Gulf War crimes?

In his latest exposi, the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh reports allegations that the military committed a massacre against Iraqi soldiers and whitewashed it.

Published May 15, 2000 9:00AM (EDT)

An investigative report for the New Yorker by veteran muckraker Seymour Hersh alleges that Clinton drug czar Barry McCaffrey orchestrated a 1991 massacre of hundreds of Iraqi troops, two days after a cease-fire went into effect at the end of the Gulf War.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist quotes numerous on-the-record combat veterans, both senior officers and enlisted men, describing the "systematic destruction" of a 5-mile-long column of Iraqi armor, vehicles and personnel making what was described as an orderly, U.S.-sanctioned retreat.

According to Hersh's report, McCaffrey ordered an all-out, four-hour assault based on two or fewer instances of fire from the Iraqis -- a move that galvanized the general's staff. The article quotes senior officers decrying the lack of discipline and proportionality in the McCaffrey-ordered attack. Even McCaffrey's operations officer at the time, Patrick Lamar, is quoted dismissing the battle as "a giant hoax."

The report also charges that McCaffrey, who is now a member of President Clinton's cabinet and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, maneuvered his troops miles beyond what was sanctioned by his commanders and failed to inform superiors of the exact location of his troops. As the attack commenced, a helicopter blew up an enemy ammunition truck, blocking access to a bridge and bottling up the doomed Iraqis.

Hersh writes that "Apache attack helicopters, Bradley fighting vehicles, and artillery units from the 24th Division pummeled the 5-mile-long Iraqi column for hours, destroying some 700 Iraqi tanks, armored cars and trucks, and killing not only Iraqi soldiers but civilians and children as well. Many of the dead were buried soon after the engagement, and no accurate count of the victims could be made."

McCaffrey, then a two-star general, commanded the 24th Division, which led the engagement. American forces suffered no casualties in the attack, and soldiers called it a "turkey shoot" -- which is probably an apt description, given that, as Hersh reports, few of the retreating Iraqis returned the fire and some were even sunbathing on their tanks.

Hersh's story also alleges that, in two incidents, McCaffrey's division fired on unarmed Iraqis. The first incident involved a group of Iraqi POWs, who were reportedly sitting on the ground as they were shot. A group of unarmed civilians were shot in the second incident, according to American soldiers who were present. In both cases, the Army investigated and found no wrong doing. But Hersh dismisses those findings in his story, writing that "few soldiers report crimes, because they don't want to jeopardize their Army careers." In neither case was McCaffrey present.

A series of striking, chronological narratives, the stark tale of alleged war crimes employs primarily on-the-record interviews and features a dramatic, unattributed photo of McCaffrey standing on an armored vehicle, binoculars in hand, overseeing the battle. "He's going to have to wonder where that photo came from. I talked to a lot of people," Hersh told Salon in a telephone interview Sunday night.

According to Hersh's account, the carnage following the cease fire raised questions up and down the chain of command. But it took a detailed, anonymous letter to the Pentagon to spur the Army to launch investigations. Full of inside information supporting its authenticity, the letter accused McCaffrey of committing a "'war crime'" and threatened exposure to the press.

The letter, Hersh writes, stated "that a colleague had overhead McCaffrey urge his commanders on the command radio net 'to find a way for him to go kill all of those bastards.'" The origins of the letter are not revealed in the New Yorker report, though. Hersh told Salon he "probably" interviewed the letter-writer. "But he didn't identify himself to me," he said.

Hersh said he came across the story while researching U.S. military involvement in Colombia. "I started in December looking into the Colombia policy. But I never got far. Generals started talking, and I realized we'd missed a big story on McCaffrey." In the story, Hersh quotes one colonel's statement that the assault "made no sense for a defeated army to invite their own death. ... It came across as shooting fish in a barrel. Everyone was incredulous."

McCaffrey, who has engaged in pre-emptive strikes against Hersh for several weeks now, issued a statement Sunday condemning the account. "The incidences Hersh recycles were the subject almost ten years ago of no less than four complete investigations, including two which were separate, independently-led and exhaustive -- one by the Army Inspector General and the other by the Army's Criminal Investigation Division."

At some 25,000 words and exhaustive itself by the standards of magazine journalism, Hersh's article exhumes all four investigations and portrays them as whitewashes. Hersh even depicts internal skepticism about the vigor of the investigations and about why the Army decided not to press its investigation further. "They'd just won a war and didn't want to shit in their mess kit," a retired major general is quoted as saying. One investigator, Warrant Officer Willie Rowell, told Hersh that, "he felt that he and his fellow-investigators had established that, at best, only two rounds were fired by Iraqi forces at the ... platoon on the morning [of the massacre], but regardless of his and the others' doubts about McCaffrey, he said, the Dinkel investigation 'came up with nothing that would have won a trial.'" He added, "If you're a two-star general, you can do whatever you want to do, under the confusion of war."

Following up on his written statement, McCaffrey also made the rounds on the morning-news talk shows to question the veracity of Hersh's story. On NBC's "Today" Monday morning, McCaffrey dodged a direct question on the assertion by one of his subordinates, Patrick Lamar, that the battle was a "hoax." Instead, he declared the article, "nonsense, revisionist history." Citing the accusation of "war crimes," "Today's" Matt Lauer asked the general if he would support a renewed investigation. McCaffrey said, "absolutely not," adding that it was "old history." On ABC's "Good Morning America," McCaffrey said, "I think [Hersh's] story is going to melt like a snowball this week." Hersh also appeared on both programs, reiterating his allegations.

In Sunday's statement, McCaffrey charged that "Hersh has the safe luxury of armchair quarterbacking the every move of the 24th Infantry during the Gulf War -- 10 years after the fact. We did not have that luxury. We were out there fighting the fourth-largest army in the world, which was armed with biological and chemical weapons ..."

Hersh, however, writes of a different kind of war, one characterized by a one-sided attack led by McCaffrey and his troops, and quotes from a published account that the Iraqis "hadn't lost the battle, they had forfeited it." He states that the 24th Division had seen very little sustained action, and that McCaffrey felt he hadn't unleashed enough destruction on the Iraqis. While McCaffrey currently emphasizes the Iraqis' impressive armaments and overall potential as justifying his division's all-out assault, Hersh quotes an account of McCaffrey telling his troops, "You knocked them to their knees because they were like an eighth-grade team playing with pro football players."

The controversy over Hersh's investigation erupted April 18, when Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz reported McCaffrey's "unusual preemptive strike" against the reporter. In the article, Kurtz cited a letter McCaffrey sent to editors at the New Yorker, in which he complained about what he described as Hersh's "'defamatory'" interviews filled with "'false allegations'" that were the product of "'personal malice.'" In assessing McCaffrey's move, Kurtz wrote: "In making the correspondence available to the Washington Post, McCaffrey is adopting the increasingly popular tactic of a news subject trying to make the journalist the issue before he delivers his findings."

The pot was stirred further Friday, when the Associated Press moved a story with the headline, "Army Probe Cleared McCaffrey." Noting the dispute between the journalist and the general, the AP cited "newly released documents" indicating "no wrongdoing on McCaffrey's part." An AP spokesman said the documents were released as part of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) filing made by the wire service after Kurtz disclosed the dispute.

Hersh states that his own FOIA request took several months -- not the few short weeks it took the AP -- to yield documents. Asked about Friday's AP article, and the speed with which its FOIA request was granted, Hersh said, "Draw your own conclusions. But getting that story out in the press before mine comes out -- it's not important. The truth will out."

The damaging Gulf War allegations come at a critical time for McCaffrey, who was expected to testify before Congress on Tuesday over the efficacy of a White House program offering advertising subsidies to network television broadcasters and non-fiction magazine publishers who fill their shows and pages with government endorsed anti-drug messages. On Thursday, with knowledge that the New Yorker planned to publish Hersh's report the same week, McCaffrey postponed his scheduled testimony before the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources. (Full disclosure: This reporter has covered the ONDCP's media campaign for Salon and was also scheduled to testify.)

A Capitol Hill source with knowledge of the hearings said that an ONDCP staffer, acting on McCaffrey's behalf, requested that the hearing be postponed due to a "family medical emergency." When questioned about the nature of the emergency, ONDCP chief of staff Janet Crist said Friday, "That's exaggerated. ... It's his personal business." Crist added, "It's no longer relevant because the hearing has been postponed." When asked why McCaffrey requested a delay in the hearings, Crist said, "He has a lot on his plate."

And at least one serving on that plate must have been the 32 pages of material McCaffrey sent to the New Yorker last week, seeking to soften the blow of Hersh's article and debunk some of his reporting.

There are no current plans for the Army to reopen investigations into McCaffrey, the 24th Infrantry and the alleged massacre. "The Army investigated allegations of wrong doing by elements of the 24th Infantry Division during the latter stages of Operation Desert Storm," said Army spokesman Maj. Scott Hays. "Investigations were conducted by the Army Criminal Investigations Command and Army Inspector General. No new issues appeared to have been raised by the story by Seymour M. Hersh in the New Yorker. There is no need to reopen the investigations. The Army has confidence in the conduct and integrity of soldiers of the 24th ID."

Asked whether McCaffrey should resign, Hersh, who won the Pulitzer Prize for exposing the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, said, "I don't know that we're there yet."

By Daniel Forbes

Daniel Forbes is a New York freelancer who writes on social policy and the media.

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