Sy Hersh: Congress Is Funding Major Escalation in Secret Operations Against Iran

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 have 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, and the pursuit of so-called "high-value targets" who may be captured or killed.

While covert operations against Iran are not new, Hersh writes that 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 joined Democracy Now! from Washington DC.

Amy Goodman: Start off by talking about how you learned this information.

Seymour Hersh: Well, that stops me for a second. Here's the problem with that question: the problem is this is all very classified, and 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 offices 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, The problem, 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's 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) -- four hundred million dollars for operations. And then they discover that the operations they approved may go way beyond what they think they were approving. It's sort of like the end of democracy in a way. We don't know what the government is doing. People on the inside don't know what the government is doing. It was from this sort of collective angst that people began to talk to me about the operations.

Goodman: Can you talk about the Democratic-controlled Congress and what exactly it approved late last year?

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, but 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 were 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 is no evidence they're actually seeking weapons, as they've been saying. And that's what the NIE said at this same time as we all know this president, and the vice-president, and the Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Advisor, and the Secretary of State, they've all disavowed it 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." He has the right as president to ask that only a few members of Congress -- it's know in the laws 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, his counterpart, and all the Democrat and Republican chairmans 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 you have those four Democrats got a chop at this. The finding was given to them, particularly the Intelligence Committee's lawyers look at it, and did nothing. And the money was, eventually the money was appropriated by both the House and Senate Defense Appropriations Sub-Committee, just as a line item.

Congress -- the rest of the Congress knows nothing about these kind of operations. When it gets to highly classified operations, the money is promulgated through the highly-classified Defense Appropriations Sub-Committee. And the rest of the people in the business -- on the floor, in various committees -- 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 … there's the answer everybody gives, is "We can't talk about this kind of stuff." That's the amazing, that's sort of the Catch 22.

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'd abandoned the program years ago.

Hersh: Yes, what it said -- I wouldn't say the word "abandon" -- what it said was that there's no evidence that they had done anything since '03. 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, so 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 two aides who knew the processes 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 that he can't accuse us" -- you know the old traditional fear of the Democrats 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.

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.

Hersh: 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, 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. During the colloqui, he 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 asked 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 at least ten combatant commanders -- these are the guys who run the .... commanders are chief in the far East of 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: 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 'em and all targeted. Our Air Force, the Navy in particular is going to have a big role -- not so much Navy, but Marines. 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 'em big, is a lot of their anti-aircraft and anti-missile batteries are dug in underground so Marines or other units have to go in and basically blast them out. Before you bomb Iran, you have to take out their radar and their defensive systems. 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 practice, it's been exercise. They've done it, they're ready to go. I can tell you that, no matter what Gates thinks, and no matter what Mullen thinks, if the president says "go" on January the 13th, 2009, a week before the inauguration, they will go. Because that's just the way the system is.

Goodman: What about Admiral Fallon, who was forced out over this.

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 was 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 was that that was a factor, of course. I'm getting him in a lot of trouble, particularly with Mr. Cheney, but another major issue for Fallon in terms of Cheney, is that Fallon discovered that all of the special operations inside Iraq he knew about. He certainly knew about some of the cross-border stuff in Iran, but the big stuff going on.

There's been a task force set up in Afghanistan, under the Joint Special Operations Command, under the rubric of the four hundred million dollars 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 I've actually been told, here's some 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. This is what they call an AO -- an Area of Operation -- he wanted to know what the hell was going on in his area 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's 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. 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, 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.

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 Manucher Mottaki had to say at a conference on Sunday in Pakistan:

Manucher Mottaki: We do not see the Zionists' 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.

Hersh: 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 the idea of Israel, which has very limited aircraft and very limited 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's not going to go. And if Israel wants to go, we'll have to go because if they went, we'd be blamed anyway. And so 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 fire power. 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, 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 ... 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. It's 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 -- 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's elected. 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'll be easier for them because they think McCain is on the same wavelength, which he is. on all these issues. And that McCain could possibly do it in the middle of next year or whenever he chose, but if Obama's the winner, that'll put pressure on Bush. Bush says it 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." 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.


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