Seymour Hersh is one of journalism's living legends. As a young reporter in Vietnam, he broke the story of the My Lai massacre, in which U.S. troops killed hundreds of Vietnamese villagers. More recently, he revealed the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the now-infamous Abu Ghraib prison. He currently covers national-security issues for The New Yorker, where he recently caused a stir with a story arguing that Iran's nuclear ambitions were being overstated.
Hersh visits Pittsburgh on Sept. 19. He spoke with City Paper by phone from New York.
I'll start with an obvious question: Are Americans any safer today than they were on Sept. 11, 2001?
Of course not. I think we're a lot worse off. Let me refer you to Spain, where they had hundreds of people killed and injured in a [March 2004] train bombing, and in India, where there was a [2008 attack] in Mumbai. In both cases, nobody was crying for a "war on terror." They went and prosecuted the people that did it. We'd have been a lot safer if Bush and Cheney hadn't decided that the answer to 9/11 was to declare a global war on terrorism.
In fact, the Obama administration seems to have mostly continued Bush's tactics, despite campaign pledges to, for example, shutter the prison at Guantanamo Bay. You've said elsewhere that Obama has become "dominated" by the military. How do you think that happens with a new president?
What I think is beside the point, because I don't know. What I do know is that presidents get very frustrated. A president comes in thinking you have all that power, and you do in a way. But you can't dominate Congress, or the press. … [So] somebody from the special-ops community comes, and you take a walk in the Rose Garden, and somebody gets hurt a week later because of what you authorized. That's gotta be pretty attractive. I'm sure Obama fell prey to that.
Obama's Libya policy, though, has been hailed as a different approach, in which the U.S. takes a back seat to multinational groups like NATO.
[Laughs.] I think it's fair to say the [United Nations] and NATO jump as high as we want it to jump. The idea that we were "leading from behind" is a construct I don't really accept.
And you know, it's too early to say what's going to happen in Libya. Gaddhafi has got a lot of tribal support, and it's a very tribal country. [He may] sit back for a little while and then start an insurrection like Saddam did. We allegedly won the Iraq war very quickly, too.
When you reported that Iran's nuclear ambitions were overhyped, the White House response was, "Don't listen to Hersh; international weapons inspectors say the Iranians are hiding things." What's your answer?
This [story was based heavily] on their own intelligence agencies. … Both Israel and this White House understand that Iran doesn't have a bomb now. And there is common agreement that whatever ambitions Iran might have had about making a bomb were not because of us, but because they had a terribly bitter war with Iraq during the 1980s. In 2003, we cleaned the Iraqi clock. After that, there's just no evidence that they went back to bomb-making.
Making a weapon is not easy … and you have to test the bomb. There's no evidence that they've done that, or come close. This is really as pathetic as the debate over WMD in Iraq.
But on a lot of this stuff, because I'm not naming [key sources] -- because doing so would end their careers -- it gets ignored. Inside the government it gets a lot of attention, but among the other press, who don't know the people I'm talking to and can't get to them, it gets pretty much ignored.
Which raises questions about media coverage: Have your press colleagues learned anything after the WMD threat proved empty?
You know, for me to start going after the press -- I'm not interested in self-immolation. I have enough trouble as it is.
But the press was clearly cleaned out on the WMD issue; you'd think they would have learned more. … And after Vietnam, you'd think we'd be more careful about going to a country about which we don't know much, and beginning a ground war there. We're not going to win the war in Afghanistan. The best we can hope for there is some sort of stalemate. Is that worth it?
Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures' Literary Evenings Monday Night Lecture Series hosts SEYMOUR HERSH 7:30 p.m. Mon., Sept. 19. Carnegie Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. 412-622-8866 or www.pittsburghlectures.org