Iran: The Next Strategic Target

Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker magazine this week that the Pentagon has already secretly sent in forces to Iran to identify possible future military targets. In the article, titled “The Coming Wars: What the Pentagon Can Now Do in Secret,” Hersh wrote that he had been repeatedly told by intelligence and military officials, on condition of anonymity that "the next strategic target was Iran."

The covert reconnaissance missions have been underway since at least last summer, aided by Pakistan as well as Israel. According to Hersh's article, the president has authorized the Pentagon to send secret commando forces into as many as 10 nations in the Middle East and South Asia. These forces could potentially carry out combat operations or even terrorist acts. Bush reportedly used the Pentagon for the missions instead of the CIA to avoid having to report to Congress.

On Monday, the Pentagon criticized major aspects of the article, saying in a written statement "Hersh's article is so riddled with errors of fundamental fact that the credibility of his entire piece is destroyed." But President Bush, when asked by NBC’s David Gregory whether he would rule out military action against Iran, said: “I hope we can solve it diplomatically, but I will never take any option off the table.”

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to what President Bush has said?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, I mean, the thing that's wonderful about that is that, of course, if he really hopes we're doing something politically, he should join in with the talks that have been underway for more than a year. Since 2003, the European Union, primarily led by England, France and Germany, has been in extensive negotiations with the Iranians. I think there's an understanding that Iran has ambitions to become a nuclear power. It's not there yet. The goal of these talks is to offer them, I guess, to use a cliche, the carrot they need in terms of increased trade and increased credits and dual-use goods, goods that they have been denied by sanctions because of their activities, in exchange for a commitment to stop.

The United States has not joined in those talks, absolutely has nothing to do with them. In the article, I quoted senior Western diplomats — everyone's so nervous about being quoted about anything these days with this administration — anyway, a senior European diplomat said to me, we're in a lose-lose position, because as long as America doesn't join in these negotiations we really don't have the leverage. What kind of a commitment can we make for Iran's security if America stays out of it? And as long as they don't join in, we're eventually going to have to go to the United Nations for sanctions because we can't do it through diplomacy to stop them, and at that point, everybody understands that Russia and China will probably veto it, and then the Bush administration can claim, ‘Aha! The U.N. is not working again,’ which is analogous to what happened in 2003 when we went into Iraq. We didn't give the negotiations there a chance to work. So, if you really are interested in negotiations, it's simple. Start talking to Iran.

Can you explain where the CIA and the Pentagon fit into this picture?

Well, that's actually to me the most interesting part to the story that I wrote — not about Iran, because you can almost argue that, of course, we're doing surveillance. I'm sort of amazed that it became such a big story in the last 24 hours or 36 hours. The real issue — what the story is about, is the fact that the diminution of the CIA is unbelievable. The president has really gone after the agency with (Vice President Dick) Cheney and (Secretary of Defense Donald) Rumsfeld, and at this point, as I say, there's never been more significant or more intellectual or more intelligence capability for not only operations, but for analysis. More is totally centralized in the White House and the Pentagon than since the rise of the national security state after World War II in the Cold War. We now have the White House and a Pentagon that basically dominates the process. The C.I.A. has been marginalized.

All of the noise that you heard about the new CIA Director (Porter) Goss, going after people in the operations division — the so-called dirty tricks division — really has masked what's going on. His real mission, his real agenda — and it wasn't his, he was carrying out a White House agenda — was to get rid of a number of analysts, senior analysts, who work for the intelligence side of the CIA, old-timers who have been skeptical of many of the White House's and Pentagon's operations, and so, as somebody said to me, they really went after the apostates, and they want only true believers in there. That's what the mission has been.

I think the president's got a lot of legal power here. The way the world shakes down is this, when it comes to covert secret operations abroad. If the CIA does it, under the law now they must tell the President. The President has to issue a finding approving it, and the Congress has to be told. The House and Senate intelligence committees have to be briefed. If the military does a covert operation, their interpretation of the law is simply that the president's rights as commander in chief trump any other requirement. That is, the military is there to prepare the battlefield with these operations. This is a military deal, totally. Nothing to do with intelligence. No need to inform anybody.

So, now Rumsfeld has won a major bureaucratic fight. He is now operating, as you said in the intro, in up to ten countries. He is sending in covert teams, that is, the word they use inside is "wiped clean." The soldiers are wiped clean. Their IDs are totally non-American and non-military. They're going in to make contact with groups inside various countries, set up operations, trying to do some war games, some terrorism themselves. You run with the bad boys to find the bad boys is the way somebody said to me. In other words, look like bad boys to attract other bad boys so we find out who they are. We can't find the terrorists too often. This is one way of getting at them. And we're going to be doing that with military people. We're not going to be telling the American ambassador in the country. We're not going to be telling the CIA station chief. It's going to be done by Rummy and his people. That's a huge shift, an unprecedented shift, in the last 60 years.

Can you talk about, when it comes to Iran, the role of Pakistan and Israel?

Well, Israel's role is simply to say, ‘Yeah, if you guys don't do it, we're going to do it.” Nobody wants that. And so Israel is sort of there. Israel is playing it very cleverly, and they understand that a lot of Americans, pro- and anti-Israel, are troubled by the Israeli connection to this administration as it played out in the Iraqi invasion. There's a lot of questions about whether Israel was a major player in this or a major factor. So, they don't want that scene replicated in case we do something in Iran. So, they have been low-balling it, but the reality is they have been putting a lot of pressure. The message really to us is “Either you do it or we do it.” Nobody wants them to do it. That would be chaotic.

The Pakistani role is much more devious in a way, much more complicated, because (President Pervez) Musharraf is allegedly our ally in the hunt for bin Laden and all that. Meanwhile, he's going along, making weapons, more nuclear weapons, but he has given us access to some of the Pakistani scientists who work in Iran. One of the things that we learned — one of the reasons we learned about Iran's secret ambitions is the International Agency for Atomic Energy (IAEA), the watchdog in Europe, in Vienna, a non-proliferation regime (of which by the way, Iran is a member of the N.P.T., Pakistan is not) ... announced a couple of years ago that they discovered there was cheating — you know, gambling on the premises, that not only was Iran cheating, but they had been working with the Pakistanis for years. That all ended, but Musharraf has given us some of the Pakistani intelligence, some of the information they know from their own work about where certain facilities are inside Iran.

The exchange is we are laying off A.Q. Khan ... (who) is the sort of, the mythical, it's not quite real, but we always call him the father of the Pakistani bomb (actually another man named Khan did much more with it). Nonetheless, A.Q. Khan was the guy that generated the dual-use goods, the materials they needed to get nuclear in the 1970s and 1980s. He is a famous person, and he was caught out in Libya doing this kind of stuff a couple of years ago. There was a public ceremony where Musharraf had him — A.Q. Khan went and apologized. Now he has been under house arrest. Musharraf has not given us or the IAEA in Vienna access to this guy. So we don't know what he's doing. My friends inside tell me we made a Faustian bargain. We told Musharraf, give us the intelligence we need to get more information about sites, nuclear sites, the suspected sites in Iran, and we will not pressure you on A.Q. Khan, coughing him up to us or the IAEA. And meanwhile, of course, Musharraf is making more bombs.

As we continue our discussion with investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, whose latest piece is in The New Yorker magazine this week is called, "The Coming Wars: What the Pentagon Can Now Do In Secret" and talks about Pentagon plans to deal with Iran. Is it fair to say to attack Iran?

Yeah, I think that's fair to say. Of course they're planning to attack Iran. The goal of the neo-conservatives — the Paul Wolfowitzes and Doug Feiths in the Pentagon, the civilian leadership in the Pentagon — their theory is, one of the things they've learned in Iraq (they have learned something) is that regime change by overwhelming force isn't working so well. So the goal in Iran, since it's also three times as large as Iraq, and it does have a large secular population and there's a lot of reason to believe that if we hadn't gone into Iraq, there would be a lot of dissent right now in Iran over the leadership; but nonetheless, I think their thinking is, that if we hit three or four dozen targets in the spring — late spring or summer, which I think is the tentative plan — that would be roughly at the time (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon is beginning his pullout of Gaza, and so the theory in the Pentagon (is) there would be more good feelings towards America in the Muslim world once this begins. And if Iraq can be stabilized, which they think it will — I don't know why, but they do — after the elections, if that gets stabilized, then the goal is you hit three or four targets quickly and cleanly and you be sure you're right and you have evidence to show that the Iranians are cheating more than they might — than the world [inaudible] knows, this could lead to the secular population, those millions of young people, etc., who don't like the clerical leadership, to overthrowing or beginning to agitate against the mullahs once again.

And the only problem with that thinking, of course, is that it's pretty much unique to those group of civilians in the Pentagon; because almost everybody else I talked to, in and out of the government, were scathing in their critique of this, saying it's absolutely hogwash, that what's going to happen, of course, is that the White House and the Pentagon is ignoring the nationalism that exists, the enormous feelings of togetherness inside Iran and love for country. And, essentially, (it’s) the reason I think people talk to me – because it's very clear with this group that's now in the White House and in the Pentagon, you can't get to the meetings unless you drink the Kool-Aid. And so, if you don't agree with them, you can't get in. And so, yeah, I think they really believe this is one way — sort of on the cheap, without committing a lot of troops, an air raid, maybe some commandoes, you know, some guerrillas, American SEALS or other teams go in with the Israelis, some of Israeli commando units go in to certain targets about which we're not clear. But, basically, they think that's the ticket.

What are the other countries that the Pentagon is operating secretly in?

... In the other countries I name, I can tell you we just did something in Algeria. What we are doing is we're sending in teams that are completely disguised as terrorists, and the CIA has a number of rules they have to live by, (including) they cannot have their assets, their people, posing as journalists or clerics. And there's no such rules for the Pentagon. So, you know, the military people going in could be journalists, they could be religious people, they could be plain tourists undercover. And I think North Africa is a place of enormous interest for us, because the Bush administration believes there's a lot of al Qaeda or al Qaeda-like terrorist activities there. So, that's an area of concern, you know, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia. Obviously, they're still interested in the Philippines and Indonesia, and there's other countries where we have an enormous amount of interest.

The government has finally responded to your piece, saying, "It's so riddled with errors of fundamental fact that the credibility of [your] entire report has been destroyed."

Yeah. I heard that.

Your response?

Well, I mean, my response is pretty much the same as, I must say, even the mainstream media. To their everlasting credit, it is all pointed out that while it's wonderful to go after me personally, none of the attacks dealt with the substance of what I was writing about. Are we operating in Iran? Is there a new understanding of what the Pentagon can do? All of that is not dealt with. So, you know, I'm really very untroubled by what the Pentagon spokesmen say. I think that when I did my stuff on Abu Ghraib and suggested that ... what went on in Abu Ghraib was certainly not just there, it went on into Guantanamo in Cuba, into Afghanistan and other places in Iraq and led to the highest leadership, when I wrote that stuff, they accused me of throwing mud up — I think it was mud — against the wall and seeing what sticks. So, you know, you cannot worry about what public relations people say.

Speaking of which, the conviction of Charles Graner, sentenced to 10 years in prison for torture at Abu Ghraib.

Well, there's a couple of thoughts. One, of course, is that just last week, somebody got one year for murdering somebody in Iraq. It was a manslaughter case. So there's always a question of somebody else who plead guilty got eight years, which are most of the people who committed — who shoot prisoners are getting three years or so. There's that question of that, the fairness of the sentencing. ... Graner's defense was moronic, but one of the things his lawyer did raise, they tried very hard to get some officers as witnesses, and of course they all plead – the military equivalent of (taking) the Fifth and they were excused. They didn't testify. ... I thought the coverage in The Washington Post, by the way, which I read — I thought was really quite brilliant, because they kept on focusing in the trial about higher-ups. I didn't see as much of that in the Times unfortunately, but in the Post, it was really terrific coverage. Because that was the real theme of what Graner was saying — there were a lot of other people involved. Until we deal with that in a legal way and prosecute some people — you know, we're still in the scapegoat business here. You know, it's hard to have much sympathy for Graner, but I learned when I did a lot of work on My Lai, I initially started out thinking all those kids in Lt. Calley's company who murdered people were the worst sort of people. In the end, I came to realize they were as much victims as the people they executed, because of the wrong war, wrong time, wrong training, wrong everything. And there is a lot more responsibility than just Charlie Graner.

And your belief in having written Chain of Command, the book, how far up it goes?

Oh my god, I don't think there's any question that I would never say that anybody in the White House or Pentagon knew. Civilian leadership knew what was going on in Abu Ghraib, but that everybody from the president on down understood that ... the cliche was, the gloves are off. Rumsfeld kept on saying that we were going to get very tough with prisoners. There's no question, it was widespread inside, and as you know, as you remember, we talked about it, the book I wrote begins with the meeting with Condoleezza Rice about this issue. There was a lot more high-level information. You know, this president's hard for to us reach. We don't know – we don't know where he is at any time. But I am increasingly convinced, and I have enough data that I'm getting. I'm just talking, not writing, that the President, when it came to prisoner interrogation issues and the intelligence from it and operational stuff, is much more actively involved in a way we don't see than we might think. We always see him as sort of not really getting tuned in. I think in this stuff, he's really more tuned in, but I — you know, I have to prove that.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.