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Chain of Command

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
11.08.2004 | BOOKS

Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib
By Seymour Hersh
HarperCollins, 416 pages, $12.95

Finding an obvious entry point into this pornography of failure isn't easy. Like hardcore adult entertainment, you can pretty much pop it in and skip to any scene at random; the pay-off is more or less the same. Or to pick a metaphor more appropriate to the journalistic rectitude of Sy Hersh, opening up Chain of Command is the book equivalent of the Chips Ahoy ad campaign--betcha' bite a reason to vote for John Kerry. A catalogue of deceit and error, this collection of Hersh's post-9/11 New Yorker articles packs a cumulative punch greater than its individual parts. The sheer number of stupidities and outrages is staggering. And again, they're practically on every page.

Let the spine settle revealing page 118, and you'll find John Ashcroft's Justice Department refusing to seek a plea bargain with "the 20th hijacker" Zacarias Moussaoui to instead pursue the death penalty, even though no evidence existed linking Moussaoui to 9/11 and even though he might have held information about other al Qaeda sleeper cells in the country. The suspect has since gone insane while in Ashcroft's legal limbo.

Though such Greatest Hits of the Bush War on Terror stand up on their own, there is a well-developed running theme here. It's a theme that Hersh has pursued several furlongs ahead of the pack, while blocking wind for the small group of reporters working to create a counter-narrative to America's response to 9/11. The theme is how a small clique has shown contempt for the collective wisdom and abilities of the nation's intelligence services and military, while executing an ideologically driven, strategically inept "war on terror." The result, conclude most of the experts in Hersh's mother of all Rolodexes, is a less safe America in a more dangerous world.

Exasperation at the administration's failure to heed sound advice pervades Chain of Command. Active and retired veterans from the intelligence and military establishments repeatedly argue that the country's institutions are smarter and better than the policies being enacted in their name. In Chain of Command, the "road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib" is a mountainous desert highway marked with neon signs blinking, "One Way," "Turn Around Now," "Don't Be Stupid," "Assholes: You're Going in the Wrong Direction," "Cliff Straight Ahead" and "Repeat: Cliff Straight Ahead."

Where another administration would have heeded these signs, or at least pulled over to consult with other passengers, this one just barreled along, knuckles white on the wheel.

For Hersh, the locus is Don Rumsfeld's Pentagon. It is here that an alternative intelligence-gathering system was set up to manufacture information in line with the administration's agenda. It is here that lawyers crafted the language of how and why the U.S. would turn its back on its commitments to the Geneva Conventions and the other pillars of international law. It is here that a "special access program"--basically a black-op--was hatched that gave Special Forces the right to carry out assassinations, and it is here that the orders came for military interrogators to apply whatever means necessary behind the gates at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

In drawing a straight line from Rumsfeld's Afghanistan/Guantanamo policies to the mess in Iraq, Hersh highlights the saga of General Geoffrey Miller. As commander at Guantanamo, Miller was put in charge of the newly and vaguely designated "unlawful combatants" held at the base. Hersh conveys a widely shared consensus among military brass and other observers that the Guantanamo system approved by the president, ordered by Rumsfeld and overseen by Miller was not only immoral and illegal, but also ineffective to the point of being counterproductive. It failed to provide much useful intelligence and angered and horrified the world, signaling early that the Bush administration didn't understand or care about the public relations consequences of the images coming out of the camp.

Instead of learning from the mistakes of Guantanamo, Rumsfeld transferred Miller to Abu Ghraib in August 2003, where the general was sent to "Gitmoize" the Iraqi prison system. It was Miller's job, reports Hersh, to "turn Abu Ghraib into a center of intelligence for the Bush Administration's global war on terrorism... Miller apparently believed that the prisoners in Iraq, if interrogated correctly could provide strategic intelligence relevant to operations around the world."

In short, the man the Pentagon put in charge of Saddam's notorious prisons represented not only a failed model of intelligence gathering, but also the administration's rank inability to distinguish between al Qaeda and nationalist guerillas in Iraq.

A lot of human suffering and a p.r. Waterloo could have been avoided had administration ideologues not been hardwired to ignore CIA warnings about expanding the Afghanistan model to Iraq. One CIA vet quoted by Hersh says the institutional memory of the failed Phoenix Program in Vietnam--which claimed 41,000 victims and failed to break the Vietcong's cell model insurgency--led the agency to oppose Rumsfeld's expanding of the lawless military interrogation procedures at Abu Ghraib.

"[Senior CIA leadership] said 'No way,'" explains one high-level source quoted by Hersh. "'We signed up for [these] operations against high-value terrorist targets [in Afghanistan, and] now you want to use it for cabdrivers, brothers-in-law, and people pulled off the street...We're not going to do this. We've been down this road before.'"

As for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Hersh is as strong on how the administration pumped up the case for war with bogus information as he is on the war's ongoing repercussions for national security. The book's final chapters examine the threats that went unaddressed in the shadow of the administration's delusional obsession with Saddam Hussein, most notably the nuclear black market spawned by Pakistani nuclear scientist Q.A. Khan, who experts agree has moved the world "closer to a nuclear tipping point."

As the full fruit of Khan's network remains unknown and unchecked, Rumsfeld-appointed religious fanatics in the Pentagon like Lt. General Jerry Boykin go on planning how to spend billions fighting nationalist guerillas in Iraq. Meanwhile, the F.B.I. still doesn't have the resources to translate Arabic language intercept tapes with possible links to al Qaeda. These facts symbolize as well as any the current state of the war on terror as told by Seymour Hersh.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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