(CJR, July/August 2003)
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On a humid morning in late April, a group of students from Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism attended a two-hour seminar at ABC News in Washington. The topic was state secrets and anti-leak legislation, and the session was organized by Richard Wald, a professor of journalism at Columbia.
At 11:05, the guest speakers for the second hour — Seymour Hersh and his old friend, the journalist David Wise — stride into the conference room. Hersh is laughing and making jokes. He is wearing a jacket and tie, but his belt buckle is slightly awry.
Wald, the moderator, begins by summarizing the remarks of the previous speaker — Chris Ford, a smooth, clean-cut, recently departed general counsel of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who helped draft the anti-leak legislation that some have referred to as the "official secrets act." Ford himself has left the room. "Ford's been saying leaks are terrible," Wald says. Hersh is rocking back and forth in his swivel chair, taking in the professor's summary. "Here are two guys," Wald continues, "who don't exactly live off leaks, but have in the past used them to great advantage for the general public. I throw the floor open to questions."
Hersh's jokes have ceased. Now he's prepared for combat. His voice is full of rough edges.
Hersh: "Did Chris Ford say where else he's worked? Did he mention or give his résumé?"
Wald (with some irritation): "No, I did not ask him to do that. Where else did he work, Sy?"
Hersh: "It doesn't matter. If he didn't give it, then . . . you know . . . it's his . . . he's been inside, he's been inside."
Wald: "Somewhere inside naval intelligence is my guess."
Hersh: "Agency, too."
Wald: "Okay . . ."
The atmosphere in the room is tense. Wald presses on, noting that Henry Kissinger had recently visited the class, and had complained bitterly about press leaks. "He cited in specific," Wald notes crisply, "a reporter named Sy Hersh, who, he said, had damaged the United States by revealing military secrets."
Since the early 1970s, Hersh has been Kissinger's most indefatigable critic, so Wald is, in effect, tossing raw meat at his guest. Hersh's foot starts to tap the floor. When he unleashes his response, his voice is full of sarcasm and fury: "When I joined the New York Times Washington bureau in May of '72, there would be a reverential hush at five o'clock because Henry would call Max" — Frankel, the bureau chief — "to give him that day's feed, and then he would call Bernie Gwertzman, the foreign-affairs guy, and between those two calls we would have our lead story in the paper. And after watching this, sort of as an innocent, for a few weeks, I said to Gwertzman one day, 'Do you ever ask anybody else?' He said, 'Oh, no, the understanding with Henry is that if we did that he wouldn't talk.' So much for secrets."
The performance was vintage Hersh: another morning's work for a man who seems most content when he's exhaling fire, revealing what he considers to be the secrets behind the secrets, and rousing the ire of his targets. (In this case, Ford strenuously denied he was ever in the Central Intelligence Agency; Hersh later conceded that he had confused Ford with someone else with a similar name. "I was dead wrong," he says. Frankel, meanwhile, insists that the charge that he took direction from Kissinger is "total nonsense.")
Hersh has been making waves since the late 1960s, when he achieved fame for uncovering one of the worst atrocities of the Vietnam War, the My Lai massacre. Since then, he has tackled a wide array of subjects: Watergate, CIA domestic spying, the 1973 coup in Chile, Israeli nuclear policy, the destruction of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, the India-Pakistan conflict, Mobil Oil company's activities in Kazakhstan, and new developments in cryptography. "He's the best investigative reporter," says his friend Leslie Gelb, a former New York Times reporter and columnist. "I don't think anybody touches him." "He has to be the great reporter of his generation," says Richard Reeves. "He has simply gotten stories no one else could. He's the real thing, a legend — and deserves to be."
But it hasn't been a smooth road to the top. Hersh's career has been cyclical, with plenty of rough spots. In 1979 he left The New York Times under controversial circumstances, and his career floundered in the 1980s. To his evident frustration, he has never achieved the financial success of his rival, Bob Woodward. The low point of Hersh's career came in 1997 with the publication of his book about John F. Kennedy, The Dark Side of Camelot. The attacks on him began even before the book appeared, and the reviews were lethal: "It is an astonishing spectacle, this book," Garry Wills, himself the author of a critical book on the Kennedys, wrote in The New York Review of Books. "In his mad zeal to destroy Camelot . . . Hersh has with precision and method disassembled and obliterated his own career and reputation."
As it turns out, Wills's verdict was premature. Since September 11, 2001, Hersh, writing exclusively for The New Yorker, has produced an impressive body of work on intelligence failures, Middle Eastern politics, and our post-9/11 world order. These pieces have refocused public attention on Hersh, and, to a certain extent, on The New Yorker itself. Some of his reporting has drawn fire from the highest level of the U.S. government. In November 2001 Hersh reported that an elite Pentagon undercover unit — trained to disarm nuclear weapons — had explored plans for a mission inside Pakistan. When General Pervez Musharaff, Pakistan's leader, asked George W. Bush about Hersh's report, the president, according to Bob Woodward's book, Bush at War, replied thusly: "Seymour Hersh is a liar."
These days, questions about Hersh come from a number of directions. Some of his friends and admirers express a sense of uneasiness about the heavy reliance on unnamed sources in his reporting since 9/11, about the ephemeral nature of some of the pieces, and about his sometimes hawkish tone. Hersh has always been a man of the left, but he acknowledged to Michael Massing in The Nation in December 2001 that September 11 had affected his views: "It's a tough world. You have to rely on unsavory people." If your own child were involved, he said, by way of example, "you want Oliver North working on it." Others insist that Hersh's work is loaded with false predictions. At various moments since 9/11, Jack Shafer recently proclaimed in Slate, "Hersh's predictive take on the course of events has been wrong. Boneheaded-dumb wrong." Perhaps Shafer is sounding an old refrain; critics have often accused Hersh of being wrong. In 1969, when he published his first revelations about My Lai, he got a call from a reporter at The Washington Post, who said to him: "You son of a bitch, where do you get off writing a lie like that?" In the 1960s and early 1970s, his intrepid reporting, combined with his gadfly aura, made him a hero to many of his colleagues. But journalism has changed, and so has Hersh. To what extent is he the same man — and the same journalist — he was then?
Seymour Hersh works out of an austere two-room suite on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, a few blocks from Dupont Circle, in a building full of middle-class professionals. His name does not appear on the lobby registry, and there is no nameplate on the door, though his telephone number is listed in the phone book. The office, littered with cardboard boxes, is filled with Nixon memorabilia. Hanging on a wall in a picture frame are the original black-and-white police mugshots of four Nixon-era villains: H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Charles Colson, and John Mitchell, ancient souvenirs passed along to Hersh by a friend in the Justice Department.
On another wall is a typed memo from Lawrence S. Eagleburger and Robert J. McCloskey to their superior, Henry Kissinger, then secretary of state. The memo is dated September 24, 1974. It reads: "We believe Seymour Hersh intends to publish further allegations on the CIA in Chile. He will not put an end to this campaign. You are his ultimate target . . . ."
Hersh goes to his desk. "Thank God, only four messages!" One of them is from his son, who cries out plaintively: "Dad, put money in my account!" Hersh opens his checkbook and quickly flees to the bank. His desk is a chaotic jumble of books, journals, miscellaneous documents, and baby pictures of his three children. There is the latest issue of Foreign Affairs; there are books with titles like Sharp Corners: Urban Operations at Century's End and Dezinformatsia: The Strategy of Soviet Disinformation; and there are reports entitled 1991 Cryptography and Privacy Conference. There is a Rolodex, but he says he doesn't use it. Instead, he scribbles the phone numbers of his sources on the back of yellow legal pads, twenty or thirty numbers per pad, which he keeps in a heap under his desk, near his feet.
Seymour Hersh is a very difficult man, as prickly as a porcupine. When I first contacted him, his response was unequivocal: "Leave me alone!" When I phoned him to discuss the logistics of a trip to Washington, Hersh erupted, shouting into the phone, "What do you want to ask me! What do you want to ask me!" "He has no idea of social behavior," says a close friend and former colleague at the Times, Gloria Emerson. "At a private occasion, when he's making conversation with someone he's just met, Sy's idea of friendly behavior is to interrogate them. A grilling!"
Hersh returns from the bank. His shoelaces are untied. His mood has improved: he's closing a piece for The New Yorker and he exudes the quiet satisfaction of a man pleased with what he's written. While he takes calls from fact-checkers and editors, he allows me to linger in his outer office. My assignment is to read through several bulging folders of rotting clips from The New York Times, stories he wrote for the newspaper between 1972 and 1974 — a fruitful period for Hersh, when his work seemed permanently affixed to the front page. Hersh is justifiably proud of these Watergate-era pieces, and he wants the world to remember them.
The phone keeps ringing. Hersh, the great Times reporter Harrison Salisbury once observed, is a man who "seemed to have been born with a receiver at his ear." Watching him work the phones is, indeed, a remarkable experience. "I got your e-mail on Niger," he tells one caller. "I'm doing a story on it." He dismisses him with a very abrupt goodbye — a Hersh trademark. A few minutes later he makes a call, and his brusque demeanor has vanished: his tone is jaunty, upbeat, seductive. He leaves the following message: "Hi, it's Sy Hersh, I'm just checking in. Call me. Let's talk." Who was that? A government official whom Hersh declined to identify.
The phone rings again. He picks it up and listens for a while. There is weariness in his reply. "Let someone else write that shit," he informs his caller. "I don't write that shit. It's just not my cup of tea." With his staccato phrasing and his rapid-fire delivery, he sounds like Walter Winchell: "My free advice: it's garbage." He dismisses the caller without rancor, signaling in a phrase that, despite this particular transgression, their business relationship remains intact: "Keep your ear to the ground." Whom was he talking to? "Oh, just somebody calling me." Who was it? Hersh replies, mischievously, "Somebody I've known for thirty years who used to work in the CIA, giving me a tip."
Seymour Myron Hersh was born in Chicago in 1937. His parents, who emigrated to the U.S. from Lithuania and Poland, spoke Yiddish and ran a dry-cleaning shop in a tough section of the city's South Side. Hersh, however, was raised in a more genteel section near Hyde Park. He has a fraternal twin, Alan, a physicist who lives on the West Coast. In high school his main passion was baseball, but also reading: he devoured novels by J.D. Salinger, John O'Hara, and John Steinbeck. It was the mid-1950s, but the rebellious spirit of the 1960s was already in the air: Hersh smoked his first "reefer" in 1955 and, around that time, saw Lenny Bruce perform at the famous Chicago club Mr. Kelly's.
By his own admission, Hersh was a lackluster student at the University of Chicago, where he majored in history, but spent much of his time playing bridge, doing the New York Times crossword puzzle, and drinking in after-hours bars. He had trouble finding a job after he graduated, and for a while worked for $1.50 an hour at a Walgreens drug store. He was admitted to the University of Chicago Law School, but was expelled for poor grades. So he went back to Walgreens until he landed a job at the City News Bureau. Hersh's first assignment was to cover an electrical fire in a manhole.
At the bureau, he soon realized there was more to life than bridge and crossword puzzles. One day he was sent to a crime scene on the South Side; a man had shot five members of his family and then killed himself. Hersh saw the bodies and quickly called his office, shouting "Bulletin!" He started to dictate the details to the rewrite man, at which point an editor got on the phone. In a long, two-part interview with Rolling Stone, conducted by Joe Eszterhas in 1975, Hersh recalled:
He said: "Ah, my good dear energetic Mr. Hersh. Pardon me for interrupting but these, alas, poor unfortunate victims, do they happen to be of the American Negro persuasion?" And I said yes. "Will you please then cheap it out?" Which meant one paragraph. You learn a lot about the newspaper business that way. It wasn't a story because they were black.
After a brief stint running a suburban newspaper in Chicago, Hersh landed in 1962 at United Press International, which sent him to Pierre, South Dakota, where he covered the legislature, chronicled the Oglala Sioux, and continued to read heavily on the side: Carl Sandburg on Lincoln, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. on Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was also devouring Harper's Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, and The New York Times, especially the Vietnam War reporting of David Halberstam. In 1963 Hersh bolted UPI for The Associated Press, and two years later the AP sent him to Washington, where he met the legendary muckraker I.F. Stone, whose famous, uncompromising newsletter, I.F. Stone's Weekly, influenced Hersh's reporting. (Many years later, when Stone was an old man and researching a book on Socrates, he would occasionally stop by Hersh's office and they would take strolls together.)
His beat in Washington was the Pentagon, where the press briefings were highly regimented. In his 1976 book, The New Muckrakers, Leonard Downie, Jr. noted that Hersh "soon made a habit of walking out in the middle of unproductive sessions and going instead to high-ranking officers in their lunch rooms, to question them, informally and uninvited, on subjects the briefing officers dodged." Hersh began to outgrow the strictures of reporting for the AP during the cold war. In 1967 he was transferred to the wire service's special investigative unit, where his editors watered down the lead of a major piece on the U.S. government's development of biological and chemical weapons. Hersh was outraged. He sold the story to The New Republic, jettisoned the AP, and signed on as press secretary to the insurgent presidential campaign of Eugene McCarthy. Three months later he quit and returned to the journalistic trenches: the Vietnam War was raging, and great stories were out there waiting to be nailed down.
On March 16, 1968, at 7:30 a.m., one hundred soldiers from the U.S. Army's 11th Infantry Brigade descended on My Lai, a village on the northeastern coast of South Vietnam. The soldiers were searching for Vietcong fighters, but instead they found hundreds of women, children, and elderly men — many of whom were having breakfast outdoors when the troops arrived. Over the next few hours, at least 350 civilians were systematically slaughtered. Some were shot in their homes; others were machine-gunned from helicopters; still others were cut down in ditches. Women were raped and killed. "A Nazi-type thing," was how one American soldier later described it. By 9:30 a.m., the violence had ebbed. By 10:30 a.m., the hamlet was in flames.
More than a year later, in the fall of 1969, Hersh received a tip from Geoffrey Cowan, then a columnist for The Village Voice, that one of the platoon leaders — a young man named William L. Calley, Jr. — was about to be court-martialed for killing civilians in Vietnam. Hersh called a friend, a retired U.S. Army colonel. "What did this guy Calley do?" Hersh asked him. "This Calley is just a madman, Sy," he replied, "just a madman! He just went around killing all those people. Little babies!" Armed with a small grant from The Fund for Investigative Journalism and an American Express card, Hersh flew to Salt Lake City, where he interviewed Calley's lawyer, and then to Fort Benning, Georgia, where Calley — a former dishwasher, bellhop, and railroad switchman — was stationed. As Hersh described it to Rolling Stone in the Eszterhas interview, he arrived at the base by 8:30 a.m., dressed in a suit and carrying a briefcase; he wanted to look like a lawyer or some official visitor. For the next fifteen hours, Hersh drove frantically around the labyrinthine base, dodging military officials left and right, and pumping scores of soldiers for information on Calley's whereabouts. He nearly gave up. Sheer willpower finally brought him face to face with Calley. "Let's go talk," Hersh told him. "I know the story."
They picked up steak and booze and went to Calley's girlfriend's house. "It was silly of him to speak with me," Hersh says. "But he just wanted to talk. He went all night." Hersh wrote the story on the plane back to Washington and offered it to various magazines, which turned it down. He then went to his neighbor, David Obst, who ran the tiny, left-wing Dispatch News Service, which marketed the work of free-lance writers, and asked him to syndicate it. Thirty-six newspapers (each paying $100) ran the story, which triggered a firestorm.
Over the next few months, Hersh, flying around the country, interviewed many of the young soldiers who were at My Lai, and he connected all the dots in his book, My Lai 4, which Random House published in 1970, and which stands as one of the essential books on the Vietnam War. Written in a careful, reportorial style, My Lai 4 is not merely a meticulous reconstruction of a single massacre, but a powerful account of the madness unleashed by U.S. intervention in Vietnam. The text is filled with chilling asides: Hersh noted that one highly touted colonel — George S. Patton III, the son of the famous general — "celebrated Christmas in 1968 by sending cards reading: 'From Colonel and Mrs. George S. Patton III — Peace on Earth.' Attached to the cards were color photographs of dismembered Viet Cong soldiers stacked in a neat pile."
In 1970 Hersh received the Pulitzer Prize for the My Lai story, and he achieved considerable renown in antiwar circles. "I'm a fucking celebrity!" Hersh boasted to a journalist at the time. Yet he stayed on the My Lai story. When the military launched its own investigation into the massacre, a sympathetic insider passed along to Hersh forty volumes of top-secret official testimony, a trove of documents that formed the core of his 1972 book, Cover-Up, which originally appeared in William Shawn's New Yorker. My Lai is a story that remains close to Hersh's heart. Three years ago, he spoke at an anniversary event for Harper's Magazine, which published some of the reporting in 1970. When he read from his old piece, his voice broke. "I was asked to read it by Rick MacArthur," the magazine's publisher, Hersh says. "And I told him I couldn't read it without crying. It was just too devastating."
When Hersh joined The New York Times in 1972, the newspaper was not known for its muckraking. But the insurrectionary energies of the 1960s had changed journalism as well as politics, and the old rules no longer applied. Hiring Sy Hersh was the Times's strategy for catching up with The Washington Post on Watergate.
"Until Seymour Hersh entered Watergate," Philip Nobile would write in Esquire, "the Times was a pitiful, helpless giant rooting up dried tubers." When he did finally enter the fray, in November 1972, Hersh performed brilliantly. This was his most remarkable period as a newspaper reporter — a period of stress and productivity that led to rashes and dandruff, but also to key scoops. But the competition was formidable. "He would never entirely catch up with Woodward and Bernstein," David Halberstam wrote in The Powers That Be, "for they were too far out in front, they had locked up some remarkable sources and their work habits were relentless and there were two of them and only one of him."
It was during Watergate, Downie wrote in The New Muckrakers, that "Hersh and Woodward . . . became particularly fascinated with each other." Hersh resented the way he was portrayed in the book All The President's Men — "horn-rimmed and somewhat pudgy . . . in old tennis shoes, a frayed pinstripe shirt that might have been his best in his college freshmen year . . ." — and he also envied the success of the book and the film. Downie paid a visit to Hersh in late 1974, and Hersh fished out The New York Times Book Review. He pointed to the best-seller list, at the top of which sat All The President's Men. "It's still number one," Hersh complained to Downie. "I keep thinking of all the money Woodward and Bernstein got. But then that's what helped to create the mystique about investigative reporting. I can't really complain. It's put money in my pocket, too." "I wouldn't mind making a million dollars on a book," Hersh confessed to Rolling Stone. "Having Robert Redford play me wouldn't bother me at all."
In those years, much attention was focused on Hersh's personality and reporting techniques. One of his editors at the Washington bureau, Robert Phelps, recently recalled, with wry disbelief, the kinds of messages that Hersh would leave. "He would call people and he'd say 'I'm Seymour Hersh, I'm doing a story on this . . . If he doesn't call me, I will get his ass.' They'd call back."
Hersh has difficult relationships with nearly all his editors; A.M. Rosenthal of the Times was no exception. In their first phone conversation, Hersh hung up on him. Rosenthal enjoyed patting Hersh on the shoulder and saying, "Well, well, how's my little commie today?" But they needed each other: the editor wanted first-rate stories and the reporter churned them out with regularity. In the fall of 1974, Hersh took Rosenthal to meet the CIA director, William Colby. At one point, Hersh recalls, Rosenthal lost his temper and burst out: "How come every time I come across the CIA I find they are on the side of the fingernail pullers?" Colby replied that the CIA's job was not to make policy, but to follow the orders of the president. "When we got outside, in the parking lot," Hersh recalls, "Abe grabbed me and said, 'You just keep on going on these guys. That's what Eichmann said.'"
With Rosenthal's blessings, Hersh reported extensively on the CIA's clandestine operations in Chile, and, more explosively, about the CIA's domestic spying within the United States. Hersh's red-hot story of December 22, 1974 — headlined huge cia operation reported in u.s. against anti-war forces, other dissidents in nixon years — generated shock waves and led directly to the formation of the Rockefeller Commission and the Senate select committee headed by Frank Church, which investigated the CIA's covert operations.
In 1975 Hersh moved to New York, where his wife was attending medical school. It was there that he turned his full attention to corporate chicanery, a longstanding interest that was much remarked upon by his colleagues. Hersh "is an old-line radical in a way," Woodward told Downie for The New Muckrakers. "He is interested more in the abuse of really big power, concentrated power, in the military and international capitalism." In 1977 Hersh, assisted by Jeff Gerth, produced a hard-hitting three-part investigation into Gulf & Western Industries, one of the country's largest conglomerates. Hersh's accusations of financial impropriety were hotly contested by G&W executives, some of whom, according to Vanity Fair and Hersh himself, tape-recorded Hersh's caustic interviews with G&W employees, and turned the tapes over to Times management. (Hersh reportedly said, "You better see me. Otherwise, you are going to jail with the others"; "G&W is a piece of shit — garbage"; etc.)
Hersh would later suggest that the Times was ambivalent about his brand of corporate muckraking. The Times, he told Joseph Goulden, author of Fit to Print: A.M. Rosenthal and His Times, "wasn't nearly as happy when we went after business wrongdoing as when we were kicking around some slob in government." Leslie Gelb says, carefully, "I never asked Abe or the others about this, but I think that they felt he hadn't nailed down the story of Gulf & Western as far as he had nailed down a lot of his other stories. That was the nub of it, rather than Gulf & Western being some important client of the Times."
A.M. Rosenthal declined to speak with CJR. But it appears that he had growing doubts about Hersh in the late 1970s. Rosenthal described to Goulden an occasion in which he saw Hersh working the telephone. Rosenthal was quoted as follows: "He was practically blackmailing this guy. He was saying, 'Either you tell me what I want to know or I'll . . .' I put my hands over my ears and ran out of the room. I didn't want to hear this sort of thing. I didn't want any part of it."
Hersh is not eager to revisit the Gulf & Western episode or the circumstances of his departure from the Times. "It was time to move on," he says. Leslie Gelb affirms, "The Times changed, not Sy Hersh." He would later return to the Times for special projects. But in 1979 he left the paper to write his scathing book on Henry Kissinger, The Price of Power, a book he had been composing in his head since 1973, when he boasted to Woodward and Bernstein over Chinese food, "I'd really love to get that son-of-a-bitch, too. I know him from way before Watergate. But he'll get no cheap shots from me; either I get him hard, with facts, solid information, evidence, the truth, or I don't touch him."
Published in 1983, The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House, resulted from four years of obsessive labor and more than one thousand interviews. Those with misgivings about the book tend to take issue with its prosecutorial tone and literary shortcomings, not its substance: "Everything was unveiled with the same emotional tone," says the writer Thomas Powers. "What Kissinger had for breakfast along with the bombing of Cambodia."
The book — which contained devastating chapters on Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, the India-Pakistan war, wiretapping, and the White House Plumbers, not to mention passages that lacerated his former Times colleagues like Max Frankel and James Reston for their proximity to Kissinger — invented the field of Kissinger studies, and others who have written about Kissinger (Walter Isaacson, Christopher Hitchens) have done so in Hersh's shadow. The Price of Power is Hersh's best book, and it has stood the test of time. "There is more solid history in that book than any book I know of on that era," says Daniel Ellsberg, the man who gave the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. Leslie Gelb says: "It looks like over time it has held up."
The Price of Power was also a book that brought Hersh face to face with his own past. In revisiting the Nixon era, he had to confront some errors in his own reporting from the early 1970s: mainly his mistreatment of Edward M. Korry, the U.S. ambassador to Chile from 1967 to 1971. In late 1974 Hersh, relying on leaks from a Senate subcommittee, reported in the Times that Korry had known about the CIA's efforts to foment a coup against Chile's elected president, Salvador Allende. Korry responded with fury to Hersh's reporting, insisting that he knew nothing about the CIA's efforts. Only one reporter, Joe Trento of the Wilmington, Delaware News Journal, bothered to investigate Korry's version. Trento, in the middle of his reporting, got a call from Hersh, who sneered: "You have no business reporting on this story. You should turn your sources over to me . . . . I work for the New York Times, this is our story."
In 1979, when Hersh began to reconstruct Kissinger's activities on Chile, he apparently realized he needed Korry's assistance. Korry's old friend Richard Witkin, who spent thirty-five years on the staff of the Times, describes the negotiation that ensued. "A big part of the Kissinger story had to be the coup in Chile, and Hersh had no way of getting the documentation that he wanted, to the extent that he needed the documentation. And so he finally went up to Korry's house. And Ed said, 'You want the documents, you can have the documents. But only if you get a front-page retraction printed in The New York Times.'"
Hersh and Abe Rosenthal — who was a personal friend of Korry's — complied. On February 9, 1981, a page-one article appeared. Time called it "the longest correction ever published" in the paper, and noted the "curious circumstances" of Korry's rehabilitation. "I led the way in trashing him," Hersh told Time. "I thought he had withheld information from me when I needed it. I probably punished Korry — unconsciously anyway — for not telling me more." The ambassador finally got his due in The Price of Power.
Says Hersh today, wearily, "Write what you want about Korry." Korry died in early 2003, but we haven't heard the last of him. Before he died he completed most of the work on his memoirs, and his later negotiations with Hersh were tape-recorded.
"On the issue of what Sy Hersh first wrote about Edward Korry's role in Chile, Hersh was wrong and Korry was right," says Peter Kornbluh, a Chile expert at the National Security Archive who writes extensively about Korry in his forthcoming book, The Pinochet File, based on declassified documents. "Korry, actually, was cut out of the loop."
By the early 1980s, thanks to his reporting on Vietnam and Watergate, Hersh had developed a vast number of sources — many of them mid-level bureaucrats — in places like the CIA, the National Security Agency and the State Department. He got into the habit of scanning the various departmental newsletters, looking for retirement notices and independent-minded employees. "He's very methodical in terms of exploiting sources," says Richard J. Kerr, a former deputy director of the CIA. "He'll contact an awful lot of people." When Kerr retired in 1992, Hersh invited him to lunch to discuss the ways in which Pakistan, with the acquiescence of the Reagan and Bush administrations, acquired a nuclear arsenal with material purchased in the U.S. The result was a pathbreaking — and prescient — New Yorker piece that appeared in 1993.
"I don't go around getting my stories from nice old Lefties or the Weathermen or the America-with-a-k boys," he told Rolling Stone in 1975. "I get them from good old-fashioned constitutionalists. I learned a long time ago that you can't go around making judgments on the basis of people's politics. The essential thing is: Do they have integrity or not?"
Hersh spent much of the 1980s writing two critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful books. The Target Is Destroyed (1986) concerned the destruction of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, and the Reagan administration's abuse of the communications intelligence. The Samson Option (1991) chronicled the process by which Israel obtained a nuclear arsenal. Both books sold poorly at a time when Hersh's rival, Woodward, was churning out a steady stream of best-sellers. Hersh, in the early 1990s, apparently felt it was time to cash in. By 1996 he and a one-time co-author received a reported $800,000 advance for a book on John Kennedy. "I started the book on Kennedy," he told a group of Nieman fellows in 1998, "for a couple of reasons. One, I had a publisher who was going to give me a lot of money to do it. That's very important, you know, these days."
Early in his research, Hersh came across an astonishing trove of handwritten documents about JFK — showing, for instance, that the president allegedly had paid hush money to Marilyn Monroe. But the people peddling the documents were charlatans, and most of the papers themselves were forgeries. Some of his peers tried to warn him. At one point Hersh called a Kennedy biographer, Richard Reeves for assistance. "When he said," Reeves recalls, "that he had a 'contract between JFK and Marilyn Monroe,' I said that could not possibly be authentic, that whatever actually went on in those days, JFK was far too cautious (and sensible) to ever sign something like that. And I never heard from him again."
Hersh removed the documents from the book shortly before it went to press, but the news media pounced on his credulousness. A long article about the controversy in The Washington Post began: "The strange and twisted saga of the JFK file is part cautionary tale, part slapstick farce, a story of deception and self-delusion in the service of commerce and journalism."
By and large, The Dark Side of Camelot was savaged by reviewers, and much attention was paid to the book's salacious details about JFK's sexual appetite — details that Hersh obtained from interviews with members of JFK's Secret Service team. People close to Hersh insist that he has a puritanical streak, and that those sentiments burst forth in the Kennedy book. "Sy is a very bad judge of other men's behavior," a close friend says. "He has led a very decorous life in a certain way. I was against the book from the beginning because he was so shocked by what Jack had done. Another man would not have been quite so shocked."
Hersh himself now expresses misgivings about the material he obtained from the Secret Service agents. "Am I ambivalent about it? Yeah. I wish they hadn't spoken on the record. I wouldn't have used it."
Dark Side's critics allege errors in the book that go beyond sex. Max Holland, a Nation contributing editor who is writing a history of the Warren Commission, notes that the final report of the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) — which was created in response to Oliver Stone's film, JFK — invalidates some of Hersh's key revelations. Hersh, for instance, wrote that JFK used Judith Campbell Exner as a courier to deliver cash to the mobster Sam Giancana; his source was a political operative named Martin Underwood, who told a believing Hersh that he followed Exner on a train from Washington to Chicago, and watched her hand over the satchel. But Holland notes that "when sitting across from a government lawyer instead of a reporter," Underwood recanted his story. In the final ARRB report, published a year after Hersh's book appeared, the following statement appears: "Underwood denied that he followed Judith Campbell Exner on a train."
To a certain extent, The Dark Side of Camelot damaged Hersh's standing among colleagues. "I don't read him anymore because I don't trust him," says Holland. "I find Hersh a perplexing character," says Newsweek's Evan Thomas, who has written extensively about the Kennedys. "He's done great work, but he wildly overreached with the Kennedy book." These days, Thomas reads Hersh differently. "I read what he writes with some skepticism or doubt or uncertainty."
Shortly after the attacks of September 11, David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, sat down and studied the magazine's coverage of Pearl Harbor, and determined that the editors had been slow to react to that momentous event. Remnick wanted to avoid that mistake in late 2001; he wanted a faster, news-driven magazine. As part of that effort, Hersh began to produce shorter pieces on tighter deadlines. That was a significant departure from the work he did for Tina Brown, who edited The New Yorker from 1992 to 1998, and for Remnick until late 2001.
Some of Hersh's pieces before 9/11 were remarkable. In 2000 he produced an obsessive, 25,000-word article that showed, in painstaking, chilling detail, how soldiers under the command of General Barry McCaffrey massacred scores of Iraqi troops in the final days of the 1991 gulf war. Hersh had backed into the story accidentally: while investigating McCaffrey's role in the Colombian drug war, a retired four-star officer barked at him for focusing on the general's deeds in South America instead of Iraq. "Are you crazy?" the officer said. "Go get him for what he did." Hersh performed six months of research, and spoke with three hundred people — including young soldiers who witnessed the killings. (One of Hersh's key sources lived in rural Missouri, in a house without a phone; Hersh made several trips to the region, and found him on the third try.) Hersh thinks his story was underappreciated: "Not one book offer," he grumbles, "not one prize . . . ."
In July 2001, again in The New Yorker, Hersh published a lengthy investigation into Mobil Oil's activities in Kazakhstan, a piece that illuminated a shadowy netherworld of confidence men, oil barons, and crooked politicians. Owing to the complexity of the material, the Mobil article lacked the color and narrative momentum of the McCaffrey piece, but its repercussions were greater. Last April the government indicted two of the major figures in Hersh's story, who were accused of accepting bribes and kickbacks related to the oil transactions. The indictment itself bears a stunning resemblance to Hersh's New Yorker story.
It is too early for a definitive assessment of Hersh's work since 9/11, but it's clear that much of it has been superb. In the confused, difficult months after the attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, Hersh's reporting had a clarifying effect on a wide range of issues: on the intelligence failures surrounding 9/11; on the ineptitude and decadence of the Saudi royal family; on the instability of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal; on the shortcomings of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
Month after month, Hersh kept up his pace. In the second half of 2002, he detailed the flawed legal case against Zacarias Moussaoui, and exposed the Bush administration's efforts to target and assassinate suspected al-Qaeda members. Hersh's March 17, 2003, article on Richard Perle's business dealings was a direct hit, and led to Perle's speedy resignation as head of the Defense Policy Board. When the Bush administration insisted, earlier this year, that Iraq had received nuclear materials from Niger — a claim that found its way into the State of the Union address — the press, by and large, let the claim stand. Hersh, building on foreign press accounts, debunked the story. And Hersh was among the first to shed light on the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, which provided key — and perhaps dubious — intelligence to the White House on Iraq's weapons capability.
Tina Brown used Hersh as a magazine writer: long deadlines resulted in long pieces with a long shelf life; Remnick followed that model until 9/11, at which point he started to use Hersh more like a newspaperman. It was a wise decision in many respects, but a price has been paid: there is a certain perishability to some of Hersh's recent output. On April 7, for example, when the U.S. military was temporarily bogged down in southern Iraq, Hersh rushed into print with an article that accused Donald Rumsfeld of micro-managing (and mismanaging) the war plan. When Iraqi resistance crumbled, Hersh's article was obsolete. Over the last two months, I asked dozens of Hersh-watchers to reflect on the fifteen articles he has published in The New Yorker since 9/11. Most were unable to recall more than two or three of them. Some of his colleagues believe that for a variety of reasons, he's not punching as hard as usual these days. "He'd like to be a bomb thrower," says Walter Pincus, who covers intelligence for The Washington Post, "but I think he's throwing darts. They sting, but there's no real lasting effect."
Some critics have detected a hawkish streak in Hersh's recent reporting. In his first New Yorker piece after 9/11, Hersh complained that since 1991, "the CIA has become increasingly bureaucratic and unwilling to take risks." He also lamented the fact that, after a 1995 scandal involving a CIA informant in Guatemala, "hundreds of 'assets' were indiscriminately stricken from the CIA's payroll, with a devastating effect on antiterrorist operations in the Middle East." Those statements raised eyebrows, especially in liberal quarters. "What's gotten into Sy Hersh?," Timothy Noah wondered in Slate. "Even though he probably didn't mean it that way, Hersh's . . . piece reads like a plea to make the CIA a rogue elephant once again." Michael Massing, in The Nation, wondered about Hersh's apparent "eagerness for the CIA's return to dirty work in dark alleys."
A few weeks ago, during lunch at a Washington steakhouse, I asked Hersh about those allegations. "The notion," he says, "that I would be interested in a CIA that can overthrow people willy-nilly is so preposterous that it's beyond belief." Hersh referred to a New Yorker article from 1999, in which he chronicled the conflict between the CIA and the UNSCOM inspection team in Iraq. "If you read that piece," he says impatiently, "you see how fucking incompetent the agency is. They cared more about interfering with the UN than doing their own work. A lot of the rage that I share after 9/11 comes from the fact that they're not good. It doesn't come from the idea that I want them to go out and kill mothers." (Hersh insists he is no fan of Oliver North, and he regrets his remark to The Nation.)
Indeed, a striking feature of Hersh's work since the late 1990s is his open hostility to the CIA and the intelligence community. Thomas Powers recalls a conversation with Hersh before 9/11. "At one point he said to me, 'Listen, Tom, you gotta understand, this isn't the CIA that you used to know in Richard Helms's day. This place has been severely weakened. It's a lot of geriatric cases and timid careerists, and it's just a completely different atmosphere.'" And that view found its way into Hersh's reporting on the intelligence agencies. In late 1999 Hersh published a little-noticed piece in The New Yorker entitled "The Intelligence Gap: How the digital age left our spies out in the cold," which concluded that the National Security Agency had become a decaying, flat-footed bureaucracy, one unable to keep up with new developments in encryption and fiber optics. The NSA, Hersh reported, was unable to process the vast majority of information traffic that came under its purview. "If the agency," he wrote, "were able to filter through the traffic . . . international terrorists like Osama bin Laden would not be able to remain in hiding." It was an extraordinarily prescient piece of reporting.
From rogue elephant to flat-footed elephant: that appears to be the trajectory of the CIA in the latter half of Hersh's career. The young Sy Hersh thought the agency was doing too much; the older Sy Hersh believes it was doing too little. He was right with regard to the former; history could prove him correct with the latter. In both cases, his antennae were up; in both cases, he is ahead of the pack; in both cases, he followed the story.
"It's a mistake to look at Sy's work from an ideological perspective," says Mark Danner, a New Yorker staff writer. "What Sy wants to do is tell you what's really happening. If he has an ideology, it's the belief that the government should not be able to tell a story publicly that is really a contradiction of what's going on in reality. And he sees his job as closing the gap between the public version and real version." Closing the gap — it's a useful way to think about Hersh's work. And it's that aspect of Hersh's output, Danner notes, that distinguishes him from competitors like Bob Woodward. Says Danner: "In his recent work, Woodward, partly because he relies for his main sources on officials at the highest levels of government, tends to give you what at least claims to be the 'deeper' version of what is, essentially, the official story. Hersh, whose sources generally come from a lower-down, more 'operational' level of the bureaucracy, much more frequently gives you a version of events that the government does not want public — which is to say, a version that contradicts the official story of what went on."
Danner has a point, and yet Hersh's politics cannot be so easily disregarded. Much of his best work occurs when his moral outrage is fused with his investigative energies. His rage at injustice — and the perpetual loathing he feels for the likes of Henry Kissinger — are among the most arresting aspects of his character. And it's that rage that permeates Hersh's recent speeches. In a September 2002 speech in Minneapolis, he expressed his deep admiration for Senator Paul Wellstone, and explained why the White House had been so relentlessly focused on Saddam Hussein: "They've got to keep us scared and they've got to keep us jacked up on Iraq," he said. "If we're not talking about Saddam, we're talking about Enron and Tyco. It's the best issue Bush has and he's playing it hard." In a March 11 speech at Harvard, Hersh lashed the administration in general and Attorney General John Ashcroft in particular: "He's the least knowledgeable and most dangerous attorney general we've had."
By and large, those kinds of jagged political sentiments do not appear in Remnick's New Yorker, and they also do not appear in Hersh's New Yorker pieces. Hersh's relationship with Remnick seems vaguely reminiscent of his relationship with Abe Rosenthal. Remnick needs the stories, Hersh needs the work, and those facts may paper over the political differences between them. But the differences do exist. In February Remnick wrote a signed "Talk of the Town" piece insisting that the United States had no choice but to go to war against Hussein's Iraq. The piece upset Hersh. Says Gloria Emerson: "He was very unhappy that David Remnick wrote that piece endorsing the war in Iraq and saying containment doesn't work. He called me and he was very unhappy."
Hersh's friends insist that he works most effectively under a strong editor, and he seems to have one in Remnick. "The combination of the Times and Sy was a terrific one because there is a lot of rigor in the review process at the Times," says Leslie Gelb. "I hear that Remnick has introduced a lot of that rigor and checking as well. If the story is right, that's a good combination. Sy needs it. It's the kind of impetus he needs to go back and check this and that."
"I know every single source that is in his pieces," Remnick says. To "every 'retired intelligence officer,' every general with reason to know, and all those phrases that one has to use, alas, by necessity, I say, 'Who is it? What's his interest?' We talk it through." The tension between the two men can be acute — "David isn't always nice to me," sighs Hersh — but both parties are well served by it.
And yet it's a different relationship than the one Hersh had with Tina Brown, whose New Yorker was more congenial to Hersh's politics. He has warm memories of Brown, who brought him back to the magazine in 1992: "She gave me a lot of money; she was amazing. She had an eye. She let me go." He used that freedom well. In late 1993 Hersh handed her one of his masterpieces — "A Case Not Closed," which debunked the so-called plot by Iraqi intelligence to assassinate George H.W. Bush in Kuwait. The piece was a pungent, sardonic, swashbuckling tour de force: Hersh enlisted experts to study the forensic evidence for the alleged plot and they determined that it was bogus. The piece that resulted expressed clear political sentiments (the gulf war was "brutal and disastrous"); excoriated the political opportunism of Bill Clinton and his top advisers, who ordered a missile attack against Baghdad in response to the so-called plot; and critically examined the coverage of the case in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Hersh seamlessly fused opinion and fact, irony and analysis in a way that connected all the dots — and, what's more, gave the piece a sprightliness and readability that is generally lacking in the recent work he's done for Remnick.
It appears that Remnick is not interested in Sy Hersh the press critic or Sy Hersh the political analyst. He wants straight, hard-nosed news reporting. Does The New Yorker's current editor believe that a strong point of view weakens Hersh's work? "In order to maximize the confidence of the reader," says Remnick, "I want those pieces to be as down the middle and as fair and as balanced as humanly possible."
Perhaps that explains the red-hot vehemence of Hersh's recent speeches. At the podium, he dissects the moral and political underpinnings of George W. Bush's war on terrorism. His post-9/11 New Yorker reporting, however, is more narrowly focused on questions of strategy and execution pertaining to the war. The rage and sarcasm are generally absent from the pieces; the tone of the writing is chillier and more detached; the articles are filled with consequential facts, but Hersh's fierce analytical powers are not always brought to bear on those facts. It's almost as if Tina Brown sent Hersh into battle with a bazooka, while Remnick armed him with a high-powered rifle. Hersh is still nailing his targets, but it's a question of degree. (When asked to reflect on the comparative freedom granted him by Brown and Remnick, Hersh is uncharacteristically reticent.) Hersh is currently writing a book on the war on terrorism, and one suspects that it will eschew the Remnickian approach of balanced reporting in favor of the more analytical, opinionated prose he wrote for Tina Brown.
If you want to encounter Hersh in his natural element, the place to go is the daily nationally syndicated radio show Democracy Now!, where he is a frequent guest. The show is a low-budget, 1960s-style operation; the listeners tend to be passionate left-wing skeptics. The host is Amy Goodman, a relentless, old-fashioned muckraker of whom Hersh is extremely fond; he appreciated her bare-knuckled reporting on Bill Clinton, and the courage she displayed in East Timor in 1991, when she was nearly beaten to death while covering a massacre. Hersh is comfortable on the show: away from editors and fact-checkers, he says what's on his mind — at which point it becomes clear that he hasn't changed much since the 1960s. He remains the same man, and the same journalist; it is other things that have changed — including American television, which has room for punditry from Richard Perle and General McCaffrey, but not, by and large, from Sy Hersh. So he talks to Democracy Now!'s small audience.
When Hersh spoke at Harvard in March, he said: "I have never seen my peers as frightened as they are now." In the middle of the Iraq war, Goodman asked him on the air what he meant by that remark. "I'm not wildly interested in self-immolation," he said, "so I'll just let my work stand for what I think about the press corps." But Hersh is a man who can't restrain his tongue, so he pressed on with an acidic commentary about the notorious March 6 White House press conference on the eve of Gulf War II, at which reporters hurled softball questions at Bush, and the president himself made a joke about how the list of people from whom he was calling questions had been scripted. Hersh compared the performance to a puppet show.
"It would have been very simple," Hersh said, "for one of the reporters to stand up and say, 'Thank you, Mr. President, but I want to give my question to Dana Milbank,'" the Washington Post correspondent whose skeptical reporting of the president has made him highly unpopular in the White House. "I think, within ten seconds, that would have restored some dignity to the press corps and let the world see what was happening," he said. "I have to tell you, I did things like that when I covered the Pentagon for The Associated Press thirty-five years ago — that long ago, my God. We have every right as journalists to stand up for ourselves."
Goodman brought up Hersh's recent New Yorker piece on Rumsfeld's war plan, and asked him if, by focusing on the defense secretary, he was, in effect, letting George W. Bush off the hook. "You know, you just have to go piece by piece. We're talking about Rumsfeld in this article." He paused for a moment, for dramatic effect, and then replied mischievously, "I'm not done reporting," an implication that drew a low chuckle from Goodman. It's not an idle boast. If there is a smoking gun lying around the White House, the reporter most likely to find it is Seymour M. Hersh. Should he do so, perhaps Robert Redford can play him in the movie.
Nicholas Engstrom contributed research to this article.