Politics & Policy

Abu Ghraib’s Kitty Kelley

Seymour Hersh serves up fiction in Chain of Command.

Seymour Hersh doesn’t like George W. Bush’s America, Don Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, the war we’re in, or the way we’re fighting it. Promoting his new book, Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, Hersh is trying to lay the blame for the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse problem directly at Rumsfeld’s feet. But Hersh has apparently invented what he could not discover; this once-distinguished journalist is working awfully hard to become the Kitty Kelley of Abu Ghraib.

When the title “Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist” is appended to someone’s name, it inevitably adds a measure of credibility he may not otherwise deserve. Hersh justly won his Pulitzer for reporting the My Lai massacre over 30 years ago. In recent years, however, his “investigative” reporting has produced more fiction than fact, more rant than reason. Hersh can be duped rather easily–that is, when he’s not just making stuff up. Chain of Command needs to be examined in the context of Hersh’s track record, which is simply awful.

Only six years ago was Hersh’s most famous–and embarrassing–venture in duplicity. Hersh’s near-meltdown experience was caused by his anxious acceptance of a bunch of forged documents purporting to be proof of a love affair between President Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. Fortunately for Hersh, his publisher managed better than Dan Rather’s bosses: Just before the hit-piece bio of JFK came out, Hersh was forced to pull a revelatory chapter because the documents were obvious forgeries. (They bore, for example, zip codes in addresses years before zip codes came into being.) Hersh still managed to have the Kennedys both controlled by the mob, and controlling the mob (on alternate days, perhaps). Then he wrote that President Kennedy had endorsed the CIA assassination of a Congolese dictator two days before Kennedy was inaugurated. Then he wrote that Israel’s nuclear weapons were used to blackmail the U.S. into supporting Israeli security. And then, and then…

Hersh’s Chain of Command seems to return to the scene of his first and biggest success: war crimes. But this time facts and logic are rather scarce. Ever since the Pentagon released the news of the investigation of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib in January 2004, Hersh has been taking credit for “breaking” the story. Now, in his new book, he’s arguing that since late 2002, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice have met and made decisions that amounted to ordering the prisoner abuses that later occurred at Abu Ghraib.

Hersh–on Meet the Press last Sunday and CNN Tuesday night–has tried to make a case that prisoner interrogations at Guantanamo Bay in 2002 weren’t producing enough intelligence to satisfy the Pentagon. (That all changed in March 2003 when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was caught, and commenced singing like a canary.) Hersh says that the reason the interrogations weren’t producing sufficiently is that the prisoners were being severely abused. Logic fails Hersh at this point. Hersh wants us to believe that Rumsfeld–faced with the failure of abusive interrogations at Guantanamo–decided to solve the problem by spreading the practice of abuse to Iraq. Huh?

Since May, Hersh has been pushing the story of a top-secret program, known by the code name “Copper Green,” which he alleged had two functions. First, it was to send American operatives in to capture (or kill) high-value terrorist targets wherever they might be. (If there’s a problem with that, I can’t think of it.) Second, Hersh says, Copper Green “…encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in an effort to generate more intelligence about the growing insurgency in Iraq.”

The Pentagon denies there’s any program called “Copper Green.” Yeah, whatever. Code-word programs were created with that game in mind. But the Pentagon’s denial of “Copper Green” is not game-playing. The Pentagon issued a statement that said, “…no responsible official of the Department of Defense approved any program that could conceivably have authorized or condoned the abuses seen at Abu Ghraib.” When the Pentagon says that, it’s telling the congressionally auditable truth. And that’s not all that’s wrong with the song Hersh is singing.

According to Hersh, in late 2002 a CIA analyst visited the prisoner-detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and came back with a shocking report of prisoner abuse. According to Hersh, the analyst came back with a “blistering” report that worked its way up to Condoleezza Rice’s desk. Hersh says she held several meetings about it, and asked Rumsfeld to do something about it. But Rice denies ignoring any warnings on prisoner abuse, and doesn’t recall any such meetings. What’s more, intelligence-community sources told me Tuesday that the CIA is so angry at Hersh’s fabrication that it may release a statement about it. (Apparently neither the analyst’s activity on the trip nor his report of the trip bear any resemblance to Hersh’s sensational account.)

There’s still more wrong with what Hersh is saying. Former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger’s panel investigated Defense Department operations of prisoner-detention facilities and, according to his statement on August 24, “…received total cooperation from the [Defense] department.” In that same statement, Schlesinger said it plainly:

There was no policy of abuse; quite the contrary. Senior officials repeatedly said that in Iraq, Geneva regulations would apply. In Afghanistan and Guantanamo, it was quite different, but even there, it was said, following the President’s directive, that all activity should be consistent with the Geneva Accord.

Hersh’s book is a smear against the Defense Department in general, and Secretary Rumsfeld in particular. But just as it echoes Vietnam in the “no-exit-strategy” argument, it also echoes John Kerry’s 1971 “atrocities” testimony to the Senate. Hersh is saying, in effect, that prisoner abuse was commonplace, and well-known to the highest levels of command. Just as Kerry did in 1971, Hersh is now libeling each of the soldiers who have served in the war against terrorists and the nations that support them. Anyone who ever took a prisoner is touched by this calumny.

Americans–counting those who have served more than one tour of duty there–have served about 400,000 tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. In those 400,000 tours, they have captured about 50,000 prisoners. About 30,000 of them were held long enough to be given a detainee number.

In handling the 50,000, there have been only about 300 allegations of abuse. Many of them were at the point of capture. (When someone doesn’t drop a weapon when you order him to, you can: a) kill him; b) give his jaw the benefit of your rifle’s butt; or c) let him shoot you. Most American soldiers choose “b.”)

Of the 300 allegations of abuse, only some 66 of them are substantiated. They are being investigated and prosecuted. Those numbers represent such a small fraction of the people who have fought–and are fighting–this war, it is tempting to say it is negligible. But it’s not. It’s a redundant proof that our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen are not war criminals. With very few exceptions these young people are true to American values even in the worst and most dangerous circumstances.

Hersh’s beef–like that of the rest of the Blame America First crowd–is that we’re choosing to war against those who first chose to war with us. He thinks America has made the world a more dangerous place by invading Afghanistan and Iraq. Yes, we have, Mr. Hersh. It’s a much more dangerous place for terrorists, and it’s going to stay that way at least as long as Dubya, Dick, and Big Dog Rumsfeld have any say in the matter.

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CORRECTION: In recent piece about a New York Times editorial on military voting, I wrote incorrectly that the Defense Department’s new system would only handle faxes, and not e-mail “.pdf” files. In fact, some ballots will be e-mailed as stated in the press release of Missouri attorney general Matt Blunt. To that degree my column was incorrect and I regret the error. However, the New York Times was–as I stated–intentionally incorrect in saying that the system places control of the ballots in (and subjects them to alteration by) Pentagon civilian employees.

NRO contributor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe are Worse than You Think.


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