Seymour Hersh visited New Mexico State University (Las Cruces) on Tuesday, March 29 as part of his speaking tour for his newest book, “Chain of Command: the Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib.” He opened his presentation by announcing that he intended to discuss “what’s on my mind” and “where we think we are.” The first thing on his mind was a chilling assessment of George W. Bush.
“The President,” Hersh sighed. “Bush is as absolutely convinced he’s doing the right thing,” just as journalists are who think of themselves as white knights think they are doing the right thing. “Even if we have another thousand body bags, it won’t deter him.”
“This is where he is. He believes he won’t be measured by today, but in 5 or 10 years” in terms of the Mideast. With regard to Iraq, “he thinks it’s going well.” Iran, according to Hersh’s contacts, is “teed up.” “This is his mission,” he continued. “What does it mean?”
And then he delivered the most chilling comments of the evening. “Nothing I write” is likely to influence Bush, he said. “He is unreachable. I can’t reach him. He’s got his own world. This is really unusual and frankly, it scares the hell out of me.”
From this point on, Hersh offered a compendium of the Bush policy failures, misjudgments, and out-of-touch convictions that have fueled his fears.
First, Hersh brought the audience of nearly 2,000 up to date on conditions in Iraq. He torpedoed Bush’s rosy assessment of the recent elections. “Everything came to a stop for this election. Satellites were moved over the country. All assets were dragged over. In Afghanistan, where we really have a war going on…those guys stood down for three weeks because the drones which pick up signals were all dragged to Iraq. Nobody knew who they were voting for. If this had happened in Russia during the Cold War, it would have been laughed at.”
Assessing the current situation, Hersh remarked that the Iraqis “can’t agree on what language to speak--it’s zoo time. We’re nowhere, we’re probably not going to win the war; probably, it will be a Balkanized country. The Turks want Kirkuk, the city with oil, and they may invade, they may not. Here it’s spin city. In the European and Mideastern press, there’s a reality that you don’t get over here.”
Hersh described how he thought Bush treats Americans by retelling an old Richard Pryor story in which a man comes home to find his wife in bed with another man. “What you’re seeing isn’t happening,” the husband is told. “Are you going to believe me or your lying eyes?”
Hersh charged that the American people are not getting a true picture of the status of the war. He reflected on the fact that “there are no embedded reporters now and the bombing continues” even though there are no air defenses. “We don’t know how many sorties are being flown or the tonnage involved because there are no reporters. We do know that Navy pilots are doing most of the flying.” Hersh made a point of saying that many in the military, FBI, and CIA have as much integrity as most academics, and within these institutions “there are people who respect the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights as much as anybody.” The Marine Corps personnel are the most skeptical even as they continue to do most of the heavy lifting. Hersh reports that many are very bitter, but they are loyal to the principle of civilian control and are continuing to do their job, but “they are going through hard times now.”
The bombing of Fallujah, according to Hersh, marked a major escalation of the “very careful urban bombing” campaign. Fallujah is “an incredibly important city in Iraq. It led the resistance against the British, it has mosques, it is a fabled place.” When Fallujah was bombed, an urban bombing planner told Hersh, “Welcome to Stalingrad, we took it block by block.” Hersh said that it was amazing that Fallujah was largely not on the table in America for discussion.”
“The Thinness of the Fabric of Democracy”
How have we as a nation gotten to where we are today? Since the ‘80’s Wolfowitz, Feith, Gingrich and others have been pushing the neo-con idea that by spreading democracy, we can make the world safer for US interests. “It’s as if we’ve been taken over by a cult of 8 or 9 people who decided the road to stop international terrorism led to Baghdad,” according to Hersh. Hersh recalled how General Shinseki, who testified in February 2003 that we would need upwards of 250,000 troops to control Iraq, was denounced by Wolfowitz, because Shinseki’s answers didn’t conform to the neo-con mantra.
“That 8 or 9 people can change so much...Where was the military, the Congress, the press? What has happened raises the question about the thinness of the fabric of democracy.”
These days, said Hersh, we hear about the “insurgency” when in truth, “we’re fighting the Ba’athists, the Sunni, the tribal people. They decided to let us have Baghdad and fight the war on their terms. It’s not an insurgency—that implies that we’ve put in a government and they’re fighting against that government. We haven’t accomplished our objective on that score,” according to Hersh.
The US is fighting cells of 10-15 people and can’t find them because it has no intelligence. So the goal now is to make the people who protect the resistance more afraid of US/Iraqi forces than they are of the resistance so they will turn and provide information. Fallujah had too much press coverage, so now everything is being done “off camera.” Hersh describes the situation once one leaves Baghdad as “cowboys and Indians” since “we control very little.” Hersh noted that Shia cleric Sistani did nothing as Shia Iraqi Guards and Americans took down the Sunni in Fallujah. The same thing is now going on in Ramadi. This long-standing enmity between Shia and Sunni is why, Hersh believes, civil war is probably in Iraq’s future.
Hersh then launched into his chronology of how we went from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib. Post-9/11, there were voices in the U.S. government that were not pushing the policy of “payback” since some Taliban had been dealing with U.S. oil companies, were largely mercantile and many were not happy with bin Laden. These voices in the government wanted a more nuanced approach. There was also disagreement with Bush’s plans to go into Iraq, but these people were deemed “traitors.” He described how the Bush Administration pressured people to come around to their view. Basically, they exploited human nature. People with experience who disagreed noticed that junior officials supporting the White House got the face time with the President, the meetings, and the big end of the year bonuses. So it was only a matter of time before those who did not favor Bush’s policies, people with kids and mortgages, decided they had to “join the team” to survive. (See the section on the Q & A below for more insights on what people in the government and military have been thinking.)
Bush elected to rout the Taliban, but pulled out the most elite units in early 2002 for redeployment to the Mideast for the coming war in Iraq. Although Bush says we’ve “won” in Afghanistan, “the ‘bad guys’ are still there, the elections have been delayed for a second time, crime is up, they are the largest producers of heroin in the world, and at one point, 700 kids were dying of hypothermia and malnutrition every day” during the hard winter.
Following Bush’s victory show on the carrier in May 2003, the reality of Iraq became clearer. During the invasion, “6,000-12,000 people disappeared overnight. Most elite units had been ready to fight; sandbags and armed soldiers were on every corner.” All the people who ran the bureaucracy of running the country were gone...the people who ran the water, oil ministry and hospitals. Some of the looting was done randomly by Shiites, but most of the government records—real estate, marriage licenses, etc.—were looted and burned systematically. Saddam’s plan was to dismantle the operating units of government and to fight later. To this day, according to Hersh, the “people who didn’t fight are now fighting.”
The August 2003 bombing of the U.N. headquarters and the subsequent attack on the Jordanian Embassy, which Hersh describes as the psyops center for CIA and other espionage, sent a key message: “that the resistance was hitting facilities that would take out other facilities”—in other words, the hitting of key facilities would create a ripple effect, undermining other functions down the line.
At this point, about a year before the Presidential election, Karl Rove got involved. With a desperate need for intelligence, the push was on to squeeze prisoners for information. Hersh said that most of the prisoners “had nothing to do with anything.” Most were caught at roadblocks or any male under 30 was grabbed if he was in the area after an ambush.
At Abu Ghraib, many of the guards were simply traffic police who had been give two weeks of training before being sent to the prison. In September 2003 the abuse of prisoners had begun. The attempts to gain intelligence were based on what Hersh called a “most acute form of torture,” the shaming of prisoners by using pictures of frontal nudity of males and posing prisoners as if they were performing homosexual acts, knowing that if photographs were shown in their communities, this would be death for them. This threat of distribution didn’t get very far because the situation we have today is that we still have no intelligence from inside the resistance or as Hersh puts it, “We don’t know jack.”
From September to December 2003, torture was going on at night and all the top generals were coming in and out of Abu Ghraib. With the release of the Darby CD in January 2004, Rumsfeld appeared before Congress admitting things were “bad” but the extent of the abuse was still secret until Hersh and CBS broke the story open.
“How does Abu Ghraib play out in the real world?”
For the first and only time during his talk, Hersh raised his voice and boomed this question into the mike: “The President, what did he do between January and May? They prosecuted a few low-level kids when these pictures came out. These pictures were a shock to their (Arab) culture, they viewed America as being sexually perverse. When it hits the paper, Bush says ‘I’m against torture.’” But instead of a real investigation, Hersh says all we got were hearings and inquiries about “rules and regulations.” Hersh, in talking to a lot of GIs involved in the abuse, has concluded that soldiers were told “Just don’t kill ‘em, do what you want.”
Hersh recalled how after the My Lai incident in Viet Nam, the mother of a soldier who took part in the massacre told him that “I gave them a good boy, they sent me back a murderer.” Hersh believes the military has a responsibility to the young people they send off to war. He is concerned about the psychic damage of our troops and told one story about a woman back from Iraq who is getting big black tattoos everywhere on her body. Her mother believes that she wants to be in someone else’s skin. Hersh believes that when this is all over, we’ll be hearing things about the war that we won’t want to hear.
Touching on the situation at Guantanamo Bay, Hersh said that of the 600 people there, about half have had nothing to do with terrorism. But, he warns, if they aren’t Al-Qaeda already, they will be. And the government now faces the difficulty that many detainees can’t even be released because they’ve now become more of a threat as a result of their imprisonment than they were before they were sent to Gitmo.
According to his contacts in military/intelligence circles, the debate over whether 9/11 was part of a deep-seated Al-Qaeda presence in the US or was the equivalent of a “pick-up team” has been largely resolved. Most experts have come down on the side of the latter. So, the US will have to come to terms with what we’ve done eventually, and in Hersh’s view, “there’s no good news in this, folks.”
Q & A: Oil and How Our Military/Government Feels about Bush’s Policies
Most of the Q & A was spent on oil and what people in our military and government are thinking about Bush’s policies.
1) A question about oil as Bush’s real reason for the Iraq war was raised:
Hersh said that his best guess is that oil was not “the real thing he wanted to do.” The neo-con mantra, ‘all roads lead to Baghdad’ and ‘democratization,’ the latter concept which goes all the way back to Jean Kirkpatrick, were the major ideas behind the war. Bush couldn’t have sold “democratization” on it’s own, so WMD’s were used as the reason. “If we had known there was no WMD, there would have been no vote.”
Hersh warned that when the price of oil reaches $68-$69 a barrel, this will be the crunch point in terms of real economic decline. If Bush wants to move against Iran, which is pumping about 3.9 barrels a day, he’s heading for trouble. According to Hersh, Iran will scuttle every ship in the Straights of Hormuz and the Malaca Straits in Indonesia. It will take months of dredging and salvaging to approach normalcy.
If oil is Bush’s top priority, “Bush is just not behaving as someone who is managing an oil crisis” and has already been “mismanaging oil in Iraq.”
Hersh passed along a comment he had picked up that illustrates the level of Bush’s awareness. “You could call Wolfowitz a ‘Trotskyite,’ a permanent revolutionary. Wolfowitz would know what you are talking about. But Bush wouldn’t.”
2) A couple of questions touched on opinions in the military/government toward Bush’s policies:
According to Hersh, elite intel groups are troubled by the missions they are being ordered to carry out and they are questioning what they are doing. Hersh said that he is not a “pacifist” because there are people want to hurt us and we need to be able to protect ourselves. But, in Afghanistan, things could have been done differently. Hersh said he wants us to know that those who know the Constitution are very concerned. In particular, Navy Seals are suffering “massive resignations over disillusionment” over Bush’s policies. “Our President chose not to do things in ways that could have avoided this...he had other options available.” Hersh concluded by reiterating that “vast parts of government didn’t believe there were WMD’s” and that Bush’s neo-con policies are “a product of paranoid thinking and the Cold War.”