Seymour Hersh's alternative history of Bush's war

The crack investigative reporter tells Salon about a disastrous battle the U.S. brass hushed up, the frightening True Believers in the White House, and how Iran, not Israel, may have manipulated us into war.

Published September 18, 2004 9:57PM (EDT)

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Seymour Hersh has written more than two dozen stories for the New Yorker magazine on the secret machinations of the Bush administration in what the White House calls the "war on terrorism." His revelations, including an investigation of a group of neoconservatives at the Pentagon who set up their own special intelligence unit to press the case for invading Iraq, have consistently broken news.

Arguably his most important scoop came last spring, when the legendary investigative reporter received the now infamous photos of prisoner abuse by American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, Iraq, as well as the explosive report on the abuse by Army Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba. The story Hersh published in the New Yorker, followed by a report by CBS's "60 Minutes," created an international scandal for the Bush administration and led to congressional hearings.

In a new book, "Chain of Command: The Road From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib," Hersh expands upon his work in the New Yorker to contribute new insights and revelations. He discloses how a CIA analyst's report on abuses against captured Taliban prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, made its way to the White House in 2002, putting National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice on notice two years before the Abu Ghraib scandal that human rights violations were taking place in U.S.-run prisons abroad.

In March 2002, Hersh writes, a military action against al-Qaida, known as Operation Anaconda, was botched in Afghanistan's mountainous border with Pakistan. Billed at the time as a success story by the Pentagon, it was in fact a debacle, plagued by squabbling between the services, bad military planning and avoidable deaths of American soldiers, as well as the escape of key al-Qaida leaders, likely including Osama bin Laden.

Hersh's story is well known. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1969 exposé of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, in which American soldiers killed more than 500 civilians. He is the author of eight books, including 1983's "The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House." And, since 1998, he's been a staff writer for the New Yorker

I visited with Hersh this week in his tiny, unadorned two-room office in downtown Washington, where he works amid a whirring fax machine, a constantly ringing phone and delivery men knocking on the door with packages. A map of the world, slightly off-kilter, is taped to the wall behind his desk, which is piled high with papers.

He speaks quickly, answering questions before the sentences can be completed, and hopscotches through conversational topics, as if everything's a race against time. "I have some Brazilians coming in. You know, just to talk about ... wait! Turn it off for a second," he says, gesturing at my recorder. He shares with me a lead he's working on. He flashes me a look at an intriguing document before stealing it away. "OK, let's talk about the book. I've gone over the top here. I'm not pimping anymore. I'm now a full-fledged whore, with red paint," he says, pretending to smear rouge on his cheeks. He loosens his tie. "Let's get on with it!"

What is new in the book, and what is based on your published work?

I'd say about 35 percent of the opening material on Abu Ghraib is new, maybe about 15,000 words, altogether about, I don't know what percentage. Maybe about a third, maybe a little less, is either new or revised or significantly changed. But the bulk of the book is the articles I did, put in a different form and combined in a different way by a very competent editor of mine. This book was edited by the New Yorker and fact-checked by the New Yorker. Everything that is new in the book was fact-checked by the New Yorker.

Who was the editor?

Her name is Amy Davidson. She's a senior editor, and she's great. A man named John Bennet, who is a wonderful editor, was my editor for the first couple of years, and then Amy came on because John's good that way. John is very avuncular, and he wants other people to start editing significant stuff, because among other things, he's always stuck with the big pieces. It was fact-checked by the same people, and the publisher paid for it. And Remnick, to his everlasting credit, David Remnick the editor, agreed that even though there's a very good story at the beginning -- the whole Condi Rice meeting issue -- he said publish it in your book and go make some money. It was sort of nice of them. It reflects well on the New Yorker. His point was, your being out there reflects well on the New Yorker. We all fight for making a living.

To talk about the new revelations ...

Let me tell you the one I like the most; aside from the obvious stuff about Abu Ghraib, there was a story I didn't write two years ago about Operation Anaconda. I didn't write it because, oh, a lot of complicated reasons. One, it was very hostile to our soldiers, and the military, and General [Tommy] Franks, and [Major Gen. Frank] Hagenbeck, a very nasty story. And then secondly, there was bad blood between the Marine Corps, and General Franks, and CentComm and the Air Force, and it just didn't, uh ... it's one of those stories. The real reason in a funny way is that even though my sources were angry in talking about it, it's one of the stories they really would have regretted, because you're talking about internecine warfare among the services. It's about boys ... anyway.

They would have regretted it?

They would have regretted talking to me about that. In there is an account of the Marines insisting that General Franks sign an MOU, a memorandum of understanding, of how the Marines would be used. We're talking about in combat, this kind of war going on between the services. And, you know, I probably guess it was the right decision, because I had to do obviously an alternate history of the war. And obviously there were certain people talking to me. People on the inside know what's going on. And so, I probably agree it was OK to do it. But I felt bad when I saw [former Gen. Wesley] Clark later. I had talked to Clark about the story at the time. Then two years later I ran into him when he was running for president, or right before, and he said, "Whatever happened to that story?" I said, "Well, I just decided not to write it." And he said, "Well, you should have. It's your job."

He's an amazingly straight guy. A difficult guy. "You should have." He basically told me, "Punk kid. You didn't know what you were doing." I also respect him because ...

Let's talk about some of these revelations.

Oh, so that was the one I liked the most.

But why didn't you write it at the time? You thought it would be too hostile?

No! There was, you know, it was a tough story about troops running from the battlefield, you know; it was just a tough story. [Hersh is referring to the lost battle of Anaconda.] I was writing a lot of other tough stories, and, uh ... it just didn't work. Let's put it that way.

Isn't that what a lot of the mainstream press get accused of -- certainly not you -- but holding back important information out of sensitivity for the feelings of the nation?

Ain't none of us perfect. It just seemed at the time, some of the people who were talking to me at the time, it would cause a big stink, and some of the Marines who were talking to me would not talk anymore. I also know, in order to do the story right, I would have had to go find some of the guys who were in the mission ... There was a lot of reporting to do, and I don't know, I just didn't do it.

But now you've gone back and revisited it in the book?

Oh yeah. Give me the book. I'll show you right where it is. So I'm not backing off. It was a story that should have been written. Of course I should have written it.

Let's talk about this anecdote about Vice President Cheney saying there would be no resignations [over the Abu Ghraib scandal]. Your publisher emphasized this in the press release, and I wanted to know ...

Now, wait a minute. Are you asking about a press release? Excuse me. That's like asking me about a headline.

Just tell me why you feel it's important.

What? Tell me why I feel it's important that Cheney called up?

What does it reveal?

It's more complicated than you think. For one thing, it reveals that they're all as one. The notion that they're going to fire [Donald] Rumsfeld, as people actually entertained, is comical. After 9/11 he gets in this swaggering mode and says we're going to smoke those terrorists out of their snake holes. And then it's clear there's prisoner abuse and torture going on. But does Cheney call up and say, "Oh, my God! What's going on over there, Don? What kind of craziness are you doing to those prisoners? This is devastating to our campaign. What's going on?" I don't hear that. What I hear is, "Let's all pull together and get past it." Very interesting.

You're an expert on Henry Kissinger. Is there someone who ...

I'm an expert on the side of Henry Kissinger that lied like most people breathed.

Is there someone who is the Henry Kissinger in this administration?

Oh, believe me, I pray for one [clasps his hands and looks beseechingly upward]. Wouldn't it be great if the reality was that they were lying about WMD, and they really didn't believe that democracy would come when they invaded Iraq, and you could go to war with 5,000 troops, a few special forces, a few bombs and a lot of American flags, and Iraq would fold, Saddam would be driven out, a new Baath Party would emerge that's moderate? Democracy would flow like water out of a fountain. These guys believe it. They believe WMD. There's no fallback with these guys. These guys are utopians. They're like Trotskyites. They believe in permanent revolution. They really believe. They believe that they could go in with few forces. They believed that once they went in it would happen quick. Iran would get the message. What they call occupied Lebanon would get the lesson. Even the Saudis would change.

They thought it would happen quickly?

Very quickly. I don't have any empirical basis for it, but if I had to bet, the plan was to go right into Syria. That's why the fourth division was hanging for so long in the desert out there right on the border with Syria. In the early days of the war, before this government figured out how much trouble they were in -- which took them a long time -- they would drive practice runs, somebody told me. Again, I'm just saying what was told to me; this is not something I reported, but I was told pretty reliably, they were doing practice runs that amounted to the distance from the border to Damascus. It's my belief always -- again this is not empirical, it's sort of my heuristic view -- that the real reason [Paul] Wolfowitz and others were mad at [Gen. Eric] Shinseki when he testified before the war about [the need for] 200 or 300 troops -- it wasn't about the numbers -- was, "Didn't he get it? What had he been listening to in the tank? Didn't we explain to him in the tank what we told the chiefs? This is the way it's going to be. Didn't he understand what it's all about?" He didn't get it. He hadn't understood what they meant. This was all going to fall down. It was all going to be peaches and cream. And Shinseki just didn't get it! It wasn't about the numbers. He wasn't a member of the clan. He didn't join the utopia crowd.

You've answered one of my questions. Let's elaborate on it. Clearly there's very little that's, well, in touch with reality in these policies.

Ha, ha, ha. It's so easy for you to say that!

But it's not so clear actually. Many Americans ...

I think I used actually ... I'll get you this word [grabs book from my lap and begins flipping through it] ... there was a "fantastical" quality to the White House's deliberations. Fantastical. That was the phrase I used.

Yes, I read that. And that was my next question. With Kissinger, there were lies, and he knew exactly what he was doing ...

Yes, one of his aides was assigned -- literally assigned on one of the secret flights they made to China -- to keep track of the lies, who knew what. I think they used to describe it as keeping track of what statements were made, but essentially it was who was being told what, because so many different people were being told different things. But these guys, do you realize how much better off we would be if they really were cynical, and they really were lying about it, because, yes, behind the invasion would be something real, like support for Israel or oil. But it's not! It's not about oil. It's about utopia. I guess you could call it idealism. But it's idealism that's dead wrong. It's like one of the far-right Christian credos. It's a faith-based policy. Only it wasn't a religious faith. It was the faith that democracy would flourish.

So you don't think that this is some Machiavellian, cynical, manipulative ...

I used to pray it was! We'd be in better shape. Is there anything worse than idealism that doesn't conform to reality? You have an unrealistic policy.

It seems that they are very selective not only about what kind of information they present to the public but even in what they decide to believe in themselves.

I think these guys in their naiveté and single-mindedness have been so completely manipulated by -- not the Israelis -- but the Iranians. The Iranians always wanted us in. I think there's a lot of evidence that Iran had much to do with [Ahmed] Chalabi's disinformation [about nonexistent Iraqi WMD]. I think there were people in the CIA who suspected this all along, but of course they couldn't get their view in. I think the Senate Intelligence Committee's report's a joke, the idea this CIA was misleading the president. They get some analysts in and say, "Were you pressured?" And they all say, "No, excuse me?" Is that how you do an investigation? The truth of the matter is, there was tremendous pressure put on the analysts [to produce reports that bolstered the case for war]. It's not as if anybody issued a diktat. But everybody understood what to do.

Talk about the ...

Wait. You're missing something now. The Iranian stuff. I think Iran probably had more to do with Chalabi's information than people know.

We know that Chalabi had Iranian agents on his payroll.

Yeah, but, well, he admits to that. He had a villa in Tehran. But basically I think Iran was very interested in getting us involved. We get knocked down a peg; they become the big boys on the block.

Are you working on this now?

Yeah, I'm thinking about it. I'm reporting on it. But I'm not working on it. I'm just -- it's too cosmic.

Was Chalabi the conduit?

I think Chalabi thought he could handle the Iranians. They were helping him all along with disinformation and documents he could give to the White House. Don't forget, once the neocons decided to go to Iraq in the face of all evidence, they were like a super-reverse suction machine, and anything in the world that furthered the argument that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction was hot. I call it stove-piping, because it's a technical work of art. But it was much more than that. It was anything -- vavoom! -- into the president's [office]. It was so amateurish, it was comical. How hard was it to get some crapola into the White House about WMD without the CIA looking at it?

Do you have any idea of the origin of the forged Niger documents that Bush cited in his January 2003 State of the Union address as proof that Iraq was seeking uranium to make nuclear weapons?

I don't really know. I know that they think it was an inside job. And my idea is that there were people in the government who knew that you could give these guys [the neoconservatives] anything, and within three days, if it said the right thing, there would be a principals meeting [of the senior foreign policy officials] at the White House on it. And one idea would be to get them in a position where they really walked on their dongs, in a way. Give them some bad stuff. They'd have a big meeting about it and [the neocons] would finally be exposed as ludicrous. Nobody anticipated that [the forged documents] would end up in the State of the Union address. I mean, it's beyond belief. I don't believe in these conspiracy theories, about [Michael] Ledeen [a neocon operative] and these things. He's too smart for that. Because it was designed to be caught.

Do you think the responsibility for Abu Ghraib goes directly up to Rumsfeld?

I think they [Rumsfeld and senior administration officials] had a chance in the fall of 2002 to set the limits, and they chose not to. I don't think the CIA analyst who did the report was very explicit in his written document about the abuses. That isn't the way to get ahead. But he certainly told his peers there was a real mess there, so they know it. All she [Rice] had to do was put the word out there. The chain of command is very responsive. If you put out the word that you're not going to tolerate this crap, it's not going to happen. But that's not the word they put out.

Nobody would have countenanced in his right mind Abu Ghraib. But then again, if you think a bunch of kids from West Virginia understood the way to the soul of an Arab man is to take off his clothes and photograph him ... they didn't know that. Somebody told it to them. And that's the thing about the military. In loco parentis. They have an obligation to take our children and protect them, not only from land mines but from doing stupid things that could land them in jail.

The book is filled with reporting that shows how newspapers either got it wrong, or simply accepted the official version of events. What do you think of the performance of the main newspapers people look to as sources of information?

Well, so here I am, I'm busy trying to peddle a book and you're asking me to commit self-immolation! (Laughs). Well, all I'll say is, it speaks for itself.

By Mary Jacoby

Mary Jacoby is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abu Ghraib Dick Cheney Donald Rumsfeld George W. Bush Iraq War