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.
And, yes, at least some Democrats who were aware of the operation as part of the established Congressional oversight procedures apparently went along cheerfully:
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 [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates, [Joint Chiefs of Staff head Adm. William] 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."
What will it take to get the Democrats to stand up effectively to the right wing on national security? What will it take?
Hersh also talks about one of the most dangerous practices initiated by Rummy as Defense Secretary, having the military instead of the CIA run some covert operations. Not that the CIA's covert operations have had such spectacular results, other than in the imaginations of neoconservatives and Cheney militarists. Hersh writes:
"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."
I ask again, what will it take to get the Democrats to stand up effectively to the right wing on national security?
And these operations are not taking place only in Iran but also in Pakistan:
The White House’s reliance on questionable operatives, and on plans involving possible lethal action inside Iran, has created anger as well as anxiety within the Special Operations and intelligence communities. JSOC’s operations in Iran are believed to be modelled on a program that has, with some success, used surrogates to target the Taliban leadership in the tribal territories of Waziristan, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
There could be considerable more justification for such operations in Pakistan, though there are serious chain-of-command issues involved. Pakistan's government could conceivably secretly agreed to those raids, since they are nominally an American ally. We need to remember though that justified is not the same as effective. After all, our government is still run by Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. The missile strikes that are connected to these operations in Pakistan have been the source of controversy with Pakistan this year.
One of Hersh's Pentagon sources also mentioned - seemingly in passing - such operations in the "Horn of Africa", which presumably means at least in Somalia. The United States is effectively in low-level direct conflicts in Pakistan, Somalia and Iran, in addition to the bigger wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Extracting the US from this tangle of commitments while maintaining necessary anti-terrorist capabilities is going to be a monumental task for any President that undertakes it. Involvements like this are much easier to create than to get out of.
Then there's this:
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."
I'm not sure why such a comment needed to be anonymous. And I'm willing to be generous and acknowledge the possibility that the person is referring to a Democratic victory in Congressional elections. But, given the situation, I have to wonder whether the assumption is that a President Obama wouldn't be willing to shut down counter-productive and needless CIA and military covert operations on his own. Congress should not leave it to the President of either Party. But, still, that sort of comment from Dems worries me; assuming here it was a Democrat because Hersh doesn't identify them as such.
For those who may be tempted to read Adm. Fallon's pragmatic skepticism about a military attack on Iran as the diametric opposite of the Cheney-Bush position, Hersh's interviews with him are worth noting:
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."
I don't doubt from what all kind of reporters and experts are saying that Iran is heavily involved in Iraq. But it's not been proven that Iran is actively waging operations against Americans or inciting or directing them. And, strategically, the reason for such action by Iran would be very puzzling. Iran supports the Maliki government which the Americans also support. The perceived interests of Iran and the US in that regard are effectively the same in Iraq.
But, obviously, the war threats do give Iran some incentive to keep the American troops tied down with trouble in Iraq. Middle East politics can be very complicated. But the Bush administration's more dramatic accusations on Iranian involvement have been shaky.
Then, if Hersh is right, the US is actually carrying out military operations on Iranian territory, even kidnapping elite soldiers from Iran's Quds Force. So we can hardly assume that any Iranian action come from pure unprovoked hostility toward the US. That's not a moral judgment, it's a practical fact about those kinds of covert operations. In Vietnam, the CIA was running covert military operations on North Vietnamese territory, and the landing of one such team was probably the immediate motive for the North Vietnamese attack that did occur in the notorious Tonkin Gulf incident. The Johnson administration pumped it up to sound even more serious, and didn't bother to explain to Congress and the public about the CIA covert ops under way there.
Hersh's article explains that the military covert ops also are run in violation of the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, which requires that the combatant commander is responsible for all military operations in his area of command. But at least some of the covert ops are being run outside of Fallon's command as head of CENTCOM. His protests over this situation were apparently a big factor in his untimely ouster as CENTCOM commander.
In other words, the White House is running what sure sounds like rogue military operations that in concept are similar to Nixon's Plumbers or Reagan's Nicaragua Contra operation that led to the Iran-Contra scandal. And who knows what operations they may be running with Blackwater or other mercenaries.
Gee, who could be behind this? An anonymous military colleague of Fallon's said that the admiral "would have won his fight with Special Ops but for Cheney." Wow, what a surprise!
A former intelligence official told Hersh, "The Special Ops guys are pissed off because Cheney's office set up priorities for categories of targets, and now he’s getting impatient and applying pressure for results." Another of his sources told him about a meeting in the Vice President's office during January or February: "The subject was how to create a casus belli [excuse for war] between Tehran and Washington."
Any worries about "blowback" from these current operations? Hersh:
The Administration may have been willing to rely on dissident organizations in Iran even when there was reason to believe that the groups had operated against American interests in the past. The use of Baluchi elements, for example, is problematic, Robert Baer, a former C.I.A. clandestine officer who worked for nearly two decades in South Asia and the Middle East, told me. “The Baluchis are Sunni fundamentalists who hate the regime in Tehran, but you can also describe them as Al Qaeda,” Baer told me. "These are guys who cut off the heads of nonbelievers—in this case, it’s Shiite Iranians. The irony is that we're once again working with Sunni fundamentalists, just as we did in Afghanistan in the nineteen-eighties." Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is considered one of the leading planners of the September 11th attacks, are Baluchi Sunni fundamentalists.
One of the most active and violent anti-regime groups in Iran today is the Jundallah, also known as the Iranian People’s Resistance Movement, which describes itself as a resistance force fighting for the rights of Sunnis in Iran. "This is a vicious Salafi organization whose followers attended the same madrassas as the Taliban and Pakistani extremists," [Vali] Nasr told me. “They are suspected of having links to Al Qaeda and they are also thought to be tied to the drug culture." The Jundallah took responsibility for the bombing of a busload of Revolutionary Guard soldiers in February, 2007. At least eleven Guard members were killed. According to Baer and to press reports, the Jundallah is among the groups in Iran that are benefitting from U.S. support.
Another important question: just how much damage will Dick Cheney be able to do before he leaves office?
Hersh also interviewed one of the best authorities on Western policies in the Middle East, former German Foreign Minister and former Green Party leader Joschka Fischer:
Fischer, who has extensive contacts in the diplomatic community, said that the latest European approach [to the Iranian nuclear program] includes a new element: the willingness of the U.S. and the Europeans to accept something less than a complete cessation of enrichment as an intermediate step. "The proposal says that the Iranians must stop manufacturing new centrifuges and the other side will stop all further sanction activities in the U.N. Security Council," Fischer said, although Iran would still have to freeze its enrichment activities when formal negotiations begin. "This could be acceptable to the Iranians - if they have good will."
The big question, Fischer added, is in Washington. "I think the Americans are deeply divided on the issue of what to do about Iran," he said. "Some officials are concerned about the fallout from a military attack and others think an attack is unavoidable. I know the Europeans, but I have no idea where the Americans will end up on this issue."
I saw Fischer speak in San Francisco in May 2007 and he talked then about the seriousness of the Iranian nuclear program, saying that despite Iranian denials, the US and Europe had to assume that they were intending to build nuclear weapons. But when he was asked about the option of a military attack on Iran, he just shook his head in dismay and said it wasn't a viable option.
Once more: just how much damage will Dick Cheney be able to do before he leaves office?