The interview

Seymour Hersh: “American journalism is having a very rough time right now”

Pulitzer Prize - Il Fatto Quotidiano sat down for an in-depth interview with the legendary investigative journalist, amid the deafening silence from U.S. mainstream media on the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines

20 Febbraio 2023

He knows the darkest corners of his government like no other American journalist. And for the last five decades, from the My Lay massacre in Vietnam to torture in Abu Ghraib in Iraq, he has consistently exposed them, winning a Pulitzer Prize, five Polk Awards and numerous other major journalism awards. But this time what legendary investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has exposed is of such gargantuan proportions that the deafening silence on the part of American mainstream media thus far, from the New York Times to the Washington Post, seems surreal. Writing on the Substack platform, Hersh has reported that the United States ran a covert sabotage operation in collaboration with Norway
which resulted in the blowing up of the Nord Stream pipelines, massive infrastructure ensuring cheap Russian gas to key Western allies of the United States, like Germany.

Il Fatto Quotidiano sat down with Seymour Hersh for an in-depth interview on his revelations, Russia, Putin and the war in Ukraine. As we talked, our conversation was continuously interrupted by calls from journalists and media outlets, as his story continued to snowball around the world. Answering these non-stop calls, Seymour Hersh shows himself to be the same highly independent journalist he has always been: “If the New York Times and the Washington Post choose not to [cover it] that’s OK with me, it’s their problem”.

Ever since the Bush administration, the United States has relentlessly pressured Western countries – including Italy and ENI – to stop buying gas from Russia, to stop cooperating with Gazprom, and then finally blew up the pipelines, according to your report. Why did the Biden administration cross the Rubicon?

Are you asking me what’s in Joe Biden’s mind? I have no idea; I’m trying to figure it out too. It even goes back to the Kennedy days. It has been a constant. It goes back to early Bush, certainly. It goes back to Clinton. I remember doing stuff on the Caspian Sea, with Kazakhstan, because the goal was to develop European oil that would not come from Russia. That has always been a worry since the Cold War, absolutely, since the beginning. Much more than 15 years. It’s been going on forever.

Do you expect any serious political consequences after your revelations, considering the silence from the US mainstream media?

That’s not new; I’ve had silence before on stories. But I can tell you that in terms of calls and requests, this story isn’t getting weaker. I am trying to find out reasons for what happened. Even the people on the mission did not like the idea of blowing up the pipelines then. They took the mission with the idea of helping the president get a threat, a credible threat to Putin, so maybe stop him from doing what he was going to do. It was always a one-in-a-million shot, it [stopping Putin] wasn’t going to happen. Putin was going to do what he was going to do. I always get in trouble for saying this, because they think I’m some sort of secret Russian agent, it’s quite crazy, but I think what he wanted to do was make sure Ukraine stays away from NATO. He doesn’t want them [NATO] on the border. It was bad enough that we put missiles
in Poland. I don’t think his goal – his goal wasn’t hegemony, he doesn’t want to take over Western Europe and England, he has no goals outside of making sure his country has a buffer zone. Which Ukraine wasuntil, remember, in 2014, the United States engineered a coup. I mean there’s no question we did. You know, when I was last in Russia – I went there during the bad days in the Cold War, as a journalist, but I also went back 4-5 years ago – I was doing reporting on something, and I had a lot of dinners and drinks with Russians who couldn’t stop talking about what a jerk they thought their boss was, Putin. I found much more freedom of expression there than I expected. Which doesn’t mean – I mean we do the same thing in America, look at the stuff Trump had when he was president, but he stayed president. But nobody was talking about overthrow [about overthrowing Putin], they were saying he had too much power, was too much a dictator. The same thing you hear anywhere. I didn’t find much difference, but that doesn’t mean I’m some sort of secret Russian agent. I can’t believe the people – particularly in London, they get very worried: are you pro-Russian? [he laughs]. No, I am not pro-Russian. I certainly like Russian music, and Russian literature, but that doesn’t mean…

In an interview you said that for this covert operation the United States was talking to other intelligence services, not just the Norwegians, to Swedish and Danish officials. Of course they didn’t talk to any Italian ones, considering that Italy was involved in the building of the Nord Stream pipelines…

No, I don’t think so.

You have been criticized for three things relative to this story: for relying on a single source; for reporting details which, according to some open source intelligence experts, the open source data doesn’t confirm; and finally for reporting that the current head of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, has cooperated with the US intelligence community since the Vietnam War, but at that time he was a teenager.

Let me just answer them one at the time.

All right, first: only one source.

I’m not going to talk about sources. Period. I have a long history of writing stories based on anonymous sources. I once did a story for The New Yorker, three decades ago, about General McCaffrey, a two-star general who became a four-star general, that was published in 2000, 23 years ago. It was a long story, about 23,000 words, the longest story they had run since they ran a very famous story about Hiroshima by the writer John Hersey in 1946. It was a big deal, and the story was about how General McCaffrey had attacked a retreating army. Remember 1991, the First Gulf War, how it was a slaughterhouse, remember the highway where we were shooting everybody? The war ended in three days, then there was
a peace agreement made in Kuwait. There was a very powerful Iraqi tank unit, the Hammurabi, the most elite unit in the Baghdad army. And they were given safe passage: their tanks were taken and put in what they call ‘safe travelling mode’, and their cannons were taken and turned around and locked, then they were put on a flatbed, on a railway, and driven out on a rail car. It was about 800 men, and McCaffrey attacked them, two days or three days after the peace treaty, killed them all. And they basically covered it up. So I wrote a story about that. At that time McCaffrey was the “Drug Czar”, he was head of drugs for Clinton, and of course he was bitterly upset and attacked me too. I had talked to 12 or 13 of his fellow generals, who were appalled by what happened, [they thought] what he did was such a disgrace, attacking people, lying – they were sunning themselves, the tankers, when they got hit. 800 were killed, some number like that. So mass murder. And it was covered up by the army. The editor of The New Yorker at the time, David Remnick, sent me back to
see if they would say something less toxic on the record. So I got 10 of them to say: I didn’t like this action, it wasn’t the right thing to do, instead of saying that it was murder and criminal. We published that story, 23-24,000 words, with no unnamed sources. There was one unnamed source about something else, a minor thing, but not one unnamed source in connection with the actual murders and what happened. Everybody was named: general so-and-so, general so-and-so; they all retreated from their [original strong] language. Two days or a week before the story was to be published, McCaffrey attacked me publicly, talked to some press reporters for the Washington Post, and they ran a big story about McCaffrey accusing me of lying and cheating, and trying to destroy his reputation. The Clinton White House supported him totally. And they killed the story, nobody paid attention. There were wire service stories, but nobody really took a good look at it. The fact that everybody was quoted made no difference. So when they start talking about “no sources, that’s the problem”… I’ve seen it [the same problem] “with sources”. If they don’t want the story…. But I can tell you, I am not lacking for publicity on this story. If the New York Times and the Washington Post chooses not to [cover it] that’s
OK with me, it’s their problem. The same with – I’m not doing cable television, even if they’d asked me I would have said no, because in America it’s all Fox, the Trump people versus the other side. If someone had told me 40 years ago, when I went through Vietnam, that the Democrats in the Congress, who were so bitterly against Vietnam, would now all support the war in Ukraine, and it’s many of the Republicans who are saying “stop giving them all of this money,” I would have thought it was like Alice in Wonderland: up is down, and down is up. It’s just crazy what is going on right now. It’s all polarized, to the extent that – it’s just very sad, because American journalism is having a very rough time right now.

Let’s go to the open source matter: how do you reply to those who say that some open source data does not confirm some details of your investigation?

Well, I’ve said this a couple of times. One of the nice things about open source people is that they are very sure of themselves because “data doesn’t lie”. They are completely confident, they show maps and charts… So some people are very sophisticated in our intelligence community. One of the first things you do is make sure you put out enough information – I won’t say bogus information – you put up enough information that’s real enough that you can use open source intelligence as a cover. You can make them your asset. In other words, they can say “there was no boat here.” You can confuse open source, there’s a way to handle open source. And of course one of the first things they do, when they do an operation like that, is a study of how they can use the fact that there will be open source intelligence on everything, and you don’t really want them to see what you are doing, you want to “false flag” them. You can change colors on an airplane, you can disguise a ship. You know what I mean, make them an asset. So this is inevitable, but it’s hard to explain it. They are so sure that they’re right, but when you really get down to it, what are they challenging? “This ship couldn’t have been
here at this time,” or “it was wrong there,” or “this plane couldn’t be here at that time. The idea that you can’t change the markings on a plane, that you can’t have American pilots on a Norwegian plane, or Norwegian pilots on an American plane [is illogical]. Do you understand what I’m talking about? It’s not that hard [to manipulate it]. And when you use data only, the problem is, it still doesn’t explain a lot of other stuff. If they say “the ship wasn’t there,” are they saying that it didn’t happen? If they say “well the ship couldn’t have been there,” the next question is “So are you saying that there wasn’t an explosion there?” “Oh no, there was an explosion there, clearly it blew up, but it couldn’t have been that ship.” So then the issue still is: who blew it up? The basic issue doesn’t change.

Here was another criticism: Jens Stoltenberg couldn’t have cooperated with the US intelligence community since the Vietnam War, because at that time he was a teenager.

There were big stories when he was a young boy. He was a leader of an anti-war attack in Oslo, and he was arrested. He was maybe 14, 15, so, you know [he laughs] … if he was friendly to us, that was one hell of a catch we had. I don’t want to say more – he’s peripheral to the issue. He’s very anti-Communist, you’ve heard him, you know how he speaks, he’s almost predictable. And whether he was still working with us or not is not for me to say, I don’t know.

By destroying the chance of buying cheap gas from Russia, the United States is seriously impacting the economy of key Western allies, like Germany, Italy and other Western countries. What is the U.S. strategy here, in your opinion?

I don’t think they’ve articulated a strategy. Since they don’t acknowledge it, it’s up to outsiders to make guesses about. You can obviously connect it to [the notion] that they wanted to be sure that there would be support there in the fall season for the war in Ukraine, which was getting to be much more difficult by the fall. The American reporting on the Ukraine war has been totally insane, really. There were periods when I’m sure Putin was shocked and surprised by the Ukrainian initial willingness to fight and stand and die for their country, their patriotism. I don’t think there’s any evidence he (Putin) ever intended to go to Kiev. Anyway, I’m looking at the war too. I haven’t said much about it, but
I’ve watched it. My people, the people I talk to, have always had a different opinion of the war, and its success, from that of the New York Times and Washington Post reporters. And I thought there were a lot of times when reporters should have gone to a building where a Russian missile had hit, and they should have reported that the building had been taken over by the Ukrainian military, so it was actually a military building. But they (only) reported on casualties. Look: war is hell, people die. It’s terrible the country (Ukraine) is destroyed, but you know the Russians destroyed it in 1932, the famous famine: I think 22 million people died in the wheat fields of Ukraine. So the Russians have always had this awful relationship with Ukraine. They are like vassals. And I don’t think – it doesn’t matter what I think, but there is no evidence that NATO would have taken Ukraine. The corruption there was so great, I don’t think they would have taken NATO in. But that was a fear that Russia could have had.

By seriously impacting the economy due to this destruction of the ability to buy cheap gas from Russia, and by asking for increased military spending, isn’t the US bankrupting some of its key allies?

That is a very interesting issue. Actually this year, since the pipeline was destroyed so early, in September, the Germans in particular were able to build up almost 75 percent capacity before winter came. In the fall they were paying huge prices for LNG [Liquefied Natural Gas]. We were making money, our own companies. They [Germany] also got LNG from China, and the demand in China was much lower because of the Covid issue there. So they’ve gotten through this winter pretty well. Electricity prices have increased tremendously. The German government is giving subsidies. It’s cold, people can’t heat their homes as much as they want, but they’ll get through. The problem is next winter, that’s the problem, because Europe depends totally…. The bottom line is that of course Norway, as our collaborator in this, had a motive too, because they are now selling twice as much gas as they did. But it’s still not nearly enough to make up for Nord Stream. So they’re still short. They will be OK even if it gets colder this spring, but they won’t be OK next fall. And even now,
the big corporations, and the major car manufacturers, and BASF, which is the largest chemical company in the world, they’ve been talking to China about doing stuff. The French, Macron and also Scholz of Germany, have all been talking to
China about getting into some renewables. You know China has been working on renewables for a long time. We have all the gas we want, we’re OK because of shale gas, in America. We’re not in trouble. Russia has lost some market, but they probably aren’t losing much money, because they’re selling more to India and to Asia. And the whole Asian block – Americans don’t know this, but the block of countries supporting Russia are 35-40 countries that support Russia totally in this. We don’t know that because we don’t report that, just like we don’t report about sabotage. We don’t report a lot of things that are going on that are not so good for America.

Based on your understanding of what is going on in Ukraine, do you seeany hope for Ukraine of winning the war without deeply involving NATO?

[Long pause]. I think even if you deeply involve NATO [he laughs], they’ve got a problem. Of course they do. I think the Ukrainian problem is going to be very tragic. Right now, one of the problems is that in one week Ukraine uses the number of warheads, missiles for firing cannon shots, for shells, that we use in combat in one month in the West. So they’re using up weapons, and don’t forget: in America and Western Europe, most of the defense companies are private. They have tremendous relationships with the government, but in order to get more, to change a production line, they have to get a contract, it has to be negotiated, they have to change production lines, you can’t turn around [fast]. Russia controls the weapons systems, so he [Putin] has put a lot of pressure on them, and they’re generating a lot more weapons than the
West does, because all our private companies are privately owned, stock-holder. Filled up with generals, who are retired of course, making enormous profits. But they can’t turn the production line around as fast. So Ukraine just doesn’t have enough, and of course corruption there at the highest level of the government is enormous, at the very top it’s just been enormous. But we don’t talk about that [in Western media] either.

So you say “tragic” in the sense that Ukraine has no chance of winning the war?

Yes. Basically, my guess is now that it’s a one-in-a… 38 million chance. I know there have been some meetings lately – they’re much more concerned that some of the dollars we put in don’t go where they belong. That’s Ukraine, it has always been one of the more corrupt countries. I don’t think there was a chance in hell it was going to go to NATO. And I think Putin was wrong about that. It’s hard to say anything positive about Putin because he began the bloodiest war since
WWII in Europe. There have been other wars, the Balkan wars and others, but this is by far the most devastating war since 1945. But I will say this: in the Washington press, sometimes in the New York Times, I see more in the Washington Post, they do the round-up stories, they say “Putin attacked without any cause.” Well, he had a lot of cause: 32 years of lying about expanding NATO to the East. America now is totally rabid about Putin. You can’t say anything about Putin that’s rational. By the way, when the war first began, I read that he was almost sure to have cancer [laughs]. Remember all those stories that he was dying? I read his speeches, I read the translations. He’s quite precise and articulate. He’s not dumb, and he’s not a communist. He does have this sort of mystical belief in Russia, in going back historically, but it’s
not about expanding Russia, the Soviet Republic anymore. It’s about making Russia into what it is. And the funny thing is that Russia was doing an immense amount of trade with the West before all of this, and despite all of it. We had McDonald’s and all those food shops there. And they’re surviving all the sanctions. You know when people ask me
about sanctions, I always say: why don’t we ask Cuba about that? Cuba has been sanctioned since Castro took over. They seem to have survived sanctions. What do sanctions really do?

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