Reporter: A Memoir
Knopf, 2018, 340 pp., $27.95
There’s much pleasure to be had in reading Seymour Hersh’s recently published memoir, but it’s the book’s cover, really, that tells the entire story. Hersh, his face an approximation of that old journalistic metaphor, shoe leather, is seated behind a desk cluttered with thumbed-through files. He is positioned in three-quarter view, as if the photograph were taken by Hans Holbein. Behind him is an enormous map of the world, and above him the book’s title, Reporter. “This book,” a blurb affixed to the cover by means of a blue sticker informs us, “is essential reading for every journalist and aspiring journalist the world over.” The blurb’s author is John le Carré.
Why tap the master of modern espionage fiction to boost a book by a man too often hailed as America’s greatest living investigative journalist? It’s because, properly read, Reporter isn’t a memoir at all: It’s a novel about the sort of chap le Carré knows best, the gullible guy who becomes a pawn in a game of intelligence and intrigue whose rules he doesn’t understand but whose players, for some strange reasons, he trusts.
Read almost any Hersh story, going back now for decades, and sooner or later you’ll come across a staple of his reporting: unnamed sources. These shadowy figures emerge at critical junctures to shed light on astonishing plots, like the alleged one by the Bush Administration to manipulate Iraq’s democratic elections: “I was informed by several former military and intelligence officials,” Hersh wrote in the New Yorker in 2005, “that the activities were kept, in part, ‘off the books’—they were conducted by retired C.I.A. officers and other non-government personnel, and used funds that were not necessarily appropriated by Congress.” A year earlier, unnamed sources also informed Hersh that the Department of Defense, inspired by a 1973 book about Arab psychology, had launched a program, codenamed “Copper Green,” designed to use sexual abuse and humiliation to get Iraqi prisoners to share useful intelligence. And in 2017, Hersh published a widely criticized article in the German Die Welt, rushing to the defense of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad: The World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders may have ruled the April 4 attack on Khan Sheikhoun, leaving 92 dead, to be a chemical attack orchestrated by the Syrian regime, but unnamed sources assured Hersh that the deaths were caused by toxic discharge released as a result of a conventional attack on a nearby jihadi facility.
These outlandish allegations nearly always turn out to be unverifiable. Frequently, they turn out to be dead wrong: In 1974, for example, another anonymous source informed Hersh that the one-time American Ambassador to Chile, Edward Korry, was instrumental in orchestrating that country’s coup d’état. Seven years later, faced with incontrovertible disconfirming information, Hersh was forced to write a 3,000-word story correcting the record and recanting his earlier reporting.
Of course, relying on anonymous sources is an important part of an investigative journalist’s job. People in a position to know sensitive information, especially information pertaining to national security, aren’t likely to amble into a newsroom and volunteer information that is likely to jeopardize their careers and, sometimes, their freedom. Even our best reporters err from time to time, an inconvenient truth you’re taught sometime during your first semester in journalism school. But Hersh errs far more than most, and the pattern of his errors is instructive.
Take l’affaire JFK, in which Hersh, accepting papers that allegedly belonged to the late President, was duped into believing that Kennedy was beholden to mob boss Sam Giancana and blackmailed by Marilyn Monroe. In Reporter, Hersh dispenses with the entire episode, one of the most seminal of his career, in a handful of pages. A 1997 account in the New Yorker by David Samuels, however, paints a more satisfying—and more troubling—picture.
In December of 1994, Hersh, who was then working on a new biography of JFK, was approached by a group of men and informed that a new trove of papers in Kennedy’s handwriting had been unearthed. Their owner, Lex Cusack, was the son of the late President’s legal adviser, and was now putting the documents on the market. Hersh took a meeting. The nature of the transaction being proposed was not lost on him: If the documents were featured by a celebrated reporter such as himself, Hersh knew, their price tag would skyrocket. “Once we have published,” he told Cusack, “I believe that your documents will have even greater value and be more in demand—especially by Hollywood.” Soon, Hersh started receiving photocopies of the letters by FedEx. He was also asked to attend a meeting with potential investors who were hoping to purchase the papers, and crooned that he would purchase them all himself if he could.
Were the papers real? “I was assured,” he writes in Reporter, “that the papers had been analyzed and authenticated by one of America’s foremost handwriting experts on such material.” The papers were indeed authenticated by one expert, but Hersh’s own reporting soon raised some red flags. A handful of former Kennedy aides rejected them as forgeries, which Hersh largely ignored, thinking they were only aiming to protect the reputation of their old martyred boss. More troubling, Cusack himself turned out to be a serial fabricator, lying about everything from attending Harvard to being a member of Naval Intelligence. Hersh let the whoppers slide, all of them. “In my business,” he later told Samuels, “you don’t really go around psychoanalyzing people who give you stuff.”
Hersh’s reputation—he was, after all, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who had broke the story of the My Lai massacre—led to a deal with NBC to turn the upcoming Kennedy book into a documentary. The network paid nearly $1 million for the privilege, but when its forensic experts found the documents to be fakes, the network dropped out. Hersh didn’t: Not in the least concerned by what was now a very distinct possibility that he had been duped, he took his stuff to ABC and signed another TV deal. But questions kept mounting, including why a letter Kennedy allegedly wrote in 1961 would feature a ZIP code, a system not introduced until 1963. Hersh tried holding on to his story for as long as he could, but eventually had to go on air and admit that he was “an idiot.” Press reports at the time seemed to agree, with some accusing him of what amounted to a second assassination of the slain President.
By the time American troops marched into Iraq in March 2003, Hersh, now writing for the New Yorker, was ready to reclaim his position at the top of the journalistic heap. A 2005 profile in New York magazine enumerated his scoops: “Videotape of young boys being raped at Abu Ghraib. Evidence that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi may be a ‘composite figure’ and a propaganda creation of either Iraq’s Baathist insurgency or the U.S. government. The active involvement of Karl Rove and the president in ‘prisoner-interrogation issues.’ The mysterious disappearance of $1 billion, in cash, in Iraq. A threat by the Administration to a TV network to cut off access to briefings in retaliation for asking Laura Bush ‘a very tough question about abortion.’ The Iraqi insurgency’s access to short-range FROG missiles that ‘can do grievous damage to American troops.’ The murder, by an American platoon, of 36 Iraqi guards.”
The curious thing, as the profile’s author, Chris Suellentrop noted, was that none of these major, shattering revelations were made in print: Instead, they were all unveiled by Hersh in speeches on college campuses and elsewhere. And, by his own admission, many weren’t true. “I can’t fudge what I write,” Hersh told Suellentrop, “but I can certainly fudge what I say.”
Why would a reporter fudge the facts? And why, given Hersh’s record for running into trouble with the truth, would venerable publications like the New Yorker continue to employ him? The answer to all these questions is the same: It’s because, in Hersh’s worldview, it’s always 1969, there’s always a secret war going on, and the American military is always seeking for the next target to destroy. There is always another target for Hersh’s permanent adolescent rebelliousness, which took on the form of an infantile left-wing radicalism and is what years ago led New York Times’ editor Abe Rosenthal to refer to Hersh, playfully one supposes, as “my little commie.”
Often, this forever-hippie worldview comes off as entertaining. In his seminal March 2012 Commentary takedown of Hersh, James Kirchick dug up an interview that Hersh gave the Progressive in 1997. “It was easy to go to war against the Vietnamese,” Hersh opined then. “I thought in the 1992 campaign Bill Clinton might be the first president since the end of World War II to actually bomb white people. But I was disappointed, as usual. He found it easier to go after the Somalians. Just like Ronald Reagan found it easy to go to Grenada, and Bush found it easy to go to Panama, to the Third World, or to people of a different hue. There seems to be some sort of general pattern here.” That Clinton had in fact bombed Serbia, a European country inhabited by Caucasians, did little to cure Hersh of his vision of America’s perpetual malignant racism.
Put a man like that in continuous proximity to our national security apparatus, and you hardly need a John le Carré to dream up a scenario or six in which the idealistic journalist with an impressive capacity for ignoring facts that contradict his wishful thinking gets played by his unnamed sources. Believing anything a source would tell him merely to preserve the source, Hersh is an intelligence officer’s dream reporter; all you have to do is make sure that the story you tell him hints at some sort of official American malfeasance, and he’s bound to buy into the tale, no matter how tall.
But if that’s professionally problematic—and of course it is—the real problem is that Hersh’s colleagues and editors found his attitude very convenient. When he slandered the ghost of JFK, he was accurately labeled a fantasist and a hack; when he resurfaced, a few short years later, to treat George W. Bush in the same precarious way, he was once again hailed as our finest living investigative journalist. His current editor, David Remnick, appears to have contracted Hersh’s intolerance for asking questions that would too greatly upset what he wants to believe. After another of Hersh’s wild speeches—he claimed that the U.S. Army was run by a cabal of officers who all belong to a secretive Catholic sect and who see wars in Muslim lands as a continuation of the crusades—Remnick was asked to comment on his star reporter’s tenuous grasp on reality. “Sy is one of the greatest reporters the country has ever known,” he said, “and that is all I need to know about him.”
Are the neo-crusaders for real? Was there really an operation Copper Green? We’ll perhaps never know, but we’re as likely to be as good at guessing as Hersh has ever been. Like India’s former Prime Minister Morajri Desai—who sued Hersh after the reporter claimed he was a paid agent of the CIA and lost, in large part because he was too old and feeble to travel and testify against Hersh—we’re left with the frustration of trying to corroborate Hersh’s wild accusations. “We just had to take Mr. Hersh’s words for it that he talked to someone,” Desai said at the time. As James Kirchick poignantly noted in his piece, the same applies to anyone who tries to make sense of Hersh’s twisted and tilted journalism.
Not that Hersh’s work leaves us entirely without clues. One of the most riveting passages in Reporter describes his first big scoop: It was early in 1967, and the official line from the Pentagon argued that only military targets in North Vietnam were bombed, and that any damage to civilian structures was minimal and unintentional. Learning from reporters on the ground that this was likely untrue, Hersh went to visit one of his sources, a U.S. Navy admiral who—surprise—remains unnamed.
“He agreed to see me,” Hersh writes in Reporter, “as I thought he might; I was sure he knew what I wanted. He’d had it with the lying; it was as simple as that. He told me that there were many post-bombing photographs (known as BDAs in the Pentagon, for bomb damage assessments) that confirmed the extensive damage to civilian targets.” Hersh, to his credit, verified the claim and wrote the story. It made him known in Washington.
To other reporters, the episode might’ve been a heartwarming one: Some senior military officials tried to cover up a ruinous policy, and others had the courage to speak out against it. To Hersh, however, the story wasn’t an example of the system working, but an indictment of its inherent evils. The same is true for the story that won Hersh not only his Pulitzer but also his fame and his fortune: Hersh did not break the story of My Lai by risking his life in the jungles of Southeast Asia; he did so by receiving a tip that, as he writes in the book, “the army was in the process of court-martialing a GI at Fort Benning, Georgia, for the killing of seventy-five civilians in South Vietnam.” It was, he later admits, “the U.S. Army itself that filed the murder charges.” Hersh only got his story because justice was in the process of being served, but he then spent a lifetime pretending as if justice was served only because he had reported his story.
It was similarly the U.S. Army itself that launched an investigation into the abuses at Abu Ghraib, punishing those responsible. Yet Hersh learned no lessons from a lifetime of observing the U.S. military correct its course. For every William Calley, Jr., the platoon leader convicted of murdering 22 unarmed civilians, there’s a Hugh Thompson, Jr., who stopped the massacre by threatening to shoot the men in Calley’s platoon if they continued to slaughter civilians. The military pressed charges against six soldiers involved in the Abu Ghraib abuses in March of 2004, two months before Hersh ran his first piece. And yet, for Hersh, the dark shadows of conspiracy always loom large and the wrongdoing is always systemic, if not endemic.
How to judge such a man? Observing nothing but the facts, you may want to shake him off as a loon. At points in his profile, Suellentrop seems to suggest just that. “Not too long after the Abu Ghraib story broke,” he wrote, “Hersh spoke to the annual membership conference of the American Civil Liberties Union. He stood before the crowd and in mid-speech appeared to talk to himself. ‘Debating about it,’ he muttered, then paused. ‘Um.’ Clucked his tongue. ‘Some of the worst things that happened that you don’t know about. Okay?’” He then went on to make more allegations, many of which turned out to be unfounded, leading Hersh to later ask the ACLU to remove parts of the video from its website.
But there’s another way to read Seymour Hersh, and that’s the Seymour Hersh way. If you forget the truth and focus only on the tales, you’ll get a man who spent a lifetime as a “useful idiot” of one kind or another channeling a torrent of intelligence fed to him by men who sized up his utility. Some of it was true. Much of it was false. Most of it likely served purposes we’ll never fully understand. But like a character in a great espionage novel, he was always burning with that pale fire of the unperturbed true believer. If only for that, he deserves to be read; but not believed.