November 29, 2005
We speak with investigative journalist Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker
magazine about his new article, "Up in the Air: Where is the Iraq War
Headed Next?" Hersh discusses the ongoing debate in Washington over the
withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, how President Bush is "impervious
to political pressure" in his Iraq policy, the capability of the U.S.
Army to sustain two or three more years of combat in Iraq and how a
reduction of U.S. troops would be replaced by American airpower - which
could lead to even more Iraqi fatalities. [includes rush transcript]
The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq continues to be a central
issue in Washington. Earlier this month, Democratic Congressman John
Murtha sparked an intense debate on Capitol Hill after he introduced a
bill calling for an immediate withdrawal of US forces. In response, the
Republican leadership moved to silence Murtha's criticism by
introducing a bill that was worded in a manner designed to split the
Democratic Party. The Republican bill proposed "the deployment of
United States forces in Iraq be terminated immediately." It was
rejected 403 to 3.
Last week, Kurdish and Sunni leaders in Iraq issued a joint communiqué
calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S troops. It marked the
first time Iraq's political factions collectively called for a
In the latest news, chief Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita said US
forces are likely to be reduced to about 140,000 by the December 15th
parliamentary elections and that deeper cuts are possible. The
administration has repeatedly said it will consider pulling out troops
once enough Iraqi forces have been trained to deal with the insurgency.
DiRita said President Bush is scheduled to give a speech Wednesday
where he is expected highlight the progress US forces have made in
turning over security to Iraqis.
In a new article in the New Yorker, Pulitzer prize-winning reporter
Seymour Hersh writes "a key element of the drawdown plans not mentioned
in the President's public statement is that the departing American
troops will be replaced by American airpower." He goes on to write:
"while the number of American casualties would decrease as ground
troops are withdrawn, the over-all level of violence and the number of
Iraqi fatalities would increase unless there are stringent controls
over who bombs what."
AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh joins us now from his home in Washington, D.C. His piece in The New Yorker magazine is entitled "Up in the Air: Where is the Iraq War Headed Next?" Welcome to Democracy Now!
SEYMOUR HERSH: Hi.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. So, can you
just lay out what you understand at this point and who your sources are
telling you what the administration's plans are, or hopes are, next?
SEYMOUR HERSH: I’m not going to hold you literally to
who your sources are. But obviously, for the last four years, I've been
talking to people pretty much on the inside, or at least have a good
smell of what's going on. And, as you said, it's real simple. We are --
I think the President will probably agree to a pullout. He could not,
because he is totally committed to what he's doing. But for political
purposes, a pullout won't end the war. That's the critical thing.
It won't bring victory to us. It will simply change the color,
if you will, of the people who die there. Instead of American boys
dying -- certainly change the nationality -- there will be more Iraqis.
It doesn't mean victory. It just -- we're going to -- the Iraqi units,
most of them, very few can stand up by themselves. But there's the
belief in the military is that an Iraqi battalion that’s hapless as it
may be now, supported by more American air, any time they have a whiff
of the insurgency, they can call in an air strike, that would give them
enough wherewithal to withstand, at least stand up, for a couple of
years, long enough to mask a complete withdrawal.
AMY GOODMAN: Why hasn't the Bush administration done this yet?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, they are doing more bombing. One of
the great x-factors of the war -- this is something else that I noted
in the article, is we know nothing about the bombing. Clearly there's
all sorts of anecdotal reason to believe that the bombing has gone up
exponentially, certainly in the last four or five months in the Sunni
Triangle, the four provinces around Baghdad. There's been a lot of --
more provinces. Every day, we read about bombs falling. And we now have
planes that loiter, hornets, and we have planes that come from a base
in Kirkuk, I think, and they loiter in the air above potential combat
areas. You know, there go three guys, throw a bomb there.
And there's no statistics. I’m one of those people that goes
back to the Vietnam War, where every day we got a description and an
official account of how many sorties, one mission by one plane, how
much tonnage. We don't get any of those numbers in this war. We’ve
never had those numbers. There's no embedded American journalist at an
airbase – at one of the bases in the Gulf region. I think many of the
air bases right now -- some of our air bases are obviously inside Iraq.
But that's pretty much, I presume, to be a classified secret, or a
secret, anyway. We don't have reporters at the air bases. We don't know
what's going on with the air war.
AMY GOODMAN: We're talking to Seymour Hersh, wrote a piece in this week's New Yorker,
called "Up in the Air: Where is the Iraq War Headed Next?" Sy, can you
talk about John Murtha, the congressman, and the significance of what
SEYMOUR HERSH: Murtha is one of those oldies, in his
70s now. He’s somebody like me, I always try to get to. I can talk to
some of his aides. He's on the Defense -- he’s one of the leading
players on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. He's a very
conservative military guy, who controls the budget, not only the budget
we know about, but the black budget, the covert budget. He's one of
those people trusted. Jerry Lewis in the Congress is another one, a
House member. In the Senate, it would be Senator Inouye of Hawaii and
Senator Ted Stevens, both in their 80s, of Alaska. They run the Senate
Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. These are the guys that the
generals talk to. And Murtha is one, in particular. He’s known for his
closeness to the four-stars. They come and they bleed on him.
And so, for Murtha to suddenly say it's over, as he did three
weeks ago or two weeks ago, as I wrote in this article, it drove the
White House crazy. They were beyond mad, as somebody said to me,
because they know that the generals are talking to him. So here you
have a case where we don't have -- you know, the generals are terrified
pretty much, as they always are. That's just the nature of the game.
But they don't speak truth to power. They're not telling the American
people exactly what's going on, and they're clearly not telling the
White House, because the White House doesn't want to hear.
So Murtha's message is a message, really, from a -- you can
consider it a message from a lot of generals on active duty today. This
is what they think, at least a significant percentage of them, I assure
you. This is, I’m not over-dramatizing this. It's a shot across the
bow. They don't think it's doable. You can't tell that to this
President. He doesn't want to hear it. But you can say it to Murtha,
you can say it to Inouye, you can say it to Stevens.
AMY GOODMAN: It's interesting what you write, the
examples of what Murtha said, the most devastating comments that he
reported. "The number of attacks in Iraq has increased from a hundred
and fifty a week to more than seven hundred a week in the past year. He
said that an estimated fifty thousand American soldiers will suffer
'from what I call battle fatigue’ in the war, and he said that the
Americans were seen as 'the common enemy’ in Iraq. He also took issue
with one of the White House's claims -- that foreign fighters are
playing a major role in the insurgency." In fact, he says, "American
soldiers 'haven't captured any in this latest activity’ -- the
continuing battle in western Anbar province, near the border with
Syria. 'So this idea that they're coming in from outside, we still
think there's only seven per cent,’" Murtha said.
SEYMOUR HERSH: And most of those, you know, the Sunnis
and Baathists have no love for jihadists. I mean, Saddam was always on
war against jihadists, just as Asad was, the father of the son back in
Syria. There's no love among the secular Baathists for any
fundamentalism. And so what happens is it's very cynical. What's
happened now is the insurgency welcomes -- if you want to come and be a
car bomber, come on in and kill yourself. They couldn't care less. But
it's not as if there's any shared responsibility there.
This is a war run by the Baathists and the Sunnis and many
Iraqi citizens, who initially had no reason to dislike us, but because
of the way we've behaved in the war and the way we've conducted the war
with these house-to-house searches and the search-and-destroy missions
and the bombing. You know, bombs don't -- they never always go where
they’re aimed, even though they’re more accurate than ever, they’re
still --even the Pentagon statistics indicate 10-15% of bombs don't go
where they're aimed, even with laser guidance.
So, Murtha, yes, I was interested in the press coverage,
because they did deal with what he said about Cheney and his caustic
comment. But in the speech was this -- I thought the statistic that was
devastating was the 50,000 statistic, of combat fatigue or whatever
syndrome they call it now, more sophisticated than that word now. But
my friends inside the V.A. tell me that as of late June or early July,
there had been about, oh, 900-950,000 American soldiers, men and women
that have gone to war since March or April of ’03, by July of ’05, two
years and three or four months later, over 104,000 had come into the
V.A. looking for help. Once they returned, rotated home, come back to
V.A. hospitals, a staggering statistic. You know, you can’t -- we talk
about torture. And one of the things to remember about mistreating
people is, you know -- this isn't cynical, but I really do mean it --
you know, the people that do the mistreatment end up being as much
victims as the people they mistreat. They come home with a lot of lot
of bad baggage.
AMY GOODMAN: We're talking to Seymour Hersh, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The New Yorker,
also helped to expose the torture at Abu Ghraib in April of 2004. The
issue of the generals not speaking out, how unusual is this? I mean,
would anyone expect it in any administration?
SEYMOUR HERSH: No, you know, really that's – you know,
that's what we're here for. We have a congress that on any given day,
you know, as I always joke, is -- I can't tell whether they're supine
or prone, but they're down. You've got a dead congress that can barely
move. I mean, the fear, you know, the thunderous noise of the Democrats
running away from Murtha. Murtha makes this statement, and all that the
Democrats do is left in the party, couldn't run away fast enough from
this man. He was left alone there. Even Nancy Pelosi, nobody supported
him when he called for an immediate withdrawal.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is actually astounding. And
then the Republicans coming forward and saying, 'Okay, we're going to
put foward this proposal,’ and it's – what? – 403 to 3. Jose Serrano,
Cynthia McKinney. Now, what was wrong with the proposal, just saying
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, actually, what he was saying, six
months. And I would guess that if you really pushed him hard, his
argument would be that once we withdraw, if -- I think every week it
gets harder and harder to do this -- once you withdraw, the first thing
the insurgency, the Sunnis and Baathists, would do would be to turn on
the jihadists -- there's no love between them -- you know, and
immediately push them out of the picture and then begin to try and get
some political stake and begin to talk with the other people, the Shia
and the secular, you know, Iraq. Even Shia Iraq, more Shia are secular
than religious. Most people don’t know that. There's many tremendous
divisions inside Iraq among the Shia.
And so, a year ago, it seemed to me, the -- a year ago -- Amy,
it's so crazy, because we always repeat history. In 1965, if anybody in
the Democratic Party -- Bobby Kennedy once tried to tentatively suggest
that the way out of the Vietnam War was talk to the North Vietnamese.
You would have been laughed out of the ballpark. We don't talk to the
guys we're fighting the war with. And so, clearly the way out was to
talk to the Sunni and Baathist leadership. Clearly, they're organized
fairly well. Obviously this insurgency is extremely well done. They've
gotten, if anything, more sophisticated.
If you remember, this summer, General Casey, alas, said that
the Iraqi -- the insurgency is defeated now; they're only hitting soft
targets, that is, civilians. And the next thing you know, we have a
hundred deaths of American soldiers in a month. I mean, that's clearly
not true. They clearly can do what they want. My own guess is, and I’m
told this by my friends on the inside, there's tremendous intelligence.
And the Israelis, among other people, are warning us that this
wonderful Green Zone that we think is such an oasis could be hit any
time. They're clearly able to penetrate into that. And so, it's all up
for grabs. Why not talk to them? Now, it's probably too late. I don't
know what we can do to salvage the situation.
AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, you also write about
President Bush and how his closest advisors have long been aware of the
religious nature of his policy commitments. In recent interviews, one
former senior official who served in Bush's first term spoke
extensively about the connection between the President's religious
faith and his view of the war in Iraq. Can you elaborate on this?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, it's interesting about this
particular person and others with whom -- all of a sudden -- it's
weird, but in the last -- people that I've been talking to for years
never discuss this. All of a sudden, within the last month or so,
somebody, just in the middle of a conversation about somebody else,
began to talk about how the President viewed 9/11 as a challenge and
sort of as a divine challenge, and the election in 2002 he saw as a
sign from God, a reaffirmation. If you remember, the Republicans did
very well in the off-year congressional election. And then, of course,
in 2004, this president ran, didn't give one inch up on the Iraqi war,
did not back off an inch and won, another sign of guidance. And so this
person was saying -- I don't know whether it's true or not, but it's
certainly what this person saw and heard, but I don't know what's in
the President's mind. He's also committed to democracy.
But what's happening now is, I think, because he's so
unreachable by common -- I think one reason the generals went to Murtha
is you can't tell this to the President. I think people -- I don't want
to use – I’ll just use the word, I think they're scared to death. I
think some of the insiders are really scared to death that you have a
president that's presiding over -- it's -- the exit plan for this war
is totally dependant on the Iraqi military, which is comical. It's
driven by militias. I don't know, many in your audience have probably
read the wonderful Jim Fallows article in the Atlantic, which I
thought was quite explicit about how bad it is. And also, nobody even
mentions the Iraqi police. They're completely destroyed and useless and
demoralized. So the idea that withdrawal is going to be dependant on
the Iraqi police and the military is a fantasy.
And so, what are we -- we're going to leave and increase the
bombing and the Iraqis eventually -- this is what's driving the Air
Force crazy is I wrote about the Iraqis will be responsible for
targeting? You know, who's going to hit what? I've actually had senior
intelligence people say to me that means Iran will be targeting our
bombers. I mean, it’s just loony. It's a loony formula.
AMY GOODMAN: Last question, and that has to do with
your last section of your piece on this composite American Special
Forces team, known as the S.M.U., special mission unit, in Syria.
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, there's more than one. There's
many of them. You know, there's more than a handful of these units.
Some are in Syria, some are other places. These are combined teams that
have been set up, so not any one service isn’t involved. And I think,
you know, obviously we think that this government believes that when it
comes to a high-value target, you know, a potential al-Qaeda or
believed al-Qaeda target, we can do anything we want anywhere in the
world. And the world's our playpen. And I can tell you right now,
inside the American intelligence community, and I’m talking about high
up in the community, there's a great deal of concern about these kind
of operations, because our troop go in and do what they do to people
they think are Iraqis -- I mean, al-Qaeda. And it's very rough. And
they don't clear it with either the State Department or the ambassador
in the country or the C.I.A. chief of station. It's a formula for
chaos. And it's going on now. And it's been going on for quite a while,
many months. And it's a new sort of step-up in the war. And Congress?
Do they want to know? I don't think so.
AMY GOODMAN: And the S.M.U.s, where else are they? The special mission units?
SEYMOUR HERSH: In places where we think there's – you
know, certainly in Iraq, and other places in the world where we think
they can do some good.
AMY GOODMAN: By the way, do you believe that the secret prisons are in Romania and Poland, as Human Rights Watch believes, that the Washington Post won't name, but exposed?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, Amy, I’m actually doing some more
work on it. But I will tell you this, the C.I.A. prisons are there.
There have been prisons, the C.I.A. has run prisons for many, many
years around the world. And I’m sure terrible things happen. But that's
actually not where the real game is. They're somewhere else.
AMY GOODMAN: Where?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Other places. I’m -- let me do my reporting, and I promise I’ll publish it, and I promise I’ll come and talk to you about it.
AMY GOODMAN: Okay, well, Seymour Hersh, I want to thank you for being with us. His latest piece is in The New Yorker
magazine; it is called "Up in the Air: Where is the Iraq War Headed
Next?" Seymour Hersh, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, thanks for
being with us.
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