Asharq Al-Awsat, London – In this interview, Asharq Al-Awsat speaks to veteran American reporter Seymour Hersh, who, four years ago, exposed the now infamous prison abuse scandal of Abu Ghraib in Iraq at the hands of US soldiers.
In 1969, Hersh brought to light the My Lai massacre carried out by US forces in Vietnam, for which he received a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 1970.
However, as most journalists know, it is impossible to please everybody. Hersh has been praised and is often regarded as “the last American reporter,” while on the other hand he is also criticised and described as “the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist,” particularly for his outspokenness against the American administration and US forces.
The interview proceeded as follows:
Q) Many Arab journalists say that it is shameful that the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal was uncovered by a Western journalist rather than an Arab journalist. What is your view of the Arab media and its failure to expose this incident?
A) I can’t answer on behalf of somebody as to why he did not do something but what I can say is thank God it was reported by a Westerner, whether it was me or anybody else. Just imagine how mush worse it would have been for America if [the] Abu Ghraib [prison abuse scandal] had been reported by the Arab press. I can also say that as an American, it shows that there is at least a little bit of integrity left in the system.
I would not defend the American press with regards to reporting on [US President George W.] Bush; I think we did a terrible job, particularly on the Weapons of Mass Destruction issue. However, in this [Abu Ghraib] case, you should not be too tough on the Arab press simply because the photographs and the report that I obtained came from within America, not from the Middle East.
One of the things about Abu Ghraib is that the story was there to be had; if you had read the reports by the various groups that monitor abuses and torture, you would have known that they had already been talking about Abu Ghraib, so it was not really newly discovered that it was a hell-hole. What was new was that there were photographs, and those were not available to anyone outside the American system.
I can also say that in general, one of the things that drives me crazy about my country and our reporters is that they do not pay enough attention the Arab press, which has more reporters to move around locally and has better language skills.
Q) But it seems that a story only gains momentum when it is reported by a major ‘Western’ media institution such as the New York Times, or The Washington Post, or in your case, The New Yorker.
A) I agree. That is only because of the incredible bias of the American press. Al Jazeera, for example, could break a story for a week and the American press would simply ignore it. In general, the American press is much less interested in reporting other news.
The New York Times for example cheer leads its own stories, and does not care about other people’s exclusive reports.
Furthermore, the American media does not just ignore the Arab press; for example during the Vietnam War, there were many amazing stories in the North Vietnamese, North Korean and Japanese press services. Though they were communists, there were terrific stories about prisoners of war and other accurate issues that were simply ignored by us. The point is you can be an honest reporter in spite of who you work for.
Q) Let us talk about the reaction to your work, [former Chairman of The Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee] Richard Perle described you as “the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist…”
A) (Laughing) That was a compliment from Richard Perle!
Q) However, I imagine that many people considered you a hero after you exposed the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal for example, but at the same time many would have also criticized you for being “unpatriotic” to say the least. How do you feel about these mixed emotions?
A) I don’t have mixed emotions about it. I think that it is very simple; it is my job to hold public officials to the highest possible standards.
In my case, I hold public officials to the same standards that I hold my family to. I wouldn’t want my children to lie to me and I wouldn’t want to lie to them.
Also, unlike most Americans, I am not willing to say that our presidents never tell the truth and that our national security advisors, whether it is [Henry] Kissinger or McGeorge [Bundy] or Condoleezza Rice, just don’t tell the truth…I just think we should hold them to the highest possible standards.
A lot of people do get angry at me; for example I’ve been critical of Israel, and since I am Jewish I get a lot of hate-mail for that, but that is all part of the job.
Q) How do you compare Abu Ghraib to the My Lai massacre?
A) It is apples and oranges. In one case the Americans were murdering anybody they saw but that didn’t happen (in Iraq).
But that [the Vietnam War] was always a tactical mistake, in other words we prosecuted that war, it was murderous, we killed a lot of people, a lot of our people got killed, it was stupid. But Iraq is a strategic war, i.e. we have put ourselves in a position where Arabs and Muslims have a real reason to hoard a lot of anger towards us. Abu Ghraib was enormously important in this regard. I can’t even tell you how many times I have heard that between Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and our treatment of prisoners, we have created [more members for the] Taliban in Afghanistan and many Al Qaeda [followers], or that is Jihadists in Iraq. It is very easy to recruit young men to commit terrible acts because of the way we dehumanize Arabs.
I would also like to say that most Americans are horrified at what happened. We do not believe in Abu Ghraib or that this is the way to treat people. I can certainly understand how people in the Arab world think that Americans can do these things much easier than I think we really do.
Q) Many people are expecting that you will start talking as soon as the Bush administration leaves office in January; are these claims true and what will you be saying?
A) What I have said is that there are a lot of people that I have talked to who will be much easier to talk to after the inauguration of [President-elect] Barack Obama.
I will be writing a book with a very fine publishing house and a very bright group of people; the idea is to write a book from the inside.
I really believe something happened to America; after 9/11 we became a different country. That is fine, presidents sometimes might want to do that, but my issue is how did Bush do it? How did he beat the press? How did he beat the military and Congress and turn everyone into a coward? Why didn’t people stand up to him in this situation? In other words, how fragile is the American constitution; it turns out that it is much more fragile than people think.
Q) If we look at your journalistic style, you quote a lot of unnamed sources, and though many of your stories are accurate, many people believe this style is weak in comparison to someone like [the Washington Post’s] Bob Woodward, for example. What is your comment in this regard?
A) I don’t agree with everything Woodward does, but his material is certainly accurate and honourable.
For me, it is a convenient point to criticize; the real issue is whether these stories are true or not. People know that The New Yorker has an incredible fact checking [process] and that the majority of stories have proven to be pretty accurate.
Let me give you an interesting example regarding sources. In May 2000, I wrote an article of approximately 25,000 words for The New Yorker. It was about Barry McCaffrey, a division commander at the end of the first Gulf War, who attacked a retreating Iraqi tank brigade and killed 800 people and executed 400 prisoners of war*.
A lot of generals talked to me very bitterly about McCaffrey and about what he did and how he got away with it, but my editor wanted me to get everything on the record. So, I went back to a dozen generals who were very critical and they all agreed to talk, but spoke moderately on the record. The result was a terrible package, and it made no real difference.
Q) You wrote story a while back stating that the US had actually already invaded Iran, and many people questioned the credibility of that story. What was the story behind it?
A) Well, not that it had invaded but that it was running covert operations. I wrote that last summer. The story was that a lot of money had been appropriated by Congress secretly, and a presidential finding was made that lethal force could be used. The idea was to begin to spread and increase the amount of internal violence within Iran, but mostly with the Kurds, the Armenian Kurds and other groups, to create internal chaos.
Retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner, who has been tracking this, sent me copies [of a report] and the amount of internal violence over the past seven or eight months had gone up and even the Iranians themselves had announced this. There is no question that there has been an increase in internal violence.
Q) You visited Syria recently. Assuming that you are going to write a piece about it, would you be able to criticize Syrian President Bashar al Assad in the same way you criticize President Bush?
A) You’ll have to wait to see…Tell me, is everything perfect in Syria?
Q) Of course not, so?
A) So, why would I not say that?
Q) Because you risk the possibility of returning to Syria in the future to say the least, right?
A) I am not trying to dodge the question but I can not talk about something I have not written yet. There certainly are problems in Syria.
Q) In light of the Tribune Group recently filing for bankruptcy, how do you evaluate the future of the business, particularly the type of reporting that you do, since it is quite costly?
A) In America, it is collapsing. Economically it’s a disaster. I have an easy fix for the problems regarding reporting in America; I would get rid of 70 per cent of the editors. You see it is always the more cautious people that get promoted and the more aggressive people who do not because they are harder to control.
Above and beyond that, the newspapers have been very slow in coping with the internet and we are dying. One of the great things in America is the first amendment; we can publish any top secret document we can get, there is nothing like that in Britain or anywhere else.
Let us assume I obtain some highly sensitive material, It is my call whether to publish it or not. Of course, one wouldn’t want to jeopardize his colleagues or fellow Americans etc, but what I am saying is that we are failing despite this incredible press freedom.
I am lucky at The New Yorker, but even at here there is a huge crunch in advertising just as the case is across the industry.
* Following this interview, Asharq Al-Awsat received the following statement from General Barry McCaffrey, to whom Seymour Hersh referred in his interview with Asharq Al-Awsat published December 18, 2008:
“I categorically deny Seymour Hersh’s false accusation that I ‘executed 400 prisoners of war’ during the first Gulf War. The facts of the battle in question have been well-documented in numerous official military and media reports. Mr. Hersh’s statements to Asharq Al-Awsat not only mischaracterize those facts in a false and damaging manner, but also far exceeds the inflammatory retelling of that story in Mr. Hersh’s own article published in The New Yorker. I am confident that Asharq Al-Awsat’s readers will see Mr. Hersh’s statements for what they are: an effort to re-write historical facts to support his own views.”
– General Barry M. McCaffrey, U.S Army, Retired.
In response, Seymour Hersh sent Asharq Al-Awsat the following statement:
“I have read General McCaffrey’s statement. In the telephone interview I gave to Asharq Al-Awsat last month, my passing reference to General McCaffrey was not aimed at reexamining the issues I raised in a 25,000 word article nine years ago in The New Yorker, but dealt with the journalistic issue of named and unnamed sources. My one-sentence oral summary of that article did lack precision and nuance. Of course, commanding generals of a division in combat do not directly engage the enemy, and I did not say that about General McCaffrey in my initial article and I do not believe it today.”
– Seymour M. Hersh