March 28, 2005

Hersh Discusses Iraq, War Journalism at I.C.

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Seymour Hersh, regular contributor to The New Yorker, famous for reporting on the Abu Ghraib abuses, addressed a packed auditorium at Ithaca College on Thursday to discuss American leadership and the situation in Iraq. Hersh’s other notable stories included the massacre of My Lai during the Vietnam War and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s wiretapping.

Hersh was highly critical of the government’s handling of the Iraq war and its follow-through, but he emphasized that he believes their intentions are good.

“Yeah, I think I’m virtuous, I have the white hat, I do these things, I win these prizes, I’m conducting things in with what I see is the utmost of honor and integrity. But we have a president who absolutely believes what he’s doing is virtuous. He believes he has the white hat. He believes he’s doing exactly the right thing,” Hersh said.

According to Hersh, this assurance has also affected Bush’s decision making, especially in Iraq.

“He’s got 1,500 plus body bags. I wouldn’t presume to say that anybody wants more deaths, I can’t begin to imagine he does, but if another thousand or two thousand American body bags come back, it’s O.K., because … he believes that … he’ll be judged on what happens in the long run. If he’s [around] 50 more years, they’ll view him as the man who changed the world,” Hersh said.

“This is is not Lyndon Johnson worried about the anti-war movement or Richard Nixon being terrified, not only about impeachment, but also about the things he was doing and the anti-war movement. [Bush] is not affected by it. We have a different creature,” he added.

He gave the example of General Eric Shinseki, the army’s former chief of staff who predicted that the Iraq war would require many more soldiers than others in the administration thought. Shinseki was then replaced. Hersh said he was not replaced because the number he quoted was unsettlingly high, but because the administration felt Shinseki was no longer aligned with them.

“Somebody once involved said to me, you really have to understand these guys. They weren’t mad at Shinseki because he used a much bigger number than they ever wanted to suggest, a quarter of a million people … Here’s what their thinking is: Did he get it? … Hadn’t he gone to all those meetings and listened to us explain how we can do with 25,000 troops?” Hersh said. “It wasn’t a question of numbers it; it was almost as if he’d been deprogrammed.” Hersh then spoke about the United States’ approach in Iraq.

“The fact is, it’s a real simple fact — and what I’m telling you isn’t me, this my friends in the intelligence committee, this is what they’ve been saying for over a year with nobody listening: it’s not an insurgency. What we’re fighting against are the people we started the war against,” Hersh said.

“We wanted them to stand up and fight. They gave us Baghdad, they gave us the Suni triangle. They moved away, they moved into small cells. They’re fighting us at their pace and at their level. But that’s very hard to grab around. It’s also very frightening to think that we are really into something we don’t know very much about. And that’s where we are,” he added.

Hersh traced the administration’s failed expectations as one of the reasons that situations such as Abu Ghraib have arisen. He said that the administration had very little intelligence gathered, and that the so-called insurgents were learning the army’s tactics and creating traps, including ambushes of forces’ escape routes.

“[Saddam] set up three or four levels of covert actions, and we couldn’t break it, we couldn’t find him. So in order to do it, what are we going do we do? We’ve got, 10, 20 thousand prisoners in Iraq, let’s start squeezing them … So the idea is, we start escalating the tactics against the prisoners,” Hersh said.

He added, “Either Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International later estimated that at that time, at least 90 percent of the people who were captive had nothing to do with anything. Many of the captives had been picked up at roadside blocks. The other thing we would do is, if a car bomb went off and an American was killed, we’d at either shoot at or arrest every male we could find in the area, and just grab them, and they were automatically just bound and trussed up and sent to Abu Ghraib for interrogation.”

Hersh stressed that the prisoners were subjected to treatment that was especially damaging to their culture, especially with regards to sexual violation.

“It’s against the Qur’an for a male man to be seen [nude] by others,” Hersh explained. “Once you have a photograph of an Arab man, naked, simulating homosexual activity, he’s a dead man, he’s gone in his community,” Hersh said, explaining that this could then be used to blackmail that man into spying for the government.

He added that women prisoners sent letters to their families asking them to be killed because they had been “defiled” by American soldiers fondling or taking photographs of them.

Hersh said that the American soldiers are also coming back emotionally scarred from guilt and that “we’re sitting on a time bomb.”

According to Hersh, the current administration has set up an environment which makes reporting on the situation very difficult.

“When I first learned about Abu Ghraib it was much before it became public, but … the idea of writing a story before the photographs and ‘saying Americans were mistreating somebody’ was just impossible, that’s how bad it was stacked against truth. You just couldn’t. The machine would grind you up — not just the machine, but your own peers,” he said.

He had earlier said that Bush “is not reachable, by me or my colleagues” and that “we’ve never had this kind of systematic distortion of the facts.”

After his hour-long talk, Hersh opened the floor for questions. Topics included whether American soldiers were targeting reporters, comparisons of the Abu Ghraib scandal to the My Lai massacre and more talk about the media’s restrictions.

“I find it very hard to believe that Iraqis are killing journalists,” said Ithaca resident Fay Gougakis, regarding the possibility that Americans are purposely targeting reporters. “It’s got to be some other force.”

“Am I going to find an American soldier that’s going to tell me there’s a unit targeting [such] people? I just don’t think that exists. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen,” Hersh replied. He later added that “it’s absolutely a dry hole” for information.

“I’m not going to tell you that I think we deliberately targeted journalists, because I don’t know. I don’t know that, and that [accusation]’s inflammatory,” he said.

The audience seemed to respond positively to much of Hersh’s talk, erupting into laughter at his sometimes tongue-in-cheek humor. At least one listener, however, disagreed with Hersh’s critique of Bush. After Hersh’s comment that Bush “believes he’s doing the exactly the right thing,” one audience member yelled out, “He is doing exactly the right thing!” “Well, you know, we’ll do questions,” Hersh replied, drawing laughter from the crowd.

Dianne Lynch, dean of the Roy H. Park School of Communications, Ithaca College, introduced Hersh before his talk.

“I went to college just after the Watergate era. It was a time when Americans believed in the power of the press to protect and defend the public interest and the public good,” Lynch said. “We have come a long way since that more idealistic time.”

She said that Hersh is one of the exceptions to journalists who have lost their credibility to the people.

The lecture took place at Ithaca College’s Ford Hall. The hall was filled, and Melissa M. Gattine, assistant for special programs for the Roy H. Park School of Communications, said she was unsure how many people were turned away because there are four entrances to the auditorium. The Park Foundation sponsored the event.

Archived article by Yuval Shavit
Sun City Editor