By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
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."
And Hersh describes what sounds like micromanagement of the covert operations from Cheney's office.
"'Everybody's arguing about the high-value-target list,' the former senior intelligence official said. '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. But it takes a long time to get the right guys in place.'"The Reaction
Joby Warrick writes in The Washington Post: "The article drew a sharp reaction from administration officials, who denied that U.S. forces were engaged in operations inside Iran.
"'I can tell you flatly that U.S. forces are not operating across the Iraqi border into Iran, in the south or anywhere else,' U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker said yesterday during an interview on CNN's ' Late Edition.'"
But appearing after Crocker on the same show, Hersh suggested that Crocker's denial was both narrow and potentially uninformed: "[W]hen you run secret operations. . . . you may not tell the ambassador everything. Sometimes it's better not to have the ambassador know."
Hersh summed up the dangers presented by Bush's actions this way: "We have the special operations people, and they're great people. They're very loyal soldiers. They do what they're told, going around, killing people around the world without ambassadors knowing it, without the CIA station chiefs knowing it, without Congress knowing.
"If that doesn't sound like -- you know, with this president, if that doesn't make people nervous, I don't know what else would, I can just tell you."
In October, Hersh reported that Cheney was pushing limited strikes against Iran, ostensibly in defense of American troops in Iraq. The White House responded by challenging Hersh's credibility-- while failing to refute any of his allegations.
Borzou Daragahi, blogging for the Los Angeles Times, points out that in an " interview with the Times last week, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Hosseini said there was 'plentiful' evidence that the U.S. was waging a secret war against Iran, which included funding dissident groups, planting bombs and supporting militants such as the ethnic Baluchi group Jundollah, cited in the Hersh article as a potential recipient of U.S. aid."
Najmeh Bozorgmehr writes in the Financial Times: "The commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards warned at the weekend that Iranian retaliation for a strike on its nuclear facilities could include blocking oil routes and striking Israel with long-range missiles.
"'Any confrontation between Iran and non-regional countries would surely be extended to oil which would definitely lead to a huge increase in prices,' Mohammad-Ali Jafari told the state-owned Jam-e Jam newspaper."
Michael T. Klare writes in a Toronto Star op-ed that "the Bush administration's greatest contribution to rising oil prices is its steady stream of threats to attack Iran, if it does not back down on the nuclear issue. The Iranians have made it plain that they would retaliate by attempting to block the flow of Gulf oil and otherwise cause turmoil in the energy market. Most analysts assume, therefore, that an encounter will produce a global oil shortage and prices well over $200 per barrel. It is not surprising, then, that every threat by Bush/Cheney (or their counterparts in Israel) has triggered a sharp rise in prices. This is where speculators enter the picture. Believing that a U.S.-Iranian clash is at least 50 per cent likely, some investors are buying futures in oil at $140, $150 or more per barrel, thinking they'll make a killing if there's an attack and prices zoom past $200. . . .
"[I]f this administration truly wanted to spare Americans further pain at the pump, there is one thing it could do that would have an immediate effect: declare that military force is not an acceptable option in the struggle with Iran. Such a declaration would take the wind out of the sails of speculators and set the course for a drop in prices."Oversight (Non) Watch
David Bromwich blogs for Huffingtonpost.com: "The complete failure of congressional oversight, to which the article points, is a larger subject that will be with us until the election and beyond. For if the vice president and his neoconservative advisers have their way -- and they remain, in spite of setbacks, the most active, energetic, and ambitious faction within the Bush administration -- the U.S. will be at war with Iran or on the way to war by January 2009. And if that is so, it will matter less than we think who is elected in November. The momentum will be there; the country will be committed. . . .
"Vice President Cheney learned long ago that he can outplay the Democrats in the game of power, because he is willing to use power. The Democrats, by contrast, don't even want to be responsible for the power that they have."
Craig Crawford blogs for CQ: "If Democratic congressional leaders are signing on to George W. Bush's covert war against Iran, as Seymour Hersh reports in The New Yorker, does it really matter which party wins the White House in November? On this front at least, it seems that Bush gets a third term no matter which party wins."Afghanistan Watch
In the New York Times is an expose of Bush's failed campaign against al Qaeda.
Mark Mazzetti and David Rohde write: "After the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush committed the nation to a 'war on terrorism' and made the destruction of [Osama] bin Laden's network the top priority of his presidency. But it is increasingly clear that the Bush administration will leave office with Al Qaeda having successfully relocated its base from Afghanistan to Pakistan's tribal areas, where it has rebuilt much of its ability to attack from the region and broadcast its messages to militants across the world. . . .
"The story of how Al Qaeda, whose name is Arabic for 'the base,' has gained a new haven is in part a story of American accommodation to President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, whose advisers played down the terrorist threat. It is also a story of how the White House shifted its sights, beginning in 2002, from counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan to preparations for the war in Iraq. . . .
"Current and former military and intelligence officials said that the war in Iraq consistently diverted resources and high-level attention from the tribal areas. When American military and intelligence officials requested additional Predator drones to survey the tribal areas, they were told no drones were available because they had been sent to Iraq.
"Some former officials say Mr. Bush should have done more to confront Mr. Musharraf, by aggressively demanding that he acknowledge the scale of the militant threat. . . .
"Even critics of the White House agree that there was no foolproof solution to gaining control of the tribal areas. But by most accounts the administration failed to develop a comprehensive plan to address the militant problem there, and never resolved the disagreements between warring agencies that undermined efforts to fashion any coherent strategy."
Mazzetti and Rohde write that after Bush's overhaul of his national security team left no senior officials with close personal relationships with Musharraf, the president decided to talk to Musharraf himself. Apparently he was less than forceful.
"The conversations backfired. Two former United States government officials say they were surprised and frustrated when instead of demanding action from Mr. Musharraf, Mr. Bush repeatedly thanked him for his contributions to the war on terrorism. 'He never pounded his fist on the table and said, "Pervez you have to do this,' ' said a former senior intelligence official who saw transcripts of the phone conversations. But another senior administration official defended the president, saying Mr. Bush had not gone easy on the Pakistani leader."
Finally, in 2007, Cheney went to Islamabad in March 2007, along with Stephen R. Kappes, the deputy C.I.A. director, "to register American concern."
Mazzetti and Rohde write that "while Mr. Bush vowed early on that Mr. bin Laden would be captured 'dead or alive,' the moment in late 2001 when Mr. bin Laden and his followers escaped at Tora Bora was almost certainly the last time the Qaeda leader was in American sights, current and former intelligence officials say. Leading terrorism experts have warned that it is only a matter of time before a major terrorist attack planned in the mountains of Pakistan is carried out on American soil."Iraq's Oil
Andrew E. Kramer writes in the New York Times: "A group of American advisers led by a small State Department team played an integral part in drawing up contracts between the Iraqi government and five major Western oil companies to develop some of the largest fields in Iraq, American officials say.
"The disclosure, coming on the eve of the contracts' announcement, is the first confirmation of direct involvement by the Bush administration in deals to open Iraq's oil to commercial development and is likely to stoke criticism.
"In their role as advisers to the Iraqi Oil Ministry, American government lawyers and private-sector consultants provided template contracts and detailed suggestions on drafting the contracts, advisers and a senior State Department official said....
"The deals have been criticized by opponents of the Iraq war, who accuse the Bush administration of working behind the scenes to ensure Western access to Iraqi oil fields even as most other oil-exporting countries have been sharply limiting the roles of international oil companies in development."
Today's report would appear to contradict Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said on Fox News this month: "The United States government has stayed out of the matter of awarding the Iraq oil contracts. It's a private sector matter."
Similarly, as Anne Flaherty reported for the Associated Press last week, the White House insisted there was no U.S. involvement: "'Iraq is a sovereign country, and it can make decisions based on how it feels that it wants to move forward in its development of its oil resources,' said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.
"'And if that means that our companies here in the United States can compete and win business, then that's for them and the Iraqis to decide,' Perino added. 'But I don't think the federal government of the United States needs to get involved.'"
Peter S. Goodman writes in the New York Times: "From the first days that American-led forces took control of Iraq, the conquering army took pains to broadcast that it was there to liberate the country, not occupy it, and certainly not to cart off its riches. Nowhere were such words more carefully dispensed than on the subject of Iraq's oil. . . .
"Many critics of the invasion derided that characterization. In Arab countries and among some people in America, there was suspicion that the war was a naked grab for oil that would open Iraq to multinational energy giants. President Bush had roots in the Texas oil industry. Vice President Cheney had overseen Halliburton, the oil services company. Whatever else happened, such critics said, energy players with links to the White House would surely wind up with a nice piece of the spoils."Iraqi Agreement Watch
Alissa J. Rubin writes in the New York Times: "Iraqi government officials on Sunday criticized the American military for two recent attacks in which soldiers killed people who the government said were civilians. . . .
"An Iraqi government statement demanded that the soldiers be held accountable in Iraq. The issue is particularly delicate now because the two countries are negotiating a long-term security agreement and among the chief points of disagreement are whether the American military will be free to conduct operations and detain suspects and whether, if its soldiers kill civilians, they will have immunity from Iraqi law."
One of those attacks took place in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's home town, and killed a relative. Qassim Zein and Hannah Allam write for McClatchy Newspapers that "residents said the prime minister's office privately has reassured them that Maliki is furious with his American allies but that he wanted to keep the ensuing diplomatic crisis out of the media spotlight."Cheney and North Korea
Philip Sherwell writes in the Telegraph: "Vice President Dick Cheney fought furiously to block efforts by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to strike a controversial US compromise deal with North Korea over the communist state's nuclear programme, the Telegraph has learned.
"'The exchanges between Cheney's office and Rice's people at State got very testy. But ultimately Condi had the President's ear and persuaded him that his legacy would be stronger if they reached a deal with Pyongyang,' said a Pentagon adviser who was briefed on the battle.
"Mr Cheney's office is believed to have played a key role in the release two months ago of documents and photographs linking North Korea to a suspected nuclear site in Syria that was bombed by Israeli jets last year."
Cheney acolyte and former United Nations ambassador John R. Bolton writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: "The only good news is that there is little opportunity for the Bush administration to make any further concessions in its waning days in office. But for many erstwhile administration supporters, this is a moment of genuine political poignancy. Nothing can erase the ineffable sadness of an American presidency, like this one, in total intellectual collapse."Subpoena Watch
Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "A House panel on Friday subpoenaed Attorney General Michael Mukasey for transcripts of interviews with President Bush and Vice President Cheney during the federal probe into the leak of a CIA agent's identity.
"Signed by Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., the subpoena requests all documents from the office of former Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald relating to interviews of Bush, Cheney and their aides that were conducted outside the presence of the grand jury investigating the leak.
"The subpoena requests similar accounts of interviews with former presidential adviser Karl Rove; I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, Cheney's former chief of staff; former White House spokesman Scott McClellan; former presidential counselor Dan Bartlett; and former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card."
I first wrote in December about Waxman's attempts to get the Justice Department to turn over evidence from Fitzgerald's investigation that isn't covered by grand jury secrecy rules.
In a letter he sent Fitzgerald on Friday, Waxman noted that Fitzgerald reportedly did not object to the release of the FBI reports on Bush and Cheney's testimony. But Waxman wrote that the Justice Department has now officially refused to comply with his subpoena.
In order to "assist the Committee in evaluating the Department's position," Waxman asked Fitzgerald to provide information on "the date and terms of all agreements, conditions, and understandings" between Fitzgerald's investigators and Bush or Cheney.EPA Watch
Ian Talley and Siobhan Hughes write in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "The White House is trying to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from publishing a document that could become the legal roadmap for regulating greenhouse-gas emissions in the U.S., said people close to the matter.
"The fight over the document is the latest development in a long-running conflict between the EPA and the White House over climate-change policy. It will likely intensify ongoing Congressional investigations into the Bush administration's involvement in the agency's policymaking.
"The draft document, which has been viewed by The Wall Street Journal, outlines how the government, under the Clean Air Act, could regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from mobile sources such as cars, trucks, trains, planes and boats, and from stationary sources such as power stations, chemical plants and refineries. The document is based on a multimillion-dollar study conducted over two years.
"The White House's Office of Management and Budget has asked the EPA to delete sections of the document that say such emissions endanger public welfare, say how those gases could be regulated, and show an analysis of the cost of regulating greenhouse gases in the U.S. and other countries.
"The OMB instead wants the document to show that the Clean Air Act is flawed and that greenhouse-gas regulations should be developed under new legislation, several people close to the matter said. The EPA needs to clear a final draft with the White House in order to release the document."Torture Watch
Johanna Neuman blogged on Friday for the Los Angeles Times: "Democrats in Congress are still reeling over the lip they got [Thursday] from the Bush administration's key experts on torture. Vice President Dick Cheney chief of staff David Addington was so disdainful that some are wondering if he can be prosecuted for lying to Congress.
"'Of all the hearings I've attended since I started serving on the Judiciary Committee four years ago, I have never felt more strongly that a witness was lying,' Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said in an interview. 'At the end of the day I'm not sure how much we can do -- we can't prove what he says he doesn't recollect.'"
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial board writes that Thursday's hearing "makes us wonder if anyone in this administration will ever be held accountable for anything at all."
Del Quentin Wilber writes in The Washington Post that lawyers representing detainees in the U.S. military prison at Bagram air base have cases that could turn "into the next legal battleground over the rights of terrorism suspects apprehended on foreign soil. More lawsuits are expected on behalf of Bagram detainees in coming months, the lawyers said."W, the Movie
John Horn of the Los Angeles Times reports on location with Oliver Stone, director of "W.," his "forthcoming -- and potentially divisive -- drama about the personal, political and psychological evolution of the current president."
Horn writes that it's "possible to see that 'W.' could be, in a complicated way, sympathetic." But he wonders "if Stone is, in some way, muzzling himself to craft a mass-appeal movie, has he cast aside one of his best selling points?"Cartoon Watch