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Seymour Hersh on Iran's nuclear capability, the Arab uprisings and Obama's isolation

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh is back in the news this week with another explosive article that is ruffling some feathers at the White House. During the Bush administration years, Hersh was widely criticized by White House officials for his exposés on the torture at Abu Ghraib, secret U.S. operations overseas, and U.S. policy in Iran. Now it is the Obama White House upset with an article from Hersh.

Earlier this week, The New Yorker magazine published his latest investigation titled "Iran and the Bomb: How Real is the Threat?" Hersh writes, quote, "There is a large body of evidence, however, including some of America’s most highly classified intelligence assessments, suggesting that the United States could be in danger of repeating a mistake similar to the one made with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq eight years ago—allowing anxieties about the policies of a tyrannical regime to distort our estimations of the state’s military capacities and intentions."

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh reveals that despite using Iranian informants and cutting-edge surveillance technology, U.S. officials have been unable to find decisive evidence that Iran has been moving enriched uranium to an underground weapon-making center.

Hersh quotes Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, saying he has not seen, quote, "a shred of evidence" that Iran was—has been weaponizing, in terms of "building nuclear-weapons facilities and using enriched materials."

The Obama White House, meanwhile, has repeatedly cited Iran’s nuclear program as a threat to the world. President Obama raised the issue last month during his speech before AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

... AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your sources, Sy Hersh.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Thanks a lot, Amy. Look, there’s been two very secret studies done, called National Intelligence Estimates, NIEs, and these are the most sort of sacrosanct internal studies done by the community. Almost all the time they’re private. There are studies going on, NIEs going on all the time—the situation now in Ecuador, for example, other issues. Venezuela is always looked at. The situation in the war, war-peace stuff, is constantly being looked at by groups of people in the intelligence community. And these documents are promulgated without anybody knowing it.

For some reason, in 2007 there was an NIE put out about the Iranian nuclear weapons program, and the White House wanted a summary made. And I think at that point 16 intelligence agencies were involved in the final conclusions. And internally, the guys running it, to their credit, voted 16 to nothing to say what they said, which is that, in a summary put out about the NIE—as I say, unprecedented summary—saying there’s no evidence they had done any weaponization since 2003.

And there’s a new study that was just done. It was published in February of this year. And it—we knew about it, but nobody has actually—you’re getting me in a tricky area, but I can just say, people that have worked on the study and have read the study will attest—have attested that it doesn’t take us any further. There’s no further evidence of any weaponization.

And what’s even more important that I write is that this, the latest study, was actually supposed to be promulgated—is the word they use in the community—last fall, and it was delayed because the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon intelligence agency, had an assessment that was—knocked everybody’s socks off. Their assessment was, the only reason Iran even looked at weaponization—and we’re not talking about building anything, we’re talking about doing studies, paper studies—was because they were frightened of Iraq. They had had an eight-year war, as many in your audience will remember, between 1980 and 1988, with Iraq, a terrible, brutal war. And when they—their worry was, in the early—in the 2001, 2002 period, that if Iraq went nuclear, they might need some deterrent. So what they even looked at, the papers they did, was aimed not at us or the Israelis, but aimed at the Iraqis. That didn’t get into the final judgment, but it affected the debate in a pretty positive way.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Sy Hersh, one of the things you say in your article is that these latest intelligence assessments—that a lot of the career intelligence people in the government now have pushed back a lot more against political pressure, after the debacle with Iraq and the pressure on the intelligence community to skew intelligence assessments about weapons of mass destruction, that now the career people are a lot more willing to buck any political pressure.

SEYMOUR HERSH: You know, it really depends on who’s running the agency. The Defense Department, the DIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, has a career general named Burgess who’s been in a lot of tough places. You know, he was in the Joint Special Operations Command. And he really has, all I can say is—again, I’m getting into—the people who work for him will tell you that they’re no longer afraid to go up against the established judgment. And so, what we really have been happening, in an amazing way—and I have to say this about the American government because I’m always very critical—but we do have an enormous number of people in the government and the intelligence community who don’t take—who take an oath of office to the Constitution, and not to the general who’s in charge of them or to the president. And we’re seeing more and more of that kind of attitude coming out inside. I can’t tell you why, but there’s more people really—there’s a lot more concern about where we are in the world right now. And the last decade has been a pretty horrible one for the United States, and I think the future is very, very sort of frightening, too, in terms of what’s been going on in the Middle East, etc. So there’s more integrity in the process. It doesn’t mean the White House likes it.

... JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Sy, I wanted to ask you—you mentioned earlier the uprisings in the Arab world, and I wanted to ask you about the impact of those uprisings both on the theocracy in Iran and also on Israel’s attempts to constantly encircle Iran or portray it as the source of danger to the rest of the world and to the region.

... SEYMOUR HERSH: .... you had something amazing going on. And what you have now—and that of course spread. That spread throughout the Gulf regions. And what you have now is a very, very—it’s sort of unremarked upon by the press here in America—you have a counterrevolution going on, fueled largely by the Saudis and their panic. You see the implication of that in Bahrain, where the unbelievable things are happening to the Shiites, the minority Shiites there. They may be a majority in terms of population, but certainly a minority in terms of power. And you have that regime brutalizing its people in a way that’s beyond, I would argue, anything going on elsewhere, including in Syria. As bad as it is in Syria, it’s much worse in Bahrain. And the United States, of course, for a lot of reasons, is ignoring that.

You have the Gulf states in a state of sort of controlled panic now. They’re all sort of locally owned oil combines, owned by various one-time Bedouin—you know, Bedouin desert livers, now suddenly owners of huge complexes of oil billionaires, all of them, and they want to stay in power in the Gulf—Oman, even Qatar. You can see a lot of problems with Al Jazeera’s coverage, particularly of Bahrain. Al Jazeera, for example, is always calling me, didn’t call me for this story because everybody wants to point fingers at Iran. The United States has essentially equated Iran’s upset and encouragement of some of the—encouragement of the stuff going on with Bahrain as—for the United States, this is as much of a sin as the Al Khalifa family beating the hell out of everybody and doing worse than that—particularly doctors and nurses—in Bahrain.

... So you have the American response to—you have this GCC, the Gulf Cooperation Community or Committee. It’s probably the only defense organization in the world that’s designed for all the countries getting together to ward against internal dissent, not external threat, but internal threats. And so, we have this amazing institution. Morocco just joined the GCC. So, this is going on before our eyes, and we’re not paying enough attention to it.

And what we do is we focus on Iran as the bad guy: Iran is responsible, they’re shifting gear to the Syrians to help the Syrian Mukhabarat control its society, as if the Baathist Party in Syria needs outside help in doing that. They’re pretty good at it. We’ve made Iran into a bogeyman. And my own guess is, the reason we’re so intent on the sanctions and keeping them going, when there’s no evidence of any weaponization, there’s no real threat at all—even the Israelis—I was in Israel last in June—rather, in April, two months ago now. And I can’t—they have crazy, strange rules, ground rules, on what you can report. But I can tell you right now, the Israelis understand, the more sophisticated ones and serious people in the intelligence community there, they understand that that Iran doesn’t have a bomb now. If it decides to get one and they get a bomb, they’re not going to throw it against Tel Aviv, because they know that’s annihilation. They understand that, despite the fact they say different things and they raise the threat. So we’re making the Iranians sort of the people responsible for what’s going on, in terms of the revolutions, and we’re really on the wrong side of history on that, the United States.

It’s really the Saudis we should be looking at quite a bit. And when you get to that question, you then say, here are the Saudis, who obviously—we know from reports and from everything I’ve been told—are very angry at us. They feel that our support for Mubarak undercut them. You know, they like to keep rigid control over a population that includes, certainly in Saudi Arabia, many Shiites who work the oil fields. And so, you have the Saudis in full panic, refusing—in anger at us, refusing to increase the oil output, so the price of oil stays—gasoline is $4 or more a gallon. And then, here we have a president whose reelection is going to depend not on killing Osama bin Laden—hooray, he did it—but more on what the price of gasoline is going to be next year. And we have the Saudis stiffing us.

And here you have Iran, which is the second-largest producer of natural gas in the world, also has a lot of oil—its fields are diminishing, but it’s got a lot of stuff. The sanctions aren’t working. The Iranians are selling stuff to India, to China, Pakistan. They’re doing a lot of business. You think—I mean, dumb and dumber. You think maybe we would start doing what a lot of people in the article I published—Tom Pickering, the former secretary—under secretary of state, a longtime ambassador, very serious guy, is among those who’s been doing—involved in secret contacts with the Iranians and has been telling us for years, he and his group, "Get off this nuclear business. There’s a lot of other issues you could deal with the Iranians. They want to be respected. You could really get some progress," and maybe even getting to the point where we can—we don’t have to—we’re not interested in changing the regime there. That’s impossible. We do know that. Unlike Bush and Cheney, Obama doesn’t want to. Maybe we can get to the point where you can start getting some of the energy that they have to produce. Instead, we’re trying to keep them from the market. It just doesn’t make sense. And sanctions, you know, go ask Castro how well they work. We’ve been sanctioning Cuba, what, since 1960, ’61, ’62, and, you know—and as far as I know, Cuba is still there, and so is Castro.

... AMY GOODMAN:—the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Seymour Hersh. Sy, we haven’t talked to you in a while. Your assessment of President Obama’s war in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

SEYMOUR HERSH: A disaster. Stupid. I do think that the White House really wanted the bin Laden raid, about which I’ve been doing a lot of work. There’s always—things are always more interesting than they seem. I’m not suggesting he wasn’t killed or anything like that, but just more interesting. And I think the getting of bin Laden will give Obama the freedom to make a serious cut in this war in Afghanistan that everybody on the inside—everybody on the inside, believe me—I don’t know about Petraeus, General Petraeus, who for some reason is going to the CIA, just as for some reason Panetta, who doesn’t really know much about the Pentagon is going to the Pentagon. I don’t quite understand what they’re doing.

But this is a war that has nothing to do with American national security. And the obvious way out is to actually find a way to start talking to Mullah Omar. Instead, we keep on isolating him. And we’re driving Pakistan crazy with this war. We’re increasing the jihadism there. We’re increasing the terrorism there. We’re sticking it to the Paks in very direct ways. It’s a totally counterproductive system. We have our guys going out doing night raids. We always call them NATO, and the press goes along with calling them NATO. But our Joint Special Operations Command is still going out. I don’t fault the guys doing it. Let me make it clear, they’re very, very competent guys. They’re under orders, and they do what they do. They just do it very well. But there’s no way you’re going to make strikes at night and not kill an awful lot of noncombatants—"collateral damage," they call it. And it’s just—we’re hated. We’re outsiders. We don’t have to be doing the bombs to be hated by the Pashtun. That’s been the society all along. The Pakistanis are in terrible fear of what’s going to happen in Afghanistan. They always see Afghanistan as bulwark against India. They’re afraid of our relationship with India.

And I’ll tell you the biggest problem he has, as awful as those things are, as counterproductive, and as much as he’s following, oh, yes, Bush and Cheney in those policies—and I think the President—I’ll be writing about this—I think he was really sandbagged by the Pentagon after he got into office, when he was new and innocent. And I still think—I think right now—I would almost use the word "cult" to describe what’s going on in the White House. Everything is political. He’s isolated. Very good people say they’ve never seen a president this isolated, in terms of being unable to get to him with different opinions, etc. So here’s really captive of a few people there. I know this may sound strange, but I know what I’m talking about. You can’t get to the guy ...

... And so, here we have this very bright guy continuing insane policies that are counterproductive, do nothing for the United States, and meanwhile the real crisis is going to be about Iraq, because, whatever you’re hearing, Iraq is going bad. Sunnis are killing Shia. It’s sectarian war. And the big question is going to be whether we pull out or not. And there’s going to be a lot of pressure to keep them—we’ve got 40,000 or 50,000 Americans there—to keep them there. ... there’s going to be a holy hell there. It’s going to be probably the biggest problem the President has next year, along with gas, along with the crazy Republicans that are running against him. He’s going to—and along with Afghan and along with Iran, it’s going to be Iraq. We’re going to be back looking at Iraq, as that country goes berserk.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Sy Hersh, I want to—

SEYMOUR HERSH: That’s very cheerful. I’m really Mr. Happy News, huh?

... JUAN GONZALEZ: ... do you think that the trying of Mubarak has had repercussions throughout the rest of the region, with all these other dictators who say, "Well, I better fight to the end, because if not, I will end up like Mubarak, will be immediately put on trial by my people"?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, you know, I can’t say that about the trial, because I haven’t actually talked to anybody about whether the trial makes a difference. But before that, I would say what you’re saying is absolutely right. The moment the United States—the waffling that the President did—if you remember, he was with the kids, he was against the kids, and we had the Secretary of State saying the same thing, with, against. There’s no question that the fear—there’s an enormous fear in the Arab world, in the Gulf, in the Gulf region. And right now they’re very angry at us. They’re terrified of Iran. And they’re very worried about internal security.

They’re worried about—what’s going on in Bahrain is, I’m telling you, it’s a sensationally underreported story. The brutality there is beyond—it’s shocking. And again, the Saudis are directly involved, sort of with our OK. Again, if you don’t think Saudi Arabia has enormous control over Saleh in Yemen, you’re not paying attention.

... meanwhile, if you look at it, the single biggest blow against al-Qaeda, I would argue—bin Laden, of course, was great, wonderful, I’m glad he’s gone and all that stuff—but the other big blow was the Arab Spring, because once you lose the sense of humiliation among the Arab population and the sense of fear—you’re seeing that in Syria right now, although that’s also complicated, because the Saudis are deeply involved in trying to get rid of—or certainly make it more difficult for Bandar—for Bashar Assad to exist. That’s a more complicated position. But once the fear is gone, al-Qaeda is gone.

So, the one thing we had going for ourselves, in terms of getting rid of these terrorists who prey on the frustrations of the Arab young, wow, instead, we’re going the wrong way. And it’s a horrible mistake. It’s happening right in front of us. It’s not being seen, but it’s right there to be seen. And it’s just this country, this president—traditionally, we’ve been unable to pull the trigger on the Saudis. Even now, when confronted with heinous activity, we still can’t pull the trigger on the Saudis, because of the need for oil. And again, this is a country, Saudi Arabia, that is not lifting—not agreeing to lift two or three more billion barrels a day. They’re at eight-and-a-half billion. We’d love them to go to 11, 10-and-a-half and 11. That would take pressure off the price. And it’s politically useful for the President not to—for the President to have it happen. It’s not going to happen.

So, Arab Spring is being undercut enormously. There’s still some hope in Egypt, because the kids are so strong, the movement there is so strong. But I can tell you, Suleiman, the leader of the intelligence service, is still there. I think an awful lot—I would look at Libya as part coming out of Arab Spring. An awful lot of it comes out of Libyan intervention. There’s been a longstanding American CIA role and opposition to Gaddafi. And one of the things Gaddafi drove everybody crazy with, just to show you how silly the world is, every oil deal he wanted 20 percent on the top of. And so, there was a lot of corporate anger at him, too. He was getting 20 percent kickback. Even Saddam, in the heyday, only wanted 10 percent. It all comes down sometimes to money. ...

Creative Commons License The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to "democracynow.org". Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact [Democracy Now].

Editorial Notes: Trust Sy Hersh to give a completely different view of US foreign policy than we get from the mainstream media. Complete transcript, audio and video at original article. -BA

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