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True to George Orwell's words (“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed”), Seymour Hersh is the man responsible for outing a long list of dirty state secrets, from the Vietnam War's My Lai massacre to the mistreatment in Abu Ghraib prison to the US’ involvement in Syria today.
Over a remarkable 50-year career, Hersh revealed evidence of gross abuses of power and outright crimes and lies perpetrated by the US government, military and intelligence services in long, mind-bending exposés that display both in-depth knowledge and real guts. Investigative journalism takes perseverance and "homework", as Hersh calls it... but also a strong sense of independence, which he displayed once again last year by quitting the New Yorker. “I just was not happy with their politics,” he commented laconically. (He’d left AP and The New York Times for similar reasons in the past.)
The next few years will be very hard for America I think. I hope! We deserve it.
Over the last four years, the Pulitzer Prize winner has turned his investigative gaze to the Syrian conflict, tracking intelligence feuds and undercover operations as well as the Obama administration's lies. He’s been publishing the results in The London Review of Books, often while under attack by officials and corporate media accusing him of “conspiracy theories".
In Berlin last week to talk at the Logan Symposium put on by London's Centre for Investigative Journalism, Hersh shared a piece of his mind on Syria with João Rosa Miranda and Hai-Hsin Lu of NewsPeeks. Here's an edited transcript of their video interview.
What in your opinion is the most under-reported aspect of the Syrian war?
Well, I think right now you could argue that what's really going on is that Russia, America, and the Iranians, together with Hezbollah and the Syrian army are now fighting a war against Turkey – a member of NATO. It's a most amazing situation. There’s no question that Turkey has been supporting ISIS and other groups for many years; the borders have been open. So President Erdogan is increasingly being cornered on this. And so I'm shocked that as Americans, in the daily press, we still talk about Turkey as if somehow they're on our side! They're not. They're in a panic about the Kurds. For a long time in Turkey the Kurds, or the PKK, have been the opposition force, and you also have the Kurds – Syrian Kurds, many of them – who are fighting with us against ISIS. So really that's a major story, and nobody wants to put it that way. In America, we don't frame it.
In America you can't talk about doing anything with Russia. Putin, my God, if you mention Putin... Everyone goes "We have to hate Putin." And I think basically, the reality is that in terms of Turkey's main supply line, the war's going very well, believe it or not, because the Russians came in. Yes, there's been a lot of bombing – in all wars, terrible things happen. For Syria, this is an all-out war...
... in which Assad's been killing a lot of his own people. What do you think of Assad?
Whatever I think of Bashar [al-Assad] isn't the point. Yes, Bashar is using barrel bombs in the war, and civilians are being killed like crazy. But I'll tell you about another country that used barrel bombs for seven years in a war: it was called the United States of America in Vietnam. We used barrel bombs because they're cheaper. Sixty pounds full of napalm or an acid that can destroy vegetation – we were dropping it all over.
So you have that situation. And America's position has been so strange. We hate Bashar so much that we can't look at the bigger picture. But 82 percent of the population in Syria's under Bashar's control, and even in Aleppo... there's two thirds of Aleppo where life goes on. There's many parts of Damascus, not the suburbs, where life goes on, including at night – dancing and drinking. It's a very social society. Life goes on, and we just don't know it in the West. We see everything in black and white.
How do you see things?
Certainly in the beginning, the people had legitimate grievances against Bashar al-Assad. He never delivered on many promises – like more education. There were also serious droughts, years of droughts, many of the farming communities were drying up, and he hadn't done enough to ameliorate that. Corruption was still very high, his family members were still getting contracts to build things, there was all the usual crap that goes on with a despot. On the other hand, he had liberated a lot of stuff. I started going to Syria quite often, every year, when we began the war against Iraq. And when I first went there, there was no internet, no news... By 2009, 2010 you could go to a bank and get money, you could watch Western broadcasts, you could even watch a soap opera in which an unmarried woman had a child. That was like, are you kidding? It was a Turkish show, on a Monday night. And the whole of Damascus stopped to watch that show. They'd never seen anything like that before, it wasn't permitted.
So there'd been some changes. But there was serious opposition. I'm sure at the beginning, his party ruled by force when they had to, and you couldn't criticise him openly. Although he wasn't as bad as his father. Things were better... But in terms of a democracy, things were far from it. But I think history will show that Saudi Arabia had been plotting for a long time to move against Bashar, and the Arab Spring gave them some freedom to do so. And very quickly, what began as a spontaneous operation was taken over by the more fanatic people who were definitely against him. And so, by 2013 we were still supporting groups that were considered moderate.
It seems that Obama’s defining strategy in Syria has been to arm and support the moderate forces. Do they still exist?
The consensus is, any moderate force that still exists as of a year, two years ago, has to make an accommodation either with al-Nusra or ISIS. And we are still shipping weapons into groups we think are moderate – what we used to call the FSA, the Free Syrian Army. There was a famous interview with Robert Ford, an American ambassador. He left Syria, he retired from the foreign service... He was the one who openly supported the opposition very early, which was very undiplomatic, and he had to leave. Last October, Ford was interviewed by BBC HARDtalk. And the presenter actually knew something, which is very unusual for television. And they mentioned al-Sharia, as one of the groups we consider as moderates. The presenter said: "Wait a second: haven't they announced that there'll be no Christians and no Alevites in their new country? They'll have to leave or be killed? And haven't they also announced Sharia law?" And after a minute or two – I'm not exaggerating – Ford said: "Well, let's put it this way. I wouldn't want my daughter to marry one of those people." But it's alright for everyone else! That was one of my favourite lines.
But we call it neoliberalism! It's intervention, American intervention. When there's a bad thing happening, it's up to America to correct it. Destroy Iraq, replace a Libyan dictator – who was in our pocket, by the way. There's this notion of "American Good" [laughs].
Considering the outcome of the US-led interventions in Libya and Iraq, didn't they learn their lesson?
Oh yeah, the woman running for president was the architect of it – Hillary [Clinton]! But is she ever asked about it? No, because to do so would imply more knowledge than most people who see her on TV have. I'm so amazed at American television, I'm really done with it. And also with my colleagues who go on TV. If you watch American cable television and you took away the two words "I think" when they begin speaking... nobody knows anything. A reporter goes on, and it's "I think that..." Every time I hear it, my head goes up. I have a rule. My rule is, I only go up and talk about things I've written. I stick to things I actually know, otherwise I'm just another guy "thinking"!
Speaking of which, tell us about what you know about the sarin gas attacks that took place in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.
Obama blamed them on Assad, which almost caused an allied air strike to punish the Syrian government for crossing the ‘red line’...
Well, the only thing I know is that Obama was told by the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff that it would be a military blunder. His name is [General Martin E.] Dempsey, he's a very interesting man. He studied English at West Point, went to Duke University and got a masters degree in fine arts while in the military. And he's now back teaching at Duke. So he's sort of a different animal, in that he actually reads and thinks. Some generals just don't. They kill, but they don't think... I went to school at a very good university, the University of Chicago, in the 1950s. We actually studied Marx and Lenin, but everybody forgets about them now.
You actually studied Marx and Lenin in 1950s anti-commie America?!
It was totally anti-communist. Oh my god. Absolutely. But Chicago was a radical school. It’s always been a radical school. In my college, we didn’t read textbooks. We only read the original materials. So you read Darwin. You read Schumpeter. You read Veben. At the end of the year there was a six-hour exam and the questions were like: “Freud, Schumpeter, Margaret Mead and Darwin are in a very rural African community having a discussion with the leaders of a tribe that had no exposure to the west: describe the conversation.” One of my friends – a very brilliant guy, a very strange guy – he began by writing five or six paragraphs of what Freud said; then he had Margaret Mead say something about sociology and so on; then he went, “Tribal Chief: ‘Ugga Ooga Ugga Ooga’” for three pages. They began by giving him a D- and by the time he got done arguing with them, he got a B. They were so mad at him for doing it, but in the end he prevailed. For originality, come on! That’s what we did, it was different.
Were you a communist?
We considered Eisenhower an old fart. We weren’t in love with him. That doesn’t mean we were pro-Russia or pro-Communism. We were just sceptical. You know what, I’ll tell you what school’s all about. It’s all about having enough information that you could read anybody’s treatise and have a point of view about it. It’s all about being able to understand that what somebody says may not always be the truth. The government has a narrative – what I look at is counternarrative. For me the thing about the Bernie Sanders movement is that it’s a huge movement that my country doesn’t understand yet. It's very powerful, what’s happening, and it’s going to go beyond that. He’s just the focal point. There’s young kids saying: “We’re done with this. We’re done with corruption, with PACs, it’s all over.” We could have a war on this. I don’t mean literally, but we had bloodshed yesterday in Chicago. It’s not going to be pleasant. The next few years will be very hard for America, I think. I hope! We deserve it.
But back to the sarin gas attacks. Who did it?
What I know is that the Russians got a sample of the sarin. We know that the agent that was used was made by amateurs. There is a facility called Porton Down which is the leading chemical and biological facility in the Western world. They got some of this sarin from Russia and concluded it had nothing to do with the Syrian arsenal. That doesn’t mean that we know Bashar didn’t do it. He could’ve had a rogue element in his unit. It just means that there was no factual basis for what the president was saying.
Obama ended up dropping his 'red line' and changing course. The official explanation for the turnabout was that the president decided to seek approval from Congress for the strike...
Yes, and after that he said, “The Syrians finally agreed to get rid of their chemical arsenal.” The only problem with that story is that the Syrians had been trying to get rid of it for 10 years. I’d written articles about it in 2003 – about that useless arsenal they had. And why was it useless? Because it was under attack the moment the rebels began. And the opposition did look promising. Near Aleppo they actually seized an arsenal at the end of 2011. Big problem for Russia. Russia was helping the Syrians defend it. If you go back and do the homework, you’ll see that in June of 2012 or 2013, two months before the sarin incident, there was a summit meeting in Ireland where Putin and Obama had an hour meeting. The spokesman on the record said that they talked about getting rid of the arsenal. So now the reason he's saying they didn’t bomb is that Syria finally gave up and said, “We’ll give you the arsenal” – it didn’t make any sense to me because I knew they wanted to get rid of it. And so the answer is, he didn’t tell the truth. Period.
I also know through studies done by MIT that the two rockets were very primitive – they didn’t fly further than one or two kilometres at the most. A mile. They were fired within a mile and far fewer people were killed. Everyone said 1400 – it was about 100-140 maybe, much less. Look, one death is too many, but you had to be in direct contact. You had to walk through it to get killed. The facts are out on that.
Again, forbidden information – there is a narrative. The Western press goes with the narrative. I have a different narrative and that gets me a lot of enemies in the press corps – my colleagues. Again I say, boo hoo.
Interview by NewsPeeks as edited by Ruth Schneider.