In his latest article in The New Yorker magazine, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reports there has been a significant increase in the tempo of planning for war with Iran inside the Bush administration. Hersh says the White House recently requested the Joint Chiefs of Staff redraw longstanding plans for a possible attack. Hersh also reports the Bush administration’s rationale for bombing Iran has shifted from Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program to Iran’s role in Iraq. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Bush administration is approaching its last year in the White House. As the clock ticks toward 2008, speculation grows over whether President Bush and Vice President Cheney will indeed launch a widely feared attack on Iran.
The latest report from the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh says war planning is intensifying. Writing in The New Yorker, Hersh reveals that the White House recently requested the Joint Chiefs of Staff to redraw longstanding plans for a possible attack. According to Hersh, the Bush administration’s rationale for bombing Iran has shifted from Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program to Iran’s role in Iraq. Hersh writes, "What had been presented primarily as a counter-proliferation mission has been reconceived as counterterrorism." The focus is no longer a broad bombing attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, but strikes on Revolutionary Guard Corps facilities in Tehran and elsewhere.
On Sunday, John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called for the U.S. to attack Iran and overthrow Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Bolton said, "If we were to strike Iran, it should be accompanied by an effort at regime change. ... The U.S. once had the capability to engineer the clandestine overthrow of governments. I wish we could get it back."
AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh joins us now from Washington, D.C. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Sy. Lay out what you have learned.
SEYMOUR HERSH: Yeah, well, actually, it’s funny. The plans have both intensified and they’re less intense, in this sense: the new plan that they’re talking about is much more limited, not a thousand points of light. It doesn’t involve massive Air Force bombing attacks. Most of the Iranian nuclear facilities that were the initial target are — many of them are underground, one in particular, Natanz, where the centrifuges are located, where Iran is enriching uranium, 75 very hard feet underground. And the bombing plans were exceedingly — you had to put one bomb after another with no guarantee of knocking down the facility.
So what they’ve done — and what happened, really, is this government finally realized that they had not been able to sell the American people on their view of the Iranian nuclear threat. In other words, it simply wasn’t working. Unlike in 2003, when we were sort of mushroom cloud into going along with the Iraqi war, the American public did not respond in any noticeable way to a fear. They didn’t share the fear of the leadership in the White House and many in the Israeli government of a nuclear-armed Iran. Maybe it was just a question of American credibility. You know, we cried wolf once before.
And so, what happened is that — you could see it over the summer, Amy and Juan — you could see the conversation with the White House grow more and more intense about — not about nuclear weapons in Iran, but the Iranians coming across the border, the Revolutionary Guard, the al-Quds Brigade, one of its commando units, coming across the border and killing American — or helping to kill American and coalition — that is, British — soldiers. So that was the new sort of mantra for this summer.
And underneath it lay a notion that, well, if we can’t sell the notion that Iran is a nuclear threat, we can certainly sell the American people on the notion that Iran is responsible for killing Americans and others and that any action we take — limited action, less intense in terms of a kinetic force — any limited action would be more saleable, would be accepted more readily by the American people, and, more significantly, or most significantly, really, the international community might not go ape over it. And the Brits, for example, I write, expressed interest. Nobody’s saying anything; nobody is committing to it, and there’s been certainly no order to do this. This is just a new plan that has one great advantage: it’s something that could be sold, not only to us, but also to some of the allies, and therefore it becomes much more arguable inside the government.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Sy Hersh, what’s been the impact on all of this of the apparent refusal of the International Atomic Energy Agency to go along with the Bush administration’s picturing of the nuclear development and research in Iran? In your old paper, The New York Times, several articles recently are questioning Mohamed ElBaradei’s role in all of this.
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, look, there’s nothing but bad blood between ElBaradei, the Egyptian who runs the — who’s the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency — basically the position there in Vienna, as I see it or as I’m told by the people I know there, is this, that Iran has not been very successful in enriching uranium. In the last report they filed — I think August the 30th — they made the point — the IAEA reported that Iran had only been able to enrich uranium, after all these years, to 3.67 percent enrichment, even below the 4 or 5 percent you need to run a peaceful atomic reactor, a non-military reactor, well below the 90 percent you need. That doesn’t mean Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons ambitions. It doesn’t mean that it won’t eventually get to 90 percent if it keeps on working on it. But it does mean that there’s no near threat at all.
And it just so happens that in the White House they have finally come to terms in the vice president’s office, and I assume in the president’s office — I don’t know much about what goes on with Bush — but in the vice president’s office, they’ve come to terms with the more or less general consensus with the American intelligence community and most of the European Community that Iran is a minimum of five years away. Iran has been five years away from the bomb, oh, for 15 or 20 years. I wrote a story about Iran in late 2001 that said then five years away. It’s always been five years away.
There’s no evidence that Iran is significantly into weapons fabrication or that Iran has done any of the kind of testing it needs to do to develop an actual warhead. And so, they are enriching, and they may have ambitions, but there’s no rush. And ElBaradei has been saying that. And he’s getting — I wrote some pretty harsh things in the magazine about his view. He believes that the United States has essentially been lying and misrepresenting the data. And he feels that they’ve really been doing — playing fast and loose with some very important information — you know, that is, where the Iranians are for their own short-term political goals, the goals sort of that are articulated by Bolton.
AMY GOODMAN: Sy Hersh, I wanted to go to the reaction of the White House to your piece. White House spokesperson Dana Perino was asked about your article at Monday’s news briefing.
REPORTER: This weekend, The New Yorker magazine came out with an article claiming that this summer the president, or at least the White House, in general, asked the Joint Chiefs to redraw plans to attack Iran. Is that true?
DANA PERINO: Look, you know, I’m glad you brought it up. Every two months or so, Sy Hersh writes an article in The New Yorker magazine, and CNN provides him a forum in which to talk about his article and all the anonymous sources that are quoted in it.
REPORTER: So the president —
DANA PERINO: The president has said that he believes that there is a diplomatic solution that we can use to solve the Iranian problem. And that’s why we’re working with our allies to get there.
REPORTER: That’s what he said before we went to Iraq, too.
REPORTER: But what’s the — can you answer actually on the substance of whether or not the White House asked —- I mean, if it’s not true, then you can say Sy Hersh is wrong and CNN was wrong to air it. You could say that, but -—
DANA PERINO: We don’t discuss such things, Ed.
REPORTER: —- what about the substance of whether we -—
DANA PERINO: We don’t discuss such things. What we have said and what we are working towards is a diplomatic solution in Iran. What the president has also said is that as a president, as a commander in chief — and any commander in chief — would not take any option off the table. But the option that we are pursuing right now is diplomacy.
REPORTER: But the article very specifically said that this summer in a video conference —- secure video conference with Ambassador Crocker, the president said that he was thinking about "hitting Iran" and also -—
DANA PERINO: I’m not going to comment on — one, I don’t know. I wouldn’t have been at any — at that type of a meeting. I don’t know. I’m not going to comment on any possible — any possible scenario that an anonymous source, you know, continues to feed into Sy Hersh. I’m just not going the do it.
REPORTER: Why should anybody believe that the president wants diplomatic solutions? He said that before going into Iraq.
DANA PERINO: The president sought a diplomatic solution in Iraq, and Saddam Hussein defied the U.N. Security Council 17 times.
REPORTER: Some of the history we’ve learned since suggests otherwise.
DANA PERINO: That the president didn’t — that Saddam Hussein defied 17 U.N. Security Council resolutions?
REPORTER: No, that the president was intent on going to war in Iraq in any case.
DANA PERINO: No, the president pursued a diplomatic option. He went to the U.N. Security Council, and then we proceeded.
HELEN THOMAS: Did he consult — would he tell Congress before attacking Iran — before he attacks Iran?
DANA PERINO: Helen, we are pursuing a diplomatic solution with Iran.
HELEN THOMAS: I’m asking you, does he feel committed to ask Congress for permission?
DANA PERINO: We are pursuing a diplomatic solution in Iran.
AMY GOODMAN: White House spokesperson Dana Perino. Your response, Seymour Hersh?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, obviously, look, there’s a lot of responses to make. One, the most obvious one is if he really — if they are pursuing a diplomatic solution, why not talk to the Iranians, why not talk to the Syrians, why not talk to Hamas, why not talk to Hezbollah? He doesn’t talk to people he doesn’t like. And all of those people, those four groups, are in the sights, are in the targets, of this White House right now, along with, of course, Iraq.
And so, it’s real simple. If he’s really interested in diplomacy, this game they have going now — the game right now, the American and British and German, the allied game, the Western game, with Iraq — the situation with Iraq is this — Iran, rather: They’re enriching uranium. Our position to the Iranians is: When you stop enriching uranium, shut it down, we will then start talking to you about your enrichment. That’s the American — that is absolutely the bargaining position. We will not talk to them until they stop. And it’s sort of — it’s real simple, if you really are talking. And so, the rest of the stuff is chit-chat.
I don’t think she — you know, I just — I don’t, you know — there was a video conference, and it was even more explicit than we in The New Yorker wrote it. The president was very clear that he is interested in going across the border and whacking the Iranians.
And in the belief — and I do believe this president believes it, just like I still believe the president believed there were WMDs there — and, you know, I actually listen to George Bush, always have listened to him, and I take him at his word, which, of course, scares the hell out of me. But I think he really believes that the Iranians are responsible for training terrorists, not only Shia terrorists, Iran’s Shia, some of the southern — the government now that controls Iraq is a Shia government — but he also believes, and the American administration has said, that the Iranians are supporting the Sunnis, the insurgency, and also even al-Qaeda, which is another Sunni — the jihadist al-Qaeda. And there’s just — I can tell you, as I write in this article, indeed, Iran may be doing all of that, but there’s a tremendous dispute about all of those assertions inside the American government. There’s just a lot of questions about it inside the government. They don’t see the case as being nearly as strong as the White House is saying in public.
AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, we have to break, but we’re going to come back to you. Seymour Hersh, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist, has a major exposé about the administration’s plan for Iran in the latest New Yorker. Back with him in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh, his latest piece in The New Yorker, "Shifting Targets: The Administration’s Plan for Iran." Juan?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Sy Hersh, I’d like to ask you — that clip that we played just a few minutes ago about the White House in the press conference there, it sounded like it was Helen Thomas asking whether President Bush would notify Congress before taking action or not. Your sense of what you heard from your sources? Is this likely to be, in essence, a surprise attack, that the president notifies the Congress afterwards?
SEYMOUR HERSH: I actually — since I’m so used to believing that they don’t deal with Congress at all, it’s nothing I’ve focused on, except the Congress is — in general, one could say the Congress is the last thought. In this case, I think they will probably, on the day of the morning of a raid, brief Congress, you know, call on the leadership as the raid is in progress. That’s been done. And my understanding is when the Israelis hit Syria the other week — remember, I think September the 6th, the raid in Syria — the Israelis actually told some of their allies, the Jordanians and the Egyptians, just an hour before the raid, and us, too. Of course, we were deeply involved, as we always are. But I think that kind of notification, we’re talking about.
There’s — look, there wasn’t much use for the Congress when it was Republican-run; now it’s Democratic-run. You can imagine how little — the president thinks he has this whole notion we’ve been struggling with for seven, six years now, the Unitarian — you know, the notion of the neoconservatives that the president has all power. This is a Cheney notion that’s very dominant Dick Cheney, that he has — the executive powers of the presidency were diminished under Clinton, and they’ve been restored under Bush.
AMY GOODMAN: Sy Hersh, what do you know about the raid on Syria, Israeli raid that has not gotten a lot of attention? Was it a test run to see how Syria would respond if they flew over?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Let me write about it, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me play a clip of General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. In his report to Congress last month, he accused Iran of fighting a proxy war inside Iraq.
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: In the past six months, we have also targeted Shia militia extremists, capturing a number of senior leaders and fighters, as well as the deputy commander of Lebanese Hezbollah Department 2800, the organization created to support the training, arming, funding and, in some cases, direction of the militia extremists by the Iranian Republican Guard Corps Quds Force. These elements have assassinated and kidnapped Iraqi governmental leaders, killed and wounded our soldiers with advanced explosive devices provided by Iran and indiscriminately rocketed civilians in the international zone and elsewhere. It is increasingly apparent to both coalition and Iraqi leaders that Iran, through the use of this Quds Force, seeks to turn the Iraqi special groups into a Hezbollah-like force to serve its interests and fight a proxy war against the Iraqi state and coalition forces in Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: General David Petraeus. Seymour Hersh?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, that’s way over the top. He made a lot of assertions that are really seriously questioned by the intelligence community, and, again, in the article, I deal with that, that particular — some of that statement, making the point that, look, Iran — the Shia inside Iraq under Saddam were beaten down, were really humiliated. He had his foot on their neck constantly. And their only support they had, the Iranian — the Shias in Iran — Iran was dominated by the Sunnis and by the Baath Party and by Saddam, who had — and so, their only support they had for three decades has been Iran.
And if you remember the history, after the first Gulf War that ended in early 1992 at that horrible massacre along the highway of death, this Bush and Cheney — Cheney was then the secretary of defense, and Bush’s father was the president — we decided not to go take the war all the way to Baghdad, dethrone Saddam. And more significantly, we allowed Saddam and the Sunni leadership to conduct — use helicopters to overcome a Shia revolt, in which the stories are just thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Shia were slaughtered by Saddam as we stood aside right after the war. And the Shia were very bitterly disappointed with us, because they thought we had sort of set it up for them to do an overthrow and then didn’t support them, in fact aided the Sunni leadership. Iran was the only country that supported the Shia then.
Most of the Shia leadership right now, Prime Minister Maliki, lived in exile for many years in Iran. The relationship between Iran and the prime minister and his office and the Shia leadership of Iraq is very intense. And the idea that they’re running a proxy war against the — Iran is running a proxy war against the Iraqi people, the truth is that Iran is there with the Iraqi people. Iraqi people, that is, the Shia. There’s no proxy war, as he describes it. Iran is simply a big simple player.
And we have basically — the strategic mistake of the White House in this whole process was, we were so anxious to overthrow the Sunnis and the Baath Party and make sure none of them got into office, we delegated the country to the Shiites, and they believed — the neocons — and this was a great debate in '03 — the neocons were absolutely insistent that the Iraqi Shia would be nationalists and support Iraq and not defer to Iran. And that's not true. They’re much closer to Iran than to the Sunnis or to the Kurds or to the Americans.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Sy Hersh, I’d like to ask you — those of us who are old enough to remember Vietnam see some parallels between what’s going on now and — is Iran the new Cambodia, in essence, a failed war being expanded by an administration that remains intransigent in its view of what needs to be done?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, it’s much bigger than Cambodia and much more potentially destabilizing. Iran is right now— look, this is a government, American government, that’s losing a war. Nothing is going right. If you want to believe the surge, I’ve got a bridge I want to sell you. The surge is simply another example of ethnic cleansing. It’s not going to go anywhere. Yes, things are safer in Anbar province where the surge is going on, because all of the Shiites, 100,000 or so, who live there are gone. There’s been ethnic cleansing. So basically the president is into ethnic cleansing, although he’s not saying it. That’s probably one way we’re going to creep in the next four or five years, if it goes that long.
But, you know, the real problem with this analogy is this: in Vietnam, we lost 58,000 Americans. It was a much — we’ve got, what, almost 3,800 — 7 percent, 6, 7 percent — deaths.
And yet, Vietnam was always a strategic war. When the war ended, we were driven off. Four years later, they’re inviting us back, the leadership of the unified Vietnam, to play monopoly, build hotels and do tourism business, and we were doing it. Everything is peaceful now.
This war in Iraq with the Muslims that we’re into and this sort of hostility we have to the Shia world and to Hamas and to Syria, this is strategic. We are putting ourselves into a situation where, for the next 20, 30 years, we could be in a serious free-for-all, particularly if we go into Iran. It would be — the war would spread. There’s no question, the Iranians will respond asymmetrically. By that, I mean they won’t necessarily hit Israel or hit targets in America; they might just do things in the Gulf; they certainly would do things inside Iraq and inside Afghanistan. If they start doing things inside Afghanistan, they have to protect their borders. We control the countries on both sides of Iran: Afghanistan and Iraq. If they start doing things in Afghanistan to protect their position, Pakistan may come in. You’re looking at unbelievably strategic issues here. And Vietnam never crossed the tactical barrier. It was stupid, stupid, stupid, and killer, killer, killer, but nothing as potentially devastating to the lives of all of us as what this president is doing now and, if he expands the war, what he will do.
And why, Juan and Amy, why the American public isn’t saying in heated tones: Why doesn’t this president talk to people? Why isn’t he talking to the Iranians and to the — the Iranians have been telling us in these various conferences — you know, Ambassador Crocker has had three meetings now, I think, with his counterpart, his ambassador from Iraq in Baghdad, and the video conference I quote in the article, the one that was mentioned in the White House press statement where Bush was bragging about what he wants to do — braggadocio, really — in those conferences, the Iranians have never asked for our troops to be gone, get out. What they keep on saying is, "We can help you."
There is no incentive for Syria, for Iran, for Jordan, Kuwait, all of whom flooded with refugees coming out of Iraq, there’s no incentive for them to want the kind of destabilization they have inside Iraq. I mean, we now have a new refugee crisis that’s going to be probably worse than the Palestinian crisis. If you remember, after the Israelis invaded Israel in '48, we generated a million or so refugees in Syria, in Lebanon, elsewhere in the world. They're still in camps in as fetid positions, you know, a horrible situation. But now we have — right now, Syria has anywhere from 1.6 million to two million refugees — Syria is a country of 17 million, led by Alawites, a sort of derivative faction of Shiism — mostly Sunni. And now they have 1.6 million or two million Sunni refugees in their country. I mean, that’s very destabilizing to Syria. Same in Jordan, same in Kuwait. It’s a mess that nobody wants to talk about in this country.
AMY GOODMAN: Sy Hersh, can you talk about the role of Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney? And is Dick Cheney in the ascendancy, because so many of President Bush’s inner circle have deserted him, have left?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, that’s always a great question. You know, there’s a great debate. I had somebody from inside call me about a meeting that took place. Rumsfeld was back at the White House the other day. I have no idea what for. But he was there, maybe —
AMY GOODMAN: Maybe he was fleeing the protesters at Stanford, where he is coming to be a fellow at the Hoover Institute.
SEYMOUR HERSH: No, I think he was there talking about this situation. But, anyway, it was interesting that he was back. Somebody called me, and he said he was talking about a German official who came to town to get a briefing, among other things, on this issue, the new targeting, and he said, "Well, he may have seen Hadley," who is the — Steve Hadley, the national security adviser, "and I hear he saw POTUS" — the president — "and also Darth Vader." And he knew I understood that to mean Cheney. This is somebody inside the government.
Cheney is very powerful. I think the most powerful aspect of Cheney includes the fact that he’s very, very bright. He singled out Elliott Abrams, who is the president’s national security adviser, the refugee from Iran-Contra, who is a big — a very super neoconservative — his father-in-law is Norman Podhoretz — very pro-Israel in the sense that he believes that as Israel goes, so goes the American policy, I would think up to a great length. And Abrams is a key player.
Condoleezza Rice, my friend says it’s always a chronic debate: Where is she? She favors a limited bombing, so I hear. If you want to really get a dark scenario, Cheney has gone along with the limited bombing. Basically, they call the limited bombing the third option, because there’s one option to do nothing; the other one is to bring in the Air Force and rake — you know, rake everything; the third option being this one. And, by the way, the Air Force would not be a big player in this. The Navy would be a player in this limited option: cruise missiles, Navy F-18s doing some attacks, some marines, some special forces, etc. Not inconsiderable, but nothing like the Air Force plan. And I understand that’s a plan that she would agree to if negotiations fail. But right now, her position is negotiations in public. I don’t know where she stands.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Sy Hersh, I’d like to ask you, the role of the commercial media here in the United States, in terms of what — you were raising the issue of where the American people are in terms of any Iran assault — the whole furor that arose at the United Nations over the visit of Ahmadinejad and his speech at Columbia?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, you know, look, we have to have our Hitlers. America seems to thrive on Hitlers after Hitler went out. You know, we had Khrushchev. We had Stalin. We had Mao. We had Zhou Enlai. We had Gaddafi for a little while. We had Khomeini. We just bounce along from Hitler to Hitler. So he became the hit guy, Ahmadinejad.
Look, he says terrible things. It’s very stupid, what he says about the Holocaust. It’s counterproductive. He’s obviously very stubborn, but he’s not stupid. I wish the American press would have published some of his speech to the U.N., because it was a pretty interesting speech, the actual speech, what he said. There were a lot of elements in it that were of great interest, and not at all irrational. And I asked somebody about the famous line about homosexuality, because it seemed so inept. And the Arab view is, if you talk to — I’m talking about American Arabs and international, my friends overseas and those who know Farsi, what he said was — and I’m not defending him; I’m just telling you what they say he said: "Homosexuality is not a problem in Iraq." In other words, it’s just not a problem.
AMY GOODMAN: In Iran.
SEYMOUR HERSH: In Iran, rather. They don’t — it’s just not a problem. He didn’t mean — I don’t know whether the translation was flat, you know, when translations are always pretty bad, as any of you know. I’ve given speeches in foreign countries, and getting the translation back is always pretty comical. It’s never very good.
AMY GOODMAN: Sy Hersh, I wanted to switch gears for the last question, and this has to do with it not just being Republicans who are sounding a drumbeat for war. The three leading Democratic presidential candidates — Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards — have all declared no options off the table. This is a clip from last week’s Democratic debate. It was the day the Senate approved a controversial resolution calling on the State Department to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization. At the debate, Democratic presidential hopeful Mike Gravel bitterly criticized Hillary Clinton for voting in favor.
MIKE GRAVEL: This is fantasy land. We’re talking about ending the war. My god, we’re just starting a war right today. There was a vote in the Senate today. Joe Lieberman, who authored the Iraq resolution, has authored another resolution, and it is essentially a fig leaf to let George Bush go to war with Iran. And I want to congratulate Biden for voting against it, Dodd for voting against it, and I’m ashamed of you, Hillary, for voting for it. You’re not going to get another shot at this, because what’s happened, if this war ensues, we invade, and they’re looking for an excuse to do it. And Obama was not even there to vote.
TIM RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, I want to give you a chance to respond.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: [laughter]
AMY GOODMAN: That was Hillary Clinton laughing. Fifteen seconds, Seymour Hersh. Your response?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Money. A lot of the Jewish money from New York. Come on, let’s not kid about it. A significant percentage of Jewish money, and many leading American Jews support the Israeli position that Iran is an existential threat. And I think it’s as simple as that. When you’re from New York and from New York City, you take the view of — right now, when you’re running a campaign, you follow that line. And there’s no other explanation for it, because she’s smart enough to know the downside.
AMY GOODMAN: And Obama and Edwards?
SEYMOUR HERSH: I — you know, it’s shocking. It’s really surprising and shocking, but there we are. That’s American politics circa 2007.
AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, thank you very much for being with us, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist. His piece in The New Yorker is called "Shifting Targets: The Administration’s Plan for Iran."