Investigative Reporter Seymour Hersh: US Indirectly Funding Al-Qaeda Linked Sunni Groups in Move to Counter Iran
Wednesday, February 28th, 2007http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=07/02/28/150251
Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh joins us to talk about his explosive new article in the New Yorker Magazine. Hersh reports that John Negroponte’s decision to resign as National Intelligence Director was made in part because of the Bush administration’s covert actions including the indirect funding of radical Sunni groups - some with ties to al-Qaeda - to counter Shiite groups backed by Iran. Hersh also reports the Pentagon has established a special planning group to plan a bombing attack on Iran and U.S. military and special-operations teams have already crossed the border into Iran in pursuit of Iranian operatives. [includes rush transcript - partial]
John Negroponte was sworn in to his new position as Deputy Secretary of State on Tuesday at a ceremony attended by President Bush. Negroponte resigned from his post as National Intelligence Director in early January. His career includes stints as Ambassador to Iraq after the US invasion and ambassador to Honduras, where he was accused of overseeing the arming of Nicaraguan rebels during the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s.
In an explosive new article, the New Yorker Magazine reports that Negroponte’s decision to resign as National Intelligence Director was made in part because of the Bush administration’s covert actions in the Middle East, which so closely echo Iran-Contra. According to investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, the Bush administration, with Saudi Arabia, is secretly funding radical Sunni groups - some with ties to al-Qaeda - to counter Shiite groups backed by Iran. Moreover, this is being done without any Congressional authority or oversight.
Hersh also reports the Pentagon has established a special planning group within the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to plan a bombing attack on Iran. The new panel has been charged with developing a plan that could be implemented within 24 hours of getting the go-ahead from President Bush. Hersh also reveals that U.S. military and special-operations teams have already crossed the border into Iran in pursuit of Iranian operatives. Seymour Hersh joins me now from Washington DC.
- Seymour Hersh. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the New Yorker magazine.
AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The New Yorker magazine, joining us now from Washington, D.C. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Sy Hersh.
SEYMOUR HERSH: Good morning.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s nice to have you back from Egypt.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what you have found. Start off with John Negroponte.
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, I did not talk to him. He did not deny the story. He simply refused to comment when The New Yorker sent a series of questions to his office at the State Department. Essentially, it was simply that there were a couple of reasons that he wanted out of the job, the job that McConnell -- you just heard in your opening -- took after him. One was that he didn't get along with Cheney very well, because he was considered to be too much of a stickler, or “legalistic” was another term people used, in terms of agreeing with some of the covert and clandestine operations by the Pentagon. As many now know, the Pentagon has been running operations without any congressional oversight for years -- this has been written about -- on the basis that they are all part of the war, preparing the battlefield, having to do with military affairs, not intelligence, and therefore, since they were not intelligence, there was no reason to abide by legislation reporting covert intelligence operations. They were simply military activities that the President could authorize without Congress. And he disagreed with that. He disagreed. I guess you could say Negroponte found some of these operations to be risky and also perhaps illegal. But the one that really upset him the most was the covert operations that we’re doing in various places in the Middle East, targeted against the Iranians and also the Shia with funds used in some part by Bandar.
And, Amy, I should say one thing to correct what you said in the opening, just to adjust it. It’s not as if we’re ever going to find any evidence that American money went to any Sunni terrorist jihadist groups in Lebanon, which I allege. There is no direct connection. What there is is a flood of American money, none of it approved by Congress, into the government of Lebanon, which is Sunni. The government of Prime Minister Siniora. And they, in turn, funnel it into various -- at least three different Sunni jihadist groups.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, explain -- first of all, you talked about Prince Bandar, this, the former ambassador to the United States.
SEYMOUR HERSH: Twenty-two years here, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Known as “Bandar Bush.”
SEYMOUR HERSH: Not by me.
AMY GOODMAN: So he was the ambassador who sat with President Bush a few days after the 9/11 attacks, as they smoked cigars at the White House.
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, he’s very close to Cheney. He was ambassador here for twenty-two years. He left a few years ago, replaced by a man named Prince Turkey, who’s a very eminent member of the royal family, was head of intelligence for the Saudi government, also ambassador to London. And Turkey came, and Turkey quit after less than two years on the job, because Bandar had a backdoor or private relationship with too many people in the administration. He was seeing Cheney without telling Turkey. You know, he was arranging meetings. So Bandar has a one-on-one relationship, I assume, with the President -- I can say firsthand with Cheney -- and also very close to certain members of people inside the White House, including Elliott Abrams, the former -- who’s now a -- I think he’s the senior advisor on the Middle East for the National Security Council and a Deputy National Security Advisor to the President.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what exactly is the role of Prince Bandar, who’s now no longer ambassador, back in Saudi Arabia?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, you know, “exactly,” I don't know. We’re talking about a world that’s very murky and about which nobody wants to talk officially, unofficially even, except for a few people. In other words, I can't go to the Saudi Arabian government and say, “Give me an explanation of what’s going on.” That’s just -- you know, forget it. We try.
Bandar left here, and everybody thought his career was over, including -- he did, too. And he ended up being named National Security Advisor. And lo and behold, in the last three or four months he has emerged as a major player for the United States. He’s met with the Israelis. What’s happened very simply is the president decided some time in the last three or four months, perhaps earlier, but he’s put it into effect in the last three or four months, he has decided to work with the British, the UK, and the Israelis, and join up -- all three of those countries will join up with what we call the moderate Sunni governments -- that is, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- all very strongly Sunni, and those six countries would work together against the Shia and against Iran collectively.
And in Lebanon, for example, there is a longstanding political -- it’s been going on for months -- so really a political standoff between the Siniora government, the Sunni Siniora government, which supports us and we support, and a coalition headed by Hezbollah, the Shia group that we always call a terrorist group, that was a terrorist group but is now working pretty much in the last six or seven years domestically and politically inside Lebanon with still great capacity.
We’re also working against the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria. He’s not a Sunni, he’s an Alawite, which is also a minority sect that the Sunni world -- you know, in the Sunni world, for the Sunni jihadists, if you’re not a Sunni and you don't support their particular view, political view of the Koran, you’re an infidel, you’re expendable. And as an Alawite, Bashar Assad is, too. And also, of course, everybody has also targeted Iran. So there’s been -- the article is called “The Redirection.” That’s what they call it in the White House. There’s been a sort of a massive shift of attention away from Iraq towards Iran, towards stopping Hezbollah in Lebanon and towards doing something about Assad.
AMY GOODMAN: So who is getting the money in Lebanon right now?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, it’s money that’s flowing in, covert money. A lot of it came when -- all of this started in Lebanon after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, whose assassination took place, I think, two years ago this month in February of ’05. Immediately, we, the United States and our allies, blamed Syria. There’s no empirical evidence Syria did it. That seems to be the prevailing view, but there’s just no evidence. There’s an awful lot of political assassinations in Lebanon. There’s twenty or so in the last ten years. It’s just that’s one aspect. And what happened is the Sunni government there became our big ally, and we did everything we could to support it. We flooded -- if somebody -- I think we called it the Cedar Revolution. And it was a sense of -- the Sunni government in opposition to Nasrallah, who we view as a major terrorist threat.
And I think I have to tell you, digress a second to say that I don't know a thing about Bush. I know something about what Cheney thinks, and that is in terms of having some people with firsthand access. And Cheney does believe that -- the core belief of Cheney is that Iran is going to get a bomb, no matter what the intelligence is. As you know, there’s not much intelligence supporting the fact that it has a bomb. Iran’s going to get a bomb, and once it gets a bomb, its agent, its brown shirt -- and that’s the phrase they use at least once or twice inside the White House -- its brown shirts will be Hezbollah. And they have a capacity in America. They have underground facilities, cells here, and when Iran gets the bomb, they will give it to Hezbollah to distribute it, and Washington and New York will be vulnerable. In other words, Cheney sees what’s going on now as a threat to the United States directly. He doesn't view this as simply something that’s happening in Western Europe or the Middle East. He is protecting America by taking a preemptive, a proactive action right now.
And so, in Lebanon, once Hariri fell and there was a crisis there, we immediately moved to support any group that was against Nasrallah and Hezbollah. And so, we’ve poured a lot of money, illicit money. It was not authorized by Congress. Money went pouring in there. Former retired CIA guys were put in there. Retired people went in there, other agencies. The funds came, nobody is quite sure where. There’s a lot of pools of black money around, a lot of money. Undoubtedly, some was, I’m told, came from Iraq. That is, as you know, there were hearings the other week that showed $9 billion in Iraqi oil money mysteriously disappeared and was unaccounted for. Some of that money was washed around. There was also a lot of money found after Saddam fell. We found several caches of huge amounts, you know, hundreds of millions, and billions of dollars in some cases, of cash. We also found money in various ministries. There’s no, really, accountability, and a lot of it could have ended up in black pools. It’s just not clear where the money came from, and it’s not supposed to be clear. What you do is you wash the money in. You get it to certain people. The government of Lebanon underwrites its internal security people.
And what we do know is, in the last few years, or less than that, the last year or so, three jihadist groups, three Sunni Salafi or Wahhabi -- these are the religious sects out of Saudi Arabia, and don’t forget, fifteen of the nineteen guys who went into the building in New York, the two towers, were Saudis and from the extreme religious -- they were jihadists from -- either Salafis or Wahhabis. And we know that the groups now -- there are three groups, similar in character -- according to reports I’ve read, some of the people in these groups were trained in Afghanistan, closely associated with al-Qaeda, not everybody. It’s a loose network. What you have around the world is these terror groups operating independently of Osama bin Laden, although it’s not clear they don’t have some ways of communicating. Through the web or what, we’re not sure. But these three groups, two years ago, we would have done everything we could in the United States to arrest them and sent them to Gitmo, Guantanamo, or some other place. Instead, we’re throwing money into the country, into the government, into the internal security apparatus, and the internal security facilities or mechanisms inside Lebanon are underwriting these groups. They, as soon as one group came across the border from Syria, were immediately giving material, a place to live, arms, and resupplied. There are three such groups that are operating.
And why are they there? Because in case things go bad in Lebanon and we end up in a civil war between Hezbollah and its partners in the coalition and the Sunni government, this is a very tough bunch of guys that can handle, we think, the tough guys inside Hezbollah. It’s sort of a matching game. And so, in effect, you sleep with the -- you know, the enemy of your enemy is your friend.
Bandar, as I wrote in this article, Bandar has assured us that the Salafi groups in Lebanon are OK. Don't worry about them. I think somebody said -- described it to me, he said at one point, “I’m a Wahhabi.” He’s a member of that austere religious sect, himself, in Saudi Arabia. “I can go and pray and then come back from the mosque and sit down, have a business meeting and have a drink.” And he said these groups in Lebanon, he told us, are targeted, not at America necessarily, they’re targeted at Iran, at Hezbollah, at Shias elsewhere, at Syria. That’s their prime target, and they’re OK. I quote others, including senior people from Saudi Arabia, saying this is really nutty, because these people are not controllable. So that’s where we are in that situation. It’s complicated. It’s very cynical, in a way. And what you have is a major sort of redirection. I had one military friend describe it as failing forward, talking about the failures in Iraq driving this policy. And you got it, kid.
AMY GOODMAN: And the US is also funding, supporting, training the Sunni police in Iraq -- rather, the Shia police.
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well -- the Shia police, no. Here’s the wonderful irony of it, of course, is that after 9/11, after we invaded Iraq, the neoconservatives in Washington wanted nothing to do with the Baathist party -- that’s Saddam’s party, most of them were Sunnis -- disbanded the Baathist party, disbanded the military -- a lot of Sunnis, a lot of Shia in the military, too, of course -- and threw in our weight with the Shia.
Within months, the American intelligence community was raising a lot of questions internally. I was talking to people about this by the late spring of ’03. They were trying to tell the White House: you guys are making a big mistake, because Iran is the big winner of this war, particularly when we began to see signs of the insurgency, and the Shia are going to support Iran. The Shia are going to go with the Shia of Iran over you.
And the neocon mantra -- there had been a war between Iran and Iraq for eight years during the 1980s, a very, very devastating war, thousands killed in any one set-piece battle. They would just rush each other. And the assumption of the neoconservatives was that the Iraqi Shiites, having fought the Iranian Shiites for so long and so brutally, would be loyal to Iraq.
Well, it turned out the Shia tie, particularly when the occupation began and the American troops began, like all occupiers, became hated, I don’t think there was much we could do. We certainly --- our activities and the bombing and the violence didn't help, but no matter how we behave, occupiers historically are always hated. And so, once that happened, and we became -- the Americans became essentially the 200-octane fuel that drove the resistance, once that began, the Shiite immediately began to work with the Iranians much more. And all of this was ignored by the White House for years, because it didn't fit in with their preconceptions.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Seymour Hersh, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The New Yorker magazine. Don't go away. When we come back from our break, we’re going to ask him about this planning group within the Joint Chiefs of Staff that is planning to attack Iran. And, he says, once it gets the word, it could happen within twenty-four hours. Stay with us.