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The Hersh File

Once again Seymour Hersh wastes our time with an essay that would have been more suitable for a psychiatrist’s couch, accompanied by the question, “Doctor, why do I keep making up these things?”

The doctor might say, “what things?”

And Hersh would say, “you know, these stories saying that America is preparing to go to war with Iran, that we’re going to bomb them, that secret military units are running all over Iran, that we’re supporting killer fanatics. That sort of thing.”

It’s some sort of wacky compulsion with him. Back in the spring of 2006 Hersh told us that the Bush Administration, a.k.a. the Great Satan, “has increased clandestine activities inside Iran and intensified planning for a possible major air attack...teams of American combat troops have been ordered into Iran, under cover, to collect targeting data and to establish contact with anti-government ethnic-minority groups...(Hersh’s sources) say that President Bush is determined to deny the Iranian regime the opportunity to begin a pilot program, planned for this spring, to enrich uranium.”

Last summer, he announced again that we were on the verge of war with Iran. “This summer, the White House...requested that the Joint Chiefs of Staff redraw long-standing plans for a possible attack on Iran...The focus of the plans had been a broad bombing attack, with targets including Iran’s known and suspected nuclear facilities and other military and infrastructure sites. Now the emphasis is on “surgical” strikes on Revolutionary Guard Corps facilities in Tehran and elsewhere...”

We did not bomb, of course, and those alleged plans have vanished from the latest “revelations.” This time around he tells many of the same stories, except without the bombing. And this time he refers to a secret Presidential “Finding,” approved with bipartisan Congressional support, that makes all these things legal. Now it’s just the alleged support for ethnic minority groups, the collection of information about the Iranian nuclear program, and generally seeking to “destabilize the...leadership.” For extras, he suggests that some of our Special Forces have sneaked into Iran, kidnaped some members of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, and dragged them across the border into Iraq for interrogation. But he just can’t help himself. In the midst of discussing these alleged operations, he suddenly and inexplicably erupts in yet another of his “we’re going to bomb them!” seizures.

A Democratic senator told me that, late last year, in an off-the-record lunch meeting, Secretary of Defense 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...” (A spokesman for Gates confirmed that he discussed the consequences of a strike at the meeting, but would not address what he said, other than to dispute the senator’s characterization)...

In other words, Gates denies the senator’s account. Hersh can’t quite bring himself to say that, so he sticks it between parentheses. You have to parse Hersh very carefully, because he carefully uses words that don’t exactly admit that he doesn’t have much of a case, but show it nonetheless. Take his remark at the top of the story, in which he leads the reader to conclude that we’re spending a mountain of money to destabilize Iran. “These operations,” he writes, “for which the President sought up to (my emphasis) four hundred million dollars...” But the question is not what he asked for, but what he actually got. Inquiring minds would like to know the actual budget, but it seems Hersh does not know it. The language he uses covers everything from zero to four hundred million. The “operations” he describes (most of which I doubt) are pretty small potatoes, like providing funds for Iranian dissidents in order to fight back against the brutal repression (missing from Hersh’s account) that Tehran has directed against its own people, with particular savagery against the Ahwaz Arabs and the Balouch, along with religious groups such as the Baha’i. I think even the frolicsome crowd at CIA’s Directorate of Operations would have trouble crafting a four hundred million dollar invoice for such things.

As so often in Hershian lore, you can pretty much forget about solid information or identifiable sources. His favorite source, who provides many of the juiciest quotations, is simply called “a Pentagon consultant.” Those who don’t live in Washington can’t possibly imagine a)how many of these characters work the city’s streets or b)how many of them claim to know absolutely everything of significance. If you take Hersh seriously, this guy is privy to conversations among small handfuls of people in the Oval Office. I suppose there may be such a person, but it’s hard to take it on blind faith, especially when Hersh quotes him as being pretty incoherent. The Consultant shifts tense and substance in a single paragraph:

Some of the newly authorized covert funds, the Pentagon consultant told me, may well end up in M.E.K. (ML: an anti-mullah group under American arrest in Iraq) coffers. “The new task force will work with the M.E.K. The Administration is desperate for results.” He added, “The M.E.K. has no C.P.A. auditing the books, and its leaders are thought to have been lining their pockets for years. If people only knew what the M.E.K. is getting, and how much is going to its bank accounts...

So first we hear that the bad guys “may well” get money from the USG, because a new task force “WILL work” with them. Then, one baited breath later, he says that they are already “getting,” and indeed stashing lots of it away in their own bank accounts.

One wonders why Hersh didn’t at least get the tenses consistent. One wonders why The New Yorker editors didn’t insist on it. In fact one wonders if anyone at The New Yorker did any checking of Hersh’s “facts.” As Roger Simon pointedly asks, who are these sources? Does The New Yorker even know?

Hersh even makes sources of on-the-record statements look bad. He fancies that lots of senior military officers in the Pentagon are fighting a desperate war against warmongers like Bush and Cheney, going all-out to stop tomorrow morning’s bombing run against the Iranian nuclear reactors. In this month’s episode, Hersh’s hero is Admiral William Fallon, briefly in charge of our Central Command until he was suddenly terminated. Hersh would have us believe that Fallon was fired because of his opposition to Administration policy. Hersh cites the following statement by Fallon as the sort of thing that got him into trouble in the White House:

...late last year he told the Financial Times that the “real objective” of U.S. policy was to change the Iranians’ behavior, and that “attacking them as a means to get to that spot strikes me as being not the first choice.”

But President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said precisely that, numerous times. Whatever the reasons for the firing, it certainly wasn’t a statement that was totally in sync with announced Administration policy. If Fallon was indeed fired for something he said, it’s more likely this sort of thing, which Hersh admiringly reproduces:

“Too many people believe you have to be either for or against the Iranians,” he told me. “Let’s get serious. Eighty million people live there, and everyone’s an individual. The idea that they’re only one way or another is nonsense.”

Again, one wonders where the editors have gone. Sure, everyone’s an individual; but in a dictatorship of the sort that rules Iran, only a few people matter. If I were the president, and I heard the head of Centcom talking like that, I too would want him out of there.

That leaves us with Hersh’s encouraging claims that we’re striking back at Iranian military forces on both sides of the border, that we’re supporting some minority groups against the regime, and that our Special Forces guys are running around Iran, gathering information on the nuclear program. We should be so lucky.

I would be delighted if American soldiers were (finally) taking steps against the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on their own turf. It has been known for some time (although Hersh, not having heard it anonymously from his omniscient consultants, somehow doubts it) that the Iranians have been training terrorists on their own territory, and then sending them into Iraq and Afghanistan to kill as many people as possible, above all, our troops. Until quite recently, our soldiers were not permitted to initiate action against the Iranian officers who sometimes accompanied the terrorists, even in Iraq. But then, roughly about the same time as the change in doctrine that accompanied the surge, we and the Iraqis started to operate against the so-called “Special Groups” that were in cahoots with the Iranians, and the Quds Force officers who supported al Qaeda. It seems logical that these operations should extend to the training camps across the border, and to the Iranians who run them and command the terrorist squads. Otherwise, one tacitly accepts the legitimacy of Iranian attacks across the border, but denies our right to fight back on their terrain.

So far as I can discover, no such operations are taking place. A high-ranking intelligence official in the United States Government, who has proven reliable for many years, told me categorically that we do not capture, kill, or kidnap anyone in Iran, and that our troops have been told they cannot cross the Iranian border, even in “hot pursuit.” So unless Hersh has real evidence, I’m going to doubt it, even though I wish it were true.

Are U.S. Special Forces collecting information about the Iranian nuclear program? I sure hope so, even though Hersh seems to think there’s something wicked about it. In this connection, he seems to me to reveal a great deal about the sources of his information. He praises the linguistic and cultural skills of CIA “agents and assets,” implying that Special Forces don’t have such skills. Nothing could be farther from the truth; Special Forces have excellent linguists. Indeed, many CIA officers do their language training at Monterey, at the celebrated language school run by the military. Hersh thinks CIA is somehow culturally superior, which it isn’t. It’s the kind of idea that is more likely to come from an Agency employee than from someone in uniform, from the sort of guy who thinks our military is composed of untutored lunkheads, while the CIA–with its long record of failure that even Inspector Clouseau would envy–is composed of MENSA members.

I don’t know anything about support for the minority groups (although I do know that a program with one of the major tribes was totally shut down more than a decade ago), but I’m against it. The regime in Tehran is hollow, having lost the support of the vast majority of the Iranian people. The Iranian people are in fact the greatest threat to the regime, and we should support them all, not group by group or tribe by tribe, but as an entire nation. Our support should be almost entirely political, not military. It must start with an open declaration that we wish to see the end of the regime and that we will support a peaceful democratic revolution. Just as in the successful Reagan strategy against the Soviet Empire, the revolutionaries’ most urgent requirements are communications devices, and we should get them cell and satellite phones, laptop computers, servers, and anti-filtering software to beat the filters the mullahs have obtained from the Chinese censors and other friends. And we should turn our own broadcasts, as in VOA, into sources of accurate information about the latest developments inside Iran.

Hersh doesn’t know very much about Iran, judging from the sources he quotes to bash the alleged support for the two tribes and the M.E.K. Iran is a far cry from the description approvingly quoted from Professor Vali Nasr, who holds forth at Tufts and the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Just because Lebanon, Iraq, and Pakistan have ethnic problems, it does not mean that Iran is suffering from the same issue,” Nasr told me. “Iran is an old country—like France and Germany—and its citizens are just as nationalistic”

Professor Nasr studied with Frank Fukuyama, but apparently never heard that Germany is younger than the United States, by nearly a hundred years. And Iran is ethnically very different from France or Germany, which have long had basically homogeneous populations. Only half of Iranians are Persians; the rest range from Azeris, Kurds and Balouch to Ahwaz Arabs, and many other tribes. But Nasr is quite right (as is Hersh, who uses him as a proxy) to oppose any American policy that supports ethnic separatism. It’s worse than a crime; it’s stupid. When you’ve got most of the population on your side, you want to embrace it as a whole, not divide it into smaller units that might spat with one another.

It’s hard to even raise this kind of consideration while talking about Hersh, because he lives and writes in a world in which you only get half the story at best, and that half consists of sliming the United States. One would never know from reading Hersh that Iran has been waging war against us for nearly thirty years, and we have yet to respond. He seems not to know that there are military documents, photographs, confessions, and captured laptop computers proving that Iranians operate inside Iraq. If he does know, he doesn’t inform his readers. He writes as if anyone who acknowledges the murderous role of Iran in the world, and wants an end to its evil regime, automatically favors armed war against it, even though many of us are unstinting in our criticism of the mullahs, favor regime change, but oppose a military campaign.

And so I imagine his doctor saying to him: “Well, Mr. Hersh, it seems you’re an obsessive/ compulsive neurotic, doesn’t it? You keep writing the same story over and over again, with minor variations, year after year.”

And I hear Hersh saying: “Yes, but it feels so good when I finish writing it, Doctor. Every time. And they even pay me for it.”

UPDATE:  Ron Rosenbaum adds more,  focusing on Hersh's botched description of the infamous NIE on the Iranian nuclear program.  You should read it.