Monday, June 30, 2008; 12:43 PM
Seymour Hersh's latest New Yorker article describes an expansion of covert operations inside Iran and provides more evidence of Vice President Cheney's zeal to address the Iranian nuclear threat -- possibly by force -- before he and President Bush leave office.
Hersh writes: "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. . . .
"'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.'"
What's behind such a confrontational move? On CNN yesterday, Hersh said: "I do have some access into some of the thinking, particularly in the vice president's office. They do not want -- Bush and Cheney do not want to leave Iran in place with a nuclear program, with, they believe, a nuclear weapons program. They simply don't believe the National Intelligence Estimate that came out late last year that said they haven't done anything in nuclear weapons since '03. They just don't believe it.
"So 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."
Yet Hersh describes considerable pushback from the Pentagon. He writes in the New Yorker: "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. . . .
"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 preemptive 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.'"
With preemption evidently off the table, some have speculated that Cheney is trying to come up with alternate ways the U.S. can be drawn into a conflict with Iran. See, for instance, my Aug. 10, 2007, column, Cheney's Secret Escalation Plan?
Hersh writes: "The potential for escalation became clear in early January, when five Iranian patrol boats, believed to be under the command of the Revolutionary Guard, made a series of aggressive moves toward three Navy warships sailing through the Strait of Hormuz. . . .
"The crisis was quickly defused by Vice-Admiral Kevin Cosgriff, the commander of U.S. naval forces in the region. . . .
"Cosgriff's demeanor angered Cheney, according to the former senior intelligence official. But a lesson was learned in the incident: The public had supported the idea of retaliation, and was even asking why the U.S. didn't do more. The former official said that, a few weeks later, a meeting took place in the Vice-President's office. 'The subject was how to create a casus belli between Tehran and Washington,' he said."