director of investigative journalism at Al Jazeera.
In what has been described as the biggest intelligence leak since Edward Snowden, Al Jazeera has begun publishing a series of spy cables from the world’s top intelligence agencies. In one cable, the Israeli spy agency Mossad contradicts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own dire warnings about Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear bomb within one year. In a report to South African counterparts in October 2012, the Mossad concluded Iran was "not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons." The explosive disclosure comes just as the United States and Iran have reported progress toward reaching a nuclear deal, an outcome Netanyahu will try to undermine when he addresses the U.S. Congress next week. We go to Doha to speak with Clayton Swisher, the head of Al Jazeera’s investigative unit, which broke the Iran story and several others in a series of articles called, "The Spy Cables."
AARON MATÉ: Just days before his controversial speech to the U.S. Congress, an explosive report has raised new questions about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s effort to thwart a nuclear deal with Iran. According to Al Jazeera, Israel’s spy agency, the Mossad, contradicted Netanyahu’s own dire warnings about Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear bomb within one year. In a leaked cable to South African counterparts in October 2012, the Mossad concluded Iran was, quote, "not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons." The assessment was sent just weeks after Netanyahu went before the U.N. General Assembly with a far different message. Netanyahu held up a cartoonish diagram of a bomb with a fuse to illustrate what he called Iran’s alleged progress on a nuclear weapon.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: This is a bomb. This is a fuse. In the case of Iran’s nuclear plans to build a bomb, this bomb has to be filled with enough enriched uranium. And Iran has to go through three stages. By next spring, at most by next summer, at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage. From there, it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks, before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb. A red line should be drawn right here, before—before Iran completes the second stage of nuclear enrichment necessary to make a bomb.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in September of 2012. The Mossad assessment contradicting Netanyahu was sent just weeks after, but it was likely written earlier. It said Iran, quote, "does not appear to be ready" to enrich uranium to the higher levels needed for a nuclear weapon. A bomb would require 90 percent enrichment, but the Israeli spy agency, Mossad, found Iran had only enriched to 20 percent. That number was later reduced under an interim nuclear deal the following year.
That 2013 agreement laid the basis for the ongoing talks in Geneva this week between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. The U.S. and Iran are seeking a framework agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program and impose international monitoring in return for an easing of U.S.-led sanctions before a March 31st deadline. The talks appear to be gaining momentum, with the involvement of high-ranking officials from both sides and leaked details of a plan to limit Iranian nuclear production for at least 10 years. They are set to resume next week.
AARON MATÉ: The advancing talks and the leaked cable come just as Netanyahu prepares for a controversial U.S. visit, where he’ll try to undermine the nuclear deal. On March 3rd, Netanyahu will address a joint session of Congress on Iran at the invitation of Republican House Speaker John Boehner. The trip has caused a major rift with the White House, to the point where Obama has refused to host Netanyahu for a meeting. Administration officials are also reportedly withholding details of the talks from Israeli counterparts. Speaking last week, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Israel has spread false information about the proposed nuclear deal.
PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST: There’s no question that some of the things that the Israelis have said in characterizing our negotiating position have not been accurate. There’s no question about that.
AMY GOODMAN: With the White House accusing Israel of spreading falsehoods, the new revelations about Israel’s own intelligence assessments mark the second time in one week tying Prime Minister Netanyahu to dishonest claims about Iran.
The leaked cable appears to have come from inside South Africa’s intelligence service, revealing its exchanges with counterparts around the world, including the U.S., Israel, Russia, Britain, France and several Arab and African nations. Other revelations so far include CIA attempts to establish contact with Hamas despite a U.S. ban and a threat by President Obama to force the Palestinian Authority to abandon its bid for U.N. recognition. More disclosures are expected in the coming days.
For more, we go directly to Doha, Qatar, to be joined by Clayton Swisher, director of investigative journalism at Al Jazeera, which broke the Iran story and several others in a series of articles called "The Spy Cables." He co-wrote the piece, "Leaked Cables Show Netanyahu’s Iran Bomb Claim Contradicted by Mossad," that appears in The Guardian newspaper.
Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s good to have you with us, Clayton Swisher. Explain what has happened. What did South Africa get a hold of? Is there a South African Ed Snowden?
CLAYTON SWISHER: Well, I think, after the Edward Snowden experience, someone would have to have their head checked to publicly fess up to being the source of such a leak, given all the travails that followed Edward Snowden after he essentially outed himself. This was a digital leak made to Al Jazeera. And one of the reasons people bring information to Al Jazeera in the past, as they did with the Palestine Papers and other projects, is because that they know we’ll take every step we can to protect and shield their identity. So, the way that we got these files, this digital leak, is not up for discussion.
But it is, I will gladly describe for you, an unprecedented window into how espionage is conducted, not just in South Africa, but the broader continent. What we have obtained is perhaps best thought of as, you know, if you look at a discarded bag of rubbish, you won’t know what’s inside it until you open it up. Similarly, in this—it’s not rubbish, it’s actually very useful information, but it’s an absolute assortment of things that are seemingly unrelated but nonetheless highly newsworthy. There is a high concentration of humdrum, routine intelligence cables within the South African security services that we came into possession of, and, in addition to that, correspondences from a variety of Western and foreign intelligence services asking the South Africans to take certain actions or trying to influence the South African intelligence services on a certain course of action. So, they’re, you know, an absolute fascinating window into how things are done, but they’re a fragment in a mosaic, and we’re missing—very much so—the rest of the painting. But what we can do is reveal what—you know, what operational cables that we can put into context. And that’s why we said in our editors’ note we’re not publishing everything, purely because it either wouldn’t be in the public interest or it wouldn’t add up to a bigger story in and of itself.
AARON MATÉ: So talk about what has emerged here on the issue of Iran. Just as talks are picking up between the U.S. and Tehran, and just as Netanyahu is coming to the U.S. trying to undermine their deal, an internal cable reveals that the Mossad contradicts Netanyahu on his own claims about Iran’s capabilities.
CLAYTON SWISHER: Well, there was much discussion that came after Netanyahu’s 2012 U.N. speech that he was at loggerheads with his Mossad chief, Meir Dagan. That was discussed, and in fact Meir Dagan even publicly said that a war with Iran would be a bad idea. But what is just—I think what’s breathtaking for the journalists who work on this is to see Mossad’s classified documents—a top-secret assessment no less—that is now available for the entire world to peruse and read at its own leisure. I mean, clearly, Netanyahu came and spoke before the entire world, presenting information that was in direct contradiction to the country’s premier intelligence service. It begs a strong question: Where did he get his information from? Was he taking talking points from the Washington Institute and AEI, or was he listening to his own intelligence services, who the government of Israel pays to look after this sort of material? So, it makes it a question similar to what Americans experienced in the run-up to the Iraq War: Is this based on intelligence, or is this based on political fiction? And, you know, I’m a journalist, true. I’ve lived here in Qatar for going on eight years. I’m also a citizen of this planet, and I think everyone who’s a citizen of this planet who lived through the Iraq War and who think of an impending Iran war, we should do everything to scrutinize the politics behind people who wish to start a new war, particularly with Iran, which would not only be a disaster for the United States at home, but also for the region and the entire world. So, as Netanyahu is going to come to the United States, I think there’s every reason to have beyond a healthy skepticism of what he intends to say at his, you know, home audience, if you will, the U.S. Congress. In fact, I would say that, you know, knowing what we know now with this top-secret Mossad cable, we should demand strict evidence of anything that he says before the American public, because it may in fact inform our elected officials to make a decision on whether or not to use military action to defy President Obama’s diplomatic efforts, etc.
AMY GOODMAN: Clayton Swisher, in addition to the former Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, who left office in December 2010, disagreeing with Netanyahu wanting to prepare a military attack on Iran, there are other leaders in Israel’s security establishment who, you write, were riled by Netanyahu’s rhetoric on the Iranian nuclear threat, accusing him of "messianic" political leadership pushing for military action. Can you explain?
CLAYTON SWISHER: Sure. I mean, it’s long—it’s long been the Israeli security military tradition where there’s a class of people—they refer to them as "bit hunis [phon.]," which are people that are in the security sector but are also seen as having a rational worldview, if you will, that want to establish some form of peace with their neighbors. Oftentimes—there’s an excellent film called The Gatekeepers, which I would recommend anyone watch, that interviews the last several directors of Shin Bet, their domestic intelligence service. And you find—actually, when the documentary interviewer sits with these Shin Bet directors, you find a much more pragmatic outlook and a much more realistic assessment of—you know, for example, on the Palestinian issue, that the Israeli government can’t continue killing Palestinians if it wants to have a permanent place in the neighborhood.
Yet the security people are often trumped by the politicians, the loudmouths, who are perpetually campaigning. If you think it’s bad in the U.S., it’s a perpetual campaign in Israel. And as a result, you don’t really get mature discussions, mature conversations in the public from their leaders. And it’s a very—it’s a very real risk. And it’s, I would hazard to guess, why Israel has not been able to make peace, because time and again they have proven to not have leaders who have been thinking in the long term, but politicians who are seeing which way the winds are blowing and how they can get through the next election.
So, unfortunately, in some instances, the only ones that have the real assessment on Israel’s security happen to be people who live in classified worlds. And I think it’s extraordinary the amount of security officials that spoke out and sniped against Netanyahu, because they realize the stakes are very high. They’ve seen the Iraq War experience, where bad intelligence got mixed into politics, and people sat on it and didn’t speak up. And lo and behold, now Israel has ISIS on its borders, and they’re further than ever from ever being welcome in the neighborhood. And, you know, it’s—looking back at the two-state solution is pie in the sky. So, you know, I think, frankly, as a journalist, I’m skeptical of everyone. But in this case, it’s remarkable to see Mossad at such variance with the prime minister. If only the United States had had that kind of disclosure ahead of the Iraq War between what the CIA was saying and what the Bush administration was saying, a war may have been averted.
AARON MATÉ: Let’s hear from more of Benjamin Netanyahu speaking last month. This was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Netanyahu used the occasion to accuse Iran of planning another genocide against the Jewish people.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: The ayatollahs in Iran, they deny the Holocaust, while planning another genocide against our people. Let me be clear: The Jewish people will defend itself, by itself, against any threat. That’s what the Jewish state is all about.
AARON MATÉ: That’s Benjamin Netanyahu speaking last month. The irony, Clayton, of course, is that it’s Netanyahu who has threatened attack on Iran for many years over its alleged nuclear activities—a violation of the U.N. Charter, in which you can’t make threats to other nations. But let’s talk about some of the other revelations here. Talk about the claims that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas opposed the U.N.'s endorsement of a report that accused Israel of war crimes, and also President Obama's attempt to pressure Abbas on seeking statehood recognition at the U.N.
CLAYTON SWISHER: Well, I’ll take it in that order then. So, in the case of the—there is a leaked cable describing an effort by Meir Dagan, the leader of Mossad, calling the South African spy boss on the eve of the U.N. Human Rights Council vote on whether or not to recommend Israel face investigation for alleged war crimes in Gaza in 2009, asked the spy boss of South Africa: "South Africa should not vote, and you know why? Mahmoud Abbas does not want South Africa to vote, because it will harm his political party and bolster that of his opposition in Hamas. And, of course, Mahmoud Abbas cannot say this publicly, so the Mossad is asking you, South Africa, not to cast your vote." And I think that, if anything—and we’ve seen a lot of evidence over the years. I was involved in the Palestine Papers in 2011. We had a whole mountain of evidence showing that President Abbas had advance knowledge that there was going to be an Israeli attack on Gaza, that he opted not to warn his people, that he was under incredible American pressure not to advance any sort of war crimes investigation, that it would be seen as prejudicing negotiations—which were moribund anyway—and he went for it. And so, you know, people were saying he bungled it. I think the evidence now is far the opposite. He directly obstructed it, and it was an abject—I’m sorry, it was, you know, an abdication of his responsibilities as a leader and shielded the occupier, that he’s supposed to be liberating his people from, against any possible war crimes.
And so, you know, this—to me, there’s too many data points. There’s too much evidence that’s now out there showing that he shielded Israel. And some will say, "Well, he just recently joined the ICC." Well, you’ll note that after the recent 50-day conflict of last summer, he waited until well after the conflict ended before signing the ICC. And what has Israel done in the meantime? They’ve gone in and launched their own investigations. And under the ICC rules, if one of the parties is seasoned in investigation, the ICC cannot do it. And the Israelis are going to say—mark my words—for many years, that they’re investigating, and it is credible, and we’ve got it all covered. And, you know, meanwhile, evidence is lost, memories fade, people die. You know, this was beyond bungling. You know, this was a craven abdication of his responsibilities. And I think that the cables make this clear now in a very oblique way, from South Africa of all places.
With respect to the cable that suggests there was a CIA operative in East Jerusalem who asked a South African operative to help with inroads with Hamas, the South Africans then write between themselves, Pretoria and East Jerusalem, "Well, how can we then run this CIA guy to see what kind of information they’re after?" It’s a very, again, oblique window into what the CIA’s interests are. You remember, in 2009, President Obama wanted to have a new relationship with the Muslim world. He spoke in Cairo. Autocrats were adopted by the Bush administration. Obama came in and thought, "Well, maybe there is room for political Islam." This was when they were still open to the idea, let’s say. So, it makes sense—it makes sense to me, at least. We’re reporting that this interest was expressed, but of course we don’t know whether the CIA took it forward. Hamas has said today on Al Jazeera they deny official contact, but they won’t say whether there was unofficial. And who knows how that’s defined? So, I think it’s intriguing.
AMY GOODMAN: You also note that a South African State Security Agency report from November 2012 records a Palestinian intelligence officer handing over a memo detailing a phone call made by President Obama to Mahmoud Abbas, where President Obama threatened Abbas if he goes ahead with the U.N. bid. Now, Abbas ultimately does. But explain the significance of this, and then also the cables revealing the same former Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, personally lobbying South African intelligence officials in 2009 against South Africa endorsing the findings of a U.N. inquiry led by the South African judge, Richard Goldstone, which alleged war crimes carried out by Israel’s three-week bombardment of Gaza in 2008 and 2009.
CLAYTON SWISHER: OK. Well, with respect to President Obama trying to, you know, convince Mahmoud Abbas not to go ahead with statehood, it’s important to note that the United States has always been hammering Palestinians to abandon armed resistance and embrace peaceful, nonviolent struggle. And you can understand the frustration of Arabs, Muslims and especially Palestinians, when they look at the American rhetoric, and they say, "OK, well, what’s wrong with, in embracing that nonviolent struggle, we take legal measures—pen to paper, we submit it before a court—or we petition a very legal body, like the United Nations, and we ask for things like diplomatic recognition?" It’s absolutely indefensible, and it’s just painfully hypocritical, when you see U.S. officials, like President Obama, as revealed in "The Spy Cables," or Samantha Power on the floor of the United Nations, obstructing these very blatant efforts by the Palestinians to exercise some kind of resistance through legal, peaceful means. You tell them violence is out. You tell them legal means is out. What do they have left? They have—I mean, it’s just—it’s absolutely absurd.
And we’ve seen, in recent events, they’ve gotten statehood. Did the sky fall? No. We see, in recent events, they joined the ICC. Did the sky fall? No. So, every time that they threaten all of—you know, that the end is nigh and this will—you know, this will damage things beyond recognition, the peace process is already damaged beyond recognition. And it’s only a handful of Western analysts and Pollyannaish journalists who continue to believe that there is a two-state solution and that this—you know, what’s been created on the ground can somehow be reversed. Rather than looking beyond, you know, President Obama and his administration has very much made this situation, in fact because they haven’t allowed Palestinians to express themselves, you know, through these various mechanisms.
AMY GOODMAN: Clayton Swisher, we want to thank you for being with us, director of investigative journalism at Al Jazeera. He’s overseeing the network’s coverage of "The Spy Cables." And we’ll continue to report on what’s revealed. He’s speaking to us from Doha, Qatar.
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