Politics & Policy

Rumsfeld’s Good Idea

You'll find it inside the latest Seymour Hersh "expose."

How can you tell that the national-security experts who are the unnamed sources for journalist Seymour Hersh’s latest New Yorker expose of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal are tough-minded, no-nonsense insiders? They say “sh*t” a lot.

”This sh*t has been brewing for months,” a Pentagon consultant tells Hersh, creating a particularly unpalatable image of the growing prison abuse investigation. “He goes into it not knowing sh*t,” says a former intelligence official, referring to Gen. Antonio Taguba’s state of mind as he began an investigation of the abuse. “When the sh*t hits the fan, as it did on 9/11, how do you push the pedal?” the defense consultant asks, suggesting that it is exceedingly difficult to find the appropriate levels of force and intimidation in terrorist interrogations. And, finally, “Some people think you can bullsh*t anyone,” says a senior CIA official of the congressional testimony of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Undersecretary for Intelligence Stephen Cambone.

Clearly, if Hersh’s reporting is correct, the Bush administration is in deep you-know-what.

Of course, there are serious doubts about the accuracy of some of Hersh’s information. And what has not been discussed much lately is the fact that many people will read Hersh’s descriptions of the actions taken by Rumsfeld and his deputies and say…”Yes!!!”

As Hersh tells the story, the secretary of defense was “apoplectic” after U.S. forces blew a chance to kill Afghanistan’s Mullah Omar because a military lawyer wouldn’t approve the strike. “Rumsfeld was apoplectic over what he saw as a self-defeating hesitation to attack that was due to political correctness,” Hersh writes. To which many people might say: It’s about time. That’s precisely the reaction a secretary of defense should have.

And Rumsfeld didn’t just rant. According to Hersh, he created a new, top-secret program to get around legal roadblocks in high-importance terrorism cases. The program gave elite U.S. forces great freedom in nabbing terrorists. “The rules are ‘Grab whom you must. Do what you want,’” one former intelligence official told Hersh. To which many people might say: Good.

And the plan worked. “In mid-2003, the special-access program was regarded in the Pentagon as one of the success stories of the war on terror,” Hersh writes. “It’s been the most important capability we have for dealing with an imminent threat,” the former intelligence official told Hersh. “If we discover where Osama bin Laden is, we can get him. And we can remove an existing threat with a real capability to hit the United States–and do so without visibility.”

Although Hersh writes that some of the program’s methods were “troubling,” still many people might say of the program: Thank you, thank you, thank you.

All that applied to the war against al Qaeda. Hersh reports that later, in Iraq, Rumsfeld became increasingly alarmed at the growing level of violence from the post-Saddam insurgency. After the August bombings of the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad, and then the United Nations headquarters, top Pentagon officials began to rethink their approach to the insurgents. To which many people might say: Good idea.

The problem, Hersh writes, was a shortage of usable intelligence. “Human intelligence is poor or lacking…due to the dearth of competence and expertise,” says a classified military report quoted by Hersh. “The intelligence effort is not coordinated since either too many groups are involved in gathering intelligence or the final product does not get to the troops in the field in a timely manner.”

So the Pentagon decided, in Hersh’s words, “to get tough with those Iraqis in the Army prison system who were suspected of being insurgents.” And guess what? It worked. “We’re getting a picture of the insurgency in Iraq,” the former intelligence official told Hersh, “and the intelligence is flowing….We’re getting good stuff.”

Informed of that, readers who have been discouraged by the administration’s unsteady–some would say disastrous–handling of the insurgency in Fallujah most likely began to feel some renewed confidence in the Iraqi effort.

Hersh writes that the administration then took the program too far, which led to the Abu Ghraib abuses. But it’s not at all clear from his report that the prison abuses actually stemmed from the secret program. And one of the articled sources “made it clear” to Hersh “that he was not alleging that Rumsfeld or [Joint Chiefs chairman] General Myers knew that atrocities were committed.”

So in light of some of the hyperventilation that has surrounded the release of Hersh’s article, it might be good to remember this: The abuses, whatever their origin, were discovered, investigated, and are now being prosecuted. The president himself apologized for them. And the secret interrogation program, whether or not it had any connection to Abu Ghraib, nevertheless produced real results and probably saved American and Iraqi lives.

It was a good idea. As Hersh’s experts might say, “No sh*t.”

Byron York is also a columnist for The Hill, where a version of this first appeared.

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