07/30/2013 02:06 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2013

Sy Hersh and the Snoopers

The July 25 headline in the New York Times was a simple summary: "Spy Agencies Under Heaviest Scrutiny Since Abuse Scandal of the '70s." The unprecedented and sweeping domestic spying of the National Security Agency had riveted the nation's attention and awakened the sleeping regulatory agencies and the federal courts. But the question that remains is, Will the scrutiny matter? Can the immense American spying apparatus withstand the same kind of glare it underwent back in 1975, starting with a startling exposé in the Times by Seymour Hersh, American's quintessential and iconic investigative reporter?

It's worth recalling those events to see how that remarkably similar scandal emerged -- and what results came about and which ones disappeared once the furor died down.
When Abe Rosenthal brought Hersh and his Pulitzer Prize to the New York Times in 1972, his reasoning was simple: the newspaper's Washington bureau -- chock full of terrific reporters -- needed someone willing to ruffle feathers, dig deeper and push harder than the paper's capitol corps had been doing.

Rosenthal had to look no further than the story of the Watergate break-in. Two novice reporters from the Washington Post, its arch rival, were way ahead. Hersh, then 35 years old, at first balked at pursuing Watergate -- he never liked chasing someone else's story -- but eventually bureau chief Clifton Daniel cajoled the irascible Hersh, buying him some new shirts and sweaters and telling him that the Times needed him on this story.

Hersh dove in and even Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward had to later admit that he not only caught up but began to outpace them. Rosenthal had what he needed -- a star investigative reporter, albeit an unorthodox one who had won a Pulitzer for going after the massacre of civilians at My Lai in 1969 when the rest of the press left the story alone.

But Watergate was a diversion for Hersh, not his real passion, even though he wrote nearly 50 stories for the Times as the scandal unfolded. He had bigger fish to fry, especially his pursuit of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whose fingerprints he saw all over a variety of foreign policy misadventures, including the illegal bombing of Cambodia and the CIA overthrow of Chile's democratically elected president, Salvador Allende.

Topping Hersh's list was his obsession with learning more about the CIA. He had been stuffing folders for years with tidbits about clandestine activities, "an investigator's dream," his colleague, the famous Harrison Salisbury called it, "the raw materials of a dozen smash stories just waiting to be fleshed out." Whether he had a book in mind or was simply waiting for the moment when some nugget would pull all this information together is unclear. But the moment arrived in 1974, after Richard Nixon has been forced to resign and hand over the presidency to Gerald Ford.

Once, Hersh and editor Rosenthal visited CIA Director William Colby, who had taken over the agency in 1973. It was a courtesy call, but Rosenthal, also a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, could not resist asking: "How come every time I come across the CIA I find they are on the side of the fingernail pullers?" The director replied calmly, "We are only a function of what the President wants." Rosenthal was shaken and told Hersh to keep probing.

And he did. Whenever someone retired from the agency, Hersh would call: "Hi, I am Sy Hersh... you might want to talk to me." Hersh's sources, usually unidentified and always high ranking, told him that ever since the Vietnam War the CIA had been spying on U.S. citizens on American soil. The citizens, like actress Jane Fonda, might have been involved in espionage or suspicious activity while abroad and this, they claimed, justified surveillance, including opening mail and tapping phones.

The CIA's charter, however, expressly forbid any surveillance of citizens in the U.S. One FBI agent told Hersh: "We don't want a Gestapo." Hersh could not find a smoking gun document that confirmed the spying, but he spoke to enough people -- even Colby offered confirmation -- that on Dec. 22, 1974, he was able to write a story that commanded four columns on Page One of the Times, declaring, "Huge CIA Operation Reported in U.S. against Antiwar Forces, Other Dissidents in Nixon Years."

His opening paragraph, which would be much disputed, alleged "massive" spying, in violation of the very clear directive from Congress. The story sent a chill across the country. "No series of news stories since Watergate has had so quick an impact on government," wrote the New Republic. Colby said it ushered in "The Year of Intelligence" which for him at least was not a good thing. Three major investigations began, and documents and deeds from the past two decades -- including assassinations of foreign leaders and presidential paramours who might be spies -- tumbled out. The CIA was under attack in a way that never before had happened. Hersh wondered: "Is it possible for an agency as secret and powerful as the CIA to operate at all in a democracy?"

The 1975 brouhaha offers a remarkable parallel to events still unfolding today. The federal government has been at it again, in the form of the National Security Agency which has been snooping again on American citizens -- arguing once again that our security demands wiggle room in our civil liberties. It is the CIA story all over, with the 9/11 attacks as the justification.

The closest we have to a Seymour Hersh today (at least on this story) is Glenn Greenwald, an American who writes a column for the Guardian in Britain. Greenwald has been the recipient of leaks from ex-government employee Edward Snowden, now on the lam in distant places for daring to reveal dirty deeds. I have to think that if Sy Hersh, now 76, was not in the thick of completing a big book on the dark Dick Cheney, he would have gotten wind of the NSA spying long before Snowden went public.

And if he had, instead of the brickbats being hurled at Snowden, it would have been Hersh back in the crosshairs of government fury, as it was in 1975.

When Hersh revealed the CIA's domestic spying, he became an instant and notorious celebrity, more so than after his My Lai expose in 1969. Annie Liebovitz, the icon of American photographers, captured him on the run in a photo shoot for Rolling Stone magazine. Time and Newsweek did stories on him in the same week; and a Washington Post editor devoted a long chapter to the "scoop artist" in a book on investigative reporters, along with a chapter on his longtime rival, Bob Woodward.

To Hersh's chagrin, however, the fact that he had become a part of the CIA domestic spying story forced the Times to assign other reporters to follow the unfolding scandal. Hersh could not be separated from the scandal. Everyone would repeat the allegations about the "massive" spying, but then identify him as the bearer of the bad news, and often challenge his reporting. The Times could not have him cover the story.

Even some editors inside the Times' offices were suspect. John Oakes, a relative of the Times' founder and its op-ed page editor, wrote to Abe Rosenthal to condemn Hersh's "tendentious reporting," his "breathless, prejudicial, pejorative and truly non-objective manner." Rosenthal fired back a nasty note on Oakes' "embarrassing harangue," adding, "Your emotional, pejorative, denunciatory, and self-serving style brings out the worst in me. Let me leave it at this: Hersh and the Times broke a story that will go down in the annals of American journalism as one that contributed vitally to the understanding of our times and the betterment of our society." Turned out Rosenthal was correct.

Critics all over Washington assailed Hersh's reporting; only Rosenthal stuck with him. When the Pulitzer Prizes were announced in April, he was bypassed, with one juror saying the story was "over-written, overplayed, underresearched and underproven." A conservative columnist screamed: "No one ever named Hersh a federal judge."

And then the facts caught up with Hersh's reporting. A commission headed by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, in essence, conceded all of Hersh's points. And then Sen. Frank Church of South Dakota started a major investigation, finding things Hersh had not even imagined - assassinations. The CIA called this body of abuses "the family Jewels," long hidden from public view. And when they came out, it led to including a ban on foreign assassinations. The spying was much worse than Hersh had reported: 300,000 spying dossiers has been compiled, not 10,000. Hersh was conservative.

Three decades later as Hersh wrote about the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as a regular contributor to the New Yorker, he wondered if the regulations his reporting had wrought were tying the hands of the CIA in its attempt to corral al Qaeda leaders. After all, his l975 revelations had profound and far-reaching effects. The impact initially caused a shift in public opinion that exerted great pressure for reform. Congress began much closer oversight. But in the long run, the agency not only survived but got past the crisis to resume its power, albeit not on American soil. Today the NSA does the spying, legally, but it is nonetheless as out of control as was the CIA.

After Hersh's exposé, the public moved on as the story faded and the various investigations dragged on. There continued to be "some unease," observed scholar Cynthia Nolan, but "no outcry." Historian Kathryn S. Olmsted concluded that "by the end of the 1970s, Americans knew more about their government's secrets and misdeeds than any people in history. And the more they learned, the more they suspected that the government was still hiding bigger, more explosive secrets."

But they also grew nervous about wrecking the agency. Writer William Greider declared: "There is a strong wish all over town... that it would be nice if somehow this genie could be put back in the bottle." By the time the investigations were over, Olmsted maintained, the press, the Congress, and the public "preferred to maintain their basic deference to the secret government." Except for Sy. Hersh.

Today one wonders if the pattern will be repeated Greenwald and others know that the war on leakers -- journalists' key sources -- is on. In the government's view, "the only kinds of leaks that are bad are leaks that the government doesn't want disclosed to the public," Greenwald said. "The only thing that is journalism to them is when they carry forth the message that has been implanted in their brains by the political officials whom they serve."

Greenwald is a disciple of Sy Hersh, who with Bob Woodward is still America's greatest investigative reporter. He has lived off leakers for many years, but that does a disservice to the kind of reporting he and other muckrakers do. They speak with hundreds of sources, read countless documents, and get background information from many top-ranking elected officials and regulators.

As CBS' Daniel Schorr put it, "A little band of Seymour Hershes and Woodward-Bernsteins knew that the story that read so comprehensively, so smoothly that it seemed to have been copied intact from a bestowed document, often was the product of weeks of painful digging, prying and assembling from many reluctant sources." Hersh agreed. "Sources are funny things, a piece there and a piece here. Nobody comes in and lays things on you," he said. A leaked story, "that's usually a story you put 200 man-hours in on."

And it is usually a story that the government is desperately trying to keep quiet.

"You're trying to get information other people don't want you to have," Hersh said. "It's fun." But it could not have been too much fun, Superspy James Engleton told the TV networks that Hersh was a "son of a bitch" who was helping the Russians, adding, "You've done them a great favor." Hersh was in "a lonely and difficult position," observed David Wise, who wrote one of the first books about the CIA. It is not unlike Snowden today, accused as a traitor, eve tough his revelations have led to a re-evaluation of how spying should take place in the Post-9/11 terrorism era.

Reporters like Hersh and Greenwald, coupled with leakers like Snowden, principled or not, may bring some pain, but they cleanse the democracy, or at least open it up to light. Sunshine, still, is the best disinfectant, even as it opens some wounds along the way. The people will now decide how much government spying they will tolerate, until the next round of exposé is needed.

Robert Miraldi, Ph.D., is a professor of journalism at SUNY New Paltz. His biography, Seymour Hersh: Scoop Artist, will be out this fall from Potomac Books/University of Nebraska Press.