Excerpt From CNN Interview With Seymour Hersh -- 05.03.04

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BLITZER: CNN's Paula Hancocks is in Gaza for us.

Thanks, Paula. We'll be checking back with you.

Let's move back to the situation in Iraq now. By now, you've probably seen the photographs that aired last week that prompted an international outrage over the treatment of some Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison.

We have more now. Extensive allegations of abuse are being detailed in the brand new issue of The New Yorker magazine. Joining us, the author of that article, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Seymour Hersh.

Sy, thanks very much for joining us.

You got a copy of this report that a general, Antonio Taguba, put together for the Pentagon, in which he reported, and I'm quoting now, "sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses" at the Abu Ghraib prison a few months back. Who's responsible? What happened?

SEYMOUR HERSH, NEW YORKER MAGAZINE: Well, first of all, he's reporting events that took place that we don't have photographs of. So clearly what we have photographs of, those kind activities had been going on for a long time.

BLITZER: So, you're saying it's not just one isolated incident. This is more widespread. Is that what you're saying?

HERSH: Well, what we talked about was sort of a systemic failure. What he was saying was that this has been investigated. The high command in Iraq knew as of late last summer there were problems there. There's been -- his was the third investigation, and his only began after the photographs surfaced.

So, once those photographs got into play, I think the high command here in Iraq and also in Washington realized they had a problem that was out of control. So he goes in, does his study. A- plus study, the guy would have been a great journalist. It's a terrific report.

BLITZER: You managed to get a copy of this report, and it's obviously well-documented in your article.

Earlier today, General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was on television, made a few of the talk shows. And I want you to listen to specifically to what he said in response to his allegations of prisoner abuse.


GENERAL RICHARD MYERS, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: There was no, no, no evidence of systematic abuse in the system at all. We've paid a lot of attention, of course, in Guantanamo, as well. We review all the interrogation methods. Torture is not one of the methods that we're allowed to use and that we use. I mean, it's just not permitted by international law, and we don't use it.


BLITZER: All right, what are you -- first of all, your immediate reaction to what you heard from General Myers?

HERSH: Why don't I read you something from the Taguba report...

BLITZER: That's the general who put together this assessment.

HERSH: Right, and he filed it in late February, and it still hasn't been...

BLITZER: And I just want to point out, General Myers said he has not read that report yet, it hasn't reached up to him yet in the chain of command.

HERSH: I certainly believe him, which as far as I'm concerned, more evidence of the kind of systematic breakdown we're talking about. But let me read you the kind of stuff he said that predated the photographing.

"Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoritic acid liquid on detainees, pouring cold water on naked detainees, beating detainees with broomhandle and a chair, threatening them with rape, sodomizing a detainee with chemical lights and perhaps a broomstick, sicking military dogs on detainees." I mean...

BLITZER: Very graphic, and it gets even worse because I read the excerpts that you included in your article.

But the bottom line, he says, General Myers, this was not -- there's no evidence of systematic abuse. This may have been a few soldiers simply going bad.

HERSH: Taguba says otherwise. He says this is across the board. And what he says that's very important, is that these are jails, by the way, when we talk about prisoners, these are full of civilians. These are people picked up at random checkpoints and random going into houses. And even in the Taguba report, he mentions that upwards of 60 percent or more have nothing to do with anything.

So they're people just there. There's no processing. It's sort of a complete failure of anything the Geneva Convention calls for. And what can I tell you?

BLITZER: There was a woman, Brigadier General Janice Karpinski, a reservist, she was in charge of this prison. She's quoted in the New York Times this morning as saying the prison in that particular cellblock where the events took place were under the control of the MI command, military intelligence command.

Who was really in charge? Who's responsible here?

HERSH: Well, obviously, the highest command in Iraq. Because, as of last summer, they knew there was a problem in the prison.

BLITZER: When you say highest command you mean General Abizaid, General Sanchez?

HERSH: General Sanchez, Ricardo Sanchez. I think he's -- that's where you have to immediately go. This is going to end up there.

BLITZER: But you don't have any evidence he specifically knew what was happening in Abu Ghraib, do you?

HERSH: What I do have evidence of is that there were three investigations, each by a major general of the Army, ordered beginning in the fall of -- last fall. Clearly somebody at a higher level understood there were generic problems.

And the issue that General Karpinski's talking about, what Taguba says in his report is that the intelligence needs of interrogation drove the prisons. In other words, those prisons were turned, you could almost say -- it's a slight exaggeration -- almost into another Guantanamo.

Interrogation became the mantra, the thing that was essential, and that was not run by the people of the military police running the prisons. That was run by the intelligence community, not only military, CIA and private contractors.

BLITZER: Well, let's get to this. What role did you discover the CIA played in this, and what role did private contractors, who are civilians, play in this alleged abuse?

HERSH: Never mind me. It's what General Taguba said. He said he believes that the private contractors and the civilians, the CIA, paramilitary people, and the military drove the actions of that prison.

In other words, what we saw -- look, a bunch of kids from -- they're reservists from West Virginia, Virginia, rural kids -- the one thing you can do to an Arab man to shame him -- you know, we thrive on guilt in this society, but in that world, the Islamic world, it's shame -- have a naked Arab walking in front of men, walking in front of other men is shameful, having simulated homosexual sex acts is shameful. It's all done to break down somebody before interrogation.

Do you think those kids thought this up? It's inconceivable. The intelligence people had this done.

BLITZER: So, what you're suggesting is that the six soldiers who have now been indicted, if you will -- and they're facing potentially a court martial -- they were told to go ahead and humiliate these prisoners? And several of these soldiers were women, not just men.

HERSH: In one photograph, you see 18 other pairs of legs, just cropped off. There were a lot of other people involved, watching this and filming this. There were other cameras going. There were videotapes too.

And this -- I'm sure that, you know, in this generation these kids have CD-ROMs all over the place. We'll see more eventually.

I'm not only suggesting, I'm telling you as a fact that these kids -- I'm not excusing them, it was horrible what they did, and took photographs, and the leering and the thumbs-up stuff, but the idea did not come from them.

BLITZER: General Karpinski says in the New York Times also, "Why would they want the active-duty people to take the blame? They want to put this on the MPs" -- those are the reservists -- "and hope that this thing goes away. Well, it's not going to go away."

Clearly, there's going to be a full-scale investigation. Are you satisfied on that front?

HERSH: Oh, my God, yes.

BLITZER: And what do you think should happen?

HERSH: You mean, besides getting out of Iraq?

BLITZER: Well, beyond the politics of this, but you're assuming that this is much more widespread than this one incident, and then that these pictures that we have -- we don't have pictures of other incidents. That's what you're...

HERSH: It's not just a question of what I'm assuming. General Taguba says it's systematic, it's out of control, it's a problem, we've got to deal with it. This is what the report says. It's a devastating report, and I just hope they make it public.

BLITZER: Was it useful, though, this kind of -- if there was torture or abuse, these atrocities, did it get information vital to the overall military objective in Iraq, based on what you found out?

HERSH: Nobody said that, and of course I assume you will hear that. But let me tell you, I talked to some people. I've been around this business in the criminal investigations, My Lai and all that, for years. I talked to some senior people, one guy who spent 36 years as an Army investigator, and he said, what happens when you coerce -- it's against the law, the Geneva Convention, to coerce information -- what happens is, people tell you what they think you want to hear.

So you've got a bunch of people, you don't know whether they know the insurgency or know al Qaeda, but they give you names, their brothers-in-laws, their neighbors. You then send out your people to arrest those people, bring them in, more people that may have nothing to do with anything. You break them down, then -- whatever means, interrogate them and get more names. It's a never-ending circle that's useless.

I would guess that the amount of information we have was minimal, out of this group, because they were largely people, as I say, picked up at random.

BLITZER: You mentioned My Lai. A lot of our viewers remember you broke the story of the My Lai massacre. You won a Pulitzer Prize for your coverage during the Vietnam War.

Give us your historic perspective, what you saw, what you reported in Vietnam, and what you're reporting now in The New Yorker magazine.

HERSH: Oh, there's no -- we're talking about in My Lai shooting people in cold blood. We're not -- that did not happen.

BLITZER: As far as you know, no one was killed at Abu Ghraib, is that what you're saying?

HERSH: No, that's not true. There were people killed, yes, but not by the soldiers, not by the reservists. There were people killed -- I can tell you specifically about one case. One of the horrible photos is a man packed in ice. You want to hear it? I'll tell it to you.

They killed him -- either civilians, the private guards, or the CIA or the military killed him during an interrogation. They were worried about it. They packed him in ice. They killed him in evening. They packed him in ice for 24 hours, put him in a body bag, and eventually at a certain time -- don't forget, now, the prison has a lot of other Army units about it, and they didn't want to be seen with a dead body.

So they packed him in ice until it was the appropriate time. They put him on a trolley, like a hospital gurney, and they put a fake IV into him, and they walked out as if he was getting an IV. Walked him out, got him in an ambulance, drove him off, dumped the body somewhere.

That literally happened. That's one of the things I know about I haven't written about, but I'm telling you, that's where you're at. There was bloodshed on the other side of the... BLITZER: We heard from Dan Senor earlier in this program, suggesting he said he didn't know of anyone who died at Abu Ghraib prison.

HERSH: I have some photographs I'll be glad to share with him anytime he wants to know.

BLITZER: It sounds as if you've got more information that you're ready to release at some point as well, that this article in The New Yorker is not everything you know?

HERSH: Of course not.

BLITZER: What are you waiting for?

HERSH: I have to prove what I believe to be true. I have to get it proven. I believe this is more extensive, yes. I believe there are other things. I believe General Karpinski, as much at fault as she was, this was on her watch, I believe there's a point to what she says. I believe there's a point to what the soldiers say.

Again, not to excuse them. I would be shamed forever having participated in taking pictures, but there was a lot of pressure on these people to get interrogation. The whole system had been turned into basically an interrogation center.

And, again, I'm telling you, we're not talking about prisoners captured in Afghanistan who are trying to kill us. We're talking about people picked up at random.

And they lost control of the system. And the Army can talk about it all they want, but they lost control.

BLITZER: But on this specific point, and we are almost out of time, there were different sections of the Abu Ghraib prison, where there were minimal security, maximum security, then there were the real hard-nosed, kind of, potential terrorists that were presumably subjected to this kind of alleged abuse.

HERSH: General Taguba says the differentiations almost didn't exist. There were no quantifying ways to differentiate. And one of the problems they had in the prisons -- and General Karpinski, I think, is right about this. There was no -- under the Geneva Convention, you would pick somebody who was a civilian, you have to process him within six months, charge them or do something. This wasn't happening. People were being kept indefinitely. They weren't allowed visits.

It was a violation -- look, we went to this war because Saddam Hussein was doing this in the same prison. And we ended up replicating it in a way -- of course it wasn't the same kind of atrocities as he was doing, but nonetheless we have different standards here in our country.

And, you know, as a citizen, it's -- I wish General Myers had read the report. I absolutely believe him, he's an honorable man, I know, that he hadn't read it. I think he should have. I think it's a terrible thing for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to go on television one day after my story's out about a report that's making news all over the world, I think it's a terrible thing for him to go on and say, "I haven't read it."

You know, we all lead by example. I was in the military. If you have good officers who do the job right, you will do it right. And I think he inadvertently, I'm sure he's an honorable man, it's a terrible example. He's saying that the prisoner issue wasn't that important until just the other week.

BLITZER: Seymour Hersh, he's got a powerful piece in The New Yorker. Thanks very much.

HERSH: You're welcome.

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