It may be a New Year, but it is the same old Sy Hersh, arguably America's best investigative reporter, who is still sticking his thumb in the eye of power at the age of 76 and exposing what he sees as the abuse of power. "This is why creepy troublemakers like me stay in business," he recently told an interviewer.
Hersh was referring to the most recent flap he caused over allegations made in the London Review of Books against the Obama Administration about Syria, Assad and chemical weapons. Bluntly, he wrote: "Barack Obama did not tell the whole story this autumn when he tried to make the case that Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attack near Damascus. In some instances, he omitted important intelligence, and in others, he presented assumptions as facts."
The flap was not only over the serious allegations against the President, but over the fact that his long-time home, The New Yorker magazine, refused to print the article which, as always, was filled with numerous anonymous sources. Sourcing aside, to some it spoke to a surprising sheepishness by America's premier intelligentsia magazine to take on the President.
For Hersh to do battle with an editor or his employer is no surprise. Sy Hersh has ended up quitting or leaving in a huff from virtually every place he has ever worked over a storied 40-year-career. And now, with the flap still brewing, one has to wonder if it has happened again.
Ever since 2000 when he wrote a revealing and barbed attack on Gen. Barry McCaffrey for The New Yorker, (the longest piece the magazine ever carried) Hersh has been a regular contributor. But Editor David Remnick declined his latest Syria piece, a shocker after Hersh virtually carried the magazine through the post- 9/11 bombing years with one controversial and hard-hitting piece after another.
Remnick, the one man who always knew Hersh's many secret sources, has said the reason the magazine topped the one million circulation mark some years ago was easy to understand:The New Yorker had Sy Hersh. So for the magazine not to take a piece from their big gun after he has been away for so long working on a book, is, well, shocking. And bewildering.
But Hersh seems nonplussed, as usual. "Sometimes you get tired of reporters coming in and saying the sky's always black," he said about the rejections of the article from both The New Yorker and The Washington Post. "Investigative reporters have a very short shelf life." Of course, that is not true about Hersh, who has had more exposés and scoops and won more awards over the past 40 years than any other American journalist.
Don't get me wrong; The London Review of Books is a fine (albeit odd) place to write an exposé of an American president. But The New Yorker has been his comfortable and high-profile home for a long time.
My biography of Hersh, Seymour Hersh: Scoop Artist, came out in October, and as I go to various place to talk about it and Hersh, the same questions come up: What is he doing? Why is he not in The New Yorker? There is a palpable sense of New Yorker readers missing the Hersh byline. www.scoopartistthebook.com
The answer, simply, is that although he has been champing at the bit to write about breaking events in the Mideast and in intelligence (oh, how we could use his insights and sources on the NSA scandal), he has been hard at work on a book on covert intelligence from Bush-Cheney into the Obama White House. "One of these days I will finish it," he said recently. Given that he has written nine books -- some of them big and controversial -- there is little doubt about that. But what seems to have started as a look at the dominant role of Vice President Dick Cheney in covert activities -- certainly no surprise -- has morphed.
Hersh has indicated that as he closed in on Cheney, it came to his attention that many of the offensive policies of Bush just carried over into the Obama Administration. His latest story on Syria is likely just one of the examples. He writes that the Obama Administration ignored evidence that might have showed that a terrorist group opposed to Assad was responsible for using Saran gas and killing perhaps as many as 1,500 civilians.
The Obama Administration "cherry picked" information, he alleged, ignoring contrary evidence because it was politically expedient to blame Assad. The White House vehemently denied the charge, calling Hersh a liar. This all sounds so familiar. Presidents have called him a liar dating back to Lyndon Johnson, who said his reports about illegal American bombing of North Vietnam were untrue. LBJ was doing the lying, actually.
Nixon played down Hersh's My Lai massacre story until it exploded on front pages all over the world. Henry Kissinger tried to deny U.S. involvement in the overthrow and assassination of Chile's Salvador Allende -- Hersh's scoop -- until documents showed American involvement. His articles and books have the uncanny ability to cause a furor and bring the rebuke of those attacked. And then it all turns out to be true.
Witness his 1975 exposé that the CIA was illegally opening mail of American citizens. Hersh actually got it wrong; he grossly underestimated the number of dossiers the CIA had compiled. But two Congressional investigations did confirm his allegations. Hersh rarely gets it wrong. He is a careful reporter with sources all over who trust him. And talk.
Nonetheless, Hersh burns bridges wherever he works. At the Chicago City News Bureau in 1959 he irked editors with pranks; they would not rehire him when he returned from the Army. At the Associated Press, he fought with editors over an exposé on chemical and biological weapons, a story that led Nixon to ban biological weapons. But he walked out on the AP job most reporters would die for.
As press secretary to Sen Eugene McCarthy, who sought to unseat Lyndon Johnson in 1968, he quit in a public furor because he felt McCarthy was not tough enough on civil rights. And then, after a marvelous seven-year run at the New York Times, he left in 1979 when his editor A.M. Rosenthal would not grant a leave to write his scathing book on Kissinger. Insiders said Hersh's bullying of sources and stepping on toes of the biggest names in American government wore out his welcome.
And now this. No one in the U.S. wanted to touch his frontal assault on Barack Obama. His London Review of Books piece was pretty blunt but, still, it is not so explosive, nor so vaguely documented that an editor with half a brain would shy away. Wince a bit, maybe. But Remnick winced and fought with Hersh a lot over years. Why not again? It strains credibility to think the New Yorker was afraid to take on the President. It slaughtered Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Bush.
Maybe Remnick tired of Hersh's ever-brassy behavior. He always makes things worse when he gives interviews and speeches and goes well beyond what he writes. Of Obama he commented in a recent interview: "I have not read enough... Freud to know what the hell is going on with him but there is something wrong with the guy."
In the end, it is tough to figure why the New Yorker would not trust the reporting of the "troublemaker." Journalists are supposed to be troublemakers. Remnick, you owe an explanation.