Seymour M. Hersh’s memoir Reporter is out this week, and it’s the story of an epic career in journalism. Here is the son of Jewish immigrants, owners of a dry cleaning store, taking to the streets of Chicago, a law school dropout turned cub reporter, on the police beat, learning that you couldn’t report on a cop shooting an unarmed black man, even if the cop admitted it and the coroner’s report said the man had been shot in the back. Here is Hersh working for the Associated Press in the Pentagon, exposing the U.S. bombing of civilian sites in Hanoi. Here is Hersh making a brief foray into politics as press secretary for the antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy in 1968, getting exasperated on a campaign swing through Wisconsin when McCarthy ditches a fundraiser to see a film adaptation of Ulysses, and soon thereafter quitting. Here is Hersh tracking down Lieutenant William Calley in a condo in Columbus, Georgia, and listening to his account of the My Lai massacre over beers and watching him vomit blood from an ulcer into a toilet. Here is Hersh walking into the office of William Shawn at The New Yorker and being offered a drawing account of $500 a week on the spot as a staff writer. Here is Hersh pounding out stories on Watergate, Kissinger’s crimes, and the CIA’s domestic wiretapping for the New York Times, reporting that would contribute to wide-scale national reckonings with state power and executive malfeasance. And all of that is decades before the revelations of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
I have known Hersh for several years and I worked with him as an editor at the London Review of Books (on pieces whose substance I won’t discuss here; you can read them, and about them, elsewhere). Editing Sy was a lot of fun, and always involved lots of fighting over everything from commas, to structure, to the timing of our daily phone calls, which could last hours. I’ve heard many of the stories he recounts in his memoir before. Particularly, during line editing, Sy often referred to the experience of being edited by Mr. Shawn, who after two clean galleys circled a single cliché on page three and remarked in the margin: “Mr. Hersh—pls use words.” This was an effective strategy to intimidate a young editor, which I was then.
Hersh’s reports on national security require the utmost clarity and an impersonal reportorial voice. But in his memoir, we read the real Sy, a true storyteller who breathes history and writes in cascading cadences that have not a little in common with other American writers born in the 1930s. On the page, I think of him as a scrappier cousin of Renata Adler, Don DeLillo, or Philip Roth.
I visited Sy last month at his office in Washington, where he works the phones, hoards his notes and documents, and writes at his computer under a photograph of Henry Kissinger stuffing his mouth with cake and looking ready for a walk-on role in a sequel to Dr. Strangelove. Until a rotator-cuff injury recently sidelined him, Hersh played tennis every day, and at 81 he’s irrepressible in conversation, a true steamroller. The exchange below has been condensed and edited. At the end of our talk, Sy gave me a card for the Washington metro so I could make it on time to my bus back to New York.
[Recorder turned on in the middle of conversation.]
I mean, come on, it’s all downhill, I don’t know what’s going to happen to our fucking profession. It’s fucking crazy.
Yes, it’s worrying.
I just read Stephen Kinzer’s book on the Dulles brothers [The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War, 2013], and the thing that got me: It was so fucking stupid what they did. Even the Korean War, we now know that China started the war without talking to Russia. We thought it was all Russia. The wrongness of us. So how do you deal with a country that gets everything fucking wrong? [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo today issued an edict today to the North Koreans. Basically it was a Cold War edict. We’re going to give you the stiffest requirements. You have to cut off everything, do everything we say. And their answer was: Who do you think you are? But how did we get so wrong? How did we get so wrong on everything? I can’t figure that out. Can you figure that out?
I’m a literary critic.
What did literature do to help? What did Styron do? What did Mailer do? I spend my life putting dead rats full of lice on people’s desks. And it does pay off. George Saunders just wrote a lovely note to my agent, saying I’m a unbelievably wonderful read. He’s my true hero. What a read, he said, I can show it to you. [He shows me the email.] I gave a talk with him once, but he’s the nicest man, you know. I wrote back, George could write himself out of a Mengele experimental ward. [The phone rings.] This is money, I gotta take it. [He takes it.] I get these calls all the time from strange people. That’s life in the fast track. When I get pissed off is when people say — you know, the feat of all time, as I think about it, was telling Abe Rosenthal that on April 20th, 1976, I got this story about the CIA wiretapping Americans I’ve been working on for two years. The CIA knew two years before. They were watching me two years before. It’s in this. This is where it comes from. [He pulls out an internal history of the CIA and points to a reference to himself from 1974.] They have a whole section on me. “As far back as December Hersh told the House Intelligence Committee that he had information the agency was engaging in extensive domestic operations.” I barely knew myself at this time that I was doing it. I’d heard something. So every conversation I had with [CIA Director William] Colby was wired. Every one, in his office, at home at night, was wired. And every conversation I had with the Justice Department was wired. It was the ’70s and we’re not even at war. There’s no war. What can I tell you? And so I tell Abe Rosenthal I got this story. He doesn’t know a frigging thing about it. He said, “What, we’re spying on Americans? Come on.” And I said, “No, it’s a real story.” He said, “Well, write it.” I said, “It’s a big story.” He said, “Just go write it.” So I go to the office, I go home. That’s when I called his wife up. What she said was a little more earthy than what I put in the book, but that’s okay. I mean, it did happen.
You called his wife or his girlfriend?
I called the wife first, who then told me about the girlfriend with some asperity. As it turns out, he was a tomcat. I guess I didn’t know that he was a big buddy of Roy Cohn’s. I learned that much later. Yeah, they used to go to parties together. I had no idea. None of my business. So I spend three hours on it. I saw Colby at 10 o’clock and he cashed in on me. He claims that he just diminished it. He said, “Well, they wanted 110 wiretaps and they only got 74.” And it’s a ticket to ride. And [CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus] Angleton is going to be done with this story. And Colby knows that he wants to get rid of him. And in a way Colby’s probably using me to get rid of Angleton. Angleton then tells me that he didn’t really do it, and he names a guy named [Richard] Ober [head of the CIA’s Operation CHAOS]. I don’t know if these people are still alive. [They are all dead.] In those days — it’s hard to believe how naïve we are. CIA people who were undercover used to all live in Virginia and Maryland with their phone numbers in the book because their wives wanted to belong to clubs and stuff. So I called up this guy Ober on Saturday morning, or Friday afternoon. Ober ran the program. And I say to Ober, “Angleton just dumped all over you and said you did everything.” He said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I said, “You can say whatever you want.
Here’s my name and number and I’m going to tell what Angleton said.” Then I told him one or two facts that Angleton told me and an hour later he calls back and says, “I’m not taking the fall for Angleton.” And so we have this conversation and the whole time he’s talking to me, Angleton’s talking to me. Three other guys, four other guys are talking to me. They all don’t say, of course you’re not using my name. It’s understood. Do you know what I mean? We’re on that level.
They understood and I understand. So I have, as I said in the article, I had seven sources. I finished the story about 11 or 12. I’ve stayed up all night, I’ve got 7,000 words. I’ve been thinking about the story for years and I thought it through … I understood where I was going. It’s not like a novel where sometimes the characters take over. I just knew I got the chronology going and I knew where I was and I knew where it would end, you know? And so and so, the story goes, and the only debate, the only concern was about the word “massive.”
What did you say?
I said it’s 100,000 people. How do you describe it? Larger than life. I mean it’s just one word, and so then he did, and we thought that we’d be attacked for that word, but anyway it gets into the paper. They never talked to the lawyer. I never talked to Jimmy Goodale [former vice-president and general counsel of the New York Times]. Abe never calls me and says, who are the sources? Talk about an amazing thing — for the New York Times to lead a paper with that. They added an extra page in the middle of the night. Abe got mad at me because I didn’t know the phone number I was calling from. He got really mad at me, “What do mean you don’t know your fucking number?” I remember that. I can remember all these things. Anyway, I remember all of my conversations with you, all of our fights. I can remember every fight we had and where they went.
I remember them too, Sy.
It was for you and me to resolve. You may have been right about a few things. I’m not worried about it. It happened. I say to people, “Do you have any idea how hard it is to do that, to write 7,000 words in 10 hours or 12 hours for the front page of the New York Times and to know that they trust you so much that that it’s going to lead the paper.” It’s hard. I mean, it’s a feat. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything nearly that close in all my years. The second and third pieces I did for The New Yorker on Abu Ghraib were on the fly, but nothing like that.
What was the aftermath of the CIA story? How long did it take over your life?
The CIA took over my life for a long time. One of the problems was that afterwards, nobody followed it and so I had to keep going. Nobody followed it. Once again, it’s the same thing I talk about with the Pentagon press corps. I saw the Pentagon press corps smoking pipes. In all fairness to reporters, every time you went to see somebody above a colonel or higher, you had to sign in. So if I got a good story from somebody, I just spent three days seeing ten other people to protect my sources. That was too many for them to cope with it. Five and they might have gone after five. I had to pretend to do interviews on other stuff to throw them off the trail. It was really hard. [Pentagon Press Secretary] Arthur Sylvester and [Defense Secretary Robert] McNamara? I knew him from the very beginning. McNamara was a fucking psychotic liar.
Is there anyone like him now?
What’s going on today in terms of the U.S. and Russia, it’s pretty nasty now. Journalism can be a lot more interesting than what we’re seeing. I hate to see the way journalism is devalued. We have to feed the machine, we have to feed the Trump outrage machine, to feed the anger against Trump, to feed the New York liberal anger. The New York Times does this, and the Washington Post does the same thing, only to a lesser degree. The story is just, Trump clearly lied again when he said such and such. But those aren’t front page stories, yet there are three of them on the front page. [At this point, we went through the stories on the front pages of the Times and the Post, several of which were about statements or tweets by the president.] It’s really sort of dishonest.
Was it like that with Nixon or Johnson?
Not as bad. Not nearly as bad. In fact, not nearly as bad with George W. Bush either. And not nearly as bad, certainly not, with Obama. He didn’t get into any of the trouble he could have gotten into and he got a big ride from people. So here’s where we are at. All the Mueller stuff, all the Russia stuff. It’s catnip for liberal outrage.
Do you think Trump is doing as much damage as Bush and Cheney?
Not nearly. He’s a clown. He’s not serious. I wrote a lot about Cheney in The New Yorker, but I wrote very little of what I know. The only time I ever mentioned what he ever said at a meeting was when there were many people there who were not insiders, you know, other people not in the government, so my sources would be protected. So sometimes he’d show off a little bit and talk about building a new alignment in the Middle East, what things go together and how they never fit. They always never fit. Cheney would go off on the 1917 Balfour declaration. He knows a lot and he’s a reader, and he ain’t dumb and he’s got a great memory. They caused irreparable damage.
How did you get hired at the New York Times?
Abe Rosenthal hired me because the Times Washington bureau was falling on its ass on Watergate and he didn’t even know about Watergate. The bureau wasn’t doing it and it wasn’t doing Vietnam. As much as we had bad blood, he knew he needed me.
You had gotten a visa to go to Hanoi, right?
Somebody at the Times picked up on my New Yorker articles. There’s this story where I hung up on Abe and told him to go fuck himself. It’s true. It was when I was conducting an interview on My Lai for CBS. And the Times is coming to check quotes to clean my My Lai story out.
And so the next day after I hung up on Abe, they ran only the CBS interview. They mentioned, but although they bought our story, they didn’t mention it. They paid 100 bucks like everyone else for a story after not buying it for weeks.
How much did you end up getting for those first My Lai stories you put out through the Dispatch News Service [a small antiwar news agency run by Hersh’s neighbor David Obst that syndicated Hersh’s My Lai reports to newspapers across the country]?
Well, I got paid. I got enough. I got paid. I don’t know how much David made because he later made it a business. If you have 30 papers, paying 100 bucks each, that’s what, $3,000, and I’m flying all over, and I don’t think I made a lot of money off that. I shared a big chunk of the $10,000 CBS paid. I didn’t handle any of the money. I had to hire lawyers and stuff like that. I got enough money to make a down payment on a house. You know this business. Come on! There’s no big payday.
Certainly not for book critics.
This is my Cheney book. Remember I told you I don’t put anything on the computer? This is the book right here. [Hersh points to his desk: several stacks of dozens of yellow legal pads filled with interviews for his ongoing book on Dick Cheney and the war on terror.] This one is the history behind the early decision to bomb the Taliban in October 2001. We weren’t at war with the Taliban. Why would you want to go war with the Taliban? Some of those Taliban guys had worked with us against the Russians because they hated the Russians, and they were all calling CIA guys that talked to me between 9/11 and when we started bombing six weeks later in October. They were saying that in Pashtun society that Bin Laden was a guest and you don’t kick out a guest. But after about a month, they began calling people in the CIA who I’ve talked to about it — more than one of them —and they said, Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, they’re no longer our guests. You know where they are. You do know where they are. Hit ’em there. Instead, we went to war with the Taliban. Incredible decision.
And now it’s been 17 years.
How we doin’? Everything’s rosy. Everything’s wonderful in Kabul, right? My son was there and he said when he used to jog, and the smell of dung would penetrate everywhere and get right into your lungs. You’ve seen the crap I get, right? You’ve seen the documents.
[Hersh rifles through documents on his desk. He pulls up a 2002 memo from Donald Rumsfeld referring to an entity called “Grey Fox.”] Grey Fox? What the fuck is that? Who? What? Ever heard of Grey Fox? No. Okay. What are we talking about? I mean, what’s going on in this secret world? And what’s secret titrant? T-I-T-R-A-N-T? What the fuck does that mean? That means something important. And again, how about this one? I mean, I get this shit. There’s one that’s just amazing. [We looked at a one-line memo from Rumsfeld to Douglas Feith, which caused us both to laugh.] I mean, what are you going to do with this stuff? First of all, they would nail the guy that gave it to me, I’m sure. Here Rummy says the trouble with these fucking army guys is that when you send them on missions the only thing they want to do is be sure they have the right people, the right targets. He said, Well, you, no, we don’t have to do that. That’s why we’ve got to get Special Forces in there. Get rid of Grey Fox. I found out what it was. It’s a fucking black unit. The name’s changed a thousand times times. None of these I ever used, not one word. These guys are really serious about killing a lot of people. There’s a document where they’re talking about problems they have with detainment, and this is the kind of stuff that drives you crazy. [Shows another memo.] They “love” the idea! Man, we could go out and start killing fucking people! Fuck all this dumb shit about the Geneva Convention. Fuck all that. This is war. They said the problem is we have a lot of detainees. This is in late 2001. We’ve got detainees and we’ve got a real detainee problem because among the detainees we have — who we don’t know what to do with and we think they’re all bad guys — are anywhere between 800 to 900 Pakistani children between the ages of 13 and 15. They’re in a prison in Afghanistan … They’re talking them about sending them to one of the islands in the Pacific where we did all the nuclear testing because there’s nobody there anymore because of radioactivity. They think it’s okay now. In the end they decided to put them in Guantánamo.
What was the process of researching your memoir. Was it all here in notes and documents and clips?
People are amazed that I remembered so much. But you’re not. You know I’ve got a good memory.
It seemed to me that a lot of the stories in the book you’ve rehearsed over and over again in conversations.
I’ve told the stories a hundred times, so they were in my head. But I had to do immense fact-checking. You’ve been thinking something was one way for decades. Turns out it was something else. What I did is I went back and I got almost everything I ever wrote. The AP was great. I didn’t know I was gonna be a writer when I started out. I didn’t keep diaries and intake books on it, but I have a good memory, and all that stuff from Chicago, I remember like it was today because it was so traumatic for me. And also don’t forget I drove a car with just the press sticker. We could go anywhere. The deal with the cops was you can do anything, you can report anything as long as you stay away from the whole Worth Street mafia stuff. In other words, if there’s some guy who was found in the street with 12 bullet holes in him, and the local police station reported it was a traffic accident. You didn’t fuck with them, just like you didn’t fuck with it. So I knew what tyranny was, in a funny way, very early because there were limits.
Otherwise, the city was your oyster. Chicago was great then and I just drove around. I could do what I wanted, but there was a limit. You couldn’t really tell the truth, like who shot somebody in the back, which they were doing all the time, killing black men. You couldn’t get into it. And so I was glad to get out of there. So I went and got everything I ever did and read all the stories.
You read them all?
There’s one from 16 years ago I wrote about John Walker Lindh, who they tortured. We all knew what they were doing. They were torturing and killing. There was no secret about it, you know, I wouldn’t have done it if I’d been in the CIA, but, I might have, you know, I don’t know. Certainly that was the atmosphere. It came from the top. They threw this kid for five days, seven days — he was naked — in a container used for shipping bombs. It’s a big steel container and they took the top off it and placed it on the ground. This was in Bagram and it was over 100 degrees and they drilled holes in it, big holes like port holes, so the GIs could come by and scream things at him. And one of the things they tried to do is piss far enough — he was off in a corner — they would try to get the piss on him. People wrote about it as if he deserves it. The 19-year-old Taliban, he got 20 years. He’s coming out in two years, and needless to say, he’s a little bitter. He’s got one year off, two years off. So he’s gonna serve 18-and-a-half years. I wanted to go talk to him, but he’s too bitter, man, and half-crazy anyway.
Is he still religious?
I don’t know. I know he’s still angry at America. He doesn’t like America. He wants to get out. His mother and father are trying to talk to him. They separated when he was a kid. You know, 17-year-old kid and his parents divorced. He didn’t go do drugs. He joined the Taliban. It was just murderous. There was a CIA guy, but he wasn’t really. He was an ex-Special Forces asshole that was recruited by the CIA for this war because they didn’t have enough people. It wasn’t a military war in the beginning, it was CIA guys growing beards, riding horses with sandals and all that shit, and they recruited him. We took over some town and nobody would talk and they flooded water into a basement there and they got the prisoners all wet. They scared them with drowning and somebody talks, told them that there was an American there, so he found out who he was and he goes up to him and starts speaking English and of course the kid knows if he indicates to his peers that he knew English, he’s a dead man, they’ll think he’s an American spy. So he of course said nothing. So they roughed him up and dragged him and threw him in this thing. In the New Yorker I wrote a story describing some of the Geneva Convention violations. But it was like I was banging in the wind. What the fuck? I know in the first four or five months of Guantanamo, when they assured everybody that all the detainees got one hour of R&R every day. You know what the R&R was? They put them in a straight jacket in the middle of the afternoon — it was 103 degrees — and they throw them out onto the grass outside for an hour. I didn’t write that either.
How do you rate the main antagonists of your career: McNamara, Kissinger, Cheney?
Cheney, he’s the smartest and he caused the most damage.
Smarter than Kissinger?
No, Kissinger, for all of his being wrong, Kissinger really was dexterous. Cheney didn’t have any of that. He was just plowing straight ahead, but he just, he was well read. I mean, he spent years trying to reorganize the Middle East. But you talk about antagonists, I thought you would name my colleagues! I’m so glad you didn’t. If you notice in the book I was very generous. This isn’t a payback book.