May 20, 2004,
This week we saw the first court martial in connection with the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses. As the investigations continue and legal actions proceed as they should it is important for our soldiers in the field that information about these actions be sober, factual, and accurate. We simply still don't know what we don't know.
As we proceed through this process, one place we shouldn't look to for reliable information is the sensationalized reporting of Seymour Hersh. A little walk down memory lane will serve to show his history of questionable reporting a history that had been virtually ignored of late (outside of the likes of the Media Research Center) until the Washington Post's Howie Kurtz took note this week.
But before that, guess who said the following about the 1997 Sy Hersh book, The Dark Side of Camelot, which is critical of former President John Kennedy? "This book is a fiction and we don't intend to comment any further on this maliciousness and innuendo." That would be the same Senator Ted Kennedy who now virtually echoes Hersh's allegations. Kennedy historian Arthur Schlesinger called Hersh, "the most gullible investigative reporter I've ever encountered."
That book which included claims that President Kennedy brought dozens of prostitutes to the White House; that he was treated for venereal diseases; that he had been married to a Palm Beach socialite before he married Jackie; and that Ted Kennedy served as a "bagman" for the president in the crucial West Virginia primary, paying off county chairmen including Charles Peters, now publisher of Washington Monthly was denounced by scores of Democrats when it came out, beginning with Ted Kennedy and other Kennedy stalwarts such as Schlesinger and former presidential advisor Theodore Sorensen. Sorensen called it "a pathetic collection of wild stories." Kerry Biographer Douglas Brinkley said Hersh had "squandered" his credibility and "one can only assume he did it for money." On NBC's Today Show, host Matt Lauer was apoplectic in denouncing the book. (Charles Peters, for the record, has said Hersh wouldn't listen to his claims that the payoffs didn't happen despite the fact that he interviewed Peters five times.)
Back then, Ted Kennedy called Hersh's book "scurrilous." Now, seven years later, his public statements are virtually identical to those of his former nemesis. Kennedy recently claimed, "...shamefully we now learn that Saddam's torture chambers reopened under new management, U.S. management." Apparently when the target of one of Hersh's thinly, anonymously sourced screeds is a Republican president, Senator Kennedy is happy to join in the kind of "maliciousness and innuendo" for which Hersh a longtime leftist critic who worked on Senator Gene McCarthy's 1968 campaign is known.
The press has virtually ignored Sy Hersh's past exploits. Most TV hosts have introduced him citing his My Lai stories alone and ignoring his long history of dubious reporting.
But Hersh is best understood as the Geraldo of print investigative reporters. While his untruths and near slander have been eclectic and bipartisan attacking everyone from President Kennedy and his brother Ted to Henry Kissinger and General Barry McCaffrey they have always been extremely antiwar. Of Hersh's 1983 book, The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House, Martin Peretz, the liberal editor-in-chief of The New Republic, wrote: "there is hardly anything [in the book] that shouldn't be suspect." In 2001, he leveled charges against General Barry McCaffrey for his actions in the first Gulf War, claiming that McCaffrey's troops or troops under his command fired on penned-up prisoners and Iraqi civilians who had raised a white flag. McCaffrey said in 2001, "Hersh and his article lack integrity. That's the bottom line. He maligns the characters of 26,000 great young soldiers who conducted a 400 kilometer attack successfully, where thank god we only lost eight killed and 36 wounded... What he's doing is recycling charges that were investigated in 1991."
Hirsh's Al Capone safe-opening moment came when he set out to base large parts of his Kennedy book on a group of supposedly unknown documents about JFK which turned out to be forgeries. As Salon reported in 2000 in an article by David Rubien:
"The smokiest of the smoking guns Hersh planned to include in the book was his discovery of a supposedly authenticated handwritten note from Marilyn Monroe to JFK in which the actress demanded the president create a $600,000 trust fund for her ailing mother. The quid pro quo was that Monroe wouldn't reveal her and JFK's affair. A contract spelling out the terms of the trust fund was signed by both of them. This was sizzling stuff, and there were lots of other damning documents from the same cache. Hersh used them to get NBC to sign a $2.5 million contract to make a Kennedy documentary, and when the network pulled out Hersh signed with ABC for the same amount. But when ABC had the documents tested, they turned out to be phony."
As NR's John Miller reported in 2001, Hersh obtained those documents through Lawrence X. Cusack, a man who claimed his father was a lawyer for Kennedy. When the papers were shown to be forgeries, Cusack was prosecuted and went to prison. In the course of Cusack's trial, Assistant U.S. attorney Paul A. Engelmayer accused Hersh of playing "a little fast and loose with the facts." In reviewing Hersh's Kennedy book, the Baltimore Sun's Jules Witcover wrote, "... Hersh's attributions generally fall short of normal journalistic yardsticks. More important, many of his conclusions are weakly substantiated by his research and highly questionable." Witcover also noted, of Hersh's writing: "Particularly arguable are the innuendoes in which he indulges and the conclusions to which he jumps on the basis of his raw material."
But that wasn't how Hersh saw it. "There's a suspension of belief when it comes to the Kennedys," he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "It's a cult. We want to believe." Now Ted Kennedy is a Hersh cult follower; and Katie Couric essentially threw rose petals at Hersh when he appeared on the Today Show this week. These anti-war ideologues want to believe anything bad about President Bush.
But instead of listening to the rantings of Sy Hersh and his fellow cultists, we should let the government investigators who began this process themselves follow the investigative trail. That is far preferable to glorifying a hack who acknowledged himself that "If the standard for being fired was being wrong on a story, I would have been fired long ago."
Barbara Comstock is a former Department of Justice spokeswoman and currently a principal with Blank Rome Government Relations.