Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Sunday, January 23, 2005
 
Spies, Iran, Leaking, and Oversight

Climateboy, Kevin Drum, and many others are loudly discussing Seymour Hersh's latest offering in the January 24/31 issue of the New Yorker.

It's pretty classic Hersh. Titanic journalist with the best black book in the business gets a number of anonymous sources to reveal some aspect of American military practice that the government would rather prefer be kept secret, and to which the public might rather object. At this point the journalist is so titanic and this is such a standard event that the public outcry is as likely to be about the article itself as it is about the contents.

Except I'm not sure what public outcry is exactly, anymore. More on that later. Building on Drum's summary, here are the main points as I see them:

1) Apparently, we have a covert military presence in Iran, probably fielded from the eastern border with Afghanistan, but potentially fielded from the western border with Iraq. This covert military presence is currently doing reconnaissance, but it may be preparing for covert operations against Iranian targets, such as nuclear energy and weaponry facilities. This aspect is the first focus of the BBC summary of the article noted by Climateboy.

2) These covert operations are somehow new in character from previous operations--they are not part of the CIA, and apparently are not even in coordination with the regional Military commander-in-chiefs. Instead they are somehow under the direct control of Secretary Rumsfeld, and are able to work with much greater freedom from previously mandated restrictions engineered around the CIA, and with much greater freedom from congressional oversight. As far as I can tell, this morning's Washington Post leading article is a follow up on Hersh's story, and the Post's Barton Gellman has documents and interviews describing the creation of a Strategic Support Branch. "A recurring phrase in internal Pentagon documents is the requirement for a human intelligence branch "directly responsive to tasking from SecDef," or Rumsfeld. . .Under Title 50, all departments of the executive branch are obliged to keep Congress "fully and currently informed of all intelligence activities." The law exempts "traditional . . . military activities" and their "routine support." Advisers said Rumsfeld, after requesting a fresh legal review by the Pentagon's general counsel, interprets "traditional" and "routine" more expansively than his predecessors. "

3) The changing nature of these operations in Iran--the kind of work they're doing and the kind of plans they're making--are all indicative that a deeply aggressive Iran policy is being implemented by this administration. The administration seems unwilling to help out the Europeans in their negotiations with Iran. Writes Hersh: "The government consultant told me that the hawks in the Pentagon, in private discussions, have been urging a limited attack on Iran because they believe it could lead to a toppling of the religious leadership." I can believe that this attitude has some currency in the Pentagon. When we visited the Pentagon last spring a "senior administration official" who addressed my class strongly implied that Westerners hoping for systemic change in Iran (via Khatami) are naive, and that the real possibility of change will come from a new revolution--one that the United States might help precipitate. This is also the secondary focus of the BBC summary.

4) In various ways these covert operations revolve around cooperating with other countries whose agendas are not necessarilty strongly aligned with ours (in this case Pakistan&Israel--who knew we'd have those two in the same breath!) and attempting to use "indigenous" agents to actually do some of the dirty work. In exchange for not humiliating A.Q. Khan we are apparently getting cooperation from Pakistan's military. Willing to help us possibly take out Iranian nuclear sites might be some eager and able Israeli commandos. The question is who is doing exactly what. Hersh quotes his main source, a "former high-level intelligence official":
"Do you remember the right-wing execution squads in El Salvador?" the former high-level intelligence official asked me, referring to the military-led gangs that committed atrocities in the early nineteen-eighties. We founded them and we financed then," he said."The objective now is to recruit locals in any area we want. And we aren't going to tell Congress about it."
In the Washington Post, Gellman writes, "A recent Pentagon memo states that recruited agents may include "notorious figures" whose links to the U.S. government would be embarrassing if disclosed."

5) The Meta-Issue: why is it that all of our really trenchant national security discussions have to be built on things like Seymour Hersh's anonymous black book? What are the ethics of leaking? What does it mean to have a public outcry? We have to keep secrets from our enemies. But it's quite possible the Iranians know more about these operations than we do. At some level such big military secrets are based on the idea that the public (the Republic!) doesn't know what's good for it. At some technical level that's true. The Republic as a whole is not capable of building and protecting a nuclear bomb. But at a policy level that violates the very ideal of the Republic, the very ideal that all these cloaks and daggers are ostensibly trying to defend. The thing that worries me about all this is not so much that these covert operations are happening--thought that might be worrisome--but that they are happening with almost no oversight--and with a strongly articulated contempt for oversight.

Check out Hersh's article and the Washington Post article if you can. I'll try to share my reflections and linkage findings soon.
 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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113th Street
american footprints(Nadezhda & Praktike)
ANNA's Diary
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Intel Dump: Phillip Carter et al
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Maenad (Nori Heikkinen)
Scott McCloud
Mind Without Borders
Electrolite: Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden
Corey Pein
Political Animal(Kevin Drum, formerly Calpundit)
Kevin G. Powell
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Reneebop
Rhinocrisy
Scott Rosenberg(Salon.com)
Rox Populi
Felix(&Rhian)Salmon
samVaad
Nick Schager
Idea Spout: Daniel Sanchez
Sepia Mutiny
Amardeep Singh
Snarkmarket (Robin Sloan & Matt Thompson)
South-East Asian Earthquake and Tsunami Blog
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Steprous (Bear)
Robert Stribley
Subjunctive.net:klog
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To The Teeth
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Venk@
Manish Vij
Vinod's Blog
War and Piece
Nollind Whachell
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Matthew Yglesias:Old
Yglesias:Tpmcafe
Zoo Station:Reuben Abraham
Ethan Zuckerman
Zwichenzug



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Blogs focusing on policy, politics, and national security:
Armchair Generalist
Back To Iraq 3.0 (Chris Albritton)
The Decembrist
Brad DeLong
Daniel Drezner
Eschaton(Atrios)
Green Ink!
Iddybud (Jude Nagurney Camwell)
Idea Spout: Daniel Sanchez
Informed Comment: Juan Cole
Intel Dump: Phillip Carter
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Mark A. R. Kleiman
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Ranajit Dam
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Corey Pein
Nick Schager
Zoo Station:Reuben Abraham

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