Seymour Hersh – the same investigative journalist who, last year, provided readers with some of the first shocking reports of prison abuse at Abu Ghraib – has dropped another bombshell.
In next week's edition of New Yorker magazine, he focuses on U.S. covert military operations in South Asia, particularly Iran.
In the article, posted on the internet Monday, Mr. Hersh reported that President Bush "has signed a series of findings and executive orders authorizing secret commando groups and other Special Forces units to conduct covert operations against suspected terrorist targets in as many as ten nations in the Middle East and South Asia."
Hersh also reported that U.S. special forces have been operating inside Iran for over six months, selecting suspected weapons sites for possible air strikes.
The Administration has been conducting secret reconnaissance missions inside Iran at least since last summer. Much of the focus is on the accumulation of intelligence and targeting information on Iranian nuclear, chemical, and missile sites, both declared and suspected. The goal is to identify and isolate three dozen, and perhaps more, such targets that could be destroyed by precision strikes and short-term commando raids. "The civilians in the Pentagon want to go into Iran and destroy as much of the military infrastructure as possible," the government consultant with close ties to the Pentagon told me.The Department of Defense blasted the report. Pentagon spokesman Larry DiRita issued a statement saying the article "is so riddled with errors of fundamental fact that the credibility of his entire piece is destroyed."
Mr. Hersh's source(s) feed him with rumor, innuendo, and assertions about meetings that never happened, programs that do not exist, and statements by officials that were never made. ...The Pentagon, however, did not dispute what Agence France-Presse calls the "central claim" of the piece: that Mr. Bush has authorized U.S. commandos to conduct covert operations against suspected terrorist targets in as many as 10 nations, including Iran.
By his own admission, Mr. Hersh evidently is working on an 'alternative history' novel. He is well along in that work, given the high quality of 'alternative present' that he has developed in several recent articles.
Mr. Hersh's preference for single, anonymous, unofficial sources for his most fantastic claims makes it difficult to parse his discussion of Defense Department operations.
But, in the first official Iranian reaction to Hersh's article, Supreme National Security Council spokesman Ali Aghamohammadi said it would be naive to imagine American spies could carry out secret reconnaissance missions inside the country, reports the BBC. He also called the report psychological warfare, according to the BBC.
The Tehran Times writes that "the U.S. and its allies have used all their espionage tricks to obtain information about Iran but have never succeeded and will never succeed in discovering Iran's real military might." The same editorial asserts that Hersh's piece is part of a U.S. psychological campaign.
Therefore, [Hersh's] new claim, which is part of the White House's psychological operations against Tehran and which has also not been completely rejected, can only be interpreted as a ridiculous bluff meant to deflect attention from the U.S. failure in regard to Iran.Ehsan Ahrari, a U.S.-based independent strategic analyst writing in Asia Times Online, also floats this theory.
There is also an outside chance that Hersh might have been given this story as a larger campaign of the U.S. to forewarn Iran about the consequences of developing nuclear weapons.In remarks published Tuesday, one day after Bush refused to rule out a military option against Iran, the semi-official Iranian Mehr news agency quoted Iran's defense minister Ali Shamkhani as saying on Tuesday: "We are able to say that we have strength such that no country can attack us because they do not have precise information about our military capabilities due to our ability to implement flexible strategies."
"We can claim that we have rapidly produced equipment that has resulted in the greatest deterrent," he said, without elaborating.
Hersh's article also asserts that the U.S. has been working with Pakistani sources to gain information used in operations in eastern Iran.
Pakistan has denied these claims. "There is no such collaboration. We do not have much information on Iran's nuclear program," said Masood Khan, a spokesman for the Pakistani foreign office.
"This report is far-fetched and it exaggerates facts which do not exist in the first place."
The conservative New York Post casts doubt on Hersh's credibility as a reporter, but says it hopes his report is correct.
When Seymour Hersh writes, an extra-large grain of salt is called for. And yet ... well, this is one time we hope Hersh's reporting is correct. ...Here is Hersh's claim about cooperation with Israel:
(Hersh also claims that there has been close coordination of U.S. efforts with Israel – though the Pentagon says flatly that such cooperation "does not exist."
(Again, though, we hope that Hersh is correct – because the Israelis, who have been tracking Iran's nuclear threat since long before the rest of the world took it seriously, certainly has some expertise in this regard.)
Whether Hersh's reporting is right – or whether, even if right, it's part of a huge strategic bluff by Washington – remains to be seen.
There has also been close, and largely unacknowledged, cooperation with Israel. The government consultant with ties to the Pentagon said that the Defense Department civilians, under the leadership of Douglas Feith, have been working with Israeli planners and consultants to develop and refine potential nuclear, chemical-weapons, and missile targets inside Iran.Hersh also reported in the article that the Pentagon is revising its war plans for a possible invasion against Iran.
The Pentagon's contingency plans for a broader invasion of Iran are also being updated. Strategists at the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, in Tampa, Florida, have been asked to revise the military's war plan, providing for a maximum ground and air invasion of Iran.