The roots of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal lie not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists but in a decision, approved last year by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to expand a highly secret operation, which had been focussed on the hunt for Al Qaeda, to the interrogation of prisoners in Iraq. Rumsfeld's decision embittered the American intelligence community, damaged the effectiveness of elite combat units, and hurt America's prospects in the war on terror.
There's some fascinating stuff here. Rumsfeld, reacting in frustration to the legalistic hurdles to shooting suspected al Qaida targets whenever they were in our sites, found a workaround:
Rumsfeld reacted in his usual direct fashion: he authorized the establishment of a highly secret program that was given blanket advance approval to kill or capture and, if possible, interrogate "high value" targets in the Bush Administration's war on terror. A special-access program, or sap�\subject to the Defense Department's most stringent level of security�\was set up, with an office in a secure area of the Pentagon. The program would recruit operatives and acquire the necessary equipment, including aircraft, and would keep its activities under wraps. America's most successful intelligence operations during the Cold War had been saps, including the Navy's submarine penetration of underwater cables used by the Soviet high command and construction of the Air Force's stealth bomber. All the so-called "black" programs had one element in common: the Secretary of Defense, or his deputy, had to conclude that the normal military classification restraints did not provide enough security.
"Rumsfeld's goal was to get a capability in place to take on a high-value target�\a standup group to hit quickly," a former high-level intelligence official told me. "He got all the agencies together�\the C.I.A. and the N.S.A.�\to get pre-approval in place. Just say the code word and go." The operation had across-the-board approval from Rumsfeld and from Condoleezza Rice, the national-security adviser. President Bush was informed of the existence of the program, the former intelligence official said.
The people assigned to the program worked by the book, the former intelligence official told me. They created code words, and recruited, after careful screening, highly trained commandos and operatives from America's lite forces�\Navy seals, the Army's Delta Force, and the C.I.A.'s paramilitary experts. They also asked some basic questions: "Do the people working the problem have to use aliases? Yes. Do we need dead drops for the mail? Yes. No traceability and no budget. And some special-access programs are never fully briefed to Congress."
I look at the passage "Do the people working the problem have to use aliases? Yes. and think immediately of the untraceable "John Israel." Hersh quotes a former intelligence official as saying, "The rules are �eGrab whom you must. Do what you want.'"
This goes on for a while, but the CIA objected:
By fall, according to the former intelligence official, the senior leadership of the C.I.A. had had enough. "They said, �eNo way. We signed up for the core program in Afghanistan�\pre-approved for operations against high-value terrorist targets�\and now you want to use it for cabdrivers, brothers-in-law, and people pulled off the streets'"�\the sort of prisoners who populate the Iraqi jails. "The C.I.A.'s legal people objected," and the agency ended its SAP involvement in Abu Ghraib, the former official said.
With the legally cautious out of the way, the Pentagon could do as it pleased. Hersh points to "The Arab Mind," a study of Arab culture and psychology, first published in 1973, by Raphael Patai as the "bible" for neocons on how to deal with Arabs:
The book includes a twenty-five-page chapter on Arabs and sex, depicting sex as a taboo vested with shame and repression. "The segregation of the sexes, the veiling of the women . . . and all the other minute rules that govern and restrict contact between men and women, have the effect of making sex a prime mental preoccupation in the Arab world," Patai wrote. Homosexual activity, "or any indication of homosexual leanings, as with all other expressions of sexuality, is never given any publicity. These are private affairs and remain in private." The Patai book, an academic told me, was "the bible of the neocons on Arab behavior." In their discussions, he said, two themes emerged�\"one, that Arabs only understand force and, two, that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation."
I won't try to summarize the whole thing. But Hersh has done a remarkable job of outing a covert program run amok, a program that can only be stopped by its public outing since all the normal safeguards have failed.
The Pentagon reacts by calling the article "conspiratorial," a less than substantive response.