Training Terrorists in Nevada: Seymour Hersh on U.S. Aid to Iranian Group Tied to Scientist Killings
Journalist Seymour Hersh has revealed that the Bush administration secretly trained an Iranian opposition group on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorists. Hersh reports the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command trained operatives from Mujahideen-e-Khalq, or MEK, at a secret site in Nevada beginning in 2005. According to Hersh, MEK members were trained in intercepting communications, cryptography, weaponry and small unit tactics at the Nevada site up until President Obama took office. The MEK has been listed as a foreign terrorist groups since 1997 and is linked to a number of attacks, spanning from the murders of six U.S. citizens in the 1970s to the recent wave of assassinations targeting Iranian nuclear scientists. Hersh also discusses the role of Israeli intelligence and notes the Obama administration knew about the training, "because they have access to what was going on in the previous administration in this area, in terms of the MEK, in terms of operations inside Iran." His new report for The New Yorker blog, "Our Men in Iran?," comes as nuclear talks are set to resume this week between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency. [includes rush transcript–partial]
Seymour Hersh, Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative reporter for The New Yorker magazine. His latest piece for their website’s "News Desk" blog is titled "Our Men in Iran?"
AMY GOODMAN: In what appears to be a first for U.S. foreign policy, new revelations have emerged that the Bush administration secretly trained an Iranian opposition group despite its inclusion on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorists. Writing for The New Yorker magazine, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh reports U.S. Joint Special Operations Command trained operatives from Mujahideen-e-Khalq, or MEK, at a secret site in Nevada beginning in 2005. According to Hersh, MEK members were trained in intercepting communications, cryptography, weaponry and small unit tactics at the Nevada site up until President Obama took office. The MEK has been included on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist groups since 1997. It’s been linked to a number of attacks, spanning from the murders of six U.S. citizens in the ’70s to the recent wave of assassinations targeting Iranian nuclear scientists.
Although the revelation that the U.S. government directly trained the MEK comes as a surprise, it’s no secret the group has prominent backers across the political spectrum. Despite it’s designation as a "terrorist" organization by the State Department for 15 years, a number of prominent former U.S. officials have been paid to speak in support of the MEK. The bipartisan list includes two former CIA directors, James Woolsey and Porter Goss; former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge; New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani; former Vermont Governor Howard Dean; former Attorney General Michael Mukasey; former FBI Director Louis Freeh; former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton; and former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell.
Last month, Rendell and other unnamed officials were subpoenaed by the Treasury Department over their ties to MEK. Mukasey and Freeh have retained former Clinton administration Solicitor General Seth Waxman in response to the Treasury Department probe. Rendell, meanwhile, has shrugged off the scrutiny. Speaking at a public event in support of the MEK Friday in Washington, he told the crowd, quote, "I never knew obtaining a subpoena from your own government would be so much fun."
Well, for more on the U.S. and its ties to the MEK, we’re joined by Seymour Hersh in Washington, D.C. His new piece for The New Yorker is called "Our Men in Iran?"
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Sy Hersh. Oh, and happy birthday.
SEYMOUR HERSH: Oh, yes, that’s right. It’s great to be older.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll focus on the wiser part. Tell us what you have learned. Who are, as you call it, "our men in Iran"?
SEYMOUR HERSH: They are as you said. The MEK—and by the way, once again, Amy, the piece was on The New Yorker blog, not in the magazine; it’s a shorter piece. But anyway, the point is, it went through the same sort of intense checking as anything in The New Yorker, of course.
Simply, they’re just the Khalq, the MEK. We began to—I learned about this many years ago. It’s just one of those things that it never quite occurred to me how important it was. And what is important about also the—they did stop, there’s no question, this sort of training that was going on. It was going on at a place called the Nevada Nuclear Security or National Security Test Site. It’s a former site for World War—post-World War II nuclear testing of weapons, testing of nuclear weapons. And it’s off-limits to people. And it’s—there’s an air base there. God knows what went on there. My own guess is rendition flights also flew into that air base in '02, ’03. There's some evidence for it. But certainly, the groups of MEK were flown in secretly by, I presume, the Joint Special Operations Command. This is this new high-powered group that’s been doing all the night raids in Afghanistan, that also came up in your news broadcast.
What’s important to me about it is not only that it did end, this kind of direct training of this group that is, as you said, a terrorist group; it’s also very clear that the United States is still involved, as is Israel and as was, for many years, England, in using the MEK and other dissident groups inside Iran as surrogates for the continued pressure we’re putting covertly on inside of Iran. And that is, as you said, there are assassinations done by the MEK. And let me make it clear, the MEK has been in a virtual war with the mullahs in Iran since the fall of the Shah, and you don’t have to—you don’t have to urge them to kill anybody. They’re very eager to do it themselves inside that country. But still, nonetheless, we provide intelligence. We, the Americans, have continued to provide intelligence and other kinds of material support for the MEK. Don’t forget, they speak Farsi, which is a great asset to us. These are people who are able to translate intercepted communications inside Iran for us very quickly and very—with great skill. And so, we have a lot of reason to rely on them, as we rely on other dissident groups inside Iran—the Kurds, the Azeris and others—to cause—basically, to try and keep some sort of internal chaos and mayhem going inside the country.
AMY GOODMAN: Is it believed the MEK were involved in the assassinations of the Iranian nuclear scientists?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, nobody has a video of it, but that seems clear that one of their goals, obviously, is to prevent the Iranians from developing nuclear weapons. And it’s not clear who they’re really assassinating, whether they’re—I know they’re—at one time, my government—I wrote about this in The New Yorker many years ago, in '05 or ’06. We've been actively involved, beginning in the Cheney-Bush days, of encouraging insurrection inside Iran—whether it’s aimed at regime change or not isn’t clear; I doubt that—but basically, blowing up things, etc. We did have a list at one time we created here in Washington of people we’d like to see gone, captured perhaps, turned over or turned into our agents, you know, double agents inside Iran. We tried to do that, too. But certainly, the Israelis are pawing the ground as if they are directly responsible or deeply involved with the MEK in the recent assassination of a 32-year-old scientist whose role in terms of—there’s not much evidence he was involved in making weapons, because there’s no evidence that Iranians are making weapons.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the bombs that were used in the assassinations?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, they’re most interesting bombs. They’re limpet bombs, Marine limpet bombs. They’re designed—they have a special charge, and they’re designed to go inside. They blow inside. And they’re, of course, of great use by the Navy SEALs. And the Navy SEALs, if you’re going to do an underwater demolition, if you’re going to blow up a ship from underwater, which as the SEALs traditionally were trained to do—most of them are involved in day-to-day combat in Afghanistan, etc., and much different from their initial role of underwater stuff. But if you want to blow up something underwater, you have to have a charge that explodes inward to cause water to rush in, etc. And these kind of very sophisticated charges have been used by the MEK in the assassinations.
And the reason we know it is that the car that was hit, for example, in January in Tehran that killed the young scientist, or the nuclear physicist or whatever he was, exploded inward. You can argue this is also good because it avoids non-combatant deaths. You know, you don’t want to kill a lot of people other than the one you’re trying to kill. It is also useful because you make sure anybody in that car gets it, because it does blow inside. It’s a very sophisticated shape charge. And there’s no question that some of the best mines in the Navy mine-making business were—some of that information was obviously passed on, whether directly to the MEK or through Israeli assets, or explicitly how. But it’s not an accident that these kinds of sophisticated weapons can be traced to the Navy SEALs, who are a major element of the Joint Special Operations Command.
AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, you end your piece by quoting Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at Fort Bliss in Texas acknowledging the U.S. has some ideas as to who might have been involved, but we don’t know exactly who was involved, you know, being questioned about—this was the day after—a few days after the assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientists. He said, "I can tell you one thing: the [United States] was not involved in that kind of effort. That’s not what the United States does."
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, I think that’s technically correct. I don’t think there’s any other way to read that comment as—the use of that last graph as an ironic statement, perhaps. I think it’s correct that—also, it’s to my knowledge—this isn’t in the piece, because only one particular source about it, but I do understand that we really don’t know what’s going to happen 'til after it happens, and then we are put on notice. We do get notice that something has happened before it's released to the public. We have that kind of communication, essentially through Israel. Israel is obviously a little closer to everything that’s going on than we are. But we’re certainly—we’re not picking targets. I doubt that now. At least I don’t have any evidence we are. But we’re providing general intelligence.
And it’s not an accident that the first units of the MEK to show up in Nevada, late '04, early ’05—and it was months and months of training. It's not—the first word used by two different people about it was "commo," communications, and "crypto." The point is that—there was a story in the Washington Post just the other day here describing how America has been using drones to overfly Iran for at least three years. I would argue that, long before that, we’ve been using American satellites flying high that can’t be detected. And obviously, you can uplink and downlink communications to satellites. You can—if you’re on the ground and you find out something very useful tactically—by training the MEK in communications and how to use encrypt communications, you’re also enabling them to become an asset on the ground for us.
There was a period, I would say, in the Bush administration—I also think it stopped under Obama—when our boys, our Joint Special Operations Command guys, were directly inside Iran. We came in through Herat in Afghanistan. We also—that was one of—what we call a rat line. There are other rat lines through Balochistan in Pakistan, and etc. There are ways to get inside Iran clandestinely that we’ve been using for at least since, I’d say, late '04 until probably right before Obama got in. So we were there—look, it's been a huge, big internal game designed to destabilize.
And as somebody said to me in one of the pieces, one of the quotes in the pieces, "We’re not necessarily looking for Einsteins." That suggests to me that the scientists who are really the most deeply involved in the enrichment. And by the way, let me say again, there is no evidence that our intelligence community or even the Israeli intelligence community has—and I know that firsthand—suggesting that there’s an ongoing bomb program. So we are now—the United States is now in the position of increasing sanctions and pressuring all sorts of economic pressure on the Iranians to stop—the whole purpose of the economic sanctions is to stop the Iranians from making a bomb that we know they’re not making. Once again, I don’t know how we get into this convoluted position. And then, as readers of the major newspapers know, we are now also entering new talks with Iran with new preconditions, and basically telling them that they must stop doing enriching, what they are legally entitled to do as members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran may be secretly wanting a bomb, and they may have that passion, and they maybe, you know, dream about it at night, but we haven’t a shred of evidence that they’ve done anything, concretely, physically, to create a facility for making a weapon.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Seymour Hersh. We’re going to come back to him in 30 seconds, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has written a piece for The New Yorker online called "Our Men in Iran?" Stay with us.