Going 15 Rounds With Seymour Hersh

"I‘m having a horrible day,” grumbled Seymour Hersh, the 70-year-old Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist, arguably the most revered of his time, and reporter for the prestigious New Yorker magazine.

Almost a week before, I had called Seymour Hersh on a lark, trying to score an interview regarding his New Yorker article Shifting Targets: The Administration’s plan for Iran, an explosive piece outlining the Bush Administration’s strategic and aggressive preparation for a potential attack on Iran. When Hersh writes, everyone reads and the world pays attention.

Even the White House, via Press Secretary Dana Perino, was forced to respond to Hersh’s article by publicly stating, “[The White House] is not going to comment on any possible scenario that an anonymous source continues to feed into Seymour Hersh. We don’t discuss such things. We are pursuing a diplomatic solution in Iran.”

During our first phone call, Hersh sounded hurried, a habitual trait I noticed, preparing for an international phone interview. “Listen, I got a call coming in from overseas, it’s gonna come in any moment. Just give me a call at the office,” he told me.

I persisted, “How about next week? We can do the interview over the phone. I can call-”

“No, no. I’m traveling to the west coast next week. I’m busy, but give me a call the week after, all right? Let’s do this later. Call my office. Ok?”

“Great,” I replied and hung up the phone, ecstatic about scoring a potential interview with the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter.

Fast forward one week. I’m casually sitting behind my desk with my laptop in front of me, calling Hersh’s office number to leave a message on his machine, reminding him of the interview upon his return from a publicity trip.

The phone rings. It rings again. Instead of a soothing, feminine, robotic automated voice message, a surly and flustered voice answers, “Hello?”

“Um, uh, hey, Seymour? This is Wajahat ”

“Who?”

“Uh, Wajahat Ali? Anyway, I wasn’t expecting you. I called to leave a message on your voice mail, and you pick up. Great! How was your trip? I thought you’d be back next week ”

“Ugh, it was terrible. A terrible trip. I’m having a horrible day. That trip was just…Who are you, again? Why are you calling?” Questioned an obviously irritated and surly Hersh.

“I’m calling to schedule an interview we talked about last week, remember?” I answered, ignoring his temperament.

Little did I know that this simple question would unleash the notoriously intense feistiness and doggedness of Hersh, a man whose words and attitude cut straight to the point, fast and furious, shooting off half a dozen questions in a row without pause. His aggressive style reminded me of an immigrant uncle: blunt, honest, gruff, but oddly endearing.

“Why do you want an interview? Who are you again? Islamic what? Islamic? Listen, you know I did Jazeera right? Al-Jazeera? They’re Muslim (pauses). Oh, God. I mean, so, so what? What, you want an interview or something? Is that what you want? I...I usually do the pimping for my pieces for two to three days after they’re published, but once it’s done I move on. I move on, ya’ know? That was last week. This is this week. I got a lot of reporting to do (Sigh, sounds overwhelmed). I got a lot of reporting to do.”

I’ve been hit with a freight train, and I’m just trying to re-attach my jaw, let alone talk. My brain fires off an intelligent and lucid response, but before my lips can move, Hersh is on the loose again.

“What do you want from me? I mean, I really don’t like doing this. You know these interviews. Once it’s done, I move on. I...I mean you shoulda called last week. Why didn’t you call last week?” He asked.

“Um, I actually did call last week, but you said call back in two weeks,” I answered calmly and logically.

“Oh,” replied Hersh, and for a second I sensed a silence, and thus an opportunity.

“Mr. Hersh, it won’t take long. I just wanted your thoughts on the recent—”

“I hate it when people ask what I think. Who am I? I mean who cares what I think? Who cares about my thoughts? I just hate that. I hate answering that. I’m a reporter. I report the facts. I’m just a reporter. I’m just being up front with you.”

I am momentarily stunned. However, the South Asian salesman in me comes alive and, like a snake charmer, I’m prepared to cajole, console, placate and adulate in order to convince my reluctant client. But before I can utter a word, Hersh delivers another blow.

“Ok, a sample question. Suppose we did this interview, what would a sample question sound like? Hit me with a sample question. Go!” Commanded Hersh.

The bell rings. The heavyweight advances, and now he is on his toes for round one.

(Slightly flustered and caught off guard) Okay, I have one. Here’s a sample. Recently at the Democratic debate, Sen. Mike Gravel called out Sen. Hillary Clinton for voting on Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s aggressive resolution against Iran that condemned Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group. What I want to ask is, should we expect anything different from the Democrats if they are elected in regards to U.S. foreign policy, specifically in regards to Iraq? Iran?

I have no idea. I would certainly hope so. How would I possibly know? I don’t see them doing anything different with Iraq, despite concede [We have lost it]. Just concede it. I don’t know what else they can do that is different. And who says they’re going to win? I don’t see that they are going to win. I’m not sure they are, and I don’t know why people think that. They haven’t done anything different. They haven’t brought anything new to the table that hasn’t already been said by the Republicans. They just talk the talk. They talk the talk. If I knew this - I mean, who would win [the presidential race] - I’d be at the race track everyday. Not reporting. You just don’t know. No one knows. Listen, this is politics, and I’m just a guy who writes stories about the war. When people ask me about politics it drives me crazy! I’m not a fan of politics. I don’t like discussing politics. You can’t make me something I’m not.

I understand. Trust me, trust me, I’m not trying to. But, there you go, that would be an example of a sample question if we did an interview. -

What!? We are doing an interview! What the fuck were you doing?! This is the interview! Get out your recorder, let’s go. Let’s go.

Ok, great, let’s do it. Private contractors in Iraq, specifically Blackwater, have been on the news non-stop for the past few months regarding numerous allegations of reckless shooting and violence. What’s your take on this?

Oh, there’s been a lot of wrongdoing by them. A lot of arrogance. [Blackwater] drive around like they own the world over there. They increase a lot of resentment amongst the Iraqi civilian population against us [the U.S.] by behaving like this. Listen, if you’re an occupier then you act like an occupier. Occupiers act like occupiers. There is no way that Iraqi people will ever respond in any positive way to what Blackwater does.

How will the Iraqis respond to this? You highlighted the Abu Ghraib scandal in your book, Chain of Command. You know private contractors CACI and Titan were responsible for much of those abusive interrogations and you described the blowback resulting from [Abu Ghraib]. What’s the blowback on this one?

There is no way Iraqi people will respond to will - they have never responded to will. It’s exactly the same problem we encountered in Afghanistan. I mean, a lot of people who normally would have been or should have been supportive of us, I mean, they should have supported us initially, those people have come to realize they don’t like us since we became an “occupier.”

You know being an “occupier” is risky business. It is really hard to be an “occupier.” Occupiers never win. They never have. They’ve always ended up getting squeezed out. Anyone, I mean anyone, who has been following this war closely knows Blackwater is doing just what they’ve been doing all along. They only reason it’s in the news is because of the absolutely egregious way they behaved, and the fact (that) Iraq decided to go public against them. Listen, Blackwater is operating the way they’ve always operated. They only take care of their clients and their clients’ needs. That’s what matters. Anyone else who isn’t the client doesn’t matter.

Recently, a maelstrom has been raised over the new Mearsheimer and Walt book The Israel Lobby describing the influence of…

I don’t know Israeli Lobby? I don’t know if I’d call them an Israeli Lobby.

Well, do you buy it? The influence and pressure of certain pro--Israeli lobbies on the U.S. government? What’s the level of influence, if any, or is it overblown?

There’s AIPAC [American Israeli Political Action Committee]. You have AIPAC. It is a powerful lobby, you know, it’s an interest group. But Israel - Israel doesn’t need a lobby. It has direct connections right here, right here in town (Washington D.C.). I mean, of course, it’s a monumental force. But that’s the reality. It’s been a reality forever - in my life at least. Money talks is the old cliché, and B.S. walks. But you
know, it’s just interest groups. That’s the way they are, and everyone does it. Everyone.

Right. -

For example, the Muslims - that’s a good example. They solidly voted for Bush (2000 election).

The Muslims came out en masse and voted for him. -

Right, I mean the Muslims, the interest group, it’s not nearly as organized, or powerful or well-funded as others, but you know, there was enough money and enough percentage of votes that made a real effort in the Muslim community. [The Muslims] are conservative. Conservative in how they follow their religion, you know, very conservative. They (Muslim -Americans) keep their heads down, out of trouble, just keep your head down they believe, and they say, “just mind your own business.” And the Muslims are successful in business; they have a high degree of talent in making money in areas of big business. In the business world, for example in Lebanon you can see it with the Shia there. So, it is inevitable. Anyway, that’s how interests group work, always. But, I can’t calibrate the numbers for you to determine their influence.

Over the past couple of years, it’s become fashionable and clichéd amongst certain circles to compare our involvement in Iraq to the Vietnam War. Now, you’ve been there, you were there reporting on Vietnam, breaking the My Lai Massacre story back then. And here you are now with Iraq. As a person who has actually lived through it and reported on both, are there any similarities, or is it premature to compare?

One thing is similar. We are out there fighting in a country with uneducated, 18-year-old boys with weapons. They’re frightened - frightened. They’re frightened because they don’t know the country, they don’t know the culture. They’re not even interested in knowing about the culture. Fear is there. [The U.S. soldiers] never see an enemy sometimes, and weeks go by. And they continue to lose fellow soldiers, they lose them to snipers, they lose them to mines, and eventually and inevitably, they take the war to the people they can see. And in Iraq, that’s the local population. Happens in all wars. All of ‘em. Civilians are the ones treated differently.

Vietnam was always a tactical mistake. We lose the war, we are driven off in ‘75, and in four to five years we are back in that country playing Monopoly with Vietnam’s economy. You know, making investments, several investments in that country. That is not gonna happen here. We are in a strategic debate with about 1.3, what, 1.5 billion Muslims…

Around 1.5 -

Yeah, so 1.5 billion Muslims. We are in a real strategic war here, and we really misplayed it. We did more for Osama (bin Laden) than he could do for himself. We played a part in recruiting for him. This is a part of the world where America is not going to be wanted. Same thing in Afghanistan, especially in the Southern part of Afghanistan.

You make a good point. You know I’m a Pakistani-American, son of Pakistani immigrants, but I have family there still. And we talk to them often and I used to visit all the time, but the level of anti-Americanism in that country is amazing, which it didn’t have 10 years ago, but now, it’s just overwhelming.

Well, I specifically was discussing the southern region of Afghanistan.

But the border between the two -

Yes, right, you’re right. Like Afghanistan, Pakistan is the same issue, the exact same issue as with Afghanistan in terms of a tremendous lack of popularity for our government amongst the people there. This will increase particularly as we pit Sunni against Shia.

So there’s this rise of anti-Americanism unfortunately around that region. In your research, have you found the main cause of hatred against America?

American violence. It’s the violence. Do we know - I mean, how many bombs are dropped? How many shells are fired? Who knows what the accurate number is? I know I don’t. There was, last year I think, I believe there was a number reported in the “The Lancet” that said the Iraqi causalities numbered in 600,000 killed [The Lancet medical journal report published in October 2006 estimated 654,965 excess deaths related to the war, or 2.5 percent of the population]. That number is breathtaking--it’s breathtaking. I believe, however, the numbers and causalities are actually much greater than have been reported.

Every family in Iraq knows someone who has been killed. Americans are invariably blamed. We are going to have serious situations resulting from that. This is a society [Iraq] that does deal with revenge. We probably created a lot of new jihadists and martyrs and anger, anger with how we behaved and the resulting casualties that are innocent Iraqis.

On the ground in Iraq, what specifically causes the blowback against our troops, what causes the violence?

Americans are frightened. They are frightened in Iraq. Not frightened in, you know, a cowardly way. But frightened like anyone  I mean, it’s natural to be like that, anyone would. You’re a solider in Iraq, you’re now manning a checkpoint there. You don’t know the language, you don’t know Arabic. You don’t know their culture. Now, [the Iraqis] arrive at the checkpoints. They miss the checkpoints. You yell at them to stop, but they don’t understand you, they don’t speak the language, so they keep driving. They don’t stop. You open fire. And now you’ve made enemies. We are occupiers right now.

I want to get back to the Sunni-Shia comment you made. As you know, America has history in that region, specifically the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. We know that the U.S., through then-Vice President

George H.W. Bush, was heavily involved, trying to bleed both sides against the middle, weakening the Shia theocracy of Iran and hedging bets for the Sunni regime of Saddam. So, now, is it going to be the good ‘ol “divide and conquer” with the sectarian situation? How will U.S. forces and policy play with the Sunni-Shia dynamic in the Muslim world?

Brother versus brother. It’s going to be brother versus brother. Sunni versus Shia. There’s an incredible sectarian war happening right now in Iraq. Things are always tense between both groups there. We know Saddam mistreated the Shia when he was in power. But, it was nothing then like it is now. The killing now is unbelievable.

The new policy of America is that we are going to work with Israelis and moderate Sunnis, those include Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia. We’re going to join forces with Western forces in Europe. Then, America and Israel are going to go after people we don’t like. People like Iran, Hamas, Hizbollah. There is a coalition forming, a coalition that forms and pits brother against brother, a fitnah. You know that’s not an exact meaning of the word, it’s an Arabic word. But it’s fitnah [dissention, disunity]. And we have strange bedfellows working with us - Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia - all are going to be used to put pressure on Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. It’s a unique notion. It’s the redirection you are seeing it right now. I wrote about in the New Yorker. It’s called The Re-direction.

[The Re-direction, according to Hersh in his March piece, is the Bush Administration’s new policy towards the Middle East. In order to undermine Iran, which is Shia, the administration has decided to cooperate with Saudi’s Sunni government in Lebanon to engage in “clandestine operations that intend to weaken Hezbollah, the Shia organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria.”]

You are seeing tremendous pressure now. For example, now, right now in Lebanon, America’s position, the Bush Administration’s position, is to support the Siniora government as an example of their belief in democracy. We are not interested in hearing the complaints of the Shias [Hezbollah] and other groups.

[Hersh elaborates on this point in the same article, where he quotes an official who states, “We are in a program to enhance the Sunni capability to resist Shia influence, and we’re spreading the money around as much as we can.  In this process, we’re financing a lot of bad guys with some serious potential unintended consequences.  It’s a very high-risk venture.”]

Let’s talk of Iran. Based on what you’ve said and written, and what we’ve heard countless times by the Administration regarding Iran’s potential nuclear capability, their hostility towards America, and so forth, is there real, credible evidence to suggest that, indeed, Iran poses a threat?

Oh, the White House believes it. They believe that, no question. They believe Iran’s Revolutionary guard, the government, it’s all part of one unified group that is dedicated to help kill Americans. [The White House] describes the Revolutionary Guard as an active, radical commando unit. Of course our intelligence community is bitterly, bitterly divided over this. And the Administration has not even come close to making its case on this. We have to remember, when it was 1992, Saddam fell after the war, and for a brief time, you know, there was a rebellion against Saddam’s regime by the Shia. We knew about it, and we did nothing. We let Saddam fly helicopters to kill these Shias. Since then, there has been a lot of bitterness against America. So, there is always two sides, right, two sides to a story? Well, this has six, seven sides.

But what does the White House say, or believe, that Iran concretely does to help the insurgency in Iraq?

America says that Iran supplies arms. They supply arms, weapons, I.E.D’s  which - do you know about them? They are these improvised explosive devices, these explosive devises that are incredibly effective. They think Iran is supplying intelligence on several issues, and they see Iran as being directly responsible for what’s happening in Iraq.

Ok, one more. That should be enough right? You should have enough for a piece, right?

Should be enough, yeah. So, according to your sources and research, in your opinion, has Iran actually done anything to warrant this belief that it is a legitimate threat to America?

Well, Some believe, like I do, some people believe that Iran is doing nothing different than what it has done for the past two to three decades in supporting the Shia. I mean, that’s what they are in interested in, to support the Shia. But there is no notion that this government, our government, has proven its case yet. The U.S. may do what they want to do against Iran. I mean, who is going to stop this president? Who is going to stop him? I don’t know. (Pause) Ok, so are we good?

We are good.

Ok, no more right? Promise no more phone calls?

Promise no more phone calls.

Great. Thanks. Bye

Ding. Ding. Ding. End of Round 15. And with that, Hersh hangs up the phone and returns to do what he does best: reporting. He doesn’t believe that people care about his opinions or his thoughts. I mean, he’s not a politician, so why should they, right? He’s just a reporter. That’s all.

So, please folks, let’s not go and try to make him something he’s not.