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Seymour Hersh-extended interview

A longer version of this week's NS interview

Is it always a journalist's duty to report the truth, even if it may damage innocents?
I'm a total First Amendment Jeffersonian. It's their job to keep it secret and my job to find it out and make it public. But once one gets some information, one doesn't run pell-mell into it. You spend some time making sure just what the downside is. At the New York Times in particular, I had the experience of telling the intelligence community: "I'm going to do this, and if you have people in harm's way, we're going to do this in a few days -- get them out." But most of the time it's not that dramatic.

You know, maybe six or seven times in 40 years I've had a story and I've communicated to the government what I'm doing, which we always do, and the president or the secretary of defence has called up my editor or publisher and said: "If you write this story, American national security will be damaged." And in every case except one where we delayed briefly, we wrote the story and, son-of-a-bitch, the Russians didn't launch paratroopers into the foothills of San Francisco the next day. At a certain point this claim about national security becomes something more. It's always political security.

Are there times when you have a scoop, or a piece of information, but let it go?
You're constantly not publishing everything you know. That's part of the game. You leverage what you know and sometimes you'll have a phrase that will indicate to someone on the inside that you really know more than you're writing. It's a self-protection measure. Sometimes if I'm into a sensitive story . . . it's hard to talk about this stuff -- but sometimes I'll indicate I know more.

For example, some kinds of intelligence are useless to us. Suppose one were to determine where the American attack submarines with nuclear arms are at any given time. How useless is that to a newspaperman? Some of the most secret secrets in the government are not very useful. But sometimes it is useful to tell people more than you actually write, to negotiate language with the other side -- that is, the government. Sometimes we don't do that. I'll add that this administration is actually more pleasant to deal with, because, unlike the Reagan-Bush years, they are not either taunting you or threatening you. The people I have dealt with here at a high level are almost rational. There's nothing quite as arrogant as somebody who thinks he's seen all the secrets.

Look, let's say you're a major player in a law firm billing $1m-$2m a year and you come down to $160,000 a year to work inside. What's it all about? It's all about: "My God, I really know what's going on. I've seen the top-secret stuff from the intercepts and the CIA. And then some punk reporter comes in and knows something he shouldn't know and I'm a person raged, not only because he knows it, but because that's what I'm in this job for -- I wanna know." I actually had people say to me during the Vietnam war when I was getting very critical -- I was just then working for a wire service (AP) -- I had people say to me: "If you only knew what I know, you would know how wrong you are." It's a cliché to say it, but it's true: they really do get it into their heads that they know more than you.

Do you ever worry that your phone is bugged?
Some people I only talk to in their home or their office, but I arrange the calls here. Even in the Nixon/Bush years, I could say this: there are certain people I would call on a Sunday morning at their home from my home. We'd have very good talks, and it's a very good time to work for me. I can't call people at their office. And as long as they were talking to me from their home on a Sunday morning about stuff, I would feel comfortable. If somebody suddenly stopped talking to me on a home phone . . . To bug me legally they'd have to get a warrant. Bush and Cheney did so many illegal things, but once you have something illegally you can't use it very much. If the 9/11 attacks taught us one thing, it's that the agencies collect lots of wonderful stuff they don't share with anybody.

You rely a lot on unnamed sources. Is that a dangerous technique, or an invaluable one?
Look at the serious press in the UK, France, America: every single day there are unnamed sources. I love the notion that somehow investigative reporters are held to a higher standard with unnamed sources.

My view is that I'm glad we don't have the British standard. In America we have this wonderful notion that you have to prove malicious intent. In England it is more difficult: you have to be just wrong -- it doesn't matter what your intent is. But I believe people in my profession should be held to an extremely high standard. I welcome the fact that people can sue me and go after me. I know American reporters who have described an unnamed senior CIA official and I knew . . . the name of the person they were not naming -- and the reason they didn't name him is that he had a certain bias which would have mitigated the story.

That happens all the time. It happened when I worked at the New York Times and I'm sure it happens elsewhere - people will have a source, but if they named him denouncing, let's say, the Bush administration, if you said who he was, he would be devalued. And by saying "a higher-level former senior intelligence official" you can cover that. I hate that. Therefore, the way in my own mind that I cope with that anomaly, that disgrace, if you will, is that I say I welcome people suing me.

I've been in a lot of litigation. I welcome that on the grounds that it is an appropriate measure. I think I've been in seven. We were in court once and the critical issue was that the judge was going to make me reveal my sources. I was going to have to say that we conceded the point and be found guilty of libel. The judge was a Reagan appointee in Chicago a couple of decades ago, and the Reagan appointee ruled that I didn't have to name sources. I went on camera and we went to the judge, and we gave an account of six people and gave a description of them, and the judge accepted that they were real -- that I was serious and I had sources. But if he hadn't, I think I would have had to concede the case.

How bad are British libel laws?
I had one case involving [Robert] Maxwell, a famous case in 1981 in England, after I wrote a book called The Samson Option. Basically, the British press had me accusing the former publisher of being an Israeli agent. I didn't quite say that -- he was an asset, he wasn't a spy; he just did what they asked him in one case. And we were sued to death and won a huge settlement. So my one experience with the law was fine.

Do you find the libel laws in the UK chilling?
There's no question -- D-notices are chilling. You guys have a very tough system. Every time someone goes up against it in England they end up in jail.

Isn't there a risk that some high-level sources might be "playing" you?
Of course, that's a categorical risk. I'm doing something sensitive this morning, and there's no question some may have . . . But I consider myself a full-service agency. You can come to me with a secret and I take it to other people and learn things about what you know . . . You have something that they call "compartmented intelligence", above top-secret. You come to me with a secret, and then I write a story that includes things you didn't know. So when the government assesses what I wrote to see who could have leaked it, you're not ever considered to be someone who could have, because they know that you (because of you and your compartment) could not have known what was published by the other compartment. You can come to me with compartmented information and I can go to other people with compartmented information and make it very hard for them to come to a conclusion about who could have been leaking. It's foolproof.

How have you managed to remain an outsider for so long when, for example, Bob Woodward, another great journalist of your generation, has gone mainstream?
There's no way they would deal with me. Bob Woodward, I disagree with his point of view. He starts at the top and goes down. But if he hadn't written, for example, that first Bush book, we wouldn't have known much about Bush's thinking. I think Bob's books sometimes tell a lot more than he may think they do. I'm not saying anything I haven't said to him -- I just wouldn't do it the way he does it. The Obama White House can't abide me. Within a month, they were going behind my back to my editor: "What's your man Hersh doing?"

What do you make of Barack Obama?
Don't get me going on Obama. If he decided to be a one-term president, he could be marvellous, but it's not clear he's decided that.

Did he deserve the Nobel Peace Prize?
Well, no, of course not. It was partly an embarrassment to him and it says more about the people in Sweden [sic]. Let me just say this to you quite seriously. There are people -- for example, one of the defences of [John F] Kennedy was that [Ted] Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger said publicly that he was for sure going to get out of Vietnam after the election in '64. He couldn't do it then because he was going to run against a Republican. They think that's wonderful. My analysis of that is that this was a president who said I'm more interested in my personal politics and the election than the lives of those that are going to die in the next year. And that's true if he really was going to get out -- he didn't have the courage to get out in '63. That's a political judgement. They're made all the time. Johnson kept on making it. He probably never liked that war but he kept on going.

So with Obama, the question is: will he stay in Afghanistan until he thinks it's the right time to get out politically? Or is he going to take a chance of not getting re-elected and find a way out quickly? It's not such a hard way out. There are people to talk to there. There's no evidence any of them are interested in bombing the World Trade Center.

Do you see shades of Vietnam in the current Afghan war?
No -- only in the sense that an American president is making political judgements about a war for his own personal re-election prospects. But it's a whole different scenario. Yes, in the sense that we could have gone to the North Vietnamese very early in that war. There was serious stuff going on, particularly very early stuff between the North and the Diem brothers, and we stopped that by getting them killed. Basically, there's so many ways it doesn't break down, so many ways it's a whole different culture.

On Iran, are we repeating the mistakes that were made on Iraq?
Some of the things are very disturbing. We are getting new leadership at the International Atomic Energy Agency. The next wave there is not going to be as rational. So the trend is going to get worse. There's no evidence yet that Iran has violated any of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty proceedings. By the way, your country is so deeply involved in all this crap. It's amazing to me, as someone who went to the Vietnam war and Iraq war, and now the Afghan war. There's simply no learning curve.

The great [writer] Harold Pinter gave a speech on 15 October 2002. He began by telling an old story about Cromwell. The citizens are all brought to the main square and he announces: "Right, kill all the women and rape all the men. His aide says to him, "Excuse me, general, isn't it the other way around?" And a voice in the crowd calls out: "Mr Cromwell knows what he's doing." And Pinter said, "The voice is the voice of Tony Blair: 'Mr Bush knows what he's doing.' " I keep on thinking that about Gordon Brown, too: it's the same voice. If we have to rape the men and kill the women, then by God we will!

Post-Bush, do you think there's still a risk of a military strike on Iran by Israel or the US?
Yes.

Where do you place yourself on the political spectrum?
I'm your standard left liberal, but I vote for Republicans, I've given money to them. I'm not a pacifist. I would have been tough on Osama Bin Laden after 9/11, but I'd have done it legally. I would have done what the Indians did in Mumbai, what the Spanish did in Madrid after the train incident -- treated it as a crime.

Are you disappointed Obama didn't release those "torture pictures"?
I know a lot about this stuff. Let me just talk about hypocrisy for a second. I do believe Obama when he says there were more terrible things done by individuals than we know, and the record is more complete than we know. Obama's position is that, at a time when we have 130,000 Americans in Afghanistan, putting the pictures out would just inflame people to take action against them. The New York Times has been editorialising against him, but when it had a reporter captured, it thought it was perfectly appropriate not to talk about it publicly for seven months, on the grounds that the paper was trying to protect his life.

So I would say here's the president -- about whom I have many reservations, believe me - saying: "I'm gonna not put these out, because I'm going to save American lives." And he's being criticised quite vividly by the New York Times, which had done the same thing for its reporter. I don't like it. So I give him his due on that one. I have to know what it is. It's horrible, but so what? We know the basic story. And so this is one of the examples when I don't write anything I know. Are you kidding me?!

What would you like to forget?
My Lai.

How would you like people to remember you?
I couldn't care less. I don't believe in life after death.

Are we doomed?
The trouble is that hope sprang anew in America last November. And I think the dashing of that hope is going to be much more lethal than even the cynicism under Bush and Cheney. If that hope is dashed, we'll really be in trouble around the world.

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Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge