Skip to main content

Seymour Hersh On Covert Operations In Iran

In the upcoming issue of the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh writes that the United States may be closer to armed conflict with Iran than previously imagined.



TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Journalist Seymour Hersh on the administration's covert
plan to induce turmoil in Iran

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Seymour Hersh, has broken the
story of a major escalation of American covert operations in Iran designed to
destabilize the country's religious leadership. Late last year Congress
agreed to a request from President Bush to fund the escalation. The president
made the request in a highly classified document known as a Presidential
finding, which is legally required when a covert intelligence operation gets
under way. CNN reports that White House, CIA and State Department officials
declined to comment on Hersh's story.

Recent Israeli military activities have led to speculation that Israel may be
preparing to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. Fears of an Israeli attack on
Iran's nuclear program have been credited for today's record high price for a
barrel of oil. Iran's Revolutionary Guard say that if Iran is attacked, it
will impose controls on shipping in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.
Seymour Hersh's article "Preparing the Battlefield" is in the current edition
of The New Yorker.

Hersh has been writing about a possible military strike against Iran since
April 2006. He won a National Magazine Award for Public Interest in 2006 for
his New Yorker pieces on intelligence and the Iraq war. He broke much of the
Abu Ghraib story, and he won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1969 reports on the My
Lai massacre in Vietnam.

Seymour Hersh, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Mr. SEYMOUR HERSH: Glad to be here.

GROSS: So you write that Congress has agreed to provide up to $400 million
for this major escalation of clandestine military operations in Iran. What is
the goal of these clandestine military operations?

Mr. HERSH: Well, theoretically you could argue the goal as outlined. What
Congress did is, it was given what they call a finding by the president. The
president, in order to get money, actually for covert operations inside Iran,
has to go to Congress and explain what he's doing. And in the document, as
explained to me, and I write about this, of course, obviously in the article,
it's for the continuation of the same old game, which is, for years now, we've
been trying to destabilize the government, their religious leadership, the
Shia government of Iran. We also have been working and putting an awful lot
of money into various dissident groups inside Iran, Baluchis and Kurds, etc.,
hoping that they would gin up stuff.

But I also write here that a significant escalation in this program, in the
general program, because it is complicated. We now for the first time have
very elite units of the most aggressive special operations unit team in
America, the Joint Special Operations Command--JSOC, they call it. These are
the guys, basically, hunter-killers, you might call them, who have been asked
by the president to lead the attack on what we call high-value targets, that
is, potential terrorists, etc., around the world. And their mission is to
find them, capture them, I guess, if possible, and, of course, kill them if
also possible, if you can't capture them. They're very, very tough, competent
guys, and they are now operating secretly from Afghanistan into Iran.

GROSS: Do you know what targets they're going after?

Mr. HERSH: What I know is this new program involving the Joint Special
Operations Command includes a list, the operatives--the Americans in the
country have been given a list of targets, as I write in the magazine, from
the vice president's office, a specific list, and in some cases they include a
nuclear scientist, and I am--my guess is that of course we'd much prefer to
capture one, but also, you know, you're prepared for every eventuality.

What makes the story that I've done in this week's magazine so interesting is
that Congress actually, in order to give the money, or arrange for the money
to be delivered to the CIA and the other agencies, it has to give under law a
Presidential finding. The president of the United States must go to Congress,
under law, and give them a piece of paper saying what he wants. And this
paper included a phrase that rattled the Congress very much. It was--they
asked permission for the Congress, the White House did, to be--for the
American troops to be involved in quote, unquote, "defensive lethal activity."
Defensive lethal. And one difficulty I have is that the classification of
this is so high, and writing about it is so difficult and I have to be so
careful about what I say, Terry, because I don't want to hint at all as to who
talks to me, but I can tell you that there were senior members of the Congress
very upset by that kind of language.

And it was that sort of language and that sort of concern among some people in
Congress that eventually got to me, and that's how I sort of worked my way
around and discovered that, indeed, a special task force has been set up, I
think, as early as February of this year, in Herat province, which is on the
border--in Afghanistan on the border of Iran, and from that province and from
that base, a task force base, American troops and supplies and communication
gear and others had been pouring into various facilities, I guess, you might
even say, more covert bases inside Iran or those of our allies, the dissidents
who work with us, who we pay to work with us. And from there I think we're
trying to recreate, or create a major, major operation that can have some

And if you anticipated the next question, what is the ultimate goal as
explained to me, this is an administration, the Bush administration, with
about six or so months left, and they really want to do something about Iran.
And I think the thinking was--and this is the vice president who's directly
involved in any of these operations with the Joint Special Operations Command,
he has a separate direct back channel, I guess you could call it--he
communicates directly with people in the field--I'm sure through aides. He's
not on the phone necessarily himself, but his office does. And the goal is to
provoke enough trouble and hurt enough people and cause enough damage and
create enough chaos so that the Iranian government does something aggressive
in response. And then you look like you have a country in some sort of acute
turmoil. And then you maybe perhaps you can have what the White House wants
to call a causus belli, a reason for going in and maybe attacking the country.

GROSS: So what you're saying here is that this covert operation, as far as
you can tell, has the ultimate goal of leading toward a possible military
strike and leading toward regime change?

Mr. HERSH: Oh, absolutely. There's no question of that. The strategic
thinking behind the goal, behind the mission, is to get in--and, by the way,
in the article I also write in some detail that there has been a significant
spike in internal dissent inside Iran, just from the public newspaper
accounts. And, you know, this is a controlled media, it's pretty interesting
that there's so much openness about the fact that almost every other day
there's another shooting, bombing, a mosque was bombed, a colonel was killed,
assassinated. You're seeing a spike in violence that I can't tell you that
our operations are the cause of that, but it's not an illogical inference. I
mean, nobody's told me that, but that's the general assumption.

The strategic thinking is get this country roiling, get it going, and maybe
the leadership there will make the mistake of taking armed action against a
Baluchi group, or an Ahwazi group, you know, the Ahwazi Arab is a dissident
group, or minor group, about 15 percent of the population. And maybe get the
country, the leadership of the country, to start acting kinetically, you know,
with its own bombs and missiles. And then you've got something going. That's
the thinking. It's very crazy.

GROSS: One of the many things that surprises me about this story is that the
members of Congress who needed to sign off on this did sign off on this, and I
say I'm surprised only because the war in Iraq is so unpopular now and so many
political leaders are trying to distance themselves from it, and yet, what the
strategy is here, trying to covertly get minority groups to rise up against
the regime, destabilize it and overthrow it, it sounds so similar to what the
Bush administration tried in Iraq and what didn't really work until we sent
troops in there and just did it with the American military. And that has had
such a problematic outcome. So who had to sign off on this in Congress, on
this presidential finding?

Mr. HERSH: It's interesting because one the themes of the article I wrote,
of course, is that it's pretty astonishing that, under the law, when the
president has--they call this technically, as I said, a finding--he can, if he
chooses to, only brief that information, or provide that information to the
congressional leadership. That would be the speaker of the House, both--and
this is Nancy Pelosi and her Republican counterpart, the majority leader in
the Senate, Mr. Reid, and his Republican counterpart, and the Republican and
Democratic chairs of the Intelligence Committee, only eight people in all,
four of them being Democrats, and the Democrats being Rockefeller, who's the
chairman of the Senate committee, Congressman Reyes from Texas who chairs the
the House committee, Intelligence Committee; Nancy Pelosi is involved, Harry
Reid. And they all were provided this finding, and one of the points that I
make is that, no objection. And I was told essentially that one of the views
was this is a--`It's going to be a Democratic year. The election looks good,
and we don't want to give Bush any reason to start complaining that the
Democrats are against fighting the war on terror.' There was some sort of
political fear.

I was also told by another ranking member that `we, you know, these things,
this notifications of a finding, we don't pay much attention, we just sign
off.' And it is astonishing to me that there is absolutely, when the
leadership of the Congress gets one of these findings, there is absolutely no
meeting of the minds. There's no meetings permanently. Nobody gets together
to discuss it, and there was just no effort made by Congress to stop this
president from doing an operation in Iran whose main goal is contrary to that
of the, you know, presumptive presidential candidate, Barack Obama, who's been
talking--and being criticized for talking about it--about talking to the
Iranians and finding some way to defuse it. And the public, by the way,
totally supports--according to the polls--using diplomacy before using force
in Iran. And so why the leadership of the Congress--I think one thing for
sure, they never thought there would be stories like this in The New Yorker
about what they did, and there haven't been in the past. That's maybe a
factor. And of course, Congress ultimately has the great weapon. They have
to fund these programs.

GROSS: My guest is Seymour Hersh. His article "Preparing the Battlefield:
The Bush Administration Steps Up Its Secret Moves Against Iran," is in the
current edition of The New Yorker. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Seymour Hersh. In the current
edition of The New Yorker he breaks the story that President Bush has asked
Congress for up to $400 million for a major escalation of covert military
operations in Iran against the regime, and Congress is in the process of
dispensing some of that money.

The eight congressional members who have to sign off on a presidential
finding. How much power do they have to say, `No, we're not going to go along
with this?' And how many of them would have to say no?

Mr. HERSH: Well, you know, about three years ago I wrote a piece in The New
Yorker about the White House interfering, through a finding, proposing to
interfere in the elections in Iraq, and it was stopped because Nancy Pelosi,
then the senior Democrat, but not the majority leader--she was in the
minority--said no. She was a minority member, one of the eight in minority
who was briefed--the gang of eight, they call it--and she said no. And I
wrote about it at some length because it was so astonishing. I didn't get
much cooperation from her office, obviously, but the fact is she stood up and
she said no, and it didn't happen. If they did do it, they did it under the

And in this case, the other factor here is that eventually, if they do say yes
or they don't do anything, there has to be a--the money has to go through the
House and Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittees, which are the most
important committees in terms of the Pentagon in the government. The Pentagon
can't run without getting money from the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.
And here you have the two ranking Democrats, Mr. Obey from Wisconsin and Mr.
Murtha from Pennsylvania, and as I write, they and others were upset by this
finding, were upset by the fact that it included, as I mentioned, this
language about "lethal defensive activity," and they couldn't get to the
bottom of it.

And the reason they couldn't get to the bottom of it is, when the CIA and
other intelligence agencies want to do a covert--that is, a covert operation
is one in which, if our men and women are caught, they can't say, `Oh, I'm
just in the government.' They could be treated as a spy. They have no
connection to the government. And covert operations, under the law, must be
briefed to the Congress. But military operations, clandestine operations, in
which if you capture a bunch of military guys and they sort of take off their
outer shirt and under their shirt is the uniform, they are treated as
prisoners of war, and they do not--and the White House believes, and the White
House's rule and the way they look at the law is that the president of the
United States doesn't have to tell Congress anything about military activity,
even clandestine activity. It's not covert. And the president, as commander
in chief, he can just do what he wants under the Constitution, and the...

GROSS: Well, the way you make it sound in the magazine, it sounds as if what
President Bush has done is intentionally intertwined covert CIA activities
with covert military activities because the president believes that as
commander in chief he doesn't need approval for covert military activities,
and the CIA activities, if they're kind of rolled into the military
operations, he can say, `Well, it's part of the military operation,' so he
doesn't need any kind of approval for the CIA part, either. Do I have that

Mr. HERSH: It's very, very, very complicated, what they've done. The
escalation, this 400 million--asking for as much as $400 million--comes about
because it's sort of like a last hurrah, you could put it. And the only
reason they went back with the finding is that the Joint Special Operations
Command, the commandoes, are going in now, going in with high-value target
lists from the vice president, and they really don't have language skills,
they don't know who's who, so they had to get the CIA to come help them. The
CIA takes a look at this project, and this is literally what I write about.
The lawyers there take a look and they say, `Whoa, we got in trouble enough
over the interrogation of rendition stuff.' That's still going on now, you
know, for which their law wasn't clear. And so they said, `We want a legal
finding.' So that's why the president--they have to write what they call a
defensive lethal finding. That's why this whole issue arose. All of a sudden
the White House is saying to the Congress, `Oh, yeah, we need approval, maybe
we're going to do a little shooting here or there, just in defense, but we
need the money.'

And it is totally complicated. For Congress it's almost impossible to ferret
out. They don't know who's doing what. That's one of the things, points of
the story. I quote Mr. Obey, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee,
and I quote him by name as saying, you know, `Look, Cheney wants to do stuff
and, you know, he's going to want to do stuff until the end of his game, you
know, until it's all over, and I don't really know what's going on.' It's an
astonishing thing for a chairman of an appropriations committee who also sits
on, you know, the ranking member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee,
which sees everything in secret. It's--how to describe it? Out of control?

GROSS: The congressional leaders who had to sign off on the presidential
finding that increased our covert operations in Iran, you're making it seem
like they didn't put up any resistance at all, which really surprises you.
Could it be that President Bush told them something that made them think,
`Well, this is really justified. This is really the right thing to do, based
on this information that President Bush has divulged in secret to us?'

Mr. HERSH: No.

GROSS: Why do you say no?

Mr. HERSH: I mean, I don't mean to be so blunt, but in fact it wasn't a
complete lack of resistance. There was some resistance because the
president's finding, the document he has to submit, talked about lethal
defensive activity, which meant lethal, killing people. There was an enormous
amount of resistance to it. There was no sense that I could obtain in my
conversations with people that there was any overwhelming, overarching
justification that nobody could talk about. There was--how do I saw this?
When you're talking about a presidential finding, you're talking about one of
the more secret documents in the government, and if I'm able to get access to
that, it would be hard-pressed for me to think that something that would
justify what they'd done wouldn't be known to me, too, wouldn't be known to
some of the people talking to me. And I had no suggestion of this at all. In
other words, no suggesting other than this was an ongoing thing and there was,
in this finding, a significant escalation of the language of the finding that
was very troubling, and yet nothing happened. They approved it.

And it's very hard, by the way, for a leader of Congress to stand up and take
the heat from the administration, stand up and say, `This is wrong, we're not
going to do it.' And so they don't do it. And you know, that's not my
definition of democracy.

GROSS: Do you see this as another example of the Bush administration's
attempts to expand executive power?

Mr. HERSH: Looks like a duck, walks like a duck. Are you kidding? Of
course it is. It's totally an expansion. It's the president of the United
States saying, `I can send special forces troops anywhere in the world.' It's
literally worldwide, is the way he looks at it. `I can send the Joint Special
Operations Command.' And these are guys, sometimes they wear uniforms,
sometimes they don't. They're great, by the way, let me just stay this. I
think the guys doing the missions and the overwhelming percentage of their
officers are terrific people, and many of them are as troubled--perhaps not as
much as I, but troubled enough--believe me, I know that there's a lot of
concern inside about some of the crazy things they're asked to do, but they do

But so here we have a president whose ultimate goal is to completely obviate
the Constitution, and if you ask me my personal opinion--this isn't something
I wrote; this is something I believe is true, it's going to take a lot more
work--I don't think what they've done in terms of diminishing oversight or
making oversight less valuable, I don't think it's just a question of taking
advantage. I don't think it's just a question of outmaneuvering them. I
think it's basically, at some point after 9/11, the president and the vice
president and some of the lawyers set out to--and the word I would use is
sabotage the procedure. To say, we don't want oversight. If you remember
after 9/11, they began wiretapping. We know all that now.

And now we have a situation where it turns out that military forces can be
sent anywhere with a list of people to assassinate or capture and nobody has
to be told anything about it.

GROSS: Seymour Hersh will be back in the second half of the show. His
article "Preparing the Battlefield" about the Bush administration's escalation
of covert activities in Iran is in the current edition of The New Yorker. I'm
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with journalist Seymour
Hersh. In the current edition of The New Yorker, Hersh reports that the Bush
administration has expanded its covert operations in Iran with the goal of
destabilizing the Iranian leadership and undermining its nuclear program. The
money for the operation was requested in a highly classified document called a
presidential finding, which must be issue when a covert operation gets under
way. The requisite number of congressional leaders approved the funding
request. Hersh has been writing about a possible military strike against Iran
since 2006. He won a National Magazine Award for his reporting on
intelligence and the war in Iraq.

Let's talk a little bit about more about what some of these covert operations
appear to be. You write that it's an escalation in funding minority religious
and ethnic groups who oppose the Shiite regime in Iran, and you write about
reservations that some people have about this, which includes--one of these
groups is a Sunni fundamentalist group.

Mr. HERSH: Jundallah? The Baluchis? They're both...

GROSS: The Baluchis, yeah.

Mr. HERSH: ...have elements, yes.

GROSS: Yeah, and that some of the people in this group are related to
al-Quaeda and other Islamic extremist groups. Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted
for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was a member of this
group. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was believed to be one of the planners of
September 11th, a member of this group. So we're covertly funding these Sunni
extremists to work against the Shiite government in Iran?

Mr. HERSH: Here's the way to look at what we're doing. We go into a country
about which we don't know much. Just turn it around. Suppose the Iranians
decided to come to America and they were looking for groups to go after, and
suppose they discover, here's this wonderful group known--this very tough
group known as the Sons of the Revolution. These are guys, Southerners who
have a flag, and they can't even get their flag, the confederate flag, even in
the deep South in Georgia, the law--the government won't let them put this
flag up. `My God, what a great group to approach. Let's approach the Sons of
the Revolution.' If I'm an Iranian trying to reverse, you know, I'm doing the

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HERSH: ...psychology, let's approach them because they look like they'd
be great dissidents and people who might work against the country. When of
course, as anybody knows, these Southerners are the most patriotic and loyal,
and despite their wacky views about the Confederate flag, to get them to work
against the central government would be very, very hard. That's how silly in
a way it is.

I talked to one expert, Vali Nasr, who teaches up in Boston and is on the
Council of Foreign Relations and knows Iran very well. And he said that
basically the same thing in much more sedate language than I'm using about how
Iran is a country that's pretty solid. The leadership is pretty solid.
They're not popular, but they're Shia. And it's not a country that's going to
be fractionalized--that's going to break up along ethnic lines like the Sunnis
and Shia have inside Iraq. It's just, we're barking up the wrong trail, is
the point I'm making.

GROSS: But another group that you say we're funding through this clandestine
operation is the MEK, the Mujahideen...

Mr. HERSH: Yes.

GROSS: E Khalq--I'm not sure if I'm pronouncing that correctly.

Mr. HERSH: We call them the Khalq, just to make it easy. Yes.

GROSS: OK, but this is a group apparently that's on the US list of terrorist
groups, so why are we funding them?

Mr. HERSH: Oh, we've been doing it for years. This is a group that was very
much anti-Iran and doing a lot of the terrorism against the Iranian regime and
also attacking Western--in the '80s, and they were on everybody's list, but
now that they now live in Iraq and they're still working against the Iranian
government, and all of a sudden they're, you know, we like them know because
they are willing to go inside. They've been going inside Iran there on the
border area for years, causing all kinds of trouble. We've been giving them
arms and cash.

And I'll just tell you what people have told me. Most of the leadership we
know have been taking our money, and an awful lot of them have bank accounts
in London. They're just, you know, taking our money, `thank you very much,'
and cashing it. But they do do a lot of crazy stuff inside. They've been
doing it for four or five years. They are a terrorist group, and that is a
little awkward for us. I can also tell you this, is that they've also had
some training in America covertly. We've taken teams of them into America and
given them training in the state of Nevada, I do know that. You know, this is
a Bush administration, for which there's no rules. The enemy of our enemy, no
matter who you are, is our friend. And if you're Jundallah in Iran and you
have ties to the Taliban and to al-Qaeda but you're willing to go up against
the ruling mullahs there in Tehran, we'll deal with you.

GROSS: Let me ask you what I think is the bottom line question here. In your
analysis, does this bring us a step closer to a military strike against Iran?

Mr. HERSH: Look, our submarines are there, our destroyers are there with
cruise missiles aboard, our aircraft are there, our soldiers are there with
the targets--we have to go underground because there's some anti-aircraft and
anti-missile missiles, structures that we can only take out by American guys
going in and dropping hand grenade or a gun and, you know, shooting the people
running. You can't bomb them from their air, they're fortified. Our soldiers
are ready. The planning is ready. They've exercised. They're all set.
What, 10, 12 hours away if the president wants to say `go.'

I also firmly believe this president, particularly if Obama's elected, I think
the chances of him doing something, of course, will come up, depending on the
politics. If McCain is elected I think it's fair to say Bush would probably
think McCain will do it anyway. Bush's worry is that the next generation, the
next leadership will not have the courage he has, as he sees it, the political
determination. He was just talking the other day in Europe about `how I do
things, and I stick to my guns no matter how popular or unpopular these
actions are,' and he's talking about Iran when he says that.

This finding, this new idea of the president to come and ask for as much as
$400 million in the Congress, this came late last year, just at the time that
the intelligence community's national intelligence estimate on Iran was being
promulgated, the one that said, stunning the White House, the evidence is
clear that since 2003, Iran--it stopped then in 2003 its nuclear weapons
ambition. That's what the NIE said. And the White House has been walking
back that cat for six months now. Almost everybody in administration all
parrot that--by the way, so does McCain, so does Hillary Clinton, and so did
Obama, in various speeches. They all have accepted the rule that---the notion
that Iran is intent on making a bomb when the NIE says no. But the timing of
the Bush request of this huge money increase they asked from Congress, you
can't separate that timing from the NIE. He certainly knew when he started
that process what the NIE was going to say. He'd known about it for months.

I do know people who worked on the NIE, and I can tell you right now, they
leaned over backwards to be sure they were careful, given all the problems the
community has had, the intelligence community has had because of its lousy--or
perceived lousy reporting--about the WMD from Iraq. And so they wrote a very
good report that simply, at this point, is pretty much trashed by everybody.

GROSS: OK, so you're writing about a major escalation of covert operations in
Iran against the regime there. You're suggesting this maybe takes us a step
closer to a military strike against Iran. At the same time, it looks like
Israel's the country that's really poised to do it. Israel just had a bunch
of military maneuvers that experts say looks like they were preparations for a
strike against Iran. Israel's very worried that if Iran does develop a
nuclear weapon, Israel would be the target of it. Israel has attacked other
nuclear programs with airstrikes in the past. What are you hearing about the
odds of an Israeli attack against Iran?

Mr. HERSH: Well, the Israelis are certainly bristling, and I was a little
skeptical about, all of a sudden every American newspaper suddenly gets a
briefing on the Israeli exercise a few weeks ago. And clearly that was--the
whole publicity thing was, of course, coordinated with us. I mean, I do

GROSS: With us? You mean, with the Bush administration?

Mr. HERSH: Oh, yes. Absolutely. You can't--there's just no question.
There's an incredible close tie between us and the Israelis on almost
everything, and just the way the story came out. All of a sudden a lot of
briefings were given to a lot reporters, and it made a big splash, and it
certainly was a provocative story that the Israelis were doing it.

I can just tell you what--again, sticking to what I know, I do know that
Cheney has said repeatedly--first of all, Israel didn't have the capability.
To really strike Iran and be effective, you have to--it's got to be a pretty
"shock and awe," if you will, to go back to a 2003 phrase. You've got to hit
an awful lot of nuclear facilities, some of which are buried very deeply.
Natanz, their basic enrichment facility, is something like 75 hard feet
underground. It would take a rain of bombs to pound away at it to get to the
building. And you have to have an awful lot of very kinetic, a lot of

You got a lot of sites you want to destroy. If you want to set back the
Iranian program five, 10 years, you got a dozen sites you have to hit.
They're all protected by anti-missile batteries, aircraft. So before you
could hit any of those, you first have to go in and strike their missiles.
That's why I was mentioning armed forces on the ground. In some cases, the
missiles are protected by rocks, you got to go in physically with troops. You
got to take out their missiles. You got to talk out their radar. You got to
take out their first round wave of defenses so you can go in without too much

And Israel simply doesn't have the aircraft power to do it. They have cruise
missiles. They can be submarine launched, but they only have five, six or
seven submarines. We, on the other hand, are loaded to bear. We've got
stuff, and we've been moving stuff. I'm not telling a great secret, I don't
think. We've been moving cruise missiles into that area for months now.
Probably be more than that.

And Cheney's position is, no way we're going to let Israel do it, because even
if---whatever Israel does, we're going to be blamed for it anyway, whether we
had anything to do with it or not, so since we're going to be blamed for and
since Israel can't do it right, we'll do it. I do know that's said. It
doesn't mean it's policy. That is what's being said.

GROSS: My guest is Seymour Hersh. His article "Preparing the Battlefield:
The Bush Administration Steps Up Its Secret Moves Against Iran" is in the
current edition of The New Yorker. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Seymour Hersh. In the current
edition of The New Yorker, he breaks the story that late last year Congress
agreed to a request from President Bush to fund a major escalation of covert
operations against Iran.

We've talked several times, you and I, on the air about the Bush
administration's plans for Iran, and you said, when we spoke last year, you
said that the initial justification the Bush administration was using for
regime change in Iran, you know, covert actions that could lead to regime
changes in Iran, was that they're building, you know, nuclear weapons and
we've got to stop them. Then you say the Bush administration became convinced
that that wasn't going to really go over well as justification among the
American people, that the American people weren't going to by that. So then
the justification for regime change in Iran became, well, Iran is supporting
efforts against the United States in Iraq; Iran is supplying weapons to the
insurgents and IEDs to the insurgents in Iraq, so we have to do regime change
in Iran because they're such trouble in Iraq. So what is the justification

Mr. HERSH: Well, it's pretty muddled. One of the things--they have gone
back quite a bit, they did try very hard to make the case that Iran is killing
America boys, and it didn't work. There's been a lot of good reporting, I
think, in the article, in The New Yorker I cite a New York Times piece in
April that sort of did a definite look, and there's just is no empirical basis
that--look, there's certainly is a supply of weapons from Iran going into
Iraq. There's been smuggling and border sales going on for God knows how many
hundreds of years. That hasn't stopped. But there's--and I have talked to
people inside this government--there's absolutely no clear evidence known to
the American government that the leadership of Iran has any interest in
provoking trouble with the United States in Iraq by sending in people to cause
mayhem or kill Americans. There's just no evidence for it.

Why? Because Iran right now, through the Shiites that control the country,
the Malikis and others, Prime Minister Maliki, has a very close relationship
with the Shiite government of Iraq, the one that we set up. Why would Iran
want to, you know--they're not interested in shooting themselves in the foot.
So that hasn't worked, that plan, that idea. That was early this year, if you
remember, too, they were pushing it.

Let me back off and say they have six months left, they need to generate...

GROSS: "They" being the Bush administration.

Mr. HERSH: Yeah. They need to generate some public support for a bombing.
It would be suicidal politically to do it without public support. And that, I
think, does get you back to what they're trying to do with the special
operations and the covert operations and clandestine operations inside Iran,
which is to trigger some sort of disturbance that would cause Iran to do
something dumb in response, and maybe we could then go in and the public would
be more supportive of us going in in that case.

The whole goal is to get public support because, you know, I don't think this
president cares much about John McCain--why would he? Despite what they say,
he'd be prepared to risk--cause damage if he thought he could get away with
it. But the fact is, as long as the public opinion polls show that so many
people, as I say, over 70 percent in the last Gallup poll, I cite it in the
magazine article, as long as so many people in America are sort of `who cares,
don't think it makes sense to go bomb, not very interested in it.' As long as
you can't generate a lot of heat about it, I don't think they can really do
it. But the program, the idea behind this operation, in essence is to
generate heat.

GROSS: One of the paradoxes here is that, as President Bush is escalating
covert activities in Iran, as Israel appears to be considering a military
strike against Iran, and if that happens, you say, America would have to be a
part of it, either immediately or eventually. You know, the Bush
administration negotiated, you know, finalized the negotiations with North
Korea. North Korea has destroyed its nuclear facility in response to that
agreement, and I mean, that was worked out with a series of carrots and
sticks, but, you know, it ended in negotiation, and President Bush refusing to
negotiate with Iran unless Iran stops its nuclear program, but that's what the
negotiation would be about, that's what the negotiation was about with North
Korea. Does that seem paradoxical to you?

Mr. HERSH: No, it actually frightens me a little bit that he's working on
something with North Korea, because you see, then he has a model. He can say,
`Look, there are rational people. I'm a rational person. We could even get
somebody like, you know, the pretty much off-the-wall leadership of North
Korea to agree to something sensible, and look what happened. We've done
something good.' This isolates Iran more in terms of the way I look at it, and
this is not my thinking. This is the thinking of others that know a hell of a
lot more about what's going on. If he really is serious about Iran, getting
North Korea off the table moves him closer, if you think about it from the way
I'm thinking about it, because it gives him a better bargaining position.
It's not he that's the trouble, it's the government of Iran. Because look,
look what he did with the North Koreans..

GROSS: So, if Cheney is the strongest advocate for a military strike against
Iran, Cheney...

Mr. HERSH: If he is. And I think he is, but I don't know.


Mr. HERSH: I...

GROSS: But I can't help but wonder if Cheney or whoever else is considering a
military strike against Iran, what they make of how things have turned out in
Iraq, because some of the justifications and some of the tactics we've used so
far in Iran seem to parallel Iraq, and I can't think of a lot of people who
are happy with the outcome so far in Iraq. Plus, we've spent so much money
and have deployed so much of our military resources, including, you know, lots
of the National Guard in Iraq, that you know, could we even afford to tie up
more in Iran. But anyways, I just can't help but wonder how Iraq is
influencing people like Vice President Cheney now.

Mr. HERSH: You just have to listen to what they say, because what they say
is fascinating. We're actually winning. We're turning a corner, and we got
rid of Saddam Hussein, and by any chance that's a plus. Just listen to what
they say, because in their world, Iraq is OK. They've done something useful,
and it's going to be great. We're turning a corner. We're going to solve the
problems. The surge, quote, unquote, worked. Never mind that the country's
completely destroyed physically with ethnic cleansing. They, if you just read
and listen to what they say, it's upbeat. So they don't see this mess they've
created as a mess.

So the argument that why would they do--you know, why would they expand the
war we're not doing so well into yet another country is that they're not sure
we're not doing so well. In the article I write about Admiral Fallon, Bill
Fallon, who was forced to resign after publicly criticizing the idea of
bombing Iran, again it's Cheney, and what I say in the article, for me, was
very interesting because once you got into you it discovered one of Fallon's
problems was he was the commander in chief of the Central Command, in charge
of not only Iraq but also Iran and also Afghanistan and, son of a gun, there
were some secret operations going on inside Iraq--inside Iran, rather. The
special forces were doing stuff, and he couldn't get into them. And he made a
big fuss about that. He wanted to know what was going on. As somebody who
believes in the chain of command, Fallon certainly does. He's in his 60s,
been around a long time, was commander in chief in the Pacific where he didn't
have this problem. Gets here to Central Command and this guy Cheney's running
all sorts of stuff. And so he clashes with Cheney and loses. That's the way
I look at it.

I actually got one of Admiral Fallon's friends, a retired four-star general
named Jack Sheehan, a very, very bright honorable guy to say on the
record--which is rare for a retired officer, four-star officer--to say, look,
Fallon's trouble was he was insisting on knowing all the secrets, and Cheney
didn't want him to know all the secrets. Cheney's power is pretty persuasive.

GROSS: My guest is Seymour Hersh. His article "Preparing the Battlefield:
The Bush Administration Steps Up Its Secret Moves Against Iran" is in the
current edition of The New Yorker. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Seymour Hersh. In the current
edition of The New Yorker he breaks the story that President Bush has asked
Congress for up to $400 million for a major escalation of covert military
operations in Iran against the regime, and Congress is in the process of
dispensing some of that money.

Based on what you know of the Iranian government and based on what you've
heard from diplomats who have dealt with the Iranian government, do you think
that we could actually negotiate a deal in which Iran would stop its nuclear
program and comply with the agreement?

Mr. HERSH: Not this government, not the Bush administration. It's too...

GROSS: Well, what about the Iranian government?

Mr. HERSH: Well, the Iranians, I don't think, have any interest in talking
to Bush. I think they're just...

GROSS: Oh, I see what you're saying. They wouldn't

Mr. HERSH: Yeah, not with this government. I think the next government, if
a Democrat gets elected, if Mr. Obama gets elected, I think you could see
talks go quickly. Because, frankly, the guys I know on the inside, in the
special forces, high up in the DOD, high up in the intelligence community, if
you push them hard enough, they'll tell you that Iran has actually been more
of a force for stability inside Iraq than negative. Yes, there are negative
aspects. Yes, there are arms flowing in. There are certainly people coming
across the border with evil intent. You know, those things happen all the
time. But in general, the Iranians are--they invest--the trade, particularly
in the south of Iraq, between Iran and Iraq, is over a billion dollars a year
in trade. There's a lot of religious connections, particularly for the Shia
in Iraq, who are very drawn and tied to. They make pilgrimages back and
forth. There's an awful lot of foreign investment now going on outside of
Iran, but Iran led the way into Iraq. And Iran has every interest in keeping
Iraq stable. In a funny way, they're almost our partners. We've given them
the country, and they have an interest in stability. We could certainly talk
to them.

The bottom line is, you're not going to resolve the Iraqi question, which is
really difficult, just pulling our troops isn't the answer. I mean, I guess
I'm all for that, of course, but you've got long-term social, economic,
political problems, and we have a moral obligation to this country. You know,
we've done a lot of damage to it. So in order for us to extract ourselves in
a rational way and not leave chaos, you're going to need the Syrians, the
border country, the Jordanians, the Kuwaitis, the Iranians, all of the border
countries working very hard together, and this government simply can't do
that. They don't have any credibility.

GROSS: One more question. You've drawn a picture here in which you think
that there are members within the Bush administration, most likely Cheney
being at the forefront, who would like to overthrow the regime in Iran and are
considering using military force to do it. But at the same time, the Bush
administration is on its way out. There's a lot of people within the Pentagon
who oppose a military strike, a lot of people in Congress who oppose a
military strike against Iran. So how much power would the Bush administration
really have in the last few months of its time in power to do something as
dramatic as attacking Iran?

Mr. HERSH: If you had told me, Terry, that six months ago George Bush would
have gone to the leadership in the Congress, Democratically-controlled
Congress and said, `Guys, I'd like to get a chit for about $400 million to
mess around inside Iran and see what I can do,' and he got it without a
question, I would have said impossible. So where is the political courage?
No matter where you are, one of the great shocking disappointments to me is
the lack of political courage, even among the military, even among the guys I
talked to who are really upset and will never go public. So few do.

And so I don't think you can underestimate the power of the bully pulpit of
the office. This is a man who's president of the United States of America,
and he's going to be a very active president, I'm afraid, until, you know,
11:59.59 seconds on January, 20th, 2009. And if you remember, he came into
office after a bitter fight. He didn't have a plurality in terms of the vote,
the American vote. He got--once the Supreme Court put him in, he put his food
down and he was running as if he'd won 60-to-40. So he's going to be an
aggressive president until the end. I don't think there's any question about

And the closer he gets to the end, I think one of the reason you're seeing
this sort of enormous escalation of special forces operations inside Iraq is
he's getting close to the end and they are breathing more heavily. They'd
love to grab an Iranian nuclear scientist who can reveal the secrets of the
bomb, the secret bomb that they think exists, and so that's what they're
looking for among other things.

Who's going to stop them? Who's going to stop our president if he decides in
the last week of October--and I will tell you, I've had people that I've
talked to in the military system talk about October surprise. There's a lot
of concern by a lot of Americans, and certainly a lot of Israelis, about an
Obama administration, whether he would be at all interested in doing anything
significant about Iran. And so those people who think this is a serious
threat, those people, the Bush and the Cheney crowd and those people with
them, the neoconservatives that are still all over this government, if Obama
looked like he was winning or looked like there was, after he'd won, you might
just seriously still have a problem.

And I can't help but say the fact that we have this major, major escalation,
the guy--the president--this president getting a chit for 400 million from the
Congress, or at least asking that much and not being told no. I mean, it's
just amazing to me. He still has the ambition.

GROSS: Seymour Hersh, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. HERSH: I don't know why you thank me. It's some sort of sadomasochism,
but you're welcome.

GROSS: Seymour Hersh's article "Preparing the Battlefield" is in the current
edition of The New Yorker.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site,


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue