Robert Fisk: Beating about the Bush? Not with Hersh

He is about all we have left to frighten the most powerful man in the world

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Sy Hersh is an ornery, cussed sort of guy, not one to suffer fools gladly. As the man who broke the My Lai story and the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, I reckon he has a right to be ornery from time to time - and cussed. He's dealing with powerful folk in Washington, including one - George W Bush - who would like to cut him down. And when Hersh wrote - as he did in The New Yorker this month - that "current and former American military and intelligence officials" have said Bush has a target list to prevent Iran obtaining nuclear weapons and that Bush's "ultimate goal" in the nuclear confrontation with Iran is regime change - again! - you can see why Bush was worried. "Wild", he called the Hersh story. Which must mean it has some claim to veracity.

So when I cornered Hersh at Columbia University in New York and dropped him a note during a Charles Glass presentation asking for an interview, I expected a stiff reply. "Anything you ask," he scribbled obligingly on a piece of paper.

His own lecture was frightening. Bush has a messianic vision - and intends to go down in history (probably he has chosen the right direction) as the man who will have "saved" Iran. "So we're in a real American crisis ... we've had a collapse of congress ... we have had a collapse of the military ... the good news is that when we wake up tomorrow morning, there will be one less day (of Bush). But that is the only good news."

Hersh might have said that we'd also had a "collapse" of the media in the United States, a total disintegration of the Ed Murrow/Howard K Smith/ Daniel Elsworth/Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward school of journalism. The greying, bespectacled, obscenity-swearing Hersh is about all we have left to frighten the most powerful man in the world (save for the jibes of Maureen Dowd in The New York Times).

So it's good to know he's still doing some fighting, including other journalists on his target list. "I know some serious generals," he says. "I can't urge them to go public. They'd be attacked by Fox (TV), and the (New York) Times and The Washington Post would wring their hands. It's a mechanism. You don't get rewarded in the newsroom for being a malcontent."

Journalists on the mainstream papers are largely middle-class college graduates - not reporters who came up the hard way like Hersh's street reporting in Chicago in his early days. They have largely no connection to the immigrants' society. "They don't know what it's like to be on social welfare. Their families weren't in Vietnam and their families are not in Iraq." The BBC, too, has "fallen off the way".

So what is the Hersh school of journalism? "In my business, I get information I check it out and I find it's not true - that's what my business is. Now there is (also) stuff in the military from people I don't know - I don't touch it ... I was seeing (President) Bashar (Assad of Syria) at the time of the assassination of (former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq) Hariri. There was obviously bad blood between Bashar and Hariri. Bashar was saying that Hariri wanted to take over the cell-phone business in Damascus. To this day I don't know what happened. I saw Bashar from 11am until 1pm (on 14 February 2005). He talked about what a thief Hariri was. I didn't write it."

And there goes a scoop about bad blood, I said to myself. But on Iran, it was something different for Hersh. He was talking to a contact. "I brought up Iran. 'It's really bad,' he said. 'You ought to get into it. You can go to Vienna and find out how far away (from nuclear weapons production) they are.' Then he told me they were having trouble walking back the nuclear option with Bush. People don't want to speak out - they want the shit on my head."

As Hersh said in his New Yorker report, nuclear planners routinely go through options - "we're talking about mushroom clouds, radiation, mass casualties, and contamination over years," he quotes one of them as saying - but once the planners try to argue against all this, they are shouted down. According to another intelligence officer quoted by Hersh, "The White House said, 'Why areyou challenging this? The option came from you'." In other words, once the planners routinelyput options on the table, the options become possibilitiesto be considered rather than technical reports.

"That whole Johns Hopkins speech," Hersh goes on, referring to the address in which Bush attacked Hersh's own article, "he talked about the wonderful progress in Iraq. This is hallucinatory - and there are people on a high level in the Pentagon and they can't get the President to give this up. Because it's crazy.

"In the UK, you might have some crazy view - but you knew it was. But these guys (in Washington) are talking in revelations. Bush is a revelatory at bedtime - he has to take a nap. It's so childish and simplistic. And don't think he's diminished. He'sstill got two years ... he's not diminished. We've still got a Congress that can't articulate opposition. This is a story where I profoundly hope, at every major point, that I'm wrong."

Hersh has also been casting his wizened eye on the Brits. "Your country is very worried about what Bush is going to do - your people" - Hersh means the Foreign Office - "are really worried. There are no clearances ... no consultations."

In Washington, "advocating humanity, peace, integrity is not a value in the power structure ... my government are incapable of leaving (Iraq). They don't know how to get out of Baghdad. We can't get out. In this war, the end is going to be very, very messy - because we don't know how to get out. We're going to get out body by body. I think that scares the hell out of me."

It's all put neatly by one of Hersh's sources in the Pentagon: "The problem is that the Iranians realise that only by becoming a nuclear state can they defend themselves against the US. Something bad is going to happen."

What was that line from Bogart as Rick Blaine in Casablanca, when he asked Sam, his pianist, what time it is in New York? Sam replies that his watch has stopped, and Bogart says, "I bet they're asleep in New York. I'll bet they're asleep all over America." Except for Hersh.

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