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Journalist: 'Amazing' collapse of Army prison system

Seymour Hersh
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Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt says "small group of people" involved in alleged prison abuse.

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(CNN) -- The U.S. military is denying reports of widespread abuse of Iraqi prisoners, after an article in The New Yorker magazine cited an Army report describing abuses of inmates at the Abu Ghraib prison, near Baghdad.

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh, author of The New Yorker piece, discussed his findings Monday with CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien.

O'BRIEN: Let's talk about this internal Army report that you obtained. And you base a lot of your reporting, in fact, on this Gen. [Antonio] Taguba's report. He described it as "sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses" at this specific prison. That's a quote there. Give us some of the specifics that you talk about in your report.

HERSH: Well, the big thing that the general did is he said the photographs you saw of the Iraqi men being humiliated are one element, but even before those photographs, there was a consistent pattern of very sadistic treatment being done, not by the kids that you saw, mostly done by the interrogators at the prison.

Every prison has an interrogation section with military intelligence officers, CIA people and private contractors. And in that side of the facility, there were beatings, regular beatings, threats, threatened rape, sodomy. I mean, it's just the usual list of torture stuff that I guess we went to Iraq to stop in the prisons there.

O'BRIEN: You describe it as almost routine. You say it's a fact of Army life, that the soldiers felt no need to hide anything. How do you know that it's routine when everything we have heard from military officials at this point is sort of more of a description of a few bad apples?

HERSH: You know, that's a funny description, the bad seed description. What you see is a prison that was out of control, according to the Taguba report.

That's Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba [who] wrote the report, and a quite brilliant 53-page report, devastating report, turned in, in February, in which he said the problems were systemic, endemic throughout the command structure.

Since last fall, the Army, the high level in Iraq and certainly in Washington, knew there were problems in the prison system. His was the third major study done of the prison system. And he just was, I have to tell you, to the credit of the general, very straightforward.

He criticized some of the earlier reports that had been done, said they missed it. They didn't get the story.

And so -- and I also had the advantage of reading some of the trial transcripts in which GIs do describe the fact that they could do this stuff and photograph it and just walk around. In some photographs, for example, you see as many as 12 or 13 different pairs of feet. And so, only six have been named. Clearly, a lot of other people were aware of what's going on and were doing it. It sounds awful, but it is true.

O'BRIEN: You talk about the prison system. A lot of what we heard is only specifically this particular prison, the Abu Ghraib prison. Are you saying then it's not only widespread within this prison, it's widespread systematically across Iraq?

HERSH: Well, the woman in charge, Gen. Karpinski, Janis Karpinski who is saying that she didn't know much about what happened with the photographs, Gen. Taguba's report was very, very critical of her for the way she ran the prison system. She was in charge of the three main prisons in Iraq.

There are three large ones and many smaller detention centers. And he made it clear in his report that the abuses were widespread. Of course, they weren't photographing other places like they did at Abu Ghraib.

O'BRIEN: Brig. Gen. [Mark] Kimmitt, who I spoke to this morning, Gen. [Richard] Myers over the weekend, both of them said that they had not read Gen. Taguba's report. Again, and you do a lot of your reporting based on this report, which is a fairly detailed report that he came back with. That has struck me as a little bit odd. As you say, it was done in February. It was released, I think, officially in March. Who was supposed to read this report? I mean, who was it made for?

HERSH: You know, he said that yesterday a couple of times on television, Gen. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And here, you have the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talking -- and we know he was involved. CBS initially broke the story of the photographs. And he was involved in holding up the story there in direct contact with the people at the network.

So, here is an issue they knew as deadly. Here he is, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs; the same with Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense. This is a report written by a two-star general in the Army about a very serious issue. I take them at their word they didn't read it, but I really think that's an incredible example of very bad leadership.

If you want to be a leader, you have to be on top of issues like that. You could almost say the fact that they hadn't read it indicates how low down the totem pole these issues were for them until, of course, it hit the press.

O'BRIEN: You talked about the CIA doing interrogations in this particular prison; also these civilian contractors who are brought in to do interrogations as well. Is that typical? I mean, is that the standard way of doing interrogations, of having to some degree from what it sounds like, these civilian interrogators essentially in charge, to a large degree, of certain type of prisoners within the prison?

HERSH: Well, that's what the Taguba report says. And one of the findings he makes is not only that were the civilians in charge -- and he makes it clear, as awful and dumb as the kids were, the six or seven kids that are going to be charged for photographing it -- they were not -- they were being directed. They were being told what do and told it was OK.

He also says in the report that this problem originated in [the] prison system in Afghanistan. So, the Army has known since the Afghanistan war in late '91 and early 2001 or 2002, they've known that the prisons, which are supposed to be run by the military police -- and by the way, let me just say, prison is a funny word.

The people in these facilities -- they are prisons -- are civilians. And according to the Taguba report, more than 60 percent of them had nothing to do with the insurgency or any trouble against Americans. They were just people picked up in sweeps.

And Taguba is really very incensed that the inability of the Army's system to weed out those who are dangerous from those who are not. They just simply weren't doing it. So, people would get into the system, picked up at a roadblock for example, thrown in there.

They had a separate wing for women -- the juveniles and children and women. It's just an amazing sort of collapse of an institution. That is the Army prison system. And it goes far beyond these six children who have been charged.

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