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“Horrified”: Seymour Hersh Reacts to Obama’s Plan to Send 250 More U.S. Special Ops Troops to Syria

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President Obama has announced the deployment of 250 more Special Operations troops to Syria in a move that nearly doubles the U.S. presence in the country. This comes just days after the Obama administration announced 217 more troops would be sent to Iraq to help in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. As the U.S. expands its presence in Iraq and Syria, we speak with the legendary investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who has just published a new book titled “The Killing of Osama bin Laden.” In the introduction, Hersh writes: “It’s now evident, fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks, that Obama’s foreign policy has maintained many of the core elements of the Global War on Terror initiated by his predecessor—assassinations, drone attacks, heavy reliance on special forces, covert operations and, in the case of Afghanistan, the continued use of American ground forces in combat. And, as in the years of Bush and Cheney, there has been no progress, let alone victory, in the fight against terrorism.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: We’re on a 100-city tour marking Democracy Now!'s 20th anniversary. Today, we're broadcasting from the Roundhouse, the Santa Fe, New Mexico, Legislature, here in Santa Fe.

President Obama has announced the deployment of 250 more Special Operations troops to Syria in a move that nearly doubles the U.S. presence in Syria. This comes just days after the Obama administration announced 217 more troops would be sent to Iraq to help in the fight against ISIS. Earlier today, President Obama addressed the wars in Syria and Iraq during a speech in Germany.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Right now, the most urgent threat to our nations is ISIL. And that’s why we’re united in our determination to destroy it. And all 28 NATO allies are contributing to our coalition, whether it’s striking ISIL targets in Syria and Iraq, or supporting the air campaign or training local forces in Iraq or providing critical humanitarian aid. And we continue to make progress, pushing ISIL back from territory that it controlled.

And just as I’ve approved additional support for Iraqi forces against ISIL, I’ve decided to increase U.S. support for local forces fighting ISIL in Syria. A small number of American Special Operations forces are already on the ground in Syria, and their expertise has been critical as local forces have driven ISIL out of key areas. So, given the success, I’ve approved the deployment of up to 250 additional U.S. personnel in Syria, including special forces, to keep up this momentum. They’re not going to be leading the fight on the ground, but they will be essential in providing the training and assisting local forces as they continue to drive ISIL back.

AMY GOODMAN: As the U.S. expands its presence in Iraq and Syria, we turn to the legendary investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who won the Pulitzer Prize for exposing the 1968 My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, when U.S. forces killed hundreds of civilians. In 2004, Sy Hersh broke the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. He has just published a new book titled The Killing of Osama bin Laden. In the introduction, Hersh writes, quote, “It’s now evident, fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks, that Obama’s foreign policy has maintained many of the core elements of the Global War on Terror initiated by his predecessor—assassinations, drone attacks, heavy reliance on special forces, covert operations and, in the case of Afghanistan, the continued use of American ground forces in combat. And, as in the years of Bush and Cheney, there has been no progress, let alone victory, in the fight against terrorism.”

Seymour Hersh, it’s great to have you back on Democracy Now! Congratulations on your book. Why don’t we start by talking about what President Obama announced in his speech in Germany today, just hours before this broadcast: increased troop presence in Syria. What does it mean?

SEYMOUR HERSH: First, happy anniversary. Glad you’re still around, kiddo.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, one of the words he doesn’t mention is Russia. Look, I can’t begin to tell you what’s in his mind. It’s a little amazing at this stage he’s putting more forces in, but that’s—you know, that’s his prerogative, I guess, as president. Always makes good news. Nobody ever—nobody seems in this country ever to object too much when we put more people on the ground.

But the real winner in the last year or so of the war there has been the Russians. And the Russians—the bombing was much more effective. If you remember, the president had said publicly, when Putin decided to put his air force hard at work there, he said it would be a quagmire, they wouldn’t be able to get out, it’s going to be, you know, schadenfreude—it would be like what happened to us in Afghanistan, and is happening to us, and certainly did happen to us in Vietnam. But they did it. They came in, and they did very well.

I will tell you right now, Russian special forces are in the fight against ISIS with the Syrian army, with Hezbollah, with the Iranian army, the Quds Force. And the Russians have done an awful lot to improve the Syrian army in the past year—retrained them, reoutfitted them, etc., etc., etc. It’s a much better army since the Russians came in. The fighting in Palmyra that the Syrian army and the Russian special forces did was much bloodier. ISIS fought to the death. It was a terrible toll on everybody, but it was a victory for the Syrian army. We know all these things. The Syrian army is much better. It’s probably going to—probably—we don’t know. I don’t know. Nobody knows. It will probably take Raqqa, the former capital city, if you will, ad hoc capital city of ISIS. ISIS is on the run, particularly in Syria, not necessarily in Iraq.

And I just don’t understand what the president is doing, why he wants to engage more. But, you know, it’s not my call. I would also—I’ve been told there are many more forces in Iraq than we’re publicly announcing, including even some elements of one of our airborne divisions. What the hell? As usual, we don’t really know what the game plan is. I do not understand why he’s decided to jump into a war that was being run by—it’s being won right now by the Syrian army and its allies, including Russia. I just—I can just speculate that our anti-Putin, anti-Russian instinct in America continues apace. That’s all.

AMY GOODMAN: In your introduction to your new book, The Killing of Osama bin Laden, you write, “In a review of my interviews about Obama’s early decision to raise the ante in Afghanistan, one fact stood out: Obama’s faith in the world of special operations and in Stanley McChrystal, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan who worked closely with Dick Cheney from 2003 to 2008 as director of [JSOC] the Joint Special Operations Command.” Seymour Hersh, can you elaborate on this?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, it’s amazing. Look, you win the presidency—hope and peace, or whatever it was—and you discover, because of—you know, you don’t have the power you might dream you would have. You can’t get a lot of things done, because you’ve got a very hostile Congress. And so—and presidents, inevitably, in frustration—look, I’ve been in this town since the '60s. There's nothing more wonderful for a president—you can feel more like a president by taking a walk with somebody from the Special Operations community or, earlier, the CIA in the Rose Garden, and getting rid of somebody you don’t like, whether you’re—in the case of—what we do now is we do targeted assassinations. Earlier, I think we just moved them out of office or did operations, you know, political operations. But now it’s really just, you know, we hit people. You know, there’s a weekly meeting in which they go through names of people to target, assassinate, including, in some cases, an American, without any due process. It’s been a wonderful movement. I don’t mean to be too sarcastic about it, but what—you know, this guy ended up in the same place in far too many times, as you read and as I wrote, as Bush and Cheney were.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what these Special Ops forces are doing, both in Iraq and Syria?

SEYMOUR HERSH: I really don’t know. I mean, I know what I’m told, but I just don’t know what the truth is. Clearly, they’re going to be engaged more. They’re helping to plan operations. But I—we’re great at—we do a lot of dirty tricks in the world. You know, we were inside Iran in the first decade of this year, when the—before the Iranians began to talk seriously about getting rid of their nuclear weapons, that don’t exist, that never did exist. We were doing operations inside the Iranian—the borders, and also we even went inside Tehran with surrogates. I mean, yes, we went inside Tehran. We did monitoring for nuclear activity, etc., etc. So we’ve been deeply involved in that world in covert operations. And how much first-hand stuff, I don’t really have. I haven’t actually talked to somebody who was in Tehran, but we were doing a lot of stuff, including working with people who were doing stuff like blowing up mosques and trying to whack Iranian scientists. So I assume—one target I do know, the president has designated, is he really wants to take out Mr. Baghdadi, the head of ISIS. He’s been a high-priority assassination target for more than a year. We could be doing something like that.

But we’re certainly working with the—there’s not much you can do in Iraq, because the Iraqi army—you know, it’s the usual story: They’re going to run away. We’ve been—one of the great classic lies of America is, every year, some two-star general who’s involved with training either the Afghans or, in earlier years, the Vietnam—Vietnamese, or the Iraqi army, they come before Congress. And the two-star looks them in the eye. He’s the general in charge of training, and his promotion depends on not so much what he does, but what he says, I guess, at this point. And he tells the Congress how wonderful it’s going on, we’ve got x number of divisions ready to fight. And the congresspeople all nod. It’s a little parody that goes on. And, of course, the armies cut and run, and they’re no good, and they haven’t been. And the Iraqi army we have right now, that we’re talking so wonderfully about, is not going to go near Mosul. It’s going to be hand-to-hand fighting. If we ever do go into Mosul, we’re going to [inaudible]. So, there you are. You know, I—

AMY GOODMAN: Were you—

SEYMOUR HERSH: Yes, I’m sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Sy, were you surprised by President Obama’s announcement today in Germany?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Horrified. I just don’t think it’s the way to go. I think it’s just putting us into—you know, as you mentioned in your introduction, we’ve been doing this war against terror, against an idea, since after 9/11, you know? And how are we doing, fellas? How’s it going there? You know, has the amount of opposition to us spread? Has the hatred of America grown more intense? We are truly a very much hated country in the Middle East. And it’s partly because of the way we fight our wars—with drone attacks and a lot of force, the prisons that we did. And Abu Ghraib was just one of many prisons. And a lot of killing goes on by us, you know.

And here’s how things have changed, for me, anyway. I’m writing the same kind of stories now about this president, very critical stories, because, you know, somebody has to hold him to—you know, at least based on what I think is as good as evidence I’ve ever had in all the stories I wrote for The New York Times in the '70s. I was there for six, seven, eight years as a sort of a hotshot there in the Washington bureau. And I wrote a lot of stories, won a lot of prizes, going after the president, going after wars, going after Kissinger, writing about illegal activities. And all of a sudden, the same stories, still anonymous—I mean, I wrote them anonymously then, and I'm writing them anonymously now. And some of the people I knew then, believe it or not, are still operating now. And it’s like, we can’t do that. It’s like the American press has moved to the right, as many elements in this country, as you see, when the Sanders case has moved to the left. It’s a much more outspoken opposition to some of the things we—the way we run campaigns. And underneath that is—of those people who support Sanders, also really dislike much more intensely the wars that are going on and the lies that are being told. But, you know, times have changed.

AMY GOODMAN: Sy Hersh, we’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. We’re speaking to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh for the hour today. He has a new book out; it’s called The Killing of Osama bin Laden. We’re going to also talk about that, the latest in what’s known about the killing of bin Laden in Pakistan, the Saudi government’s support for him in hiding there, what the U.S. knew, as well as many other issues. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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