The road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib

By Seymour M. Hersh
Harper Collins (US) $25,95; Allen Lane (UK) £17.99

Review by David Scheffer

Financial Times

October 14, 2004

The US presidential contest, focused on the Iraq war and global leadership, is a riveting epilogue to Seymour Hersh's new book, Chain of Command. The conduct of the US, the world's dominant power, has not been easy to decipher in recent years due to the veil the Bush administration has drawn over so much of its decision making and actions overseas.

But Hersh remains the same investigative reporter who won the Pulitzer Prize for uncovering the My Lai massacre in Vietnam 35 years ago. He has pursued truth the old-fashioned way and written a book of penetrating insights into the arrogance of power that arose after the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks on America.

Readers of The New Yorker will be familiar with the substance of Chain of Command, as it incorporates Hersh's recent reporting. But the book conveys his story to a wider audience, starkly connecting the dots of misjudgment and deception guiding the Bush administration's policies on Iraq, Afghanistan, the wider Middle East and North Korea and on the treatment of detainees in the war on terrorism.

If Tony Blair, the British prime minister, read the book he might reconsider how he has framed his relationship with, and trust in, the Bush White House. Mr Blair's fateful decisions on Iraq have hinged on a colossal fraud in Washington. As Mr Blair staked so much on boldly advancing the principles of international law, it is difficult to square his political philosophy with the Bush mentality.

Hersh's most significant contribution to the numerous critical histories of the Bush administration is his examination of what civilian leaders and military commanders knew about the consequences of their decisions on issues such as detainees, troop deployments and North Korea long before they were exposed to intense public scrutiny. The revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad and similar charges about US facilities at Guantánamo Bay and in Afghanistan should not have shocked key decision-makers in the Bush administration when Hersh and CBS News broke the Abu Ghraib story in March. This is a ditch that US commanders dug themselves. Secret authorisation by George W. Bush and officials of such techniques after 9/11 was clearly part of the plan to combat terrorism in defiance of international law, any reasonable interpretation of US law and "diplomatic niceties".

Hersh quotes a former US intelligence official saying the goal was to "keep the operation protected". "We're not going to read more people than necessary into our heart of darkness," he said. "The rules are 'Grab whom you must. Do what you want'." A government consultant tells Hersh that the purpose of the Abu Ghraib photographs was to create an "army of informants, people you could insert back in the population" to gather intelligence. Low-level military and intelligence personnel reported serious abuses within US detention facilities in 2002 and 2003. Some officials, such as John Gordon at the National Security Council, tried to draw attention to the problem but were summarily rebuffed by top officials (named by Hersh). John Abizaid, the US Centcom commander, and his deputy knew of systematic abuses last year, Hersh reports. Detailed reports by the International Committee of the Red Cross and human rights groups had alerted officials to critical problems in the detention facilities since 2002. But there was no credible follow-up.

There remains the suspicious influence of Geoffrey Miller, the major general who led the possibly illegal interrogation techniques at Guantánamo Bay and then visited Abu Ghraib to talk about similar methods at the behest of Stephen Cambone, a top aide to Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary. Gen Miller now commands Abu Ghraib under a microscope. But his earlier conduct invites investigation.

No top-level US political appointees or commanders have been held accountable for the abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. Thorough congressional investigations are unlikely. But Hersh's book is a primer for the judicial and congressional scrutinies this mess so richly deserves. As a retired general told Hersh: "This was a huge leadership failure." Mr Rumsfeld bears special responsibility for arrogantly downsizing and under-equipping troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, leading to disastrous consequences for the US military, the reconstruction efforts and civilians.

Chain of Command shows the critical need for evidence of illegal conduct by US forces to reach high levels quickly and elicit rapid responses. The White House needs a special counsel on international law to brief the president honestly and rein in officials who might forget or deliberately derail what the US stands for as a nation.

The writer, visiting professor of law at George Washington University Law School, was US ambassador at large for war crimes issues (1997-2001)