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Hersh: Special forces mission 'a debacle'

(CNN) -- After U.S. special forces struck inside Taliban territory in southern Afghanistan on October 20, Pentagon officials declared the two missions successful, saying "we accomplished our objectives."

Journalist Seymour Hersh reports in the latest issue of The New Yorker magazine that one of the missions was much more complicated and dangerous than officials have revealed, and that three soldiers were seriously injured. CNN's Judy Woodruff interviewed Hersh Monday.

CNN: First of all, Sy Hersh, what are you saying happened that was not what these Delta Force and other special operations forces expected?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, first of all, the operation was much too big. The mission was to attack a cluster of homes that Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban, was believed to either be at, or some of his documents were at.

The way they like to proceed is with stealth, surprise -- go in, bang, and get out. Instead, the mission was laid on like General Motors coming to, you know, to the Afghan war. Sort of as we did in Vietnam.

We had 16 helicopter gunships prep the area. Two-hundred Rangers came in advance to serve as a blocking force. And then 100 Delta Force, a reinforced squadron they call it. And Delta Force are very elite. They are our best. They come in 100 strong to go through a house.

It was noisy. It was slow. By the time they got through the house, where they found nothing, and came out, they were counterattacked. And there was a heavy -- a very pitched battle, so I'm told. It was a mess, so I'm told. And there were 12 casualties, three seriously; nine, most of them from shrapnel.

CNN: Injuries. Not ...

HERSH: I should make it clear. Three injuries. Three serious injuries and nine others injured. Nobody -- no fatalities. And they thought they were being hit by mortars. It turned out afterwards, in the post-analysis, it was just rocket-launched grenades. But there were plenty of them. And it was just a debacle. A near disaster, I wrote.

CNN: Well, I know you're aware that yesterday the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Myers -- we had Tommy Franks, who is the (Central Command) commander -- both of them said that part of your account, at least the part with the heavy resistance, is not their understanding. And then, today, let me show what Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem said at the Pentagon when he was asked about your report.

STUFFLEBEEM: We don't have, nor have I seen any reports, of heavy fighting. The reports characterize light resistance and a planned extraction, as opposed to hasty retreat. So, the reports I have seen just don't support that article's supposition.

CNN: So how do you account for what they are saying?

HERSH: Well, they did have a plan. They had an evacuation point, just to deal with the specifics about the word extraction. They had a rendezvous point in case they had trouble.

What the Delta does, they do superbly. They get in trouble; they set up into a couple of small manned units that provided cover fire. The bulk escaped in helicopters. And these guys ran to what is known as E&E, escape and evasion point, that's previously planned. It is planned. It's an evacuation point. They had to run, physically, there, taking more casualties as they ran.

But basically, you know, one always hates -- these are very honorable people. And I don't think it really matters -- I'm talking about Gen. Myers and Gen. Franks, and the admiral. I don't want to get into a war of words or shading of meaning. I think the important thing to say is something. Whatever they say publicly, I hope privately they fix it.

The reason I learned about this, Delta Force doesn't deal with reporters very often. The reason I learned about it is, they were upset about what happened. This isn't the way you run Delta Force. You can't have this kind of big-scale operation. And so, they're throwing a message over the fence, to the leadership, really, through me, through you by putting me on the air, through The New Yorker by publishing it. It doesn't matter what they say publicly as long as they fix it in private. They've got to fix it.

CNN: I understand what you're saying and you don't want to get into a war of words. But what about this discrepancy about the wounds? They say if there were injuries they just got scratched or bumped and fell on rocks or something. You're saying they took fire.

HERSH: They got a lot of fire and three were seriously injured and we just have to wait. When you got down to people that actually were directly involved, they were pretty graphic about how badly they were hurt and how frightened they were. They're not cowards, but it's a terrible scene to have a counterattack when you don't expect it. And one when you almost can anticipate there's something wrong with this mission. They didn't like it going in, and it proved to be pretty much of a disaster. And since then, by the way, there haven't been these kinds of operations.

CNN: Well, that was going to be my last question. We haven't seen any more operations, or we don't know of any more operations like that since then.

HERSH: No. Well, they haven't seen any. And since we put a frantic call -- I shouldn't say frantic, but a quick call to the Brits, and some special British air commandos came in a few weeks right after that, I think the 21st or 22nd, we made a call for help. And British commandos are there now and they're trying to work out a different way of operating. The British want to go in big. Set up a firebase in the middle of Taliban territory and saying, hey, we're here. Come and get us.

But, the bottom line is, just to summarize, as long as they don't do it again this way in the future, we're OK. There's no problem.

CNN: So you're saying perhaps lessons have been learned?

HERSH: I hope so.

CNN: All right. Sy Hersh, thanks very much.

HERSH: Thank you.


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