Since breaking the My Lai massacre story in 1969, Seymour Hersh has reported on illegal CIA surveillance of Americans, U.S. involvement in Chile's 1973 coup, and the abuses at Abu Ghraib. In his eighth book, Chain of Command (HarperCollins), Hersh draws on his extensive contacts in the intelligence community to paint a disturbing picture of a war managed both immorally and ineptly. Assistant Editor Julian Sanchez spoke with Hersh in November.
Q: Explain "special access program."
A: "Special access program" is just a designator within the Pentagon, usually for programs used to build weapons secretly, like the stealth bomber. In this case it was a group set up, highly classified, with a number of military men operating not as Americans but under foreign passports and identities. They call it "sheepdip," when you put someone out as part of the private sector, not overtly tied to the American government. They were sent [around the world] in December of 2001 and January 2002 to find bad guys and grab them.
??????????? Unfortunately, whatever rules you use for determining who the bad guys are, especially operating in secret, aren't going to be perfect. So you'll find yourself grabbing someone, undressing them, filling them with barbiturates, throwing them on a plane in chains, and discovering that they have nothing to give you. It was this group detailed to Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.
Q: You don't buy the "few bad apples" explanation.
A: The abuses at Abu Ghraib were known about in the White House as early as late summer and fall of 2002. There were meetings about it which Condoleeza Rice and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld attended, and to the dismay of many of my contacts, it wasn't taken very seriously.
??????????? The idea of using sex, exposing men to shame as part of the breaking down process, photographing them naked in front of women or simulating homosexual acts–it's inconceivable that a bunch of kids from West Virginia knew the most sophisticated way to humiliate Arab men. And the purpose was not really to break down those people–often they had nothing to give–but to photograph them in a compromised position and say: "Go home, find the insurgency, join it, and report back to us or we'll show these to your relatives and people in your village."
Q: What's the best-case scenario for Iraq now?
A: We lose. The faster we lose the better: There are still a lot of targets to bomb.
We're told we're fighting an insurgency there. "Insurgency"? No way. They're the people we went to war with: the Sunnis, the people we thought we beat. It's not an insurgent movement; it's the original war, now being fought on their terms.