Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Sunday, November 19, 2006

  Sy Hersh once again on Iran

At the New Yorker Seymour Hersh has a new article on what the administration is up to regarding Iran. This April, he described a significant level of fear in Washington, particularly among the military, that Bush Co. might attack Iran over its nuclear program. Based upon that and parallel warnings from senior defense and foreign policy figures, many commentators in blogtopia concluded that an attack was indeed imminent attack.

Fortunately, that hasn't occured. As a result, Hersh has been accused by some of relying upon disingenuous or misinformed sources in his earlier work, though I think that is unfair. It's very possible that after his April publication, the uproar it engendered in the U.S. and U.K. forced Cheney and his merry gang to back away from plans that were as aggressive as Hersh's sources had suggested. There have been many worrying signs of possible U.S. aggression against Iran, and this summer Tony Blair acted as if he might actually support an attack.

In any case, Hersh is more cautious in the picture he paints in his latest article. He's exploring the modalities of any operations large or small against Iran. The big questions, which he admits he can't answer, are: How much influence does Cheney wield now? And if he's been eclipsed in Bush's inner circle, will that be temporary?

As usual, Hersh has good sources who tell him interesting things. I'm going to select a few of the issues that intrigue me here. You'll want to read the full article to get a sense of where, if anywhere in particular, Hersh thinks our Iran policy is headed.

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For me, the most interesting issue raised by Hersh concerns the control that the Pentagon has acquired over intelligence gathering. For years, intelligence moneys and operations have been shifting steadily out of the CIA and into Rumsfeld's fiefdom. That's been worrying a lot of long-timers in DC, and I'd think that the nomination of Robert Gates, former Director of the CIA, to take charge of the Pentagon might raise further fears.

Here's an angle that Hersh brings to the issue:

Another critical issue for Gates will be the Pentagon’s expanding effort to conduct clandestine and covert intelligence missions overseas. Such activity has traditionally been the C.I.A.’s responsibility, but, as the result of a systematic push by Rumsfeld, military covert actions have been substantially increased. In the past six months, Israel and the United States have also been working together in support of a Kurdish resistance group known as the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan. The group has been conducting clandestine cross-border forays into Iran, I was told by a government consultant with close ties to the Pentagon civilian leadership, as “part of an effort to explore alternative means of applying pressure on Iran.” (The Pentagon has established covert relationships with Kurdish, Azeri, and Baluchi tribesmen, and has encouraged their efforts to undermine the regime’s authority in northern and southeastern Iran.) The government consultant said that Israel is giving the Kurdish group “equipment and training.” The group has also been given “a list of targets inside Iran of interest to the U.S.” (An Israeli government spokesman denied that Israel was involved.)

Such activities, if they are considered military rather than intelligence operations, do not require congressional briefings. For a similar C.I.A. operation, the President would, by law, have to issue a formal finding that the mission was necessary, and the Administration would have to brief the senior leadership of the House and the Senate. The lack of such consultation annoyed some Democrats in Congress. This fall, I was told, Representative David Obey, of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that finances classified military activity, pointedly asked, during a closed meeting of House and Senate members, whether “anyone has been briefing on the Administration’s plan for military activity in Iran.” The answer was no. (A spokesman for Obey confirmed this account.)

Think of that, no briefings for anyone in Congress regarding plans for "military activity" in Iran…even though those activities are already underway. This, I think, has to be one of the key reasons why Rumsfeld was allowed to acquire such an excessive concentration of power over intelligence gathering: It gives the administration a plausible excuse for withholding intelligence briefings from Congress (plausible, mind you, in the same sense that Bush's signing statements are plausible interpretations of those laws).

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On the subject of manipulating intelligence, Hersh indicates that once again the White House is trying to quash CIA findings that won't help it down the road toward war with Iran:

The Administration’s planning for a military attack on Iran was made far more complicated earlier this fall by a highly classified draft assessment by the C.I.A. challenging the White House’s assumptions about how close Iran might be to building a nuclear bomb. The C.I.A. found no conclusive evidence, as yet, of a secret Iranian nuclear-weapons program…

The C.I.A.’s analysis, which has been circulated to other agencies for comment, was based on technical intelligence collected by overhead satellites, and on other empirical evidence, such as measurements of the radioactivity of water samples and smoke plumes from factories and power plants. Additional data have been gathered, intelligence sources told me, by high-tech (and highly classified) radioactivity-detection devices that clandestine American and Israeli agents placed near suspected nuclear-weapons facilities inside Iran in the past year or so. No significant amounts of radioactivity were found.

A current senior intelligence official confirmed the existence of the C.I.A. analysis, and told me that the White House had been hostile to it….Cheney and his aides discounted the assessment, the former senior intelligence official said.

“They’re not looking for a smoking gun,” the official added, referring to specific intelligence about Iranian nuclear planning. “They’re looking for the degree of comfort level they think they need to accomplish the mission.” The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency also challenged the C.I.A.’s analysis.

The DIA, Hersh says, is helping in the campaign to prevent the CIA findings from being incorporated into the new NIE on Iranian nuclear capabilities. Cheney's office in particular is arguing—contrary to advice from the CIA—that the absence of physical evidence is a sign that the Iranians have nuclear programs that they're skillful at concealing.

Counter-intuition has worked so well for the VP in the past, you know.

It was not just in Iraq in 2002 that hawks took the preposterous view that the utter absence of evidence must be treated as the signature of a sophisticated campaign of deception by the enemy. In the later cold-war era as well the extreme hawks took that attitude toward the Soviet Union, attributing to the Soviets capabilities that ran counter to the evidence assembled by the CIA. This started in the 1970s as the 'Plan B' team in the CIA, headed by Bush pere, but under Reagan these nutty ideas became a driving force behind the policy of throwing money at every imaginable threat that could ever arise.

Anyhow, if Hersh's article achieves nothing else, it may draw attention in the media to the existence of this draft CIA report and to the administration's hostility toward it.

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Hersh also includes some interesting comments about the apparent goals of any potential attack upon Iran. Virtually anybody with discretion acknowledges that bombing Iran would unify Iranians behind their leadership; it's pie in the sky to talk about provoking a popular uprising. True, Cheney and Bush consistently choose idiots for advisors and still hear what they want to hear. So what do insiders think the goals are behind all this talk?

But many in the White House and the Pentagon insist that getting tough with Iran is the only way to salvage Iraq. “It’s a classic case of ‘failure forward,’” a Pentagon consultant said. “They believe that by tipping over Iran they would recover their losses in Iraq—like doubling your bet. It would be an attempt to revive the concept of spreading democracy in the Middle East by creating one new model state.”…“More and more people see the weakening of Iran as the only way to save Iraq.”

The consultant added that, for some advocates of military action, “the goal in Iran is not regime change but a strike that will send a signal that America still can accomplish its goals. Even if it does not destroy Iran’s nuclear network, there are many who think that thirty-six hours of bombing is the only way to remind the Iranians of the very high cost of going forward with the bomb—and of supporting Moqtada al-Sadr and his pro-Iran element in Iraq.”

The gambling analogy just keeps coming up when discussing Bush's attitude toward Iraq (e.g. my own Bush proposing to up the ante in Iraq). Perhaps it's just the echo chamber effect, but an awful lot of us see Bush as a gambling addict.

Anyway, Hersh combines two Bush Co. themes that also resonate: the "Failing Forward" strategy favored by neocons; and what that guttersnipe, Jonah Goldberg, calls the Ledeen Doctrine (i.e. that the U.S. needs to beat the stuffing out of a small country every so often just to prove to the world that it's willing to do so). There are many problems with the "Ledeen Doctrine"—for example, it's vile—but in any event Iran is a large and capable military power that could give the U.S. a serious pounding in return.

My guess, just off the top of my head, is that the figures mentioned by Hersh's source as "some advocates" don’t have any actual military expertise. The absence of a shred of human decency goes without saying.

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Much of the last third of Hersh's article is devoted to the vexed question of whether the Cheney administration is once again cherry-picking scraps of intelligence of dubious provenance via foreign agencies. Hold onto your hat: Once again the White House stands accused of combing through raw intel, rather than allowing the CIA to vet it.

In particular, Hersh says that there's a major dispute about how credible Israeli allegations are, since the CIA has seen no data that would allow the agency to confirm or disconfirm them.

As the C.I.A.’s assessment was making its way through the government, late this summer, current and former military officers and consultants told me, a new element suddenly emerged: intelligence from Israeli spies operating inside Iran claimed that Iran has developed and tested a trigger device for a nuclear bomb. The provenance and significance of the human intelligence, or HUMINT, are controversial. “The problem is that no one can verify it,” the former senior intelligence official told me. “We don’t know who the Israeli source is. The briefing says the Iranians are testing trigger mechanisms”—simulating a zero-yield nuclear explosion without any weapons-grade materials—“but there are no diagrams, no significant facts. Where is the test site? How often have they done it? How big is the warhead—a breadbox or a refrigerator? They don’t have that.” And yet, he said, the report was being used by White House hawks within the Administration to “prove the White House’s theory that the Iranians are on track. And tests leave no radioactive track, which is why we can’t find it.” Still, he said, “The agency is standing its ground.”

The Pentagon consultant [said]…“we’re going to be fighting over the quality of the information for the next year.” One reason for the dispute, he said, was that the White House had asked to see the “raw”—the original, unanalyzed and unvetted—Israeli intelligence. Such “stovepiping” of intelligence had led to faulty conclusions about nonexistent weapons of mass destruction during the buildup to the 2003 Iraq war.

The DIA, says the consultant, claims to have highly classified MASINT ("measuring and signature" intel) to support the Israeli claim.

“The indications don’t make sense, unless they’re farther along in some aspects of their nuclear-weapons program than we know.”

That sounds to me all too much like the inferences that were drawn in 2002/2003 from seriously flawed "evidence". But the Israelis are increasingly insistent that they have conclusive proof against Iran, and though the I.A.E.A. has investigated in the past, Israel is not backing down.

However Cheney, according to Hersh's source, is convinced that the Israelis will not attack Iran without a greenlight from the U.S. It's interesting, and not wholly reassuring, to see a reference to Cheney in the context of holding back the rush to war.

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The consensus in DC, we're told, is that negotiations with Iran are much more likely than war. That is not so much because thus far Bush is committed to finding a diplomatic solution to his impasse with Iran, as the simple fact that Iran is now in the catbird's seat.

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Hersh begins his piece with a portrait of the provocative Mr. Cheney.

Cheney began reminiscing about his job as a lineman…Copper wire was expensive, and the linemen were instructed to return all unused pieces three feet or longer. No one wanted to deal with the paperwork that resulted, Cheney said, so he and his colleagues found a solution: putting “shorteners” on the wire—that is, cutting it into short pieces and tossing the leftovers at the end of the workday. If the Democrats won on November 7th, the Vice-President said, that victory would not stop the Administration from pursuing a military option with Iran. The White House would put “shorteners” on any legislative restrictions, Cheney said, and thus stop Congress from getting in its way.

The White House’s concern was not that the Democrats would cut off funds for the war in Iraq but that future legislation would prohibit it from financing operations targeted at overthrowing or destabilizing the Iranian government, to keep it from getting the bomb.
“They’re afraid that Congress is going to vote a binding resolution to stop a hit on Iran, à la Nicaragua in the Contra war,” a former senior intelligence official told me.

Quite apart from the arrogance of a man who brags about wasting copper, Cheney comes across as crazy enough to think he can thumb his nose at a Democratic Congress over its power of the purse.

That might have turned out to be a long walk off a short pier for an unpopular VP. Now that Hersh has spilled the beans, however, I rather think the administration will have to be a tad more circumspect about picking fights with Democrats.

Shame, really. That would have been a fun spectacle.


  • As a die-hard reader of Hersh, I'm am sort of biased.

    However, he rarely writes anything that doesn't come true...scary thought.

    I doubt his article will persuade the administration to give up on Iran, though.

    Perhaps if Iran converted their theocracy to a Christian state....

    By Anonymous Wil Robinson, at 9:54 PM  

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