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Sy Hersh: The Reporter Is Back in the Maelstrom

The irascible and distinguished writer, known for going beyond the obvious, is helping drive the news in America's war on terrorism.

November 19, 2001|JOHANNA NEUMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Seymour Hersh, an oft-maligned investigative journalist who is enjoying something of a wartime revival, is passionate about tennis. So ferocious is his interest in the sport that on many mornings, he takes to the streets of his Cleveland Park neighborhood with racket, ball and golden retriever. Sy serves. Leo returns.

"He plays tennis like he does his reporting," observes journalist Daniel Schorr, a friend, neighbor and former tennis partner. "He plays hard, and he doesn't give up."

Hersh, 64, hates this attempt to find meaning in his tennis habits.

"Why are you doing this? I'm aghast. Blah blah blah. It doesn't seem very important to me, but you have to make a living. I might enjoy tennis. I might get my competition elsewhere. I do scream and yell at myself. I'd much rather play well and lose than play badly and win. Why am I commenting on your questions?"

After years of being journalism's bad boy--his book charging President Kennedy with corruption ("The Dark Side of Camelot") earned few positive reviews--Hersh is again on point. David Remnick, charismatic editor of the New Yorker who has steered the magazine back to serious journalism after its celebrity-laden Tina Brown tenure, called Hersh on Sept. 11 and told him: "You're not doing anything else for the next year."

In the weeks since, readers of the New Yorker have experienced jolts of breaking news in a weekly magazine better known for its fiction, its cartoons and its predilection for taking the long view of current events.

There was an article about corruption in the Saudi ruling family, complete with rarely shared U.S. phone intercepts of the royals' conversations. There was a piece about how, on the first night of bombing Afghanistan, U.S. forces could have taken out Taliban chief Mullah Omar but for a lawyer's opinion.

There was an article, the most controversial so far, claiming that on Oct. 20, U.S. Delta Force troops encountered much stiffer resistance from the Taliban than the administration admitted. For the magazine's next issue, Hersh has penned something about the just-completed U.S.-Russian summit in Crawford, Texas.

To Hersh, who has little regard for the beat reporting that requires journalists to chronicle officials' words instead of investigate their deeds, there is "no friggin' mystery" about his ability to break news. "It ain't that hard, folks," he said, when a reporter showed up in his modest Connecticut Avenue office one day last week. "If you look at the New Yorker in the last four years, if you look at what I've written, you'll begin to understand that the people I've been talking to are all involved in this thing."

The Hersh opus includes stories on the failures of the National Security Agency, on President Clinton's bombing of Sudan in 1998, on convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, on the CIA's bungled handling of Saddam Hussein. Now, the world's interests are locked onto his. "The audience is really tuned to him now, and that's a big thing," said author David Halberstam.

The Hersh persona--a bulldog who bludgeons sources into spilling their secrets with a combination of profanity, persistence and a tendency to call at 3 a.m.--is overdrawn, Hersh claims. "All a figment," he said. "It's a caricature. Get beyond the cliche."

Hersh has made a career of getting beyond the obvious. In 1969, when other journalists were dutifully recording the body-kill counts reported by Pentagon officials in Saigon, Hersh wrote a piece sold to a virtually unknown news service detailing a massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians by American troops in a village called My Lai. He won the Pulitzer Prize.

For seven years in the 1970s, he broke story after story in the New York Times about government wrongdoing--the CIA's covert role in overthrowing Salvador Allende in Chile, the secret bombing of Cambodia ordered by Nixon's National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger.

Finally, the Times put him on the Watergate scandals, up against two of the Washington Post's hungriest reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

"The New York Times was getting creamed by Woodward and Bernstein," recalled Richard Reeves, author of "President Nixon: Alone in the White House." No friend of Hersh ("He's made a great contribution to journalism, but I wouldn't want him marrying my daughter," he said dryly), Reeves believes that if Hersh had been on the story from the beginning, "he would have beaten them."

Such grudging respect is not uncommon among Washington journalists who enjoy debating the merits of the two biggest brand names in the business: Who's better, Woodward or Hersh?

"Woodward's very good at getting things out of people at the top. Sy's ratcheting up from the bottom with aggressive questions," said one journalist who has worked with both, wants to stay friends with both and so asked not to be named. "Often they get to the same point."

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