Seymour Hersh vs. the Pentagon

Seymour Hersh, the reporter who broke the My Lai story, is back, challenging the government's explanation of Gulf War Syndrome.

By Lori Leibovich
Published July 15, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

One thing you can say about Seymour Hersh: He's game. Coming off "The Dark Side of Camelot," his controversial book about the Kennedy years, the investigative reporter is back tackling another big, messy topic: Gulf War Syndrome, the mysterious and debilitating illness that has affected an estimated 90,000 veterans of the Persian Gulf War with symptoms including memory and weight loss, nerve damage and severe fatigue.

The official line until recently has been that Gulf War Syndrome was purely psychological, the result of stress and trauma. (The government relented somewhat in February, admitting that chemical agents could have played a role.) In his new book, "Gulf War Syndrome: The War Between America's Ailing Veterans and Their Government" (Library of Contemporary Thought), Hersh blasts apart the psychological theory and blames the government -- including Gulf War heroes Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell -- for exposing the troops to dangerous chemical agents, then abandoning them. In Hersh's view, the powers that be had so much invested in the Gulf War being seen as a clear-cut victory that admitting negligence was impossible.

Salon recently spoke with Hersh, who is most famous for breaking the story of the My Lai massacre for the New York Times, about the state of journalism, how he would have covered the Monica Lewinsky scandal and why he thinks Gulf War veterans have been cheated.

How would you critique your colleagues who have been covering the Lewinsky scandal?

When I got to Washington in 1964, a middle-aged white man with a little girl on the side was the norm -- that was the definition of a House and Senate committee chairman. My issue with the Lewinsky scandal is: big deal. We knew about Gennifer Flowers and we voted him in twice. We've got Washington in a real tizzy, in a huff about it, but nobody else cares because they know about this guy.

Yet you investigated John F. Kennedy's peccadilloes for your book "The Dark Side of Camelot."

What struck me about Jack Kennedy, and the reason I wrote about it, besides the fact that the Secret Service guys talked to me on the record, was I thought Kennedy's recklessness, sexually, was matched by his recklessness toward trying to kill Castro. If Monica Lewinsky had been the representative of Haiti and was influencing policy there, or if she was the chief lobbyist for a major telephone company or Microsoft, that's a different story. If she is just an example of his bad judgment, and it doesn't show anything more than that he is a sexual desperado, I don't see it as a big deal.

That said, if you were assigned to this story, wouldn't you be all over it?

Yes. I'd be covering the story and loving it. It is a great Page 1 story, and that is part of our business. But I'd like to think that I wouldn't need Steve Brill to know that Starr was leaking. I'd like to think I would have been very, very troubled by Starr's leaking and the fact that Starr is confirming stories.

I'd also be raising a lot more questions than they have about Lucianne Goldberg and Linda Tripp. I know Lucianne, I ran across her doing the Kennedy book, and I can tell you, her lips are to the gossip columnists' ears. There is nothing illegal or unethical about her, but she is dangerous. I had a conversation with her, and before I could get back to her, what I said was in the newspaper.

Do you believe there is a "vast right-wing conspiracy" against the Clintons?

It seems clear that there is some agenda here. I am not talking about a right-wing agenda -- it's maybe a mercenary agenda that should be explored more fully. I've said from the beginning: There's got to be more to Monica Lewinsky. Starr must have more on her, something more than just that she allegedly gave the president oral sex. That would have been what I was looking for. But you could no more get a conviction of Monica Lewinsky in a Washington, D.C., jury, particularly a black jury -- I mean, she did a man and she didn't tell the truth? What is the story?

Sociologically, the Lewinsky thing is unbelievable. For the last two weeks I have been out of Washington and the people I talk to don't care. Yet they watch the coverage because it is better than the soaps.

There is also sex involved. If it was an arms deal, people wouldn't be so titillated. Plus, she is provocative-looking.

Physically there is something -- you could sort of daydream about her. She is provocative-acting. She's not Marilyn Monroe, but the same sort of pubescent fantasy can exist. It is titillating.

The media is taking a beating this summer. Retractions and fabrications are all over the place.

We screw things up all the time.

These are pretty huge things -- the CNN/TIME nerve gas story for example.

All this doesn't surprise me. There is such an explosion of fame, fortune and glory in the news business now. Reporters are visible in ways that they have never been, particularly with the 24-hour cable. Let them go. Let them make assholes of themselves, let them fawn all over each other, let them reach for the sun, fabricate, go through this horrible spell of crap because everybody wants to be famous for their two minutes. If I did the My Lai story again, it would all be about me. It would be how I found what I did, what I had for lunch, what I said, what I smoked.

Do you think the Internet helps or hinders journalism?

Journalistically, I say, let the Internet be -- I am against censorship. The reason I say let it go is this: One of the reasons the Pentagon was so effective in the briefings during the Gulf War was because at that time you had one 24-hour all-news station, CNN, and you had the networks, and if you got them you were home-free. The Internet is not a problem, it is a salvation. They will never be able to control a war again like they did the Gulf War, because it is exponential. With Matt Drudge, the public will just have to figure him out by itself. The press clearly hasn't figured him out.

How did you go from writing about John Kennedy's sex life to writing about Gulf War disease?

I got this series of phone calls from a guy named Tom Donnelly, a dad whose son was a Gulf War vet. I returned the call and I got this man, a Catholic, upper-middle-class guy from Connecticut, and I heard something in his voice that I hadn't heard since Vietnam; he was radicalized. He had a son who had been in Little League, Boy Scouts and the Marines -- officer training school and flight school. By 1991, he was a major flying as an Air Force pilot. He flew in 44 missions during the Gulf War and three or four years later, he got sick. The Pentagon, the military doctors initially told him it was flu. When he kept on insisting that he was ill, that something was wrong, they took him off flight status, discharged him from the military and denied him benefits. Tom Donnelly's son was dying. And he thought there was a connection between his [Gulf War service] and his son's illness. [Donnelly] was a guy -- I am telling you -- if he'd lived in Montana, he would have been in the militia.

So he was patriotic. Not the kind of guy to make waves with the military.

Right. So he mailed me stuff and once I started reading it, I said, "Wait. It can't be." For the record, I never looked at this from an epidemiological, from a medical point of view. But whether Gulf War disease is psychological, as the Army has been saying for seven years, or whether it is some horrible complex syndrome we won't find out about for 20 years, these guys are sick.

Why didn't the public hear about Gulf War Syndrome immediately after the war was over?

Nobody wanted to pee on the parade. It was our first big victory since World War II. Colin Powell was a hero. They just didn't want anything to diminish the victory.

In your book you write about what a poor job the press did to illuminate the horrors of it.

Every reporter was put on notice that they couldn't do any independent interviews -- whether you were working in the Pentagon, for a news service or working in the field in Saudi Arabia. And the press accepted the restrictions, with a little grumbling. Why did they accept it? Because we had Colin Powell and Norm Schwarzkopf, we had heroes. We could flood the network news with these wonderful guys who were articulate and bright and decent people. They figured out: Give the press something for the nightly news, and away they go.

You say a good investigative team on a newspaper or magazine should have written about the syndrome.

I am just sorry that Monica Lewinsky wasn't a Gulf War veteran who was ill. You know what makes those stories work is they are simple. This isn't a simple story. When I go to journalism schools to speak, kids say, "How do you do what you do?" And I say, "Read before you write." Well, this guy, a researcher for former Michigan Sen. Don Riegle named Jim Tuitt, read the U.N. reports. After the Gulf War ended, as part of the peace agreement, Saddam Hussein accepted U.N. sovereignty or stewardship over his weapons. They are still doing it -- they call it the "unscom." [The U.N.] put out a report within a year and a half after the war saying, "Oh, man, you Americans screwed up. Where you thought the nerve gas was, it wasn't. There were 90 different facilities where nerve agents either were stored, manufactured or somewhere in the process that you didn't know about." Therefore, as Tuitt and Don Riegle said in reports which were generally ignored, too, the possibility exists that we bombed the hell out of a lot of nerve gas facilities, inadvertently, not deliberately.

How do we know there wasn't a cover-up?

It would be wonderful to think that we covered it up because that would suggest that we had some brains. Basically, it was much worse than that. Nobody knew anything.

Why didn't the Pentagon pay heed to what the U.N. was saying?

It is the notion of corrections. What happens in the Pentagon is, you are the head of a defense intelligence agency, or the head of a section or a new general officer, and you replace somebody who has gone on to a bigger job, and a year later, you learn that everything that your predecessor did was full of crap. Are you going to write a report saying that he did everything wrong? Are you going to say that about the man who could possibly be your next boss? There are no lessons learned. It is very sad but it is a bureaucracy.

The Pentagon repeatedly said that Gulf War Syndrome was the result of stress. It seems to me though you don't need to be an M.D. to know that there are physiological things going on. It seems like the stress explanation was not only insulting to the vets, but it seems so unsound, medically.

They [the government] didn't want to soil the war. The feeling was, maybe we didn't do so well in Grenada, Somalia or Panama, but we are back now. By 1994-95 a number of VA doctors were starting to say, "This is not stress. We are seeing chromosomal damage, we're seeing DNA damage, we're seeing brain stem damage. There is something else at work here besides stress. Four doctors were told to stop saying those things, but they refused to stop -- they either resigned or were fired. In general it was understood among the physicians within the VA that if you decided to criticize the notion of stress, you were jeopardizing your career.

Is it too strong to say that there was a conspiracy at the top levels of government to hide this disease? I know that word is loaded.

The good guys in the military are really ashamed of what happened. Let's just say there was a shared, political perception. The factual underpinning is this: The first group to complain about symptoms were National Guards and reservists. The fact is, and I quote an assistant secretary of the Army as saying this, reservists and National Guardsmen are basically thought of as the "Christmas help." The first complaints came from them, so there was much contempt. The attitude was, "Oh, they are just a bunch of cowards. They want a handout." In the first couple of years, the regular Army guys didn't come forward for two reasons: One, real men don't cry. Two, the Army was being cut from a million to under half a million in 1991-92, and reporting symptoms might get you kicked out.

You are very critical of Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf.

My complaint about men like Powell and Schwarzkopf, who I sort of get along with, and who spoke to me on the record, is that after they retired -- Powell left in '93, Schwarzkopf in '91 -- that was it for them. They are not going to start criticizing the lack of treatment for the vets because the people that replaced them would view that as Monday morning quarterbacking and they'd rather just have peace in the family. The vets' interpretation is that they don't give a damn.

When I told Powell that the vets were angry he got mad at me. He said, "You tell the vets that once I retired, my obligation was done, as far as I am concerned." My wife said, "He retired to a bestselling book, and $60,000 speech fees, and these guys retired to a life full of a disease that they were told was in their head."

You say Gulf War disease is a case of "criminal negligence." Who do you think is ultimately responsible?

I thought a lot about what I said. The failure of the intelligence community to know what was out there, and to understand it, that is negligence. To send boys into harm's way, without really knowing everything about [the nerve agents]? As a journalist, I have my one-man crusade. I am going to hold these guys to the highest possible standard, whether it is George Bush or Colin Powell or Henry Kissinger. No mercy for those guys. I don't care if Colin Powell is everybody's pin-up hero. I don't care if he's retired. He owed those kids. He was out there and was a hero because of what they did, not because of what he did. If the public won't hold leaders to the highest standard, then the press should. But they aren't and it is a terrible failing.

Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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