminality I was desperate to write about,” Hersh recalls. “I could not imagine how a senior editor, one as bright and supportive as Frankel had been, could not grasp the implications of what I was proposing.”

Frankel, executive editor A.M. (“Abe”) Rosenthal, columnist-cum-legend James (“Scotty”) Reston—all get their comeuppance here, with Hersh recounting instances when the Times’ leadership, fearful of entrenched power in Washington and elite boardrooms, yanked the reins on his investigative thrusts. In the late ‘70s, toward the end of his run with the Times, Hersh served a brief tenure in the paper’s New York bureau, choosing to focus his energies on ferreting out corporate malfeasance. But he found his editors more hesitant than when he had been taking on Kissinger and Helms, Nixon and his stone-faced attorney general, John N. Mitchell (whom Hersh tells us, in one of his savory footnotes, he found it “hard to dislike”). “The courage the Times had shown in confronting the wrath of a president and an attorney general in the crisis over the Pentagon Papers in 1971,” Hersh complains, “was nowhere to be seen when confronted by a gaggle of corporate con men who were struggling for their existence in the face of a major SEC investigation … After that experience, I was ready to leave New York.”

The pipe-smoking Reston, who died in 1995, fares particularly poorly in Hersh’s telling. Lauded in his Times obituary (written by R.W. Apple) as “perhaps the most influential journalist of his generation,” Reston comes off as barnacled and effete, altogether too chummy with the powerful he purported to cover. Reston argued against publication of the My Lai story, claiming it would damage American morale and security. He objected, “more than a little irritated,” when Hersh, in a first for the Times, wrote a story citing secret grand jury evidence. When Reston heard that his friend, Kissinger, was the target of Hersh’s next exclusive, Reston, in slippers, approached Hersh’s desk and sought to kill the story by asking: “Do you understand that if you do this story, Henry will resign?” Still another of Hersh’s delectable footnotes implicitly ascribes anti-Semitism to Reston, as when the latter, dropping by the Times offices late at night, tuxedo-clad, ribbed the hard-working reporter: “Hersh, aren’t you going to get that exclusive interview with Jesus for the second edition?”

If there is a venerated figure of American journalism who escapes Hersh’s score-settling scorn, it is his contemporary and Pulitzer-winning peer, Bob Woodward. Hersh recounts how the two, after pleasant tennis outings, fashioned an unusual information-sharing agreement in 1973–74, during their mutual pursuit of Watergate. The rival aces decided “it would be much more efficient if we would no longer chase the same story…but do separate stories and push our editors to run the gist of each other’s work.” “I’ve liked and respected Bob ever since,” Hersh writes.