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How We Got to Abu Ghraib

Chain of Command: The Road From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, Seymour Hersh, HarperCollins, 393 pages

Of all the critical analyses of Seymour Hersh’s latest book, the best and most telling review appeared before Chain of Command came off the press. The Pentagon press office, in a pre-emptive strike designed to neutralize a blow they knew was coming, had this to say:

Based on media inquiries, it appears that Mr. Seymour Hersh’s upcoming book apparently contains many of the numerous unsubstantiated allegations and inaccuracies which he has made in the past based upon unnamed sources.

The release goes on to claim that it was the Department of Defense, “and not Mr. Hersh,” that “first publicized the facts of the abuses at Abu Ghraib”—a complete fiction. The reality is that it was a lone military policeman, Specialist Joseph M. Darby, who exposed the horrors of Abu Ghraib and without whom it would still be a giant sore festering in the darkness. It was Hersh who broke this story and first exposed the details—and origins—of what the government claims was an isolated incident. As Hersh shows, what happened at Abu Ghraib was part and parcel of a larger plan, the work of a secret army of assassins and torturers designed to break the back of the Iraqi insurgency.

That the Pentagon is especially bitter about all those “unnamed sources” is understandable, given that so many of them originated within its own walls. Hersh gives voice to the complaints of the anti-neocon military, who are chafing under the Napoleonic delusions of the civilians who dragged us into war and are bitter about the increasingly bloody consequences. Readers of this book will not have been surprised by the news that a platoon of soldiers in Iraq recently mutinied, refusing to transport fuel shipments in inadequately armored vehicles without armed escort. Chain of Command gives a full accounting of the frantic rush to war engineered by Rumsfeld and his neocon Praetorian Guard, who disdained traditional military doctrine and threw away the rulebook when it came to Iraq. Hersh writes, “According to the dozen or so military men I spoke to, Rumsfeld simply failed to anticipate the consequences of protracted warfare. He put Army and Marine units in the field with few reserves and an insufficient number of tanks and other armored vehicles.”

As the consequences of Rumsfeld’s fateful decision continue to roll in, this book could not have come at a better time. It gives us an overview of the war’s dark underside, a periscopic perspective on the depths to which our leaders have sunk in their obsessive quest to remake the Middle East into a pile of “democratic” rubble.

The rush to war is explained, in this riveting and fast-moving account, by the War Party’s justified fear that the elaborate structure of lies on which the case for invasion was built would fly apart at any moment. Saddam’s tenuous-to-the-point-of-nonexistent links to al-Qaeda, the weapons of mass destruction, the outright forgeries that were the sole support of this administration’s constant evocations of a nuclear Iraq about to conjure mushroom clouds over American cities—it was all a complex web of lies. Woven by imaginative Iraqi exiles and cast over the White House by neoconservative operatives in the vice president’s office and Douglas Feith’s policy shop, the whole fabric of this fiction was expertly embroidered by the Office of Special Plans, which was special in the sense that it specialized in the manufacture of lies: George W. Bush’s Ministry of Truth.

While Hersh is credited for having exposed the Abu Ghraib prison abuse to begin with, less well known is his reporting on the origins of this blot on the American conscience. It wasn’t an aberration, as the Pentagon would have it, but a “special-access program”—a top-secret operation, dubbed “Copper Green” by its authors, in which Special Forces and others comprised a secret army charged with targeting presumed enemies in the War on Terror. One official familiar with the program described its operative principle as “Grab whom you must. Do what you want.”

Initially limited to Afghanistan and the manhunt for Osama bin Laden and his associates, the program soon branched out to include the war against Iraq’s guerrilla insurgency. Describing the import of legal documents drawn up by Pentagon lawyers to justify the “Gitmoization” of Iraq’s prison system, Hersh cites Anthony Lewis saying that the memos “read like the advice of a mob lawyer to a mafia don on how to skirt the law and stay out of prison.”

The generals and their civilian enablers in the top echelons of the Pentagon may stay out of jail—although that remains to be seen—but the back-country boys and girls caught up in the scandal are getting the book thrown at them. Hersh clearly sees them as scapegoats: he documents that they were encouraged and on occasion ordered to engage in the abuse that became routine at Abu Ghraib and other prisons, including in Afghanistan. Military intelligence, private contractors, and especially Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the Guantanamo commander, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and hardcore neocon Stephen Cambone, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, all had a direct hand in creating the hothouse conditions under which the dark bloom of Abu Ghraib sprouted and flourished. In late August 2003, General Miller issued a report recommending that the Iraq prison system be “Gitmoized,” and geared to extracting intelligence from prisoners. The rising insurgency was taking an increasingly heavy toll in terms of American casualties and Bush’s political viability, and the pressure was on to produce results. At the Senate hearings on Abu Ghraib, General Sanchez —named by Hispanic magazine as 2004’s “Hispanic of the Year”—denied authorizing the unleashing of dogs on prisoners, but Hersh notes that two months later USA Today cited classified documents showing Sanchez had issued orders approving the use of dogs at the interrogators’ discretion. Sanchez, by the way, is up for a promotion. According to reports, Rumsfeld and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, are bound and determined to pin a fourth star on General Sanchez.

It is Cambone, however, who appears to be at the center of the Abu Ghraib-“Copper Green” morass. It was he, after all, who seized control of all special-access programs, and no one was closer to Rumsfeld: the secretary of defense left the details to his trusted accomplice. As one wag put it, “Whatever Rumsfeld whimsically says, Cambone will do ten times that much.”

Once legitimized torture was established at Guantanamo, the Gitmoization of the Iraqi and Afghan prisons was only a matter of time. Having set up the apparatus of catch, snatch, and summarily dispatch, in pursuit of the ever-morphing al-Qaeda, it wasn’t long before Rumsfeld’s international army of assassins was deployed against the Iraqi resistance. The gang that told us that the post-9/11 era meant that the old rules no longer applied had come up with a military doctrine of imperial pre-emption: a claim to absolute righteousness that implied the privilege of prosecuting a War on Terror by any means necessary.

The Pentagon disdains Hersh’s unnamed sources, but how else is a whistleblower to get word out of abuses, especially in the military? In any case, Hersh’s sources are very often specifically identified beyond “a CIA officer,” or “a State Department analyst.” He cites “one officer, who plays an important role in the difficult-to-prosecute war against the insurgents in Iraq,” as saying that he found out about the abuse in November 2003 and “took that information to two of his superiors, General Abizaid, the CENTCOM commander, and his deputy, Air Force Lieutenant General Lance Smith. ‘I said there are systematic abuses going on in the prisons,’ the officer told me. ‘Abizaid just didn’t say a thing. He looked at me—beyond me, as if to say, “Move on. I don’t want to touch this.”’ Smith also said nothing. ‘They knew last year,’ the officer told me.’”

Of particular interest is the chapter on the Niger uranium forgeries—the cache of documents that the U.S. government relied on as evidence of Saddam’s attempt to procure uranium “yellowcake” from Africa. This became the basis of a concerted propaganda campaign culminating in the president’s 2003 State of the Union address, in which the allegation was repeated without mentioning any specifics. That the documents were so quickly exposed as forgeries—and crude ones, at that—has led to questions about how something so obviously bogus got into the U.S. intelligence stream, making it all the way up to the White House. Was George W. Bush lied to, or was he doing the lying himself? The evidence gathered by Hersh clearly points to the former: the CIA, it turns out, had the documents and waited for the International Atomic Energy Agency to debunk them.

The section entitled “Into the Intelligence Stovepipe” gives us a fascinating glimpse into how the intelligence-gathering process was hijacked and utilized to advance the War Party’s aims. “They call themselves, self-mockingly, the Cabal,” writes Hersh—just the sort of humor one might expect from students of Leo Strauss. Both Paul Wolfowitz and Office of Special Plans chief Abram Shulsky studied under the “philosopher of the noble lie,” as he is sometimes called. Strauss believed that only an elite could be entrusted with the truth, while the less enlightened masses had to be content with comforting lies. In an essay co-authored with neocon publicist Gary Schmitt on the application of Strauss’s ideas on esoteric knowledge to the craft of intelligence, Shulsky contends that Straussian thought “alerts one to the possibility that political life may be closely linked to deception. Indeed, it suggests that deception is the norm in political life.”

Deception is certainly the norm for this administration: operating in secret, denying all culpability, refusing to admit the monstrous visions of mushroom clouds were based on a lie. The self-described “cabal” that lured us into war operated in the dark, without congressional or much journalistic oversight. When Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz wanted to create parallel intelligence-gathering agencies and military formations, they simply did so, without having to answer to anyone.

“Secrecy and wishful thinking” are words a Pentagon official cited herein uses to describe Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, and that sums up the credo of the Bush presidency. But how did it come to this? Hersh ponders

Some of the most important questions are not even being asked. How did they do it? How did eight or nine neoconservatives who believed that a war in Iraq was the answer to international terrorism get their way? How did they redirect the government and rearrange long-standing American priorities and policies with so much ease? How did they overcome the bureaucracy, intimidate the press, mislead the Congress, and dominate the military? Is our democracy that fragile?

Here is a story that cries out to be written, and God help the neocons if Hersh decides to write it.


Justin Raimondo is editorial director of Antiwar.com.



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