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Sy Hersh Says It’s Okay to Lie (Just Not in Print)

The runaway mouth of America’s premier investigative journalist.

Since the Abu Ghraib story broke eleven months ago, The New Yorker’s national-security correspondent, Seymour Hersh, has followed it up with a series of spectacular scoops. Videotape of young boys being raped at Abu Ghraib. Evidence that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi may be a “composite figure” and a propaganda creation of either Iraq’s Baathist insurgency or the U.S. government. The active involvement of Karl Rove and the president in “prisoner-interrogation issues.” The mysterious disappearance of $1 billion, in cash, in Iraq. A threat by the administration to a TV network to cut off access to briefings in retaliation for asking Laura Bush “a very tough question about abortion.” The Iraqi insurgency’s access to short-range FROG missiles that “can do grievous damage to American troops.” The murder, by an American platoon, of 36 Iraqi guards.

Not one of these exclusives appeared in the pages of The New Yorker, however. Instead, Hersh delivered them in speeches on college campuses and in front of organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and on public-radio shows like “Democracy Now!” In most cases, Hersh attaches a caveat—such as “I’m just talking now, I’m not writing”—before unloading one of his blockbusters, which can send bloggers and reporters scurrying for confirmation.

Every writer understands that there is a gap between the print persona and the actual self, but Hersh subscribes to a bright-line test, a wider chasm than is usually acknowledged, particularly in today’s multimedia age.

There are two Hershes, really. Seymour M. is the byline. He navigates readers through the byzantine world of America’s overlapping national-security bureaucracies, and his stories form what Hersh has taken to calling an “alternative history” of the Bush administration since September 11, 2001.

Then there’s Sy. He’s the public speaker, the pundit. On the podium, Sy is willing to tell a story that’s not quite right, in order to convey a Larger Truth. “Sometimes I change events, dates, and places in a certain way to protect people,” Hersh told me. “I can’t fudge what I write. But I can certainly fudge what I say.”

And in bending the truth, Hersh is, paradoxically enough, remarkably candid. When he supplies unconfirmed accounts of military assaults on Iraqi civilians, or changes certain important details from an episode inside Abu Ghraib (thus rendering the story unverifiable), Hersh argues that he’s protecting the identities of sources who could face grave repercussions for talking. “I defend that totally,” Hersh says of the factual fudges he serves up in speeches and lectures. “I find that totally not inconsistent with anything I do professionally. I’m just communicating another reality that I know, that for a lot of reasons having to do with, basically, someone else’s ass, I’m not writing about it.”

Hersh insists that he takes great pains to be right when it counts the most—that is, when he writes, not when he talks—and that his close ties with the underside of the defense world are the reason he’s so confident about his understanding of that reality. “I’m not working with guys outside the system,” he tells me. “You do understand that, don’t you? I’m not outside the system in what I do. I’m really not.”

Hersh’s colleagues say that he’s achieved mastery of his beat thanks to his reputation as someone who’d never compromise a source—and who will go to any length to find one. “It’s sort of like being a spy,” says Warren Strobel, a Washington-based Knight Ridder reporter who, with Jonathan Landay, wrote some of the most skeptical prewar coverage of the Bush administration’s WMD claims. “It takes years to develop sources who will talk to you and not talk to very many other journalists, which he obviously has. . . . The version of reality that he has described in his writing, since 9/11, to me is a lot closer to reality than the version of reality that the administration has described, whether it be WMD in Iraq, or the abuses at Abu Ghraib, or secret policies in Iran.”

Still, what’s emerged from Hersh’s numerous speaking engagements—dozens of speeches last year, he says, which have drawn as much as $15,000 per university lecture—is a vast, tantalizing trove of what might be termed Hersh apocrypha: unpublished tales of official screwups, ideological intrigue, cover-ups, and government lies that have an influential—and growing—public life of their own.