Seymour Hersh: Obama To Spotlight Syria Journalist Seymour Hersh reports that a major change in American policy toward Syria is underway. It's part of a broader strategy to bring peace to the Middle East and counter the influence of Iran.
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Seymour Hersh: Obama To Spotlight Syria

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Seymour Hersh: Obama To Spotlight Syria

Seymour Hersh: Obama To Spotlight Syria

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. He broke much of the Abu Ghraib story and won a National Magazine Award for public interest in 2006 for his New Yorker pieces on intelligence and the Iraq War.

He's still investigating the Bush administration for a book he's writing. In fact, he was in the headlines earlier this month when he said, during an event at the University of Minnesota, that he's learned that an operation of the military's joint special operations command reported directly to Vice President Cheney's office. He described it as essentially an executive assassination wing. We'll talk about that a little later.

Let's start with Hersh's article in the current edition of the New Yorker, which is about a possible game-changer in the Middle East. The story is called "Syria Calling: The Obama Administration's Chance to Engage in a Middle East Peace."

Hersh reports that Syrian President Bashar Asad and Israel's new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be ready to negotiate if the U.S. acts as mediator. Seymour Hersh, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Now after the Israeli ceasefire in Gaza, you got an e-mail from the Syrian prime minister, Bashar Asad, saying that although Israel was doing everything possible to undermine the prospects for peace, quote, "we still need to conclude our serious dialogue to lead us to peace," unquote.

But didn't Bashar Asad just say that Israel only spoke the language of blood? Didn't he just call on the Arab world to boycott Israel and close Israeli embassies in the region and sever contact with Israel? I mean, he said that after the Israeli ceasefire in Gaza, which wasn't very long ago.

Mr. SEYMOUR HERSH (Author, "Syria Calling: The Obama Administration's Chance to Engage in a Middle East Peace"): Absolutely, and there's nothing like the dexterity of politicians and government leaders.

What happened, simply, and I think this is a significant fact, is that Israel's game plan to - whatever it really was, to destroy Hamas and I think to kill the leadership - I think Israel failed much more than you might know from reading all the newspaper accounts.

I think their goal, initially, was to really take out the leadership of Hamas. The neoconservatives in the Bush days, they always used to use the model of the Carthaginian War - now I'm serious, salt the earth, the Third Punic War - and it was to salt the earth and make it unlivable for Hamas to survive in Gaza.

That's why the bombing was so intense. That's why they were so persistent, despite the large number of innocents killed and the horrible photographs that we all saw.

Israel failed in that attempt; Hamas survived. Hamas wins by surviving, and I think Bashar became - I've been told this by his senior aides, not by him, he wouldn't speak that way to me, but his very close aides - said look this was basically a debacle for the Israelis.

They lost in public opinion, they didn't get rid of Hamas. Look what's going on now. The world is paying more attention to Hamas. There's much more - many more demands for the Israelis and for the United States to start dealing directly with Hamas. This is very much in the picture.

I think we're going to see soon, direct contacts from the West, certainly starting with Europe, with Hamas. And so from that point of view, President Asad had every reason to change his mind and decide let's go ahead.

He's dealing with a weakened Israel. He's dealing with a new American president who just might appreciate the fact that the president of Syria is willing to turn away from his anger and try to seek peace. And I think that's all part of the big game plan that's going on now.

GROSS: You say that Syria's ultimate aim in negotiating with Israel and using the United States as the negotiator would be to persuade Obama to abandon the Bush administration's strategy of aligning America with the, quote, "moderate Arab Sunni states." Can you talk a little bit more about that as an ultimate aim for Syria?

Mr. HERSH: Sure. Let me tell you first what happened. The Bush administration -and Richard Cheney, the vice president, was very key in this - evolved the policy that one could call - the Arabs, some of the Arabs very angrily would call fitna(ph), an Arab word for Muslim brother fighting brother.

The policy basically was, let's get the moderate, we call moderate, Sunni countries; Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, all of which are not democracies, by the way - so much for Bush's talk about democracy; But get those three countries, particularly the Saudis with their money, working with America and also Israel.

They were sort of a combine. And all of them - Israel, America, the Sunni countries - working against Shiite Iran.

The idea was to put pressure on Shiite Iran and also Shiite Hezbollah. Hezbollah is the one-time terrorist group that's now a political unit inside Lebanon, but it's certainly totally Shiite. And so the idea was to get a Sunni world - Sunnis are about 90 percent of the - make up 90 percent of the population in terms of religion in the Arab world - get them against Iran and Hezbollah. This was always the game plan. And what Asad wants to do - and of course he's going to these negotiations understanding it's going to be very tough to do, but he's got a new partner now in Obama, and he's putting - the reason he was so open with me and others, I'm sure, is they want to put as much pressure on this White House as they can about these issues.

He wants the change the paradigm. You know, it is amazing. After eight years of what I think will arguably be the worst president we've ever had - not only economically, as we all know, but in terms of foreign policy - there still is a very interesting chance for peace.

Here's what the play is. We absolutely, to get out of Iraq, we really do need the neighboring countries to help us. We need Syria, which has a lot of influence with Iraq. We don't want Iraq to become cowboys and Indians, and we don't want to see, as we pull out, we don't want to see internecine warfare between the various warlords and war groups and the Sunnis and Shiites.

And one way of moderating, we do understand - this is clearly - I'm not telling anything that isn't - sort of the old cliché about not rocket scientists - we need people like the Turks, the Syrians and the Iranians to help us get our way out of - extract our troops and leave Iraq in some sort of reasonable position.

We also would love to have the Iranians, who have a lot of influence inside Afghanistan. So what Bashar's trying to do is to get Washington to somehow find a way - and boy, is this going to be hard - to open up with Iran on these regional issues, open up with Syria, continue to work with the Turks - who are very angry about Gaza but are staying there, they're still the Israeli ally, the Turks - and somehow handle Israel in all of this.

It's a really difficult diplomatic problem as I know it. I ended my piece by saying it's going to be very hard to pull off. But just imagine if we could pull it off. We would resolve so many problems in the Middle East.

GROSS: Well, what about Israel? Israel has a new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is very conservative and hasn't really supported the peace process in the past, but he appears to be willing to talk to Syria about the Golan Heights.

So why is Netanyahu leaning, apparently, toward negotiating with Syria?

Mr. HERSH: Well, that's obviously a question that I spent a lot of time worrying about and talking about. There's no question he's passing that message now, quite avidly. In wonderful Israeli style, one of the messages that were passed to the Syrians - privately, about six months ago, was during the campaign, the Israeli election took place in February, and it was a very bitter campaign - BB Netanyahu passed the word that he is going to continue the talks. He might not do it for a few months, because when he wins the election, he doesn't want to rush in the talks because he doesn't want people to think he's doing the talks that were started by the previous government.

He wants to make them his own - which is very Israeli, if you will. He's also passed the message, repeatedly, to this administration. Why? Not because of any noble gestures, it's because they believe that the real target is Iran.

They believe that, as awful as things are with Hamas and the Palestinian - that whole problem, the problem of suicide bombers - those are not strategic issues for the Israelis. It's tactical issues that are being dealt with. You kill somebody; they kill somebody.

For them, the Iranians are the big game. They think Iran is going to get a bomb very soon and is crazy enough to use it against one of their major cities, even though it would mean the end of Iranian civilization.

That's what the Israelis profoundly believe. There's no question about that, and that's a serious issue. For the Israelis then, to cut a deal with Syria, in their view, removes the threat from the north. They don't have to worry so much about that border. They can shift the military, weapons and missiles from targeting Syria more towards Iran, and more importantly, it's a process of isolation.

They believe that if you can get Syria into an agreement with the West, inevitably, inevitably Syria will walk away from its obligations and its responsibilities or its closeness to the Iranians. That's just inevitable.

So that's a reason for some of the wise people in Israel want to do it without even that many preconditions. Don't worry about what he says. Get him in the deal because time will be to our advantage.

And then, if in two years, if we decide we have to bomb Iran, Syria will stay out of it. That's the Israeli view.

GROSS: The negotiations would be about, most specifically, the return of the Golan Heights to Syria, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War.

What's the importance of the Golan Heights both to Syria and to Israel?

Mr. HERSH: Well for Syria, it's homeland. It's not a biblical land. It's not like we're talking about Bethlehem and the West Bank or something for the Palestinians. It doesn't have that kind of biblical history. It's a area of a lot of water. It's a mountainous region. A lot of snow collects there, a lot of water runoff.

I mean, all kinds of water flows, and it flows indirectly from Syria into a place called the Shaba Farms in southern Lebanon that's in dispute, too, and so there's a lot of riparian rights. Water is going to be, as we all know, a huge issue, and this always is a huge issue in the Middle East. So that's another factor.

I think - what got me interested in this story last year, and I started working on this well before Gaza last fall - I knew that in - there had been a series of informal talks done through the auspices of the Turkish government between Israel and the Syrians.

And in those talks, amazing progress was made, so I heard, to the point where most of the major issues were done, the technical issues - who's going to get what water? How are they going to deal with it? What's the geographical boundaries? Where will be the troops be display(ph) for Israel? Of course, the Golan Heights is not only an area of water supply but also high land, an area - you know, no country wants to give up the high land.

The Syrians could theoretically, in a war, use the higher position, the elevated mountains, to fire shells at them, etcetera, etcetera. So from a security point of view, sort of a tactical security point of view, they were always considered important.

But it was more than that. I think now, because about 20,000 Israelis have settled in the Golan Heights since 1967, it's become an area of wonderful wineries because of the mountainous region, and apparently the weather is just perfect for growing grapes - boutique hotels. It's a wonderful place to go and spend the weekend.

And so, there's also skiing there on Mount Hermon. It's one of the few places. I think the Israelis will keep the skiing area, Mount Hermon, that's part of the deal. And the only problem with the Israeli point of view was, of course under international law, it's well known that any country that takes land by force has to return it. And they hadn't done that in this case.

GROSS: So how do you think negotiations between Syria and Israel, brokered by the U.S., would play among the Syrian people?

Mr. HERSH: Oh, very well. I've actually looked into that. There's a great deal of eagerness to change the paradigm there, too, really, and they are really eager to look to the West.

I'm talking about the business class, and also don't forget it would improve the economics of Syria. Right now, there's tremendous problems in education and health care. He doesn't have enough money for good hospitals, he doesn't have enough money for the better schools he needs, and President Asad is most interesting.

He's demanding that every child age six and on, the second language they have be English. I quote somebody as saying he's been trying to say yes to us for six years and we just haven't listened.

GROSS: You raised a question that obviously you don't have the answer to, but I'll ask you anyways. You raise the question: Will the Obama administration have the diplomatic skills to pull this off? So from what you've seen so far, what are you thinking?

Mr. HERSH: You know, it's always dangerous to ask somebody what you think. I go nuts every time I watch cable TV shows, and they have reporters on that begin every sentence with the word I think. You know, A, they don't; and B, they don't know anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERSH: But on that basis, having said that, disqualifying myself, I'll tell you something about Obama. He's the first American president that understands the Islamic world.

He grew up for - spent a few years in Indonesia at a time when the Wahabis and the Saudis were very influential there. There was a lot of talk about various kinds of different sects and tracts of the Muslim religious world were competing for each other.

The other thing I wrote about is that he met with Jimmy Carter, the former president, who is - for many American Jews, he's sort of Darth Vader because he's been - he wrote a book, the previous book, the one before the one he currently has, talked about Apartheid Israel, the notion of the way they treat the Arabs is equivalent to Apartheid in South Africa.

And so they had a long talk, Mr. Carter and Mr. Obama. And by the way, Carter's people tell me it was the first time since Jimmy Carter left office in 1980 that he's gone back to consult with an American president about current affairs.

And it's absolutely possible, and obviously they talked about not only the Middle East a great deal, clearly Hamas and all these issues would be on the table.

And so here you have a president, and we all know how smart he is, who is, as I said, the most knowledgeable about Islam of any president we've ever had, who's very aware of the what the possibilities are in the Middle East, who is already showing - his administration is already beginning to talk in terms, as they said to the Syrians.

We understand that everything that, you know, that the connections, let's say, between Syria and Hezbollah, as I mentioned, aren't as direct as perhaps the Bush people did.

So there's a lot of signs that for the first time, we're going to have a president that's going to be open-minded in terms of the Middle East - and by that I mean always supporting Israel but not necessarily listening to everything, every argument they make.

And that has immense possibility. In the article, I write very briefly about the fact, I'm amazed it hadn't been reported since, that basically, the Obama administration played a role, I think a significant role, in convincing Israel to get out of - stop the Gaza War before his inauguration.

Now, it could be Israel was going to do that anyway, but my understanding is not, that there were some people certainly who wanted to go on for another week into late January.

And Obama simply passed a series of message - not the president himself but some of his senior aides - to the Israelis, making it clear that he wants the bombing to stop and the soldiers out of Gaza before he does his speech on inauguration day. And that happened, and that's not inconsiderable.

And at the same time, I'm sure, he also passed a message to the Israelis saying, you know, I'm still going to be your ally - don't think that - but the word no blank check gets into play.

GROSS: My guest is investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. His article about Syria is in the current edition of the New Yorker. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is investigative journalist Seymour Hirsh. In the current edition of the New Yorker, he writes that the Obama administration may be moving toward mediating negotiations between Syria and Israel, and this is part of a broader Middle East strategy that includes countering Iran's influence.

So, I guess I'm a little confused about what the motivation is here, whether it's to bring Iran into the fold or to isolate Iran. And is that depending on whether it's the American point of view or the Israeli point of view?

Mr. HERSH: It's depending on whether it's the Syrian point of view or the Israeli point of view. The Syrians, there are many people in Syria who tell me despite what - Israel believes you could isolate Iran by cutting a deal - but from the President Bashar's point of view, Bashar Asad's point of view, I think it's probably the guess is that what he wants to do is use talks to bring Iran into the fold.

He doesn't want to isolate Iran. He wants to get America to deal with Iran, to bring them in, into the process, the peace process. For him, it's all about the process.

You start the process, and that's what he wants to do. And if nothing else, this is an overwhelming argument for the process. And it's going to put a lot of pressure, I think, on Obama to go ahead and agree to be in the middle of this process.

GROSS: So how do you think Iran would react to a peace agreement between Syria and Israel? Everybody knows what they want Iran to do, but what do you think Iran would do?

Mr. HERSH: Oh, I think they'd be very hostile to it. I don't think they'd want it. I think publicly, they'd say everybody should get back their country, but I think privately, they'd be very, very upset. And the simple answer to your question is Iran will hate it, no question.

GROSS: President Obama sent that New Year's greeting video to Iran, and the supreme leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, rebuffed him. But how do you think Obama is seen among leaders of that region who are not our allies?

Mr. HERSH: Well, I've talked to some, obviously, because I traveled. Not everybody - by the way, many people we think are our allies are perfectly prepared to be quite scathing about us in private. That makes sense because of the wars we've pushed in the Middle East.

Basically, he's, you know, he's the great hope. And there's an election taking place in a few months in Iran, and you have to measure everything by the electoral politics because it is - really, they are mullahs, but they have elections that matter there, very serious elections.

And Obama's been saying something very interesting about - he's been talking, when he mentions Iran - he's talked a couple times now about mutual respect. And what does the Arab world want from us? They want us to be respectful. They're tired of being taken for granted by us. They really want that.

And the other thing is, he used the language - he described it as the Islamic Republic of Iran - and that's a different language. He's passing a message to the Iranians which is, unlike the Bush administration's, forget about regime change. We're not coming for you. We don't want to get rid of you. We want to deal with you.

And whatever they say in response, I think he's going to stay consistent on language, changing the language. So you start with changing the language, and he's changed the language.

It's an amazing dance that's going to have to take place. And the problem is, because of the economy, he's not going to get to this for a little while. This can't be something that's high on his agenda. Not because he doesn't want it be, just common sense would say, he's got to fix the ship of America.

He's got to get us working again. And this could an awful summer with people out of jobs, and riots, and etcetera, etcetera, and I think everybody's worried about that.

I'm a cynic, and I'll tell you on election night, I went to bed - when Obama was a named president, I went to bed thinking I was going to sleep that night with a beautiful virgin princess, and when I woke up in the morning, I said okay, it's a frog. And you have to deal with it as a frog, and you have to be very skeptical - and I am.

And I look at it. And there's things he's doing in Afghanistan that worry me. But I don't think we've ever had a president - maybe since Kennedy, who was very, very bright, and so was Lincoln - with the brains this guy has and the capacity to understand things this guy does.

And he's also a Chicago pol, let's remember that, but when it comes to the Middle East, he's going to be given a chance, and Bashar Asad is pushing that envelope. He's being given a chance to make a huge difference. And to think that after eight years we still have a reasonable chance of getting something accomplished diplomatically, to get the world calmed down and focus on the problems we need to focus on, it's pretty amazing.

It just shows you the human race, we're hard. We're hard to put down. We really - there's a lot of good stuff in us.

GROSS: Seymour Hersh. His article, "Syria Calling," is in the current edition of the New Yorker. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for breaking the story of the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam. More recently he broke much of the Abu Ghraib story and won a national magazine award for public interest in 2006 for his New Yorker articles on intelligence and the Iraq war. In the current edition of The New Yorker, Hersh writes that a major change in American policy towards Syria is underway.

Well, Seymour Hersh, I know a lot of our listeners are just waiting for me to ask you about comments that you recently made at the University of Minnesota where you were engaging in an onstage forum. And you said in that forum that Vice President Cheney had an executive assassination ring. And you were talking about the Joint Special Operations Command. You said under Bush's authority they've been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list, and executing them and leaving.

That's been going on in the name of all of us. You're saying that this execution ring that was part of the Joint Special Operations Command reported directly to Vice President Cheney's office. I'm not even sure where to start on this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So let me start with this, and this might sound like a weird question, but don't the Special Forces, isn't a part of what they do - assassinate people?

Mr. HERSH: Yeah, I mean, if they have specific knowledge that, let's say, there's a leading member of al-Qaida, I think the option is of course first to capture, if possible, and also if you've confirmed it and you also have authority to do so. And by the way, let me just say this, I just - you can't imagine the heartburn I must cause to my editors at The New Yorker when I say things of the top that aren't as carefully structured as some of the stuff I write. What happens…

GROSS: And I want to make sure that this is - that it's clear - this is not in The New Yorker.

Mr. HERSH: Yeah, absolutely. That's…

GROSS: There's comments that you made onstage as part of the ongoing research, you found that that was part of the ongoing research that you're doing for a book.

Mr. HERSH: What it is, I was in a debate or a conversation with Walter Mondale, the former vice president at the University of Minnesota. He teaches there now and I was amazed Walter Mondale has come a long way. And he was almost radical in his denigration of what's been going on in America in the past eight years. And somebody asked me, are bad things still going on? And what I said was - and here's where it gets complicated in terms of speaking and writing, I actually didn't say anything more than I have written in The New Yorker.

Last summer I wrote a long article in The New Yorker about the Joint Special Operations Command, that's the group you're talking about, JSOC, we call it. In the article I made the point that they are delegated by the president of the United States under the law to operate with impunity, without any - without telling, going anywhere, as I said, without telling the CIA station chief or the ambassador going into a series of countries, the president - I think at least 12 - the president has done by executive order, giving them that authority. And kill people - kill people they think are al-Qaida or enemies of the state or high-value targets.

And this information is not shared with Congress. And all of that was in The New Yorker last summer. And I've written about JSOC two or three other times because what I was writing last summer was they were engaging in a major operation inside Iran, and as far as I know, elements of that operation are still going on. So in terms of the basic story, if I were writing, and I was a little more careful in nuance, and you know, damn it, I always forget there's somebody in every audience with, you know, this is the day of the Internet and media.

GROSS: Oh, you bet.

Mr. HERSH: You bet.

GROSS: There's no way you're going to say anything that isn't being recorded.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERSH: Yeah. It was snowy night and they expected a big crowd. They sold a lot of tickets for it. It was one of those events in Minnesota. Anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERSH: Freeze time it. By - in 2005, 2006, they were really banging on people. The high-value targets, they were operating, JSOC was operating. You got promoted from within by the number of kills you had. I'm not exaggerating. Congress knew nothing about it. When Congress asked to get into this program, I'm not talking about average congressman, I'm talking about the guys who are the senior players, in this case, the House Defense Appropriation Subcommittee has a small group of four.

Dave Obey, the chairman of the committee, is one of them, and so is John Murtha, the longtime former marine from Pennsylvania - longtime members of the House. This is the most secret committee in Congress, and they couldn't get access to what's going on. Under the law, any program that the military does has to be funded by Congress. And I think I'm going to write, and I didn't say this publicly, but I'll just say it right now, I'm going to write that many of these operations in the early days after 9/11 were probably funded off the books by this White House, illegally.

So they didn't have to tell Congress anything. That pattern continued. So this group in 2005, 2006, they were operating on their own. They were killing people. I'm not faulting the guys doing it. They were doing their job, but for a certain period of time, all of the names were submitted to the vice president's office for a clearance process before. I don't how long that continued. I'm sure now it's changed.

GROSS: So basically what you're reporting here, among other things, is that this team of Special Forces that was charged with assassinating high-value targets was cleared only through the vice president's office when it should've been cleared by Congress, as well.

Mr. HERSH: Well, the whole program wasn't told to Congress very much. Congress may know something about it. They were very suspicious about it. In July of last year, unfortunately it's an election year, so anything that wasn't about the election last summer didn't get much attention. I wrote that the senior members of the Appropriation Subcommittee that deals with the most secret issues were stunned when they were confronted with, for the first time, some evidence of the extent of what the Joint Special Operations Command does.

There's been a real problem in terms of this special unit. It isn't that the way it got - what I said in Minnesota ended up in some blogs and on cable TV as Cheney running a death squad. No. What happened is in the early days they would clear through the vice president office their operations, who they were doing, who they were going to hit, just as in the early days of Guantanamo.

And I've written about this when I wrote of Abu Ghraib. In the early days of Guantanamo, when they had a prisoner in '02 and '03 and they wanted to escalate the - what they don't call torture, but I will, the torture they used to extract lousy information from them, you had to - it either had to be signed off, in most cases, in cases of the serious prisoners - it had to be signed off by Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of Defense, or Rumsfeld or somebody that high in the Pentagon.

So when it came to the high-value target hunting killer teams, they need to clear what they did with the vice president's office. And that's what was going on. Whether it still exists that way today, and that didn't come across in what I said in Minnesota because I rather stupidly didn't make it clear that I was talking about then as opposed to they, is that I'm sure that's changed now.

And one reason it's changed is that the man who ran that operation was promoted by George Bush a few years ago to be in charge of all operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His name is Stan McChrystal. And so since you now have somebody inside the Joint Chiefs of Staff who used to run the program, the idea that these operations aren't known to the military is sort of silly. Of course they are. But three years, two and a half years ago, no way.

GROSS: So, do you think that the kind of assassinations that you're talking about are still going on, but only with approval?

Mr. HERSH: I don't know what's going on with the Obama administration. I know until the end of the Bush administration there was a lot of very ugly stuff going on. Of course a lot of the stuff they did was very appropriate. The Joint Special Operations Command, they would try and collect intelligence, they would try and grab prisoners. But when they had to, if they had a high-value target, and they were sure that they had a very bad guy, we would get him.

GROSS: Now, you said that some of the stuff that you described at the University of Minnesota that made headlines, you'd already basically reported…

Mr. HERSH: Oh, absolutely. In The New Yorker.

GROSS: In The New Yorker. One of the difference is that onstage at the University of Minnesota you called it an executive assassination ring. In The New Yorker you talked about how the Bush administration wasn't requiring a special finding from Congress before authorizing the assassinations. I mean the language was much more technical in The New Yorker.

Mr. HERSH: Much better, much sensible, which is why…

GROSS: Did you have any regrets about calling it an executive assassination ring?

Mr. HERSH: Well, actually…

GROSS: I mean that's the kind of language that really makes headlines.

Mr. HERSH: It actually was winged, but don't worry about it. I mean because…

GROSS: Oh, winged. Okay.

Mr. HERSH: I might just talk about it. But the point is that of course what I said, executive assassination ring is a loaded phrase and was absolutely - I don't dispute any of the facts, but using a phrase like that, that's the reason why people like me, despite the fact that I scream and yell about editors, really like editors.

GROSS: Congressman Dennis Kucinich is requesting an investigation into your allegations about Cheney's office authorizing these assassinations without congressional approval. And he doesn't want to wait until your book comes out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And so, what do you think of that idea, of a congressional investigation?

Mr. HERSH: Well, I think if you probably checked with the House Defense Appropriation Subcommittee, you'll find that after the article I wrote last summer, they did begin an investigation. They did ask a few members of the House Defense Appropriation Subcommittee to gather up the forces. The Defense Appropriation Subcommittee in the House is unusual in that it has an investigation arm that not many people know much about.

It's not a secret. It's just they have about a dozen guys, some of them FBI, CIA, former GAO guys - Government Accounting Office people - that have done a lot of investigations for them in classified areas. They did ask, the last time I thought about it, I heard about it, they wanted to investigate the Joint Special Operations Command because they were not being briefed.

Mr. Cheney said to them, well, I'm not going to give you clearance. You cannot have clearance for it. And they said, well, but we're the most secret group. We have clearance for the most things. And Cheney said, if you don't like what I'm saying, sue me. And that's the last I heard about it last fall. I don't know if they got the clearance. I don't what this administration is going to do.

I just think Kucinich will probably find out if - I haven't talked to him. He didn't call me, but if he had I would've told him to go the House Appropriations Committee to its chairman, David Obey of Wisconsin, and see what they've done, because I know they were interested in the same issue.

GROSS: My guest is investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. After recording our interview, we contacted the U.S. Special Operations Command for comment regarding Hersh's assertions that former Vice President Dick Cheney authorized JSOC operations to kill high-level targets.

They sent us the following response. Quote, "Mr. Hersh's assertions are not correct. The Joint Special Operations Command is a subordinate unit of U.S. Special Operations Command. And like all U.S. military units reports through a military chain of command to the Secretary of Defense and the president. The vice president is not in the military chain of command and has no command on control authorities over the U.S. military. Congress has oversight over all U.S. forces, including special operations," unquote.

We'll hear more of our interview with Seymour Hersh after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Seymour Hersh and his article in the current New Yorker is called "Syria Calling," the Obama Administration's chance to engage in a Middle East peace. You investigated the Bush administration throughout the Bush administration, always looking for ways that they might have been going beyond executive authority and taking on new powers.

And now that the Bush administration is over, you're still investigating what they did and where they might have violated the law. Is investigating that any different for you as a journalist post Bush administration than it was during the Bush administration? Are more people coming forward now, now that the president and vice president are no longer in power?

Mr. HERSH: You know, it's a great question because I did think, I had a lot of people that had told me in the last year, Bush, call me next February. And so far even people that are out are still cherry because, you know, and not so much Bush, but Cheney really is, he's really smart. In the article this week in The New Yorker that's coming out this week, I mentioned that at one point last fall Mr. Miliband, the young foreign secretary of Britain, unilaterally, without telling the White House, made a trip to Syria to see President Assad.

And his intelligence chief, his MI6 chief before him. And Bush, Cheney didn't know about it until it actually was - they were actually there. And Cheney, at a meeting, and I do have, I can tell you, I do have access and have had, and I've been very careful of how I use it - do a lot of stuff for meetings in the White House. And at a meeting, he railed on about Perfidious Albion, you know, that - the old Shakespeare term for England. And that was used during the revolutionary war as a pejorative term for England.

Perfidious Albion, he said, he is - Cheney is really underestimated. It's easy to make a caricature of him. He's very, very bright. And he's also, in person, much more open-minded in the sense, I'm talking about not politically. You could go and the most despaired people in the world go and have had social evenings with him and his wife. And talking about - as long as you don't get into politics, and movies and stuff like that, it's - he's easy to make a caricature, but he's much more formidable than people think - got a rap-clap memory, understands bureaucracy much better, has been around forever, has had every job.

GROSS: Are you saying that you think Vice President Cheney is still having a chilling effect on people who might otherwise be coming forward and revealing things to you about what happened in the Bush-Cheney administration?

Mr. HERSH: I'll make it worse. I think he's put people left. He's put people back. They call it a stay behind. It's sort of an intelligence term of (unintelligible). When you leave a country and, you know, you're driven out, you know, you've lost the war, you leave people behind. So stay behind that you can continue to have to contacts with for - to do sabotage, whatever you want to do.

Cheney's left to stay behind. He's got people in a lot of agencies that still tell him what's going on, particularly Defense, obviously, and also in the NSA. There's still people that talk to him. He still knows what's going on. Can he still control policy up to a point? Probably up to a point, a minor point, but he's still there. He's still a presence and, again, because of the problems this administration is having filling jobs, a lot of people who served in the Bush-Cheney government - even in the White House people in the most sophisticated staffs are still there.

You simply can't get rid of everybody. You may not even want some professional people. But Cheney is - I would never call it admiration, but you know, formidable. Yeah, this guy - this guy is the real McCoy.

GROSS: So one more thing, you for years been writing about basically the present, or at least the present administration. And now you're doing a book that's about the past. It's about the Bush-Cheney administration, which is no longer in power. So I'd just like to briefly hear why you're continuing to investigate the Bush-Cheney administration, as opposed to spending all of your time on what's happening now?

Mr. HERSH: I don't want to start analyzing what I do what I do. If I started analyzing, I'd, you know.

GROSS: That's all right.

Mr. HERSH: God knows, you know. And I don't mean - I'm not saying don't ask me that question. I'm just saying, you know, why do I always want to make - one of the things you ask yourself, why do I want to spend my time making other people look bad? What happened in my childhood that wants me to do this? Do you know what I mean?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERSH: But the bottom line is, I don't think we begin to nearly know what happened.

GROSS: Right, okay.

Mr. HERSH: I'm telling you, there's never been a government this secret. And Bush, I mean, look, I can tell now, I can cherry-pick inside Obama like you can't believe. I mean, you could just - it's just like taking candy from a baby. I mean, I'll tell you, they had a very interesting principles meeting the other week about Afghanistan. And I know an awful lot about it. I'm not bragging, I'm just telling you.

You know, it's just so much harder to work against Cheney right now. Even if he's out, it's just so much more rewarding. One of the stories that got me very early, years ago, there was a young officer assigned there - quite brilliant. And there's something called the Situation Room in the White House where the very bushy-tailed bright colonels and Navy captains go, and they're all going to make admiral. And they're the guys who funnel all of the intelligence reports from the CIA and the NSA for the National Security Advisor.

And one of the guys, this is in the middle of the Bush-Cheney years, after the - after '04, and a guy comes in and he's, you know, high up in his class at the war college. You know, and by the way, we have - don't underestimate the military.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERSH: They're really good. When this guy read the regs and he's there and he discovers all of these top secret pieces of paper, urgent stuff that's supposed to be, under the law, under the procedures, to immediately go to the National Security Advisor, which would be - then it was Condoleezza Rice in the first term.

And there's a law says that she's, in one case, the National Security Agency which monitors communications, if they have something called a critic, an urgent message for the president, within 10 minutes it's got to be on the desk - under the law or executive rules - has to be on the desk of the National Security Advisor.

So this guy reads it, but everybody's giving everything to Scooter Libby, the National Security Advisor for Cheney. And he starts saying, hey guys, we're not doing it right. That's not supposed to go to the vice president, it's supposed to go to president's person, Condi, not to Scooter. And he's told, forget about it. He makes a fuss. And one day he makes a move that do something for Condi, and he's 13,000 miles away the next Monday.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right.

Mr. HERSH: Didn't lose his promotions. He managed to make his - got his two or three stars, 13,000 miles away, you know, within a, you know, the orders were cut, maybe it took him longer to move, but he was out of there quick. And it's an amazing place, you know, the more you know about it, the more fascinated you'll get because they were controlling power.

GROSS: Seymour Hersh, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. HERSH: Glad to be here.

GROSS: Seymour Hersh is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His article in the current edition is called "Syria Calling," the Obama administration's chance to engage in a Middle East peace. This is FRESH AIR.

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