Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib
By Seymour M. Hersh
Review by Daniel Hindes
This is a very interesting book. Hersh writes to catch your attention, and to raise your sense of indignation. And quite often he succeeds. Using an amazing array of mostly unnamed an anonymous government sources from all levels, he brings to light all the criticisms of the US Government that you don’t usually read in the newspapers. Some of it is shocking, of other parts fairly predictable, and some is already common knowledge.
The book is really more of a collection of essays on a theme sharing a common author than a coherent book. There is no thread or development of theme, and the essays are not even chronological. You can sense that the book was rushed to print before the 2004 election.
The book starts off looking at the issue of torture and the Abu Garib prison. The Hersh finds that the problem started at Guantanamo, where the basic protocols and attitudes for handling “enemy combatants” was established. It is now well known that the Bush administration sought legal counsel in an effort to legitimize as much “pressure” as possible on captured militants. This, of course, was necessary because the United States had very little intelligence on the militant Islamic fundamentalists who have sworn to destroy the United States of America. The determination to wrest information by any means possible from detainees directly resulted in the scandal. The irony is that the use of torture to obtain information – a very medieval practice – has been thoroughly discredited by all experts in the field. But it feels good when you’re dealing with the enemies of the country, and thus from the top down the word was passed, don’t hold back. The end result was sadly predictable: usable information did not actually increase as a result of torture, but substantial damage was done to the United States and the war against terrorism when these actions inevitably became public. Hersh details the efforts by professionals within the US government – particularly the FBI – to correct the mistaken policies, and documents how they all failed in the face of the determination at the very top of the government to use torture. The lessons are twofold: on the one hand there are still a lot of good people in the United States and its government. On the other hand, the lessons of the Nazi experience to not appear – 75 years later – to have been very well absorbed in our present culture; people still do what they’re told in an effort to please their superiors, even when their superiors are asking for actions that are morally wrong and illegal.
Hersh exposes the existence of SAP’s, or Special Access Programs, programs within the Defense Department so secret that most people should not know of their existence. One SAP in particular was created specifically to violate the rights of prisoners in order to gain more information from them. Thus the idea to sexually humiliated Moslem men did not originate with a bunch of low-level hillbilly reserve enlisted soldiers. Rather, it was conceived and implemented by high-level Defense Department secret operatives, operating inside the prison with a mandate to gain the maximum amount of information from detainees using unorthodox methods. As was almost inevitable, the program got out of control, and the worst fears of the program’s internal critics were realized: rather than gain more useful information, it damaged the moral standing of the United States in the eyes of the world, and by all accounts did not produce any additional intelligence information. With meticulous detail Hersh illuminates the dissembling of various high-level administration officials when questioned about such arrangements.
To this day most Americans believe that Military Intelligence and “rogue” military police are entirely to blame for the Abu Garib scandal, something that anyone who is familiar with the training and operational methods of the regular Army would find highly suspect. I went through the Army’s basic interrogation training back in 1992, and we spent the first week (of nine) on the Geneva Convention. What constitutes a war crime was covered in great detail, as well as our reporting responsibilities if we witnessed a war crime. The fact that “just following orders” is not valid legal defense was also hammered into us. Examples of soldiers in jail for war crimes committed during the first Gulf War were also given, and the message was clear: violate the Geneva Convention and go to Ft. Leavenworth. Army doctrine and training also recognized and emphasized the extensive research that has shown that torture yields no increase in usable intelligence; we were told that usually, the most effective method was the direct, friendly approach. Most of the exercises covered how to properly interview prisoners so that we didn’t miss any usable intelligence, how to cross-check the information against know sources, and how to write the reports properly. Very little emphasis was given to “breaking” the source. We got a small bag of non-coercive tricks, and were told not to waste too much time on uncooperative sources.
In the next section of the book Hersh discusses how the United States Intelligence Community failed to prevent September 11. This is mostly a story of institutional failures, and has been told in other forums. It is a story of demoralized Cold War espionage experts unable and unwilling to tackle a much more difficult task of tracking fundamentalist militants. Apparently, United States has virtually no intelligence sources anywhere in the middle or Far East. The reasons are twofold: on the one hand, it is very difficult for white European undercover agents to penetrate the intimate, ethnic-based communities in which the militants are at home. Second, even if they wanted to, there would be a physically uncomfortable assignment for an American. Upper-class white suburban college graduates would have to live for years under the miserable conditions of the Third World nation if they ever hoped to penetrate the militant circles. Understandably, very few people are signing up for such an assignment.
Another difficulty cited by Hersh is the Clinton administration decision to prohibit the CIA from recruiting any sources with a criminal background unless they specifically got a waiver. Getting a waiver is apparently not all that difficult, but the extra paperwork was enough of a disincentive that many potential intelligence sources, or so it is claimed, were simply not recruited. Also mentioned is the massive failure of the FBI develop an intelligence sharing computer system. As I said, these are the details of a large-scale institutional failures. Another section describes the difficult case of prosecuting Zacarias Moussaoui. Of the main criticism Hersh brings forward in this case is that people as high up as Attorney General John Ashcroft insisted on bringing the death penalty against Moussaoui instead of developing him as an intelligence source (not that he should go free, but that he should have been interviewed extensively rather than immediately locked in solitary for months to await his execution).
The section on the Afghan war is once again rife with criticism. According to Hersh, the war went considerably worse then the press and the nation was led to believe, and many well popularized military efforts were actually utter and complete failures. This is mostly a description of how duplicitous the American leadership goes with the press and the public. An interesting episode, and one that I had not known about before, was the escape of the 5000. At one point the United States had 5000 senior Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters isolated in one city. However, among them wore a large number of Pakistani intelligence officers. At the request of the Pakistani government an airlift, supposedly of only Pakistani nationals, was allowed. Following Murphy’s Law, dramatically more people were airlifted to safety in Pakistan than originally intended, including apparently most all the people US military was trying to kill. Much of the remaining criticism centers on military incompetence and the subsequent cover-ups. The next policy to be criticized was the idea of rebuilding Afghanistan while allowing the warlords to remain in power. This is another criticism is easy to make, and at the same time it’s extraordinarily difficult outline of the policy that might have been followed instead.
Moving on, the book and details of the history of the Iraq Hawks – the eight or nine people in and around the White House who were able to bring on a war with Iraq, and how they were able to do so. Ahmad Chalabi and Iraqi National Congress are introduced, and their history described. Apparently, the Clinton administration had given Chalabi a chance and allowed him to attempt to implement his Iraq insurrection plan. The plan failed miserably, exposing Chalabi as a person with claims and ideas that exceeded his ability to actually deliver, and he was widely considered thoroughly discredited in all intelligence circles. The story of the birth of the Iraq war is story of how Chalabi’s sources were passed through all the filters designed to screen out bogus information. A small number of people at the top of the administration wanted a war, and were convinced that the intelligence to support their opinion was being suppressed by those whose professional obligation it was to sort truth from untruth. As a result, Rumsfeld and a number of people immediately under him started digging deep down into the raw sources of information, to find things that they liked. These unfiltered reports were then brought forward as established evidence, over the skepticism of those whose job it was to assess them.
The two years since the start of the Iraq war have shown that the facts used to justify the war in the first place were all bogus, as most of the analysts at the CIA had known before the war’s start. But at the time the administration browbeat the CIA into silence in order to use facts known to be unreliable as a justification for initiating the war. As to whether the United States had information that perhaps Iraq did not possess any weapons of mass distraction, Hersh brings up the case of General Hussein Kamel. General Kamal was in charge of the Iraqi weapons program, defected to Jordan in 1995, was lured back by Saddam in 1996 and then executed. While he was in Jordan he was interviewed by western intelligence services. He claimed that inspections by the UN were highly effective and that all weapons of mass instruction had been destroyed. In fact, he stated that he had personally ordered the destruction of all such weapons (page 212). This is described to demonstrate that all the information necessary to properly evaluate Iraq’s potential as an owner of weapons of weapons of mass destruction was available to intelligence services well before the start of the Iraq war. And by and large, the intelligence services did successfully and accurately evaluate Iraq’s potential. However, a few high-level hawks who wanted war with Iraq were able to identify and promote a some highly suspicious claims by suspect sources with a vested interest in portraying Saddam as a threat to the world order, in order to paint a vastly different picture.
Another section deals with Iraq’s now famous non-attempt to acquire uranium. In retrospect it is clear that Saddam never attempted to buy uranium from Niger. The question is whether or not this was also clear earlier. Hirsch believes that it was abundantly clear well before the threat of an Iraqi nuclear attack was raised in President Bush’s State of the Union address. In fact, it appears it took an incredibly credulous turn of mind to accept the tenuous evidence. Yet, credulous is what the administration was with regard to any evidence that would bolster the case for war.
The conduct all of the Iraqi war also comes under consideration. Hersh recounts much bickering between with the Secretary of Defense in the Joint Chiefs of Staff as to how to conduct the war. Apparently, the military men wanted a substantially larger force in order to guarantee success. Secretary Rumsfeld wanted a much smaller force in order to prove that United States code win victory “on the cheap”. While the United States did win an initial victory, and a dramatic (and lucky) one at that, the initial victory did not translate into winning the war. And that failure to actually win the war, argues Hirsch, is a result of the insufficient staffing of military units. There were simply not enough US soldiers on the ground to guarantee stability immediately after the fall of Saddam’s regime.
The most interesting part of the book to me starts on page 257 were Hersh recounts his interview with former Iraqi Air Force General Ahmad Sadik, who is currently living in Syria. According to Sadik, shortly before President Bush took office in 2001 Saddam Hussein had drawn up plans for a widespread insurgency should his country be invaded.
“Huge amounts of small arms and other weapons were stockpiled around the country for use by insurgents. In January of 2003, as the long expected Coalition invasion appeared imminent, Saddam issued a four-page document ordering his secret police the Mukhabarat to respond to an attack by immediately breaking into key government offices and ministries, destroying documents, and setting buildings on fire. He also ordered Mukhabarat to arrange for the penetration of various Iraqi exile groups that would be brought into Iraq, with US help, in the aftermath of the invasion.”
If this information is correct, and it does appear plausible, the insurgency was well planned and organized. And this would also explain to a large degree why events have taken the course that they have. According to Hersh, Sadik was interrogated by American intelligence officers in June of 2003. Hersh interviewed him in the summer of the same year. The Arabic press has apparently already widely circulated his story. And yet I hear of it for the first time in this book.
Another substantial portion of the book looks at the situation in Pakistan. The picture is bleak, and every step by the policies of the current administration is portrayed as less than ideal. The interesting thing is that although the criticisms are quite barbed and well directed, they do not, in the end, add up to an alternative policy. That is, if you were hypothetically to say that everything President Bush is doing is wrong and ought to be done in the way the criticisms published by Mr. Hirsch imply, and then set out to implement this, you would end up with a bunch of contradictory policies. A concrete example of this is the war in Afghanistan. On the one hand, Hersh passes on criticism that in the first days of the war the US government should have been more aggressive that bombing intelligence targets so as not to let the senior all Qaeda members escape. But in discussing the further conduct of the war, the indiscriminate bombings of civilian targets is cited as one of the largest impediments to an eventual American victory in the region. Likewise the manner in which Pakistan ought to be handled is similarly conflicted. On the one hand Pakistan is the most dangerous nation in the world because it exports nuclear technology to Third World aggressor nations. On the other hand, leaning on Pakistan any more that has already been done would result in a complete collapse of Pakistani society into absolute and utter anarchy. So it’s damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. In such a case, it is always easier to criticize than to lead.
In the end I found the book a very interesting source of information. It gave me a real sense for the complexities of government and our current page. It was also depressing because it appears that most people in the current administration, and probably every administration, are not initially inclined to speak the truth on difficult matters. Indeed, this is a fairly predictable statement, and yet it is disappointing to learn every time you’re forced to confront it.