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Wednesday, May 11th, 2005

Seymour Hersh: Iraq "Moving Towards Open Civil War"

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We spend the hour with Pulitzer prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. Hersh won the Pulitzer prize for exposing the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Last year, he broke the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. He is author of the book "Chain of Command: From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib." We hear an address he delivered at an event sponsored by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign entitled "Can Freedom of the Press Survive Media Consolidation?" And he joins us in the studio to talk about the resistance in Iraq, Ahmad Chalabi, the state of the media and much more. [includes rush transcript]


SEYMOUR HERSH: So, in My Lai, the kids go into – they go into a village where they’re going to allegedly -- they have lost about 15% or 20% of their people. They have come into the country in December of 1967, 100 guys. Lieutenant Calley is one of the platoon leaders, but he is a fanciful figure. There were many officers involved, but he’s -- the world has stuck it on him. Okay, but Calley was one of their officers. And they're told they're going to meet the enemy finally, after losing, as I say, 15 guys to bombs, land mines and sniper fire. So, they go in the next day. There's nobody there, women and children. They kill 550 or 540 or 530, the numbers sort of differ, but they're that high. Three groups, they shoot into ditches, mostly farm boys shooting. Some of the Hispanic and black guys told me they shot, but up in the air. They didn't dare not shoot. This is a war where a lot of bullets in the back. Unlike in Vietnam, it's better now. A lot bullets in the back if you didn’t go along. And they shot up in the air. This doesn't mean that the Hispanics or the African Americans fought the war at any level better, but in this case they did.


The mother that I talked to the night before, I said, “I'm coming.” She said, “I can't tell you he's going to talk to you.” I said, “I’m coming, and you decide.” She said, “Just come, but I can’t promise.” She's comes out to meet me. She’s 50 maybe, weathered, no man around, looks 70. And I just say, “Is Paul Meadlo in there? Is he around?” She said, “He's in there.” I said, “Is it alright if I talk to him?” She said, “Okay,” and then she says -- then she says, (quote, unquote) she says, you know, she says, “I gave them a good boy, and they sent me back a murderer.” Okay?


Flash forward 35 years. I'm doing Abu Ghraib. I did a bunch of stories in a row for The New Yorker. I'm going right after Rummy right away, because there's no way – there’s no way, you know, as somebody who had consumed the Human Rights Watch’s and Amnesty reports, I knew that systematically this kind of abuse was going on all the time. How to get it, I had been told by Iraqis in the Middle East that I talked to about Abu Ghraib six months earlier that the prison was so bad that the women in the prisons were sending messages home to their brothers and fathers to please come kill them, because they had been defiled in prison by the Americans. I mean, I knew that, but how do you get to that story? You know -- you know, it's just impossible to get to that story. The photographs made it work.

So, I'm doing this stuff. I get a call in the middle of these stories, and does everybody know? Of course, everybody knows what's going on. Are you kidding? The timeline, the chronology, I told you, what does president not do? He doesn't do anything. He doesn't take any steps at all, confronted with Abu Ghraib, not one step to change anything. They just hope they can get away with a couple of low-level court-martials as they did with Calley. They did, but they could have. Anyway, it was a rational chance, rational gamble.


So, in the middle of this stuff, I get a call from a mother. She wants to see me somewhere in northeastern America. I go see her. There's a kid that was in the unit, the 372nd. They had all come home early. If you remember the timeline, they did their stuff in late 2003, reported in 2004. This mother is telling me -- I'm writing in the spring of 2004 -- March of 2004, the kid had come home in the same unit totally changed. Young, pretty woman, vibrant. Depressed, disconsolate, inconsolable, isolated. Had been newly married. Left her husband, left the family, moved to a nearby town, working a night job or whatever. And nobody could figure out what's going on.

She sees the stories about Abu Ghraib. She goes, knocks on the door, shows the young woman the newspaper, and door slams, bam! And at that point, as she tells me, later -- as she tells me in real time -- this is May, early May -- she goes back, the kid had been given a computer, a portable computer like. It turns out all the G.I.s in Iraq and all over the world now, they -- portable computers are great, because you have CD drives, and you put a movie in there, and then you’re in business. And so you can watch movies and play games on your dead time. I had not thought about it, but that's what happens. That's why all the CD, these digital pictures are being passed around in the unit, because everybody has a computer.

So she claims -- this not a woman familiar with Freud or the unconscious -- she claims at that point she just decided to look at the computer after hearing about Abu Ghraib. She said she had -- she just hadn’t looked at it. She just was going to clean it up and take it to her office as a second computer. No thoughts. And she is deleting files. She sees a file marked “Iraq.” And she hits it, and out comes 60 or 80 digital photographs of the one that The New Yorker ran of the naked guy standing against a cell in terror, hands behind his back so he can’t protect his private parts, which is the instinct. And two snarling German dogs -- shepherds. Somebody said they're Belgian shepherds, perhaps, but two snarling shepherds, you know, on each side of him. And the sequence -- in the sequence, the dogs attack the man, blood all over. I was later told anecdotally, I could never prove it. I am telling you stuff that is not provable -- I mean, at least -- that there was an understanding at least in the prison corps population that the dogs were specially trained to hit the groin area, which is one of the reasons there was so much fear of the dogs. This is – I will tell you right now why they believe among many senior officers that I know in the military, I can -- but again, it's not -- it's not demonstrable. There's no way of codifying that. In any case, the fear was palpable in the picture.

So she looks at this stuff and eventually calls me. And we do it all, and we get permission. We run the photographs, just one -- how much -- and the thought there of the editors was how much do you humiliate the Arab world and the Arab man. One is enough. You know, we can describe what else is on the picture. We just don't need more than one. And then, later the mother calls me back, and we became friends. This happens a lot to people in my business. You get to like people. And she says, you know, one thing I didn't tell you that you have to know about the young woman, when she came back, every weekend, she would go and get herself tattooed, and eventually, she said, she was filling her body with large, black tattoos, and eventually, they filled up every portion of her skin, was tattooed, at least all the portions you could see, and there was no reason to make assumptions about the other portions. She was tattooed completely. It was as if, the mother said, she wanted to change her skin.

And so, they sent me a boy, and I sent him back a murderer, changing her skin. This war is going to reverberate in ways that we can’t even begin to see.


AMY GOODMAN: We continue with the keynote address last night of Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Seymour Hersh. His latest book is called Chain Of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib.


SEYMOUR HERSH: The prison system is -- let's see, since those stories about a year and a month ago, there's been ten Pentagon investigations, repeated talks about whether General Sanchez, the leader, could authorize dogs to do this on Tuesday, but not on Thursday, and whether or not you could put people's head underwater on Wednesday but not on Friday -- rules -- and everybody I talked to before I did this story -- and I knew about Abu Ghraib months before -- there was never a suggestion of a rule in terms of how you approach taking care of prisoners. To the young kids, everybody in the prison was a terrorist, to the soldiers, particularly the M.P.s and some of the Marines who guarded in Guantanamo, and you could do whatever you wanted. You couldn't kill them. That was stupid. That would get you in trouble. It wouldn't be so good to break many bones, unless you could claim it was an accident. But you could just do what you wanted. And everybody understood you could --that’s -- and it's only afterwards we generated a lot of rules. We can talk about this more.

But anyway, in the paper again today, there’s a -- the lead story today in The New York Times -- and again, I'm not shocking you when I tell you there's never been administration which has so deliberately set out to spin the press. We have always had spinning of the press. And, as Bob mentioned earlier, that's all part of the game. We have had the horrible tragedy of the Pentagon Papers, which showed that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, particularly Kennedy, and Johnson, too -- I can't differentiate that much between them -- lied and lied and lied and got away with it. You have to understand it's not that hard inside the government to tell a lie. So, this is an administration that has brought that art, the art of lying not only to the world, not only to foreign reporters, but lying to the American press, systematic misrepresenting and lying, they brought it to a new art form.

For example, after the elections -- yeah, they were interesting elections because if anybody -- not to get into and dwell too much on it, but what did we vote for? Anybody in Iraq, they were voting not for an assemblyman or a legislator, they were voting sectarianism, sectarian lines. They were voting a religious track. It was an election solely based on religion, ethnicity. That was the issue. And it was the strangest election. You know, you don't need me to tell you, what plays out today shows that the election doesn't work.

But anyway, in the paper today, it’s the lead story in the Times, 100 rebels killed in western Iraq. We're back in the body count, by the way. Sometimes we call them “insurgents” or “rebels,” that's a great word because -- I'm wacko on this word “insurgency.” Just so you know, an “insurgency” means, suggests you’ve won the war and there are people who disagree. They’re rebels or they're insurgents, as I said. No. We're still fighting the war we started, folks. We started a war largely against Sunnis and Ba'athists, in many cases tribal groups that supported Saddam or were at least frightened enough to support him. We started a war against the people we’re still fighting. They gave us Baghdad very quickly. They retreated. They simply are not fighting the war in the way and the manner we want them to, that our press, you know, wants to tell you they did, that the government wants to tell the press, wants to suggest that we won and that an insurgency broke out again. We're fighting a resistance movement. The irony is it's a resistance movement that probably -- and has been for years, more than a year -- trying to find ways to talk to us, that just like, you know, the way we deal with most of the -- this administration deals with the Iranians or the Syrians or the North Koreans. And the resistance, you don't talk to them. It’s an amazing -- This is a government that absolutely says, we won't talk to anybody we disagree with and gets away with it on a daily level, consistently, no criticism, no suggestion, no pressure to have bilateral talks with people in any case.

So today's paper says 100 rebels. We're getting a body count going again, killed in western Iraq. And inside the story, it says -- they quote some Colonel in a telephone interview, because as you, I'm sure, know, the press in Baghdad, this is not their fault. They can't do anything much. They stay behind the Green Zone, which is pretty much penetrated, too, I believe, so I'm told, by the opposition, but, you know, the insurgency or the resistance. What will happen there, God knows. When they choose to do something inside the Green Zone, they will do it. Anyway, as the Colonel is quoted, saying that they were dying at a -- they found some insurgents. They began to attack them. The Marines and others, and they -- 100 died, and he said, “As Marines, we would rather engage them this way in face-to-face combat and destroy them and kill them.” They're dying at a rapid rate. Then in I.E.D.s, you know, shorthand for the car bombs and other explosives that have been killing so many troops.

So the suggestion of the story is that 100 rebels or insurgents who normally would be happily going along blowing up American vehicles – the military joke about the Striker. It's called an “I.E.D. magnet” inside, in the military, it's a magnet for these bombs. They instead would choose to stupidly stand up and fight us one for one and die. It doesn't make sense to me. I don't trust the story. I don't trust much that I hear that comes out of Baghdad. I don't trust it at all. Ask me later specifics. I know, since I did Abu Ghraib, lots of emails from lots of kids involved. It's complicated because what happens is we're going along -- the way the war is, it's sort of this dreary pattern. We're going along, our troops, and they're going down roads. It's really sort of astonishingly stupid. We patrol, which is stupid to begin with. What good does that do? They go down roads, certain fixed roads, certain times, certain places, usually in groups of three, four, five Humvees, Bradley tanks, Strikers, other heavy vehicles. One gets blown up. The Americans start screaming in pain. The other vehicles stop, run out. The soldiers are jammed into the back. You’ve seen some tapes or TV stuff about how they do it. They come running out and they shoot at anything that runs. And that's the war.

In one case -- after I did Abu Ghraib, I got a bunch of digital pictures emailed me, and – was a lot of work on it, and I decided, well, we can talk about it later. You never know why you do things. You have some general rules, but in this case, a bunch of kids were going along in three vehicles. One of them got blown up. The other two units -- soldiers ran out, saw some people running, opened up fire. It was a bunch of boys playing soccer. And in the digital videos you see everybody standing around, they pull the bodies together. This is last summer. They pull the bodies together. You see the body parts, the legs and boots of the Americans pulling bodies together. Young kids, I don’t know how old, 13, 15, I guess. And then you see soldiers dropping R.P.G.'s, which are rocket-launched grenades around them. And then they're called in as an insurgent kill. It's a kill of, you know, would-be insurgents or resistance and it goes into the computers, and I'm sure it's briefed. Everybody remembers how My Lai was briefed as a great victory, “128 Vietcong killed.” And so you have that pattern again. You know, ask me why I didn't do this story. Because I didn't think the kids did murder. I think it was another day in the war. And even to write about it in a professional way would name names and all that.