A one-man reporting machine

SUN JOURNAL

`Wired': Working from a modest office in Washington, Seymour Hersh has been outflanking the hordes of network and newspaper journalists covering the news after the terrorism of Sept. 11.

November 11, 2001|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

At 9:15 a.m. Sept. 11, Seymour Hersh got a telephone call from David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker magazine. Along with the rest of America, both were transfixed by the televised horror of the World Trade Center in flames.

"The second tower had been hit, but the first tower hadn't fallen yet," Hersh recalls. "He said, `You're not doing anything else for the next year.' I said, `Of course.'"

Thus was the indefatigable Sy Hersh launched on the biggest story of our time.

Because Hersh has been astonishing people with his stories since he broke the news of the massacre by U.S. troops at My Lai during the Vietnam War, there was reason to believe he would unearth something interesting.

He has done that and more. In a string of articles in The New Yorker over the past month, Hersh, 64, working in a modest Washington office with a single computer researcher, has been outflanking the armies of reporters deployed by major newspapers and television networks.

"I don't know anyone who has the sources and the range within the intelligence and military world that Sy Hersh has," says Remnick. "He's wired."

Not to mention Hersh's relentlessness on a good story, undiminished at an age when many reporters are easing into punditry, book-writing or golf.

"He still has the metabolism of a hummingbird," says Remnick, 43, who was in junior high school when Hersh was writing about My Lai.

Hersh seems baffled by the idea that he had any option other than an all-out pursuit of the story. "This is World War III," he says. "This is very serious. And this is what I do."

At the same time, controversy seems to follow Hersh like a devoted dog, and the first shots at his terrorism stories are being fired. Some fellow journalists are wary of his reliance on unnamed, often disgruntled sources. Some of those whom he has investigated in the past, from former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger to retired U.S. Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, call his reporting reckless and unfair.

In his New Yorker articles since Sept. 11, Hersh has reported that:

An unmanned U.S. Predator surveillance plane spotted the convoy of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, on the first night of the war. But the chance to hit the target was lost by a slow-moving military bureaucracy.

National Security Agency eavesdropping on the royal family in Saudi Arabia shows it is corrupt, divided and so frightened that it is paying "what amounts to protection money" to radical Muslim opponents. Hersh's article contains details from NSA intercepts, among the government's most secret documents.

Two retired Pakistani nuclear scientists with connections to the Taliban had been detained for questioning amid fears that terrorists could get hold of nuclear weapons. That news was on the front page of The New York Times three days after Hersh's account was posted on The New Yorker's Web site.

An Oct. 20 raid by U.S. special forces on a complex used by Mullah Omar outside the Afghan city of Kandahar, described as nearly flawless by Pentagon officials, was a "near disaster" in which U.S. troops came under fire from Taliban forces. Twelve Delta Force members were wounded, three seriously, Hersh wrote.

This most recent article, in The New Yorker issue released Monday on the Web, was met with denials from the Pentagon and sharp criticism in The Washington Times and the online magazine Slate for allegedly getting military details wrong.

But there are signs that Hersh's article may be essentially correct. Two British newspapers published similar accounts of problems with the raid. Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, who directed the war in Kosovo, told the St. Petersburg Times that he had learned the raid had gone awry. And The New York Times, which had initially reported that the raid was a successful "stinging jab" opening a "new, fast-paced" stage in the combat, reported Thursday that the raid had in fact had "mixed results" and involved "little-publicized casualties."

Hersh, ever-competitive, cackles with glee at the shifting coverage by the Times, where he worked in the 1970s. He went on national television to talk about his article - "my little TV pimping," he calls it - so the casualties were hardly "little-publicized."

While Hersh's solo status might appear to be a disadvantage, he makes it an asset. While beat reporters are tethered to Pentagon briefings, he is working sources. If they are the regular troops, he is a guerrilla.

As a military beat reporter, he says, "You're totally dependent on this system. This is the hand that feeds you."

The ultimate danger of a press corps dependent on the Pentagon during a war is "the 5 o'clock follies" - the notoriously inaccurate daily press briefings by the U.S. military in Vietnam.

Hersh seems constitutionally incapable of accepting the official version of events. "I think I look at things a little differently," he says.

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