Pentagon: Hersh report 'journalist malpractice'
Official denies existence of secret interrogation squad
New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh said, "It will come out eventually."
Seymour Hersh alleges a covert operation.
CNN's Kathleen Koch looks into The New Yorker allegations.
Seven U.S. soldiers facing courts-martial.
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Officials in the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community Monday flatly denied a New Yorker magazine article that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved a clandestine unit to crack down on terrorists held at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, where inmates were abused.
The article in the magazine's May 24 issue by Seymour Hersh quotes a former intelligence official as saying the unit's instructions were: "Grab whom you must. Do what you want."
The story also says the CIA pulled its people from involvement in interrogations at the prison in October "because it was out of control." (Full story)
"This is the most hysterical piece of journalist malpractice I have ever observed," said Rumsfeld spokesman Lawrence DiRita.
A senior intelligence official said the article contains "fantasy." The official added: "I haven't found any truth in it."
The unit described simply does not exist, the intelligence official said.
Hersh, in an interview Monday on CNN's "American Morning," said there was no reason to believe Rumsfeld or President Bush knew about the abuses of Abu Ghraib inmates captured in photographs that have sparked outrage across the world.
"But the way it began was with" the clandestine program, he said.
Seven U.S. soldiers have been charged with abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison on the outskirts of Baghdad and six others, all officers or noncommissioned officers, have been reprimanded.
Hersh's article, his third for the magazine on the Abu Ghraib controversy in as many weeks, said that after the Afghanistan war began, Rumsfeld set up a special access program, "Copper Green," to travel and crack down on terrorists.
When attacks against coalition forces were on the rise last fall, Rumsfeld and Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen Cambone "cut an order sending this secret group into Baghdad," Hersh told CNN. "The instructions were, 'Let's get tougher.' "
DiRita called Hersh "one of history's great conspiracy theorists."
The senior intelligence official who talked to CNN said there was no such thing as "Copper Green." The official said there was no joint interrogation program between the Defense Department and the CIA approved by Rumsfeld.
It was "incorrect" to suggest that the CIA withdrew from interrogations at Abu Ghraib, the intelligence official said.
CIA spokesman Bill Harlow echoed those comments. "The New Yorker story is fundamentally wrong. There was no DOD/CIA program to abuse and humiliate Iraqi prisoners," he said.
Referring to criticism of the article, Hersh told CNN he has faced similar attacks before when uncovering major stories: "I understand this is going to be the kind of response."
"I leaned over backwards to make sure in my own reporting, he continued. "I met multiple sources. There was a lot of basis for this. It will come out eventually."
"I'm not saying that Rumsfeld or the president or anybody else had any idea of how this sort of transmogrified into what we saw in the photographs," he said.
"But the way it began was with a program, guys coming in -- very sophisticated guys, under aliases," Hersh said. "We've all heard about the civilians running around those prisons. Some of them were people from this unit. I can tell you the intelligence community went batty about this."
Last fall, "when things began to go very bad in Iraq," the United States "brought in elements of this special unit into Baghdad" with certain instructions, Hersh said: "Get people -- go and grab some of the Sunni males, use coercion and also use sexual intimidation if you have to."
To accomplish that, Hersh's article says, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, had Abu Ghraib and its guards put under the command of a military intelligence brigade instead of the military police brigade that had been in charge, creating an atmosphere of conflict between the two commanders.
Hersh, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his articles on the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam War, said he had fewer than a half-dozen sources for his report but more than two. And "more than a few in the CIA" know about the the agency's pullout from Abu Ghraib, he said.
The CIA's Harlow disputed Hersh's sourcing. "I am aware of no CIA official who would have -- or possibly could have -- confirmed the details of the New Yorker's inaccurate account."
Neither Rumsfeld nor Secretary of State Colin Powell responded directly to Hersh's article Monday, but both used public appearances to tell listeners that the United States can clean its own house.
Rumsfeld told the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, that those watching the controversy overseas would learn "that in our country, no one is above the law -- that we are a nation governed by laws."
The closest Rumsfeld came to addressing Hersh's article was when he said the world has "watched a free media publish stories of all types -- from the accurate to the grossly distorted."
In a commencement speech at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, Powell urged his audience to "watch America -- watch how we deal with this."
"Watch what a nation of values and character, a nation that believes in justice does to right this kind of wrong," Powell said.