Since September 11, 2001, Seymour M. Hersh has riveted readers -- and outraged the Bush Administration -- with his explosive stories in The New Yorker, including his headline-making pieces on the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Now, Hersh brings together what he has learned, along with new reporting, to answer the critical question of the last four years: How did America get from the clear morning when two planes crashed into the World Trade Center to a divisive and dirty war in Iraq?
In Chain of Command, Hersh takes an unflinching look behind the public story of the war on terror and into the lies and obsessions that led America into Iraq. Hersh draws on sources at the highest levels of the American government and intelligence community, in foreign capitals, and on the battlefield for an unparalleled view of a critical chapter in America's recent history. In a new afterword, he critiques the government's failure to adequately investigate prisoner abuse -- at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere -- and punish those responsible. With an introduction by The New Yorker's editor, David Remnick, Chain of Command is a devastating portrait of an administration blinded by ideology and of a president whose decisions have made the world a more dangerous place for America.
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About the Author
Seymour M. Hersh has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, four George Polk Awards, and more than a dozen other prizes, many of them for his work at the New York Times. In 2004, he won a National Magazine Award for public interest for his pieces on intelligence and the Iraq war. He lives in Washington, D.C. Chain of Command is his eighth book.
Read an Excerpt
Chain of Command
The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib
Torture at Abu Ghraib
1. A Guantánamo Problem
In the late summer of 2002, a Central Intelligence Agency analyst made a quiet visit to the detention center at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where an estimated six hundred prisoners were being held, many, at first, in steel-mesh cages that provided little protection from the brutally hot sun. Most had been captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan during the campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The Bush Administration had determined, however, that they were not prisoners of war, but "enemy combatants," and that their stay at Guantánamo could be indefinite, as teams of C.I.A., F.B.I., and military interrogators sought to pry intelligence out of them. In a series of secret memorandums written earlier in the year, lawyers for the White House, the Pentagon, and the Justice Department had agreed that the prisoners had no rights under federal law or the Geneva Conventions. President Bush endorsed the finding, while declaring that the Al Qaeda and Taliban detainees were nevertheless to be treated in a manner consistent with the principles of the Geneva Conventions -- as long as such treatment was also "consistent with military necessity."
Getting the interrogation process to work was essential. The war on terrorism would not be decided by manpower and weaponry, as in the Second World War, but by locating terrorists and learning when and where future attacks might come. "This is a war in which intelligence is everything," John Arquilla, a professor of Defense Analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School and a consultant to the Pentagon on terrorism, told me. "Winning or losing depends on it." And President Bush and his advisers still needed information about the September 11, 2001, hijackings: How were they planned? Who was involved? Was there a stay-behind operation inside the United States?
But the interrogations at Guantánamo were a bust. Very little useful intelligence had been gathered, while prisoners from around the world continued to flow into the base and the facility constantly expanded. The C.I.A. analyst had been sent there to find out what was going wrong. He was fluent in Arabic and familiar with the Islamic world. He was held in high respect within the agency and was capable of reporting directly, if he chose, to George Tenet, the C.I.A. director. The analyst did more than just visit and inspect. He interviewed at least thirty prisoners to find out who they were and how they ended up in Guantánamo. Some of his findings, he later confided to a former C.I.A. colleague, were devastating.
"He came back convinced that we were committing war crimes in Guantánamo," the colleague told me. "Based on his sample, more than half the people there didn't belong there. He found people lying in their own feces," including two captives, perhaps in their eighties, who were clearly suffering from dementia. "He thought what was going on was an outrage," the C.I.A. colleague added. There was no rational system for determining who was important and who was not. Prisoners, once captured and transported to Cuba, were in permanent legal limbo. The analyst told his colleague that one of the first prisoners he had interviewed was a boy who was asked if he "did jihad" -- participated in a holy war against America. "The kid says 'I never did jihad. I'd have done it if I could, but I had no chance. I just got thrown into jail.' "
The analyst filed a report summarizing what he had seen and what he had learned from the prisoners. Two former Administration officials who read the highly classified document told me that its ultimate conclusion was grim. The wrong people were being questioned in the wrong way. "Organizations that operate inside a country without outside direction are hard to find, and we've got to figure out how to deal with them," one of the former officials, who worked in the White House, explained. But the message of the analyst's report was that "we were making things worse for the United States, in terms of terrorism." The random quizzing of random detainees made it more difficult to find and get useful information from those prisoners who had something of value to say. Equally troubling was the analyst's suggestion, the former White House official said, that "if we captured some people who weren't terrorists when we got them, they are now."
That fall the analyst's report rattled aimlessly around the upper reaches of the Bush Administration until it got into the hands of General John A. Gordon, the deputy national security adviser for combatting terrorism, who reported directly to Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser and the President's confidante. Gordon, who had retired from the military as a four-star general in 2000, had been head of operations for the Air Force Space Command and had also served as a deputy director of the C.I.A. for three years. He was deeply troubled and distressed by the analyst's report, and by its implications for the treatment, in retaliation, of captured American soldiers. Gordon, according to a former Administration official, told colleagues that he thought "it was totally out of character with the American value system," and "that if the actions at Guantánamo ever became public, it'd be damaging to the President." The issue was not only direct torture, but the Administration's obligations under federal law and under the United Nations Convention Against Torture, ratified by the United States in 1994, that barred torture as well as other "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." The C.I.A. analyst's report, in Gordon's view, provided clear evidence of degrading treatment. Things in Cuba were getting out of control.
At the time, of course, Americans were still traumatized by the September 11th attacks, and were angry. After John Walker Lindh, the twenty-year-old Californian who joined the Taliban, was captured in Afghanistan in December 2001, his American interrogators stripped him, gagged him, strapped him to a board, and exhibited him to the press and to any soldier who wished to see him ...Chain of Command
The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib. Copyright © by Seymour Hersh. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
An Interview with Seymour Hersh
Barnes & Noble.com: Chain of Command is the follow-up to your groundbreaking New Yorker pieces on the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. How did you first get wind of what was happening in the infamous prison?
Seymour Hersh: Got it through the dalliance of CBS, which delayed airing of the photos it had somehow obtained. I learned about the CBS stuff very early -- in mid-April -- and waited eagerly. When it didn't happen (someone who had been interviewed by CBS was keeping me informed), I decided to pursue the photos. Not only got them but also -- and most important -- got hold of the superb and most honest internal report by Major General Antonio Taguba, which broke open the story. His report -- not meant for public release, I believe -- remains by far the most honest and thorough of the subsequently released inquiries.
B&N.com: Why did CBS hesitate?
SH: The same reasons many in the media have hesitated after 9/11: fear of retribution by the Bush White House (that is, lack of access to top officials) and a chronic desire to be on the team, to be loyal. I think they've got it wrong.
B&N.com: If there had been no pictures taken at Abu Ghraib, would we even be talking about this issue today?
SH: Of course not. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the two leading rights groups in the world, have been complaining in reports and press releases for two years about U.S. tactics in our military prisons in Iraq, Cuba, and Afghanistan, but none of us listened. The photos did the trick.
B&N.com: Should Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have been fired over his role in the scandal?
SH: Sure, but so should everyone at the top of the government. They had knowledge of the rough and illegal -- in terms of the Geneva Convention -- practices at our prisons but did nothing about it. Those tactics obviously were approved, if passively, by all at the top.
B&N.com: How high up the "chain of command" do you think responsibility for the torture goes?
SH: At least to the vice president's office and the office of Condoleezza Rice, the president's assistant for national security. I can fix responsibility for knowledge, at the least, of the wrongdoing at that level, but the big questions -- what did the president know and when did he know it? -- have, as usual with this presidency, no answer.
Bush was not at some key White House meetings on prison abuse -- I open my book with one such meeting -- that took place in the late summer of 2002. If you want to know what I think, as opposed to what I know and wrote, I'm sure he was aware of it all. He most certainly was aware that Rumsfeld set up a secret special operations unit after 9/11 whose undercover mission was to find and snatch suspected al Qaeda operatives and bring them to interrogation centers throughout the Third World. Such actions may seem all right, in the immediacy of 9/11, but they are against international law and eventually led to many abuses, including -- as I state in the book -- some of the crazy tactics at Abu Ghraib.
B&N.com: Do you think Bush's relentless linkage of 9/11 to Iraq -- officially disproved by the September 11th Commission -- helped encourage the torturers to lash out against their prisoners? Or did they just consider it "fun"?
SH: The mistreatment of prisoners began almost immediately with the war on terror after 9/11, with local cops and FBI agents manhandling Arabs and, later, soldiers doing the same to those arrested in the combat zone. I really think in the beginning it was a sense of revenge and payback, coupled with fear -- when will they strike again, and where? -- that triggered much of the worst treatment. Rumsfeld's talk about taking the gloves off and the president's talk about driving bin Laden out of his snake hole didn't help, to be sure.
B&N.com: Should we consider the offenses at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo "war crimes"?
SH: Absolutely, especially since we do not know all -- and the worst -- of what happened. That will only be known when the prisoners, many of whom had nothing to do with al Qaeda or wrongdoing against the U.S., begin telling their stories. But first they have to get out of prison, where some have been kept since late 2001 without any semblance of due process. A violation of the law and all we in America stand for.
B&N.com: Are you surprised that the scandal hasn't been more of an issue during the presidential campaign?
SH: Yes, but I guess the Democrats are afraid that the truth about the prisons will rebound and not be a positive issue. It's the same fear of consequence that the press has had throughout. Big mistake, I think.
B&N.com: How badly did the Abu Ghraib revelations affect the perception of America in the Islamic community?
SH: This is devastating for us, not only among the crazies in that world but also among the moderate Muslims who respect America and wanted to do business with us and send their children to our universities. They now see us as a sexually perverse society that has no respect for the Islamic faith and Muslim practices. This will be a long-lasting stain on our reputation as a moral nation.
B&N.com: Are our troops at further risk, knowing that they might be abused themselves were they to be captured by insurgents?
SH: Of course. One of the complaints the smart military officers had from the beginning about the mistreatment of prisoners was the possibility of retaliation. (Another issue is that good intelligence is rarely obtained through coercion…what's needed is to establish rapport and help the prisoner change his views). Our treatment of prisoners -- and of Muslims in general -- has been creating more al Qaedas since 9/11.
B&N.com: Do you think we'll find out more about what happened in these prisons after the election?
SH: No. The Bush administration is into lockdown on the subject, and none of the various past and future investigations -- save one now being done by the secretary of the Navy (who is said to be very upset by what he's learned about prison abuse) -- will get to the civilian chain of command, where responsibility lies, as I repeatedly say in my book. We will learn more only when the bulk of prisoners are released from Guantánamo, which probably over the years has consistently been the worst hellhole.
B&N.com: You also famously broke the news of the My Lai massacre, which occurred during the Vietnam War and won a Pulitzer in the process. How has investigative journalism changed since 1970?
SH: Not much, in my book. Our job still is to get the story and t ell it. I'm sorry that many more of my colleagues chose to think otherwise after 9/11. They missed some great stories, didn't they?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
If you have taken the time to do your homework on all that is happening you will see that the book 'follows the money' so to speak. No matter what the Bush administration says, not everyone can be lying. This could not happen without the upper ranks knowing, even fostering, this behavior. We know that beginning with the now-current Attorney General the line has been blurred from the top. This information fits and it will stick to the history of this President for a long time. I hope this is required reading for future generations.
I felt this book started out great, his analysis and exposure of TORTURE at Abu-Ghraib and Guantanamo, how these were being carried out sometimes in secret- sometimes not, how the green lights were clearly given to carry this all out from the highest levels of the US government, the rendering to other US allies who could torture suspects more easily --all that was done exceptionally well in his account. After that he seems to drift off into every direction, exposing some of the crimes that are being committed by the US in Iraq or Afghanistan (while leaving out completely lists of others) but still sort of defending this whole war without end and without borders. I still think its a good book overall, especially the beginnings, but its not the best on the whole 'war thing'.
In this unusually useful book, the American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh presents some vital new information on the US and British states¿ current wars. Torture, which is invariably counterproductive, is of course illegal, under the Geneva Convention, US federal anti-torture statutes and the UN Convention Against Torture, ratified by the USA in 1994. Yet in 2001 President Bush secretly ruled, ¿I ¿ determine that none of the provisions of Geneva apply to our conflict with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan or elsewhere throughout the world.¿ This contempt for law resulted directly in systematic abuse, torture and murders in US prisons. Abu Ghraib was unusual only because it became notorious. The US state organises torture tourism: it kidnaps suspects then takes them to Egypt for intensive torture, or to the many secret CIA prisons in Pakistan, Thailand, Singapore, etc. In November 2001, Bush approved a Pakistani airlift out of northern Afghanistan. 5000 people escaped, Pakistani army officers and intelligence agents, and an unknown number of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. Since 1997, the Labour government has consistently spread false information about Iraq. A member of the UN inspection team passed dozens of unverified intelligence `reports¿ to MI6, who passed these dodgy tips discreetly to the press. Ehud Barak, an ex-Prime Minister of Israel, told Vice-President Dick Cheney late last year that the USA had lost in Iraq. He said that Israel `had learned that there¿s no way to win an occupation¿. The only issue now was `choosing the size of your humiliation¿. The Israeli government has also concluded that the occupation cannot bring stability or democracy to Iraq. As a former Israeli military intelligence officer said, ¿it doesn¿t add up. It¿s over. Not militarily ¿ but politically.¿ So Israel is not depending on the USA. It is further destabilising the Middle East by training Kurdish commando units in northern Iraq and running covert operations in Kurdish areas of Iran and Syria. This has provoked a new alliance against Israel, of Iran, Syria and Turkey.
Hersh started on the road to journalism fame with his Mai Lai relevations. How sad for the United States that this book on Abu Ghraib reads like a progression in a serial story. Based on New Yorker articles Hersh continues the Vietnam theme with the way lower ranked military was charged, higher authority, including the White House was not affected. Good book.
Having already read most of Hersh's articles in the New Yorker, I come late to Chain of Command which bundles the banality of evil and incompetence that was the Bush administration. It makes me sad to note that most of the perpetrators fell upwards. All honorable men, indeed. Only the powerless received punishment.The book is a kaleidoscope of the early Bush years, a fractured impression of many scandals in eight parts. The book opens with the Abu Ghraib scandal and its iconic ugly America. Nearly five years later, no general officer has spent time in jail. Donald Rumsfeld simply sat out the scandal and remained in office long after. The second part moves back in time to the intelligence failures of 9/11. The third part discusses the Afghanistan invasion. The fourth, fifth and sixth part deal with the snake oil salesmen of the Iraq War as well as the invasion itself. The seventh part sheds light on Pakistan and its peculiar friend of George W. Bush, Musharraf. The eighth and final is a tour de horizon of the US policy in the Middle East.The book offers three major lessons. The first lesson is that even egregious failure does not lead to punishment or disgrace for members of the elite. Being a good German pays off with tenure, places on the bench, stars and other sinecures. The power of media disclosure (as far as the US corporate media allows) has lost much of its strength. If perpetrators manage to survive a media cycle, interest will wane.The second lesson is that the failures of the Bush administration can look back on a long tradition of US foreign policy failure. The US has a penchant for allying with dictators and other nasty folks for short-term gain, selling their principles of liberty and democracy for small concessions - with a huge price tag in the future as the mistaken trade-offs hit home. A better US foreign policy would stick to promoting its core values and not try to accommodate bad guys just to do some business.The third lesson is the on-going incompetence of the CIA, the state and defense departments in dealing with foreigners. How long does it take them to learn that speaking a foreigner's language is a sine qua non in playing the intelligence game? Having a huge inward-looking bureaucracy in Langley is of little value.Overall, the articles have aged well. Rereading them leaves me sad and angry. The US used to be a beacon of hope.
You may know of Seymour Hersch already. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who often writes for the New Yorker. More particularly he is the one who broke the story of both the My Lai massacre and Abu Ghraib. Yes, if there's one man in this country doing real reporting, it's him. For his impeccable investigative skills, I picked up the 2004 book Chain of Command.Hersch is remarkable. In this book he details just how something like Abu Ghraib could have happened. Who said what to whom to allow such atrocities to begin and continue? How did the reorganization and power juggling within the Administration lead to a failure of intelligence before 9/11? Who knew what when about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Chain of Command is a magnum opus, but also a difficult one to read. Is it the subject matter? The mendacity of this Administration? The atrocities? No, it is precisely the attention to detail that makes Hersch such a good journalist. Take for example his insistence on context for each statement. I can't help but be reminded of Homer. As in the Iliad every introduction of a person includes his entire history. Just for comparison:"Kalchas, Thestor's son, far the best of the bird interpreters who knew all things that were....""Robert Baer, an Arabic speaker who was considered perhaps the best on-the ground field officer in the Middle East..."See what I mean? It's informative, it gives you all the context for the following statement you could ever desire, but it is rather cumbersome. I quickly began to wish that I could read this book in short 15 page article segments instead of 400 pages at a time. Hersch is scrupulous about his sources, about his sources' sources, about his timelines and places and facts. That's a wonderful thing in a journalist, but makes for dry reading.The best moments of the book are in the Epilogue. Here he scathingly attacks the Administration and caught my breath with his conclusion. After a long list of facts and press statements Hersch concludes with this: "There are many who believe George Bush is a liar, a President who knowingly and deliberately twists facts for political gain. But lying would indicate an understanding of what is desired, what is possible, and how best to get there. A more plausible explanation is that words have no meaning for this President beyond the immediate moment, and so he believes that his mere utterance of the phrases makes them real. It is a terrifying possibility."Terrifying indeed. I recommend this book to anyone who wants an in depth knowledge of what went wrong, and in many cases, what is still going wrong. Hersch is of course still reporting, so instead of reading this book already 3 years old, you may want to take a gander at the New Yorker Online for his latest analyses of politics in the Middle East. Hersch is a truthspeaker in a time when we so desperately need transparency and honesty.
Since September 11, 2001, Seymour M. Hersh has riveted readers -- and outraged the Bush Administration -- with his stories in The New Yorker, including his breakthrough pieces on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Now, in Chain of Command, he brings together this reporting, along with new revelations, to answer the critical question of the last three years: how did America get from the clear morning when hijackers crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to a divisive and dirty war in Iraq?Hersh established himself at the forefront of investigative journalism thirty-five years ago when he broke the news of the massacre at My Lai, Vietnam, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. Ever since, he's challenged America's power elite by publishing the stories that others can't, or won't, tell. In exposés on subjects ranging from Saudi corruption to nuclear black marketeers and -- months ahead of other journalists -- the White House's false claims about weapons of mass destruction, Hersh has cemented his reputation as the indispensable reporter of our time.In Chain of Command, Hersh takes an unflinching look behind the public story of President Bush's "war on terror" and into the lies and obsessions that led America into Iraq. He reveals the connections between early missteps in the hunt for Al Qaeda and disasters on the ground in Iraq. The book includes a new account of Hersh's pursuit of the Abu Ghraib story and of where, he believes, responsibility for the scandal ultimately lies. Hersh draws on sources at the highest levels of the American government and intelligence community, in foreign capitals, and on the battlefield for an unparalleled view of a crucial chapter in America's recent history. With an introduction by The New Yorker's editor, David Remnick, Chain of Command is a devastating portrait of an Administration blinded by ideology and of a President whose decisions have made the world a more dangerous place for America.
No matter where you stand politically (if you stand anywhere), the information in this book is critical for everyone to be aware of. It achieved widespread success, especially in the couple months after its release, but the conversation cannot stop. Spread the word about this. Read it twice. Discuss it. Get angry about it. The stakes are so high. Informing ourselves and out friends is the first step, of several, neccesary to ensuring that this sort of tragedy isn't STILL happening.
I had to read this text for a graduate class in deviance. Unfortunately, the author is so blinded with his partisanship, he fails to accurately portray the events that led up to the War in Iraq. The author fails to even recognize the very real danger of terrorism in America. Furthermore, the author seems to be advocating that Americans wait to engage the enemy at home versus opening a front to fight terrorists abroad. If you are looking for a non-partisan explanation of the events surrounding 9/11 and the Iraq War, this is not the book for you. However, if you are liberal in thought and hate the current administration, this is a nice fictional partisan potrayal of twisted facts meant to make the reader feel good.