Rumsfeld Knew: Iraq Prison Abuse Part of Pentagon-Approved Black Ops Program

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In a major expose in the New Yorker, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh reveals that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved using harsh interrogation methods as part of a top-secret program against Al Qaeda and in Iraq.

Seven army reservists face criminal charges in the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib–All seven of them say they were following orders from superiors. The first court-martial is scheduled to begin Wednesday in Baghdad.

A new report by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker magazine begins:

“The roots of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal lie not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists but in a decision, approved last year by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to expand a highly secret operation, which had been focused on the hunt for Al Qaeda, to the interrogation of prisoners in Iraq. Rumsfeld’s decision embittered the American intelligence community, damaged the effectiveness of elite combat units, and hurt America’s prospects in the war on terror.

“According to interviews with several past and present American intelligence officials, the Pentagon’s operation, known inside the intelligence community by several code words, including Copper Green, encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in an effort to generate more intelligence about the growing insurgency in Iraq. A senior C.I.A. official, in confirming the details of this account last week, said that the operation stemmed from Rumsfeld’s long-standing desire to wrest control of America’s clandestine and paramilitary operations from the C.I.A.”

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

SEYMOUR HERSH: I guess you can’t really tell that until you tell the story. I mean, this is a program that was initiated. This is especially, sort of, compartmented, very deep, sort of, covert black operation that was initiated a few months after Afghanistan. Essentially because, once the major skirmishing in Afghanistan, once the Taliban folded, we were left with still the war on terror, and the pentagon was getting all kinds of leads and information, and they would want to send a special forces team, let’s say, name a country: Yemen, Sudan, to go pick up somebody, and there would be all this normal sort of process that happens in the American government. The American ambassador would want to know what’s going on. The local military guys would want to know what’s going on. The local government would want to know what’s going on. Rusted found it very… All of this stuff is not the way he likes to operate. He’s very much cutting through all the bureaucracies. So he simply set up a back channel operation. It was what they call a SAF, Special Access Program, a very classified program, inside the pentagon. And he recruited a bunch of Delta Force, and SEALS, and some CIA people, and other services, I’m sure. Everybody was handpicked. Everybody in it was under an alias, under a cover. I can’t imagine, maybe foreign. I just don’t know. And they didn’t need visas. The SAP, the Special Access Program, had a budget. They were buying covert planes, planes that were not described, marked as American, necessarily. Certainly not as a military plane. And all the apparatus you need to run a secret little war. And they would pick up people, and they had their own detention centers, and apparently, they would get the first cut of Al Qaeda or suspected terrorists. And really the ones that weren’t so useful went to Guantanamo. Pretty interesting.

And then this group that’s been operating, it’s been going on for a year and a half or two years now, I guess. Close to it. And without any trouble. And last fall, because things were falling apart in Baghdad, and Iraq pretty badly, much more than the public knew. We had the U.N. bombing, the Jordanian bombing, and internally, there was also a lot of anxiety about what was going on with the insurgency. Nobody knew anything. We had no sources.

It was decided in August-September that it was time to really get inside the Iraqi prison population. Although we all understand that the prison population in Iraq is a lot different than, let’s say, in Guantanamo because take your pick. As General Antonio Taguba reports, the one that made so much noise a few weeks ago, Taguba said 60% of the people in prison were basically innocent. The national Red Cross says 90%. You had a situation where you had a different pool. Nonetheless, this special team was brought in at Rumsfeld’s and his deputy foreign intelligence’s request. The guy named Stephen Cambone brought it into Baghdad over the objections of everybody in the community. I shouldn’t say “everybody,” but many people obviously, because you don’t take a very quiet, clandestine program and move it into a military situation, into a war, because it doesn’t — it doesn’t function that way. You dilute its value.

In any case, they went into the prison. Very tough orders were given. We’re going to use coercion, if we have to; and we’re also going to use sexual blackmail. We’re going to get these Baathist Sunnis. Rusted was calling them, by that time last fall, “The Dead-enders. ” These are the Baathist Sunnis, supporters of Saddam, that we thought were the core of the insurgency that we could not find. But the goal is to go into the prison population, get these guys if we have to blackmail them by putting in compromising, sexual positions, do it. We all have gone through the ritual, Amy, of how terrifyingly taboo it is in Islamic society for men to appear naked before other men, really. And we were going to do that: threaten to take the photographs of them and distribute it in their neighborhood to their families, to their mothers and fathers and wives or whatever, totally embarrassing them. And I think the goal is to: a) try and get some people to tell us what they knew, and, b) try and convince some people to go and leave the prison and go back into the Sunni community and spy. But whatever it was, it quickly got out of control. By late October, I’ve been told, the CIA had some people involved in this program. They pulled out. They pulled out all of their people involved in the interrogation process at Abu Ghraib. Their general counsel said, “this is nuts.” They pulled out, and the program went along, out of control, basically, until it started getting in trouble earlier this year.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do you know that Donald Rumsfeld himself knew?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, you know, I don’t have a videotape. But I can tell you that these programs, these special access programs, these SAP programs, I have learned a great deal about them. They can only be set up with the Secretary of Defense’s approval. And the Deputy Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, they’re all involved in setting up this. So he certainly was there at the beginning, and I’m told the people — obviously the people that talked to me, I’m told that whatever Cambone did was cleared with — he wasn’t able to make a move like this without getting it cleared with Rumsfeld. So Rumsfeld had — Amy, nobody is suggesting that Rumsfeld knew the kind of wackiness that was going on. That isn’t the point. The point is that this sort of — the core, the soul of what happened was the decision that was made, the genesis of the problem was the decision that was made at Rumsfeld’s level to bring this very secret, effective team into Baghdad. Not all of it, some remnants of it. And also, my understanding is, some of the people in military intelligence at the time were read into the program. This program that had been restricted so carefully.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Seymour Hersh, investigative reporter, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his reports. The pentagon has issued a statement on Hersh’s New Yorker piece calling his claims outlandish, conspiratorial, and filled with error and anonymous conjecture. We’ll come back with Seymour Hersh in a minute.

AMY GOODMAN: This is “Democracy Now! The War and Peace Report. ” I’m Amy Goodman. As we continue with Seymour Hersh, investigative reporter, Pulitzer Prize winner, another expose in the New Yorker magazine, in the piece, you talk about Stephen Cambone as well as his aide, Army Lieutenant-General William Boykin, the evangelical Christian, who often discusses the “War on Terror” in terms of a “holy war. ” Once while he was discussing a battle in Somalia against a Muslim warlord, Boykin told a crowd, “I knew that my god was bigger than his. I knew my god was a real god and that his was an idol. ” He told another audience, “the enemy in the War on Terror is a guy named Satan,” and at least once he said of President Bush, “he’s in the White House because God put him there.” What’s the connection to Cambone? And did he have anything to do with it?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, he’s Cambone’s military deputy, his military aide in the office of intelligence, and we know he made at least one trip to visit Geoffrey. So I’m told, and so it’s been reported, he made one trip to visit. The other part of this, that’s sort of interesting that we don’t know — I don’t know all the pieces of. The commandant of the prison at Guantanamo, Major-General Geoffrey Miller was also brought up to Baghdad at this time in the fall of 2003, and also recommended very tough stuff. And there definitely is — I’ve heard this — I didn’t write this because I’ve only heard it from one person and it is more anecdotal. But I heard that he was the liaison and, frankly, in testimony Cambone suggested as much that his liaison to Miller, anyway at Guantanamo, would have been Boykin. Boykin would have been in the middle of this. Although I have to tell you that in the Pentagon, Cambone is held in very low repute by professional intelligence people because he’s seen as sort of, not only as sort of a lackey for Rusted, but also somebody who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, which is very dangerous, and he’s not very experienced in intelligence. And many of the people in the community are much more comfortable with Boykin because he served in Delta Force, and for all of his problems he caused for the government by comparing Muslims to Satan. He knows — he understands intelligence much more than Cambone.

AMY GOODMAN: What about this man Kenneth deGraffenreid? What was his role?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Kenneth deGraffenreid was a high level civilian intelligence officer, an expert on counter-intelligence, and before Cambone came on… The office Cambone has, the Undersecretary for Intelligence, is the new office, voted by congress. I think very much at Rumsfeld’s request because Rumsfeld has been in a struggle with the CIA and the other intelligence. He has been trying to take over intelligence. Certainly he wants to take over the covert warfare, the idea of being able to operate overseas. I think one thing he did with his special activity he did, was sort of bureaucratically ace out CIA, and deGraffenreid’s job before this new office was created, was the point man on the SAP program. There was a lot of special activities programs, most of them have to do with — the SAPs, we call them — most of them have to do with very secret procurement issues. For example, the Stealth Bomber was a SAP. They funded all the work on the Stealth through these secret programs, to protect the secret. The Predator, the unmanned aircraft and its ability to fire missiles was all done in a SAP. My guess is it’s unusual to run a covert operation. But I don’t know that. And Kenneth deGraffenreid was sort of a bureaucratic loser when Cambone came in, because Cambone muscled out Kenneth deGraffenreid for control over the SAPs.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been talk about the SAP, the Special Access Program. What about President Bush? What is the involvement of the oval office in this?

SEYMOUR HERSH: One thing that is known is that this secret program in Afghanistan that was set up to cut through the bureaucracy was certainly cleared with the president. Beyond that, I just don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: Newsweek is reporting that Bush knew and signed off on this, that there was a meeting in the oval office, that there was a memo. What is your comment on this?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, I heard about the story today. I haven’t read it. It could be the same program. I could not be. I think this program was a very sensitive special access — it is really sort of, in other words, there could have been more than one operation going on. The CIA was doing some interrogations on its own — at its own facilities. This special activity, special access group was so dark and so deep, in the sense that nobody really knew what they were doing and so I — I’m not sure they’re the same program. But if they are, I just don’t know. The answer is I don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Major General Geoffrey Miller? You talk about the significance of the commander of the detention interrogation center at Guantanamo coming to Baghdad and what this meant. His review in late August and how this tied to the changes in policy at Abu Ghraib.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, late August, as I said, was a terrible time after the U.N. — the blowing up of the U.N. and the killing of the U.N. rep there, was a very bad time. Also you have to again remember that the insurgency was showing incredible sophistication and the government — our government — realized and our intelligence people realized that we knew very little about it. So Miller was there. I think — again, it’s silly for me to speculate. But clearly the Miller visit, the events in the fall, and the shifting of this new unit, this secret unit and some of its people with its very tough package into Baghdad, into Abu Ghraib, among other prisons, they’re certainly very closely related. What the timeline is, I’m not sure. But I would guess that we’re talking about, you know, Miller’s visit, the crisis, and the new involvement of the SAP program. You know, we’re talking a few weeks all these decisions were made in the late summer, early fall of last year.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. What about Major General Taguba, the one who did this explosive report on the prison abuse? What did he understand? Did he know anything about this SAP program?

SEYMOUR HERSH: No. My friends say, “No. ”

AMY GOODMAN: Then why did they let him do this report?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, I can’t answer the question. I don’t know why they did or didn’t do anything. But I can just tell you that one of the thoughts was, the people I talk with about this program, one of the thoughts was in January, this young man, the young military policeman, who couldn’t believe what he saw in those videos, turned in the CD with all the photos to the Army. At that point, the chronology is very interesting, because, if you think about it, what the pentagon has said, is that on the 16th, Rumsfeld was briefed. Rumsfeld has also said many times in his testimony that there are 18,000 court-martials a year. Here is an investigation, and he is briefed on the 16th, two and a half days later, and he goes to the president right away. That is very interesting to me.

But again, that’s just interesting to me. I don’t have any facts about it. But it suggests sensitivity, given all the court-martials he says there are. How can he pay attention to one? But one of the things — one of the thoughts — was, again so I’m told, is that you can’t stop this investigation. That would be too clumsy because the Army criminal investigation into this, is very, sort of, a clean group. A bunch of enlisted men who love to get generals. And they were into it. What you do is just control it. You just let some people.. The idea was to let a few kids — let the people below get hung and contain it. And — and as part of that, they had to do an investigation, and Taguba did an investigation. I just think he stunned everybody by doing such a good one. I did notice that in his Senate testimony the other week with Cambone, they backtracked on many of the things he’d written. They said they took him to the wood shed.

AMY GOODMAN: What about what Rumsfeld and Cambone said at the Senate hearing? How careful was Rumsfeld in talking about these issues and what about the SAP. Did he raise at the hearing?

SEYMOUR HERSH: He didn’t — he didn’t — of course, under the law he can’t mention something that secret, that was an unclassified —- he could have made it clear that he wanted to go into a classified session. He could have said something to the effect that there was more there. The fact of the matter is I don’t have a sense—- I understand there was a classified session during this time, but I don’t have a sense that any of the senators were told about the SAP, and under the rules of that program, those special access programs, only a few are actually briefed. Most of the procurement ones are briefed to the Congress. But the more sensitive ones are not. They’re just given some budget ideas and some vague descriptions. They are not fully briefed. And so it’s unlikely he talked about it. But if there was a classified session… But in the public session, certainly, he made it seem as if he was being — there was an open apology and it made it seem as if he was really in as much of a quandary as the rest of us were, about how such awful things happen. And so that seems to me that the next step should be — what I’ve been saying is that the next step is sort of up to the senators to see if they want to sort of — you know, this has been — I think we can charitably describe it as a very supine Congress, and maybe it’s time for them to do something.

AMY GOODMAN: In your piece, in the New Yorker, you talk about some surprise visits of the JAG, the Judge Advocate General lawyers, the military lawyers to the chair of the New York City Bar Association’s Committee on International Human Rights.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, yes. At least twice, the man’s name is Horton. As you say, he works for the Bar Association. He has been involved in these issues for many years, on legal issues on the US and Geneva Convention, and he was visited twice. I think that there’s no question that the Judge Advocate Corps of the Armed Services are very upset. Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, had similar visits. It seems clear that the lawyers of the Pentagon feel that there are programs being devised, sort of behind their back and that they have not much power to do much. And so we’ve really had a significant change here in this country in terms of respect for the Geneva Convention in this administration.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much, Seymour Hersh, investigative reporter, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. His piece this weekend in the New Yorker magazine is called “The Gray Zone. How a Secret Pentagon Program Came to Abu Ghraib.”

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