by Julian Borger
Published on Friday, April 14, 2006
by the Guardian / UK
A generation ago aspiring journalists
looked up to the Watergate team of Woodward and Bernstein as their
idols. But times have changed. One half of the Washington Post duo,
Carl Bernstein, has moved into academia, while Bob Woodward
grown rich and part of the Washington establishment.
His books on the Bush administration have leant heavily on
interviews granted by the president and his top aides.
shaking the administration, they were advertised as recommended
reading by the Bush re-election campaign.
'I feel like I
did in the Vietnam days - I hate to pay taxes just so they
can go and bomb more people'
The only investigative journalist from
that era who is still giving the administration sleepless nights is
Seymour Hersh, whose scoops in The New Yorker have become a
centerpiece in the debate over the US "global war on terror".
This week's extraordinary report alleging that George Bush had not
only made up his mind to topple the Iranian government, but was also
toying with the idea of
doing it with a tactical nuclear weapon, was
a telling example of his influence. If any other journalist had
produced the story, it would almost certainly have been laughed off.
Because Hersh wrote it, it was
front-page news around the world, notwithstanding Mr Bush's
insistence it was all "wild speculation". The White House stopped
short of denying the story, saying only that the Pentagon was
conducting "normal military contingency planning".
The problem for the president is that the man known in Washington as
Sy has become an institution with more credibility than the
administrations that come and go in this fickle city.
Hidden away in an anonymous office block, he works out of two shabby
rooms. The wall behind him is covered with black skid marks
inflicted by his penchant for leaning back in his chair and putting
his running shoes on his desk while on the telephone.
The other Washington reporters for the New Yorker recently set up
shop just around the corner in a pleasant and orderly suite of
offices, but Hersh has not joined them - "because I am not (always)
pleasant nor orderly" he pointed out. One of his colleagues tersely
agrees: "Sy does not play well with others."
Political journalism in Washington is generally restrained. Hersh is
not like that. He is excitable, fast-talking and uses "fucking" more
than any other adjective, with a hard-edged accent honed on
Chicago's South Side.
Hersh has been publishing scoops since long before Watergate,
breaking the story of the US massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My
Lai in 1969 while he was a freelancer. He won the Pulitzer prize for
that and his office wall is densely covered with other awards.
In more than 30 years in the business, Hersh has had a few slips. He
initially fell for a set of forgeries purporting to show Marilyn
Monroe had blackmailed President John Kennedy, but the fraud was
uncovered before his 1998 book on the Kennedy White House, The
Dark Side of Camelot, was published.
He has just passed his 69th birthday, but still has a fire in his
belly for new stories. "Get out of the way of the fucking story," is
his over-arching philosophy. His desk is covered with manila files
and yellow legal pads.
Somewhere in the mess are his tax
returns which he was yesterday scrambling to finish by the deadline.
"I feel like I did in the Vietnam
days - I hate to pay taxes just so they can go and bomb more
He says he never puts notes that would
identify his sources on to his computer. He does talk to them by
phone, at least to arrange meetings.
"They'd be crazy to wiretap me,"
Hersh said, explaining that some of his informants in the
intelligence world would find out.
He says he does not have Deep
Throat-like encounters in underground car parks, but rather goes
to see his government contacts at their homes late at night or first
thing in the morning.
Before his stories are published, his sources are called by New
Yorker factcheckers to verify every detail.
"I can't deal with people who can't
talk to the factcheckers," he said. "My people will explain to
the factcheckers things they think I already know or understand,
so they explain things much better, and come out with details I
hadn't even thought of."
Finally, Hersh sets out on
late-night drives, dropping drafts of his stories through the
letterboxes of his sources to give them a chance to confirm he has
interpreted their information correctly and that he is not going to
publish anything that will put the US at risk.
"I don't want to reveal operational
details. I'm an American, after all." Often, he says, he ends up
publishing "one-hundredth of what I know".
He picks up a file from a stack on his
desk and opens it to reveal a thick wad of confidential memos. Each
one could have made a splash in a British daily.
One is between two senior British official in the run-up to the Iraq
war. It talks of the US determination to oust Saddam and the
differences within the administration.
For a better understanding of the
situation the memo recommends reading one source in particular:
Born April 8 1937,
Education Hyde Park
high school, Chicago; University of Chicago, BA 1958
Elizabeth Klein, 1964. Two sons, one daughter
Career highlights 1959
Chicago city news bureau; 1966 AP Pentagon
correspondent; 1969, broke My Lai story as a
freelancer; 1972-79 New York Times; 1979 onwards:
book writing, contributions to Atlantic Monthly, New
Books 1970 My Lai 4;
1991 The Samson Option: Israel's Nuclear Arsenal and
American Foreign Policy; 1997 The Dark Side of
Camelot; 2004 Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11
to Abu Ghraib
Awards include 1970
Pulitzer prize; 2004 National Magazine Award
Some Seymour Hersh Reports