'There To Tell the Truth'

Seymour Hersh on journalism, politics, presidents, and war

Seymour Hersh
Seymour Hersh (Photo by Jana Birchum)

During the week of March 19, legendary journalist Seymour Hersh was in residence at the University of Texas under the sponsorship of the Humanities Institute and the Plan II Honors Program. Hersh is a contributing writer at The New Yorker and is currently working on a book about former Vice President Dick Cheney. On March 19, he engaged in a public conversation with UT journalism professor Robert Jensen at the 5604 Manor community center; on March 22, he delivered the Julius and Suzan Glickman lecture at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center. The following are excerpts from transcripts of the two events.

From the talk with Robert Jensen, March 19:

On the Purpose of Journalism

It's so muddled, because things are so bad – it's so off-kilter now. When I worked at the mainstream press, I thought it was to tell the truth. Seriously, that's what I thought; I was an idealist, I thought that was the thing to do – and those are halcyon days. Remember, Nixon was going down, and there was a period of I'd say three or four years where we had the power. You could do stories. I did a lot of stories about the CIA and domestic spying, and I really had no trouble. So, obviously, we're there to tell the truth. We're not there to be a mouthpiece for the government or to help sell something.

We're not there to accept any story. We've got a guy – an assassination, a murder in Afghanistan, by a guy named [Staff Sgt. Robert] Bales. And here's what the government wants us to believe. Some guy walks out of a military base, with a weapon, and goes into a part of Afghanistan that's contested – in terms of where the Taliban have gotten a lot of traction and there's certainly a lot of support for the Taliban there – into a world where every male over the age of about 7 has a weapon and is good at using it and has used it. He goes into a house – three houses in a row – murders them serially, and then burns them. And all this time, nobody makes any effort to shoot his brains out or to stop him.

So without even taking it another step, you right away know it's not a single act because the other people had to be withheld, with some force, some measure. I don't know that – it's just there. The story isn't one man; it's much more than that. Again, I'm just speaking heuristically.

So I read the press day after day. And you're going to see stories now praising the military for being so forthcoming about this one, I think that's the next step. It's just amazing to me. It doesn't mean the guy didn't do it by himself, but that's a serious thing to explain, and the press should be asking at this point – just to be topical: Where are the other guys in his unit? How come we haven't talked to the other guys in his unit? How come we haven't heard one on camera, and why was he squirreled away so quickly? I mean obviously to get him away from jurisdiction, but what was the problem? And also, as you don't always read, the Afghans have been talking about a completely different incident. Their description of the incident, as they begin their investigations, involves a group of Americans coming in, sort of dedicated to killing people, as in the Haditha incident – if you remember that one about five years ago in Iraq, when a group of soldiers went in and raped and then killed everybody – in the same sort of pattern.

On Sources and Iranian Nukes

There are people in the military, in the intelligence services – not as many there once was – people who believe in the Constitution. That's what it's about; there are people who still believe. They get traduced; they get into a situation where they put 16 years into a career, and in comes the Bush administration, and that was devastating to them. But they stay, because they can get a pension, sometimes they get a star or two stars; they become senior generals and admirals. And so that's a big part of it.

I do have people inside – and I probably know more about Bales than I'm telling you. I do have people inside. It's as simple as that, really. I can screw up a story like anybody can, but most of the time .... I don't know why my old newspaper [The New York Times] for example – which still has a lot of very good, bright people working for it – why they want a war with Iran. I don't understand.

There's not a shred of evidence in our own intelligence community, or the Israeli intelligence community (I know firsthand), suggesting they [Iran] have a weapon. They haven't looked for a weapon – again, it's a cultural thing – [Khomeini] and Khamenei, the two leading mullahs, have both issued fatwas against nuclear weapons, and the only fatwa we want to believe is the one against Salman Rushdie. We believe that one, but we don't believe the other ones – but they're all real. There was a fatwa in 1986, and another one about four years ago, and they said, "It's against the Quran."

Again, the idea of killing, and then burning someone [by Bales], that's really powerful. The killing you can understand, they can understand. I don't mean that in any pejorative way, it's just "an eye for an eye" is understandable. The gratuitous act in burning [the bodies], that defies the Muslim tradition, which is very quickly burying, almost within a day, as soon as possible [i.e., cremation is forbidden]. Burning is really interesting, that takes out any other notion than mens rea [in law, "guilty mind," suggesting premeditation] – that they went to kill and then humiliate and desecrate.

On Israeli Politics and Iran

It's a psychotic thing; it's just gone over the top. It's phantasmagorical. It think it started with some politics, obviously, Bibi [Netanyahu] – the country's gone to the right very terribly, in large part because of the Russians [immigrants] coming in, and the growth of the fundamental religious people, the ultraorthodox. So the country's changed a lot.

I was there about a year ago, in Tel Aviv, and you can't find an Arab anywhere. Arabs don't work in hotels; they don't serve as waiters; they're not there. They're just gone. So you have a bubble, and parts of Tel Aviv have been redone. It's like the Colosseum in Rome, behind the Colosseum in the hills, there are some beautiful areas there, and everybody's very happy there, living in their bubble.

So I don't know what the hell's going to happen – I just don't know – but it's not good. ...

I have friends that are Israeli, and I've lost them, in terms of rational conversation. Everybody knows Israelis can be very charming and fun and friendly, and that's still there. The tragedy is – I have some dear friends there, and I read as much (I don't read Hebrew, but I certainly read Haaretz, and there's a website where you can get probably 10 newspapers somebody translates very carefully). And if you read the newspapers, when Bibi was here, before AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] a few months ago, there was a lot of criticism in Israel – more than there is here (so you have a situation where there's sort of a self-censorship here, about criticizing Bibi).

I'll just tell you one fact that most people don't know, and it's sort of a scary fact for me: Until Clinton, presidents never went to AIPAC. They wouldn't do it. It's just a lobbying organization; they never would appear. Now they go, and they beg and plead. So I don't know about the country [Israel] – how can an American say some other country's lost its way? So I wouldn't begin to say ...

I don't know how Hillary [Clinton] can say half the things she says about violence in Syria. Yes, violence in Syria is terrible – how about the [U.S.] drone flights? I'll tell you one thing, and this comes from Americans: Our standing has never been lower in the Middle East than it is now. And not only among enemies – among our allies, privately. Nobody likes us, nobody trusts us. Whatever edge we had coming out of World War II, and the Marshall Plan, and – it's always been sort of marginal in the Middle East, because our role in the Middle East .... The American role and the British role in the Middle East has always been to support anybody who will sell us oil. So we've supported all these horrible sheiks and tribal leaders and kings, whatever they are, since the end of World War II. That's been the game.

But now, it's just, we have a lot of gunboats. I can't make you feel better about what's going to happen. I don't know. I worry that Bibi will do something desperate. They'll do it before the election because they don't like – for those of you who know Hebrew – the kushi, which is a very nasty word for African-Americans, as nasty as any words we make, that's in Hebrew. They don't like Obama, and they're scared to death of what's going to happen if he's reelected, in terms of support [for Israel]. It's just one of a series of things that should keep you all awake for the rest of your life.

Iran has a domestic nuclear program. They may have a wet dream of building a bomb – somebody [there] may have it – but they've done nothing. Let me just say this: Enriching uranium is one thing. Doing the next step, fabricating a warhead, is really [difficult]. You have to take a gas, UF6 [uranium hexafluoride] – not necessarily toxic unless you touch it, but it's a very hot, lethal gas – and you have to cool it off. You have to find a facility, working with lead shields, you have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to make a safe facility. You have to cool it off, you have to make it into a metal – this is when it is 93% enriched – turn it into a small ball that can fit inside a warhead, to go on a missile that you don't have.

So if you don't have a missile, and all their missiles are crap .... The Shahab-4? They all tell you none of their missiles are reliable. If you don't have a warhead and you don't have a missile, why would you have a trigger? There's all this talk about "making a trigger." How can you have a trigger when you don't know what you're going to trigger? You can't make a trigger until you know what you're triggering? It's all crazy talk.

But it doesn't matter how many times you say it. I think there are two members of Congress who are against doing anything irrational on Iran: the fellow from Minnesota, who's a Muslim [Rep. Keith Ellison] and the guy who just got beat in Ohio [Rep. Dennis Kucinich], who got redistricted just like I guess your guy [Lloyd Doggett] is going to be redistricted – they'll get him.

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