It has become a maxim in newsrooms that all reporters should be investigative ones. While that may be true, the best of those who spend all their time ferreting out information that should be in the public domain are a breed apart from the generalists and specialists in various areas.
There is no better example than Seymour Hersh, who has had a long career disclosing guarded government secrets, from the My Lai massacres in Vietnam to the inner workings of the Bush administration. I learned how different Hersh was when I had both the privilege and the distraction of sitting at the desk next to his in the Washington bureau of The New York Times in the 1970’s.
I would never disclose any of the techniques he used to get information, but a host of government underlings were quick to forward his calls when his authoritative voice came through: “This is Mister Hersh ….” No first name, or affiliation, but Mr. Hersh would soon have his source.
From all reports he has not changed in the decades since. Although he now works for The New Yorker, he still lives in Washington where he roams around in shaggy, open-neck clothing and works in a cluttered office. While many journalists of his generation and younger have become part of the Washington establishment, he still comes through as an outsider hungry for the latest scraps of news.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this book, his eighth, is that it is based almost entirely on information leaked from present and former officials of the federal government, its military and intelligence agencies. It is all the more remarkable at a time when secrecy is on the increase in the Bush administration, when the federal Freedom of Information Act is being weakened, and when the use of unauthorized leaks in journalism generally has become more controversial.
Before an audience of college students recently, Brian Lamb, the nonpartisan founder and head of C-SPAN who is highly regarded in both political parties, was asked whether he approved of unauthorized leaks in government affairs. Certainly, he replied, “It is the way the system works.” In other words, the public is entitled to a vast amount of information that the authorities want to remain secret.
So Sy Hersh has given us an important view of history explaining the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the causes of prisoner abuse, all without footnotes, though he does credit other news sources for some of the information he uses. Of course, his is a one-sided view of events, but that is clear to the reader. To his credit the administration has not been able to creditably refute the thrust of his charges of mismanagement and deceit. The administration’s denials are simply, as President Bush said, that Hersh “lies,” but with no facts to back up their accusations.
The book is based chiefly on Hersh’s articles published in The New Yorker since 9/11 but contains a number of new details supporting his charges that American abuse of prisoners was inspired by policies from the White House and the Pentagon, where proof of the abuses from a number of sources were ignored before they became public.
“Chain of Command” went to press last September, and one wonders why it did not have more of an impact on the November election. Of course, neither The New Yorker nor the book was widely read in most of the red states, where polls showed up until the election that many voters in those areas still believed that Saddam Hussein had both weapons of mass destruction and a working relationship with al-Qaeda. And for long-time Bush supporters, his denials easily trumped the documented findings of a liberal journalist.
Another factor is the difficulty most Americans have in understanding the arcane, often clandestine operations of the U.S. military and intelligence services. On the matter of torture, for example, Hersh writes: “The roots of the Abu Ghraib scandal lie not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists, but in the reliance of George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld on secret operations and the use of coercion—and eye-foran- eye retribution—in fighting terrorism. Rumsfeld’s most fatal decision, endorsed by the White House, came at a time of crisis in August 2003 when the defense secretary expanded the highly secret special-access program (a team to operate outside international law to snatch suspected terrorists) into the prisons of Iraq” and thus “encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in an effort to generate more intelligence about the insurgency.”
This decision, Hersh concluded, “embittered the American intelligence community, damaged the effectiveness of elite combat units, and hurt the prospects of the war on terrorism.”
When he was working as a newspaper reporter Hersh was content to find the facts and let them speak for themselves. As a magazine and book writer he draws conclusions. At the end of his epilogue he discloses some of the puritanical aspects that drive the more dedicated of the investigative reporters: “There are many who believe George Bush is a liar, a President who knowingly and deliberately twists facts for political gain. But lying would indicate an understanding of what is desired, what is possible, and how to get there. A more plausible explanation is that words have no meaning for this president beyond the immediate moment, and so he believes that his mere utterance of the phrases make them real. It is a terrifying possibility.”
This book shows how drastically investigative reporting has changed since the 1960’s, when Hersh had a hard time finding a newspaper or magazine that would publish his welldocumented findings of the murder of innocent women and children in Vietnam. Newspapers were then having some difficulty even adopting the news analysis, an effort to put factual stories in perspective after years of restrictions that sometimes caused distortion in news coverage—for example, the reporting of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s charges of Communism in government that never mentioned how he was manipulating the press.
Now with spot news flooding the television channels and the Internet, reporters are often encouraged to put more analysis in their news stories, then go on television and expand on their version of events. Hersh made the full rounds with his New Yorker stories during the first four years of the Bush administration, and now he is back doing the same at the beginning of another four-year term. His career spans some of the most remarkable changes in American journalism.
John Herbers, a 1961 Nieman Fellow, covered the White House, Congress and national politics, and was an editor in New York and Washington during the 1960’s and 1970’s.