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The Bush Administration steps up its secret moves against Iran.
by Seymour M. Hersh July 7, 2008
- Operations outside the knowledge and control of commanders have eroded “the coherence of military strategy,” one general says.
Late last year, Congress agreed to a request from President Bush to fund a major escalation of covert operations against Iran, according to current and former military, intelligence, and congressional sources. These operations, for which the President sought up to four hundred million dollars, were described in a Presidential Finding signed by Bush, and are designed to destabilize the country’s religious leadership. The covert activities involve support of the minority Ahwazi Arab and Baluchi groups and other dissident organizations. They also include gathering intelligence about Iran’s suspected nuclear-weapons program.
Clandestine operations against Iran are not new. United States Special Operations Forces have been conducting cross-border operations from southern Iraq, with Presidential authorization, since last year. These have included seizing members of Al Quds, the commando arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and taking them to Iraq for interrogation, and the pursuit of “high-value targets” in the President’s war on terror, who may be captured or killed. But the scale and the scope of the operations in Iran, which involve the Central Intelligence Agency and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), have now been significantly expanded, according to the current and former officials. Many of these activities are not specified in the new Finding, and some congressional leaders have had serious questions about their nature.
Under federal law, a Presidential Finding, which is highly classified, must be issued when a covert intelligence operation gets under way and, at a minimum, must be made known to Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and the Senate and to the ranking members of their respective intelligence committees—the so-called Gang of Eight. Money for the operation can then be reprogrammed from previous appropriations, as needed, by the relevant congressional committees, which also can be briefed.
“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.”)
Military and civilian leaders in the Pentagon share the White House’s concern about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but there is disagreement about whether a military strike is the right solution. Some Pentagon officials believe, as they have let Congress and the media know, that bombing Iran is not a viable response to the nuclear-proliferation issue, and that more diplomacy is necessary.
A Democratic senator told me that, late last year, in an off-the-record lunch meeting, Secretary of Defense Gates met with the Democratic caucus in the Senate. (Such meetings are held regularly.) Gates warned of the consequences if the Bush Administration staged a preëmptive strike on Iran, saying, as the senator recalled, “We’ll create generations of jihadists, and our grandchildren will be battling our enemies here in America.” Gates’s comments stunned the Democrats at the lunch, and another senator asked whether Gates was speaking for Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney. Gates’s answer, the senator told me, was “Let’s just say that I’m here speaking for myself.” (A spokesman for Gates confirmed that he discussed the consequences of a strike at the meeting, but would not address what he said, other than to dispute the senator’s characterization.)
The Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose chairman is Admiral Mike Mullen, were “pushing back very hard” against White House pressure to undertake a military strike against Iran, the person familiar with the Finding told me. Similarly, a Pentagon consultant who is involved in the war on terror said that “at least ten senior flag and general officers, including combatant commanders”—the four-star officers who direct military operations around the world—“have weighed in on that issue.”
The most outspoken of those officers is Admiral William Fallon, who until recently was the head of U.S. Central Command, and thus in charge of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. In March, Fallon resigned under pressure, after giving a series of interviews stating his reservations about an armed attack on Iran. For example, late last year he told the Financial Times that the “real objective” of U.S. policy was to change the Iranians’ behavior, and that “attacking them as a means to get to that spot strikes me as being not the first choice.”
Admiral Fallon acknowledged, when I spoke to him in June, that he had heard that there were people in the White House who were upset by his public statements. “Too many people believe you have to be either for or against the Iranians,” he told me. “Let’s get serious. Eighty million people live there, and everyone’s an individual. The idea that they’re only one way or another is nonsense.”
When it came to the Iraq war, Fallon said, “Did I bitch about some of the things that were being proposed? You bet. Some of them were very stupid.”
The Democratic leadership’s agreement to commit hundreds of millions of dollars for more secret operations in Iran was remarkable, given the general concerns of officials like Gates, Fallon, and many others. “The oversight process has not kept pace—it’s been coöpted” by the Administration, the person familiar with the contents of the Finding said. “The process is broken, and this is dangerous stuff we’re authorizing.”
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. But the borders between operations are not always clear: in Iran, C.I.A. agents and regional assets have the language skills and the local knowledge to make contacts for the JSOC operatives, and have been working with them to direct personnel, matériel, and money into Iran from an obscure base in western Afghanistan. As a result, Congress has been given only a partial view of how the money it authorized may be used. One of JSOC’s task-force missions, the pursuit of “high-value targets,” was not directly addressed in the Finding. There is a growing realization among some legislators that the Bush Administration, in recent years, has conflated what is an intelligence operation and what is a military one in order to avoid fully informing Congress about what it is doing.
“This is a big deal,” the person familiar with the Finding said. “The C.I.A. needed the Finding to do its traditional stuff, but the Finding does not apply to JSOC. The President signed an Executive Order after September 11th giving the Pentagon license to do things that it had never been able to do before without notifying Congress. The claim was that the military was ‘preparing the battle space,’ and by using that term they were able to circumvent congressional oversight. Everything is justified in terms of fighting the global war on terror.” He added, “The Administration has been fuzzing the lines; there used to be a shade of gray”—between operations that had to be briefed to the senior congressional leadership and those which did not—“but now it’s a shade of mush.”
“The agency says we’re not going to get in the position of helping to kill people without a Finding,” the former senior intelligence official told me. He was referring to the legal threat confronting some agency operatives for their involvement in the rendition and alleged torture of suspects in the war on terror. “This drove the military people up the wall,” he said. As far as the C.I.A. was concerned, the former senior intelligence official said, “the over-all authorization includes killing, but it’s not as though that’s what they’re setting out to do. It’s about gathering information, enlisting support.” The Finding sent to Congress was a compromise, providing legal cover for the C.I.A. while referring to the use of lethal force in ambiguous terms.
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.
Members of Congress have expressed skepticism in the past about the information provided by the White House. 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.”
One irony of Admiral Fallon’s departure is that he was, in many areas, in agreement with President Bush on the threat posed by Iran. They had a good working relationship, Fallon told me, and, when he ran CENTCOM, were in regular communication. On March 4th, a week before his resignation, Fallon testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, saying that he was “encouraged” about the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Regarding the role played by Iran’s leaders, he said, “They’ve been absolutely unhelpful, very damaging, and I absolutely don’t condone any of their activities. And I have yet to see anything since I’ve been in this job in the way of a public action by Iran that’s been at all helpful in this region.”
Fallon made it clear in our conversations that he considered it inappropriate to comment publicly about the President, the Vice-President, or Special Operations. But he said he had heard that people in the White House had been “struggling” with his views on Iran. “When I arrived at CENTCOM, the Iranians were funding every entity inside Iraq. It was in their interest to get us out, and so they decided to kill as many Americans as they could. And why not? They didn’t know who’d come out ahead, but they wanted us out. I decided that I couldn’t resolve the situation in Iraq without the neighborhood. To get this problem in Iraq solved, we had to somehow involve Iran and Syria. I had to work the neighborhood.”
Fallon told me that his focus had been not on the Iranian nuclear issue, or on regime change there, but on “putting out the fires in Iraq.” There were constant discussions in Washington and in the field about how to engage Iran and, on the subject of the bombing option, Fallon said, he believed that “it would happen only if the Iranians did something stupid.”
Fallon’s early retirement, however, appears to have been provoked not only by his negative comments about bombing Iran but also by his strong belief in the chain of command and his insistence on being informed about Special Operations in his area of responsibility. One of Fallon’s defenders is retired Marine General John J. (Jack) Sheehan, whose last assignment was as commander-in-chief of the U.S. Atlantic Command, where Fallon was a deputy. Last year, Sheehan rejected a White House offer to become the President’s “czar” for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “One of the reasons the White House selected Fallon for CENTCOM was that he’s known to be a strategic thinker and had demonstrated those skills in the Pacific,” Sheehan told me. (Fallon served as commander-in-chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific from 2005 to 2007.) “He was charged with coming up with an over-all coherent strategy for Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and, by law, the combatant commander is responsible for all military operations within his A.O.”—area of operations. “That was not happening,” Sheehan said. “When Fallon tried to make sense of all the overt and covert activity conducted by the military in his area of responsibility, a small group in the White House leadership shut him out.”
The law cited by Sheehan is the 1986 Defense Reorganization Act, known as Goldwater-Nichols, which defined the chain of command: from the President to the Secretary of Defense, through the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and on to the various combatant commanders, who were put in charge of all aspects of military operations, including joint training and logistics. That authority, the act stated, was not to be shared with other echelons of command. But the Bush Administration, as part of its global war on terror, instituted new policies that undercut regional commanders-in-chief; for example, it gave Special Operations teams, at military commands around the world, the highest priority in terms of securing support and equipment. The degradation of the traditional chain of command in the past few years has been a point of tension between the White House and the uniformed military.