Hersh on Bush administration: Truth is relative

Books

September 26, 2004|By David W. Marston | David W. Marston,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, by Seymour M. Hersh. Harper Collins. 394 pages. $25.95.

Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib had its genesis in a series of extensively researched New Yorker articles about prisoner abuse by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh detailed indefensible felonies and the impact of new American interrogation practices, post-9/11. But then these articles bulked up into a book, with the addition of some meandering chapters on Pakistan, Israel, Turkey and the Kurds, and now Abu Ghraib is only the first course in Hersh's sprawling menu of Bush administration failures - military, diplomatic, and intelligence.

Along the way, Sy Hersh morphed into Michael Moore, and his investigative reporting dissolved into a relentless Bush bash.

Flashback to Vietnam. Thirty-five years ago, as a 32-year-old freelancer, Hersh exposed the horrific My Lai massacre by American troops. He won a Pulitzer Prize and worldwide recognition. Now, eight books, countless articles and a few swirling controversies later, Hersh is still making headlines. Earlier this month, he received a $50,000 LennonOno Grant for Peace, because, said Yoko Ono, Hersh epitomizes John Lennon's song Gimme Some Truth. But does he? The central "truth" of Chain of Command is that Rumsfeld, Cheney, and President Bush were directly responsible for the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, and that military leaders knowingly acquiesced in torture interrogation tactics to get more intelligence. But facts intrude. First, it was the military command which discovered the abuse, suspended the commanding general, and announced a sweeping investigation - weeks before Hersh and others "broke" the story. Second, President Bush stated unequivocally that "America stands against and will not tolerate torture. We will investigate and prosecute all acts of torture." This happened - and is still happening. In the end, Hersh's charge is reduced to an unsubstantiated claim that Rumsfeld and Bush "created the conditions" that allowed abuse to occur.

Chain of Command is further undermined by Hersh's aversion to annotations and affection for blind sources. A "consultant to the military" or "former intelligence officer" may contribute useful documents, facts or insight. But the reader cannot judge the source's motivation or competence, and as the book progresses, there is a creeping impression that the main credential shared by Hersh's blind sources is that their advice was not taken by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld.

Inconsistencies abound. Hersh faults Rumsfeld for having too few troops on the ground in Afghanistan, but elsewhere contends that the U.S. had "major military presence." Afghanistan was "not, in the long run, a victory at all", but then, to demonstrate the ominous power of the neoconservatives, Hersh quotes an official saying, "They won in Afghanistan when everybody said it wouldn't work." As a virtuoso revealer of military secrets, Hersh nevertheless criticizes the Army for releasing footage of a Ranger parachute jump into Afghanistan - because it increased Bush's popularity.

By book's end, Hersh abandons any pretense of objectivity, concluding with a frothing attack on Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush. For readers who had not been paying close attention, Hersh announces that "the deepening American quagmire in Iraq will not end until there is a change of leadership in Washington."

Sound familiar? Like Fahrenheit 911, Chain of Command will find a fervid audience, but it will not change many minds.

David Marston, a former U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia now in private practice, is the author of books on the legal profession and the FBI.

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