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?
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?
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.