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Review-a-Day
Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, November 7th, 2004


 

Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib

by Seymour M. Hersh

Torture of the evidence

A review by Edward N. Luttwak

"Lt. William L. Calley Jr, 26 years old, is a mild-mannered, boyish-looking Vietnam combat veteran with the nickname 'Rusty'. The Army is completing an investigation of charges that he deliberately murdered at least 109 Vietnamese civilians...."

That is how Seymour M. Hersh became famous in 1969, by uncovering not the My Lai massacre itself -- US Army investigators did that, once alerted by soldiers on the scene -- but rather the existence of the investigation, a distinction that was soon blurred in the minds of his admirers. In due course, the findings on My Lai would have become public knowledge in any case, for while there was the atrocity -- soldiers killing civilians by the hundreds -- and if scale counts in such matters, a huge atrocity, there was no scandal huge or small, because nobody intervened to impede the US Army's investigators, misdirect them, or suppress their findings.

Much the same thing has just happened over the Abu Ghraib affair. First, several men and women of the US Army's 372nd Military Police Company -- bored, brutalized and certainly unsupervised, mingled their private sex games with the wholesale humiliation, denudation and varied abuse of Iraqi prisoners. Next, tipped off by a US Army enlisted man who had personally witnessed the goings on, US Army investigators went into action. Their findings were supplied to Major-General Antonio M. Taguba, who compiled a report that contains every disturbing detail, and in which he explores sundry ramifications of the episode that imply higher and wider responsibilities. Once again -- as people are no doubt already beginning to forget -- Seymour Hersh discovered and published, not the abuses committed by several members of the US Army, but their disclosure and thorough investigation by other members of the US Army, prior to judicial proceedings.

Yet it cannot be said that Hersh achieved fame and fortune undeservedly, for scoops that did no more than slightly anticipate official disclosures. Hersh and those like him are also a safeguard against the natural temptation of any institution to minimize the gravity of exceptionally shameful crimes. That the ensuing global scandal with its relentless evocation of My Lai then, or Abu Ghraib now, is bound to obscure parallel realities -- the habitual killing of civilians by both Viet Cong and North Vietnamese as a matter of standard operating procedure, or the nature of everyday conditions in the prisons of every Arab country -- is just inevitable, because mass media live by telling stories, not necessarily in their wider context. Moreover, while My Lai's explosive revelation in the US media could hardly be amplified by the still global Communist press of the day, the Abu Ghraib pictures allowed al-Jazeera and its competitors to indulge in an orgy of recrimination, in which the 372nd Military Police Company was deemed representative of the entire US Army, and its abuses were continuously equated with the bloody torture and mass murder of prisoners under Saddam Hussein. Such mystifications are hardly a competitive advantage to be wished for: the avowed Arab Nationalists and Islamists of al-Jazeera and such do not serve their societies well by misinforming them, while on our part the My Lais or Abu Ghraibs are unacceptable not because of the subsequent bad publicity, but because of the deeds themselves -- even if none would know them.

One might think that his My Lai articles of 1969 and the acclaim they received were formative experiences for Hersh: since then, it is not just secrets that he always seeks to uncover, as with any investigative journalist, but discreditable military and foreign policy secrets that reveal fellow Americans, US institutions and occasionally our allies in the worst possible light. One might think that, but one would be wrong, because in 1968 Hersh had already published Chemical and Biological Warfare: America's hidden arsenal, in which he tried to evoke a scandal out of the prosaic upkeep and development of both defensive and offensive capabilities, neither as yet prohibited by any treaty or arms control agreement. Far from being a terrible secret, the US Army's "Chemical Corps" had its own shoulder flashes and badges, and a very large polychrome sign outside its base.

Compounded from articles previously published, Chain of Command presents critiques and revelations large and small of malfeasance, misfeasance and non-feasance, chiefly by the United States of America of course, but by others as well. The Swedes, indefatigable champions of human rights everywhere, are here condemned for handing over radical Islamists to the tender care of Egyptian interrogators without bothering with tiresome extradition proceedings; Hersh does not pause to note that judicial review might well be dreaded by Swedish security policemen after the prompt release on procedural grounds of a local Islamist, caught with a pistol (itself illegal) as he was trying to board a flight to Manchester to attend a Salafist gathering. In a parallel case in the Netherlands, a judge declared that the video-filming by suspected Islamists of entrances and exits of the US Embassy in The Hague was no more than might have been done by any tourist -- even though they were not tourists but residents, in whose lodgings there were no naughty videos, only al-Qaeda promotionals. And in Madrid, more than a year before the March 11 bombings, the suspected perpetrators had been indicated by the intelligence service of another European country, but released when the police found no weapons or explosives in their abodes, but only Salafist tracts and al-Qaeda videos -- neither of which are illegal in Spain, nor could they be. Unfortunately that is all that could ever be found in such a search. That is the intensely frustrating context of the new practice of "rendition", a word whose religious undertones should be dominated by sinister overtones, for it describes the summary deportation of suspected Muslim extremists to Arab countries, where they are routinely tortured. In other words, rendition is one more of the many things that happen when hysteria becomes practice, from the clumsy roundups of Muslim immigrants in many a European country, to the useless colour-coded alarums of the United States and such idiocies as the gratuitous but costly diversion of an airliner to Bangor, Maine, because the former Cat Stevens was aboard. With rendition what is lost is not only another precious slice of the legal safeguards that protect us all, but also potentially useful information, because where torture is routine, sadists rather than skilled interrogators tend to have the action, and they are rarely any good at extracting useful information. Besides, in Islamic countries there is much ambivalence about fighting Islamists, and a corresponding tendency to withhold useful information from unbelievers. In writing of Saudi Arabia, Hersh notes how very little intelligence the United States ever received from the many violent Islamists in its prisons.

One reason why the CIA favours rendition is its lack of interrogators who know foreign languages -- and I mean not just difficult languages such as Korean, but also easy ones such as colloquial variants of Arabic, or indeed modern standard Arabic, in which fluency requires only a few months of moderate effort. Companies instruct their salesmen to pick up Arabic when assigned to Middle East spots, but the CIA is apparently a less demanding employer. The CIA's degeneration, however, is of far broader scope. The Mormons and cow-college graduates who have come to fill the ranks of the Directorate of Operations since the Ivy League's post-Vietnam desertion are simply too provincial for the basic craft of the espionage trade, the recruitment and handling of foreigners as agents. So long as the Cold War lasted, the solid products of satellite photography and all manner of electronic intelligence masked the erosion of espionage skills without which there is no going after terrorists. While competent case officers with languages and tact are few, deep-cover operatives are absent -- the US has been engaged with Iraq since 1990, but the CIA did not have one agent in its government when war started anew in 2003, nor any operative on the ground. Now, ordinary Army and Marine officers are doing a better job of recruiting Iraqi informants than the CIA. Hersh has a harsh chapter on intelligence failure, but because he mostly quotes the usual much-quoted sources having no revelations of his own, he is not harsh enough. (No longer wrapped in delusions of adequacy, the CIA's incapacity may now finally be remedied over time: the new Director, ex-Congressman Porter Goss, has acknowledged that the operations directorate must be rebuilt from almost zero.)

Sometimes Hersh goes after individuals rather than institutions. Richard Perle is amply criticized for his advocacy of the Iraq war, in which the good idea of getting rid of Saddam Hussein was fatally mingled with the thoroughly bad idea of invading a country filled with people who have compelling reasons to oppose democratic advancement. But Perle is also criticized for mingling personal diplomacy with a Saudi grandee (procured by the inevitable Adnan Khashoggi) with money-seeking from that same figure for his investment fund Trireme, now also featured in the Hollinger scandal. Perle was entrapped, of course, but then again, no confidence trickster could have conned him had he been more attentive to the proprieties (Leon Wieseltier once wrote about someone else that it was not the Neo-Con he objected to, but the Con). Perle was shopped to Hersh by the Saudis and that scoop induced Perle's resignation from the chairmanship of the Defense Policy Board, a talking shop of his own creation but with the Pentagon's authority withal.

With another individual target, Ahmad Chalabi, founder of the Iraq National Congress, Hersh gets it wrong along with many others, depicting him as a puppeteer of the Iraq war, when he was only a puppet. I like Chalabi because of his exuberant bon vivant style, physical courage and a brilliant intellect if anything understated by his Chicago PhD in mathematics, for few mathematicians have such a wide range of intellectual interests. I do not know if the Jordanian authorities are right in accusing him of having embezzled the funds of the Petra Bank there really is evidence on both sides, and while King Hussein vehemently accused Chalabi, his brother, Prince Hassan, defended him vigorously. What I do know is that Chalabi did not persuade Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and others to invade Iraq. Instead, having decided for their own reasons to invade Iraq, they were content to see Chalabi make the rounds in Washington as the exemplary Iraqi, obviously highly competent, a Shiite yet a modernizer, and totally ready for democracy. Naturally, as an exiliarch eager to see the United States invade Iraq, Chalabi was anything but an objective intelligence source: he was more than ready to depict his fellow Iraqis as eager for liberation and democracy, who would greet American troops with flowers. If Chalabi knew that far from being proto-democrats most Iraqis were entrapped by tribalism, fanatical religion and clericalism, he did not tell anyone: his aim after all was to overthrow Saddam, not to justify his despotism as mere necessity.

In writing about Chalabi, Hersh is inconsistent. Having shown that the CIA is grossly incompetent, he goes on to accept uncritically the CIA's wholesale denigration of Chalabi as a liar, coward, embezzler, fabricator of false intelligence, and lately agent of Iranian intelligence. Little people themselves, the exile-handlers who dealt with Chalabi were infuriated by his relaxed self-confidence -- they much preferred destitute and dependent Iraqi exiles who were humbly grateful for handouts and pats on the back, such as Ayad Allawi, for example. In their resentment, the CIA's Iraqi exile-handlers started a veritable campaign against Chalabi years before the second Iraqi war, accusing him of cowardice while he took risks in Kurdistan and they lingered in Langley; of misappropriating US funds because of trivial book-keeping irregularities that were soon resolved, and of espionage for Iran because they let Chalabi operate through their territory. His only sin actually was not to contradict those who greatly wanted to believe that Iraqis could lead the democratic transformation of the Middle East.

Hersh is obviously good with American sources about American institutions but, perhaps because he is language-challenged himself, he regularly slips badly when dealing with foreign matters. In this book, for example, he gets the Niger story wrong. He starts well by carefully explaining how the tale of Iraqi "yellowcake" uranium imports from Niger -- derived from a crude forgery already exposed as such by layers of analysts -- ended up in the speeches of President Bush, Cheney and Colin Powell. Quite rightly, Hersh criticizes the "stove-piping" of intelligence -- the transmission of raw data all the way to the top -- which only happens when top officials are dissatisfied with the intelligence assessments they receive, and demand access to the raw material to formulate their own, that will better justify their policies. The outcome of dilettante analysis is that bits of raw intelligence are appraised outside their context, and worse still without evaluating critically their reliability. Even Churchill, for all his immense strategical talent and apposite instincts, landed in trouble more than once because of his insatiable appetite for intercepts -- and the protagonists of the Iraq war of 2003 were not Churchills. In the case at hand, Hersh is also correct in reporting that the forgery was first peddled to Italy's Panorama magazine, whose star reporter, Elisabetta Burba, soon uncovered the deception, and told the US Embassy at the behest of her Editor, Carlo Rossella. But then Hersh slips by blaming Italy's foreign intelligence service SISMI for having passed the forgery to the CIA station in Rome -- which they did, but only as highly suspect paper, and in fact, as Hersh seems to know, the CIA station in Rome was entirely undeceived.

The moral of the story is that when policy makers want bad intelligence to suit their policies, they get it. If Hersh could read the Italian press, he would have known where it all started, with French intelligence out to trip up the Americans and their allies. Instead Hersh canvasses other possibilities, quoting for example the estimable Director of the International Atomic Energy Authority Muhammad al-Baradei, who said that "it could be someone who intercepted faxes in Israel". Seymour Hersh quotes that gratuitous jab, because he always brings the Israelis into his stories if he can cast them in a sinister light. I am sure that some of his best friends are Gentiles but it is a veritable obsession with Hersh. In 1991 he published a book about Israel's nuclear arsenal whose melodramatic speculations began with the title The Samson Option -- and that was in the thirtieth year of the US strategy of "mutually assured destruction" (or was that the Delilah option?). In this book, he correctly records that it was the Mujahidin opposition that revealed the centrifuge and heavy water complexes of Iran's nuclear weapons programme, but then goes on to suggest that it was the Israelis who actually uncovered the secrets, which in their tenebrous fashion they preferred to reveal by way of the Mujahidin. He fails to explain why any sane person, let alone supposedly wily Israelis, would pass excellent information -- quickly validated by satellite photography -- to fanatical enemies. There is more of the same on Kurdistan -- when it comes to Israel, Hersh will relay any fantastic tale of evil meddling, including wild accusations in the Turkish national-Islamist press that Israelis are buying up property in Kurdistan.

Hersh shows a particular interest in communications intelligence. Of course it is the most important source of intelligence these days (as photography was, when Soviet power still relied on many large weapons of classic form) but in his eagerness to claim its authority for his statements, Hersh conflates the interception of ordinary, unencrypted phone calls by Saudis for example, with the decryption of secret communications. Giving that sort of secret away is more than even Hersh would want to do.

In his endeavour to find dirty secrets under the carpet of government, Hersh fails to see what is happening on top. He rightly criticizes Rumsfeld, Cheney and their underlings for having persuaded President Bush to invade Iraq in pursuit of impossible aims, ignoring professional advice at every turn. But he fails to report that they no longer have a say on important Iraqi matters, all now decided by the State Department and by Ambassador Robert Blackwill in the White House.

Seymour Hersh has many faults, but we still need him, obsessions and all, because we must know, more than anything, what we least enjoy seeing in print.

Edward N. Luttwak is Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. His recent books include Turbo-Charged Capitalism: Winners and losers in the new world economy, 1998, and Strategy: The logic of war and peace, revised edition 2002.



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