The Seymour Hersh Mystery
A Journalist Writing Bloody Murder...
And No One Notices
by Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch
www.zmag.org, March 14, 2007
Let me see if I've got this straight.
Perhaps two years ago, an "informal"
meeting of "veterans" of the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal
-- holding positions in the Bush administration -- was convened
by Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams. Discussed
were the "lessons learned" from that labyrinthine, secret,
and illegal arms-for-money-for-arms deal involving the Israelis,
the Iranians, the Saudis, and the Contras of Nicaragua, among
others -- and meant to evade the Boland Amendment, a congressionally
passed attempt to outlaw Reagan administration assistance to the
In terms of getting around Congress, the
Iran-Contra vets concluded, the complex operation had been a success
-- and would have worked far better if the CIA and the military
had been kept out of the loop and the whole thing had been run
out of the Vice President's office.
Subsequently, some of those conspirators, once again with the
financial support and help of the Saudis (and probably the Israelis
and the Brits), began running a similar operation, aimed at avoiding
congressional scrutiny or public accountability of any sort, out
of Vice President Cheney's office. They dipped into "black
pools of money," possibly stolen from the billions of Iraqi
oil dollars that have never been accounted for since the American
Some of these funds, as well as Saudi
ones, were evidently funneled through the embattled, Sunni-dominated
Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to the sort
of Sunni jihadi groups ("some sympathetic to al-Qaeda")
whose members might normally fear ending up in Guantanamo and
to a group, or groups, associated with the fundamentalist Muslim
All of this was being done as part of a "sea change"
in the Bush administration's Middle Eastern policies aimed at
rallying friendly Sunni regimes against Shiite Iran, as well as
Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Syrian government -- and launching secret
operations to undermine, roll back, or destroy all of the above.
Despite the fact that the Bush administration is officially at
war with Sunni extremism in Iraq (and in the more general Global
War on Terror), despite its support for the largely Shiite government,
allied to Iran, that it has brought to power in Iraq, and despite
its dislike for the Sunni-Shiite civil war in that country, some
of its top officials may be covertly encouraging a far greater
Sunni-Shiite rift in the region.
Imagine. All this and much more (including news of U.S. military
border-crossings into Iran, new preparations that would allow
George W. Bush to order a massive air attack on that land with
only 24-hours notice, and a brief window this spring when the
staggering power of four U.S. aircraft-carrier battle groups might
be available to the President in the Persian Gulf) was revealed,
often in remarkable detail, just over a week ago in "The
Redirection," a Seymour Hersh piece in the New Yorker. Hersh,
the man who first broke the My Lai story in the Vietnam era, has
never been off his game since. In recent years, from the Abu Ghraib
scandal on, he has consistently released explosive news about
the plans and acts of the Bush administration.
Imagine, in addition, that Hersh went on Democracy Now!, Fresh
Air, Hardball with Chris Matthews, and CNN Late Edition with Wolf
Blitzer and actually elaborated on these claims and revelations,
some of which, on the face of it, seem like potentially illegal
and impeachable offenses, if they do indeed reach up to the Vice
President or President.
Now imagine the response: Front-page headlines; editorials nationwide
calling for answers, Congressional hearings, or even the appointment
of a special prosecutor to look into some of the claims; a raft
of op-ed page pieces by the nation's leading columnists asking
questions, demanding answers, reminding us of the history of Iran-Contra;
bold reporters from a recently freed media standing up in White
House and Defense Department press briefings to demand more information
on Hersh's various charges; calls in Congress for hearings and
investigations into why the people's representatives were left
so totally out of this loop.
All I can say is: If any of this happened, I haven't been able
to discover it. As far as I can tell, no one in the mainstream
even blinked on the Iran-Contra angle or the possibility that
a vast, secret Middle Eastern operation is being run, possibly
illegally and based on stolen funds and Saudi money, out of the
Vice President's office. You can certainly find a few pieces on,
or reports about, "The Redirection" -- all focused only
on the possible build-up to a war with Iran -- and the odd wire-service
mention of it; but nothing major, nothing Earth-shaking or eye-popping;
not, in fact, a single obvious editorial or op-ed piece in the
mainstream; no journalistic questions publicly asked of the administration;
no Congressional cries of horror; no calls anywhere for investigations
or hearings on any of Hersh's revelations, not even an expression
of fear somewhere that we might be seeing Iran-Contra, the sequel,
in our own moment.
This, it seems to me, adds up to a remarkable non-response to
claims that, if true, should gravely concern Congress, the media,
and the nation. Let's grant that Hersh's New Yorker pieces generally
arrive unsourced and filled with anonymuous officials ("a
former senior intelligence official," "a U.S. government
consultant with close ties to Israel"). Nonetheless, Hersh
has long mined his sources in the Intelligence Community and the
military to striking effect. Undoubtedly, the lack of sourcing
makes it harder for other reporters to follow-up, though when
it comes to papers like the Washington Post and the New York Times,
you would think that they might have Washington sources of their
own to query on Hersh's claims. And, of course, editorial pages,
columnists, op-ed editors, Congressional representatives, and
reporters at administration news briefings don't need to do any
footwork at all to raise these subjects. (Consider, for instance,
the White House press briefing on April 10, 2006, where a reporter
did indeed ask a question based on an earlier Hersh New Yorker
piece.) As far as I can tell, there haven't even been denunciations
of Hersh's report or suggestions anywhere that it was inaccurate
or off-base. Just the equivalent of a giant, collective shrug
of the media's rather scrawny shoulders.
Since the response to Hersh's remarkable piece has been so tepid
in places where it should count, let me take up just a few of
the many issues his report raises.
"Meddling" in Iran
For at least a month now, our press and TV news have been full
to the brim with mile-high headlines and top-of-the-news stories
recounting (and, more rarely, disputing) Bush administration claims
of Iranian "interference" or "meddling" in
Iraq (where U.S. military spokesmen regularly refer to the Iraqi
insurgents they are fighting as "anti-Iraq forces").
Since Hersh published "Plan B" in the New Yorker in
June 2004 in which he claimed that the Israelis were "running
covert operations inside Kurdish areas of Iran and Syria,"
he has been on the other side of this story.
In "The Coming Wars" in January of 2005, he first reported
that the Bush administration, like the Israelis, had been "conducting
secret reconnaissance missions inside Iran at least since"
the summer of 2004. In April of 2006 in "The Iran Plans,"
he reported that the Bush administration was eager to put the
"nuclear option" on the table in any future air assault
on Iranian nuclear facilities (and that some in the Pentagon,
fiercely opposed, had at least temporarily thwarted planning for
the possible use of nuclear bunker-busters in Iran). He also reported
that American combat units were "on the ground" in Iran,
marking targets for any future air attack, and quoted an unnamed
source as claiming that they were also "working with minority
groups in Iran, including the Azeris, in the north, the Baluchis,
in the southeast, and the Kurds, in the northeast. The troops
'are studying the terrain, and giving away walking-around money
to ethnic tribes, and recruiting scouts from local tribes and
shepherds,' the consultant said. One goal is to get 'eyes on the
ground'... The broader aim, the consultant said, is to 'encourage
ethnic tensions' and undermine the regime."
In "The Redirection," he now claims that, in search
of Iranian rollback and possible regime change, "American
military and special-operations teams have escalated their activities
in Iran to gather intelligence and, according to a Pentagon consultant
on terrorism and the former senior intelligence official, have
also crossed the [Iranian] border in pursuit of Iranian operatives
from Iraq." In his Democracy Now! radio interview, he added:
"[W]e have been deeply involved with Azeris and Baluchis
and Iranian Kurds in terror activities inside the country... and,
of course, the Israelis have been involved in a lot of that through
Kurdistan... Iran has been having sort of a series of backdoor
fights, the Iranian government, because... they have a significant
minority population. Not everybody there is a Persian. If you
add up the Azeris and Baluchis and Kurds, you're really 30-some
[%], maybe even 40% of the country."
In addition, he reported that "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," and that its "new assignment" was to identify
not just nuclear facilities and possible regime-change targets,
but "targets in Iran that may be involved in supplying or
aiding militants in Iraq."
Were there nothing else in Hersh's most recent piece, all of this
would still have been significant news -- if we didn't happen
to live on a one-way imperial planet in which Iranian "interference"
in (American) Iraq is an outrage, but secret U.S. operations in,
and military plans to devastate, Iran are your basic ho-hum issue.
Our mainstream news purveyors don't generally consider the issue
of our "interference" in Iran worthy of a great deal
of reporting, nor do our pundits consider it a topic worthy of
speculation or consideration; nor, in a Congress where leading
Democrats have regularly outflanked the Bush administration in
hawkish positions on Iran, is this likely to be much of an issue.
You can read abroad about rumored American operations out of Pakistan
and Afghanistan aimed at unsettling Iranian minorities like the
Baluchis and about possible operations to create strife among
Arab minorities in southern Iran near the Iraqi border -- the
Iranians seem to blame the British, whose troops are in southern
Iraq, for some of this (a charge vociferously denied by the British
embassy in Tehran) -- but it's not a topic of great interest here.
In recent months, in fact, several bombs have gone off in minority
regions of Iran. These explosions have been reported here, but
you would be hard-pressed to find out what the Iranians had to
say about them, and the possibility that any of these might prove
part of a U.S. (or Anglo-American) covert campaign to destabilize
the Iranian fundamentalist regime basically doesn't concern the
news mind here, even though past history says it should. After
all, many of our present Middle Eastern problems can be indirectly
traced back to the Anglo-American ur-moment in the Middle East,
the successful CIA-British-intelligence plot in 1953 to oust Prime
Minister Mohammad Mossadegh (who had nationalized the Iranian
oil industry) and install the young Shah in power.
After all, in the 1980s, in the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan,
the CIA (with the eager connivance of the Pakistanis and the Saudis)
helped organize, arm, and fund the Islamic extremists who would
someday turn on us for terror campaigns on a major scale. As Steve
Coll reported in his superb book Ghost Wars, for instance, "Under
ISI [Pakistani intelligence] direction, the mujahedin received
training and malleable explosives to mount car-bomb and even camel-bomb
attacks in Soviet-occupied cities, usually designed to kill Soviet
soldiers and commanders. [CIA Director William] Casey endorsed
these despite the qualms of some CIA career officers."
Similarly, in the early 1990s, the Iraq National Accord, an organization
run by the CIA's Iraqi exile of choice, Iyad Allawi, evidently
planted, under the Agency's direction, car bombs and explosive
devices in Baghdad (including in a movie theater) in a fruitless
attempt to destabilize Saddam Hussein's regime. The New York Times
reported this on its front page in June 2004 (to no effect whatsoever),
when Allawi was the Prime Minister of American-occupied Iraq.
Who knows where the funding, training, and equipment for the bombings
in Iran are coming from -- but, at a moment when charges that
the Iranians are sending into Iraq advanced IEDs, or the means
to produce them, are the rage, it seems a germane subject.
In this country, it's a no-brainer that the Iranians have no right
whatsoever to put their people, overtly or covertly, into neighboring
Iraq, a country which, back in the 1980s, invaded Iran and fought
a bitter eight-year war with it, resulting in perhaps a million
casualties; but it's just normal behavior for the Pentagon to
have traveled halfway across the planet to dominate the Iraqi
military, garrison Iraq with a string of vast permanent bases,
build the largest embassy on the planet in Baghdad's Green Zone,
and send special-operations teams (and undoubtedly CIA teams as
well) across the Iranian border, or to insert them in Iran to
do "reconnaissance" or even to foment unrest among its
minorities. This is the definition of an imperial worldview.
Let's leave Iran now and briefly take up a couple of other matters
highlighted in "The Redirection" that certainly should
have raised the odd red flag and pushed the odd alarm button here
at home far more than his Iranian news (which did at least get
1. Iran-Contra Redux: Does it raise no eyebrows that, under the
leadership of Elliot Abrams (who in the Iran-Contra period pleaded
guilty to two counts of unlawfully withholding information from
Congress and was later pardoned), such a meeting was held? Does
no one want to confirm that this happened? Does no one want to
know who attended? Iran-Contra alumni in the Bush administration
at one time or another included former Reagan National Security
Advisor John Poindexter, Otto Reich, John Negroponte (who, Hersh
claims, recently left his post as Director of National Intelligence
in order to avoid the twenty-first century version of Iran-Contra
-- "No way. I'm not going down that road again, with the
N.S.C. [National Security Council] running operations off the
books, with no [presidential] finding."), Roger Noriega,
and Robert Gates. Did the Vice President or President sit in?
Was either of them informed about the "lessons drawn"?
Were the Vice President's right-hand men, I. Lewis Libby and/or
David Addington in any way involved? Who knows? In the Iran-Contra
affair, the Reagan administration drew together the seediest collection
of freelance arms dealers, intelligence agents, allies, and --
in the case of Ayatollah Khomeini's Iranian regime -- sworn enemies
in what can only be called "amateur hour" at the White
House. Now, it looks like the Bush administration is heading down
a similar path and, given its previous "amateur hour"
reputation in foreign policy, imagine what this is likely to mean.
2. Jihadis as Proxies: Using jihadis as American proxies in a
struggle to rollback Iran -- with the help of the Saudis -- should
have rung a few bells somewhere in American memory as another
been-there, done-that moment. In the 1980s -- on the theory that
my enemy's enemy is my friend -- the fundamentalist Catholic CIA
Director William Casey came to believe that Islamic fundamentalists
could prove tight and trustworthy allies in rolling back the Soviet
Union. In Afghanistan, as a result, the CIA, backed by the Saudis
royals, who themselves represented an extremist form of Sunni
Islam, regularly favored and funded the most extreme of the mujahedeen
ready to fight the Soviets. Who can forget the results? Today,
according to Hersh, the Saudis are reassuring key figures in the
administration that this time they have the jihadis to whom funds
are flowing under control. No problem. If you believe that, you'll
3. Congress in the Dark: Hersh claims that, with the help of Saudi
National Security Adviser Prince Bandar bin Sultan (buddy to the
Bushes and Dick Cheney's close comrade-in-arms), the people running
the black-ops programs out of Cheney's office have managed to
run circles around any possibility of Congressional oversight,
leaving the institution completely "in the dark," which
is undoubtedly exactly where Congress wanted to be for the last
six years. Is this still true? The non-reaction to the Hersh piece
isn't exactly encouraging.
To summarize, if Hersh is to be believed -- and as a major journalistic
figure for the last near-40 years he certainly deserves to be
taken seriously -- the Bush administration seems to be repeating
the worst mistakes of the Reagan administration and of the anti-Soviet
war in Afghanistan, which led inexorably to the greatest acts
of blowback in our history. Given what we already know about the
Bush administration, Americans should be up nights worrying about
what all this means now as well as down the line. For Congress,
the media, and Americans in general, this report should have been
not just a wake-up call, but a shout for an all-nighter with NoDoz.
In my childhood, one of the Philadelphia papers regularly ran
cartoon ads for itself in which some poor soul in a perilous situation
-- say, clinging to the ledge of a tall building -- would be screaming
for help, while passersby were so engrossed in the paper that
they didn't even look up. Now, we have the opposite situation.
A journalist essentially writing bloody murder in a giant media
and governmental crowd. In this case, no one in the mainstream
evidently cares -- not yet anyway -- to pay the slightest attention.
It seems that there's a crime going on and no one gives a damn.
Think Kitty Genovese on a giant scale.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's
Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"),
where this article first appeared, is the co-founder of the American
Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished:
Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters
(Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.