Seymour Hersh: The reporter who's the talk of the town

At the venerable and, dare one say it, slightly fusty
New Yorker magazine, these have been three crazy weeks. Normally each issue is closed on a Wednesday, before it appears on the news-stands the following Monday. Not this month, however, as the repulsive goings-on at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq have horrified the world.

At the venerable and, dare one say it, slightly fusty New Yorker magazine, these have been three crazy weeks. Normally each issue is closed on a Wednesday, before it appears on the news-stands the following Monday. Not this month, however, as the repulsive goings-on at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq have horrified the world.

David Remnick, the editor, and his colleagues have been up nights until 3am, feverishly checking copy that isn't sent to the printers until the last possible deadline of Friday evening. Then the press releases go out, and by Sunday The New Yorker is being quoted in newspapers and television shows on five continents. One way and another, it's a miracle the grand old literary weekly hasn't blown a gasket. As Remnick puts it, "We weren't built for this. Imagine you're in a car that starts to shake at 80 miles an hour. Then you look at the speedometer and you see you're doing 120. Well, Sy's doing 120."

"Sy" is Seymour Hersh, who has delivered to The New Yorker bombshell articles for its first three issues this month. He began with the first detailed account of General Antonio Taguba's report on the abuse of the Iraqi prisoners; the sequel provided evidence the vile deeds were no mere aberration by a few humble servicemen; and the last charged the abuse grew out of special programmes approved by none less than Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defence. Cumulatively, they may prove to have changed history in Iraq and the Middle East. Beyond question they have made The New Yorker, the talk of the town, and re-made Hersh's reputation as America's finest investigative reporter.

In a sense, Hersh's three reports about Abu Ghraib are the linear descendant of the My Lai story that made his name. Back in early 1969, Hersh was a freelance journalist who received a tip that an officer was about to be court-martialled for the murder of Vietnamese civilians. Hersh went to the sources established when he was an agency beat reporter at the Pentagon. Ultimately, he tracked down Lieutenant William Calley, commander of the company responsible for the slaughter of 500 Vietnamese villagers, and Calley recounted the whole terrible tale.

Thirty-five years on, in dealing with another war whose similarities with Vietnam grow by the day, Hersh's modus operandi is by all accounts very similar. Now as then he taps longstanding sources in the bureaucracy - most probably at that middle level where whistleblowers tend to reside, officials and officers who believe that mistakes, errors and on occasion crimes must not be covered up and repeated. Relentlessly, Hersh follows up the leads, with a diligence rare among reporters half his age.

"He's the tops at what he does; no one can dig up a story like Sy," says Hersh's close friend David Wise, author and authority on the CIA and international espionage. "He's fiercely independent; he's always stood outside the establishment. He has enormous energy too. He'll fly off to the Middle East at the drop of a hat. And once he's on a story, he's like a bulldog."

Hersh earned his journalistic spurs early. After dropping out of law school in his native Chicago, he took a $35-a-week job as a crime reporter for a local news agency, before founding a short-lived suburban newspaper in 1961. Then came stints at United Press International and the Associated Press, from where Hersh walked out after his editors insisted on toning down a story on how the Pentagon was developing new chemical and biological weapons.

In early 1968, Hersh sought outlet for his frustrations by working as press spokesman for Eugene McCarthy, the Democratic anti-Vietnam war candidate in the tumultuous presidential election primary campaign that year. But politics, he soon discovered, offered frustrations of its own, and Hersh was quickly back in journalism, this time as a freelance. My Lai made his reputation, yielding a scoop for the ages, a Pulitzer Prize and two books. By 1972 he was working for The New York Times, helping the Times catch up with the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein on the Watergate stories, and breaking some blockbuster stories about the CIA.

Hersh unmasked the agency's blatantly illegal surveillance of domestic "subversives", as well as the CIA's role in the overthrow of Salvador Allende. If any single person was responsible for the subsequent reining-in of the agency by the Ford administration, it was Hersh. Completing this first flowering was Price of Power, a withering study of Henry Kissinger in the Nixon White House. The 700-page tome can be heavy going, but it became a best-seller that remains the bible for Kissinger-haters. It earned more literary prizes for its author.

There followed more exposé books, The Target is Destroyed, on the shooting down of KAL007 by Soviet fighters in September 1983, and The Samson Option, about Israel's development of a secret nuclear arsenal (which included the claim that the late Robert Maxwell was a Mossad agent). But the public impact was modest. Hersh's star, it seemed, had faded. The low point came in 1997 with The Dark Side of Camelot, dealing with the sexual and other excesses of President John F. Kennedy. Hersh had broken a taboo, and America's journalistic establishment rounded on him, accusing him of gratuitous muck-raking that added little to what was already known.

But at The New Yorker, he is back at the top of his game. Remnick, with a newspaper background at the Washington Post, uses Hersh as a one-man investigative reporting team. Hersh had worked for the magazine under Remnick's predecessor, Tina Brown, when the pace was less hectic. Then came 11 September. Follow the story wherever it led, was Remnick's instruction to Hersh - and he did.

Thanks to Hersh, what amounts to an alternative history of the "war on terror" has unfolded. He has reported, inter alia, on the bungled efforts to catch Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, on the flaws in the legal case against Zacarias Moussaoui (the alleged "20th hijacker" of 11 September) and on the business dealings of the neo-conservative super-hawk Richard Perle. That report led to Perle's resignation as chairman of the Pentagon's influential Defence Policy Board, and to angry mutterings from Perle that he would sue. Nothing happened.

Hersh helped demolish the fiction about Saddam's efforts to buy uranium in Africa that found its way into President Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech. He showed how a Pentagon special office collected hyped intelligence on Saddam's alleged weapons and "stove-piped" it to the White House and the Vice-President's office. And now he has written the triple salvo on Abu Ghraib, a scandal that may be to America's Iraq adventure what My Lai was to the Vietnam War.

Some complain that Hersh's work now sacrifices durability for immediacy. Events quickly gave the lie to a 2003 story claiming that the original Iraq invasion had become bogged down. The sensitivity of his reporting moreover means that much is sourced to unnamed officials, allowing the Bush administration to dismiss them. "He threw a lot of crap against the wall and expects someone to peel off what's real. It's a tapestry of nonsense," was a Pentagon spokesman's description of the Rumsfeld allegations.

But The New Yorker's vaunted fact-checking applies to Hersh as to every other contributor, Remnick stands by every word published, and unarguably, Hersh is a must-read to match even Woodward of the Washington Post, Hersh's old rival in Watergate times.

Both come from Chicago, and both accumulate sources with equal dedication. But there the similarities end. "I look on them as two very different weather fronts out of the Midwest," jokes Remnick, who once worked with Woodward at the Post. From humble metro reporter who brought down a president, Woodward has turned into the trusted scribe at presidential courts, extremely wealthy and a pillar of the Washington establishment.

Hersh by contrast is, and always has been, the morally driven outsider. Woodward is crisp-suited and obviously comfortable with his fame. Hersh is owlish, crusty, and suitably dishevelled. He is an eternal sceptic and debunker of the mighty, who works from a chaotic one-room office on Connecticut Avenue in downtown Washington. Unlike Woodward, he will never be persona grata in the corridors of the Pentagon or White House, or a confidant of Cabinet members.

In All the President's Men, the highly successful dramatisation of the Watergate scandal, Woodward was played by the matinee idol Robert Redford. For Hersh, a rumpled Gene Hackman might be a better choice, or perhaps the late John Thaw in his Inspector Morse persona, dogged to the end and respecter of no man's reputation.

Like most great investigative journalists, there is something of the zealot about Hersh. He has a stock of moral outrage that he uses like a weapon. Detractors claim he bullies his contacts to provide the information he wants. But Hersh's real anger is directed at the Bush administration, at its obsessive secrecy and refusal to listen to any opinion in disaccord with its own.

"The way I express my loyalty is to question, not to accept anything on faith," he once said. "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."

Such sentiments can seem pious. But in a city and a culture where screeching talk shows and preening columnists have largely supplanted old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting, and most "investigative reporting" consists of the collection of carefully dispensed leaks, Hersh stands virtually alone.

"Thank heaven we live in a free society where you can do what he does," says David Wise. "I just wish we had 10 Sy Hershs."

A Life In Brief

Born: 8 April 1937, along with his twin brother Alan, in Chicago. His parents, immigrants from East Europe, ran a dry cleaning shop.

Family: Lives in Washington DC with his wife, the psychoanalyst Elizabeth Sarah Klein. They have three children.

Education: BA in history from the University of Chicago, 1958, but flunked out of the university's law school

Career: During more than 40 years as an investigative journalist, Hersh has worked for UPI, the AP, The New York Times and most recently The New Yorker. Much of his best work however has been as a freelance. He has published eight books.

He says...: "I could give you some platitude about how it's all about the truth and stuff, but the bottom line is I'm just a reporter. I see a story and I write it. I'm not as deeply intellectually involved as you might think."

They say...: "Sy Hersh is the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist." - Richard Perle (former Pentagon official and a leading neo-conservative promoter of the Iraq war)

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