|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
The Bush administration has launched a "significant escalation" of covert operations in Iran, sending U.S. commandos to spy on the country's nuclear facilities and undermine the Islamic republic's government, journalist Seymour Hersh said Sunday.
White House, CIA and State Department officials declined comment on Hersh's report, which appears in this week's issue of The New Yorker.
Hersh told CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer" that Congress has authorized up to $400 million to fund the secret campaign, which involves U.S. special operations troops and Iranian dissidents.
President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have rejected findings from U.S. intelligence agencies that Iran has halted a clandestine effort to build a nuclear bomb and "do not want to leave Iran in place with a nuclear program," Hersh said.
"They believe that their mission is to make sure that before they get out of office next year, either Iran is attacked or it stops its weapons program," Hersh said.
The new article, "Preparing the Battlefield," is the latest in a series of articles accusing the Bush administration of preparing for war with Iran.
He based the report on accounts from current and former military, intelligence, and congressional sources. Watch Hersh discuss what he says are the administration's plans for Iran
"As usual with his quarterly pieces, we'll decline to comment," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe told CNN.
“The Finding was focussed on undermining Iran’s nuclear ambitions and trying to undermine the government through regime change,” a person familiar with its contents said, and involved “working with opposition groups and passing money.” The Finding provided for a whole new range of activities in southern Iran and in the areas, in the east, where Baluchi political opposition is strong, he said.
Although some legislators were troubled by aspects of the Finding, and “there was a significant amount of high-level discussion” about it, according to the source familiar with it, the funding for the escalation was approved. In other words, some members of the Democratic leadership—Congress has been under Democratic control since the 2006 elections—were willing, in secret, to go along with the Administration in expanding covert activities directed at Iran, while the Party’s presumptive candidate for President, Barack Obama, has said that he favors direct talks and diplomacy.
The request for funding came in the same period in which the Administration was coming to terms with a National Intelligence Estimate, released in December, that concluded that Iran had halted its work on nuclear weapons in 2003. The Administration downplayed the significance of the N.I.E., and, while saying that it was committed to diplomacy, continued to emphasize that urgent action was essential to counter the Iranian nuclear threat. President Bush questioned the N.I.E.’s conclusions, and senior national-security officials, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, made similar statements. (So did Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee.) Meanwhile, the Administration also revived charges that the Iranian leadership has been involved in the killing of American soldiers in Iraq: both directly, by dispatching commando units into Iraq, and indirectly, by supplying materials used for roadside bombs and other lethal goods. (There have been questions about the accuracy of the claims; the Times, among others, has reported that “significant uncertainties remain about the extent of that involvement.”)
Senior Democrats in Congress told me that they had concerns about the possibility that their understanding of what the new operations entail differs from the White House’s. One issue has to do with a reference in the Finding, the person familiar with it recalled, to potential defensive lethal action by U.S. operatives in Iran. (In early May, the journalist Andrew Cockburn published elements of the Finding in Counterpunch, a newsletter and online magazine.)
The language was inserted into the Finding at the urging of the C.I.A., a former senior intelligence official said. The covert operations set forth in the Finding essentially run parallel to those of a secret military task force, now operating in Iran, that is under the control of JSOC. Under the Bush Administration’s interpretation of the law, clandestine military activities, unlike covert C.I.A. operations, do not need to be depicted in a Finding, because the President has a constitutional right to command combat forces in the field without congressional interference.
The defensive-lethal language led some Democrats, according to congressional sources familiar with their views, to call in the director of the C.I.A., Air Force General Michael V. Hayden, for a special briefing. Hayden reassured the legislators that the language did nothing more than provide authority for Special Forces operatives on the ground in Iran to shoot their way out if they faced capture or harm.
The legislators were far from convinced. One congressman subsequently wrote a personal letter to President Bush insisting that “no lethal action, period” had been authorized within Iran’s borders. As of June, he had received no answer.
On March 15, 2005, David Obey, then the ranking Democrat on the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee, announced that he was putting aside an amendment that he had intended to offer that day, and that would have cut off all funding for national-intelligence programs unless the President agreed to keep Congress fully informed about clandestine military activities undertaken in the war on terror. He had changed his mind, he said, because the White House promised better coöperation. “The Executive Branch understands that we are not trying to dictate what they do,” he said in a floor speech at the time. “We are simply trying to see to it that what they do is consistent with American values and will not get the country in trouble.”
Obey declined to comment on the specifics of the operations in Iran, but he did tell me that the White House reneged on its promise to consult more fully with Congress. He said, “I suspect there’s something going on, but I don’t know what to believe. Cheney has always wanted to go after Iran, and if he had more time he’d find a way to do it. We still don’t get enough information from the agencies, and I have very little confidence that they give us information on the edge.”
None of the four Democrats in the Gang of Eight—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman John D. Rockefeller IV, and House Intelligence Committee chairman Silvestre Reyes—would comment on the Finding, with some noting that it was highly classified. An aide to one member of the Democratic leadership responded, on his behalf, by pointing to the limitations of the Gang of Eight process. The notification of a Finding, the aide said, “is just that—notification, and not a sign-off on activities. Proper oversight of ongoing intelligence activities is done by fully briefing the members of the intelligence committee.” However, Congress does have the means to challenge the White House once it has been sent a Finding. It has the power to withhold funding for any government operation. The members of the House and Senate Democratic leadership who have access to the Finding can also, if they choose to do so, and if they have shared concerns, come up with ways to exert their influence on Administration policy. (A spokesman for the C.I.A. said, “As a rule, we don’t comment one way or the other on allegations of covert activities or purported findings.” The White House also declined to comment.)
A member of the House Appropriations Committee acknowledged that, even with a Democratic victory in November, “it will take another year before we get the intelligence activities under control.” He went on, “We control the money and they can’t do anything without the money. Money is what it’s all about. But I’m very leery of this Administration.” He added, “This Administration has been so secretive.”