Congressional leaders agreed to a request from President Bush last year to fund a major escalation of covert operations against Iran aimed at destabilizing Iran’s leadership, according to a new article by veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker magazine. The operations were set out in a highly classified presidential finding signed by Bush, which, by law, must be made known to Democratic and Republican leaders. The plan allowed up to $400 million in covert spending for activities ranging from supporting dissident groups to spying on Iran’s nuclear program. Hersh joins us from Washington, DC. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Congressional leaders agreed to a request from President Bush last year to fund a major escalation of covert operations against Iran aimed at destabilizing Iran’s leadership, this according to a new article by veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker magazine.
The operations were set out in a highly classified presidential finding signed by Bush, which, by law, must be made known to Democratic and Republican House and Senate leaders and ranking members of the intelligence committees. The plan allowed up to $400 million in covert spending for activities ranging from supporting dissident groups to spying on Iran’s nuclear program.
According to Hersh, US Special Forces of been conducting cross-border operations from southern Iraq since last year. These have included seizing members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and taking them to Iraq for interrogation, in the pursuit of so-called “high-value targets” who may be captured or killed. While covert operations against Iran are not new, Hersh writes the scale and the scope of the operations in Iran, which involve the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command, have now been significantly expanded.
Seymour Hersh is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He joins me now on the phone from Washington, DC.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
SEYMOUR HERSH: Hi, and a very good — early good morning to you.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Start off by talking about how you learned this information.
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, that stops me, Amy, for a second. Here’s the problem with that question: the problem is this is all very classified. And so, let’s just say that, in general, there are a lot of people that are very loyal to the United States — military people, people in special operations, people elsewhere in the Congress, obviously, people in the executive — who are increasingly being made anxious — and I think “frightened” is a fairly good word, too — about what this president and the Vice President may do in Iran. And so, it was from that quarter I was able to learn that there was a — the problem with the finding and the problem with the whole story and the complication is that almost the last people, it seems to me, to know exactly what our special forces are doing, particularly the Joint Special Operations Command, which is a very elite unit, whose mission essentially is — this is a separate unit of the Special Operations Command called JSOC — their unit is to go find and kill and capture, if possible, high-value targets anywhere in the world. The whole world is a free-fire zone for them.
When they get into a place like Iran, where they are, the Congress isn’t told. So Congress did approve — and the words were very careful — up to, because the President wanted as much as that — we just don’t know how much he’s taken at this point — $400 million for operations. And then they discovered that the operations they approved may go way beyond what they think they were approving. I mean, so we’re just — it’s sort of like the end of democracy, in a way. We don’t know what the government is doing. People in the inside don’t know what the government is doing. So it was from this sort of collective angst that people began to talk to me about the operations.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the Democratic-controlled Congress and what exactly it approved late last year?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Late last year, at the time of the — as many in the audience will remember, the National Intelligence Estimate was made public in late November, early December. And that was a document that — I don’t know why it’s been totally devalued by everybody, including all of the candidates. Both the two Democratic candidates during the primary and McCain kept on talking about Iran as if it was on the edge of being nuclear. What the NIE said — and it was a really very carefully done document — it said that since 2003, the evidence is clear that Iran has not pushed a weapons program. There’s no evidence they’re actually seeking weapons, as they’ve been saying. And that’s what the NIE said. At the same time, as we all know, this president and the Vice President and the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Adviser and the Secretary of State, they’ve all disavowed it. It’s just as if it didn’t exist.
At that time, Bush went to Congress with a finding that said, “I need this huge chunk of money to continue operations.” Congress — it was a — he has the right, as president, to ask that only a few members of Congress. It’s known in the law sort of informally as the Gang of Eight, and that would be the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi; her counterpart, the leading Republican in the House; the Majority Leader in the Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada, and his counterpart; and all the Democratic and Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Intelligence Committee. In the case of the Democrats, it’s Rockefeller in the Senate and Reyes from Texas in the House. So, those four Democrats got a chop at this. The finding was given to them — particularly in the intelligence committees, lawyers look at it — and did nothing. And the money was — eventually, money was appropriated by both the House and Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee just as a line item. The rest of the Congress knows nothing about these kind of operations. When it gets to highly classified operations, the money is promulgated through a defense — highly classified defense appropriations subcommittee. And the rest of the people in the business, you know, on the floor, in various committees, just are — you know, it could be the other side of the moon as far as they’re concerned. But those eight people, the four Democrats — Reid, Pelosi, Rockefeller and Reyes — did nothing. And it’s complicated, because I can’t tell you — officially, the answer everybody gives is “We can’t talk about this kind of stuff.” I mean, that’s amazing —- it’s sort of the Catch-22. But I did learn -—
AMY GOODMAN: But again, a key point — but again, a key point here is that the NIE, the National Intelligence Estimate, of — what is it? The sixteen spy agencies — had come out saying that Iran did not have nuclear weapons, that they had abandoned the program years ago.
SEYMOUR HERSH: Yes. What it said — I wouldn’t say the word “abandoned.” What it said, that there’s no evidence that they had done anything since ’03. You know, it might have been “on pause,” whatever you want to say. But the NIE was very clear, and very devastating for an administration that was trying to rally public support. And so, what you have is, at the same time, within the same few week period — and, of course, the White House knew about the NIE since August or probably earlier, that it was going to be hurtful in terms of their campaign against Iran. And so, at the same time, these Democrats approved the money.
And the best guess I can tell you — what I heard from one aide — two aides, actually, who knew the process, is that the Democratic position was very sort of cynical, which is that “We’re going to do well next year in the election. We’re going to certainly increase our plurality in the House and Senate, and we’re probably going to win the presidency. Let’s not give Bush an issue, right now. Let him have his money so he can’t accuse us” — you know, the old traditional fear of the Democrats of being soft on national security. I did hear that from a couple of people as the reason. But none of the members can speak about it, because if they do, they’re violating the law. And so, that’s what I meant by Catch-22. For a democracy, it’s a very strange situation.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and what he had to say about the situation, about the Bush administration attacking Iran?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Gates went — the leadership of the caucus, the Democratic Caucus in the Senate, has off-the-record lunches, not every week, but on Thursdays usually. And they’re pretty sacrosanct in the sense that when — you can go, and they’re pretty secure. In this case, Gates went to one of the lunches — he knew many of the senators for many years; he’s been around Washington forever — and, during the colloquy, said very flatly that if we bomb Iran, our grandchildren will be fighting jihadists. And the senator with whom I talked about this said the other senators were stunned, a million questions about it. He eventually said he was speaking for himself.
But, you know, Amy, let me say something. I write in the article also that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mullen, is known to be pushing back on the idea of bombing, and also that these ten combatant commanders — you know, these are the guys who run — the commanders-in-chief in the Far East, or the CENTCOM, or what you will. And members of some of the — junior members of the Joint Chiefs have all signed or gotten together collectively, at least ten of them, to say “no bombing.”
But here’s the problem with that kind of thinking. That is, that we’re ready to go. I mean, this has been an issue for this president for three years. As you know, I’ve been writing in The New Yorker, you know, constantly about this stuff, and it doesn’t go away. After three years, our submarines are there. They have the targets. Our cruise missiles, our destroyers are there. The cruise missiles are loaded on them and all targeted. Our Air Force — the Navy, in particular, is going to have a big role. The Marine — not so much the Navy, Marine — but Air Force and Navy. They have their target selection. They’ve gone through the practice. We have ground troops. One of the problems with hitting Iran, if you hit them big, is a lot of their anti-aircraft and anti-missile batteries are dug in underground, so Marines and other units have to go in and basically blast them out. So, you know, you want to get — you don’t want to have Iran — before you bomb Iran, you have to take out their radar and their defensive systems. And so, you can’t do it in any other way than a big package, unless you want a lot of your planes shot down. And so, this has all been practiced. It’s been exercised. They’ve done it. They’re ready to go. And I can tell you that no matter what Gates thinks and no matter what Mullen thinks, if the President says, you know, “go” on January the 13th, 2009, a week before the inauguration, they will go. Because that’s just the way the system is. He’s got that call.
AMY GOODMAN: What about Admiral Fallon, who was forced out over this?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Yeah, well, that’s a complicated story. He was forced out, as everybody knows. Admiral Bill Fallon was the commander-in-chief for the Central Command, which gave him responsibility for Afghanistan — the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and of course, presumably, the covert war inside Iran. And what Fallon did is, of course, in public, we know that he was publicly against the bombing of Iran. He just didn’t think it made sense. What I discovered is that that was a factor, of course, in getting him in a lot of trouble, particularly with Mr. Cheney.
But another major issue for Fallon, in terms of the White — Cheney, I should say, attitude towards him, is Fallon discovered that all of the special operations inside Iraq, he knew about. He certainly knew about some of the cross-border stuff into Iran. But the big stuff going on — there’s been a new task force set up in Afghanistan under the Joint Special Operations Command, under the rubric of the $400 million that we discussed earlier. And he couldn’t get into it. He wasn’t cleared. He wasn’t on what they call a “bigot list.” And, you know, here — I’ve actually been told — here’s some, you know, lieutenant commander telling a four-star admiral, “Sir, I can’t discuss this with you, because you’re not cleared.” He pushed. He wanted to know — you know, this is what they call an “AO,” his area of operation. He wanted to know what the hell was going on in his area of responsibility, and he did not like Special Forces teams operating — I don’t think he was against what they were doing necessarily. He just didn’t like — he wanted to know. He wanted the responsibility to know, and that caused him a lot of trouble.
And actually, what’s amazing to me for this story is Fallon did talk about some of this, in a rather indirect but enough of a way, and one of his former commanders, when he was a two-star general, a very bright Marine general named Jack Sheehan, who last year was asked to be the czar for the war by the White House, it’s sort of a — if you want guys with integrity running your military, he’s one of them. Sheehan talked to me on the record about it and said, in effect, Fallon’s problem, his real problem, is with a certain group in the White House, and we all know who that is. That’s the Vice President’s office. I still think, personally — and I don’t know, because one can’t know. I have some access to the Vice President’s office, but I don’t know what the President thinks. I still think Cheney’s the top dog. We always hear stories he’s not, but I still think he’s the top dog on a lot of issues in this government.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to turn to Iran’s reaction to the threats of a possible attack from Israel. This is what the Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, had to say at a conference on Sunday in Pakistan.
MANOUCHEHR MOTTAKI: [translated] We do not see the Zionist regime in a situation in which they would engage in such adventurism. They know full well what the consequences of such an act would be in the region.
AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, your response?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, of course. Look, Israel can’t do it, because I just described earlier the kind of anti-missile and anti — defense they would run into. You know, this is a country, Iran, that’s been spending hundreds of millions, if not billions, on improving its defenses, at $140 a barrel. The idea of a sanction regime hurting them seriously is comical. They’re making a lot of money, and they’re buying a lot of weapons. And they’ve improved their security to the point where Israel — the idea of Israel, which has very limited aircraft and very limited missile, cruise missile capability, it’s just not going to be able to do much. And I can tell you that inside the White House, Cheney has said more than once that Israel is not going to go. If Israel wants to go, we’ll have to go, because if they went, we’d be blamed anyway. And so, the whole — how much of this is posturing from Israel and how much of this is posturing by us, I don’t know. You know, I’d love to have, at the end of this regime, to be proven to be dead wrong on all this stuff, that it never was going to happen. But I do think the idea of Israel going is not realistic, because they simply don’t have the firepower. We’re the ones that could do it.
And this is a presidency — you know, you have to listen to what these guys say. They’re pretty consistent. If you listen to what they said before the invasion of Iraq in '03, when a lot of people, including me, thought it was just so crazy, that they wouldn't do it, if you listen to what they say about this country, they’ve been — about Iran, it’s been pretty clear. They couldn’t care less what the NIE said. They believe Iran either has or will have a weapon and will destabilize Israel and would use it against Israel, even if it meant suicide, ignoring the fact that Iran has never attacked anybody outside of its borders for, what, 280 years or something like that, as a major power. They’ve never done an offensive operation. That’s just a simple fact. That’s just ignored by this White House. They talk about Iran as — internally, their position is, we’re not going to leave the presidency with Iran capable of blowing up the world. And they believe they are capable, and they want to stop it. If they can’t stop it with negotiations, I don’t know what they’ll do.
Particularly if Obama is elected, that would definitely — Obama looks like he’s going to win. That would definitely increase the chances of the President doing something. If McCain wins, I’ve been told by people who listen to conversations there, it will be easier for them, because they think McCain is on the same wavelength, which he is, on them, on all these issues, and that McCain could possibly do it in the middle of next year or whenever he chose. But if Obama is the winner, that will put pressure on Bush. And Bush says all the time — he just said it a few weeks ago — “I don’t care what people think about me. I’m going to do the right thing.” And that’s — you know, we have the most radical president we’ve ever had, leading our country right now, and he’s completely uneducable. And if that doesn’t scare the hell out of you, it scares the hell out of me, I’ll tell you.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Seymour Hersh, what are the groups that the US is funding right now in Iran, the opposition groups?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, you know, the enemy of my enemy is your enemy. Certainly, we’ve been doing a lot of stuff with the MEK, the Khalq, who are these whackos that have been doing stuff inside Iran from their little base in Iraq for years and going cross-border stuff. They’re still doing a lot of the stuff. They’re a pretty corrupt organization. They’re banking a lot of the money we give them, but they’re still doing a lot. You have — as you know, Iran is a Shiite-dominated country, but you have a number of Sunni groups, the Baluchis, who live on the edge, that is, on the borders with the Kurds, Sunni Kurds, who don’t like the government. Many elements of them do not. And they’re getting funded. The Azwari Arabs, who are Shia, about 50 percent of the population, there’s also some dissidence there. So we’re dumping a lot of money into various groups. The Jundallah, which is a really crazy Salafist group that’s done a lot of — you can always buy them — pay them money to kill people. Many of their younger people have gone to the same madrasah as the Taliban, and they espouse some — they’re Sunni on some of the al-Qaeda values, whatever that means, because I don’t — you know, Osama bin Laden is just where he is. There’s a lot of other stuff going on in the name of al-Qaeda. But there’s a number of groups that we probably wouldn’t look at at all, if it wasn’t — we would find to be, you know, hostile, crazy, on the fringe, jihadists almost. And we’re funding them because they’re against the central government.
You know what it’s like? Somebody once said to me, one of the guys that I deal with, and they’re — he said it’s like, if the Iranians are coming in there and looking around for groups, it’s like if the Iranians came to America, and they wanted to cause trouble, and they — here’s this group called the Sons of the Revolution, these rebels in the South, and they have this flag, and they can’t even fly their rebel flag anymore. Even in the state of Georgia, their law says they can’t do it. What a group to — you know, wow, obviously, this would be a great group to try and talk to, see if we can get them to go up against the government, not knowing they’re against — they’re coming up — you know, the Sons of the Revolution are totally loyal to America in every sense. We’re flying blind. We don’t know who we’re flying, who we’re giving money to.
And the idea that we — Iran is not a tribal country. It’s not an Arab country. It’s a Persian country. It’s a country with — as solid in terms of its national identity as Paris — as France or Germany. It’s been two, three hundred years. The idea that you’re going to cause significant trouble internally is a smoke dream. What this White House wants to do with these new operations, yes, they’re continuing the old game of collecting intelligence and causing trouble. The real thing I think they want from JSOC, Joint Special Operations Command, which are the junta killer teams of America, I think Cheney would love to get a scientist, a nuclear scientist, and bring him back to America and have him publicly testify to the fact that, yes, indeed, Iran has, you know, thirty secret bomb factories and is a major nuclear power, just like the President believes, I think, when he goes to bed and in his dreams. And they would like to have that.
They would also like to create enough chaos in the country, kinetic stuff, bombings and sabotage, which is going up, by the way, since this operation began. And I can’t — there’s obviously a connection, but I don’t have any empirical evidence for it. But in the last four months, the number of incidents inside Iran in terms of domestic violence, bombings and attacks have just gone up exponentially. And clearly there’s a connection, but I don’t have anybody telling me that. It’s just logical. We want — we’d like to see the Iranian central government to crack down in some vigorous way against the Baluchis and other groups and create a situation where there is open — sort of open dissidence, open warfare. Then, perhaps, we can come in. The problem America has, the Bush-Cheney administration, is that the American public overwhelmingly is not very interested in a bombing of Iran, despite all the bellicose talk.
AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, we’re going to leave it there.
SEYMOUR HERSH: OK.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh, his piece appears in the latest New Yorker magazine. It’s called “Preparing the Battlefield: The Bush Adminstration Steps Up Its Secret Moves Against Iran.”