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Saturday, February 26, 2005

Evidence of a White House 'cult'
Kevin Wood Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib
By Seymour M. Hersh
HarperCollins, 416 pp, 25.95 dollars
Seymour Hersh's Chain of Command is a stunning expose of the mismanagement, mendacity and misconduct behind the actions of the U.S. government and military in relation to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The book is a reworking and updating of Hersh's shocking series of investigative reports, originally published in The New Yorker, on various disturbing aspects of the foreign policy of the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush.
Despite administration claims to the contrary--Richard Perle, one of the architects of the Iraq war, called the author "the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist"--Hersh is hardly a wild-eyed radical. He earned his journalistic spurs and a Pulitzer Prize breaking the story of the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War and recently won his fifth George Polk Award for his work breaking the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse story.
In a recent interview, Hersh asserted that the United States has "been taken over by a cult"--the neoconservative cabal of ideologues the White House has put in control of U.S. foreign policy, military and intelligence apparatuses. Chain of Command paints a chilling portrait of an administration so convinced of its righteousness that it refuses to see any facts that do not fit its preconceptions. Goals set by the president, vice president and defense secretary were to be achieved by any means necessary--and woe to those who let moral or practical objections get in the way.
Hersh gets his information firsthand from a wide range of insiders and from official documents ranging from congressional reports to U.S. Army investigations.
And damning information it is.
In discussing the systematic abuse at Abu Ghraib, Hersh draws heavily on an internal report by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, providing a long list of "sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses" at the prison after the president and his national security team turned to Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller to help improve interrogation results in Iraq. As head of the controversial internment and interrogation center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Miller had been criticized heavily by the International Committee of the Red Cross for the treatment of prisoners there.
Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the senior commander in Iraq, accepted Miller's recommendation that "Army prisons be geared, first and foremost, to interrogations," and that military intelligence, not military police, should be in charge of the prison system.
The result was that MPs were routinely directed to "set the conditions" for interrogations by military intelligence officers, Central Intelligence Agency operatives and private contractors by breaking the prisoners' will through coercive treatment that included beatings, sleep deprivation and sexual humiliation.
In autumn 2003, Sanchez authorized military interrogators to use dogs at their own discretion, without his prior approval. Hersh points out that the order requires dogs "to be muzzled and in control of a handler when in interrogation rooms but put no restrictions on the use of dogs in other settings."
In one of many examples of the inappropriate use of military dogs in Iraq, Hersh writes: "One military intelligence witness, Spc. John Howard Ketzer, told Army investigators that he watched a dog team corner two male prisoners against a wall at Abu Ghraib, with one hiding behind the other and screaming. No interrogation was going on. 'When I asked what was going on in the cell, the handler stated that...he and another of the handlers was having a contest to see how many detainees they could get to urinate on themselves.'"
Hersh claims what happened at Abu Ghraib stems from the reliance of the president and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on secret operations and special forces units in the war on terror. The switch to such tactics was Rumsfeld's pet project--even before 9/11 he was moving to change the U.S. military into a smaller, faster, smarter, more high-tech fighting force that would rely chiefly on precision air strikes and commando raids.
Such tactics require precise intelligence, and plenty of it. When such intelligence was not forthcoming, Rumsfeld ordered drastic measures, including the formation of a special, highly secretive intelligence unit in the Pentagon with blanket approval to kill or capture high-value targets. This blanket approval seems to have had a trickle-down effect.
A senior intelligence official is quoted as saying: "So now we get our 'High Value' target lists and the Special Forces are given authority to kill on sight. The guys begin to think, 'Shit, if I can shoot him (a high-value target) on the street, why can't I do what I want when he's under my control in prison.' Rank-and-file soldiers--not Special Forces--are authorized to get tough. The seam between the special high-value targets and the general prison population begins to come apart."
The chapter detailing Rumsfeld's battles with senior military commanders over the war in Iraq is revealing. His ideas on modernizing and streamlining the U.S. military were not popular with the generals. It was Rumsfeld's insistence on a smaller footprint on the ground that led to the deployment only 150,000 U.S. troops in the invasion of Iraq, instead of the 450,000 Pentagon planners recommended. Hersh quotes a variety of senior army officers as saying that the war was micromanaged by Rumsfeld and his civilian advisers, who regularly overruled the Joint Staff.
"'He thought he knew better,' one senior planner said. 'He was the decision maker at every turn.'"
Again and again, Hersh quotes intelligence and military officers as saying senior administration officials politicized intelligence and heard only what they wanted to hear. Intelligence agents who could not confirm the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were ignored, and generals who warned the invaders might not be greeted with flowers were sidelined.
"They were so crazed and so far out and so difficult to reason with--to the point of being bizarre. Dogmatic, as if they were on a mission from God," one intelligence officer is quoted as saying.
Chain of Command is a difficult book to read in several respects. The stomach-turning descriptions of torture practiced on innocents at Abu Ghraib will horrify anyone with an ounce of humanity. The lengthy list of examples of hubris, wishful thinking, arrogance and blatant stupidity by Rumsfeld, Perle and others in overruling Pentagon planners and intelligence professionals will appall most readers and enrage many.
In the book's epilogue, Hersch poses a series of questions raised by his catalog of the Bush administration's sins, omissions and errors: "How did eight or nine neoconservatives who believed that a war in Iraq was the answer to international terrorism get their way? How did they redirect the government and rearrange long-standing American priorities and policies with so much ease? How did they overcome the bureaucracy, intimidate the press, mislead the Congress, and dominate the military? Is our democracy that fragile?"
Given the litany of errors, abuses and arrogance contained in Chain of Command, the future does not look bright.
Copyright 2005 The Yomiuri Shimbun

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