'There To Tell the Truth'
Seymour Hersh on journalism, politics, presidents, and war
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.
On the Likelihood of War
How in the hell do I know? I don't. I just don't know, I have no idea. All that should happen is that they should actually take a deal that was on the table. Do you know they actually had a deal with Brazil a couple of years ago? There was a deal on the table with Brazil; it was done. The president of Brazil [Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, aka Lula] – I wish he'd go public with it, he's been bitching to everybody – the former president of Brazil .... Because there was a deal Obama had agreed to, the Israelis had agreed to, and they blew it apart because Obama apparently got nervous and the rest of the White House got nervous, politically. Hillary's the one who told Lula, in Obama's office, that "we can't deliver on what we promised to deliver."
I know people that work in the White House, I know four-star people in the military – and they don't have any idea what's going on. We've got a government that's run by – I don't want to use the word "cabal" – but it's run by a small group of people, and it's centralized (it always is), and they make decisions, and we don't know what they are. One thing that's happened over the last couple of decades is that the government has gotten much better at getting its way – and there's a secret world out there, that's what I'm writing about. You have a Praetorian Guard, an all-volunteer army, which isn't going to cause you, really, much trouble, like the draft army did, in terms of the families of those drafted. When I went in the Army, one of my bunkmates had just gotten a master's degree in art history from the University of Wisconsin; the guy on the other side was a golf pro who had been drafted. It was all different. Now the army's not going to trouble you, [and] they deal with the press, as they did in the Gulf War, not by keeping you out, but they bring you in and embed you.
Americans are really nice people, and they're likable, and so you get embedded with a bunch of troopers that are basically like the cops. The cops are the guys that pick up the dog that had been run over in the street. Well, these are the guys that are fighting in the name of us, theoretically. So you like them; you respect them for what they're doing. So when they do something crazy the second or third day you're with them, when they just shoot up a car that's driving by, you tend not to want to talk about it, A) because you just started being with them, and B) just because of the relationship. Embedding really worked, and so we don't get the kind of information we should have, I don't think.
On the Bush and Obama Administrations
Well, you can say a couple things. Renditions that are so pernicious – planes flying from secret places with people that are picked up, without any due process. I think it's a violation of federal law, but it's certainly a violation of the ethos that we all expect [in treating people], even if they're not citizens. Clinton started them; Bush/Cheney kept them going; Obama's kept them going.
Secret armies: Joint Special Operations Command – Cheney started them; Obama's kept them going.
Special Access Programs, which are the most secret programs in the American government: They've always been around since the days of the height of the Cold War when we were protecting secrets from the Commies, the Russians, and Cheney turned those into protecting secrets from those he didn't want to know anything about it, in the government, the people, etc. They're still there, more powerful than ever, and actually different in the sense that they were initially designed to protect technical information – the U-2 stealth bombers, things like that. Now they're designed to protect operational maneuvers – actually going and whacking people. Still going on.
So on that side of things – you're talking to somebody, I'm going to vote for Obama, I'm not going to vote for Dick Gregory, like I have, or Ralph Nader, like I have, or Barry Commoner, like I have (remember that?) – I'm going to vote for Obama, because the alternative is bad. But I will tell you, that on the great moral issues of our time, he's been a failure, I think. ...
There's no question things are better in many ways. You've got better people throughout the government, and you don't have neo-cons running everything, although there are still a lot of neo-cons around. There's no question there's rationality. The health care law is going to empower the insurance lobby more than anybody else, but that's OK. It's a step, maybe a small step, but it will improve some things: no [exclusion for] pre-existing conditions and so on. It's a small step, but it's the kind of thing where, if you got a second term, you could actually legislate improvements, you could actually mandate executive changes – you could do it without going through the whole war with Congress. So that's something – there's a patina of hope about that.
I'm sure there are many things. He's very bright; he's articulate; he knows the difference between a Wahhabi and a Muslim Brotherhood. We've had presidents who didn't know that. ...
We were doing secret operations with our Joint Special Operations Command, and I believe that ended with Obama. But we're using surrogates now, just hiring people to do it for us, what our soldiers were doing or trying to do. I guess that's an improvement.
Iraq – leaving Iraq, that was easy. That promise I knew he'd keep, because that was Bush's deadline. The real problem for me is Afghanistan, and also Pakistan, because of the spinoff there. Afghanistan was something everybody knew was not working. I've been doing a book about the Cheney years, carrying over to Obama. I go back to '01 or '02, with people saying, "We're not going to win this thing; let's get out of here." Not only that – the Taliban are xenophobic, [so] they don't want to knock down buildings in America; they just want us to get out of the way. And they have probably changed enough, morphed enough, so they know there are certain limits on behavior. My own personal view of the peace talks that are allegedly going on – there are some contacts – is that the Taliban are simply waiting for the right surrender from us, and they'll let us claim victory and walk out. They want us out; they want Tajiks out; they want any outsiders out.
What will they do when they get in power? I think they know they can't have all the power. They can't take the government over, as they have before, so I think they'll be more limited. And they've also done themselves a lot of damage in a lot of locales by their own violence in response to our violence. So there's probably a very uncomfortable, not very cheery, solution, that won't make anybody happy, that won't be politically useful for Obama, so he's not going to do it. But there is a chance for some sort of meaningful solution if we get out. I don't know if he will, though; I don't think he can do it politically, and that's what causes me concern, because of the killing that's going on there.
On the U.S. Military
I think the military's gone much more religious, which is very troubling. ... I got in trouble in Doha [Qatar] – there's a whole group of American universities there – and I was asked a question, and I did go on a rant about fundamental religion in the military, in the Joint Operations Command, the leadership. Immediately the mainstream press said, how dare I?, but the fact is, much of the leadership of the military has become much more religious.
Some of you have read about the pressures in the Air Force Academy, people have been pressured to join Sunday groups, the pressure against minority groups, Jews and Muslims, a lot of pressure on them. I'm always fascinated by the Pat Tillman case – he's the football player from Arizona who went into the Special Forces with his brother Kevin. Pat was already a hero; he had been a professional football player. His brother was a professional baseball player – his younger brother Kevin. Pat was killed in a friendly fire incident that was covered up ... in Afghanistan. They had a Joint Special Operations Command man come in, a man named [Lt. Gen. Stanley] McChrystal (who ran into trouble with Rolling Stone), he announced they were going to give Tillman, for his heroism in this incident, a gun battle with (I can't believe we actually use the word "insurgents" to describe the Taliban, who've lived there for 2,000 years, but we do use the word "insurgents" – it's amazing. That was the word used all the time in Iraq to describe people who've lived there all this time. If there's any "insurgents," it would be us, who are coming in .... It couldn't have been them. I used to have this argument at the Times all the time ....)
Anyway, Tillman – turned out they'd meet every morning for a prayer session, and he was mocking them. And he was disliked by all of them. And also it turns out that his diary was stolen, which his brother – well, his brother doesn't like to talk about it, so I shouldn't speak about it. He testified to Congress once, but otherwise ....
Religion in the Special Operations Community is certainly a factor. It's scary, because it's very hostile to the Muslim world. So what do you have? You have a bunch of American boys going around the world, assigned to Afghanistan – check me if this sounds familiar – they don't know what the enemy looks like, they don't see the enemy, they don't understand the culture of the enemy, they never see anyone in a uniform, they never see a regular force, and they're exposed constantly to mines that are going to blow off their damn dick and balls. And that's the biggest concern they have: Every step, they don't know if that's going to be the end of their manhood.
This is anecdotal, but the accounts I've read by journalists who have really stayed with a company of the 82nd Airborne or the 101st – the companies that have had the worst of it – they lose 30 to 40 percent of their units in the first six months. Not dead, but many of them wounded from IEDs or bombs that destroy their legs or the lower parts of their bodies. So their fear is just palpable, and the anger is palpable, because you don't see anybody. Would anybody be surprised to hear that there's an inordinate amount of violence?
There is in all wars. The first thing that you do in wars? You dehumanize the opposition. The training that they give you in the army – you dehumanize them. What you're seeing isn't necessarily going in and shooting them up in a village, but there's a lot of very horrible stuff going on there. It goes on casually; it goes on all the time. It's never reported.
I did [report] Abu Ghraib – and the difference in the world today, every kid has one of these cell phones with a camera in it. So I started getting stuff that you couldn't believe. The reason I didn't do much with it, I didn't want to write a story that was going to get 12 kids put in jail, like in Abu Ghraib. One of those guys got 10 years – they let him out after seven. Meanwhile, come on, every senior officer knew what was going on. There was a theory to why they were doing it; there was a reason behind the craziness that ended up getting obfuscated.
The point is that – I don't want to be overdramatic about it – but the criminal activity should be laid to the feet of those who send the boys to war. But it never is in America.
On Dick Cheney
He wasn't a Straussian or a classic sort of neo-con. He was very conservative; he wasn't interested in [Leo] Strauss or the Claremont College guys. That goes on all the time. Strauss – to oversimplify him, but why not, as that's the way he was interpreted – Strauss had this notion, like a cabal, that there was a higher order of beings, and the higher order of beings had a right to lie; it was not irrational for them to mislead "the masses." And that Marxism screwed up, because they should have let them have religion – let them have religion. Leave them their religion.
Cheney wasn't a Straussian, neither was [Donald] Rumsfeld. When he was secretary of defense – the reason some people worked for him when he was the veep, was that they had experiences with him with secret stuff and military stuff. He was a pretty good secretary of defense and was pretty open – and this always leads to questions about his heart surgery, what effect it had, but I don't think there's much empirical evidence that you go crazy once you have heart surgery. I think I found that he was in the Ford White House, when I wrote a bunch of stuff about the CIA and domestic spying, and I think his real concern is operational security – "OPSEC" they call it, which is the critical thing when you're running secret programs.
So, over the years, he was in Congress, he defended poor, addled [President Ronald] Reagan, who was out of it by '06 or '07. (It got so bad with Reagan – the president gets something from the CIA every morning – now it probably comes from the director of national intelligence, this new, stupid super-body – nobody every talks to anybody else in the community, they don't – ...)
Cheney concluded you can't trust Congress with secrets. You can't trust the CIA with secrets; you can't trust the military with secrets. So what he did, he created his own army, and his own apparatus inside. That meant – and here's where it gets really interesting – he had to fund it. This business with the Constitution, and Congress authorizing and appropriating money – forget that. So that's what I'm writing about. There'll be a chance people won't believe it, but there's a chance they will believe it – because it's pretty stupendous what he did. He created a world of his own, and I'll just say, McChrystal spent five years in the same job working for him, and nobody in the military does that. It doesn't happen.
So there's a lot of empirical evidence, anecdotal evidence, seeming evidence, to support the theory that something was going on. And he also knows how to keep a secret. And he's also not a thief – there were billions of dollars involved, but it's all accounted for, and he'd already made a lot of money here at Halliburton over in Houston, so he didn't need the money. And he's really smart – he's really smart. So it's formidable; he lets nobody close. What slowed me up was how much of his stuff carried over into Obama.
For Obama to overthrow the apple cart would have been a big bite. Obama is – and just how the military views him, I'm going to write, as a wimp. He gets into office in January 2009, he has a news conference in which he announces his first presidential proclamation: We're going to close Gitmo. Then he walked away from it, and he was a marked man then.
I don't understand presidents. I don't understand – the guy (unlike Bush in 2000), the guy won the election. But the next step is, you've got to do the coup de main. You've got to take control of the government, and he didn't do that. ... He kept [Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates and [Gen. Michael] McMullen and McChrystal and all the boys. And he ended up with a war that he really didn't want. He said it was a good war, and I guess he thought he was going to close Iraq and get rid of this one as soon as he can. And then it got bigger, he lost control, and now it's Death City.
I did a book on Kennedy [The Dark Side of Camelot]. ... I ended up finding a bunch of Secret Service agents – one of the things I learned in doing the book on Kennedy is that he went after Castro. He was going after Castro on the day he was killed. He was going after Castro when there all sorts of other things going on. So there was a guy in the CIA that I knew, one of Dick Helms' guys when he was CIA chief, one of his guys who never really liked me, but something happened and he saw me about something. I rattled off the stuff I had been learning – we knew some of it, but not all of it, this was in the Nineties – and I said to him: "What the hell was going on? Why was he chasing Castro when he had all these other issues?" He said, "Go find his Secret Service agents."
So I did. And they talked to me about the nutsy sexual crap that went on. ...
So I wrote about him negatively, but the real stuff in the book was all this stuff about assassinations, the murder stuff that he was into, and also about the [Vietnam] war. One of the responses has been – and it's been a traditional response, some of you old timers would remember – Kennedy would have ended the war in Vietnam; he was not going to keep it going; he would have ended it after the next election, because he couldn't end it before [defeating Republican Barry] Goldwater. So you say to yourself, that's the best defense Sorensen and Schlesinger and the rest of those yayos can come up with – [former defense secretary Robert] McNamara, talk about psychotic liars; he's the worst. McNamara's just out of control – I covered the Pentagon for years for the AP [Associated Press] – this guy could whip it out like nobody I ever met, and you wouldn't know it. You understand how the Edsel got out there, and the war. He wouldn't tolerate dissent in a way that was beyond belief. He wouldn't tolerate anybody telling him what he didn't want to hear.
Anyway, their defense of Kennedy, by saying he would have ended the war, that anybody between November of '63, when he was killed, and November of '64, when the election would have been, that he was going to win – those people who died, American and Vietnamese .... We usually describe the Vietnamese War, it's usually described this way: Our casualties were 58,000 ... the Vietnamese casualties were between 1 and 2 million. That's about the right ratio. (It's just like, when I first wrote about My Lai, the original army charge was – I got this document of the original charge of Lt. [William] Calley – and he was originally charged with "the premeditated murder of 111 Oriental human beings." I hadn't made it public, and I did go to the Pentagon, because I covered the building. They're not all evil, they just .... It gets so dumb. So I asked them, will you give me the breakdown of how many Oriental human beings equal a white, and how many African-Americans and so on? Is it 12 Orientals equals 10 whites? And like that ... and they rewrote it, within minutes, to get rid of that word, "Oriental.")
So how many people are there, "between 1 and 2 million"? So those souls that died there – are they on Kennedy's soul?
So where is our new president? They're going to withdraw; we're going to get out of Afghanistan, and everybody knows he wants to get out as soon as he can. So where are the souls that have died in the last year, or are going to die in the next year, until after the election, when he finally makes a bold move, which he probably will do, to get out? Where are they? Whose soul are they on? That just drives me nuts.
That's not what we pay presidents to do. We don't pay them to decide that we'll take another thousand or two thousand deaths in the next year – it won't be that many – eight, nine hundred in the next year. And don't forget allied troops. (A lot of this stuff is described as NATO – most of the NATO is us.)
On the American Future
There are a couple things that are really strong about America, no matter what. There's no question of an economic decline, and our military disasters have certainly reduced it, but we have a legal system that is very strong. So people are always going to be interested in investing in America, because when, unlike in most places in the world, if you run into a legal problem, you have a recourse. Nobody's going to want to spend a lot of money investing in Russia or some of these places, so we have a real advantage in that our legal system is still very strong and very vibrant. So I don't see any reluctance to soak up American dollars, as the Asians, South Korea, and China – although they hold a great deal of our debt.
On the economic side, they say it's improving. I don't see that much growth, but it's improving in some sectors, I guess.
On the other stuff – the whole neo-con stuff, the Paul Wolfowitz stuff that we all read about – that all stemmed from when Russia fell. I have a simple view of that, which is, the whole neo-con mantra began: Russia fell, and then we helped Russia get rid of some of the old nuclear arms in the Ukraine and in Georgia. We monitored the redeployment or the destruction of weapons. So the whole neo-con idea was: "We are now number one. We've got more nukes than anybody else; we can outnuke anybody. China knows that we can out-nuke them, and the Russians are now second-rate." So what emerges is the want nobody that we don't have some confidence in – to wit, anybody in the Arab world who doesn't like Israel (at least in Wolfowitz's case) – to ever get a bomb.
And that's why there was so much anger about Iraq. They believed Iraq had a bomb. I really think it was very primitive – it was the idea that we're going to be first, always. Well, that's not going to happen anymore, because the technology has spread.
But I don't think you can write off America. I just don't think so. We're such a powerful engine. The Chinese are not looking for a fight with us. We have a lot of inherent racism. I always make a joke my family is tired of me making, about Clinton. In 1999, he bombed the former Yugoslavia, and therefore became the first president since World War II to bomb white people. That's just a fact, so make your own view about it.
Obviously, I have strong feelings about our willingness to kill Asians and others, so I'm biased. But we're not liked anymore, and what worries me is the next step is, so far it really hasn't transferred too much to ordinary Americans. There's been an understanding; they don't like America, and there was a great deal of shock around the world when Bush was reelected. I travel all the time in the Middle East, and I still feel safe. But an American [Joel Shrum] got killed in Yemen, somebody doing good work, something with disabled children – doing God's work, if you believe in that. I don't like to think they'll start willy-nilly killing us.
I'll tell you something about Pashtun society. When we first bombed – I don't believe we had to go to war with Afghanistan, in the fall of '01 – I'm in the minority on that – I just think that was an unnecessary war, and I can tell you, there were a lot more people inside who thought, "there's another way to do it," than has been let on. And among other things, I also don't believe that we really know who did 9/11, in the sense that bin Laden was certainly part of the team and all that, but I think most of it was done in Hamburg, with [Mohamed] Atta – bin Laden didn't know that much.
On the Bin Laden Documents
I don't know if you've been reading the paper, but David Ignatius, a columnist for The Washington Post, was given a look at a bunch of bin Laden's scribblings ... and they show that he was ranting and raving, and David dutifully reported what he was told. These are papers taken from the home he was living in – but I'll use the word "prison." I'm writing about it in the book, and I won't say a lot about it, but don't believe what you read in the press.
He writes about bin Laden, and he says a lot of stuff about he's going to kill Obama and install a nincompoop, Biden .... These papers are there; they're going to be released to all the press. All right – what you want to do is go back about May 8th or 9th, in the aftermath of the bin Laden stuff, a man named [John] Brennan is briefing the press like crazy on background. Brennan is sort of the henchman of the White House, the apparatchik – I really don't like that guy. I never met him, but he's a menace. So what were you told after they did the raid? Do you remember the words "treasure trove"? "There was a treasure trove of documents that not only are so hot, there's a team called in, we're going to be translating them instantly, and lo and behold, we have made some strikes in the last few days, based on those documents, that have eviscerated – that have decimated, whatever the word is – that have wiped out the remnants of al Qaeda etc. etc."
So now it turns out, that the documents they talked about in May are a lot of mumbling and jumbling – with a lot of porno, remember that line. So I'm just at a loss to know how you cope with all this crap, why the press doesn't do a better job, why nobody remembers ... why somebody can't ask the question in the last two or three days: "Wait a minute, they told us this was a treasure trove. Look what it is; it turns out to be a bunch of crap. What the hell's going on here?" Nobody does that anymore. No memory.
From the Glickman Lecture, March 22:
On American Contradictions
I should really begin with a little bit of praise for America. That's just to say, I grew up from an immigrant family, first generation; my parents didn't get through high school. They worked hard; we were lower middle-class, I went to public schools, didn't pay for education, my father died young, and I went to a free public junior college. A professor dragged me over to the University of Chicago, where I went to school for just a few hundred bucks a year, some kind of a discounted rate. I was not headed to the Yale Daily News, The Harvard Crimson, or even The Daily Texan.
So here I am, 11 years after graduating with a B.A. in English and History, from the University of Chicago, in 1969. I come from basically nowhere to stick two fingers in the eye of a sitting American president, Richard Nixon. He had campaigned for the presidency and won it by telling Americans that he had a plan to end the war – it turned out his plan to end the war was to win it. In the middle of all this, I write these series of articles as a freelance writer, about this horrible [My Lai] massacre in Vietnam. A bunch of American boys, good boys, trained to kill and be killed, go into a village expecting to find the enemy. They don't find the enemy, and for five or six hours – they took a lunch break – murdered about 555 people in cold blood.
So I wrote this story, and I'm aware, that in a lot of societies, I would be purged, I would be exiled, I would be put into a camp. Who knows what would happen to me? But not in America. In America, one gets lionized, one wins a lot of prizes, one is deified by colleagues and peers. So, for anybody to think that I come to criticism easily or I don't love my country – not that anybody does – but I always want to say that, because it's an amazing place, and there's a strong belief here, no matter how much we yip and yap about it. And the public goes and complains about the press and the media, and there's too much exposure, and how dumb it is. Anybody who tries to tamper with the First Amendment runs into a wall of opposition. And that's something very strong, and inherent, and very powerful, unlike any other country.
You just don't have this Jeffersonian democracy. The way it works in America is it's their job to keep the secrets, and it's my job to find them. Nothing can stop me or bar me, no classification, no law – it's an amazing society. They're working on it – the government's always to working to improve [its power]. But the First Amendment's very strong.
So I say this because, now that I have done that – let me explain why we are screwed, hated, and in real trouble all over the world.
On the Failure of Memory
I'm going to talk about the details, but one of the things that always amazes me is this total sense of tabula rasa in America. Here we go, we slogged through Vietnam, not understanding the culture, not beginning to understand why we're there – thinking perhaps we're there to stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. Not knowing even, for example – some of you are old enough to remember – we were told we had to fight in Vietnam to stop the spread of Chinese communism – not knowing that Vietnam and China had fought forever and would fight again in 1979, after the war was over.
We do it again in Iraq. We come in to a culture – we don't know a thing about the culture. We think we're there to stop Saddam Hussein from having nuclear weapons that he does not have.
And now, here we are again in Afghanistan, fighting a war against – I wouldn't call them monstrous, I'd just call them very, very backward – fighting a war against an Arab society, the Taliban, who, the last thing on their agenda is to come to New York and knock down a building. There is no national security threat from the Taliban; we all know that. We all know that we're in some big, horrible morass. I personally just can't wait for the peace talks to begin, so the Taliban can take our surrender and we can figure our way out of there. It's been a no-go from the very beginning.
So the lack of a learning curve is really very depressing. I don't know if we're in worse shape than we've ever been, but we're in pretty bad shape.
I've been doing a book for a couple of years on Dick Cheney, and what happened inside that vice president's office. And I have some access to stuff that's interesting, and it's pretty horrible, and the word "constitution" doesn't mean much. ... But some of the worst elements of that Bush/Cheney government, we maintain today. There's no question about it. Renditions? Yes – we still rendition. We still feel we have the right to kill Americans abroad without due process; in fact, we had the attorney general say a few weeks ago in a speech in Ann Arbor, that "due process" doesn't mean "due justice." Explaining that, "Trust us – we can kill an American because we, the executive, can make a decision that he's a bad guy – we don't need to bring it to any judicial or some outside party. We can make the decision ourselves, we who have been so wonderful and dependable, we can do it. It's something the founding fathers –" ... Well, I don't need to go on with that.
*Sponsorship corrected. We'll post more from Seymour Hersh's Glickman lecture as time and available labor allow.