Saturday, January 05, 2008

Seymour Hersh: Chain of Command

Recently I read (and blogged about) Steve Coll's book "Ghost Wars". This was the depressing and enlightening (though not altogether surprising, except in a manner of degree) story of the US, especially CIA, involvement in Afghanistan from the 70s to September 10th, 2001. Seymour Hersh, like Coll, is a New Yorker journalist, and he picks up where Coll left off,on 9/11/01, and ends in 2004, a little before the time of writing. Famous for his integrity as an investigative journalist, Hersh leaves no stone unturned in the story of how the U.S. managed to "win" a war in Afghanistan, launch and lose an unwinnable war in Iraq and lose all claims to moral righteousness in the space of a few years.

Hersh traces the despicable proceedings in Guantanamo with suspected terrorists from Afghanistan, and the decisions to use these mechanisms in Iraq, though they had produced few results. He quotes a White House official as asking rhetorically: "Why do I take a failed approach at Guantanamo and move it to Iraq?" That is just what Rumsfeld chose to do, however, and stretched the realm of reasonable policy even further by using dubious information-gathering techniques (i.e. torture). Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch told Hersh that "if you can't do it at your local precinct, you can't do it at Guantanamo," but by all accounts in "Chain of Command" this advice was not heeded (p. 20). Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and friends operated outside of the law and/or changed the laws to meet their needs. Further, they did not feel that the foundation of American democracy- checks and balances- applied. One of the key programs leading to abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib was the violation of the Geneva Conventions by "Special Access Programs." As Hersh writes:

Only a few members of the House and Senate leadership were authorized by statute to be informed of the program, and, even then, the legislators were not provided with little more than basic budget information. It's not clear that the Senate and House members understood that the United States was poised to enter the business of "disappearing" people. (p. 46)


Are you disturbed yet? Because we haven't even gotten through the first section of "Chain of Command" yet. Hersh details how torture became routine, how Rumsfeld managed to pass the buck onto a bunch of under-trained kids and how every major figure in the war managed to escape the scandal with no major injuries, and insinuate that the U.S. is probably still routinely violating the human rights of most of the "prisoners of war" that the country is holding in custody. He explains the way that the President and Vice President managed to wage a war (or two) by manipulating intelligence to fit ideology. And then he discusses lies, and liars. He exposes the lie of the WMD for what it really was: a falsehood repeated often enough to become perceived as truth. When ideologues are in power, the truth is irrelevent:

What went wrong? How did such an obvious fraud manage to move, without significant challenge, through the top layers of the American intelligence community and into the most sacrosanct of presidential briefings? Who permitted it to go into the President's State of the Union speech? Was the Administration lying to itself? OR did it, in this and other cases, deliberately give Congress and the public what it knew to be bad information? When and how did the message- the threat posed by Iraq- become more important than the integrity of the intelligence-vetting process? (p. 206)


We then learn about the secret Special Forces , and the way that Rumsfeld operated (or bungled) the military in Iraq. One official quoted in "Chain" described the difference between what was really happening in Iraq and the reporting of what happens as follows: "They always want to delay the release of bad news- in the hope that something good will break." (p. 285) There's honesty for you. Citizens are funding an outrageously expensive war based on bad intelligence in the hopes that something good will happen. Quite inspiring. "Chain of Command" has given me nightmares. This book is a must read. It's readable, if you don't mind being depressed, or shocked-and-awed. All of my worst fears about Bush and Co. have been confirmed. Disgusting.

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