Seymour Hersh, At the Front Lines On War Scandals
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2004; Page C01
Is Seymour Hersh becoming . . . respectable?
Thirty-five years after breaking the news of the My Lai massacre, the tenacious, hot-tempered reporter is winning praise for his disclosures about U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners. He's on the tube touting his findings with Bob Schieffer, George Stephanopoulos, Wolf Blitzer, Bill O'Reilly. He's just won a National Magazine Award. "If there's a journalistic equivalent to Viagra, he's on it," gushes Newsweek.
A Pentagon spokesman is ripping him for "outlandish" and "conspiratorial" reporting, but the media establishment is embracing the Cleveland Park resident as never before.
"He is doing what he is built to do and is obsessed with doing," says New Yorker Editor David Remnick, who has been up late crashing Hersh's pieces into the magazine. "He's just boiling with energy."
Remnick says he enjoys editing Hersh because "anyone that passionate about what they're doing is gold to me. . . . Even if the phone is hung up abruptly or someone shouts at someone, it's forgotten five minutes later."
Hersh, 67, is of the story-is-more-important-than-me school and declined to be interviewed. "Oh my God, this is all so tedious," he told a Washington Post reporter who asked about his background in 2001. "What the hell does it have to do with anything I write?"
There is a trust-me aspect to Hersh's reporting, given his heavy reliance on unnamed sources. His latest piece quotes a "senior CIA official," "former high-level intelligence official," "military analyst," "government consultant" and "Pentagon consultant."
"I know every source that's not named," Remnick says. "The [fact] checkers talk with those sources. Would he and I want people to be on the record? Of course. It's a trade-off we sometimes have to make."
It was Hersh who helped force the Abu Ghraib prison scandal out in the open. While "60 Minutes II" beat him by a hair, the CBS program went ahead -- after delaying at the Pentagon's request -- upon hearing that Hersh was close to publishing. Hersh disclosed the report by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba on "sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses" at the prison, and obtained the disturbing photo of dogs being used to threaten a cowering, naked Iraqi.
He followed up last weekend with a report that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had approved the expansion of a secret program allowing harsh interrogation of detainees that Hersh contends led to the abuses at Abu Ghraib.
Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita says Hersh "threw a lot of crap against the wall and he expects someone to peel off what's real. It's a tapestry of nonsense. To some degree he became the story." DiRita declined to discuss whether Rumsfeld had authorized tougher interrogation tactics, and Remnick dismissed the comment.
Hersh has a pugilistic quality that seems to invite such attacks. A onetime volunteer for Eugene McCarthy's antiwar campaign, he doesn't pretend to be a neutral observer.
Appearing with two senators Sunday on "Face the Nation," Hersh challenged them: "If you convene a serious hearing and I assure you some senior officers will come and -- if you give them enough protection -- and tell you things that will really knock your socks off. So go for it."
And on "Late Edition," Hersh didn't hesitate to invoke a Nazi parallel: "You're seeing two attack dogs, German shepherds, snarling, it's a scene from, you know, Third Reich, you name it."
Hersh's stock has risen and fallen over the years as he has gotten into scrapes with some of the capital's most influential power brokers. But he keeps bouncing back.
Though Hersh won a Pulitzer Prize for his story about U.S. soldiers killing civilians in Vietnam -- he sold it to a tiny news service after national magazines had turned it down -- he has always seemed an outsider. While he spent much of the 1970s at the New York Times, where he scored some Watergate scoops and broke a huge story about CIA domestic spying, it was never a comfortable fit.
In 1983 Hersh made another big splash with a tough book about Henry Kissinger that tarnished the former secretary of state even as critics accused the author of pushing his evidence too far.
His lowest point came in 1997, when Hersh acknowledged he had been peddled some phony JFK documents. Though the bogus papers never made it into his book "The Dark Side of Camelot," Hersh was pilloried, and criticized as well for including so much salacious sexual material about Jack Kennedy.
In 2000 Hersh got into a huge public fight with former Gulf War Gen. Barry McCaffrey, charging that his division had destroyed a retreating Iraqi unit. Even before the piece ran, McCaffrey, insisting that the Iraqis were still fighting, accused Hersh of conducting "defamatory" interviews out of "personal malice." One McCaffrey supporter, retired Col. Ken Koetz, maintained that Hersh had said, "I really want to bury this guy." Hersh denied making such a comment.
When Hersh charged last year that administration defense adviser Richard Perle was inappropriately mixing business and politics in his dealings with two Saudi figures, Perle likened him to a "terrorist." Perle threatened to sue Hersh, but never did.
"A lot of Washington journalists act like hedge-trimmers or pruning shears," says Time defense correspondent Mark Thompson. "Sy is a noisy, smoke-spewing chain saw -- and a relentless stump-grinder, to boot."
Bill Kovach, who once edited Hersh as the Times's Washington bureau chief, says that "he's maintained a kind of groundfire of anger at abuses of power unlike any I've ever seen."
And how does Hersh unearth his information? "He's relentless," Kovach says. "He's rapid-fire. He asks two or three questions at a time. He just keeps going and going until he gets where he wants to go. He religiously tracks these sources, he talks to them all the time."
The Bib Brouhaha
The Baltimore Sun has barred reporter Pat Meisol from writing about state government.
The reason: She gave a baby bib to Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich and his wife, Kendel, after their son was born, and her name turned up on a 22-page list of presents at the gubernatorial mansion.
A childish overreaction? "I'm pretty outraged," the feature writer says. "I've been really loyal to this newspaper and I think they treated me unfairly. Buying a bib for the baby is a business expense -- no different from taking someone out for dinner or a drink. . . . I'm spending hundreds of dollars on dinners with some of these guys in Annapolis."
The bib cost $22.
Managing Editor Anthony Barbieri says that unlike the "institutional" expense of entertaining a source, "my feeling is a gift is a personal expression of affection for a public official." While Meisol is "perfectly capable of writing an absolutely objective story" about the Ehrlichs, "we need to be extraordinarily careful" about perceptions.
But Meisol says it's all about "maintaining relationships" with people like Kendel Ehrlich. "I'm not a friend of hers."
Also on the gift list was Sun editorial writer Karen Hosler, who told her paper she had been "thoughtless" in joining in her husband's gift of tree-planting in the baby's honor. The paper says Hosler, who was avoiding state politics because of a friendship with the Ehrlichs, now can't write anything related to Maryland issues.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company