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

Photo: Graham Jepson

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.

It doesn’t take much prompting for Hersh to supply an example of the sort of story he keeps out of The New Yorker’s pages but will discuss freely elsewhere. He tells me a long tale of the ghastly killing of some Iraqi civilians by U.S. soldiers. He frames his account as a hypothetical set piece: “You’re a soldier on a patrol … and you see people running, and you open fire, okay? … Maybe they were bad guys, but then they run into a soccer game.” He gradually modulates the story to its climax: “You’re a bunch of young kids. And so maybe you pull the bodies together and you drop RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and you take some photographs about it because you’re afraid you’re gonna be investigated. And maybe somebody there tells me about what happened.”

Moving back into straight, declarative talk, Hersh lays out how this no-longer-quite-so-hypothetical scenario shaped his on-the-job news judgments. Investigating the tip, he discovered that, even though the photographs he obtained of the incident could suggest a terrible lapse of responsibility in the field, there was nothing here to qualify it as a Hersh story. “It was stupid, it was wrong, it was terrible, but it wasn’t murder. Do I write that? No. I don’t write that. Because then six, eight, ten American kids who did nothing but panic, and did what anybody would, would get in trouble. Do I have some photographs that are interesting? Yes. Do I publish those? No.”

But does he talk about it? Sure. Did this event happen? Who knows? Hersh never subjects these sorts of stories to any kind of public truth test, but he bandies them in his lectures, as part of the ongoing effort to bring his speaking audiences closer to that other reality of the Iraq War. He does it so frequently, in fact, that it’s hard to accept that he’s only doling out information for its own sake. In part, one senses, Hersh’s stump performances are of a piece with the sort of one-upping bravado that makes up many conversations journalists have with their colleagues—only done here in public and for hire. Again, Hersh is refreshingly candid about the showman aspect of his anecdotage: “I get paid to do speeches… . And I’m not there to be on straight. I’m there to tell, you know, give somebody, exchange views with people.”

It also seems clear that, more than just thinking out loud, Hersh is often reporting out loud from the lecturer’s podium. One notorious example: At Berkeley in October, Hersh described a phone call from a soldier who informed him that another platoon had massacred “30 or so” friendly Iraqi guards. Hersh advised the soldier to keep quiet about it: “You’re gonna get a bullet in the back.” The speech—and the subsequent flurry of breathless blog items—prompted the New York Observer’s Tom Scocca to theorize that Hersh “appears to be running some sort of impromptu combination of a notebook dump and an assignment meeting, challenging other reporters to pick up his loose ends and surplus tips.”

Hersh basically confirmed as much when he told Scocca that some comments he made about Guantánamo Bay abuses were an effort to get some new sources to contact him: “At some point, Army reservists were sent down to Gitmo. And they didn’t like what they saw. And that’s where I’m trying to go—I’m trying to find these guys.”

Whatever Hersh’s motivations for talking so loosely in public, none of the safeguards that keeps these stories out of The New Yorker stops the most startling of Hersh’s revelations from spreading throughout the blogging world. By assuming that these stories can be kept at the level of informal talk, Hersh overlooks the way the mediasphere he works in has been utterly transformed. All sorts of people are learning the hard way that informal public utterances are not the ambiguous exercises in cocktail-party speculation they were in the pre–wired world. Instead, off-the-cuff remarks delivered at one or another public forum have become the lifeblood of crusading bloggers, online groups, and discussion boards—and their missionary zeal now can set agendas in mainstream news coverage. Eason Jordan resigned his post as chief news executive of CNN on February 11 after his off-the-record musings on whether American forces targeted journalists in the Iraqi theater of war became a blogging cause célèbre. Harvard president Larry Summers has been spared his job so far, but he has sparked a global controversy—and all sorts of interest-group crusades for his ouster—based on his spoken speculations on whether women possess less innate aptitude in math and science. And Judith Miller of the New York Times drew criticism from Times public editor Daniel Okrent (among others) for suggesting on Hardball that Ahmad Chalabi would be offered a job in the post-election Iraqi government—a scoop that her own employer hasn’t yet seen fit to print.

In the new-media world, the line between a spoken remark and a written one is becoming more and more blurry. “The world has changed, because there is this monstrously large amplifying megaphone that hovers at all moments everywhere,” says Okrent. “There’s no such thing as speaking out loud, off the record. As Jordan learned, I believe unfairly, you can’t take it back once it’s said.”

Hersh’s Rogues
Some of Seymour Hersh’s most prominent targets, and what he thinks of them. Nixon
“There’s nothing the Russian intelligence service could do to us that would be worse than what the Nixon administration did to us.”
“I happen to write a lot of stories that make Kissinger look bad. I’d rather that the stories weren’t true, but they all happen to be true.”
“There are many who believe George Bush is a liar… . But lying would indicate an understanding of what is desired, what is possible, and how best to get there.”
“Every four-star general I know is saying, ‘Who’s gonna tell ’em? Who’s gonna tell them we have no clothes?’ … Everybody is afraid to tell Rumsfeld… . It’s a system built on fear.”

As a magazine writer, Hersh is given more leeway in his public remarks than an executive like Jordan, who is answerable not only to the press and the bloggers but also to CNN’s investors. A speech or public remark from Hersh is unlikely to do much damage to The New Yorker and its renowned fact-checking apparatus. But while Hersh may not be able to do much damage to the credibility of the magazine he writes for, he’s certainly capable of doing damage to his own.

Seymour Hersh has always had a rather loose relationship with literal truth. He seems to share with many of the people he writes about the belief that in certain circumstances, the end justifies the means. When Hersh was pursuing the My Lai story, he tracked down the lawyer of William Calley Jr., the man later convicted of participating in the 1968 massacre of Vietnamese civilians. Hersh intentionally inflated the number of deaths for which Calley was charged, in order to get the attorney to tell him the correct number, 109. A few years ago, Hersh told a crowd at Duke, “a word for what I did—an actual word, it has three letters—it’s called ‘lie.’”

Few would argue that Hersh’s impropriety should diminish the astonishing coup and public service of bringing the My Lai story to light. But Hersh’s swashbuckling journalistic methods have made for a very bumpy career. So vast was the impact of Hersh’s revelations of the massacre at My Lai that it’s easy to forget he did it essentially on his own, without the sanction of any major journalistic institution. He came to Washington from Chicago as an AP reporter in 1964 and knocked around town for a few years—he served briefly as press secretary for antiwar presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy—before uncovering the My Lai story. Circulated in 1969 on an independent antiwar syndication service called Dispatch News Service, it won the Pulitzer. Soon thereafter, Hersh published two books on My Lai and was admitted to the journalism Establishment’s Holy of Holies, the New York Times. At the Times, Hersh published scoop after scoop—on Nixon’s Watergate cover-up, the secret bombing of Cambodia, the CIA’s massive domestic spy operation—but when he asked for a leave in 1979 to write a book on Henry Kissinger, editor A. M. Rosenthal refused. Hersh quit. “He’s not a gear that fits into any motor very smoothly,” says the author Taylor Branch, who has known Hersh for more than 30 years.

Hersh’s rocky tour through the print Establishment has involved some factual misfires. In 1981, while he was working on his Kissinger book, Hersh wrote a 3,000-word, front-page retraction in the Times as penance for having mistakenly named Edward M. Korry, the former U.S. ambassador to Chile, as a collaborator in the CIA-backed 1973 coup. Throughout his career, Hersh has won a reputation as something of a journalistic pit bull, who can unsettle even his admirers with his single-minded determination to establish certain facts above others. Charles Peters, founding editor of The Washington Monthly, revised his opinion of Hersh somewhat after serving as a source for Hersh’s controversial Kennedy book, The Dark Side of Camelot. Hersh talked with Peters several times to discuss bribes the Kennedy campaign made to West Virginia sheriffs to deliver a victory for JFK in the critical 1960 state primary.

“He called me a lot, and he both educated me and disturbed me,” says Peters, who served as a West Virginia county director for the Kennedy campaign. “He converted me to some extent, but I would say I did not convert him at all to the reasonable points that I had. He took my good points on his side, and he ignored my good points that weren’t on his side.” Whenever he disagreed with Hersh, Peters says, Hersh would start exclaiming, “Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!”

“I get paid to do speeches… . And I’m not there to be on straight.”

“You can’t help but have a certain skepticism once you’ve been through that experience,” Peters says.

Hersh’s career as an author has run the gamut from intensively researched exposés to dubious scandalmongering. And its wilder swings in the latter direction came close to endangering his career. His first two books after leaving the Times—1983’s exhaustive, 700-page account of seemingly inexhaustible Kissinger moral trespasses, The Price of Power, and 1986’s The Target Is Destroyed: What Really Happened to Flight 007 and What America Knew About It—were critically applauded. But his next book, 1991’s The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy, relied heavily on a source whom Hersh later characterized in an interview as a liar. And after the publication of The Dark Side of Camelot in 1997, Hersh’s reputation took another dip.

The reviews of Hersh’s singularly tumescent account of the Kennedy presidency were savage. Gail Collins wrote in The Nation that Hersh’s book on JFK was “best read as a sort of journalistic tragedy.” In the Los Angeles Times, Edward Jay Epstein decreed that Hersh “must have invented” some of his facts and that the book “turns out to be, alas, more about the deficiencies of investigative journalism than about the deficiencies of John F. Kennedy.”

More damaging than the book’s critical reception were revelations that Hersh had fallen for a set of forged Kennedy documents—including a handwritten note from JFK offering Marilyn Monroe hush money to keep quiet about their affair—peddled by Lawrence X. Cusack III, a con man. The phony docs didn’t make it into The Dark Side of Camelot, but the moral of the story stuck: The onetime giant of investigative journalism had let himself be duped again. Hersh’s next book, on Gulf War syndrome, was almost completely ignored.

After editor Tina Brown began using him as a regular contributor in 1993, Hersh wrote regularly for The New Yorker. But Hersh scoops that once would have prompted congressional inquiries and a bevy of prizes—such as his 2000 account of how troops under the command of Gen. Barry McCaffrey massacred Iraqi soldiers during the Gulf War—faded after minor media flare-ups. Even after he published a flurry of New Yorker stories in the wake of 9/11, Hersh’s reputation was not completely restored.

But with the launch of the politically divisive Iraq War and the unexpectedly difficult American occupation that followed, Hersh’s nose for bad news and mysterious but obviously very deep sourcing found a larger, more receptive audience—and his methods once again yielded historic scoops. In late March 2003, Hersh pronounced in The New Yorker’s pages that the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq’s purchase of uranium from Niger were based on an obvious forgery. He followed that up with stories about how the Pentagon and the White House circumvented the government’s traditional methods for evaluating intelligence. And in 2004, Hersh’s succession of shocking stories about abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison proved that Hersh was back on top of his world—or, more precisely, underneath it, unearthing the Bush administration’s trove of secure, undisclosed secrets.

Newsweek’s Evan Thomas soured on Hersh after The Dark Side of Camelot, telling the Columbia Journalism Review in summer 2003, “I read what he writes with some skepticism or doubt or uncertainty.” But Thomas has since changed his mind. “Even if he’s made a few mistakes—even if you’re not sure what they are—overall you’d have to say he’s pretty much been ahead of everybody,” Thomas says.

Investigative reporting is often an elaborate dance around truths, large and small, wherein journalists hint at explosive revelations in order to induce sources to spill some relevant bit of compromising information to steer them onto the right path. Investigative stories often read like code, and they are hard to decipher (and evaluate).

The New Yorker rigorously polices the Hersh dispatches it publishes and insists that, like all the material in the magazine, Hersh’s pieces are fact-checked tight as a drum. The New Yorker’s editor-in-chief, David Remnick, looks over Hersh’s copy closely and keeps himself advised of the true identities of the writer’s many unnamed sources. Even so, he says, “closing is not easy. My job is to ask tough questions, and he answers them. Sometimes I say, ‘We don’t have enough,’ and he pushes forward in his reporting.”

Occasionally, Hersh’s half-confirmed spoken accounts of key events in the Iraq War do get significantly revised when they make their way into print. Last July, not too long after the Abu Ghraib story broke, Hersh spoke to the annual membership conference of the American Civil Liberties Union. He stood before the crowd and in mid-speech appeared to talk to himself. “Debating about it,” he muttered, then paused. “Um.” Clucked his tongue. “Some of the worst things that happened that you don’t know about. Okay? Videos,” he said. “And basically what happened is that those women who were arrested with young boys, children, in cases that have been recorded, the boys were sodomized, with the cameras rolling, and the worst above all of them is the soundtrack of the boys shrieking. That your government has. They’re in total terror it’s going to come out.”

What Hersh said wasn’t entirely correct. His book Chain of Command would deliver the authoritative Seymour M. version: “An attorney involved in the case told me in July 2004 that one of the witness statements he had read described the rape of a boy by a foreign contract employee who served as an interpreter at Abu Ghraib,” Hersh wrote. “In the statement, which had not been made public, the lawyer told me, a prisoner stated that he was a witness to the rape, and that a woman was taking pictures.”

Horrifying stuff. But key details were different from the impression Hersh gave to the ACLU crowd. And the Sy version raced halfway across the Internet before Seymour M. could get his boots on.

Many who blogged the revelation believed that Hersh was talking about multiple rapes committed by American soldiers. Nearly everyone took it for granted that Hersh had seen the videotapes himself because he’d described their horrifying soundtrack. And everyone did assume that there were in fact videotapes, which there may not be. (“Was it a video camera or a digital camera? Nobody was quite sure,” Hersh told students at Tufts later in the year.) The speech was so widely blogged that the ACLU says Hersh asked it to remove part of the video—including the sodomy allegation—from the organization’s Website, which it proceeded to do.

That was Hersh’s first encounter with streaming online video, something that makes a spoken remark as replicable and as easy to distribute as the written word. He’d never heard of it before. “I actually didn’t quite say what I wanted to say correctly,” Hersh now says. “It wasn’t that inaccurate, but it was misstated. The next thing I know, it was all over the blogs. And I just realized then, the power of—and so you have to try and be more careful.”

Yet a more careful Hersh may not be what the world needs at this moment. Former Washington Post reporter Scott Armstrong puts it this way: Say Hersh writes a story about how an elephant knocked someone down in a dark room. “If it was a camel or three cows, what difference does it make? It was dark, and it wasn’t supposed to be there.” And nobody else had yet described it. Sometimes, says Warren Strobel, “it’s worth it for him to be wrong.”

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