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Seymour Hersh: U.S. Knew of Rampant Abuse in Iraqi Prisons Months Ago

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We speak with Pulitzer-prize winning reporter Seymour Hersh about a classified internal U.S. army report he obtained that reveals systematic torture of at least 20 Iraqi prisoners who were subjected to “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” by their U.S. jailers at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. includes rush transcript]

On May 1st, 2003 President Bush, stood before a giant “Mission Accomplished” sign aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared an end to major military combat operations in Iraq.

One year later, a very different set of images shown around the world are being described as the pictures that lost the war.

This past week CBS’”60 Minutes II” broadcast images showing Iraqi prisoners stripped naked, hooded and being humiliated and tortured by their U.S. captors. The images quickly exploded onto the world stage and were shown on television and in newspapers across the globe.

For months, human rights groups and former prisoners had complained of mistreatment at detention centers but their protests were widely dismissed as politically motivated until U.S. command started an investigation in January.

This week, Pulitzer prize winning investigative reporter Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker obtained a copy of an explosive internal Army report that reveals what appears to be systematic torture of at least 20 Iraqi prisoners by six to 10 U.S. Army reservists.

The 53-page report, written in February by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba found Iraqi detainees in a cellblock of the notorious Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad were subjected to “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” at the hands of their U.S. jailers. The abuses included sodomizing of prisoners, pouring cold water and chemicals on naked bodies, threatening detainees with rape and dog attacks, hitting them with chairs and broomsticks and locking them in isolation without food, water or a toilet for three days.

The internal report also found a virtual collapse of the command structure in Abu Ghraib with Army reservists being urged by military intelligence and CIA employees to “set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses.”

Appearing on three Sunday talk shows yesterday, Chairman of the Joint Cheifs of Staff Gen Richard Myers said, “Torture is not one of the methods that we’re allowed to use and that we use. I mean, it’s just not permitted by international law, and we don’t use it.”

Myers gave conflicting answers when asked if the problems at Abu Ghraib were systemic throughout detention centers in Iraq. First he insisted that the instances of mistreatment were not widespread and were the actions of “just a handful” of soldiers. But when pressed, he acknowledged that he had not yet read Taguba’s report and left open the possibility the abuses could be broader.

Myers also acknowledged that he had asked the CBS News program “60 Minutes II” to delay broadcasting photographs of the abuses saying it would be particularly inflammatory at the time. CBS, which was originally scheduled to air the images on April 14, complied and delayed the broadcast by two weeks.

Taguba’s report has led to a military investigation of the 372nd Military Police Company, which staffed the cellblock. Seventeen soldiers in the company have been suspended and six now face court-martial. The woman in charge of Abu Ghraib, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, was relieved of her command.

  • Seymour Hersh, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the New Yorker.

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

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Seymour Hersh, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with the New Yorker. Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s good to have you with us, well there’s a lot to talk about here. Let’s first talk about this explosive report, you’ve published in The New Yorker.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well the report by Taguba, first of all, it’s probably the best report. I’ve been doing this stuff for a long time. It’s probably the most concise, direct report I’ve ever read. This guy is really full of integrity, which is good. And the terrible truth is that, according to his report, since last summer the army’s had a lot of reason to worry about its prison system. Actually, since Afghanistan. Last summer the high command in Iraq, headed by Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez, authorized two studies last summer into the whole question of how do you, the prison system and interrogation, the second of which was done by the Provost Marshall of the U.S. Army, a Major General named Don Ryder. Ryder concluded that although there were a lot of problems, administrative problems and people weren’t being processed correctly and the system had broken down, there was no real torture. Taguba said, 'Boy you missed it.' So, the problem isn’t so much what the kids showed or what the generals say, General Myers and others, the problem is this report and it’s just a devastating report and you described it totally accurately. It’s as sharp as you depicted it, but the army’s got to deal with this report.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker magazine. You say General Karpinsky wanted to be a soldier since she was five, is a business consultant in civilian life and was enthusiastic about her new job. In an interview last December with the St. Petersburg Times she said that for many of the Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib living conditions now are better in prison than at home. “At one point we were concerned they wouldn’t want to leave,” she said.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Yeah, she did say that and I did begin the piece with that quote because obviously it’s not just a question of dripping with irony, it’s a question of what is the whole sort of filter through which a lot of people want us to see the war and that’s sort of a microcosm of a perception. Did she believe it? I have to take her at her word, that she said what she believed. She’s now saying that she didn’t know what was going on. That the abuses that have become public, she hadn’t known about them but she’s disgusted by them and she’s disgusted by six or seven people. But the Taguba report really is scathing about the way she ran her, she was in charge. She was in the army for a long time, served with special forces and served during the gulf war. He described as the most, simply probably the worst headquarters he’d ever seen. She was in charge of the 3 major prisons — and when we use the word prison we have to remember what we’re talking about — the people in these prisons are civilians. Even in the Taguba report, he makes the point that more than 60% of those people had nothing to do with the lack of security in Iraq. It was simply people trying to mind their business, run their lives. There was a separate wing for women and children and there was no process for filtering out those who were innocent from those who were potentially insurgents or potentially Al Qaeda, or troublemakers or criminals.

Every process they had broke down. Under the Geneva Convention these people and non-combatant detainees must be processed. Within months they have to be given a procedure so you can make a determination whether they should be kept. There, none of this was going on so. There’s nothing wonderful about the way she ran her operation, but it’s also true as she’s been saying publicly for the last few days, that she really didn’t have control over the interrogation process. What happened is the military system there, — I guess the fair thing to say is that we had turned every prison in Iraq into Guantanamos. The whole function of the prison system was to get interrogations going to break down people, to get interrogations going, so we can extract information, you know this sort of confounding and befuddling opposition we have and continue to have in Iraq and don’t know who or where and we were trying to get more information about it. It’s all sort of, besides being… it’s sad actually to put it mildly.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe the picture that is on top of your piece in the New Yorker, “Torture at Abu Ghraib. ” Seymour Hersh

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well it’s … as being put on top of a container there for MRE’s, meals ready to eat, he’s put on top of one of those boxes and he’s got a hood and he’s got some sort of a blanket over him, you can’t see his face and you can’t see his body. You can see his sort of thinly legs. And he’s got wires going, it’s hard to see from the photograph, but according to the Taguba report … Taguba had access to all investigations. This whole thing heated up from the army, no matter how many complaints that were made as you noticed in the introduction, once the photographs began to circulate in January everybody was at full force, fully alarmed and according.. There were a lot of interviews done with people in the 372nd company and other companies that were attached to Janice Karpinsky’s brigade. And the army criminal investigation division did a lot of interviews and they were handed over to Taguba and he quotes from one. He quotes a woman saying, “in that particular picture, there were wires, they were running electrical charges to his arms, legs and genitals.” I mean, circa, I don’t know, the worst of Vietnam and the worst of all wars and that’s what the picture shows.

Although it’s not obscene, in a way it is obscene. Much more than the picture of the naked man and you know something about culture needs to be said… This is a reserve company, the 372nd from Cumberland, Maryland which is near the West Virginia border. It’s a very rural part of America, the average income is very low and these are people not very sophisticated. Most of them have no college education to speak of, some did but most did not and the in the Arab world, the Islamic world shame is the notion. for a male to be shown naked before other males is terribly humiliating and to be forced to pose in pretend homosexual positions with women around, giving the thumbs up signs — most of the people in your audience have seen the photographs — and being photographed and videotaped, there were videotapes, is the utmost of humiliation.

To the point where are scholars who’d say that’s potentially torture, coercion. It’s all part of a process to break down people before interrogation. There’s no way these young people in the photographs, these smiling faces understood that. Somebody told them what to do and Janice Karpinsky and General Taguba and she’s publicly said this was run by the military intelligence people, the CIA and private contractors basically in charge of the prison. And that’s the issue we have to get to, who’s running the prison. Under the army regulations, army law, that’s not supposed to happen. Military police are guards, the prisons are supposed to be places of serenity not chaos, and it’s clearly, the whole process was perverted into an interrogation center and that’s the issue to get to. And that’s where I think we get to the higher commands if it will ever be fully investigated.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you know the company that is running the Abu Ghraib prison?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Sure, I mean I have the Taguba report.

AMY GOODMAN: And the company that is the private military contractor?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Sure, I know all those people.

AMY GOODMAN: And who are they?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, it doesn’t matter because I have more reporting to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about 60 Minutes holding onto the torture pictures at the Abu Ghraib prison. Apparently they were going to run them on April 14th and the Pentagon called and said don’t. Can you talk about this?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, as far as I understand General Myers called and he said as much. Everybody could draw their own conclusions; the fact is that they did run the show. They did do an excellent job when they ran it. And so… thank god they ran it. It made my life easier. We all come at it from our own point of view, so it’s not for me to throw stones at CBS it’s sort of useless. What we have in this society, it goes far beyond CBS. We’ve had a media that’s been really sort of having an incredible problem. I believe in the media, and I believe good stories get out. I really do. I don’t believe there’s any suppression or censorship but there’s an incredible amount of self-censorship and one of the problems we’ve had with this government is that the media has not done a good job with dealing with people that aren’t always straight about what they’re doing. And that puts us in a terrible bind, you just don’t expect it. So I think the media has….There’s going to be, not now, not for years but there’s going to have to be a lot of you know sucking up and thinking about how we got to the state where we’re at.

AMY GOODMAN: The reaction in the Arab world to these pictures?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, what do you expect it to be if the core of that society is based on shame? It’s been wild, it’s been horrific, and it’s sort of proven to the Arab world which doesn’t like us anyway that our interests are not at all. Look. It’s one reason the president last week, if you remember I think Friday or Saturday, he went out of his way to speak out and condemn it. I think not forcibly enough. One of the questions I have for Gen. Myers and for Donald Rumsfeld, both of whom have said that they did not read this report, I would say, “Why not? I mean, are you kidding? You’ve known about this report.” On CBS a couple weeks ago, my story. And the next day Gen. Myers goes on TV and says, “I haven’t read it.” I take his word about that but that’s because he doesn’t want to read it and he wants to go on TV and say “I haven’t read it.” And I think we have to, I don’t want to make it public because … I’ll do what reporters do, I’m not in the business of disseminating it. I’ll take what I want sort of like a wild animal and leave the rest for the others. But I hope the government puts out the report because the report, as I said, is a model of people with such integrity. There’s a lot of good in the report. They should put it out and maybe they will.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Specialist Joseph Darby. Who is he?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Joseph Darby was one of the guys in the 372nd company who went home on an extended leave and came back to the unit in January and by that time, look, in my generation Vietnam, I was in the army before Vietnam, we had our little pictures of whatever it was — everybody had some kind of photograph they hid behind the sock in the drawer. This is a new generation; we’re all a new generation. And everything was passed around, all those photographs that everybody finds so heinous now, they were pretty excited about it and they were passing them around on cd roms. So he gets back and he gets a cd rom and the army tried to recover some of that and I have to tell you if that whole panoply of what’s on that cd rom ever got out as bad as it is now, it’d be much worse. Anyway, he saw it and really was appalled, unlike the others, he was appalled. And look the judgment these kids used was horrible, some of them beat prisoners, they weren’t killing people, that was being done on the other side.

They were making fun of them they were having a lot of sport with them. And part of me says yes, God, how stupid and they should be punished and the other part of me says we send these guys from rural parts of America into the army and we have an all volunteer praetorian guard and the officers then become local parentis. They really become the father and mother figures for these children. And the idea that these children were so unsupervised and that everybody can go around, including Karpinsky and say I’m so horrified and nobody’s going to say my god, that I fail as an officer. I felt the captain’s generals not only officers, they all failed. You have an incredible institutional breakdown that’s what Taguba’s reporting about. I’m not inventing phrases. This is what he said. And then you have the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff go on TV two days after this is a wild issue for the world and say I haven’t read the report. Just more evidence of an institutional breakdown. We really have a problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, I want to thank you very much for being with us.

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