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Thursday, October 27, 2005

Seymour Hersh says How Bad It is 

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At a lecture Oct. 26 in New Jersey, Seymour Hersh spared no criticism of George W. Bush and his neocon cabal.

"How do eight or nine cultists manage to take over the government . . . and take us away from a legitimate war?" the veteran investigative reporter asked the audience at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. "How did [Dick] Cheney, who was never a neocon, get bought off?"

Hersh has been uncovering stories of wrongdoing for more than 30 years, from the cover up of the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War to the systemic torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

He began his talk, "From Abu Ghraib to 9/11," by telling the packed house that he had good news - there were only 1,181 more days left to the Bush administration.

Then the bad news about Iraq: "Our best day was yesterday . . . it's only going to get worse."

Worse than what we do know, Hersh said, is what we do not know. "We don't know how much bombing they're [U.S. forces] doing, how many sorties they're doing," he said. In northern Iraq, military operations go on day in and day out, bombing towns and villages filled with mostly Turkic peoples. When the Turkish Red Crescent moves in to provide relief, they are turned back, Hersh said. Hundreds of thousands of people have been put in camps. Hersh called it "near genocide."

The bombings will only intensify next year following a pullout of some 60,000 American troops. "We are going to replace American troops with American bombs," Hersh said.

We also do not know for certain the extent of American casualties, including the number wounded. "There are casualties in the elite forces we don't know about," Hersh said, mentioning Delta Forces, Navy SEALS and Special Forces.

Although Hersh had much criticism for the American news media, he explained that it is nearly impossible to get good reporting done in Iraq these days. "Any guy that tries to get out of the Green Zone gets whacked," he said. Still, the U.S. news media could pick up dispatches from the European and Arab press that show the horrors wrought upon civilians every day, but they don't. Hersh said he doesn't know why.

Killing is not limited to bombings and firefights, Hersh said. Soldiers leading supply convoys fearful of explosive devices and ambushes plow down dark highways in Iraq at 90 and 100 miles per hour, not stopping to check for pedestrians. The audience gasped at the description.

Hersh said that most soldiers, frustrated with a faceless enemy, take out their anger on innocent civilians. But he doesn't blame the troops. "The officers are in loco parentis," Hersh said, and too often they are not doing their jobs.

The Iraq war has been characterized by a gross lack of planning and a dearth of good leadership, Hersh said. He called General Tommy Franks, who retired soon after the invasion rather than move up in the ranks, "one of the worst leaders we've had."

Likewise, General Ricardo Sanchez, who was once commander of ground forces in Iraq, is an "overrated" general, who has conducted the war with a general lack of sensitivity to Muslims, Hersh said, drawing parallels to the treatment of Vietnamese in the My Lai massacre and throughout the Asian conflict.

At the top of the heap is George W. Bush himself. "What did President Bush do after he was told about Abu Ghraib? Nada. Nothing," Hersh said. "This was his own system telling him this is a serious problem."

The military first learned of the actions at Abu Ghraib months before Hersh published his story in the New Yorker magazine and CBS broadcast photos in April of 2004. The actions at Abu Ghraib, Hersh said, were designed - from the top - to shame Muslim men into providing intelligence to the U.S. military, which was battling an "insurgency" of Baathists who had retreated upon the initial invasion. The naked piling of men, sexual harassment of Iraqi women, and vicious dog bites, Hersh said, was visited upon a prison population that military officials themselves estimated was about 70 percent innocent - civilians corralled in street sweeps. Not only have the published photos from Abu Ghraib created new insurgents; so have the phone calls from Iraqi women asking their brothers and fathers and husbands to kill them because they have been shamed.

"If you think someone from West Virginia thought this up, fine, you can have that thought," Hersh said, referring to Private Lynndie England, the torture poster girl scapegoated in the scandal.

Hersh provided valuable insight into tensions between ethnic groups in Iraq. By writing the Sunnis out of the recently approved constitution - in a vote Hersh called "meaningless" like the January elections and the upcoming elections on Dec. 15 - the insurgency has nothing to gain and no reason to negotiate.

Not that that would happen anyway. Bush doesn't talk to the insurgency, to Iran, to Syria, "because he doesn't like them." Bush, Hersh said, is a man with "no ability to perceive how wrong he is . . . there is nothing more dangerous."

The best thing that could have happened in the constitutional vote, Hersh said, would have been a defeat followed by a redrafting giving the Sunnis more participation. The constitution as it stands "emasculates the Sunnis," Hersh said.

Sunnis indigenous to Iraq make up a majority of the insurgency, Hersh guessed. He uses the term "insurgency" for lack of a better description. "Most of the world thinks the insurgents are us," he said.

Corporations throughout the Arab world are fueling sectarian violence . "In the Sunni world, there is not a major construction company not funneling money to the insurgency," Hersh said. To those companies, it is an honor to support the insurgency. On the other side, the Shia in southern Iraq are dominated by Iran. Political groups Dawa and SCIRI who are putting up candidates in elections fought on the side of Iran during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. "Iran right now is the winner . . . the Sunnis are up in arms over the spread of the Shia." Turkey's commitment to the Turkic population and their refusal to accept Kurdistan threatens to turn the Iraq war into a much larger regional conflagration.

Baghdad, considered the "jewel of the Arab world" with the best wine and the cleanest streets, has become a city carved into turfs ruled by gun-toting gangs and militias in back alleys. "There is a whole world out there we don't see. It's a turf operation," Hersh said.

Democracy in America is unrecognizable, Hersh said. The administration is rogue and the news media are lapdogs. Private companies are hired to kidnap people and render them to countries where they are tortured and murdered. Retired lawmen are paid thousands of dollars a week to be hired guns in Iraq. Unlike trained elite forces, "they're not doing for the constitution," Hersh said.

With Congress, "the big issue for me on any given day is whether they are supine or prone," Hersh said. "Where are we with our democracy? What does it mean?" The only recent hope has been the investigation headed by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. "Fitzgerald may come and save the republic . . . he might just shake up the doldrums," Hersh said.

Hersh is the son of European Jews who immigrated to Chicago in the 1920s. "My parents came here from the old country many years ago to get away from what this guy [Bush] is doing," Hersh said. "He is deconstructing the constitution, he's deconstructing our rights."

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