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Seymour Hersh: Off the Record

Three decades after My Lai, the author is still waging a battle against lies and corruption in government.


Throwing words like flames, Seymour Hersh, contributing writer for The New Yorker and a bestselling author, writes in-depth and intricate exposes about the politics of war. His Pulitzer Prize for international reporting was awarded for his bestseller about Vietnam, My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath. Three decades later, Hersh is still waging a battle against lies and corruption in government. His hard-hitting articles helped expose the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, and his latest book, Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, was described by AlterNet as "a searing indictment of the Bush administration for its willful ignorance, ideological agenda, and above all, a profound failure of leadership."

Hersh, who was born and raised in Chicago, graduated from the University of Chicago.

Chicago Life: You started your career in journalism working as a police reporter for the City News Bureau. What do you think about its closing?

Seymour Hersh: It's an end of an era. Things go on.

Chicago Life: You have been quoted as saying that the word insurgency is not the right one for what is happening in Iraq. Can you explain that?

Seymour Hersh: One of the things that word does is it brands those who are fighting against us as jihadists and outsiders when outsiders account for only 5 to 7 percent. For most of those fighting, it's their country, and they view us as outsiders. We've come and occupied their country, and they are fighting to protect their own country, property, family and values. So from their point of view, who are the insurgents? My guess would be that if some people from another country came to my block in Washington and wanted to come into my house without being invited and make accusations about me, I would be not very happy about it. I wouldn't be an insurgent if it was my house they were coming into and I was responding.

Chicago Life: What do you think is going to happen in Iraq?

Seymour Hersh: The goal of the American military is to train the Iraq army to stand up with American help and American weapons. Let's assume the best--that the Iraq army in six months absolutely comes up to our standards and meets every requirement of the United States and is trained in our model and our practices. What have we done for the last two and one half years? We've been fighting to a stalemate. So, we're training an army that's going to replace us and have no more chance of winning than we do. When you look at it that way, it's just some sort of never-ending la-la land. Even if everything could work out, which it isn't going to because it never does, we haven't been able to beat an insurgence. Why should they?

Chicago Life: You have been quoted as saying that we were in

some ways led into the situation that now exists in Iraq. Can you explain that?

Seymour Hersh: What we knew from intelligence before the war is that every major intersection was lined with Saddam's most elite troops, special Republican Guards and another group known as the SSO, which had personal body guards. They were there on every street corner with sandbags, machine guns, rocket-propelled launchers and lots of ammunition. Then, overnight in early April of 2003, everybody disappeared. They all went to fight a guerrilla war.

Chicago Life: So are you saying that we walked into a trap?

Seymour Hersh: There was nothing subtle about what the president was doing. Iraq certainly knew he was coming.

Chicago Life: The White House is now implying that they might use military force in Iran. Do you think that is a possibility?Seymour Hersh: I think it's less likely now than it would have been a year ago, before the collapse in Iraq and the oil crisis. Iraq produces an awful lot of oil. Things are much more difficult now for the Bush administration. The answer is I have no more information than you do on that.

Chicago Life: Why do people risk their careers to leak information to you?

Seymour Hersh: So many people in the American military and American intelligence just want to do their job right, and it must be very frustrating for them when they can't do their job right. When military decisions aren't made the right way, people get frustrated. We're waging a war that is not honorable. People like me get a lot of calls. The same thing happened to me in Vietnam. I don't know whether it's expiation or not, but people have a load of baggage on their heads, and they have dinner with me, take the baggage off their heads and put it on mine. I feel right now that I have a lot of baggage. A lot of people, more than ever in the last couple of months, have talked to me. I get pushed and pulled 100 ways.

Chicago Life: You were one of the few journalists who was willing to take an early stand, that went against what the White House was saying and doing regarding Iraq. That seems heroic given how aggressive the administration could be toward anyone who spoke up against them.

Seymour Hersh: That's so self-serving. I never thought I was doing anything heroic. I was just doing my job.

Chicago Life: In your speeches you often reveal much more than you do in your articles. Why is that?

Seymour Hersh: There's a whole difference [in] expressing an opinion in a lecture. I will talk about things that I've been told and believe, but I won't write them because the standard at the New Yorker is so much higher. Somebody asked me a question about what is going on in Iraq, and I said, well, here's what somebody wrote me the other week and told me about, and I don't know whether it's true or not, but here's the story they told me. I guess you can argue why do I talk about it. Because I think there's a different standard in a public lecture. You can be chattier than in an article.

Chicago Life: You're so committed to bringing the truth to the American people. Is it ever overwhelming?

Seymour Hersh: I think I can sort of separate it. I have a family and a mortgage, house and a car like everybody else. I whack a tennis ball. I do stuff, but these last four years have been very tedious. I've been doing the same stories for four years.

Chicago Life: Is it a relief to see that people are finally paying attention and understanding what's going on?

Seymour Hersh: It's funny how you can tell things. It's not so much about me, but it's about the issue. I've always done speeches, mostly [at] universities, and the crowds about nine months ago suddenly started getting huge. At first I had 500 [people] per speech, and I have three times that now. It started becoming a real political issue in this country. I can feel it by just going around. It does feel good seeing more and more people involved, and I think the questions about the war are now getting asked.

Chicago Life: Why the change?

Seymour Hersh: Maybe it was the combination of the torture stories and Katrina. The bloom is off the rose.

Chicago Life: Why did it take so long?

Seymour Hersh: I don't have an answer of why it took so long.

If anybody ever bothered to read before we went to war, what those agencies were saying, if they had read all the reports, and there [were] dozens of them in the '90s, there's no way they could conclude that Saddam had a nuclear bomb or anything serious.

Chicago Life: Do you believe that our going into Iraq weakened the war on terror?

Seymour Hersh: It's not a theory. It's just a fact. We now know that this president moved from hunting Bin Laden in Afghanistan, a very appropriate thing to do, to suddenly starting this plan in early 2002

for a war against Iraq--without getting Bin Laden, without any appreciable success. It's such an irrational decision. I, until the very end, didn't think he was going to do it because it's too crazy. I mean Bin Laden hated Saddam.

Chicago Life: Did the press play a part in what happened?

Seymour Hersh: It's no question that we failed our mission. It's very painful.

Chicago Life: How did we get into this horrible mess?

Seymour Hersh: Is it ever horrible! I think part of it is that Bush was unchallenged. Part of it is really bad leadership. After 9/11 there was another way to do it. We could have had a president who said, listen, terrible things happen. The British had 70 years of terrorism and survived. We will survive. There could be more, but we are going to treat this incident like we treated the bombing in Oklahoma City. This is a crime, and we will track down the criminals, we will bring them back. But we have a president who talked about fear, talked about driving them out of snake holes, began to round up every Muslim who was in America--one of the most integrated, successful, first and second generation groups we had and not one [was] found guilty of anything close to terrorism. He went the other way, and we let him. Bush wasn't subtle in what he did.

Chicago Life: Will the tables turn?

Seymour Hersh: I think the institutions are strong enough that we will come back. But we've got to get rid of George Bush. We probably will have to wait until the next election. Maybe he will change, and we won't have to, but I think at this point we are really in trouble. I don't think he is capable of changing. o

Published: February 01, 2006
Issue: Winter 2006