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2003-07-24

How Bush Sacrificed the War on Al Qaeda for the War on Iraq

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Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh details how the Bush Administration destroyed U.S.-Syrian relations by attacking a convoy of cars inside Syria last month in an attempt to assassinate Saddam Hussein. It turned out the convoy was made up of dozens smuggling goods out of Iraq. Syria has since stopped sharing intelligence with the U.S.

It was shortly after midnight on June 19 in Iraq. U.S. special forces caught sight of a convoy of dozens of cars racing toward the Syrian border. With hopes Saddam Hussein and his sons were in the convoy, the U.S. bombed the vehicles after they had crossed into Syria. Up to 80 people died. The U.S. detained a group of Syrians. No one in the Hussein was in the convoy.

The mission was a failure in more ways than one.

According to a report by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh, the attack came after the Bush had already destroyed U.S.-Syrian relations. Although it is not widely known outside intelligence circles, Syria, since 9/11, offered to provide Washington with key information on the war on terror. But Bush’s handling of Iraq, led Syria to cut off the offer.

"The best relationship we probably had of any ally in terms of learning about Al Qaeda [was Syria] and they blew it. They blew it for short-term, ideological reasons, which is nothing new for this government," said Hersh about the Bush administration.

Hersh, speaking to Democracy Now! on the same day that the 9/11 Congressional report is to be released said Syria also could have provided the U.S. with detailed intelligence on how Saudi Arabia.

"Syria and Saudi Arabia were really close for 20 years. And there’s a great deal of information the Syrians have that we don’t know," Hersh said.

On another Iraq matter, Hersh says the U.S. media has failed to adequately cover the intelligence scandal surrounds the alleged Iraq-Niger uranium deal.

"[The press] didn’t get it on Niger. They didn’t get the implications of that story, which was that something was very seriously wrong. And I still think the question that has to be answered," Hersh said.

Hersh went on to say that the Bush administration has been consistently misleading the American public on Iraq since Sept. 11.

" I also venture to say probably the most honest document we’ve had made public about Iraq was the much maligned 12,000-page statement by none other than Saddam Hussein... It’s probably more accurate than anything this government put out." Hersh said.

  • Seymour Hersh, Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter with The New Yorker. "The Syrian Bet" is his newest article. In March he wrote the first detailed article outlining the story behind the Bush administration?s use of forged documents that indicated Iraq tried to purchase uranium from the African nation of Niger.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, as you make that connection between the war on diversity of voices and the war on Iraq, we turn now to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh.
His newest piece in The New Yorker Magazine is entitled "The Syrian Bet."
It looks at how the Bush administration may have sacrificed the war on Al-Qaeda for its war on Iraq. The story starts with the U.S. strike near the Iraq-Syrian border on June 18, which Seymour Hersh calls a fiasco. Seymour Hersh, welcome to "Democracy Now!" Can you take the story from there?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, it’s important to note that the fiasco I’m talking about is June 18, actually over the night of June 18, June 19. We thought we had a tip. This Detachment 20, the group that was involved in the killing of the two Saddam Hussein sons yesterday, yesterday morning, this is a special forces group composed of Delta Force and Navy SEALS and Air Force, etc., etc. army rangers.
They basically, in the middle of June, thought they had a lead on Saddam and his sons fleeing into Syria. Don’t ask me what the basis of it was, but they began to look for some cars going into the desert, across the border. It’s a big smuggling area out there. It’s a wide-open border. And they soon found scores of cars. You know, two or three or four dozen cars going in the direction of the border, and they thought they had something pretty good.
It was obviously a well-planned operation in the sense that I understand that Delta Force even went across the border many miles into Syria and set up an advance team. They thought they had intercepts that showed there was Syrian military on the other side, so they really thought they had something.
And frankly, they just began to shoot up everybody. And there were terrific explosions that people remarked that the fireballs erupted. It turns out they were not smuggling people, but they were smuggling gasoline. Iraq has no taxes anymore, so it’s almost, per se, a free trade zone right now, and everything’s cheaper in Iraq, so there’s a great market to get it into Syria where you can make a lot of money. Buy stuff cheap without taxation in Iraq and get it into Syria and sell it. Anyway, it was a fiasco. The estimates of dead are 80. And I should also say that one of the things that’s most interesting to me is that Detachment 20 obviously shoots to kill, not interested in prisoners, and we saw that the other day. I would venture it’s a reasonable guess that this is the unit that’s not interested in doing anything other than attacking and destroying people they think are the leadership of the Ba’ath Party without much, obviously, advance worry about what they’re doing.
So the thing that was interesting about that incident last month involved a deep border penetration. I’ve heard different numbers.
We said dozens, but I think perhaps it’s 30, 40, 50 miles inside Syria. And I know it’s old fashioned to think about things like sovereignty, but that does exist. I know the State Department worries about it. Anyway, across the border, Syria said nothing. The reason Syria said nothing is there’s been a long romance going on between us and Syria on intelligence sharing.

Since 9-11, the new government of Syria, the president there is Bashar Assad, the son of the longtime dictator, Hafez Assad and he’s different. He’s much younger, in his 30’s.
He trained in the west. He was an ophthalmologist, trained in ophthalmology in London. His wife is working for one of the big banking houses in the west. Very western-oriented. He’s only been president since his father died in June of 2000, and he’s trying to get hold — trying to change the country. After 9-11, he began.
He wrote a letter to Bush, got back a quick response, offered to share files. Syria, as some might know, has been subjected to terrorist attacks for years. The old man was very anti-fundamentalist. The Ba’ath Party generally is, just as it is also in Iraq.
And there was just a holy war between Hafez Assad and the Muslim Brotherhood for 20 years. And they really did a lot of work on the Muslim Brotherhood. And it turns out that the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1990’s got very connected to Al-Qaeda.
They were almost synonymous in terms of radicalism.

JUAN GONZALEZ: (overlapping) Well, Sy Hersh, you also mentioned in your article that the U.S. blew this, is blowing this connection with Syria and the possibility of getting more intelligence on Al Qaeda.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Yes. To move the story along, all that happened is we began a long romance with them, they shared a lot of files. And after about 15 to 16 months of tremendous sharing — and you should know that Syria told us more about who went in — who did 9-11 than anybody else. They knew about the 19 guys that penetrated Ochen, they penetrated Munich, wherever the cells were in Germany, and also in Aleppo, in northern Syria, another big hotbox for radicalism, fundamentalism. They gave us the files. We set up offices there, the C.I.A. began a liaison there in a way they hadn’t before. With the advent of the Iraq war, we began… Rumsfeld and the civilians began to push Syria very hard to get very proactive on our side inside Iraq.
And that’s something they didn’t want to do. They didn’t support the war without the U.N.
It should be made clear that they supported us in 1991, Hafez Assad did in the war then, because we had U.N. authority, it was a U.N. mission. So because of that, these guys simply traded their ideology, this is what I write about, they traded their sort of insistence that everybody in the region had to do what we want and they blew the relationship. There’s no more intelligence sharing. There’s a lot of mistrust.
The president attacked Syria and Iran publicly just the other day. Rumsfeld, in the early stages of the war, when it looked real good, was essentially threatening the regime, not quite directly, but indirectly, making it clear we want a regime change.
And it was just, you know, it just seemed to me, here you had, by all accounts, and I quote people in the C.I.A. as just being "thunderstruck" with what they did. The best relationship we probably had of any ally in terms of learning about Al-Qaeda, a covert one, people didn’t know about it, it was very fruitful, and they blew it. They blew it for short-term, ideological reasons, which is nothing new for this government. It just raises, again, the question of do they really understand what the issue is? It’s not Iraq. It’s really terrorism. And they don’t seem to get that.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Pulitzer prize-winning reporter, Seymour Hersh, and his latest piece in The New Yorker magazine called "The Syrian Bet" that he says the U.S. is blowing because Syria perhaps, as much as any country in the world, has a lot of information on Al-Qaeda, but is opposed to the invasion of Iraq, but the U.S. was more interested in pushing the U.S. war in Iraq.
Now, a couple of quick questions that go back to earlier pieces. The Niger story has blown up, the whole idea that Bush mentioned in his state of the union address, that Saddam Hussein was linked to buying uranium from Niger, and it turned out not to be the case and the C.I.A. knew it. You wrote many, many months ago a big story in The New Yorker on the Niger link.
Can you talk about why this has become a story now?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, yes, there’s a real tactical reason. You’re right, I think before the war, my story ran before the war, making it clear it was a joke, considered a joke. I think basically what happened is that, Wilson, the envoy went public, the former ambassador, and he wrote a piece in the New York Times that just made it impossible to ignore the implications.
And I don’t think the press — I hesitate, because I don’t want to be so horribly self-serving, but I don’t think the press did a very good job on this issue when it was there to be had. They sort of — once again, I think the American press really, as it constantly does, it seems these days, doesn’t get it on this war, doesn’t get it on the sons, doesn’t get it on what happened yesterday, just doesn’t get it. And they didn’t get it on Niger. They didn’t get the implications of that story, which was that something was very seriously wrong. And I still think the question that has to be answered–I have a guess but it doesn’t worry–I think if you knew where those papers are written, it would be even a better story. So, you know, there’s a lot more to that story. It’s not going to go away. And clearly, the only thing that’s important about this story, really, is that it’s just another day in, you know, in the life of this presidency. In other words, I would venture to say systematic lying about the war, distortion about the war has gone on since 9-11, distortion about Iraq and what it could do. And I also venture to say probably the most honest document we’ve had made public about Iraq was the much maligned 12,000-page statement by none other than Saddam Hussein that he gave before the — I think it was the end of last year, the statement that we immediately reviled as full of lies, that statement about the extent of weapons of mass destruction.
It’s probably more accurate than anything this government put out. And we’ll get there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So Sy Hersh, you mentioned the American press doesn’t get it, but do you feel the continuing Iraqi resistance against the U.S. occupation is at least forcing the press to fumble its way day in and day out, to cover the continuing Bush administration on the stakes in Iraq?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, they don’t get it is just to say that — you know, they keep on saying — Bremmer’s been in Washington — keep on saying 80% of the country is pacified. You know there isn’t anybody who knows anything about Iraq and fundamentalism and the Shiite community that doesn’t say that right now we’re doing the bidding of the Shiites, getting rid of the Ba’ath leadership. If we do get Saddam, and it’s not clear if we will, but we might, the two boys broke off and they changed the procedure. The older son is very ill. He’s been ill since 1996. He’s not effective. All those stories about him running the Fedayin, he just hasn’t had much to do since 1996. He needed medical care He went to Mosul because, to be perfectly honest, so I understand, it’s very close to the border. He has French doctors there. The goal was to sneak some doctors across the border, the Syrian border, so he can get some care. And his brother went with him, because, in that society, younger brothers always go with older brothers when they’re in trouble. It’s just societal It’s just an Arab tribal thing. And so in any case, the point is it seems clear the people who really watch and know Iraq, that what’s going to happen is once we do get rid of more Ba’ath leadership, we’re going to be confronted with a much more agitated Shiite community. The question is going to be whether we want a moderate Shiite government or an extreme Shiite Government. It depends on how we play it. But the notion that the Shiites, who are quiet now, aren’t going to want something, like control of the country, is just ludicrous.

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, we only have a minute, but today the 9-11 report has been released. If you can call it that, considering how much has remained classified. A section that looks at whether there’s any Saudi support for the hijackers remains classified. The report details contacts of an F.B.I. informant with two of the September 11 hijackers while they were living in rooms rented to them by an informant in San Diego. The investigation raised suspicions, but reached no definite conclusion about whether Omar Al-Bayumi, a Saudi who knew the two hijackers while living in San Diego, was connected to the Saudi government. Prince Bandar Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States says that the U.S. government has investigated it and dismissed it. But that is not clear from this report. Can you just finally comment on why all the connections between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. and the hijackers have been classified in this 9-11 report?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, besides the obvious question, the answer is oil. But I will tell you something that’s most interesting. Getting back to the question of Syria, one of the things we do know that the Syrians haven’t come up with and that would have, perhaps, with a better relationship, the Syrians have a tremendous amount of knowledge of Saudi financing of terrorism. It doesn’t mean Saudis were aware of what happened in 9-11, but the Saudi culpability in terms of paying off people that give them trouble is much greater than we know. And, you know, that’s another area where we could have learned much more. The Syrians really have the book. Syria and Saudi Arabia were really close for 20 years. And there’s a great deal of information the Syrians have that we don’t know. But what you’re telling me is all asked and answered. Everything about San Diego is in the press. I’m, frankly, very skeptical of congressional investigations. I don’t think they do — you know, I think they try. I think what we have now in the Senate and House Intelligence Committee is a laugh riot. And I think the real story that we really should be paying attention to has been, in my lifetime, the dumbing of congress. It’s unbelievable how incompetent congress has gotten in the 30 or 40 years since I’ve been watching it. The same with the intelligence committee right now. They’re laugh riots.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Seymour Hersh, for joining us. His latest piece, "The Syrian Bet," appears in this week’s issue of T_he New Yorker Magazine._ You’re listening to "Democracy Now!"


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