Santa Barbara News Press

Journalist Claims Neoconservatives Direct the Country

Journalist Seymour Hersh addresses the audience at UCSB Campbell Hall on Sunday afternoon, talking mainly about abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and the war in Iraq.

The war in Iraq was not about oil; it was the product of a long-held philosophy held dear by a small group of “neoconservatives” who think the war is necessary to improve America’s standing in the world, said a top investigative journalist who spoke at UCSB on Sunday.

Seymour Hersh, the reporter who revealed the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison where Iraqi soldiers were tortured, humiliated and forced to take sexually explicit photos, brought his thoughts about the Iraq war to a capacity crowd of about 900 people.

Mr. Hersh, 67, spoke swiftly and apparently without notes, weaving together countless facts and stories in a relatively informal way that sometimes derailed his train of thought, leading to off-the-cuff quips that delighted his sympathetic audience.

But he made clear his opposition to the policies of President Bush. His message was serious and even somber at times.

“The war is unwinnable,” said Mr. Hersh, who is touring to — as he put it — “pimp” his newest book, “Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib.”

“The hatred for us is so acute,” he said.

Mr. Hersh’s book covers much of the same ground he covered for three years for the New Yorker, making the case, for instance, that the abuses at Abu Ghraib followed standard operating procedures established at Guantanamo, and that the case underscores a systemic problem that began at the top.

The Pentagon has called his reporting, which uses many unnamed sources, “outlandish” and “conspiratorial.”

Though he talked about the prison scandal, he often broadened the scope of the discussion by deriding the logic that led to the war.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the prominent neoconservatives — who Mr. Hersh said includes Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz — were able to convince Mr. Bush that crushing the Iraqi regime was the only way to win the war on terror, he said.

“It’s utopian, it’s idealistic,” said Mr. Hersh, who referred to the group as “zealots” and “cultists.”

“And it’s completely, utterly wrong,” he said.

As for the Nov. 2 presidential election, Mr. Hersh described Sen. John Kerry as the better choice, but he said “it’s going to be a very hard four years” no matter who wins.

He criticized Mr. Kerry both on his claim he that can achieve victory in Iraq and on his seemingly “unlikable” demeanor.

“But so what?” he said. “We don’t have to be fussy.”

Mr. Hersh, who received a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, criticized the mainstream media for going easy on both the Abu Ghraib story and the Bush administration.

“The failure of the press is something we’re going to have to figure out” how to change, he said.

Mr. Hersh said the prison scandal was engendered largely by the administration’s panic about the nascent insurgency earlier in the war. One idea, he said, was to “squeeze the prison population” for information.

“It morphed into madness quickly,” he said.

In a lighter moment, after losing his train of thought, someone in the audience blurted out that his points are interesting even if his points are unconnected.

He replied, “that’s how starved you are” for information.

After the lecture, a long line of people waited for Mr. Hersh to sign their books.

“He gives us the news we ought to be hearing,” said Chuck Bazerman, a UCSB professor who heard the lecture.

Kate McDermott of Camarillo was struck by the fact that “nine neoconservatives could take over the country.”

“It’s scary as hell,” she said.