Video: Reporter describes scoop

updated 5/5/2004 6:27:36 PM ET 2004-05-05T22:27:36

Seymour Hersh is the reporter that broke the story of the military investigation for "The New Yorker" magazine.   A top-secret military report completed in February found sadistic and criminal abuses by American soldiers at a prison in Iraqi. MSNBC's Chris Matthews talked to Hersh on 'Hardball' Tuesday.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Seymour, what have you learned since you filed this report for “The New Yorker”?

SEYMOUR HERSH, “THE NEW YORKER”: I‘ve been working pretty hard on this story, and I can just tell you that the report itself is dynamite. 

It suggests that we have a systematic problem inside the military, that it‘s not just a question of a few kids doing one or two acts that were photographed.  It suggests that this is widespread, been going on certainly since last fall, and actually, no real steps were taken to correct it until naturally—everything hit the press with a big thud, like the other day. 

MATTHEWS:  Is this like the Rodney King thing, where it only matters because there are pictures? I hate to be cynical, but if you didn‘t have the pictures floating around, these gross-out pictures, would the public even have any - - would this make page one?

HERSH:  It‘s a little more complicated than that.  I think if there weren‘t the photographs, I don‘t think the military—I think Janis Karpinski, the general that‘s been all over television, sort of like me—I think she‘d still be on the job.  And a couple of kids would be very unhappy that they tried to report things and it didn‘t happen. 

I can tell you that since I‘ve done that story that I did, it since it went public over the weekend, I‘ve been in contact with people that did try to report abuses and got nowhere inside the system. 

So the military system in Iraq, inside those camps, inside that structure, didn‘t want to hear what was going on from the kids that knew the most.

And I think what changed everything was the photographs, once the government, the Army and the White House, and the Pentagon knew that the photographs like this were going around… Chris, the difference between your generation and the new one is, you know, in our day, we‘d take these pictures, put them in a little package and throw them behind the socks in the drawer and look at them once a year maybe when we came home from the war. 

These kids, CD‘s spread all over, the Army investigators were going around to other people in the various military police units that are involved.  There‘s one major unit, the 372nd Military Police Company.  And they were going around trying to seize computer files.

MATTHEWS:  For what purpose?  To prosecute or to cover up?

HERSH:  Well, the question is simply to get them so they couldn‘t be spread around.  I mean obviously.  There‘s an awful lot of photographs.  We‘ve seen only about eight or nine. 

MATTHEWS:  What are the other ones about?  Do you have a smell of what the other ones look like?  Are they worse or are they less disgusting than these or what?

HERSH:  How do you quantify things like that?  I‘ve seen other photographs that we had, “The New Yorker” had possession of before the first story, and that were not run that are probably…. How do you qualify “worse” when you‘re talking about young girls and young American girls taunting Iraqi men nude and you know, giving the thumbs up sign?

These kids from West Virginia and Virginia, in this military police company, they didn‘t understand that the best way to break the morale and break the back of a potential interviewee, somebody you want to interrogate is to completely humiliate and shame him. 

And the one way to humiliate an Iraqi man more than any other Arab, a follower of the Islamic faith, is to have them be seen naked by other men and have them participate in homosexual activity, even if posed.  Because that‘s also a no-no in the Islamic faith.  And then to have young people photographing it, including women. 

You‘d completely break the back, the morale, the spirit of anybody. 

MATTHEWS:  I guess I don‘t understand that.  It seems to me that would make me more ticked off at my captors.  It wouldn‘t make me more easy to break.   Wouldn‘t it make a person really angry at these guys humiliating them?  And why would they then want to go in and spill the beans on their comrades who are fighting as part of a resistance force?  I don‘t get the connection. 

HERSH:  It‘s very simple.  The connection is that in our society, we‘re driven by guilt, the western society. In the Arab world, it‘s shame.  Shame is a very dominant thing.  And once a man is shamed, I don‘t know if you quite know what happens to the woman in the Arab world when they‘re shamed.  They‘re cast out.  They‘re stoned.  They‘re killed.  Shame is a very powerful, powerful force and the fact that you don‘t understand it, of course, is perfectly rational, because a lot of us don‘t understand the extent to which it is.  It‘s a whole different culture. 

MATTHEWS: So in court, without prejudicing the case, if they say they were encouraged to do this by the M.I., and the military intelligence groups that were conducting the interrogations, then they‘re doing what they were told. 

HERSH:  Well, you know, that‘s not a defense for doing something stupid and heinous.  That‘s not.

But I will tell you that the Taguba report, the report you mentioned, that 53-page secret report, very explicitly, in fact, one of his last paragraphs in the report said “I believe that the military intelligence people, the CIA people also that were working in the prison camp and the private contractors that were also doing interrogations and translation,” he said, “I believe they were directly and indirectly responsible for everything that happened inside that prison.” 

It‘s a very powerful sentence. 

MATTHEWS:  So you don‘t buy the bad apples defense?  A few bad apples?

HERSH:  It‘s the first thing I would do if I were running the Army.  I‘d say there‘s a couple bad apples.  That‘s what we heard from General Kimmitt and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.  It‘s just a few bad guys, and we‘ll clean it up after I reed the report, said the general, basically, on TV this weekend. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you think of that defense?

HERSH:  It‘s not going to hold up, Chris.  What we‘re going to discover as Taguba basically almost says literally, but that‘s the whole gist of his report, it’s systemic throughout the system. 

This woman ran three large jails and a dozen other small detention centers, systemic.  So what we‘re seeing at Abu Ghraib, those horrible pictures, whether or not we have photographs from other prisons, but you have to assume the same sort of basic principles applied: break down people, humiliate them, disrobe them, et cetera. 

MATTHEWS: Well, Janis Karpinski, the general in charge of that prison, as well as a lot of much broader command, denies any knowledge of this.  What do you make of that?

HERSH: Well, you know, in a funny way, whoever heard of a general saying that. That‘s not a very good defense for a general.  It‘s a much better one for a 20-year-old enlisted kid for West Virginia, but for a general officer to say that? On the other hand, it is also true that she was not in charge of the interrogation part of that prison.  That was run by intelligence people, CIA people, and private contractors.  And that‘s where the real problem is in the whole system. 

MATTHEWS: We had a very nice lady we had on last night, Martha Frederick. She’s the wife of one of the accused, one of the people involved in this, in the military police, a reservist. 

I think I counted four or five defenses she offered, and I‘m on her side in terms of being a spouse of somebody.  But she said basically her husband is not guilty of what somebody said he was doing.

No. 2, she said that the intelligence forces were telling the people who were taking care of the prisoners, the M.P.‘s, how to treat them and to use them—this kind of effort to sort of break them by scaring them and by humiliating them.  She also said they had bad training and she said they were desensitized.

So you‘ve got four defenses, they didn‘t do it; the intelligence people made them do it; I‘m only following orders; they had bad training; and fourth, they were desensitized; they were brutalized by their own experience in combat. 

Do you think those defenses mean anything?

HERSH:  No, because the fact of the matter is obviously, you know, as we see they did it.  They were doing it.  They were abusing prisoners.  I think there is mitigating issues.  There‘s certainly no reason that these people should be punished for what they did.  I think Janis Karpinski should be punished for failing to supervise. 

But, having said that, in the case of the kids, you know when you send young people off to war.  We‘re talking about some of these people are 20, 21, Frederick is much older, but the others are very, very young people.  The Army is in loco parentis.  There‘s no question about it.  They‘re your mother and father. 

And they have an obligation to protect you from yourself, almost, from some of your instincts.  War is tough and the blood does get up, particularly when people die that you know. 

But here‘s the issue in this prison.  The people they were molesting were not prisoners in the sense that they were convicts or convicted of bad crimes or they were Army people that we defeated in a real combat. 

They were civilian detainees.  The Taguba report has really irritated the top level of the brass.  They‘re very angry at him, so I hear, for the report, because really, he stepped on a lot of toes.  He did a brilliant job. 

In any case, his report said one of the problems in the prison system is that they had no idea who was good and who was bad.  Most of the people they had were civilians picked up in routine random checkpoints, and they had no way of differentiating and finding out whether they were al Qaeda or insurgents.  They had women in separate section for women and juveniles.  They just didn‘t have any idea. 

So they were breaking down people who didn‘t necessarily have information.  By the way, I think what they did to these people, the humiliation of an Arab is by every definition, coercion and torture.  When you torture people, they do tell you what they think you want to know. 

So you go to these people, you get more names of people that they give you, of bad people who aren‘t bad.  You collect more people.  You tell the various combat units to go to this house and that house.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

HERSH:  You process more people.  It‘s one big sort of never-ending circle. 

MATTHEWS:  You say we get bad intel from bad interrogation, is what you‘re saying?

HERSH:  Before Sanchez got ordered to get into this early this year, two previous investigations had been done by two-star generals.  And clearly there were problems.  And the high command knew about it.

And for the government, for the Army to be saying and the Pentagon to be saying, “We‘re on it now.  We‘ve assigned another general and everything is OK...”?

MATTHEWS:  Have you gotten any retaliation for filing this story from the Army or anybody in it?

HERSH:  I‘m sure people are unhappy at me.  And guys understand, we‘re professionals in this business.  We do what we have to do, Chris.  I didn‘t invent this; I don‘t want this to happen. 

MATTHEWS:  But you broke it.  You‘re a hell of a reporter.  Seymour Hersh, historic figure, thank you for this story. 

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