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Cheney's Nemesis

For forty years, Seymour Hersh has been America’s leading investigative reporter. His latest scoop? The White House’s secret plan to bomb Iran

By Matt Taibbi

04/16/07 "Rolling Stone" 04/02/07 -- -- - On May 29th, 1975, an aide to then-White House chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld sat down with a yellow legal pad and in careful longhand sketched out a list of possible responses to a damaging investigative report in The New York Times. "Problem," the aide wrote. "Unauthorized disclosure of classified national security information by Sy Hersh and the NYT." He then laid out five options, ranging from the most ominous (an FBI investigation of the newspaper and a grand jury indictment) to the least offensive ("Discuss informally with NYT" and "Do nothing"). Number three on the list, however, read, "Search warrant: to go after Hersh papers in his apt."

The note's author? A viper-mean Beltway apparatchik named Dick Cheney, who was making his name doing damage control for the Republican White House after the Watergate disaster. Coming so soon after Nixon was burned at the public stake for similar targeting of political enemies, the Cheney memo was proof that the next generation of GOP leaders had emerged from the Watergate scandal regretting only one thing: getting caught.

This year, an almost identical note in Cheney's same tight-looped, anal script appeared as a key piece of evidence in the trial of another powerful White House aide, Scooter Libby. The vice president's handwritten ruminations on how best to dispose of an Iraq War critic named Joe Wilson are an eerie reminder of how little has changed in America in the past three decades. Then as now, we have been dragged into a bloody massacre in the Third World, paying the bill for the operation with the souls and bodies of the next generation of our young people. It is the same old story, and many of the same people are once again in charge.

But some of the same people are on the other side, too. In the same week that Libby was convicted in a Washington courthouse, Seymour Hersh outlined the White House's secret plans for a possible invasion of Iran in The New Yorker. As amazing as it is that Cheney is still walking among us, a living link to our dark Nixonian past, it's even more amazing that Hersh is still the biggest pain in his ass, publishing accounts of conversations that seemingly only a person hiding in the veep's desk drawer would be privy to. "The access I have -- I'm inside," Hersh says proudly. "I'm there, even when he's talking to people in confidence."

America's pre-eminent investigative reporter of the last half-century, Hersh broke the story of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and was on hand, nearly four decades later, when we found ourselves staring back at the same sick face in the mirror after Abu Ghraib. At age seventy, he clearly still loves his job. During a wide-ranging interview at his cramped Washington office, Hersh could scarcely sit still, bouncing around the room like a kindergartner to dig up old articles, passages from obscure books and papers buried in his multitudinous boxes of files. A hopeless information junkie, he is permanently aroused by the idea that corruption and invisible power are always waiting to be uncovered by the next phone call. Somewhere out there, They are still hiding the story from Us -- and that still pisses Hersh off.

During the Watergate years, you devoted a great deal of time to Henry Kissinger. If you were going to write a book about this administration, is Dick Cheney the figure you would focus on?
Absolutely. If there's a Kissinger person today, it's Cheney. But what I say about Kissinger is: Would that we had a Kissinger now! If we did, we'd know that the madness of going into Iraq would have been explained by something -- maybe a clandestine deal for oil -- that would make some kind of sense. Kissinger always had some back-channel agenda. But in the case of Bush and this war, what you see is what you get. We buy much of our fuel from the Middle East, and yet we're at war with the Middle East. It doesn't make sense.

Kissinger's genius, if you will, was that he figured out a way to get out. His problem was that, like this president, he had a president who could only see victory ahead. With Kissinger, you have to give him credit: He had such difficulties with Nixon getting the whole peace package through, but he did it. Right now, a lot of people on the inside know it's over in Iraq, but there are no plans for how to get out. You're not even allowed to think that way. So what we have now is a government that's in a terrible mess, with no idea of how to get out. Except, as one of my friends said, the "fail forward" idea of going into Iran. So we're really in big trouble. Real big trouble here.

Is what's gone on in the Bush administration comparable or worse than what went on in the Nixon administration?
Oh, my God. Much worse. Bush is a true radical. He believes very avidly in executive power. And he also believes that he's doing the right thing. I think he's a revolutionary, a Trotsky. He's a believer in permanent revolution. So therefore he's very dangerous, because he's an unguided missile, he's a rocket with no ability to be educated. You can't change what he wants to do. He can't deviate from his policy, and that's frightening when somebody has as much power as he does, and is as much a radical as he is, and is as committed to democracy -- whatever that means -- as he is in the Mideast. I really do believe that's what drives him. That doesn't mean he's not interested in oil. But I really think he thinks democracy is the answer.

A lot of people interpreted your last article in "The New Yorker" as a prediction that we're going into Iran. But you also make clear that the Saudis have reasons to keep us from attacking Iran.
I've never said we're going to go -- just that the planning is under way. Planning is planning, of course. But in the last couple of weeks, it has become nonstop. They're in a position right now where the president could wake up and scratch his, uh --

His what?
His nose, and say, "Let's go." And they'd go. That's new. We've made it closer. We've got carrier groups there. It's not about going in on the ground. Although if we went in we'd have to send Marines into the coastal areas of Iran to knock out their Silkworm missile sites.

So the notion that it would just be a bombing campaign isn't true at all?
Oh, no. Don't forget, you'd have to take out a very sophisticated radar system, and a guidance system for their missiles. You'd have to knock out the ability of the Iranians to get our ships.

So this is the "fail forward" plan?
I think Bush wants to resolve the Iranian crisis. It may not be a crisis, but he wants to resolve it.

The other implication of your piece is that we went into Iraq as a response to Sunni extremism, and now we are realigning ourselves with Sunni extremists to fight the Shiites. Is it really that simple? Are we really that stupid?
From what I gather, there's no real mechanism in the administration for looking at the downside of things. In the military, when they do a major study, they say something like "We give it to you with the pluses and minuses." They usually show it to you warts and all. But these guys in the White House don't want the warts. They just want the good side. I don't think they know all of the consequences.

This seems to be something that Bush has in common with Nixon: the White House ignoring everyone and seeking to become a government unto itself.
One of the things this administration has shown us is how fragile democracy is. All of the institutions we thought would protect us -- particularly the press, but also the military, the bureaucracy, the Congress -- they have failed. The courts . . . the jury's not in yet on the courts. So all the things that we expect would normally carry us through didn't. The biggest failure, I would argue, is the press, because that's the most glaring.

In the Nixon years, you had the press turning against the Vietnam War after the Tet Offensive, you had Watergate, you had all these reasons why the press became involved in bringing the Nixon administration to an end. But it hasn't performed that function in Bush's case. Why do you think that is?
I don't know. It's very discouraging. I've had conversations with senior people at my old newspaper, the Times, who know that there are serious problems there. It's not that they shouldn't run the stories that they run. They run stories that represent the government's view, because there are people at the Times who have access to senior people in the government. They see the national security adviser, they see Condoleezza Rice, and they have to reflect their view. That's their job. What doesn't get reported is the other side. What I always loved about the Times when I worked there is that I could write what the kiddies down the line said. But that doesn't happen now. You're not getting broad, macro coverage from the White House that represents anything like opposition. And there is opposition -- the press just doesn't know how to deal with it.

But why isn't there more of an uproar by the public at atrocities committed by American troops? Have people become inured to those stories over the years?
I just think it's because they are Iraqis. You have to give Bill Clinton his due: When he bombed Kosovo in 1999, he became the first president since World War II to bomb white people. Think about it. Does that mean something? Is it just an accident, or is it an inevitable byproduct of white supremacy? White man's burden? You tell me what it is, I don't know.

You talk a lot about the similarities between Iraq and Vietnam: how Lynndie England is the new Lt. Calley, how it's lower-middle-class white kids from America killing nonwhite people overseas. Yes, there's this similarity -- but why is this same kind of war happening again? Is this a pattern that's built into the way our government works?
I don't know. Why would you go to war when you don't have to go to war? It takes very little courage to go to war. It takes a lot of courage not to go to war.

I once had a friend -- this was thirty years ago -- from a major university. He studied the scientific problem the government had of detecting underground missile tests in Russia. It took him a couple of years, but he solved the problem. At that point the Joint Chiefs of Staff was against any treaty with the Russians on testing, because we couldn't detect when they cheated. My friend attended a meeting of the Joint Chiefs and demonstrated conclusively that there was a technical way of monitoring missile explosions inside Russia, even without being on-site. But when the meeting was over, the Joint Chiefs just issued a sigh and said, "Well, we better go back to a political objection to the treaty now." Where there had been a scientific objection to a treaty, now there was a political objection. So you begin to see that pushing for peace is very hard. There is safety in bombing, rather than negotiating. It's very sad.

Did America learn anything from Vietnam? Was there a lesson in the way that war ended that could have prevented this war from starting?
You mean learn from the past? America?

Yes.
No. We made the same dumb mistake. One of the arguments for going into Vietnam was that we had to stop the communist Chinese. The Chinese were behind everything -- we saw them and North Vietnam as one and the same. In reality, of course, the Chinese and the Vietnamese hated each other -- they had fought each other for 1,000 years. Four years after the war ended, in 1979, they got into a nasty little war of their own. So we were totally wrong about the entire premise of the war. And it's the same dumbness in this war, with Saddam and the terrorists.

On the other hand, I would argue that some key operators, the Cheney types, they learned a great deal about how to run things and how to hide stuff over those years.

From the press?
Oh, come on, how hard is it to hide things from the press? They don't care that much about the straight press. What these guys have figured out is that as long as they have Fox and talk radio, they're OK in the public opinion. They control that hard. It kept the ball in Iraq in the air for a couple of years longer than it should have, and it cost Kerry the presidency. But now it's over -- Iraq's done. A lot of the conservatives who promoted the war are now very much against it. Some of the columnists in this town who were beating the drums for that war really owe an apology. It's a sad time for the American press.

What can be done to fix the situation?
[Long pause] You'd have to fire or execute ninety percent of the editors and executives. You'd actually have to start promoting people from the newsrooms to be editors who you didn't think you could control. And they're not going to do that.

What's the main lesson you take, looking back at America's history the last forty years?
There's nothing to look back to. We're dealing with the same problems now that we did then. We know from the Pentagon Papers -- and to me they were the most important documents ever written -- that from 1963 on, Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon lied to us systematically about the war. I remember how shocked I was when I read them. So . . . duh! Nothing's changed. They've just gotten better at dealing with the press. Nothing's changed at all.

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