From Sat Dec 21 13:49:20 2002
Date: Fri, 20 Dec 2002 23:43:58 -0600 (CST)
From: MichaelP <> Subject: Seymour M. Hersh—new trend in terror war
Article: 148835
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

A Reporter's Life

Interview with Seymour M. Hersh, The New Yorker, 20 December 2002

This week in the magazine and here online, Seymour M. Hersh, in “Manhunt,” looks at a new trend in the war on terror: the targeting of individual Al Qaeda leaders. Hersh, who has written for The New Yorker since 1971, is working on a book about the Bush Administration's military actions since September 11th. Here he discusses his article, and the ins and outs of investigative journalism, with The New Yorker's Amy Tubke-Davidson.

AMY TUBKE-DAVIDSON: Tell me about your story in this week's magazine.

SEYMOUR M. HERSH: It's a story about one of the more high-risk operations a Special Forces unit can do: assassinate a target. It's something they’re obviously competent to do, but it's also very controversial, especially within the military. Most military men have a very strong recollection, some firsthand, of the operation known as the Phoenix Program, in Vietnam. The Phoenix Program began small: we were going to hire South Vietnamese agents and police officials to tell us who in each village was a pro-Communist or Vietcong official.

Q: Was the idea that that could bring a quick end to the war?

We knew we were penetrated very heavily by Communists, many of them Vietnamese nationalists, and many from North Vietnam. And so the idea was to undercut them. But what initially was a very selective operation— “We’re going to pick one guy here and one guy there, and we’re going to vet the intelligence before we move”—became, by 1969, a program with a quota of twenty-one thousand people to be either neutralized or killed. And, of course, the easiest way to neutralize somebody was by killing. The number of deaths that the South Vietnamese reported in the years of that program, from 1968 to 1971, was, I think, more than forty thousand. The American statistics are much lower, about twenty thousand, but it's still a staggering number. And then, of course, it was discovered that before long we were dealing in wholesale lists supplied to us by local officials, and they would often include people the village chief didn’t like, or somebody he’d lost in cards to. So there were serious abuses in terms of the names they got, and what began as a small program, with the names more or less vetted and carefully looked at individually, became a mass-assassination program.

Q: Now we’re talking about a program with names vetted carefully, targeted, directed at Al Qaeda.

Absolutely. They want to start going after Al Qaeda leaders, and it sounds good, and the public's very much for it—“What an easy way, to target and kill the leaders.” And, by the way, no objection here if you know Osama bin Laden's in a car and you can kill him—as long as you’re reasonably sure it is Osama bin Laden, and as long as you take precautions to make sure innocent people involved or nearby aren’t hurt, and as long as it's too risky to try to capture him.

I’ve had people on the inside say to me, look, what's going to happen eventually is that we’re going to make a mistake, we're going to kill the wrong people, and then we’re going to do what we do: we're going to lie about it. And then, in five years, there's going to be another investigation like the Church committee, all those civilian guys who told us to do it will be back in private life, and a bunch of captains and majors will be hung out to dry. And nobody wants that.

Q: Let's talk about those people on the inside who tell you things. A lot of your stories involve official secrets. How do you get those stories? How do you get people to tell you those things?

When you have a policy that goes well, and is a good policy, things can be kept secret. It's when you have a policy that isn't good, and has problems, when things aren't argued out, that it's a different matter.

Q: So it's usually when there's been a breakdown in the normal deliberative process within the government that people come to you?

Sure. It's always been that way. Look, I’ve been around a long time, and it's always been that if there's a policy that's good and rational and argued out and everybody feels they’ve had their say, it's very hard for investigative reporters. And don’t forget that this is an Administration in which the White House is really pretty much on one note. But when you go into the State Department or into the C.I.A. or into the Pentagon you begin to find disparate sounds. You find disagreements that can be articulated. Inside this White House, we don’t hear anything.

Q: You’ve been a reporter during nine different Administrations. How does this one compare?

Oh, it's much harder. There's almost a ferocious animosity toward people in the press who ask questions they don't want to hear. And this is a government that has tremendous influence over cable television, over radio talk. They really don’t need the New York Times, or The New Yorker, or the Washington Post to get their message out, so it's very hard slugging. This Administration is tough. It's a very punitive crowd, and anyone who steps over the line gets into trouble.

Q: Do reporters always have to play by the rules that the government sets up, to some extent, in order to do their jobs effectively?

Oh, absolutely—one of the problems you have is that if you’re working the White House on a daily beat, and you start getting off message, all of a sudden your competitors are getting interviews with the senior officials that you can’t get. Or they’re being invited to off-the-record meetings. It's really as simple as that. And so it's very hard to be too out there, because you miss stories.

Q: So how do you draw a line between professionalism and compromise?

Well, when I was at the New York Times, for example, I was always Mr. Outside. In other words, I wasn’t covering the White House on a daily beat; I was freed up enough to do what I wanted, to flit in and out. And at The New Yorker I can spend a great deal of time on a story, and that's the kind of freedom people don’t often have. After all, if there's going to be a war in Iraq, the daily papers and the major networks have to have a lot of co-ordination with the government on moving people, knowing what's happening, being allowed to attend briefings, etc.

Q: What obligation do reporters have to consider national-security concerns?

Well, we’re all Americans. I just happen to think that the way I express my loyalty is to question, not to accept anything on faith. I think the most important thing is to hold the people in public office to the highest possible standard of decency and of honesty. And if we don’t do that we’re failing. So to tolerate anything less, even in the name of national security, is wrong. That's what I think; it's my basic premise. And I think that I perform my function, and I consider myself as good an American as any Cabinet officer, as any four-star general, doing what I do. What I’m saying is that I’m not being subversive by challenging the official story. That's what we have to do.

Q: Would you keep something secret because you were told that it could endanger an operation?

I have in the past. Obviously, in every story I’m writing, I’m not writing everything I know. I don’t like to write operational stuff, and I certainly don’t want to write anything that's going to jeopardize somebody in the field. No story is worth that. Most of the stories that the government considers very, very secret are about technical means of collection—what frequency they use and where the satellite is; that's not important to readers.

But, to give the hardest example, suppose I were suddenly given the attack plan for Iraq. And suppose I happen to believe that this is the real one — we’ve now seen about twenty plans in the press. If it really was going to happen, I could see that that's the case where you would not publish. You might go to the government and say, “Look, I have this information, and I really urge you to change your plan quickly, because, if I have it, you have to assume somebody else does, too.”

Q: Let me ask you something that people who read your pieces often wonder: Is it necessary to have so many unnamed sources?

It's the way it works. People in sensitive positions want to tell the truth, but they don’t want to lose their jobs. They want to say what's going on, but they have a wife, a kid, a mortgage. I think that the fact that they do try to tell the real story is a high form of patriotism. One good thing about our system, with the press and its freedoms, is that there are channels available for them. Our responsibility is not to abuse it—to vet what they say, to find facts to back it up, to get a sense of their motives and make sure that they don’t have an axe to grind. The reason people speak to me is that I protect people, and they talk to me. But I know people who’ve lost clearances for speaking to me, which for some people means that they can’t work. Anonymous or not, over the years my sources have been proved to be reliable. There's the credibility of my sources, and there's my credibility—both with my readers and with the sources themselves—built up over thirty-five years.

Q: How about evaluating sources? Are people trustworthy when they won’t put their names on what they say?

Well, it's the gut question of all time. If the standard were to name everybody, a lot of us in the business would be out of business. There are tremendously wonderful reporters out there. All of the papers have people that are digging very hard on this stuff—James Risen, of the New York Times, comes to mind, and Walter Pincus, of the Washington Post. These are very fine reporters doing a lot of wonderful work. And most of them have to rely on anonymous sources at times; that's just the way it is.

Q: You wrote about the last war on Iraq. What lesson should journalists take away from that war, in looking at a possible war now?

The biggest issue for me right now, about the first Iraq war, is that we weren’t on the battlefield. At the time, the press, the various newspaper people, got together and complained to the Pentagon and to the White House about the lack of access. We were stuck in a hole in Saudi Arabia. The last war we had, in Afghanistan, was a Special Operations war, and we weren’t near the battlefield. And this time there was no complaint. Now we’re looking at another war that's probably going to have a very strong Special Operations and Air Force element to it. I can assure you we’re not going to be near the battlefield again. So it's going to be much harder to challenge now. I see a tremendous shift away from the basic premise of our democracy, the openness that we insist on in the government. Now we in the press are just accepting the fact that this next war is going to be another war that we won’t be able to cover directly. I think it's a terrible loss, and it goes down so easily. It's befuddling to me that more people aren’t troubled by it.

Q: Speaking of openness, you wrote a biography of Henry Kissinger. What did you think of his brief re-emergence as the head of the September 11th investigative commission, before stepping down over issues of confidentiality?

All you could say about that appointment was that, to my utter amazement, George W. Bush, whether he meant to or not, restored irony to American political life.

Q: It's well known that you broke the story of the My Lai massacre—you won a Pulitzer Prize for it—but it's not very well known how hard it was for you to find a news outlet that was willing to publish the story.

Oh, my God, no. It's funny. In 1969, when it happened, I’d been Eugene McCarthy's press secretary, and I’d worked for the Associated Press, for the New York Times Magazine, and I was on an assignment for Life magazine, and I was freelancing away. So I knew everybody in the press business. And I couldn’t get anybody to do the story. Nobody.

Q: So how did you get it out?

It's sort of a great tribute to the American press. I had a wonderful colleague, a friend named David Obst, and he said, “Let's just call up newspapers and tell them about it and send it to them.” At this time, there was no Internet—we sent it over telex, Western Union, collect. We sent an eighteen-hundred-word story to about fifty newspapers; we had contacted them and said it was coming. Just technically, we set up our own news agency. And I think thirty-five or thirty-seven of them ran the story. The one thing I had going for me was that I had actually interviewed Lieutenant William Calley, the fellow who had pulled the trigger, and he had said things to me—he didn’t confess, but he told me he thought he had higher authority for what he did. I realized that this was going to be a big story and a long story. I can tell this part of it now because Calley's lawyer, a man named George Latimer, is dead. Latimer begged me not to use the interview on the ground that I would deny Calley a fair trial. He said, “Look, I’ll check the story for you, I’ll make sure there are no mistakes, and I’ll tell anybody who asks me that it's an accurate story.”

Q: So the newspapers knew that Calley's own lawyer said that it was accurate?

Yes, so we could say, “If you would please call George Latimer, he's Calley's lawyer, and he’ll be glad to discuss the story with you.” And he took the calls. I think a lot of the newspapers just ran it, they ran it as a banner story. I believe they called him, and he essentially said, “Go with it.” So that was an incredible sort of trade I made: I did not write the interview with Calley, on the ground that he deserved a chance to tell his story in court, which he never did.