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Sy Hersh's Overactive Imagination By: Thomas Joscelyn
The Weekly Standard | Tuesday, October 09, 2007


IN THE LATEST EDITION of the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh returns to one of his favorite themes: The Bush administration is preparing for war with Iran. Well, that is, may be preparing for war with Iran.

Anyone familiar with Hersh's writing these last couple of years knows that he has been fixated on claims from anonymous spooks and foreign policy luminaries concerning the Bush administration's supposed dastardly designs on Iran. His latest piece does not disappoint. Former and anonymous CIA officials opine on the Bush administration's gameplan for attacking Iran. The suddenly once-again-in-demand foreign policy guru Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has never shown any particular proclivity for diagnosing Iran or the Middle East correctly, tells Hersh's readers what he has heard about "limited bombing plans for Iran." And, in a new twist, David Kay, the chief weapons inspector in Iraq for the UN, tells Hersh that he thought General Petraeus exaggerated the extent of Iran's nefarious activities inside Iraq.

All in all, one is left with the same impression as after having read any of Hersh's previous contributions to the "neoconservatives vs. Iran" genre. Hersh and his sources believe that the Bush administration is hyping the threat from Iran in preparations for a war (of some sort), which will be disastrous for the U.S. and the Middle East.

Perhaps feeling a bit like the boy who cried wolf once too often, however, Hersh takes a half-step back in his latest piece. He still believes "there has been a significant increase in the tempo of attack planning," which he does not really explain. But, Hersh tells us, he "was repeatedly cautioned, in interviews, that the President has yet to issue the 'execute order' that would be required for a military operation inside Iran, and such an order may never be issued."

Hersh has good reasons for this newfound hesitancy. In April of 2006, he wrote that the Bush administration "has increased clandestine activities inside Iran and intensified planning for a possible major air attack." In November 2006, in the wake of the midterm elections, Hersh pondered: "Is a damaged Administration less likely to attack Iran, or more?" He found ample reasons to think that Vice President Cheney and his attending neoconservatives would remain undeterred. And then in March of this year, Hersh told his readers that the Bush administration's new strategy for the Middle East "has brought the United States closer to an open confrontation with Iran."

So, in Seymour Hersh's world, the war with Iran has been imminent for at least 18 months now.

It is still possible that Hersh's sources are right, of course, even if their timing is off. Perhaps the Bush administration is planning in earnest for an impending military strike against Iran. But, there is a deeper problem with Hersh's reporting that also infects much of the reporting on the "war on terror." He is so myopically focused on exposing malfeasance--both real and imagined--on the part of the executive branch that he ignores legitimate concerns about Iran's ongoing role in the terrorists' worldwide war.

To understand how this shortsightedness has skewed the reporting on our terrorist enemies, consider what Hersh himself once wrote. In the foreword to long-time CIA operative Bob Baer's book, See No Evil, which was published in 2002, Hersh endorsed Baer's most explosive allegation: al Qaeda did not act alone on September 11, 2001, but instead received help from Iran's long-time terrorist proxy, Hezbollah. Here is what Hersh wrote:

We've hit intelligence rock bottom in America. As this is being written, nearly three months after the September 11 terrorism attacks, the intelligence community still cannot tell us who was responsible, how the assassins worked, where they trained, which groups they worked for, or whether they will strike again. Did Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network pull it off by themselves, as the Bush administration constantly claims, or was at least one other Mideast terrorist group involved, as Bob Baer suggests? We don't know, but I'm betting that the facts, when they emerge, will back up Baer's instinct that the attacks in America were not solely the responsibility of someone operating out of a cave in Afghanistan.

As Baer makes clear in See No Evil, the "other Mideast terrorist group" was, in fact, Hezbollah. Baer's suggestion that Hezbollah and its Iranian master were involved in the September 11 attacks was not then based on any specific intelligence linking them to the attack. Instead, Baer's implication was based on his long experience investigating our terrorist enemies.

Baer had tracked Iran's and Hezbollah's master terrorist, Imad Mugniyah, for years. In See No Evil, Baer tells the story of how he pieced together Mugniyah's role in a string of terrorist attacks dating back to the April 18, 1983 suicide truck bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. Mugniyah has committed terrorist attacks on behalf of Iran around the globe for decades, but he is a master of the shadowy underworld and, therefore, notoriously difficult to keep tabs on. Indeed, absent Baer's dogged efforts it is likely that the U.S. intelligence community would never have developed a complete picture of Mugniyah's and Iran's role in the April 1983 embassy bombing.

Baer's investigation into Mugniyah's terrorist career revealed that not only had he played a leading role in Iranian-sponsored terrorism in the 1980s, but that Mugniyah also became involved in al Qaeda's terrorism during the 1990s. When a bomb struck the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, in November 1995, Baer says he and the CIA "suspected strongly and immediately that bin Laden had a hand." Baer also pointed a finger at Mugniyah: "Shortly afterward we learned that Mughniyah's deputy had provided a stolen Lebanese passport to one of the planners of the bombing." Nor did Mugniyah's support for al Qaeda end there. "Six months later," Baer writes, "we found that one of bin Laden's most dangerous associates was calling one of Mughniyah's offices in Beirut." Baer cautions that neither of these pieces of evidence, the November 1995 embassy bombing or the calls from bin Laden's associate to Mugniyah's offices, "amounts to a smoking gun." However, "both should scare anyone who knows how terrorism works."

There was more. Baer explains: "Even before I left the CIA in late 1997 we had learned that bin Laden had suggested to the Iranians that they drop their efforts to undermine central Asian governments and instead join him in a campaign against the United States. We knew, too, that in July 1996 bin Laden's allies, the Egyptian Gama'at [the 'IG'], had been in touch with 'Imad Mugniyah."

Baer goes on to call the nexus between the IG, al Qaeda, and Hezbollah "the most formidable terrorist coalition in history." Summing up these connections, Baer came to the conclusion that it was likely al Qaeda had received assistance from Iran and Hezbollah on the road to 9/11. Baer makes this point clear: "Did Osama bin Laden act alone, through his own Al Qaeda network, in launching the attacks? About that I'm far more certain and emphatic: No."

Hersh endorsed Baer's conclusion. He believed then that when the facts emerged, they would "back up Baer's instinct" on the matter. And indeed Baer's instincts were uncanny. Two years after See No Evil was published in 2002, the 9/11 Commission found startling evidence that raised the possibility of Mugniyah's, Hezbollah's, and Iran's complicity in the 9/11 attacks.

That evidence is recounted in a section titled "Assistance from Hezbollah and Iran to al Qaeda," which appears on pages 240 and 241 of the Commission's final report. The Commission found that "8 to 10 of the 14 Saudi 'muscle' operatives [for the 9/11 operation] traveled into or out of Iran between October 2000 and February 2001." The Commission found that in October 2000, "a senior operative of Hezbollah visited Saudi Arabia to coordinate activities there" and he "planned to assist individuals in Saudi Arabia in traveling to Iran during November." This senior Hezbollah operative wasn't alone, a "top Hezbollah commander and Saudi Hezbollah contacts were involved."

Some of the future hijackers traveled not only to Iran, but also to Hezbollah's home turf, Lebanon. The Commission found that one of the 9/11 hijackers shared a flight to Beirut, "perhaps by coincidence," with a "senior Hezbollah operative" in November 2000. In mid-November 2000, "three of the future muscle hijackers traveled in a group from Saudi Arabia to Beirut and then onward to Iran." "An associate of a senior Hezbollah operative was on the same flight that took the future hijackers to Iran." And the 9/11 Commission offered these tantalizing sentences:

Hezbollah officials in Beirut and Iran were expecting the arrival of a group during the same time period. The travel of this group was important enough to merit the attention of senior figures in Hezbollah.

One might wonder who these senior Hezbollah operatives were. The Commission decided not to name them. But according to multiple sources, including Kenneth Timmerman's reporting on this issue for Reader's Digest, one of them was, in fact, Imad Mugniyah.

So, we have come full circle. Baer suspected that Mugniyah and his masters were involved in 9/11 when he wrote about it in 2002. Hersh approved of Baer's informed deduction. And the 9/11 Commission found evidence confirming Baer's suspicion. But, you would never know any of this by reading Hersh's reporting on the Bush administration's supposed intentions regarding Iran over the last couple of years. The long-time investigative journalist has been focused purely on the neoconservatives' supposedly nefarious influence in Washington.

Make no mistake: none of this is intended to suggest that Hersh or his sources do not have the right to be skeptical about the efficacy of military strikes against Iran. Indeed, this author shares their skepticism, but for different reasons. And certainly one can be critical of the Bush administration for not doing more to probe the evidence cited by the 9/11 Commission.

But wouldn't Hersh's reporting on Iran be better served if he were to revisit the issue of Iran's and Hezbollah's possible complicity in 9/11? That may not be an easy sell for readers now hooked on tales of executive branch duplicity and neoconservative plotting told by sources who gladly share hearsay. However, it would certainly improve the public's understanding of our terrorist enemies.

After all, more than three years ago now, the 9/11 Commission called for further investigation into the connections described above. Thus far, no such investigation has been launched.

Hersh himself once knew there were reasons that such an investigation was warranted.

Thomas Joscelyn is a terrorism researcher, writer, and economist living in New York. He is the author, most recently, of Iran's Proxy War Against America (Claremont Institute).


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