For decades now, no reporter has been better at asking tough questions and getting candid answers than the legendary Seymour Hersh. This morning, our David Martin tries to turn the tables during a visit to Hersh's Washington office:
Welcome to Seymour Hersh's office. Buried in these files ("These are my fancy interviews; you tell me you could translate one page from one thing here!") are some of the greatest scoops of all time. Journalism awards, including the Pulitzer, cover the walls and spill onto the floor.
He is, as the title of his memoir says, a reporter. Or as the opening line puts it, "A survivor of the Golden Age of journalism."
What's the Golden Age? "Oh my God, this would be the Watergate era," Hersh said.
President Nixon: "During the past year the wildest accusations have been given banner headlines and ready credence as well."
"We all felt that we were the truth-tellers. Our stories were much, much more credible than anything the White House could say, any denial they made. There was never anything like it."
Martin asked, "What would you call today's age?"
"The age of very dumb cable news controlling, dominating everything."
"Do you call yourself old school?"
"Oh, my God, ancient school!"
The son of immigrants who barely spoke English, Hersh grew up poor on the South Side of Chicago and bounced around in the news business until 1969 ("I'm still freelancing, can't get a job"), when someone gave him a tip that changed his life: "He said, 'Enlisted man went crazy and killed 75 people.'"
That put Hersh on the trail of the My Lai massacre, perhaps the single biggest expose of the Vietnam War. The enlisted man turned out to be an officer – Lt. William Calley. His attorney, George Latimer, wouldn't say where Calley was, but Hersh tracked him down at Fort Benning, Georgia.
The reporter introduced himself: "'Hi, my name is Hersh.' And he says, 'Oh yeah, my lawyer told me you'd find me.' So, we sit down and he tells me his story."
Hersh's report would appear in almost three dozen papers. "Everybody put it on page one," he said.
Then, Hersh set up an interview between one of Calley's soldiers, Paul Meadlo, and Mike Wallace of CBS News.
Meadlo: "I might have killed about ten or fifteen of them."
Wallace: "Men, women and children?"
Meadlo: "Men, women and children."
Wallace: "And babies?"
Meadlo: "And babies."
Now, The New York Times (which had not run Hersh's original My Lai story) also wanted to interview Meadlo, but Hersh paid them back by hanging up the phone on managing editor Abe Rosenthal. "And so two minutes later, he calls back: 'Do you know who I am?' And I said, 'Yes, sir,' and I hung up again!"
Yet three years later, Rosenthal hired Hersh. He might be obnoxious, but as The Times' Washington Bureau chief put it, "When you consider what he has done on My Lai and other stories without any organizational backing, you can appreciate his zeal and skill."
Hersh turned his manic intensity to the biggest story of them all – Watergate. And even Richard Nixon, as recorded on the White House tapes, was impressed.
Nixon: "God damn it, this story in the Times, the one by Hersh. He doesn't usually go with something that's wrong. I mean, the son-of-a-bitch is a son-of-a-bitch, but he's usually right, isn't he?"
One of his jaw-dropping scoops came from a senior FBI official named William Sullivan. Hersh recalled: "He invited me to lunch, and when he got up to leave, he said, 'Stay around after, finish your coffee.' He said, 'I left something on my chair.' Like in the movies! And I drank my coffee and I got up and I picked it up. Seventeen wiretaps, 15 of them signed by Kissinger. It was where the wiretaps were placed and who were the technicians that did it."
Henry Kissinger, then Nixon's national security adviser, had asked the FBI to wiretap some of his closest aides to find out who was leaking.
But that was not the biggest story Hersh was working on: "There was a big, huge, horrible story on the inside about domestic spying."
The revelation that the CIA had violated its charter against spying inside the U.S. and kept dossiers on 10,000 anti-war activists was a scandal second only to Watergate. Hersh confirmed that story with none other than the director of the agency, William Colby. Hersh said Colby acknowledged the program while saying to the reporter, "It's not as bad as it seems."
A now-declassified CIA history contains a transcript of Colby talking about Hersh with deputy attorney general Lawrence Silberman:
Silberman: "The S.O.B. has sources that are absolutely beyond comparison."
Colby: "He knows more about this place than I do."
After a seven-year run of blockbusters unlike any in the history of American journalism, Hersh quit The New York Times. "I was going to burn out, I just knew it," he said. "Also, I'm being held at a high standard. You know, you gotta be great."
Martin asked, "What's wrong with being held to a high standard?"
"When you ask me, it's scary!"
He went to work for The New Yorker, where he continued to turn out major exposes, most notably the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. But in journalism you're only as good as your next story.
Martin asked, "So, you know what the talk has become now?"
"Oh, 'He's lost his fastball' and stuff like that," said Hersh.
"Have you lost your fastball?"
"I don't think I ever had a real fastball!"
"Oh, come on!"
"Hell, no, no."
"You threw heat."
"I threw heat! I'm still throwing heat."
In 2014 he threw what can only be called a "wild pitch" with a story in the London Review of Books, after which, he said, "Hell broke out."
The talk changed from "Hersh has lost his fastball" to "Hersh has lost it, period."
Hersh wrote that everything President Obama and his national security aides had told the nation about the Bin Laden raid was a lie. The SEALs had not pulled off a daring night raid. Instead, Hersh wrote, the Pakistanis had been holding Bin Laden prisoner and invited the SEALs in to stage a mock raid – a secret deal cut by then-CIA director Leon Panetta.
"I talked to Leon Panetta," said Martin.
"Panetta's the one that should have told the truth; he didn't," Hersh said.
"He says, 'It's all fantasy. I don't know where the hell he got that. There's just not a shred of evidence to support that. It's the opposite. The Pakistanis never gave us any help.' So, is he just lying to me?"
"I have a completely different story from completely different sources."
"For the record, you stand by it?"
"Oh my God, I stand by all those stories," Hersh replied.
Somewhere in his warren of files ("Stuff I haven't written yet!"), which he keeps only on paper so the government can't hack into his computer, lies Hersh's next blockbuster.
When asked, at age 81, why he still does it, the reporter responded, "It makes your blood a little redder. Come on, it's there. There's something about a good story."
READ AN EXCERPT:
For more info:
- "Reporter: A Memoir" by Seymour M. Hersh (Knopf), available via Amazon
- Seymour Hersh at The New Yorker
Story produced by Mary Walsh.