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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]

We are broadcasting from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, from the studios of PBS and NPR station WILL.

Urbana is a hub of independent media activity. The local Independent Media Center here is one of the most active in the country and has just bought the Post office. In a few weeks, the low-power FM station–WRFU Radio Free Urbana–will begin broadcasting. And the city is working on offering free wireless internet broadband access. Meanwhile, community radio station WEFT is going strong as is public access TV Channel 6.

This week, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is hosting a conference focusing on the state of the media in this country. Entitled “Can Freedom of the Press Survive Media Consolidation?” the conference is the first of its kind to be sponsored by the Illinois Initiative for Media Policy Research, established last fall by the College of Communications to study media policy issues.

Pulitzer prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker magazine delivered the keynote address last night. 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 “Chain of Command: From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib.” This is an excerpt of what he had to say last night.

  • Seymour Hersh, speaking at the University of Illinois conference “Can Freedom of the Press Survive Media Consolidation?” on May 10, 2005.
  • Seymour Hersh, live in studio.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker magazine delivered the keynote address last night. Hersh won the 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. He broke the prisoner abuse story a year ago. This is an excerpt of what he had to say last night, about My Lai and Abu Ghraib.

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.

And so the next day, one of the kids who did most of the shooting, a kid named Meadlo, gets his foot blown off. They’re patrolling somewhere near My Lai 4, and he screams one of these oaths that everybody remembered. I was doing the story, what, in '69 and ’70, talked to 55 of the kids there, sad saps. Ended up thinking they were as much victims, in a sense, as the people they shot, which wasn't a way you start out, you know, mad at them. It’s hard to stay mad at them because of what — anyway — so, they’re taking away Meadlo and he’s screaming, “God has punished me, Calley (Lieutenant Calley)! And he is going to punish you, too!” Calley was the one who ordered him to shoot in the ditch, and he shot 10 or 15 clips.

And so, I’m looking for him. And I’m doing the stories as a freelancer. And I’m looking for him. I’m somewhere in the West Coast. And I hear about Meadlo, and I find his phone. Somebody tells him, one of the kids I’m talking to in the unit, somewhere in Indiana — it was a lot — we didn’t have Google; it was a lot harder then — find his house. He’s southern Indiana farm boy. I get down there the next day. I fly overnight to, I think it’s Indiana, Indianapolis, below Indianapolis, below Terre Haute, a place called New Goshen, down in the southern part of Indiana. A chicken farm, I pull in. It’s a chicken farm out of Norman Rockwell, one of those old paintings from The Saturday Evening Post. It’s poor, just chicken coops, no farm, no farmland, a bunch of shacks. That’s the home.

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: Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Seymour Hersh speaking at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, at a major media reform conference. We’ll come back to his remarks, and then he joins us live in the studio here, as we broadcast from the University of Illinois.


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.

In any case, the paper also says — this is the last one of these things that I found great interest — that the Lummi tribe, one of the members — it’s a major tribe in the Sunni heartland of Baghdad, the four provinces that Saddam — the center post of the resistance, the Lummi tribe probably had something to do with turning in Saddam. He had turned on some of those people. Anyway, the new Defense Minister is a Sunni, from the tribe, and he says he’s going to continue the policies of Mr. Allawi, the former Defense Minister, which is what? What’s the defense policies of Allawi, the former interim Prime Minister? Well, basically, what we have done since — in the last year, is we have recreated the Iraqi Mukhabarat. This is the heavy-hitting secret police that Saddam ran. We have gone in and recreated many of the members, put them through a little acid test, made them vow that their allegiance — to what? — I guess, to America, or they’re no longer Saddamites. In any case, this is our main force right now. This is the force that Allawi controls. This is a force, the former, you know, whatever the guys, whatever you want to call them, the former roughest guys that Saddam had are now working for us. They’re our most prominent security force. And we have had really an amazing spectacle of the Secretary Of Defense, Rumsfeld, making at least two trips in the last five months, I think it’s three, but I know of two, I think it was three, though — going in and basically — once before the election was announced, and two more trips — basically pleading on the inside for the two major factions, the Kurds and the Shia, I’m assuming some knowledge of — I hope I’m not — Iraq? — you know, the country? and there’s — anyway, I don’t want to kid you. But we’re negotiating — obviously the whole point of the election was to keep Allawi in play so that he could serve as a bridge, our man, between the Kurds and the Shia. And what he delivers is, of course, is the Mukhabarat.

And here you have Rumsfeld. We went to war to get rid of Saddam and all of that. Here you have Rumsfeld going at least twice in the last four months or so to beg, to beg for Allawi to stay in, and beg basically for the former Mukhabarat security forces to continue doing what they do, terrorizing. It was an amazing piece in The New York Times Magazine. I mean, amazing in its inability to go beyond the immediacy of what they were reporting about one of these militias that are former Mukhabarat, former Saddam people, that are now working for us, killing, (quote, unquote), “insurgents,” which means they’re basically — I don’t know, when do you describe what’s going on as a civil war? I don’t know. When is somebody going to say that? But if it’s not a civil war, it’s very close. And I don’t know — I can’t see an end game. I’ll give you a ticket out.

I think the Blair stuff is interesting. If he wants to stay as Prime Minister, there might be a lot of pressure to him to begin reducing troops — what I’m telling you now comes from a four-star General who was just speculating the other day in a conversation — might begin to reduce troops in the South where the British have an enormous amount of influence and are operating in the South. Maybe that’s one way out. Maybe the new Prime Minister to be, Brown, will do something. I don’t know. And that could be a way out. I don’t see a way out, because this President — as I have said many times, as some of you have heard me speak on the radio or whatever — one of the things about this guy that’s really a little overwhelming is, you know, you all applaud when I come in, because I do have — you know, I do think I wear the white hat. I think I’m fighting the good fight as a journalist and trying to do what I can, and I feel virtuous. And I’m up against a President that’s absolutely inured to me.

And he’s inured to the other good reporting. There is good reporting. It’s not just me. The Washington Post has done good stuff. Knight-Ridder newspapers has done good stuff, Amy Goodman’s show, Naomi Klein have done a lot of brilliant stuff about the war. It’s not as if there’s any monopoly on critical reporting about the war. Even in The New York Times had a marvelous story a month ago about a group of Marines that came back disillusioned with the lack of equipment, the stupidity of their mission. It was an amazing story. It went down, it just went down. No stories seem to have bounce anymore, in part because, I guess, because of the networks and their cowardness, which is, you know, duh. You know, I’m tired of worrying about the networks. They just are what they are.

But I think what’s more important than that is that this guy, this Bush, absolutely believes in what he’s doing. He’s not like a nervous Richard Nixon, worried about, you know, “They’re coming after me,” or Lyndon Johnson quitting over Vietnam with great uncertainty about whether he is doing the right thing. This guy is absolutely convinced. This guy for — I don’t know — I don’t know what’s in his mind. I don’t know whether he — God talks to him or whether he’s undoing what the mistakes his father made, but he is convinced that he has got to bring democracy to Iraq, and then change — they altered the plan a little bit. No, I don’t think they’re so big anymore into democracy in Syria or Iran, they just want to get regime change. I think moving Wolfowitz out was a sign of sort of diminished ambitions. And it’s good. I’m happy. I’m one of those people that said, “Yes, World Bank, yes.” Then you can just, you know, starve people, change societies, change economic structures, force everybody from any socialist program to private enterprise, but he’s not killing people, and that is a plus. And so, I — you have got to applaud it. I mean, I would — [ applause] Oh, hey! Bush for Pope. I don’t care. I mean, let’s do it.

So, this guy can’t be reached by us. Not just me. I mean, they can ignore me, but the networks, any time there’s a good story, not a blip. And what does that mean? That means, you know, the body bags aren’t going to stop him. This is a guy who is convinced for whatever reason that even 1,000 or another — you know, the body count goes on. It just goes on. Of course, nobody counts the Iraqis. I love the stories — every time you talk about Vietnam, it’s always — the Vietnam war is summarized this way, “58,000 American killed and anywhere between 2 and 3 million Vietnamese.” There is a distinction between 2 and 3 million, but that’s okay. I used to joke all the time — racism in America, you know, is so endemic and so hard to see, but I was always — I used to joke that I was very proud of Bill Clinton because he was the first president in Kosovo, the former Yugoslavia, since World War II to actually bomb white people. It usually — it wasn’t worth the trouble. It’s like going after Israel. Forget it. The racism is just — anyway — so, you’ve got a guy that thinks he’s doing the right thing. I think he thinks in five years or ten years or 20 years he will be like Lincoln. I think, you know, I don’t know. He will be judged as one of the great presidents. You know, you have to understand something about presidents. They — war — Jack Kennedy once — is it David Donald Duncan? Yeah, the Lincoln scholar, he once said to Duncan, the Harvard historian, he once said to him that no President can be great without a war. This is early in the Vietnam War. This is in 1962. Obviously, he died a year later. But I think presidents like Bush understand about how important war is, you know, even a vague reading of history, and Bush is far from intellectual — you know.

I have a friend who is a major player who went to Iraq recently. There’s been a series, unreported, a series of missions in Iraq that have all been there to study the war — where are we? — and they’ve all come back pretty negatively. This guy came back and he saw the President months ago. And he said, “Mr. President, we’re losing the war in Iraq.” And there was a sort of a three-second beat and Bush said, “You mean we’re not winning.” And this guy said, “Hey, I told him what I had to say. If he wants to turn it the way he wants to, that’s the way it goes.” You know, so he hears what he hears.

And so, when you’re inoculated like that, and presidents always are, but war is important to presidents, which means that instinctively, heuristically, I can tell you this president’s totally immersed in the war. We can’t see it. I can’t prove it. I have come close, with somebody on the inside, but this person hasn’t gone belly up yet. But anyway, by that I mean, he’s listening to the war. He’s watching the war. He’s getting daily reports. There’s something called a Fusion Center that came off the prison system and he was getting reports from that. There were people in the White House with direct connection to the war, not known, military officer, one in particular, who could get to the President for — between 2003 and 2004 at any time. And so, I think the notion that he is disconnected is wrong.

He is strange in one way. You know, Wolfowitz, who if nothing, if not smart, would understand this, but Bush is truly a Trotskyite, a believer in permanent revolution. We have never had one as a president before. He wouldn’t understand that, but Wolfowitz would. He truly is. And he’s doing it — what he thinks he has to do, the revolutions he has to create, without any information, without any — without an ability to absorb information that’s counter to what he wants to hear. And so, I don’t know where you are when you have a man with as much power as he controls and as much ability to do something. I don’t know how we can get at him. We can all work hard in the next election and try — forget the party. Just go find good candidates and support them. I mean the Democratic Party, because I don’t know. When you have a devalued opposition party, you have a devalued Congress. On any given day, I can’t decide whether the U.S. Senate is supine or prone. On any given day, you know.

I think Bolton will probably get through and the critical vote on the nuclear option, of course, is probably going to be John Warner of Virginia, I’m told. He’s the guy who promised to investigate Abu Ghraib. And he does investigate it. Every time another report comes out, he has a hearing, and the officers who write the report come and they testify about their report, and everybody agrees that the report they’re talking about is the one they’ve written. And that’s the extent of the investigation. Imagine this. Just alone on what we have in the Abu Ghraib, there’s no serious investigation. The renditions, which is a three — or what, ren-di-tion — three-syllable word to describe a process that really is very simple. It still goes on, by the way. We send people in undercover, mostly military guys, not approved, no C.I.A. stuff, because if you do the C.I.A. route, you have to have a formal presidential finding under the law and you have to tell Congress. So you stick this stuff in the military. A bunch of guys go in sterile, with no I.D.s. They go into a country, you know, they get together. They go to some village. They go to some house. They grab some guy by the hair. They drag him to an airport where they have a private plane. They fly him somewhere where the sun don’t shine. They torture them and sometimes kill them. And that’s called rendition. It’s been going on. It’s — another word that we used a couple of decades ago for Argentina and Brazil was “disappearing” people.

AMY GOODMAN: And that is Seymour Hersh, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter giving the keynote address last night at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. When we come back, Seymour Hersh joins us live in the studio.


AMY GOODMAN: We are joined right now by Seymour Hersh. It’s very good to have you with us. Very interesting to listen to this speech.


AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to start off with, is it true that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld attempted to break into your home?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, no, not literally, of course, but it is true that they asked the FBI to in 1975, when I was a reporter in Washington for The New York Times. I had written a story about, oh, some secret stuff involving the Navy and spying on Russia and intercepts. It was pretty sensitive stuff. It was given to me by people inside the bureaucracy who thought it was stupid, counterproductive and wasteful and dangerous, so there was a reason to write it. I mean, it wasn’t as if I was just exposing something — it had been the source of enormous dismay inside that we continued to do these provocative operations. This was at the end of the Vietnam War. And so, they got upset. Cheney and — they were both — one was Chief of Staff, one was his deputy. Maybe Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense then.

And what happened is that during the 2000 campaign when Cheney was nominated, a bunch of reporters from Newsweek went to the Ford Library in Michigan, Gerald Ford — I don’t — Grand Rapids, I think it was. There’s a library there, and they discovered they had declassified some documents, sort of a 25-year time period, and out popped this file on me. And those guys at Newsweek were very excited about it. They even shared it with me. They sent me a copy. It was about 50 pages of worrying about what to do, and at one point they did ask the — Rumsfeld — Cheney was writing notes. Rumsfeld was involved and others were, too, in the White House, the White House Counsel, etc., and people from the Pentagon, and they asked the FBI to do — to go into my house as — one of the options was go into my house. There were a series of options. One was do nothing. One was to ask The New York Times to try to do something about me, you know, to shut me down, but the most dramatic one was to go into my house.

And they sent it over — and then Ed Levi, who was also a participant in these discussions, he was then the Attorney General. And as I said last night here, o, if we had an Attorney General like that again, former Dean at the University of Chicago Law School, and eminent jurist. He wrote them a smashing memo saying, are you guys — excuse me, guys, the White House cannot order the FBI to go into someone’s house. You have to —- we have to begin a criminal investigation. It has to be determined by appropriate judicial figures, people in the Justice Department. The Department of Justice has to decide there’s a case there. Then as part of the investigation, we can authorize it, you cannot. And so they were sort of rebuked. And it was in writing. And Newsweek never did the story. And so -—


SEYMOUR HERSH: Do I know why anybody doesn’t do anything? I don’t know why. And it never really became a story. It was sort of — you know, this came up because somebody asked me about it last night. I decided not to talk — write about it and talk about it.

AMY GOODMAN: And what would they have found if they broke into your house?

SEYMOUR HERSH: A dog. A cat. As if — as if somebody would keep memos and, you know, — I don’t keep anything around, period. I just don’t do it.

AMY GOODMAN: This latest news that we get out of Jordan right now about the pardoning of Ahmad Chalabi — King Abdullah of Jordan agreeing to pardon the one-time CIA asset. For years he faced a 22-year prison sentence in Jordan for fraud after his Petra Bank collapsed with more than 300 million dollars in missing deposits. The Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, asking the king to do this. What’s going on here, and the significance?

SEYMOUR HERSH: I’m sort of glad and not glad you asked me that question, because I do know something about it. Here’s what I know about that. I know that King Jordan comes to visit America quite a bit — the United States. And the President likes him — our President, George Bush, because he speaks good English. He went to a prep school here in America, and he’s very pro-Western. And he sees the President, and he has told friends — this is about nine months ago — he was stunned. He was seeing the President. The President said, you know, “Your” — whatever he calls him — “I have a favor.” He said, “Of course, anything.” “I want you to pardon Chalabi.” And he was stunned, because, you know, how can he pardon Chalabi after what he had done. The money he stole was from old women and children, you know, little funds, and he was reviled, Chalabi. I have actually read — I actually somebody in the intelligence community once gave me the transcript of his trial in Arabic. And we had it translated at The New Yorker. This time he was sort of out of vogue, and a story never emerged out of it, but the trial was devastating. I mean, they had him nailed. And he was smuggled out of the country. He probably was in cahoots, by the way, with various members of the royal family then during this stuff, you know, bribery, etc. In any case, he was stunned, and he didn’t know what to say. He went back and he asked people in the parliament, who said, “Are you kidding?” So all I can tell you is that Abdullah is doing what the President of the United States, to his amazing shock, because this was after the stuff came out about Chalabi and his connection to Iran. This is probably a neo-con, a neoconservative play. I guess if you wanted to extrapolate it, I don’t know whether —- if anybody cares, but I’m sure the White House would deny it and say it’s not true, but I can categorically tell you this is Abdullah’s story, this I do know. And he was stunned. And he couldn’t do it then, so obviously, he thought time had passed. The idea that the President after Chalabi was in big trouble over his connections to Iran and being accused of leaking information whether rightly or not -—

AMY GOODMAN: Remind our viewers and listeners, they raided his home in Iraq, the US forces?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Yeah, and they claimed that he had been relaying information about American intercept capability, our signals intelligence to the Iranians who are clearly a presence. You know, Abdullah is one of the people along with —

AMY GOODMAN: The King of Jordan?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Yes. The King of Jordan, along with, of course, the Saudis and the Egyptians who see what’s going on in Iraq right now as an existential threat in this sense — that they believe the United States is making a terrible mistake by letting much of Iraq fall into the hands of the — of what they consider to be Iranian Shia. They see the Irianian influence spreading south, and for the Sunni — those are Sunni countries, that’s a devastating effect that hasn’t happened before. So it’s a huge issue. Then to pardon Chalabi is just — it’s a personal favor for the President. I don’t know — I don’t know what, obviously, what’s in his mind. I do know the President, I think all of us understand, he’s more attuned. He wouldn’t have done what he did in Iraq if he hadn’t been more attuned even before becoming President to the idea that all things in the Middle East revolve around Iraq as the neo-cons always believed.

AMY GOODMAN: The news of this Operation Matador that is taking place right now, US forces carrying it out, one of the largest post-Saddam military operations in Iraq, the US admitting it’s facing fierce resistance. What is the significance of this? When do casualties count, when don’t they?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, they’re not counting now. American casualties are discounted in the newspapers. We have had an awful lot of people, more than a dozen die in the last few days alone in Iraq. American casualties are back up. And it’s not a major story. Once in a while it gets to be a story. And so, they put out — they do their own sort of accounting. The one way they balance the bad news is they have raids. And we suddenly show us on the offensive. And part of it is what the information — it’s an operation, it’s a public relations. It’s a strategic deception in a way. I’m not suggesting the raids are not there. I’m not suggesting they may even be finding people. God knows who they find. But clearly, one reason they’re being emphasized is to detract from what’s going on, which is a steady increase in the insurgency and the resistance.

And what happened is after the election of January 30, the elections so widely hailed by this President and the government, which as we now know has had very little consequence on the reality of what’s going on on the ground, as we move towards an open civil war there, but after the election, there were orders put out to change the reporting requirements on incidents. In other words, you had to have a serious American fatality or casualty, not necessarily death, but a serious incident, to get reported. So just a mine going off and somebody being lightly wounded wouldn’t get reported. So the numbers went down right away, suggesting that somehow the election had worked.

And again, if you remember before the election, there was nothing but talk from the White House about how the resistance was going to challenge us repeatedly and go after us on election day. How do they know? I mean, we know nothing about what the resistance does. We have no intelligence about who they are, where they are. We have some ideas. We know they used to operate in three-man cells in 2003 and then 15-man cells last year. We don’t know when they’re gonna hit, where they’re gonna hit. So how do we know what they were planning to do before January 30 last year? We don’t. But we created an image that they were planning massive attacks. And when they didn’t come off — they were the usual daily assortment of attacks — it’s a victory. I mean, the information is totally controlled by the American government. I don’t fault the press in Baghdad, because they can’t get out and they can’t do it. They’re stuck.

AMY GOODMAN: Civil war?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Why not? What is it? Where do you think we’re at? There was a piece in The New York Times a week ago Sunday in the magazine section. I would say one of the most stunningly obtuse — I don’t know what they’re thinking in my old newspaper. A piece essentially praising the fact that we have —- the United States is supporting a paramilitary group -—.

AMY GOODMAN: This is the cover of the magazine, the “Salvadorization of Iraq.”

SEYMOUR HERSH: Right, and as you mentioned in your talk last night, with one of the American commanders who was involving and supporting and aiding the El Salvadorian hunter-killer teams back two decades ago, in charge, being the adviser to this group — this is a group that, in The New York Times story, committed significant violations of the Geneva Convention, and it’s almost being praised by it. There isn’t a sense in the article — there is not any sense of the big picture, that these are violations of the Geneva Convention, that this is exactly — this is the former Mukhabarat, the former secret police of Saddam. These are the people that we went to war against, and we’re now writing articles in favor of them. The New York Times reporter was embedded with them. Although, I must say to his credit, that is acknowledged in the story, it’s explained, but it doesn’t really explain what that means, the context. And, you know, I can say because I have a lot of respect for The New York Times, I don’t know what the guys on the top — I mean, I know when I worked there, if I wrote a magazine piece, the senior editors read it, discussed it, gave me notes. It’s not just done in the magazine. The guys that run the newspaper read it. What were they thinking of?

AMY GOODMAN: And what about this issue of the Salvadorization, the idea that John Negroponte has been the US Ambassador — of course, he’s head of National Intelligence now — formerly in the early ’80s, Ambassador to Honduras, the staging ground for the Contra War? Do you see a connection between the people that are being brought in now who worked Salvador, two decades ago working with paramilitaries?

SEYMOUR HERSH: I don’t want to beat my breast, but I think I used the notion that it’s an El Salvadorian war in an article in The New Yorker about six months ago, saying it’s gone El Salvador. And Negroponte is a true believer. He really supports this administration and Bush. He’s totally on the team. Somebody said to me when he was named head of the overall intelligence apparatus by Bush, you know, we all joked that everybody who goes to the White House has to drink the Kool-Aid in order to get there. In other words, you only want to hear from people who believe what you’re — there’s no opposition, no dissent allowed. I mean, there’s just no dissent allowed inside. Any dissent is not just honest dissent, it’s being a traitor. And somebody said to me, well, he’s going to mix the Kool-Aid. That’s his job now as head of intelligence. He’s very nice, a very pleasant man, he’s very articulate. And I think what he has done in terms of setting up a covert, off-the-books apparatus and a hunter-killer team, that’s what we have now. We’re taking down —- the idea is, I think it’s ungodly in a way, really, what he has done. The idea is right now in Iraq, the goal they have now is they want to go into the various major cities in the Sunni heartland, the four provinces of Iraq that are considered to be pro-Saddam or pro-Ba’athist, and which what 40% of the population reside, around Baghdad. The idea is to go to major cities. They did Fallujah, they’re doing Ramadi right now, take it down, make the people of the Sunni heartland more afraid of the American/Iraqi Mukhabarat than they are of the resistance. That’s the idea. And Abizaid, so I have been told, has made it clear that he thinks he can, within a year, he can take down four or five of the major strongholds. And I think the plan is to go from Ramadi to another major city of 300,000 or 400,000 and begin the same kind of operation. No more embedded journalists, only on a rare occasion. We’re not there like we were in Fallujah. We don’t really know what’s going on in Ramadi. It seems like it’s holy hell there, but we don’t know. And I think that’s the game plan. It’s sort of a desperate game plan. It’s not going to work, obviously. Occupiers, terror and these techniques don’t work. You know, the Israelis, you could argue, did well -—

AMY GOODMAN: We have ten seconds.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, when the Palestinians, because it was an existential threat for the Israelis. They learned a language, they got there. It’s not for us. We’re just in there dabbling. We’re dabbling at this Mukhabarat and this kind of stuff. We’re just causing chaos. Then we can walk away.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much, Seymour Hersh, for being with us, author of Chain of Command: The Road from 9-11 to Abu Ghraib.

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