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Congressional Probe Reveals Cover-Up of “Auschwitz-Like” Conditions at U.S.-Funded Afghan Hospital

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A congressional investigation has revealed a top U.S. general in Afghanistan sought to stall an investigation into abuse at a U.S.-funded hospital in Kabul that kept patients in “Auschwitz-like” conditions. Army whistleblowers revealed photographs taken in 2010, which show severely neglected, starving patients at Dawood Hospital, considered the crown jewel of the Afghan medical system where the country’s military personnel are treated. The photos show severely emaciated patients, some suffering from gangrene and maggot-infested wounds. The general accused of the cover-up is Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, one of the nation’s highest-ranking commanders in Afghanistan, who served as the commander of the $11.2-billion-a-year Afghan training program. We speak to Michael Hastings, contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine and a reporter for BuzzFeed, which has been following the story closely. [includes rush transcript]

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: A congressional investigation has revealed a top U.S. general in Afghanistan sought to stall an investigation into abuse at a U.S.-funded hospital in Kabul that kept patients in, quote, “Auschwitz-like” conditions. Army whistleblowers revealed photographs taken in 2010 which show severely neglected, starving patients at Dawood Hospital, considered the crown jewel of the Afghan medical system, where the country’s military personnel are treated. The photos show severely emaciated patients, some suffering from gangrene and maggot-infested wounds. For TV viewers of Democracy Now!, please be warned: these images are extremely graphic and may be disturbing.

The general accused of the cover-up is William Caldwell, one of the nation’s highest-ranking commanders in Afghanistan, who served as the commander of the $11.2-billion-a-year Afghan training program. Testifying before a subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last week, one of the whistleblowers, Colonel Mark Fassl, the former inspector general for the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, explained General Caldwell’s response to the initial call for an inquiry into what was happening at the hospital in Kabul.

COL. MARK FASSL: His first response to me was, “How could we do this or make this request, with elections coming?” And then he made the really, again, shocking comment that he calls me Bill.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ: But what does that mean?

COL. MARK FASSL: Well, I took it as that he was referring to the president of the United States.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ: And that he had a personal relationship?

COL. MARK FASSL: I don’t know, Chairman, if he had a personal relationship, but the political pressure there was such that he made those statements.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: According to the Oversight Committee, the United States has spent over $180 million on operating medical sites in Afghanistan, most of which is believed to have gone to Dawood Hospital, where NATO personnel oversee Afghan medical staff. Colonel Mark Fassl also gave testimony describing the conditions he witnessed at Dawood Hospital.

COL. MARK FASSL: As we further went into the hospital, we found that not only was there no heat going into the winter, but there was a lack of hygiene, soap—just, again, basic things that you would expect a 250-bed hospital—of course, it was a 500-bed hospital, but it was mainly being used as 250 beds—but, again, the lack of hygiene and soap. And then, Ranking Member Tierney read a very good description of what I saw with the open vats of blood draining out of soldiers’ wounds, the feces on the floor. The other thing that caught my attention was there were many family members taking care of their loved ones, not hospital staff.

AMY GOODMAN: The website BuzzFeed, which first published several of the Dawood Hospital photos last week, revealed Tuesday the Pentagon has withheld key documents relating to abuses at the hospital.

To talk more about the cover-up, we’re joined by Michael Hastings, contributing editor at Rolling Stone, reporter for BuzzFeed, which has been following the story closely. His book, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, was published earlier this year.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Michael.

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us what’s happened at the hospital, how you found out about it, and then about the cover-up.

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Sure. This was a hospital that was started in 2005 in Kabul and funded almost completely by the United States. And about a year ago, the Wall Street Journal did an original story about how a lot of these patients who were at—these Afghan patients at the hospital were dying, essentially, from starvation, from simple infections that should be treated very easily but instead they were—actually became mortal wounds. There were allegations that, to get treatment, you had to bribe the hospital officials. And so, there were a number of Americans who were advisers there who thought this was horrible, took a lot of these pictures, brought them to the command, this General Caldwell, and General Caldwell said, “I don’t want any of this bad news getting out of here. I don’t want an investigation. Let’s just, you know, try to sweep this under the rug.” Thankfully, the whistleblowers continued—kind of ignored that, essentially, and went ahead, and that’s how we know about this, because of this congressional investigation into it.

AMY GOODMAN: But this has been going on now for years. And talk about just who William Caldwell is and now what is being done about this. It opened in 2005, as you said.

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Right, right. So we know—we know for a fact, and he have it very well documented now, that from period of 2010 to 2011 these abuses were certainly going on. From anecdotal evidence, from people we’ve spoken to, we think that this was happening before that, as well.

General Caldwell is—was the head of the $11.2-billion-a-year Afghan training mission. At one time, he was the spokesperson for the U.S. in Iraq. In fact, I spent many a day next to General Caldwell in the Green Zone, while he would sit next to me and tell us how great things were going in Baghdad. And this was in 2006, 2007, when things were really, really going horribly.

Now, one of General Caldwell’s things is he’s obsessed with the idea of messaging. He’s obsessed with public affairs. One of the things he’s wanted to do is tear down the traditional wall between public affairs and information operations—which public affairs are for the Americans, information operations are for the enemy—and combine it into one sort of global strategic communication strategy. So, when he was presented with these allegations, these abuses, these photos, this testimony, his response was, “Well, how do we message this? You know, this is not the kind of news we want to get out of here.”

And now General Caldwell is the head of U.S. Army North, so he’s back in the United States. And he’s in charge of—in case there’s a catastrophe or martial law or whatever, he would be the guy who would be in charge from the Army side of things.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Michael Hastings, the spokesman, in fact, for the place where he is now, in Fort Sam Houston, in response to the inquiry, has said, “I am sure that Lt. Gen. Caldwell would welcome the opportunity to respond to any inquiry, and I’m confident that once the facts are presented and examined, all allegations will be proven to be false.”

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Right. That’s Colonel Wayne Shanks, I believe—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That’s right.

MICHAEL HASTINGS: —who we’re quoting.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That’s right.

MICHAEL HASTINGS: And Wayne Shanks is one of those particular kind of—I’m trying to use a word that’s not “moron” — within the sort of military establishment, who essentially is an attack dog. He has a history of saying things that are just not true. And, you know, I think it will be interesting to see what General Caldwell’s side of the story is. What we know right now, we have three U.S. Army colonels, three military colonels, who have testified that General Caldwell decided not to—did not want to investigate because of political pressure and because, as we were talking about, this idea of bad news. Now, he will—what’s going to happen, I think, if and when General Caldwell does testify, he will come out with a story that says, “Look, I actually wanted to investigate this. Here are some emails I sent a couple days—here are some emails I sent saying this.” Now, but the funny thing is it’s going to show that the investigation already started and then, to sort of cover his flank, he sent these emails out.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Is he likely to be called to testify?

MICHAEL HASTINGS: We haven’t been able to confirm that, but I would think that’s now a likely possibility.

AMY GOODMAN: Are there Americans at Dawood Hospital now?

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Yes, yes. And the Pentagon—just yesterday, the Pentagon told us that things had much improved there. I haven’t been there myself, so I can’t actually confirm that. But throughout this entire time, there were about 20 to 25 different American advisers who would be at the hospital on a regular basis.

AMY GOODMAN: During last week’s hearing, Democratic Congressmember John Tierney asked retired Air Force Colonel Schuyler Geller about who saw the conditions in the hospital before those who decided to blow the whistle.

REP. JOHN TIERNEY: All the years we’ve been in Afghanistan before you arrived, how many people went through that hospital and saw those conditions and said nothing?

COL. SCHUYLER GELLER: Scores of mentors and scores of general officers.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Hastings, your response?

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Yeah, it’s sad. I mean, it’s tragic. We have, like we said, $180 million going to this hospital system right in Kabul. It’s the sort of jewel—it was one of the stops along the parade of when, you know, congressmen or generals would come in and tour the country. This is the hospital we’d show off to them. And it turns out that what was going on here are the sort of abuses that—I have never seen this kind of abuse, these sort of horrific pictures, in my time covering these wars. There’s something particularly, I think, upsetting about these, because they—it just didn’t have to happen. You know, the fact that you have Afghan patients, Afghan soldiers who have been wounded, and they can’t even get food? That we’re supplying gasoline, but the gasoline is being sold, so the generators don’t work, so they’re living in—through these, you know, sub—not sub-zero, but very, very cold temperatures? You go down the list. Selling drugs? Patients having surgery on them without anesthesia, though we had provided anesthesia? And so, I think it is quite disturbing that all these people could go through there and either not see it or have it hidden, be hidden from them.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You’ve said that the conditions there, from what you’ve seen of the pictures—have you seen all 70 of the pictures?

MICHAEL HASTINGS: No, there are 70—there are 70 pictures. We’ve seen—we’ve published 11 new pictures last week that hadn’t been out there, but there’s a lot more to come.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And you’ve said that conditions there are so horrific, on the basis of what you’ve seen, that in fact Dawood Hospital is Afghanistan’s Abu Ghraib.

MICHAEL HASTINGS: I think one can make a convincing case to say that, because, again, you have a situation where, you know, the native population, under our supervision, has been treated particularly horribly. Obviously, in Abu Ghraib, you had pictures where you had Americans in the frame doing sort of ridiculous things. But there’s—but when people really start to think about what the conditions were like for these patients, right, that they—no real medical supervision. Families were coming in, roaming the halls at all hours. If you wanted surgery, you had to pay a certain price. You know, you had medical instruments sort of left within wounds. You had—I mean, this is disgusting stuff—I know it’s early in the morning—but maggots crawling out of bandages. Stuff that, you know, just totally unacceptable. And we’re spending $11.2 billion, and we can’t manage the one, you know, high-profile hospital in the city. And it’s just—it’s pretty upsetting.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Does the U.S. fund other hospitals in Afghanistan, as well?

MICHAEL HASTINGS: They do. They do. And who knows what’s going on there? I mean, I don’t want to cast aspersions, but I think we know—and as, you know, you mentioned the other report about all the—how much money will be thrown away over there, that one would assume that these sorts of things are also going on.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to other news regarding your reporting.


AMY GOODMAN: According to documents obtained by Truthout under the Freedom of Information Act, senior officials at the Department of Homeland Security tried to have you remove a report you published on the Rolling Stone magazine website in February about the agency’s role in monitoring Occupy Wall Street. In an email message on the day your piece was published, Caitlin Durkovich, chief of staff in DHS’s National Protection and Programs Directorate, wrote, quote, “I think we should consider calling Hastings and help him understand our mission,” she said.

The next day, after other news outlets had picked up your story, Durkovich wrote again to say, “I think we need to pick up the phone, and call Hastings. National security is his beat, but he can be provocative so we need to have a clear sey [sic] of tps,” you know, talking points. “Let’s explain our mission, to include what FPS’s” — the federal protective service’s — “role has been in OWS. And push back on the inaccuracies.”

Explain what took place. Did they call you?

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Well, I just found out about this yesterday. I would have answered—

AMY GOODMAN: I guess they didn’t call.

MICHAEL HASTINGS: They did not call. I would have answered the call. I would have been happy to actually talk to them about this report, because it was quite a—what I published online was a internal Department of Homeland Security document that revealed that they had been paying very close attention to Occupy Wall Street, monitoring it, monitoring social media, and kind of just explaining what Occupy Wall Street was. So it was a fairly benign report in a lot of ways, though it raised some questions about why is Department of Homeland Security, you know, analyzing Occupy Wall Street? Now, it turns out, also in these emails, it says that DHS want to say, “Look, we shouldn’t have even done this report.” So they actually wanted to—they sort of agreed with me, while at the same time there was about, I guess, a hundred pages of emails deciding how they should respond to the Occupy—to our report in Rolling Stone about it.

AMY GOODMAN: But explain further what this report is and where you got the information that you got.

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Well, so, this came from the WikiLeaks Stratfor files dump. I don’t know if you remember that the hacking group Anonymous hacked into this private intelligence firm, Stratfor, and Assange and the crew gave me access to this stuff. This was in February. And I went through—and I went looking through this. And one of the people in Stratfor had access to this Department of Homeland Security document. So we know Stratfor was getting leaks from the Department of Homeland Security. One of them was this Occupy Wall Street analysis or report on Occupy Wall Street. I thought it was very odd to have a Department of Homeland Security report about a peaceful protest movement. That raised just normal alarm bells. And so—so that’s why we did the report.

But it was all for—but it was actually a credit to the WikiLeaks guys who put this stuff out there. I always find it—I guess, as a journalist, one is supposed to be probably somewhat flattered by the—how—you know, as my editor at Rolling Stone put it yesterday, when the government is trying to pad your file. And I think that that was certainly the case here. They also brought their concerns to the White House when they were trying to come up with a statement. But clearly, allegations that the Department of Homeland Security, that was spying or monitoring Occupy Wall Street really hit a nerve within—in Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: They say the Stratfor document wasn’t true.

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Well, I think that it was authentic. And as far as I can tell, they’re not disputing the authenticity.


MICHAEL HASTINGS: What they’re disputing, as far as I can tell, is that they shouldn’t have—they shouldn’t have done it, that DHS themselves shouldn’t have done it. But they didn’t under—they couldn’t figure out how Stratfor even got the document to begin with.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, before we conclude, Michael Hastings, I just wanted to ask you quickly about the three military personnel, two of whom are retired, of course, who have talked about what’s happened at Dawood Hospital, whether they’re likely to face any punitive consequences as whistleblowers?

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Well, I don’t think so, at this stage. You know, they’re colonels. Their careers, they’ve had—most of them had pretty long, storied careers already. One is a JAG lawyer anyway. So, in this case, they seem very well protected from the sort of retaliation that we’ve seen in the past. But, you know, look, it’s not easy when you’re in the Army or in the military to go in front of Congress and say, “Look, a four-star—sorry, a three-star general is lying,” you know, because there’s a lot of pressure for them not to do that. So it’s quite impressive that they have. And there are current—I should point out, there are currently two ongoing investigations into General Caldwell about his retaliation against the whistleblowers and trying to get in the way of the investigation.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That’s the Military Whistleblower Protection Act that you spoke of.

MICHAEL HASTINGS: Yeah, exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much, Michael Hastings, for joining us. We will link to the reports and the photos online at democracynow.org. Michael Hastings, contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine, reporter for BuzzFeed, which published several of the photographs of the Dawood Hospital never seen before. Michael’s book, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, was published last year.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’re talking mail, the post office. Stay with us.

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