Hersh: Pentagon panel created to plan bombing attack on Iran within 24 hours of Bush command
The United States is stepping up covert operations in Iran in a new strategy that risks sparking an "open confrontation" and benefits Sunni radicals, a US magazine reported Sunday.
In The New Yorker magazine, Seymour Hersh reports that US military and special-operations teams have increased their activities inside Iran, entering from Iraq to gather intelligence and to pursue Iranian operatives.
Hersh also reports that a Pentagon panel was created to plan a bombing attack on Iran within 24 hours of getting the go-ahead from President Bush, provides details on Vice President Cheney's recent trip to Saudi Arabia, and explains why National Intelligence Director John Negroponte may be resigning from his post.
US clandestine operations in Iran, Lebanon and Syria have been "guided by Vice President Dick Cheney," the magazine reports, relying heavily on Saudi Arabia and on the Saudi national security advisor, Prince Bandar.
"A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al-Qaeda," Hersh concludes.
"The 'redirection,' as some inside the White House have called the new strategy, has brought the United States closer to an open confrontation with Iran and, in parts of the region, propelled it into a widening sectarian conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims."
Some US aid distributed to Sunni groups in Lebanon falls into the hands of radical groups, US, European and Arab officials told the weekly magazine.
"We're spreading the money around as much as we can," a former senior intelligence official said, and that has "serious potential unintended consequences."
Such money "always gets in more pockets than you think it will," the source said. "It's a very high-risk venture."
A member of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government in Lebanon said: "We have a liberal attitude that allows Al-Qaeda types to have a presence here."
In some cases, the clandestine operations rely on Saudi Arabia and its national security advisor, Prince Bandar, to provide the funding, so that operations remain secret, according to portions of the article, which The New Yorker distributed to news organizations on Sunday.
There is an apparent debate between some in the US government over which is more dangerous to US interests: Iran or Sunni radicals. Some in the Administration have argued that Iran is the bigger threat, which is a victory for the Saudi line, writes Hersh.
In the Saudi view, Saudi Arabia is "taking a political risk by joining the U.S. in challenging Iran: Bandar is already seen in the Arab world as being too close to the Bush Administration. 'We have two nightmares,' [a] former diplomat told [Hersh]. 'For Iran to acquire the bomb and for the United States to attack Iran. I’d rather the Israelis bomb the Iranians, so we can blame them. If America does it, we will be blamed.'"
Although US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has defined a new Iran policy in broad terms, much of the change is secret.
The secrecy does not please Democrats who have recently taken the reins of power in Congress from the Republicans.
Senator Ron Wyden, a member of the Intelligence Committee, said, "The Bush administration has frequently failed to meet its legal obligation to keep the intelligence committee fully and currently informed. Time and again, the answer has been 'Trust us.' ... It is hard for me to trust the administration," he told the weekly magazine.
Hersh also said the pace of US covert operations inside Iran has increased.
"That's been happening for months," Hersh told CNN television Sunday.
"There's been a lot of very aggressive cross-border activity," he said. "It's more than just casual," he said. "That's been going on quite a bit."
"We have been pumping money, a great deal of money, without congressional authority, without any congressional oversight ... for covert operations in many areas of the Middle East where we ... want to stop the Shiite spread or the Shiite influence," he told CNN.
"These are people connected to Al-Qaeda who want to take on Hezbollah," he said.
"We may not directly be funneling money to them, but we certainly know that these groups exist," Hersh told CNN.
Excerpts from New Yorker article:
Still, the Pentagon is continuing intensive planning for a possible bombing attack on Iran, a process that began last year, at the direction of the President. In recent months, the former intelligence official told me, a special planning group has been established in the offices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, charged with creating a contingency bombing plan for Iran that can be implemented, upon orders from the President, within twenty-four hours.
In the past month, I was told by an Air Force adviser on targeting and the Pentagon consultant on terrorism, the Iran planning group has been handed a new assignment: to identify targets in Iran that may be involved in supplying or aiding militants in Iraq. Previously, the focus had been on the destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities and possible regime change.
Two carrier strike groups—the Eisenhower and the Stennis—are now in the Arabian Sea. One plan is for them to be relieved early in the spring, but there is worry within the military that they may be ordered to stay in the area after the new carriers arrive, according to several sources. (Among other concerns, war games have shown that the carriers could be vulnerable to swarming tactics involving large numbers of small boats, a technique that the Iranians have practiced in the past; carriers have limited maneuverability in the narrow Strait of Hormuz, off Iran’s southern coast.) The former senior intelligence official said that the current contingency plans allow for an attack order this spring. He added, however, that senior officers on the Joint Chiefs were counting on the White House’s not being “foolish enough to do this in the face of Iraq, and the problems it would give the Republicans in 2008.”
I was subsequently told by the two government consultants and the former senior intelligence official that the echoes of Iran-Contra were a factor in Negroponte’s decision to resign from the National Intelligence directorship and accept a sub-Cabinet position of Deputy Secretary of State. (Negroponte declined to comment.)
The former senior intelligence official also told me that Negroponte did not want a repeat of his experience in the Reagan Administration, when he served as Ambassador to Honduras. “Negroponte said, ‘No way. I’m not going down that road again, with the N.S.C. running operations off the books, with no finding.’ ” (In the case of covert C.I.A. operations, the President must issue a written finding and inform Congress.) Negroponte stayed on as Deputy Secretary of State, he added, because “he believes he can influence the government in a positive way.”
FULL NEW YORKER ARTICLE AT THIS LINK
(with wire reports)