Sy Hersh: Old, Cranky and Spot On

05/19/2015 02:22 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2016
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The famed and legendary investigative journalist Seymour M. Hersh has just done what he has been doing for the past four decades -- given us a view of the world that runs counter to both the official government story and the version told to the American public by the mainstream press. And, not surprisingly, both the government and the press are bashing him.

The 78-year-old Hersh has not created such a controversy with an exposé like his most recent one about the death of Osama bin Laden since the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal hit world-wide front pages in 2004.

When he revealed Abu Ghraib, and for many years after, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld were his targets. And he hit them hard and repeatedly. Bush called him a liar; Rumsfeld, an old friend, stopped returning calls; Cheney just snarled. But there was not much to do about Sy Hersh because, mostly, he got the story and his facts right.

Hersh's alternative view of the multiple wars in the Middle East and the U.S. war on terrorism -- seen mostly in the pages of his long New Yorker dispatches -- is a candid and well reported account of screw-ups and cover-ups. And much of it was ignored by the mainstream media.

The government tried its best -- as have presidential administrations dating back to Lyndon Johnson -- to undermine Hersh's account of the Mideast. He is an untrustworthy lefty. He has gone off the deep end and is losing his marbles. He uses these anonymous sources who nobody knows and he just cannot be trusted.

And now the same attacks on Hersh are being repeated as he lofts claims -- based on information from a few key sources and years of traveling the Middle East as a news gatherer -- that virtually everything we have come to believe about the killing of bin Laden in 2011 is a fiction cobbled together by the Obama administration to foster a heroic portrait of how it all occurred.

The president's team has called his story "outright falsehoods." And a former high-ranking CIA official wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "The article is one of the most badly flawed documents ever produced by a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer."

The problem with these denials is how many times we have heard them before about Hersh's reporting. To wit:

• In 1968 Hersh exposed the fact that the U.S. was compiling a huge stockpile of chemical and biological weapons, and beginning to use some in Vietnam. The government denied, until his reporting made that a ridiculous claim. Nixon quickly halted the biological weapons when elected. It was Sy Hersh's first big victory. (I document this and the others that follow in my 2013 Hersh biography Seymour Hersh: Scoop Artist.)

• In 1969, when Hersh poked around the My Lai story, he reported that American soldiers, led by one officer, killed a few hundred civilians in the small village -- old women, men and children. The U.S. denied it, until it was clear his reporting rang true. And it turned out that more than 500 had been killed. He won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting without ever leaving the U.S. (He visited My Lai just recently.)

• In 1974, as the New York Times ace investigative reporter, Hersh revealed that the CIA was snooping into the mail and phone calls of American citizens (sound familiar?) which was roundly denied by the Ford administration. Hersh was pilloried for his careless reporting and denied the Pulitzer Prize that April. In June the Rockefeller Commission reported it was all true and Hersh had grossly underestimated the spying. Victory Sy Hersh.

• In the lead up to Nixon's resignation, Hersh revealed that Henry Kissinger and Nixon had covered up illegal bombing of Cambodia; some House members wanted this included in his impeachment. Of course, all denied it, but it turned out to be very true.

• In 1980, when he left the Times, he wrote his signature work, using 1,000 interviews to piece together the story of The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House, a vicious attack on the former Secretary of State for a slew of misdeeds. Kissinger never read the book but said it was all "slimy lies." Nonetheless, Ronald Reagan did not dare try to put Kissinger in his cabinet for fear of public hearings that would ensue. "Kissinger's nemesis," as Hersh was called, derailed Dr. K.

• More books followed, and all were controversial. His 1991 The Sampson Option showed how Israel has nuclear weapons which much of the diplomatic worked knew but would never admit; it infuriated many. Hersh was called a self-loathing Jew and on one occasion he was run out of a synagogue as a traitor. But the story could not be denied.

• His personal low point came in 1999 when he probed the The Dark Side of Camelot to see if John Kennedy's active extramarital sex life impeded his policy making, And Hersh concluded it did, with Secret Service agents revealing for the first time ever the nights of parties with women who no one could knew or trust. Hersh was viciously attacked by Kennedy acolytes as tabloid trash -- in words similar to what is being said now. No one observed that the left-leaning Hersh was going after a Democrat, as he is now in Obama.

Should I go on? To his expose of Gen, Barry McCaffrey's post-peace attack on returning Iraqi his detailed reporting of the missteps of the Bush Administration on trying to get bin Laden in the early days after 9/ the chaos at the CIA as it realized it had no operatives in the Middle East, thanks partly to Hersh's earlier reporting which forced CIA reforms.

And then, of course, it climaxed with Abu Ghraib in 2004, another story that a White House tried desperately to muffle.

The point is simple: Hersh has a history of getting it right. I will concede the bin Laden story seems more thinly sourced than usual. And I have to wonder if the standards of the London Review of Books are looser than the New Yorker where Hersh has prospered since 2000. But his last two exposés -- Saran gas in Syria in 2013 -- and now this one, were declined by the New Yorker. Its editor David Remnick is mum.

Remnick, a former Washington Post reporter, was a good influence on Hersh, even though they admitted to fighting an awful lot. No surprise. Hersh hates editors and has fought with them for 40 years. His editors at his first job in Chicago would not take him back after a stint in the Army because he so irritated them. He left the AP in 1967 in a fight over a story. The Times was glad to see him go in 1979 because his reporting techniques had irked so many sources and editors -- and even the Times' publisher. It was just time.

Remnick might have had enough of the cantankerous Hersh. But the real question is about the reliability of his latest 10,000-word missive on Obama.

It is worth noting: there have always been three Seymour Hersh characters. The first is the guy who gives speeches (now for $25,000 a pop) where he can be eloquent and passionate, but speaks off the cuff and sticks his foot in his mouth. What he says in speeches, he will often not write. But it can be confusing to his audience -- and a press that follows his every utterance.

Then there is the cautious, conservative reporter, who gets out of the way of the story, and lets facts speak. He has successfully done this for 55 years. It is hard to find stories that express his opinion. He loathes when he is asked what he thinks. Who cares, he says. See my reporting.

Which is why it is surprises to see him so bold in his latest exposé, using words like "fabrications" and "blatant lies" and ending with a rare peroration: "High-level lying remain the modus operandi of U.S. policy." That is further than he usually goes. One wonders if Remnick would have excised those lines.

And, finally, there is the Sy Hersh who relentlessly promotes his work after publication. He calls it "pimping" going on talk shows, making himself available to discuss about his work. Sometimes the result is bizarre. He spoke with a Slate correspondent, declaring. "I am not backing off anything I said." He was a quirky as I have ever heard him. "I am too old and too cranky," he said.

But, frankly, he has been cranky for 50 years, dating back to when he was press secretary for Eugene McCarthy who ran for the presidency against Lyndon Johnson. The actor Paul Newman once had to intercede when Hersh and a McCarthy staffer were about to get in a fistfight over policy differences.

This is Sy Hersh. He is irascible, iconoclastic, irrepressible, difficult, passionate -- and still angry about governmental lies. And he is usually right. Bob Woodward, his rival, compares him to the Marines, the first to hit the beach, taking all the gunfire. Then, Woodward says, we all follow. For his part, Hersh declares, "I still have my fastball." Hold on to your hats. Bin Laden is dead but this story is not.