Late last week the New Yorker released a 6,000 word story by Seymour Hersh under the vague title, “Preparing the Battlefield”. The lead paragraph ran as follows:
“Late last year, Congress agreed to a request from President Bush to fund a major escalation of covert operations against Iran, according to current and former military, intelligence, and congressional sources. These operations, for which the President sought up to four hundred million dollars, were described in a Presidential Finding signed by Bush, and are designed to destabilize the country’s religious leadership. The covert activities involve support of the minority Ahwazi Arab and Baluchi groups and other dissident organizations. They also include gathering intelligence about Iran’s suspected nuclear-weapons program.”
Beyond the assertion in the second paragraph that secret ops against Iran by US military and CIA are being “significantly expanded”, that was about it so far as hot news was concerned. There’s actually incredibly little detail in the 6,000 words about the actual Finding. Most of the rest of Hersh’s essay led the reader in discursive fashion through comical interludes of zero political consequence, fairly stale news, (such as the scale of differences between the White House and Admiral Fallon) and lengthy cites from Col. Sam Gardiner about the internal political situation in Iran. As traditional in Hersh’s pieces, there was a quote from Robert Baer, a former C.I.A. officer.
The comical interludes consisted of quotations, relayed with apparent seriousness by Hersh, from Democrats tying to rationalize the fact that the leaders of their party, now in a majority in Congress, had meekly signed on to Bush’s request for up to $400 million in secret funding.
Here’s a sample of whining and mumbling from Rep David Obey: “I suspect there’s something going on, but I don’t know what to believe. Cheney has always wanted to go after Iran, and if he had more time he’d find a way to do it. We still don’t get enough information from the agencies, and I have very little confidence that they give us information on the edge.”
And here’s another from an unnamed Democratic whiner: “A member of the House Appropriations Committee acknowledged that, even with a Democratic victory in November, ‘it will take another year before we get the intelligence activities under control.’ He went on, ‘We control the money and they can’t do anything without the money. Money is what it’s all about. But I’m very leery of this Administration.’ He added, ‘This Administration has been so secretive.’”
As Hersh’s hodge-podge narrative got play over the weekend, CounterPunchers read his supposed disclosures with an impatient and knowing sigh. They, after all, had learned of the Finding back on May 2, when Andrew Cockburn disclosed its contents here, with a good deal more pep and hard information, under the headlines, “Democrats Okay Funds for Covert Ops SECRET BUSH “FINDING” WIDENS WAR ON IRAN”.
Here the first 256 words of Andrew Cockburn’s CounterPunch exclusive, a brisk narrative against Hersh’s 6,000-word boustrophedonic plod, but – as is instantly apparent – far more informative:
Six weeks ago, President Bush signed a secret finding authorizing a covert offensive against the Iranian regime that, according to those familiar with its contents, “unprecedented in its scope.” Bush’s secret directive covers actions across a huge geographic area – from Lebanon to Afghanistan – but is also far more sweeping in the type of actions permitted under its guidelines – up to and including the assassination of targeted officials. This widened scope clears the way, for example, for full support for the military arm of Mujahedin-e Khalq, the cultish Iranian opposition group, despite its enduring position on the State Department’s list of terrorist groups.
Similarly, covert funds can now flow without restriction to Jundullah, or “army of god,” the militant Sunni group in Iranian Baluchistan – just across the Afghan border — whose leader was featured not long ago on Dan Rather Reports cutting his brother in law’s throat. Other elements that will benefit from U.S. largesse and advice include Iranian Kurdish nationalists, as well the Ahwazi arabs of south west Iran. Further afield, operations against Iran’s Hezbollah allies in Lebanon will be stepped up, along with efforts to destabilize the Syrian regime. All this costs money, which in turn must be authorized by Congress, or at least a by few witting members of the intelligence committees. That has not proved a problem. An initial outlay of $300 million to finance implementation of the finding has been swiftly approved with bipartisan support, apparently regardless of the unpopularity of the current war and the perilous condition of the U.S. economy.
There are interesting differences between Andrew Cockburn and Hersh’s stories, not least on the matter of assassinations. CounterPunch’s story, in the lead, cites “assassination of targeted [Iranian] officials”, as part of the purview of the Finding. More than 1,100 words into his story Hersh gestures tactfully to “potential defensive lethal action by U.S. operatives in Iran”. In other words, if President Ahmadinejad suddenly detected a CIA operative about to stab him and drew out his revolver, the operative would be entitled, in self defense, to kill Ahmadinejad first. That’s the way the Agency is. Punctilious to a fault.
Actually, it’s at this point, after the hokum about “potential defensive legal action” that Hersh detonates a real bombshell. He admits in print that someone got the story before him, something he disdained to do in the case of My Lai, initially excavated with incredible courage by the late Ron Ridenhour. Nor, in the case of Abu Ghraib has Hersh been keen to correct admiring interviewers and remind them that this was a scoop of CBS News. But in this New Yorker he writes: “(In early May, the journalist Andrew Cockburn published elements of the Finding in Counterpunch, a newsletter and online magazine.)”
He probably felt he had to. Hersh had called Andrew Cockburn’s home phone in Washington DC in early June, clearly peeved to have discovered that the Finding had been described in detail on May 2 in CounterPunch. (By then it was not exactly a closely guarded secret, except to the traditional, near-dead U.S. press. At the time Hersh called, just under a million readers around the world had clicked directly onto the story on our site.) We would not go so far as to surmise that Hersh learned of the Finding from our story. But we do infer that Hersh’s stated informant on what was in the Finding, referred to by Hersh three times as “a former senior intelligence official”, as “the person familiar with the Finding” and as “the former senior intelligence official” knew less than what Andrew Cockburn’s source told him and thus what CounterPunch readers learned in timely fashion, and had their knowledge further enhanced by Andrew Cockburn’s follow-up story on May 30, “Rough Sledding for Bush’s Covert Iran Finding” which disclosed, with pertinent detail, something readers of the New Yorker will not have learned, that “So far, according to former officials with knowledge of the finding, the results have been in line with most other U.S. initiatives in the region, i.e. the strengthening of Iran.”
ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at email@example.com