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Manhunt in Iraq: Israel Trains U.S. Assassination Squads

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Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh reveals how a new Special Forces group assembled to “neutralize” Iraqi resistance is working with Israeli commandoes to train in assassination and other tactics — comparable to the Phoenix Program in Vietnam. One of the key planners is Lt Gen. William Boykin who declared that Bush was not elected but appointed by God. [Includes transcript]

In his latest article in the New Yorker, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh writes:

“The Bush Administration has authorized a major escalation of the Special Forces covert war in Iraq. In interviews over the past month, American officials and former officials said that the main target was a hard-core group of Baathists who are believed to be behind much of the underground insurgency against the soldiers of the United States and its allies. A new Special Forces group, designated Task Force 121, has been assembled from Army Delta Force members, Navy seals, and C.I.A. paramilitary operatives, with many additional personnel ordered to report by January. Its highest priority is the neutralization of the Baathist insurgents, by capture or assassination.

“The revitalized Special Forces mission is a policy victory for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who has struggled for two years to get the military leadership to accept the strategy of what he calls 'Manhunts' — a phrase that he has used both publicly and in internal Pentagon communications. Rumsfeld has had to change much of the Pentagon’s leadership to get his way. “Knocking off two regimes allows us to do extraordinary things,” a Pentagon adviser told me, referring to Afghanistan and Iraq.

“One step the Pentagon took was to seek active and secret help in the war against the Iraqi insurgency from Israel, America’s closest ally in the Middle East. According to American and Israeli military and intelligence officials, Israeli commandos and intelligence units have been working closely with their American counterparts at the Special Forces training base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and in Israel to help them prepare for operations in Iraq.”

  • Seymour Hersh, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the New Yorker. His latest piece is titled “Manhunt in Iraq”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Welcome to Democracy Now!.


AMY GOODMAN: Certainly an explosive piece that you have here. Can you tell us exactly what you found?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, Amy, beyond — I did, Amy, in the article but I can repeat it for you, and I will be glad to, which is essentially as you read. One solution — look we’re obviously, as I quote somebody saying in the piece, we’re getting mauled. Our guys are getting whacked on the ground, and it’s the old sort of story again, you know, we get hit and we can’t find out who’s hitting us, and so we respond.

The operation that everybody was critical of, everybody, including those who support the war and very supportive of this administration, is what they call “Iron Hammer”. This is the current American get-tough policy of bombings, and destroying homes, and collective punishment, and going in and making nighttime raids based on terrible intelligence and basically creating more insurgents. Everybody knows we have to do something different. So, the proposal — this is something Rumsfeld and a lot of people in the Pentagon, his fellow conservatives have wanted to do for a long time, which is to — they used the word 'premeditated manhunt', the euphemism for killing people. They want to go after the guys they think are running the insurgency. The only problem is, I’m anticipating a question, I know, the only problem is, who are they and can we find them? Do we have the intelligence to do so?

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about how exactly they’re being trained, assassination squads, and who is doing it?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, again, the word I used was we’re getting a tutorial on how to do it from the Israelis. I don’t know what that does to the hair on the back of your neck, but anyway, essentially, we have been — the Israelis have, according to Israeli officials, and I think this is correct, they have actually been, in their very tough approach to Hamas, particularly in the West Bank, they have destroyed at this point — the Israelis, by target bombing and assassinations — they have a special unit in Israel that dresses in Arab clothing, a military unit, and they all speak wonderful Arabic and they pounce on people. They can find somebody and pounce on them. We don’t have those kind of units. They are small units.

The Israelis have been training us in some of their tactics, and how to do it once, you know — The problem with the Israeli approach is, as a lot of Israelis will tell you, is that they have pretty much destroyed the ability of Hamas centrally to control the terror bombing against the Israelis in Israel. But that doesn’t preclude independent people from continuing to operate. So, destroying the central core of communication and I guess process in Hamas still hasn’t removed the threat, but it has certainly eased it somewhat. I think we’re seeing that now in Israel.

And so the idea is to do the same here, to get the targets and be as tough as the Israelis have been. It’s not clear we can be, because American people, soldiers, generally are not quite — are not trained to be quite as tough. That’s one reason Special Forces are going in, they’re very tough. Delta, Seals. They will shoot, and they’re very competent. Please don’t misunderstand. They do what they’re assigned to do and they’re very good at it. It’s just again the kind of information they have. And so I think the idea here is to see what happens, to try and destroy the central communication links of the Hamas equivalent in the Ba’ath party, as we see it, anyway. The idea is that we are also going to set up small Iraqi intelligence units. We have been collecting Iraqi intelligence people from the mukhabbarat intelligence service and military intelligence for eight or nine months, seven months, since the end of the combat war in early April. By now, we have put together enough sophisticated former Iraqi intelligence officers, we think, to form ad hoc advisory groups that would travel with our special forces. They’ll also have an Israeli adviser, i think, pretty much undercover in the country advising them, too. So, that’s the next step, you know. Bang, bang, bang.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, Seymour Hersh. I’m looking at a piece in today’s “Guardian” following up on your piece that came out yesterday in the “New Yorker” where Julian Borger quotes a U.S. Intelligence official- former. “This is basically an assassination program. That’s what’s being conceptualized here. This is a hunter-killer team.” He says, “It’s bonkers, insane. Here we are. We’re already being compared to Sharon in the Arab world, and we have just confirmed it by bringing in the Israelis and setting up assassination teams.” And goes on to say that the Israeli so-called 'consultants' have not only been at Ft. Bragg but also in Iraq with U.S. troops.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Am I supposed to comment on that?


SEYMOUR HERSH: I didn’t dispute that. I think — I didn’t write that, but I — you know, if you —- only because, you know, the “New Yorker” has a very appropriately you know—- you need more than one source for certain things, but certainly, that’s in the air. It depends how you define 'consultants'. But the basic line is obviously, if anything, I know this is — everybody’s going to lose their breakfast, but I’m probably inside the facts. Do you know what I mean? I’m within what the reality is. It’s probably a little more acute, there’s probably even more cooperation and particularly with — in terms of prisoners. But you know it’s just — the bottom line is, Donald Rumsfeld has wanted since 9-11, more than two years ago, to get this manhunts — he called it 'manhunts' with a plural, he has wanted to get manhunts going. He has wanted to be able to —- the Pentagon has assembled a list of what they call 'High Value Targets', H.V.T., and they are also known as 'Time Sensitive Targets', T.S.T. They have all of those acronyms and letters. They tried— last year we wrote — I wrote a piece in the “New Yorker” about an attack on somebody in Yemen, a former Al Qaeda person in Yemen. Other people had written about it, but the point I made in the story I wrote was that it was the first manhunt. And there were a lot of questions about what happened. There were two previous attempts. They were firing from an unarmed — unmanned airplane known as a 'predator', a hellfire missile. And twice the missile had been targeted at other cars before they finally got the guys they got. And both cars they were waived off, at the last minute in one case, because they were full of innocent Bedouins. The intelligence wasn’t good. They finally got their man. When they got him, five other people were with him. One of them was an American citizen, presumed to be bad guys, but they weren’t on the H.V.T., High Value Target list. So there was a lot of questions. And you know the military, the American military is a very, very cautious bureaucracy. And there were a lot of guys inside that don’t like the idea of being hunter-killer teams. That’s not what the military does, Even in Delta and the S.E.A.L. teams. These are, they’re soldiers, and they fight wars, and they don’t do targeted assassinations.

Rumsfeld, to get his way–he couldn’t get his way last year. He has basically changed, I know I wrote a little bit about this in the New Yorker, he has changed a lot of the personnel. He has gotten rid of people that fought him, and this is his prerogative. And he has put in the Army positions of command people who are much more supportive of what he and some his aides want to do; that is work with the Israelis and others to begin killing people. And so, this is his show. I’m sure the President, yes, the President obviously approves, and the Vice President, Cheney. They all work very closely together. I’m not sure where the C.I.A. is on it. I think, you know, these guys are in a real dilemma. They’re not winning. They can’t win the war militarily, and from George Bush’s point of view, they can’t lose the war politically. So, the answer in the short run seems to be to escalate. And they’re going to escalate with targeted bombing and targeted killings, and if that doesn’t work, I don’t know what else they’ll do.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, one of the things we know they’re doing is that they’re wrapping towns in barbed wire.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Yeah. I saw that story. That story is actually in the “Times”. Just to show you how funny the newspaper world is, that story was reported by everybody six weeks ago. That happened then. I’m glad the “Times” caught up to it, but it was reported six weeks ago. That happened in October- November.

It’s been — I will tell you also what’s going on, there’s a lot of collective punishment in the fields. In other words, we’re going to villages that were considered to be hotspots of insurgency and saying to the people there, tell us in advance of what’s going to happen or else. And when something else, another landmine goes off or something, we’re destroying irrigation devices, fields, sometimes houses, bulldozering, using bulldozers. It’s collective punishment that’s going on. That will be the next story. That’s been going on for months.

AMY GOODMAN: You quote a Pentagon adviser saying, “Knocking off two regimes allows us to do extraordinary things.”


AMY GOODMAN: You then go into the personnel who are involved with this; the rise and fall of different people. You talk about Rumsfeld’s rising star in the Pentagon, is it pronounced Steven Cambone?


AMY GOODMAN: You also talk about William Boykin of Somalia fame.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Lieutenant — they call him Jerry, Jerry Boykin, everybody calls him by that name. He’s a total warrior. He ran the Delta Force. He has been a Black Operator, a Black Operations guy. He was in Mogadishu he was involved in the hunt for Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug lord. Very controversial stuff I read about. And he is the fellow that the “L.A. Times,” Bill Arkin, a gentleman for the “L.A. Times”, about six weeks ago published a long account based on videotapes of General Boykin’s speeches, or I guess Sunday morning sermons to born-again religious groups or even church groups, churches, I guess, in the Ozarks and southern Florida where he would talk about — compare Islam to Satan, and talk about how this is sort of a, you know, a crusader sort of religious war. Quite unbelievable talk. And normally anybody — he did that in uniform; he was then a two-star General, and head of the Special Forces Command at Ft. Bragg — and normally he would be done.

Instead what happened is he had a meeting with Rumsfeld and they got along very well. I quote somebody as saying “like two old warriors”, and he has now been in the chain of command. You know, the Pentagon will deny that he’s specifically involved, but he’s certainly deeply involved. He’s Cambone’s chief aid. Cambone is the new tough guy, that’s been Rummy’s — gotten to be closer to Rummy than anybody right now, even Wolfowitz. And he’s a very conservative — out of Claremont College, which some of you might know that Claremont — it’s a neo-conservative school. He’s certainly very bright. He was a guy who five years ago was talking about the need to go to war with China. Now he has been the leader in the idea of manhunts. He has been trying to do stuff on manhunts for Rummy even before he got into his job. And so, he’s very much on the team. Boykin is very much on the team, and I don’t know whether Cambone shares his view of —- this is a war against Satan, but you know, the horrible prospect of what’s going to happen because -—

A lot of the people I talk with, as I say, are true blue Republicans, true blue military guys, true blue, very big supporters, they hope everything works, but they all say the same thing. It’s not going to work. It’s very hard to get the intelligence. You can’t really trust what we’re going to get from the Iraqis. One guy said, it made a wonderful line, he said one of the particular officials, Iraqi former military intelligence, mukkhabarat guys, I mean these were the torturers for Saddam, and now they’re working for us. One of them, he said, has made an agreement with the United States and he’ll carry out the agreement, he said, “to the letter, but not to the spirit”, the C.I.A. told me that, whatever that means. And so the next step is, and what everybody is worried about, and this came up six or seven times in a couple of dozen interviews, was Phoenix. In the late 1960’s the American C.I.A. working with various sort of groups Mountagnards and —-—-? groups, mercenary groups in Vietnam began targeted assassination of what was said to be Vietcong and Vietnamese Nationalists, Vietnamese Communists and Vietnamese Nationalist oppositions. And in four-year periods, 40,000 of those people, later defined as 'enemy civilians', were killed, by South Vietnamese count. And the American count was over 20,000 in that year. And it turned out many of them controlled the operations–the operations got totally out of control. South Vietnamese officials were playing cards and losing money and turning guys in that they owed money to us for assassination. I’m not exaggerating. It was that bad. Way out of control. And that was the worry now. We’re going to have another disastrous operation. And don’t forget, Phoenix didn’t win the war for us. We didn’t win that war. So that’s the other worry. And then once you are done with this and it doesn’t work, what do you do? I don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Seymour Hersh, we have to break for a minute, but when we come back I want to ask you about how Iran fits into this as well. We are talking to Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Seymour Hersh. His latest piece in The New Yorker is called “Manhunt In Iraq”. And we were also just talking about one of the seminal people in this, is Lieutenant General Jerry Boykin, who was quoted last June telling a congregation in Oregon, quote, “Satan wants to destroy this nation, he wants to destroy us as a nation and he wants to destroy us as a Christian Army.” He praised President Bush as a man who prays in the Oval Office and declared, Bush was not elected President but appointed by God. “The Muslim world hates America”, he said, “because we are a nation of believers”, quoting from the article that Seymour Hersh quotes Boykin in, in The New Yorker. We’ll be back with him in a minute.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re still with Seymour Hirsch. His article in the New Yorker magazine is called “Manhunt in Iraq.” Washington targeting insurgents as it once did in Vietnam. And that has some experts worried — among others. What about Iran? SEYMOUR HIRSCH: Well, that’s the big issue because there’s a lot of people that I respect very much who say that the intelligence in their view is sound, that Iran — that there is specific Iranian support for the Ba’ath insurgency, which on the surface seems a little over the top because, of course, Shiite Iran and the Sunni Ba’athists don’t get along well. They fought a long war against each other. Iran traditionally has some relationships with the Shiites in the south of Iraq, but certainly the Iraqis in the South, the Shiites are more nationalistic than they were in terms of than Shiism. They supported Saddam all the way during the war, but the intelligence — there is specific intelligence.

I think some does come from Israel, and a lot of people get their edge raised, but there’s a lot of concern that Iran may be playing a dangerous game. After all, Iran has Afghanistan on one border, and now Iraq. So they’re feeling squeezed. On the other hand, there are also people saying, yes, Iran is keeping all options open as anybody rationally would. They are in contact with the Ba’athists and they certainly Know… You know, there’s no worry in Iran about the fact that the insurgency isn’t working. But the notion that they would be actively involved is — in terms of supplying communication gear and weapons and bases is way over the top. And more — as somebody said to me, it’s more of the Chalabi stuff, talking about Ahmed Chalabi whose intelligence we now know, is generally conceded, provided in the Bush administration in the year or two after 9-11, played a key role in making case for WMD, the horrible case.

It’s a very complicated issue, but I will tell you that one of the reasons we’re organizing Iraqi—you saw in the papers the other day: we are organizing Iraqi teams of paramilitary — is, if they do decide to do something cross-border into Iran, it will be with Iraqis with American backing. That’s the talk right now. Obviously,it needs more reporting, because it is just a dispute right now in the intelligence community. But you cannot rule out anything.

If Iran, certainly, whether it’s directly overtly helping or not, Iran is certainly, and Hezbollah, too, have a tremendous interest in what’s going on. The stakes are being raised dramatically in that part of the world because of our invasion of Iraq.

Israelis tell me there’s nothing more exciting than waking up in the morning and seeing America to the east. Israel likes us there, many in Israel, not everybody. Many people think it’s also disastrous in the long run.

But there’s more talk now. You see it in just the administration’s comments, more talk about hostility towards Syria. There was a long piece said by administration officials in the New York Times —- I don’t mean to suggest that the information was accurate as everybody knew it, nobody was doing propaganda. There was a story quoting administration officials as saying that David Kay, this sort of hapless fellow that is in charge of the search for the WMD—- why he took that job he must be asking himself that, now— Kay, what he has found was that maybe there was an arms deal for air defense weapons, which are not outside of the U.N. agreements anyway, that were purchased by Iraq or Iraq tried to purchase them from North Korea through Syria. You hear that kind of talk. So, they’re beginning to open up talk about Syria again like the neoconservatives did in late March and early April when it looked like everything was going great in Iraq and they were going to keep on rolling.

So, you can have a dark — the dark scenario would be that we do expand our aggressiveness into regime change into Syria and perhaps a new Iran and we end up sort of back-to-back with the Israelis fighting a middle east insurgency. That’s where some of the people, if you read what they say very carefully, what they said in the last ten years, that’s what the neoconservatives want. That’s in their writing. I’ll be honest, it’s in internal papers that I have, but I haven’t published because they are what they call white papers. They’re easy discounted. In other words, a lot of thinking inside the pentagon is done unofficially, in unofficial papers, the papers that are not officially part of the system. So, the problem with those is they’re so easily discountable. They’re not real documents. That’s one reason they do it that way. Inside the government they are known as the white papers. It just doesn’t exist. In those papers, there is talk of wholesale Middle East chaos. And that’s to our advantage because the next step would then be some sort of democracy. That seems to be what they think.

It does look like despite all of the troubles we’re having in Iraq that some of those elements of the policy are still being carried out, and I can also add that, talk about self-fulfilling prophesies, I don’t think there’s any question that some Mahabis from Saudi Arabi, some very radical Shiites are coming across the border from Saudi Arabi, I think more than any other country. They’re terrorists and they’re intent on doing car bombings.

We began a war against a country claiming they were terrorists when I think everybody now understands they were not. No connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, no significant connection, nothing that meant much. Now we set the situation in which what we initially began the war against is beginning to happen.

I know that the two and three and four-star generals, if you ask them about what’s going on, everybody wants more troops. Nobody is going to say so publicly. It means end of career, but they also all say the same thing: My boys are getting killed, and my job is to defend them. You now have a situation where what we thought we had when we went into Iraq, we may have triggered.

What do you do with that? You know, what do you do with the fact that people are coming across the border? Well, there we are. I mean it’s possibly the most bungled foreign affair episode in the history of pretty much bungled stuff we have done over the last 250 years. It always ends perfect.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Seymour Hirsch, I want to thank you very much for being with us. His latest piece appears in this week’s New Yorker; it’s called, “Manhunt in Iraq.”

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