Seymour Hersh may not be the last angry man of US political journalism, but he's arguably the angriest. It's hard to envision him producing the slick, as-told-to narratives that his longtime competitor Bob Woodward of The Washington Post now turns out. No, Hersh is still the avatar of watchdog reporting, pursuing what he perceives to be the mistakes and abuses of the powerful. Professionally speaking, he remains the same guy who broke the My Lai massacre story in 1969. Want proof? Take a look at the jacket photo from this book. Hersh is holding to his ear something that looks suspiciously like the receiver of a rotary phone.
That doesn't mean that his engrossing "Chain of Command" is itself an anachronism. This collection of Hersh's stories for The New Yorker, amplified and rearranged for book form, deals with questions that remain staples of news coverage today - and by "today," I mean Sept. 21, 2004. Who's responsible for the prison abuses at Abu Ghraib, for instance? How did the intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, or its lack thereof, get so messed up? How are things going in Afghanistan? How much trouble is Richard Perle in?
(Caveat: Mr. Hersh is not held in high regard by many members of the current administration. Indeed, throughout his career, subjects of his investigations have complained that he is a scurrilous hack. The aforementioned Mr. Perle, for one, has labeled Hersh the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist. The Pentagon took the unusual step of issuing a rebuttal to this book prior to its publication. Hersh's work "apparently contains many of the numerous unsubstantiated allegations and inaccuracies which he has made in the past based upon unnamed sources," said the Department of Defense release.)
The Abu Ghraib portion of this book is its most noteworthy and interesting section, if not necessarily its most convincing. Hersh didn't literally break this story - nor does he claim that he did. But it was his possession of now-infamous photos of prisoner abuse and The New Yorker's plan to publish them that forced CBS to rush its own piece about the affair onto the airwaves.
Hersh's litany of the coercive techniques (some would say torture) used by US personnel will be depressingly familiar to anyone who's followed the news over the past few months. Much of it draws upon details unearthed by the military's own investigations, principally the scathing internal report of Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba. But Hersh attempts to explain these actions by placing them in a larger context. Abuses also occurred in Afghanistan, and the US detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, he says, as a desperate desire to obtain useful intelligence flowed down through US ranks.
Top officials became convinced that, in this new kind of war, old rules need not apply. Hersh claims that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld authorized creation of a secret team of US operatives cleared to snatch or assassinate terror suspects anywhere in the world.
"The roots of the Abu Ghraib scandal lie not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists, but in the reliance of George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld on secret operations and the use of coercion - and eye-for-an-eye retribution - in fighting terrorism," writes Hersh.
It's a safe bet that Secretary Rumsfeld won't be sending Hersh a Christmas card this year. The Pentagon chief is depicted as flattening the Joint Chiefs like a runaway Bradley, insisting on ripping up their extensive logistics plans in favor of a faster and lighter approach to invasion. That backfired when the insurgency bloomed and there wasn't enough US force to go around. As further investigations have revealed since Hersh wrote this book, at the time abuses were occurring at Abu Ghraib, US Army headquarters in Iraq were woefully short of oversight manpower.
But Rumsfeld is not Hersh's only target. Richard Perle is a conservative defense expert who's served as chairman of an important Pentagon advisory board. Note the use of the past tense. After Hersh detailed what appear to be conflicts between Perle's work as an investor in defense firms and his insider status, Perle resigned his Defense Department post.
His threatened libel suit has yet to materialize, and probably won't now that Perle is in much deeper trouble over allegations of financial malfeasance dealing with his service on the board of Hollinger Corp.
As the Perle example shows, Hersh has lately shown a remarkable ability to identify news currents before they appear. He was pounding Ahmad Chalabi, Iraqi exile and would-be leader, in the pages of The New Yorker long before it became apparent that Chalabi might be a conduit of information to Iran.
Yes, as critics claim, much of his best stuff is attributed to unnamed sources. That undoubtedly leads to errors, or at least exaggerations promulgated by people with agendas.
Is there really a Special Access Program to assassinate terrorist leaders? We probably won't know the definitive answer to that for years. And how can we know if the "former intelligence operative" on one page is the same as the "ex-spymaster" on the next? Why is a "retired Navy officer" commenting on an Army operation? There's a reason Bob Woodward chucks that whole approach and writes in narrative form - it's called "readability."
And, think of this: for about double the price of this book, you can subscribe to The New Yorker. You'll get Hersh's stuff - plus cartoons - without having to wait for his next book.
• Peter Grier is a Monitor reporter in Washington.