You’re asking me why I didn’t write a story that might get somebody killed? I mean, how can I write that?–Seymour Hersh
Sy Hersh's News: He’s Describing Massacre In Iraq
by Tom Scocca with Joe Hagan
A word of advice, from Seymour Hersh, as recounted by Seymour Hersh: "Just shut up."
Mr. Hersh, the garrulous investigative reporter who broke the news of My Lai and Abu Ghraib, was telling an audience in Berkeley on Oct. 8 about a phone conversation he’d had with an American soldier in Iraq. The soldier, Mr. Hersh said, had called to tell him about a massacre of friendly Iraqis by another platoon of Americans. "He was hysterical, totally hysterical," Mr. Hersh told the crowd, in remarks captured on digital video and archived on the Web.
Was another My Lai–grade exposé on its way? Not from Mr. Hersh. "Complete your tour," he said he’d told his would-be source. "Just shut up. You’re going to get a bullet in the back."
Why not tell the man to keep talking and grab a notepad? "You’re asking me why I didn’t write a story that might get somebody killed?" Mr. Hersh asked in a phone conversation last week. "I mean, how can I write that?"
The tell-all crusader, it turns out, has a discreet streak. "The standard is—I’ll give you the standard," said Mr. Hersh. "To do the story right means the guy would get in real trouble …. If I had a million years to report this story, I wouldn’t do it. When he comes back, that’s another story. He’s over in Iraq, for Chrissakes—he’s in combat."
Still, it’s a Seymour Hersh–style discretion. Mr. Hersh may not be printing all his material, but he’s not keeping it to himself, either. Through the summer and fall, on the lecture circuit and in promoting his new book, Chain of Command: The Road From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, the reporter has been peppering his appearances with unpublished allegations about how bad things have gotten on the shapeless global battlefield.
Mr. Hersh’s principal argument is that an out-of-control and incompetent Bush administration has hideously botched its war on terror, a message familiar to readers of his published work. But it’s the additional, oral scandal reporting he throws in—unburdened by cross-checking and multiple-sourcing requirements—that has been providing oxygen for the blogosphere. That’s the Stuff the Regular Media Doesn’t Want You to Hear: indiscriminate bombing, padded body counts, vanishing funds, war crimes approved by the highest levels of government.
"What we had was a series of massive crimes, criminal activity by the President and the Vice President—by this administration, anyway," Mr. Hersh told an ACLU convention in July. "I can say that, I can’t state who did it."
Other highlights from transcripts, recordings and reports of Mr. Hersh’s speeches and interviews:
* "[T]hey can’t find something like $1 billion in cash that was known to be in Iraq."
* "When we learn about Guantánamo, we’re going to be shamed. It’s as bad as Andersonville."
* "[I]f I had to bet, the plan was to go right into Syria. That’s why the Fourth Division was hanging for so long in the desert out there, right on the border with Syria."
* "The women [at Abu Ghraib] were passing messages out saying, ‘Please come and kill me because of what’s happened.’ And basically what happened is that those women who were arrested with young boys, children … the boys were sodomized, with the cameras rolling, and the worst above all of them is the soundtrack of the boys shrieking. That your government has, and they’re in total terror it’s going to come out."
And then there was that massacre the soldier had told him about: Out in the countryside, roughly 30 Iraqis had been hired to guard a granary. American troops stationed out there, including Mr. Hersh’s source, had befriended them.
Mr. Hersh continued the story in his Oct. 8 speech:
So orders came down from the generals in Baghdad: We want to clear the village, like in Samarra. And, as [the soldier] told the story, another platoon from his company came and executed all the guards, as his people were screaming, "Stop!" And he said they just shot them one by one. He went nuts, and his soldiers went nuts …. And the company captain said, "No, you don’t understand. That’s a kill. We got 36 insurgents."
It was a loaded anecdote—so loaded, in Mr. Hersh’s own estimation, that telling it could have gotten his source fragged. Yet Mr. Hersh, unwilling to write it, put it out in public by other means.
"I know I wasn’t specific," Mr. Hersh said. "I don’t think I mentioned rank or place. That’s all—I’m sure I didn’t mention rank and place."
Actually, Mr. Hersh had mentioned both: His caller, he’d said, was "a platoon commander, first lieutenant, ROTC guy"; his unit had been "halfway between Baghdad and the Syrian border," in "an area that the insurgency had some control, but it was very quiet … a town that was off the mainstream." And he’d said that the call had come "last week," which would have apparently placed the incident somewhere at the end of September or the beginning of October.
Mr. Hersh also said that he’d "fudged a lot of stuff of what I said," in order to protect his source.
First Sgt. Steve Valley, a military spokesperson in Baghdad, said on the phone that his office had no record of any reported massacre—or ground-combat operation—that fit the rough particulars given by Mr. Hersh. "We have not had reports of 30 insurgents or civilians killed by multinational forces," Sergeant Valley said. Most of the casualty reports for that area and time frame, he continued, dealt with air strikes, not ground combat.
If anyone succeeds in clearing up the events behind Mr. Hersh’s story, the results likely won’t be in The New Yorker. The magazine doesn’t have any reporters in Iraq at present, a spokesperson said, and Mr. Hersh is working on other projects.
In his remarks, Mr. Hersh tends to include caveats noting when revelations aren’t quite baked to print journalism’s standards of doneness: "Don’t hold me to this, because, you know, The New Yorker has this great fact-checking system," he told the ACLU before bringing up the vanished $1 billion. "This is just something I’ve heard." In telling a Salon reporter about the secret plan to invade Syria, he began with the warning, "I don’t have any empirical basis for it."
A spokesperson for The New Yorker declined to comment on how Mr. Hersh’s unchecked speeches are perceived by the magazine.
"I get going," Mr. Hersh explained of his lecture style. "This is all—I wouldn’t say stream-of-consciousness, but I don’t write all my speeches."
And then, thanks to the Internet, his off-the-cuff revelations propagate. "I know, I know," Mr. Hersh said, "It’s all over the Web …. Look, it happened. There’s a luxury in writing, which is I can really look at what I say, and I haven’t looked at what I’ve said because I really just haven’t had time."
When Mr. Hersh didn’t have an empirical basis for rumors of a massacre at My Lai, he legendarily went door-knocking till he found Lt. William Calley. Now he appears to be running some sort of impromptu combination of a notebook dump and an assignment meeting, challenging other reporters to pick up his loose ends and surplus tips: I got Abu Ghraib—let’s see somebody else get something.
But on the subject of abuse at Guantánamo Bay, Mr. Hersh said, his remarks are designed in part to draw more sources to him. "At some point, Army Reservists were sent down to Gitmo," he said. "And they didn’t like what they saw. And that’s where I’m trying to go—I’m trying to find these guys. So I’m taking it beyond just statements made by, you know, ‘awful Arabs,’ right?"
On Sunday, two days after Mr. Hersh spoke to Off the Record, The New York Times ran a front-page story alleging prisoner mistreatment at Guantánamo Bay. Reporter Neil Lewis described shackled prisoners subjected to strobe lights, blaring music and frigid temperatures for hours at a time, treatment that left prisoners "fried."
It wasn’t quite dog attacks or sexual humiliation, but the account contradicted the administration message that Guantánamo interrogations had avoided harsh tactics. And it was sourced to anonymous "military guards, intelligence agents and others"—the very non-awful non-Arabs that Mr. Hersh had been hoping to find.
Mr. Lewis said that he admired Mr. Hersh’s work, and that "disclosures about Abu Ghraib certainly bolstered my determination to keep looking at Guantánamo." But Mr. Hersh’s lecture-tour remarks didn’t affect Mr. Lewis’ own reporting, which the Times reporter said he’d pursued since his earliest, heavily restricted, official tours of the base.
"I didn’t hear footsteps, as we say in the cliché business," Mr. Lewis said.
Become your own boss! In January, New York Times deputy Op-Ed page editor Kate Phillips will be moving down the megalopolis to assume the job of Washington editor—a position held, five brief years ago, by current Times managing editor Jill Abramson.
The Times Washington editor is outranked by the paper’s Washington bureau chief, in this case Philip Taubman. But it’s a No. 2 spot with a bullet—occupants can later end up with a "managing" or "executive" in their titles. Besides Ms. Abramson, other Washington editors have included now-deposed executive editor Howell Raines and the current officeholder, Richard Berke, who will be rocketing back to New York to take on the newly created job of assistant managing editor for news.
Reached on the phone, Ms. Phillips said it was too soon for her to be crafting plans for what to do with her newly acquired authority. "I sort of haven’t even come to terms with the responsibilities—the daunting responsibilities," she said.
For one thing, she said, she will have to see what happens in the election before she knows who the bureau will have to be covering come January. For another?
"The restaurants in Washington aren’t nearly as cool as the ones in New York," said Ms. Phillips, who served a previous shift at the bureau from 1997 to 1999. "Maybe that’s the most daunting challenge."
Ms. Phillips said she will also be surrendering a beloved apartment in north Battery Park—"a great little place that overlooks the harbor" with a view of the Statue of Liberty. How can the nation’s capital compete? "Bike paths are phenomenal in and out of Washington," Ms. Phillips said. "I’m a fan of bicycling for exercising."
You may reach Tom Scocca and Joe Hagan via email at: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This column ran on page 1 in the 10/25/2004 edition of The New York Observer.