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Pentagon denies prison scandal stems from secret program gone awry

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Donald H. Rumsfeld
Seymour M. Hersh

NEW YORK (CNN) -- The interrogation program at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison was so "out of control" that the CIA "pulled their people out," the author of a series of articles about abuse of prisoners at the facility said Sunday.

Seymour Hersh, in his third article on the subject in The New Yorker, said the Pentagon's desperation to stop a rising insurgency led it to unleash a secret program meant to seize and interrogate terrorist leaders on Iraqis suspected of aiding anti-American guerrillas.

"After the Afghan war got going, there was a lot of frustration in the Pentagon," Hersh told CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer." "We would get a tip there was a terrorist somewhere ... but in order to send special operations in there you had to talk to the American ambassador, the American commander there."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, he said, made the decision to "Just cut it out."

"He set up the special unit [and] this team, all operating under aliases, went around the world and did what they had to do."

The Pentagon vehemently denied the allegations made in Hersh' article.

"Assertions apparently being made in the latest New Yorker article on Abu Ghraib and the abuse of Iraqi detainees are outlandish, conspiratorial, and filled with error and anonymous conjecture," Pentagon spokesman Larry DiRita said.

The rules governing the secret operation, known as a special-access program (SAP), were "Grab whom you must. Do what you want," according to a former intelligence official quoted in the magazine's May 24 issue, on newsstands Monday.

Hersh told CNN the operation resulted in "a lot of information," so Rumsfeld and Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen Cambone "cut an order sending this secret group into Baghdad. The instructions were, 'let's get tougher.'"

The group -- a highly trained, covert team made up of Navy Seals, the Army's Delta Force and civilians from the intelligence world -- was trying to fit intelligence-gathering techniques they usually reserved for "high value targets" on the more "common prisoners" found at Abu Ghraib -- with the help of military police who had no idea what was going on, he said.

But by the end of October, Hersh said, something had gone horribly wrong.

"Categorically, the CIA bailed out," he said. "They pulled their people out from the interrogations going on at Abu Ghraib because it was out of control."

The Pentagon, while pledging a thorough investigation to find everyone responsible for the photographs of laughing military police pointing at naked Iraqis forced to masturbate and other humiliating activities, has focused its attention on seven military police it says participated directly in the abuse.

But Hersh said it isn't plausible that military police were wholly responsible.

"If you think a bunch of kinds from rural West Virginia and Pennsylvania" decided to mistreat prisoners as took place at Abu Ghraib, Hersh said, "absolutely not."

The purpose of some of the photos was the embarrassment factor, Hersh said, and in that respect, they were posed, as some of the seven MPs charged in the case have contended.

"For Arab men, sexual humiliation ... is a blackmail tool," he said.

In his testimony last week before Congress, Rumsfeld -- barred from discussing highly secret matters in public -- conveyed that he was telling the public all he knew about the scandal.

In his article, Hersh quoted Rumsfeld saying, "Any suggestion that there is not a full, deep awareness of what has happened, and the damage it has done, I think, would be a misunderstanding."

Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday he had read a summary of the New Yorker article and stressed that all war prisoners should be treated humanely. "I haven't read the article and I don't know anything about the substance of the article," Powell said. "I have just seen a quick summary of it. So I will have to yield to the Defense Department to respond."

On Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan announced that the military was investigating the alleged mistreatment of an Afghan police colonel while in the custody of coalition forces.

The officer says he was stripped naked, photographed, kicked and subjected to sexual taunting while being held by coalition forces in August, according to an embassy statement. (Full story)

On Friday, the Pentagon announced that the U.S. military will not use certain prisoner interrogation procedures in Iraq and Afghanistan, including sleep and sensory deprivation, as a result of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. (Full story)

Earlier in the week, top officials acknowledged that some of the techniques being reviewed could violate the Geneva Conventions, which were adopted internationally as a way to protect prisoners of war from abuse.

It remains unclear whether the ban applies to accused Taliban and al Qaeda detainees held by the U.S. military in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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