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Seymour Hersh: Bush Administration Planning Possible Major Air Attack on Iran

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We speak with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh about his latest article in the New Yorker that the Bush administration has increased clandestine activities inside Iran and intensified planning for a possible major air attack. [includes rush transcript]

We are joined today by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh. In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Hersh reports that the Bush administration has increased clandestine activities inside Iran and intensified planning for a possible major air attack. Sources told Hersh that Air Force planning groups are drawing up lists of targets, and teams of American combat troops have been ordered into Iran, under cover, to collect targeting data and to establish contact with anti-government ethnic-minority groups.

One of the military’s initial option plans calls for the use of a bunker-buster tactical nuclear weapon against suspected underground nuclear sites.

On Monday, President Bush dismissed Hersh’s article saying, “What you’re reading is wild speculation.” Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld refused to comment on possible plans for military action against Iran at a press conference on Tuesday. Rumsfeld told reporters, “We have, I don’t know how many, various contingency plans in this department and the last thing I am going to start telling you, or anyone else in the press or the world, at what point we refresh a plan or don’t refresh a plan, and why. It just isn’t useful,”

Meanwhile Iran is moving forward on its nuclear program. On Tuesday Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that the country had succeeded for the first time in enriching uranium on a small scale. The Iranian president insisted that the country’s nuclear program is for peaceful means and not to build nuclear weapons.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, President Bush dismissed Hersh’s article.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: What you’re reading is wild speculation, which is — it’s kind of a, you know, happens quite frequently here in the nation’s capital.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, reporters questioned Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld Tuesday about Hersh’s report.

REPORTER: In recent weeks or months, have you asked joint staff at Central Command, possibly through General Pace, to update, refine, modify the contingencies for possible military options against Iran?

DONALD RUMSFELD: We have, I don’t know how many, various contingency plans in this department, and the last thing I’m going to do is to start telling you or anyone else in the press or the world at what point we refresh a plan or don’t refresh a plan and why. It just isn’t useful.

REPORTER: Are you satisfied with the state of planning for Iran options right now?

DONALD RUMSFELD: I am never satisfied.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld Tuesday. Meanwhile, Iran’s moving forward on its nuclear program. On Tuesday, the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced the country had succeeded for the first time in enriching uranium on a small scale. The Iranian president insists the country’s nuclear program is for peaceful means and not to build nuclear weapons. We’re joined right now in Washington by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. Welcome to Democracy Now!

SEYMOUR HERSH: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, talk about what you have found and written about in your piece, “The Iran Plans.”

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, very simply, as you said in the introduction. This is not wild speculation. It’s simply a fact that the planning has gone beyond the contingency stage, and it’s gone into what they call the operational stage, sort of an increment higher. And it’s very serious planning, of course. And it’s all being directed at the wish of the President of the United States. And I can understand why they don’t want to talk about it, but that’s just the reality.

AMY GOODMAN: You say that it’s a pretty widespread — or that there’s a growing conviction among members of the U.S. military and the international community that President Bush’s ultimate goal is regime change in Iran.

SEYMOUR HERSH: There’s no question that there’s a lot of skepticism, particularly among our former allies — the allies we now have, the European allies who have been with us. The United States joined late after the negotiations began, but England, France and Germany have been talking to the Iranians for years, three years now, about doing something about — to keep them away from the nuclear edge. Our allies there are frankly skeptical about what this president really wants to do. They don’t think necessarily, although there’s — it’s not that the President isn’t concerned about any enrichment. He’s set that as a red line. He’s publicly said many times that when Iran begins to enrich, that’s a line we won’t let them do. It’s that they really think that beyond — the whole issue is really predicated on a belief that we’ve got to get rid of these ruling clerics and replace it with Bush’s idea, that he thinks he’s still pushing very hard, which is of a democratic Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: Sy Hersh, you write in your piece about a military official who says that the military planning is premised on the belief that a sustained bombing campaign in Iran will humiliate the religious leadership. Can you talk more about what this defense official said?

SEYMOUR HERSH: It’s a former defense official who still does a lot of highly classified stuff, so he has access and he was given a briefing or a look at what they’re planning. And, you know, it’s hard to know. This is a White House that’s very dominated — this kind of planning is very dominated by the Vice President’s office. In that office, you have a number of people who have been long associated with what we call the neoconservative point of view, the American Enterprise Institute point of view, which is a very hard line towards the Middle East. They’ve been the great pushers on this idea of democracy in that area, and it’s those people who I think are pushing most effectively the President and the Vice President to believe that you can — if you bomb and if you sustain the bombing, you will humiliate the clerics, the mullahs, who run the country.

After all, as we know, the Middle East basically, oversimplifying it, but it’s this culture dominated by shame. We operate out of guilt here in the West. And shaming them will make them vulnerable to the masses. And there’s no question, by the way, the masses in Iran, most of them, it’s fair to say that a great large percent of them are very secular. They’re all good Muslims, but they’re secular. They’re not interested in religious leadership. So there is a tension. And that was the thought: Bomb them, and there will be an overthrow, and you’ll have a democratic regime that, you know, can dance happily with the democratic regime the President thinks is going to emerge out of Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: And you quote further this defense official, who talked about the belief that the Bush administration has of humiliating the religious leadership, as saying, “I was shocked when I heard it and asked myself, 'What are they smoking?'”

SEYMOUR HERSH: That’s what he said.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what the Science Defense Board is, the Defense Science Board, and what it has to do with this?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Actually, a lot. And it’s interesting, because this hasn’t been picked up, and it’s just hanging there sort of like ripe fruit for the press, if they wanted to. It’s an advisory board that’s traditionally a defense science board, obviously. It’s just an advisory board of scientists who advise the Secretary of Defense on issues, and they do some very serious work. They just did a paper recently on the declining rate of high-tech scientists inside that are capable of doing the kind of work we need to continue our leadership in outer space stuff, etc., etc., with a military point of view. And their whole purpose, of course, is a military point of view.

Many of them also work for large defense contractors. There’s a lot of inherent problems in that, too, but nonetheless, in this case the board is headed by a guy named Dr. Bill Schneider, William Schneider, a former — very conservative guy, very outspoken. Schneider is among a small group of very influential members of the Bush government, who in 2001 produced a paper, just as Bush was coming into office for the first term, they produced a paper advocating or saying, ’Let’s not rule out the use of nuclear weapons. There is a need for tactical nuclear weapons, and they should be in the arsenal and accepted as a rational part of the arsenal, particularly when you’re going after hard targets like the underground nuclear facilities in North Korea and Iran, if you were to target them.’

And the people that signed that report include Schneider, as I say, but also Stephen Hadley, who is now the National Security Adviser, Stephen Cambone, who’s the head of the intelligence for the Pentagon and one of Rumsfeld’s closest advisers, and also Robert Joseph, who’s the Under Secretary of State for Nonproliferation Affairs, the man who replaced John Bolton in that job and who’s been very much a hawk and very tough on Iran in public and even tougher in private. And so, you have these very influential people advocating that tact nukes have some sense and some bearing in the policy.

And I’ve been told that in the last few months a debate has been sort of ongoing inside the highest levels of the military, and the debate is simply between those senior generals and admirals — who think using and even planning or talking about using a nuclear weapon in Iran is wacko — and the White House, because the White House wants it kept in the plan. There’s a lot of tension there. But in any case, the science board has been sending papers in saying, 'Hey, you know, we can tool this weapon up and down.' The B61, apparently, the yield can be adjusted. You can get more bang for the buck, a larger yield with less radioactive fallout. And so, these kind of papers go on.

What’s interesting, Amy, is in all of the conversations we’ve had about bombing and not bombing and whether to use weapons, what weapon or how much bombing, as, not surprisingly, I don’t think there’s been any serious discussion of possible civilian casualties. That never seems to be discussed in any of these papers, but that’s the way it is.

AMY GOODMAN: And your response to the Iranian president saying Iran has joined the nuclear countries of the world?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, he’s another sort of wacko, too. The Iranian president, he’s very mouthy, and he says a lot of things. I think the consensus among our allies who have embassies in Tehran and have had much more contact and know much more about that society than we do — America is very, we’re pretty much opaque on Iran. We haven’t been there diplomatically in, you know, 25, 26 years, since the Shah’s days. Most people think the Ayatollah Khamenei, who’s the supreme leader, probably controls the nuclear option, although certainly the Revolutionary Guards, in which the Iranian president is a major player, have something to say.

Look, they didn’t join the nuclear club yesterday. They’ve enriched — they’ve done a partial enrichment of some uranium to a low level, a level that could possibly be used to run a peaceful reactor. They’ve done this before in a pilot program. Certainly, it’s a feat that’s technically capable. Many governments have done it, not just the eight nuclear powers.

And so, what he’s doing by embellishing — and this is my guess, my sort of heuristic guess, because I don’t know, but what I think he’s doing, he’s basically playing chicken, like in the old James Dean movie, the two cars going at each other at high speed. He’s playing chicken with the President of the United States. So that’s what we’re into. We’ve got the President of the United States, who’s been making — Bush, as you know, and Cheney have been making an awful lot of bellicose statements in the last couple months, saying that they’ll rule out no option, which obviously is a nuclear suggestion, also making declarations about red lines and where Iran can or cannot go. So the bellicosity of the United States is now being matched by the bellicosity of the Iranian president. I mean, great way to run a world.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh. His piece in The New Yorker magazine is called “The Iran Plans: Would President Bush Go to War to Stop Tehran from Getting the Bomb?” Can you talk about the list of targets?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, you know, I don’t really know the list, and I don’t want to know the list. It’s not my — when I write about troops, I’m vague about what I know and what I’m writing, because nobody wants to put anybody in the position of jeopardizing any of our forces on the ground, and you should know that I go to great lengths before I publish a story. I have people that I can — I can drop a draft of an article in a mailbox in, you know, rural Washington, somewhere in the suburbs, where people, serious people, live, and they’ll review it for me to make sure. I don’t do it with this government, but I do do it with serious people on the inside and take their advice on what to publish or not publish.

But the targeting — look, first of all, we don’t know much about Iran. The intelligence is skimpy. We really don’t know what they’re doing. We know that one major facility is an underground, called Natance. It’s an underground — I don’t know what you call it — research plant, 75 feet below the ground in very heavy rock. This is why there’s some talk of using a nuclear weapon. The only way of guaranteeing its destruction is with a tact nuke. It’s so deep underground.

There’s also about 16 to 20 sites that have been declared. All of this is not being done in a vacuum. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the I.A.E.A., has been monitoring Iran’s declared sites. For example, when Iran enriched uranium, as it was announced yesterday, that was done under I.A.E.A. supervision. And so, Iran has been a member of the — I should add it’s not illegal, because under the N.P.T. they’re entitled to do enrichments, as long as it’s for peaceful purposes, and that’s the claim the Iranians make.

Nobody has any illusions. Iran undoubtedly would like to get in the position where they could have the capability and the know-how and the materials, the enriched materials, to make or fabricate a nuclear weapon, sort of an on-off switch. They’d like to be able to toggle it. But the best guess, even the Israelis, who are, of course — they view Iran as an existential threat, Israel does. The Israelis, they can tell you that Iran is anywhere from two to three years at the best, by their estimate, from actually being in a position to do it. But the American intelligence estimate, which was published last summer by the Washington Post, what they call the N.I.E., the National Intelligence Estimate, an official document, said something like eight to ten years away.

'So, what's the rush?’ is what I’m hearing from the military people and the diplomats involved. What are we setting red lines for about small pilot production? And so, there is time, but if you’re going to do it, if you’re going to hit Iran and you’re going to bomb and you give it to the planners, you’re going to get this. You’re going to get targeting for the known facilities, targeting facilities we suspect, and then you’re going to get countermeasures. You’re going to get the Air Force — nobody in the American government wants to see American boys, pilots, shot down and paraded through the streets of Tehran, as we did in Vietnam, if you remember that happened in Hanoi.

So if you’re going to do systematic bombing or sustained bombing, you’re going to take out the air fields. Iran has an old integrated air force, based — many of the planes were given to the Shah by us back in the 1970s. But they still fly, and they’re still armed with missiles. Iran, as many in your audience know, kicks out about four million barrels of oil a day and has — the prices are very high, going higher — huge financial reserves — has been buying a lot of sophisticated radar, anti-missile radars and other sort of anti-aircraft radars from the Chinese and, I think, even from Russia.

We have to take that out. We don’t want radars targeting our planes. We have to take out all of their defense measures, so we can bomb with impunity. So, how many targets are you looking for? I quoted one paper done by a retired Air Force colonel, a planner named Sam Gardener, who has been doing a lot of war games, who’s a very prudent — by everybody’s account, a prudent, careful man. And Colonel Gardener, in a paper he delivered in Europe the other week, said 400 aim points. And some of the aim points may have more than one or two bombs dropped on them, so it’s a huge enterprise.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to investigative reporter, Seymour Hersh, and we’re going to come back to him in a minute to talk more about his piece, “The Iran Plans,” what the President of the United States plans are for Iran.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest in Washington D.C. is Seymour Hersh, investigative reporter with The New Yorker magazine. His latest article is called “The Iran Plans: How Far Will the White House Go?” In the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, Sy, Tony Blair, the British prime minister, and President Bush were at Camp David. They held a news conference, and they said that the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency had a report that said that Iraq was six months away from building nuclear weapons. And President Bush said I don’t know how much more evidence we need. Well, it turned out any evidence would have helped, that the I.A.E.A. did not have such a report. Do you see parallels here with Iran?

SEYMOUR HERSH: How can you not? You know, what’s interesting about that I.A.E.A. issue is that they were — as you know, they had inspectors there until 1968, late '68. And in late ’67, the I.A.E.A. published an extensive analysis of the Iranian nuclear complex and basically said nothing — nada — there, I mean, categorical. That's why I was very — because it’s a long — I happen to be working, doing a lot of reporting on what was going on in the U.N. then with the UNSCOM, it was called, the U.N. inspection process. So I had read that report. So, anybody reading that report would have known there was nothing there.

You do have a lot of parallels, because right now it’s been taken away from the I.A.E.A., I must say to the disappointment and probably anger, definitely anger, of the leadership there, because at least the I.A.E.A. has inspectors in some legal right to be inside Iran right now. And they’ve taken it to the U.N., where there’s, you know — are there going to be sanctions or not? I mean, I don’t know what kind of economic sanctions you can put on a country that puts out four million barrels of oil a day, and they’re swimming in U.S. dollars. And, of course, everybody knows inside, all of the people involved know, that Russia and China will never go along. It’s almost inconceivable they will go along with sanctions. China is one of the recipients of oil. Russia does a lot of business there. So, basically you’ve put yourself in a situation where you’ve got a dead end. And you know it’s going to be a dead end, at least you can anticipate. It could change. Something could happen, but at this point, it’s a dead end. And so, the parallel is obvious.

Everybody I talk to, the hawks I talk to, the neoconservatives, the people who are very tough absolutely say there’s no way the U.N. is going to work, and we’re just going to have to assume it doesn’t in any way. Iran, by going along with the U.N., what they’re really doing is rushing their nuclear program. And so, the skepticism — there’s no belief, faith here, ultimately, in this White House, in the extent of the talk, so you’ve got a parallel situation. The President could then say, ’We’ve explored all options. We’ve done it.’ I could add, if you want to get even more scared, some of our closest allies in this process — we deal with the Germans, the French and the Brits — they’re secretly very worried, not only what Bush wants to do, but they’re also worried that — for example, the British Foreign Officer, Jack Straw, is vehemently against any military action, of course also nuclear action, and so is the Foreign Office, as I said, but nobody knows what will happen if Bush calls Blair. Blair’s the wild card in this. He and Bush both have this sense, this messianic sense, I believe, about what they’ve done and what’s needed to be done in the Middle East. I think [Blair] is every bit as committed into this world of rapture, as is the president.

AMY GOODMAN: Sy Hersh, you write about a meeting in Vienna between Mohamed El Baradei, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and head of the I.A.E.A., and Robert Joseph, the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control, and the relationship between El Baradei and the United States.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, Joseph basically was, you know, essentially just — I heard a lot about it, because it was pretty blustery. And he just went in and basically told off the head of the —- the Nobel Prize winner and said, you know, ’You will stop—-’ The European and American complaint against El Baradei is this: they say, 'My God, he's treating this issue as if both sides have some justification, that Iran’s aspirations equal the American and European’s desire not for them to go nuclear. He’s treating them both as parities. And they’re not. We’re right, and they’re wrong, and he doesn’t reflect that.’ So they think he’s unfair. They think he’s being too balanced, too nuanced, and that was the message that Joseph gave, basically, with a significant loss of temper, or let’s put it, “intemperate” behavior, basically saying, 'You will desist from saying anything that interferes with us. We view this as our gravest national security threat.'

I can also tell you Joseph has said the same thing in Turkey to the Turkish officials. He went there, and they also reported a very boisterous meeting. And the American ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency is a guy named Greg Schulte, who was until last summer, August of 2005, was in charge of the Situation Room in the White House, and who from 1988 to 1992 worked for — he’s a career diplomat, but worked — a career bureaucrat. He’s not in the diplomatic service. He worked for Dick Cheney, when he was Secretary of Defense, now the Vice President, and did nuclear stuff for him. So he’s very connected to the vice President. He’s also quite direct and not very diplomatic in what he believes, and it’s, you know, it’s ’They’re bad guys, we’re good guys,’ that sort of approach. There’s no instinct.

What’s amazing, Amy, about this is this, and what always surprises me about my country is, here we have a president that doesn’t talk to people he disagrees with. And anybody who’s been around little boys, big boys, knows that when they get out of control, you grab them. If you’re a nursery school teacher, you grab the little four-year-olds by the scruff of the neck, and you pull them together, and you say, 'You two guys, shake hands and make up, and go play in the sandbox.'

Bush doesn’t talk to people he’s mad at. He doesn’t talk to the North Koreans. He didn’t talk to the insurgency. When the history is done, there were incredible efforts by the insurgency leaders in the summer of 2003. I’m talking about the Iraqi insurgency, the former Sunni generals and Sunni and Baathist leaders who were happy to see Saddam go, but did not want America there. They wanted to talk to us. Bush wouldn’t. Whether it got to Bush, I don’t know, it got in to four stars. Nobody wanted to talk to them. He doesn’t talk to the president of Syria; in fact, specifically rejects overtures from al-Asad to us. And he doesn’t talk to the Iranians. There’s been no bilateral communication at all.

Iran has come hat-in-hand to us. A former National Security Council adviser who worked in the White House, Flynt Leverett, an ex-C.I.A. analyst who’s now working at Brookings, wrote a piece a month or so ago, maybe six weeks ago, in the New York Times, describing specific offers by the Iranians to come and ’let’s deal.’ Let’s deal on all issues. I’m even told they were willing to talk about recognizing Israel. And the White House doesn’t talk. And it’s not that he doesn’t talk, it’s that nobody pressures him to talk. There’s no pressure from the media, no pressure from Congress. Here’s a president who won’t talk to people he’s walking us into a confrontation with.

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, we will leave it there. I want to thank you very much for being with us. But let me ask you one last thing, and that is where we started, with President Bush’s comments about your report, saying, 'What you're reading is wild speculation, which is kind of, you know — happens quite frequently in the nation’s capital.’ Your response?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, he gave a speech at Johns Hopkins on Monday, that’s one of his more remarkable speeches, not only because of his manner, which was a funny affectation — he was hopping around, almost jocular. Forget what he said about me. It’s what he said about Iraq that was very troubling to me. He once again said there’s great progress, this is a wonderful thing we’re doing, I’m proud that we’re doing it, we’re bringing democracy. I have it in front of me, because I always carry it around. He said — he compared this — 'This is an ideological struggle we're having with Iran that equates the best part of the Cold War, when we defeated the Russians.’ He’s once again comparing this to the Cold War. He’s once again saying that things are wonderful, that it’s a noble enterprise. 'Does anybody there read the newspapers?' is what I wonder.

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, thanks very much for being with us.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Glad to be here

AMY GOODMAN: Investigative reporter for The New Yorker magazine. The piece in the latest edition is called “The Iran Plans: How Far Will the White House Go?”

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