Why Is the US Backing
Sunni Jihadists?

Interview recorded Feb. 27, 2007. Listen to the interview.

Although we’ve talked about this issue, your article in The New Yorker, “The Redirection,” a couple of times, Mr. Hersh, would you give us a thumbnail sketch of your story?

Hersh: Yeah, basically, it’s a story saying that we’ve changed our policy in a very dramatic way in the last few months.

It’s awfully hard to know when and where. We are involved in a war now in Iraq, and it is not going well. So the president has decided we are going to expand this. What we want to do is – our target now is Iran. We want to isolate Iran. We want to run operations against Iran. We’ve been doing that for a year, and we also want to escalate against Iran’s buddies in Syria and Lebanon.

So we are now… The United States has joined forces with the Brits, Israelis, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan – the moderate Sunni Arab countries – in a coalition designed to beat back the Shia. They are a minority, but a very powerful minority. As you know, Iran is Shia. Right now in Lebanon, the Sunni government, controlled by a man named Prime Minister Siniora, is under much pressure from a coalition headed by Hezbollah – which is Shia. It’s got Christians on it too, but the coalition wants a bigger share of the pie in Lebanon – more power.

So, there is a standoff there.

The U.S. is throwing in – all the way – with those who want to stop the Shia anywhere in the Middle East. That is a huge escalation because, among other things, the growing contradiction of the policy is that we have made the Shia in Iraq our allies. It is not quite clear how strong that relationship is anymore, but that’s… So you’ve got… It’s sort of like the yellow submarine, you know? They disappear.

The policy is so complicated, so contradictory and so ad hoc, you just wonder what these guys are thinking of.

Goyette: I’ve described it on my show – Bush and these people – as the sorcerer’s apprentice. They’ve unleashed these forces that they cannot contain – they cannot foresee. But isn’t anyone in the administration overcome with shame in not foreseeing the obvious: that the de-Ba’athification and the invasion of Iraq would have contributed substantially to the a Shia power block? I mean, that seems like it would have been foreseeable back in 2002.

Hersh: You know, you’ve got to understand how obdurate these neocons are. When the war began, by June of 2003… You know, I’m tuned in. I’ve been writing critically about this. I’ve written no other story since 9-11, only this one insane crummy subject – it’s driving me nuts.

But within two or three months [of the beginning of the war in 2003], my buddies on the inside were saying, “We are beginning to hear the insurgency ditty bopping.” We could hear them communicating with each other. We couldn’t break the code, but we picked up messages. It was Iranian signals gear. It was pretty sensitive stuff. The Iranians were passing along communications gear [to Iraqis]. By the way – why shouldn’t they? I mean, that’s not a sin. Why shouldn’t they [Iran] help their ally and weaken us? That’s the way the world is.

In any case, the neocons refused to listen to the idea that the Shi’ites in the south – whom they were pushing, because they wanted to de-Ba’athify: get rid of the army and anything in connection with Saddam, which is really stupid. They [neocons] would say to the military and the intelligence service, “Don’t worry about it. Don’t forget that there was an eight year war in the eighties between Iraq and Iran – very bloody by the way – where twenty thousand people would die on any given day. There were horrible battles. The Shia in Iran and the Shia in Iraq hate each other.”

That was the theory: there is no way the Iraqi Shia are going to support Iran after that war. This is what the neocons said. It didn’t matter how many times the [intelligence] community would report and say, “we’ve got real problems here. We notice five thousand Iranian intelligence officers.”

You know, you saw the presence of the Quds brigade and others in every major city in the south of Iraq. One thing about the Iranians: they are not very subtle. They wear usually black suits, white shirts, no ties, buttoned up all the way, black shoes and white socks. You can see them. They make no attempt to hide themselves. Actually, at one point in 2004 they were actually renting big apartment buildings in Basra and other places where they put up their people. They weren’t just doing military stuff. They were doing a lot of humanitarian work too. You know – helping out an ally, because the more they can get the war going against us, the stronger their position gets.

Goyette: It was even more than that, because we effectively announced to the world that once we are finished in Iraq, then Iran and Syria are next. We made it in their [Iran’s] interest to keep us bogged down.

Hersh: That is why I don’t understand why the public isn’t more cynical. Every time Bush says, “Iran is helping Iraq. Syria is helping and supplying arms – the same for Hezbollah.”

If you remember the halcyon days – the first couple of weeks when everyone thought it was going to be [okay]. The statue [of Saddam] fell and everybody thought democracy would spill like water all over the middle east out of Iraq. Cheney and others would say, “we are doing Iran next and then Syria and then Lebanon.” I mean, they basically laid down a trump card and then wondered why people there objected [laughter] and tried to resist us as much as possible.

It is beyond belief just in sheer terms of competence, you know? Just in sheer terms of competence – it is amazing.

Goyette: Well, explain to me this Sunni tilt, and how that plays into the hands of al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda-like interests.

Hersh: What happened is… You know, I didn’t know [about] this [Sunni tilt].

I went in December… I went twice to Beirut. I’ve been there a lot over the years, because the Middle East is obviously important since this war. So I went to Beirut. I had an interview and was the first Westerner, I guess, to see Nasrallah [after the Israeli bombing of Lebanon]. I had seen him before. I had always talked to Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah – a very bright guy.

Yes, Nasrallah was one of the leading cutting edges of terrorism in the 1980’s. Yes, but in the last ten years he has been operating politically. The toggle switch from terrorism to politics has gone that way, and you know what? Let’s keep them [Hezbollah] in politics. They had members of parliament in Lebanon. They had four or five cabinet ministers that they pulled out because of the recent fight. But they were very involved politically and socially – [with] schools and hospitals in southern Lebanon.

So I went to see Nasrallah a bunch of times – usually about Iraq. He was a Shi’ite leader very friendly with the Iranians and also very friendly with the Shi’ite leadership in Iran. They all trained together. They all were the same religious group. They went to the same basic schools. I would sort of get a feel on what’s going on.

This time I went to see him about Lebanon. If you remember last summer, he had conducted something that had never happened before. He had done a war against Israel – put up against Israel and beat them. The only Arab country to ever do it. Nobody is more important right now. This isn’t just me talking. This is our intelligence people in the government saying to me, “the most important man in the Middle East right now is Nasrallah”

In places like Egypt – I was just in Cairo – he is more popular than anybody in the Egyptian government. This a Shia. In almost totally Sunni Egypt – in what they call the “Arab street,” it’s Nasrallah – he’s the boss.

Anyway, so I go to see the guy [Nasrallah] in December and oh man… Look, I know the Israelis have him under a death threat. They’ve had him under a death threat for years, particularly after he won the war – or did well in the war. So I am in three or four cars. I am searched. I mean, [it’s] black, with all of the shades and the curtains drawn in the car. I am transferred three or four times in basements – all bombed out.

I finally get to the guy and say, “What is going on, man? I didn’t know you were that scared of the Israelis?” He says, “Oh no, it is not the Israelis. We’ve got fellow Arabs: Jordanian intelligence, Salafis, Wahhabis – jihadists. These are the most extreme guys.”

Salafis and Wahhabis are out of Saudi Arabia. They are Sunni radicals, who are connected to al-Qaeda in the sense that they believe anybody who is not a Sunni is an infidel – an infidel and disposable.

Then you discover that there are 3, count them, 3 units, one large and the others smaller – three terrorists linked to al-Qaeda units in Lebanon that have all been formed in the last six to eight months. And we, the United States of America, are looking the other way as money flows in from us and from Saudi Arabia under the table to get these guys [al-Qaeda terrorists] arms, clothing, and material goods so that they…

Why do we support the Sunnis? Why support the same guys – I mean the Salafis, [Wahhabis etc.] – that we would have arrested two or three years ago and put in Guantanamo? Now we are supporting them because they are potential allies against Nasrallah and Hezbollah. They [Sunnis] are tough. Hezbollah’s tough. Hezbollah knows how to do terrorism. These guys do too.

[It’s] in case we end up in a civil war there. We want to have allies. That is the height of cynicism. First of all, why do we want them… you know… what’s going on in Iraq between the Sunni and the Shi’ites is crazy. And where are the Christians in Iraq? There used to be two million – now they are gone.

Goyette: Right.

Hersh: And they are gone. I mean, it’s a civil war, and it is a sectarian war. Now he’s trying – This president, with this policy, is going to push Lebanon into sectarian war too. There is already trouble between Sunni and Shia. It’s just really…

Goyette: It strikes me as Orwellian – it’s like Winston rewriting history and shoving stuff down the memory hole. You would think that the American people would at least have the short term memory to remember that these [Sunni jihadists] were supposed to be the bad guys.

Hersh: Well, I mean look, they [Americans] are just learning about this. The story has only been out a couple of days. The major newspapers haven’t given it a whiff yet because they probably don’t know how to do it.

Goyette: They don’t understand what it means…

Hersh: Uh, yeah, you know, I worked for the New York Times for nine years. I always have a mixed feeling about them. It is the most important newspaper in America. It still is. When they report a story, it has enormous influence. They just haven’t figured out this presidency. I think that just maybe they don’t know how. I mean, it is sort of amazing to me they haven’t figured out this presidency.

Goyette: Well, back to Nasrallah, is there a new Israeli-Lebanese war brewing right now?

Hersh: Sure. I would say, we have replaced the Israelis in this situation. I don’t think there is going to be an open conflict. I think what you are seeing right now is tremendous pressure being placed on Nasrallah to neutralize them by us, in supporting the government there.

What Nasrallah wants is a bigger piece of the pie. Under the crazy rules in Lebanon, the way they have divided the country up politically is a hoot. They fixed the percentage everybody can have in the parliament. The Shia – this was done in 1943 – were fixed then at twenty percent.

Well, the Shia are a hell of a lot more than twenty percent, and they may even be more than fifty percent. What Nasrallah basically wants is to change these numbers. He wants a bigger piece of the pie, and he’s got a coalition that includes a very prominent Christian in a man named Michel Aoun, who got 74 percent of the Christian vote in the last election. So Nasrallah is not alone in this. They want to redo the electoral procedure. That is the critical issue.

Our American position is, that there will be no compromise in Lebanon. They are not going to get anything. If it means war, so what?

Goyette: Now back to your New Yorker article, “The Redirection: A Strategic Shift.” A lot of us at talk radio shook our heads in utter amazement at these shrink wrapped, washing machine sized palates of cash that came into that country in billions. We thought that it was all just disappearing in your typical average graft – showing up in gym bags and people stuffing money in duffel bags. But in truth, there may have been substantial slush funds as you suggest in your article, created for black ops.

Hersh: Yes, and here is where it gets complicated. There is always pools of money around for black ops. There always are [for] side pockets. We all know from the hearing the other week with Congressman Waxman that something like almost nine billion dollars was not accounted for. There was some very funny conversations with Mr. Bremer of the coalition provisional office testifying that, “Oh, he just didn’t know. He didn’t keep track.” [Laughs]

Goyette: [Bremer said,] “I had to do it. I had to get people paid. They wouldn’t take their own currency…”

Hersh: There were also other pools of money. Saddam had anywhere from – you count it – half a billion to more than that, that we found in just raiding his bunkers. There also was, I am told, as much as a billion dollars more in cash found the various ministries when we took over the government.

So you had three large pools of money. I am here to tell you that nobody could prove it, because that’s the thing about money. It’s not accountable. That is one reason that being opaque is very important for the [intelligence] community. You can do anything you want [with cash].

But I have been told very reliably that this money – some of it anyway – was being used by covert operations. I don’t have a video tape of it. I just have people I trust. In the New Yorker we decided to be very careful about it, which is totally appropriate. We were very careful. We said, “It is not clear.”

There are people who believe that this money showed up directly in covert ops even against Iran, Syria, and Lebanon. We do know that major covert programs have been run in those three countries by us without Congressional funding. Where is the money coming from?

Goyette: This is a handy way to bypass the Congressional authorization process, which brings us back to the Iran-Contra precedent. It’s the same thing but worse. Iran-Contra looks like a little PR disaster – a little PR black eye – compared to starting another national war.

Hersh: Iran-Contra… During the Reagan years – for those who don’t know – Reagan really wanted to do something to stop what he considered to be the left wing revolutionary government in Nicaragua, the Sandinista government. Reagan wanted to use a guerrilla force called the Contras that the CIA had setup with financing. Congress issued a series of legislative amendments saying, “No way. You cannot use Congressional money to for this.”

Goyette: The Boland Amendment.

Hersh: The Boland Amendment. You got it exactly right.

They [Reagan administration] just created this incredible scheme – this Rube Goldberg scheme. They would sell arms. They would get Saudi money to buy arms and ship them through Israel into Iran, which is the same country that had held us hostage five or six years earlier – 300 guys hostages for a year. Out of that [Iranian arms deals] they generated enough profit to support the Contras.

There were hearings on it that went no where, because – I don’t know why – the press wasn’t… We let them off the hook.

By 1987 Reagan was clearly losing it. So it didn’t go anywhere. But the precedent was there. The graph I’m proudest of, and the story I did, described this without much sourcing… One of the key players in that operation then was a guy named Elliott Abrams, who was in the National Security Council.

Abrams is now the special assistant to the president for Middle East affairs on the National Security Council – a very senior deputy in the government. He convened a lessons-learned-session sometime less than two years ago [by] pulling everybody who was still in the Bush administration that was involved in Iran Contra. They discussed what was good and what was bad.

The good was that you could do stuff and cheat Congress. The bad is you got caught. So the lessons learned are: you don’t tell anybody anything. You don’t trust the CIA. You don’t trust the military. You don’t run it out of the National Security Council. At that point in 1984 or 85, an Admiral named John Poindexter was the guy that they used [to head things up]. Now they said, “This time you use the man himself, the Veep – the vice-president.” Cheney.

I think even then they were thinking and obviously talking about it [finding money for covert CIA operations]. Now you have this in fruition. You have Prince Bandar – the former Saudi Ambassador to Washington, who is very tight with Cheney – and other neoconservatives funneling money that we use to run operations without telling Congress. This is not only in Lebanon, but against Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, and also in Iran. I mean, it is really out there.

Goyette: It’s really bad. Now, one other thing that I want to make sure we cover is the Negroponte resignation. I never thought that he was exactly Mr. Clean to begin with. I mean, going all the way back to Central America.

Hersh: Well, I guess he was under pressure to do what he did.

Goyette: Right…

Hersh: All I can tell you is that there has been a lot of tension between him [and Cheney], when he was head of intelligence, the job he quit to become deputy secretary of state. If you remember, he gave up a cabinet level job to take a sub-cabinet level job, which is interesting. So [in] the job he quit as head of intelligence there was a lot of tension between him and Cheney. I understand (and the Pentagon) he was not approving of many of the operations they wanted to do. He thought they were high risk and also not legal.

He was seen as a stickler – whether for moral grounds or legal grounds, I don’t know. He was seen as a pain. That is one element. He was also seen by them as somebody, who wasn’t very good at what he did. That’s another element. But the critical issue, I was told by no less than three pretty well informed people, was that he had had it.

He had gone through Iran-Contra: there were hearings, and he almost got in trouble on that. He didn’t want to do it again. He was very much against this policy of using Saudi money for covert arms – action rather. So he protested and eventually quit because of it. Look… I didn’t talk to him. He didn’t talk to me. The New Yorker had a series of queries. He did not deny. He just simply said he had no comment – for all that that means…

Goyette: I have heard now from sources one degree of separation, or maybe occasionally two, from the CIA that one of the sources of the conflict was Cheney. He [Negroponte] didn’t want to participate in cooking the books on the national intelligence estimate on Iran.

Hersh: That is also very possible, because these guys… You know… It is not so much… I wish it was so simple as cooking the books. I think the tragedy of Cheney is that he believes what he believes.

Goyette: Oh, yeah. I don’t doubt that.

Hersh: He just thinks the CIA is wrong. [Laughs] He doesn’t think he’s forcing them to tell a lie, he thinks he is forcing them to tell the truth. [Laughs]

Goyette: Well, you suggest the intelligence professionals are watching this thing in a state of stunned and shaken silence – of horror.

Hersh: Well, it’s been going on for years. The silent horror is pretty silent – but it sure is horror.

Goyette: Yeah.

Hersh: And the same with the Joint Chiefs: they are watching this planning for Iran, the bombing, going on, and they don’t know what to think.

Goyette: Would you handicap it? Do you think we will be able to either find a pretext for a war or have a bombing campaign?

Hersh: The only thing I can tell you is I’ve been writing this story for a year. It is serious. People would accuse me of being chicken little – you know, the sky is falling, sky is falling. Now it is clear that there is something to it. I just don’t know what Bush is going to do, but I don’t think he is going to leave office without dealing with Iran.

Goyette: Well, he has said as much. How about the Congress though? We thought back in November maybe a new Congress would act as a check or a brake on him.

Hersh: This is the real story. Will they get up and issue a Boland Amendment? That’s the real story.

Goyette: All right. Seymour Hersh, you’ve been very generous with your time. We thank you so much.

Hersh: Good day.

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Author: Michael Tennant

Michael Tennant is a software developer and freelance writer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.