The CIA and Iran

October 24, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The CIA and the Iran Caper: How Petraeus Fueled the Plot

By Ray Mcgovern

2011-10-11T221215Z_548393142_GM1E7AC0HEY01_RTRMADP_3_USA-SECURITY-IRANWashington Post columnist David Ignatius, in his accustomed role as unofficial surrogate CIA spokesman, has thrown light on how the CIA under its new director, David Petraeus, helped craft the screenplay for this week’s White House spy feature: the Iranian-American-used-car-salesman-Mexican-drug-cartel plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S.

In Thursday’s column, Ignatius notes that, initially, White House and Justice Department officials found the story “implausible.” It was. But the Petraeus team soon leapt to the rescue, reflecting the four-star-general-turned-intelligence-chief’s deep-seated animus toward Iran.

Before Ignatius’s article, I had seen no one allude to the fact that much about this crime-stopper tale had come from the CIA. In public, the FBI had taken the lead role, presumably because the key informant inside a Mexican drug cartel worked for U.S. law enforcement via the Drug Enforcement Administration.

However, according to Ignatius, “One big reason [top U.S. officials became convinced the plot was real] is that CIA and other intelligence agencies gathered information corroborating the informant’s juicy allegations and showing that the plot had support from the top leadership of the elite Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the covert action arm of the Iranian government.”

Ignatius adds that, “It was this intelligence collected in Iran” that swung the balance, but he offers no example of what that intelligence was. He only mentions a recorded telephone call on Oct. 4 between Iranian-American cars salesman Mansour Arbabsiar and his supposed contact in Iran, Gholam Shakuri, allegedly an official in Iran’s Quds spy agency.

The call is recounted in the FBI affidavit submitted in support of the criminal charges against Arbabsiar, who is now in U.S. custody, and Shakuri, who is not. But the snippets of that conversation are unclear, discussing what on the surface appears to be a “Chevrolet” car purchase, but which the FBI asserts is code for killing the Saudi ambassador.

Without explaining what other evidence the CIA might have, Ignatius tries to further strengthen the case by knocking down some of the obvious problems with the allegations, such as “why the Iranians would undertake such a risky operation, and with such embarrassingly poor tradecraft.”

“But why the use of Mexican drug cartels?” asks Ignatius rhetorically, before adding dutifully: “U.S. officials say that isn’t as implausible as it sounds.”

But it IS as implausible as it sounds, says every professional intelligence officer I have talked with since the “plot” was somberly announced on Tuesday.

The Old CIA Pros

There used to be real pros in the CIA’s operations directorate. One — Ray Close, a longtime CIA Arab specialist and former Chief of Station in Saudi Arabia — told me on Wednesday that we ought to ask ourselves a very simple question:

“If you were an Iranian undercover operative who was under instructions to hire a killer to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington, D.C., why in HELL would you consider it necessary to explain to a presumed Mexican [expletive deleted] that this murder was planned and would be paid for by a secret organization in Iran?

“Whoever concocted this tale wanted the ‘plot’ exposed … to precipitate a major crisis in relations between Iran and the United States. Which other government in the Middle East would like nothing better than to see those relations take a big step toward military confrontation?”

If you hesitate in answering, you have not been paying attention. Many have addressed this issue. My last stab at throwing light on the Israel/Iran/U.S. nexus appeared ten days ago in “Israel’s Window to Bomb Iran.”

Another point on the implausibility meter is: What are the odds that Iran’s Quds force would plan an unprecedented attack in the United States, that this crack intelligence agency would trust the operation to a used-car salesman with little or no training in spycraft, that he would turn to his one contact in a Mexican drug cartel who happens to be a DEA informant, and that upon capture the car salesman would immediately confess and implicate senior Iranian officials?

Wouldn’t it make more sense to suspect that Arbabsiar might be a double-agent, recruited by some third-party intelligence agency to arrange some shady business deal regarding black-market automobiles, get some ambiguous comments over the phone from an Iranian operative, and then hand the plot to the U.S. government on a silver platter – as a way to heighten tensions between Washington and Teheran?

That said, there are times when even professional spy agencies behave like amateurs. And there’s no doubt that the Iranians – like the Israelis, the Saudis and the Americans – can and do carry out assassinations and kidnappings in this brave new world of ours.

Remember, for instance, the case of Islamic cleric Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, who was abducted off the streets of Milan, Italy, on Feb. 17, 2003, and then flown from a U.S. air base to Egypt where he was imprisoned and tortured for a year.

In 2009, Italian prosecutors convicted 23 Americans, mostly CIA operatives, in absentia for the kidnapping after reconstructing the disappearance through their unencrypted cell phone records and their credit card bills at luxury hotels in Milan.

Then, there was the suspected Mossad assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh at a hotel in Dubai on Jan. 19, 2010, with the hit men seen on hotel video cameras strolling around in tennis outfits and creating an international furor over their use of forged Irish, British, German and French passports.

So one cannot completely rule out that there may conceivably be some substance to the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador.

And beyond the regional animosities between Saudi Arabia and Iran, there could be a motive – although it has been absent from American press accounts – i.e. retaliation for the assassinations of senior Iranian nuclear scientists and generals over the last couple of years within Iran itself.

But there has been close to zero real evidence coming from the main source of information — officials of the Justice Department, which like the rest of the U.S. government has long since forfeited much claim to credibility.

Petraeus’s ‘Intelligence’ on Iran

The public record also shows that former Gen. Petraeus has long been eager to please the neoconservatives in Washington and their friends in Israel by creating “intelligence” to portray Iran and other target countries in the worst light.

One strange but instructive example comes to mind, a studied, if disingenuous, effort to blame all the troubles in southern Iraq on the “malignant” influence of Iran.

On April 25, 2008, Joint Chiefs Chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, told reporters that Gen. Petraeus in Baghdad would give a briefing “in the next couple of weeks” providing detailed evidence of “just how far Iran is reaching into Iraq to foment instability.” Petraeus’s staff alerted U.S. media to a major news event in which captured Iranian arms in Karbala would be displayed and then destroyed.

Oops. Small problem. When American munitions experts went to Karbala to inspect the alleged cache of Iranian weapons, they found nothing that could be credibly linked to Iran.

At that point, adding insult to injury, the Iraqis announced that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had formed his own Cabinet committee to investigate the U.S. claims and attempt to “find tangible information and not information based on speculation.” Ouch!

The Teflon-clad Petraeus escaped embarrassment, as the David Ignatiuses of the Fawning Corporate Media (FCM) conveniently forgot all about the promised-then-canceled briefing. U.S. media suppression of this telling episode is just one example of how difficult it is to get unbiased, accurate information on touchy subjects like Iran into the FCM.

As for Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama, some adult adviser should tell them to quit giving hypocrisy a bad name with their righteous indignation over the thought that no civilized nation would conduct cross-border assassinations.

The Obama administration, like its predecessor, has been dispatching armed drones to distant corners of the globe to kill Islamic militants, including recently U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki for the alleged crime of encouraging violence against Americans.

Holder and Obama have refused to release the Justice Department’s legal justification for the targeted murder of al-Awlaki whose “due process” amounted to the President putting al-Awlaki’s name on a secret “kill-or-capture” list.

Holder and Obama have also refused to take meaningful action to hold officials of the Bush administration accountable for war crimes even though President George W. Bush has publicly acknowledged authorizing waterboarding and other brutal techniques long regarded as acts of torture.

Who can take at face value the sanctimonious words of an attorney general like Holder who has acquiesced in condoning egregious violations of the Bill of Rights, the U.S. criminal code, and international law — like the International Convention Against Torture?

Were shame not in such short supply in Official Washington these days, one would be amazed that Holder could keep a straight face, accusing these alleged Iranian perpetrators of “violating an international convention.”

America’s Founders would hold in contempt the Holders and the faux-legal types doing his bidding. The behavior of the past two administrations has been more reminiscent of George III and his sycophants than of James Madison, George Mason, John Jay and George Washington, who gave us the rich legacy of a Constitution, which created a system based on laws not men.

That Constitution and its Bill of Rights have become endangered species at the hands of the craven poachers at “Justice.” No less craven are the functionaries leading today’s CIA.

What to Watch For

If Petraeus finds it useful politically to conjure up more “evidence” of nefarious Iranian behavior in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, Lebanon or Syria, he will.  And if he claims to see signs of ominous Iranian intentions regarding nuclear weapons, watch out.

Honest CIA analysts, like the ones who concluded that Iran had stopped working on a nuclear weapon in late 2003 and had not resumed that work, are in short supply, and most have families to support and mortgages to pay.

Petraeus is quite capable of marginalizing them, or even forcing them to quit. I have watched this happen to a number of intelligence officials under a few of Petraeus’s predecessors.

More malleable careerists can be found in any organization, and promoted, so long as they are willing to tell more ominous — if disingenuous — stories that may make more sense to the average American than the latest tale of the Iraninan-American-used-car-salesman-Mexican-drug-cartel-plot.

This can get very dangerous in a hurry. Israel’s leaders would require but the flimsiest of nihil obstat to encourage them to provoke hostilities with Iran. Netanyahu and his colleagues would expect the Obamas, Holders, and Petraeuses of this world to be willing to “fix the intelligence and facts” (a la Iraq) to “justify” such an attack.

The Israeli leaders would risk sucking the United States into the kind of war with Iran that, short of a massive commitment of resources or a few tactical nuclear weapons, the U.S. and Israel could almost surely not win. It would be the kind of war that would make Iraq and Afghanistan look like minor skirmishes.

Ray McGovern was an Army officer and CIA analyst for almost 30 year. He now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. He is a contributor to Imperial Crusades: Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair (Verso). He can be reached at: rrmcgovern@gmail.com.

A version of this article first appeared on Consortiumnews.com.

13-43

Questions Abound over Iran “Plot” to Kill Saudi Envoy

October 13, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Alistair Lyon

2011-10-12T013728Z_261663125_GM1E7AC0QST01_RTRMADP_3_USA-SECURITY-IRAN

Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir speaks to the media at the Mideast Peace Conference in Annapolis, in this November 27, 2007 file photo. The United States accused Iran on October 11, 2011 of backing a plot to kill al-Jubeir, escalating tensions with Tehran and stirring up a hornet’s nest in the Gulf, where Saudi Arabia and Iran have long jostled for power.                    

REUTERS/Jason Reed/Files

LONDON (Reuters) – You couldn’t make it up — or could you?

U.S. allegations that an Iranian spy outfit attempted to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington in a convoluted plot involving a U.S. informant posing as a member of a Mexican drug cartel seem bizarre to say the least.

Still, Washington says the drama justifies new international sanctions against Iran and Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief insists that “somebody in Iran” must pay the price.

“The burden of proof and the amount of evidence in the case is overwhelming and clearly shows official Iranian responsibility for this,” Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal said.

The potential consequences are dire in a tense region where the United States and Israel reserve the right to attack Iran to stop it acquiring a nuclear bomb, a goal Tehran disavows.

For starters, the row could throttle any slim chance of resuming negotiations to settle the nuclear dispute.

Saudi-Iranian acrimony has ratcheted up this year, especially since Saudi troops intervened to help Bahrain’s Sunni rulers crush protests led by the island’s Shi’ite majority and fomented, according to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, by Iran.

From across the Middle East’s Arab-Persian and Sunni-Shi’ite faultlines, Riyadh also accuses Tehran of inciting unrest among minority Shi’ites in its own oil-rich Eastern Province, and has often urged the United States in the past to attack Iran, according to diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks.

The plot suspects are Iranian-American Manssor Arbabsiar, 56, arrested on September 29 in New York, and Gholam Shakuri, said to be a member of Quds Force, the covert, operational arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. He is thought to be in Iran.

U.S. evidence rests mainly on Arbabsiar’s alleged confession that he had acted for men he thought were top Quds officials.

MOTIVE AND MEANS

Yet questions abound over the putative plot, not least the classic ones of motive and means. Many analysts are skeptical.

What could Iran hope to gain from an assassination that would have brought fierce retribution? Why try to recruit a hitman from a Mexican drug cartel instead of using its own?

On the other hand, why would the United States, even with a presidential election looming next year, go public with such accusations unless they were well founded, knowing the impact they could have on an already volatile Middle East?

“Killing the Saudi envoy in America has no benefit for Iran,” said independent Iranian analyst Saeed Leylaz. “Why should Iran create hostility when the region is boiling?

Dismissing the “very amateur scenario” as out of character, he said: “Iran might have conducted some political adventurism like denying the Holocaust, but an assassination attempt, particularly in America, is so un-Iranian.”

It would certainly be a departure for Iran, although it has assassinated its own dissidents abroad since the 1979 Islamic revolution, and it has used Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and Shi’ite militias in Iraq to further its own aims.

Decision-making in Tehran is murky and factional rivalry is rife. But the idea that rogue Quds elements could concoct such a momentous plot seems a stretch. That Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would authorize it seems more so.

“The United States would not blame the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) without substantial evidence,” argued U.S.-based global intelligence company Stratfor.

“However, this plot seems far-fetched considering the Iranian intelligence services’ usual methods of operation and the fact that its ramifications would involved substantial political risk,” it added.

Former CIA agent Robert Baer poured scorn on the reported Iranian conspiracy. “This stinks to holy hell,” he told Britain’s Guardian newspaper. “The Quds Force are very good. They don’t sit down with people they don’t know and make a plot. They use proxies and they are professional about it.”

CONSEQUENCES UNCLEAR

How this lurid episode in the adversarial relationships between Iran, the United States and its Saudi ally will play out in a Middle East already in turmoil is not yet clear.

Iran’s parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, said the “fabricated allegations” were a U.S. bid to divert attention from Arab uprisings that Iran says were inspired by its own Islamic revolution which toppled the U.S.-backed Shah in 1979.

Tehran has watched in glee as popular revolts have ousted U.S. allies in Egypt and Tunisia, even if Islam has not been the overt driving force behind the surge of Arab unrest – it may have more in common with Iran’s own street protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in 2009.

Iran, however, is disconcerted by the upheaval in Syria, its only solid Arab ally and overland link to Hezbollah.

The fall of President Bashar al-Assad would damage Iran’s “resistance” axis and perhaps strengthen Saudi Arabia and Turkey, its main Sunni rivals for influence in the Middle East.

Major General Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force, is already on a U.S. sanctions list for allegedly supporting Assad’s violent six-month-old crackdown on dissent.

Nevertheless, it seems doubtful that any of the protagonists would want to use the alleged Iranian plot as a pretext for all-out confrontation in a region the world depends on for oil.

Given that no one was hurt, Iran, the United States and Saudi Arabia may avert any violent fallout — although Washington clearly intends to push for further international punishment of Iran for its defiance of U.S. policy.

“More U.S. sanctions will be about the limit of it,” said Alastair Newton, a former senior British Foreign Office official and now senior political analyst for Japanese bank Nomura. “The U.S. case hardly looks solid, either, so let’s wait and see.”

U.S. officials have themselves acknowledged that the details of the plot smack of a Hollywood script, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton jesting: “Nobody could make that up, right?”

(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Tehran, Peter Apps and Dmitry Zhdannikov in London, and Washington/New York bureaux; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

13-42

“Game Over” for Gaddafi?

June 30, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nick Carey and Adam Gray-Block

2011-06-29T203208Z_1646673128_GM1E76U0CR801_RTRMADP_3_LIBYA

Stockpiles of ordnance inside a Gaddafi ammunition bunker which is now controlled by rebel fighters are seen approximately 40 kms (25 miles) southeast of Zintan June 29, 2011.

REUTERS/Anis Mili

(Reuters) – Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi could fall within two to three months, the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor said on Tuesday, as rebels sought to build on a gradual advance toward Tripoli.
The ICQ’s Luis Moreno-O campo, who on Monday announced an arrest warrant for Gaddafi on charges of crimes against humanity, is the latest international official to say the Libyan leader would soon capitulate to a NATO-backed revolt.

“It is a matter of time … Gaddafi will face charges,” Moreno-O campo told reporters in The Hague, where the warrants were approved for Gaddafi, his son Said al-Islam and Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi.

He added: “I don’t think we will have to wait for long…In two or three months it is game over.”

The Libyan administration rejects the authority of the ICC and has denied targeting civilians, saying it has acted against armed criminal gangs and al Qaeda militants.
While there is little chance of Gaddafi being arrested if he remains in power, his foes have seized on the warrant to justify the three-month NATO bombing campaign and to try and bolster world opinion in support of the operation.

In Washington, a U.S. Senate panel backed a resolution to formally authorize continued U. s. participation in the NATO-led operation. Senators on the panel rebuked President Barrack Obama for not having sought congressional approval in the first place.

In comments that appeared to make any political settlement even less likely, rebels said after talks in Paris that even indirect contacts with Gaddafi were now excluded — hardening a line that until now acknowledged talks through intermediaries.

“I don’t think there is any place for direct or indirect contact with Gaddafi,” Mahout Sham, a spokesman for the National Transitional Council (NTSC) said after meetings with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

In its eastern stronghold of Benghazi, the NTSC hosted the foreign minister of Bulgaria, whose country along with Romania brought to at least 22 the number of states which recognize the NTSC as representatives of the Libyan people.

Rebels Closer to Tripoli

The rebellion against Gaddafi has made only slow progress since Western countries began bombing three months ago, but rebels say they are finally advancing closer to Tripoli.

Rebels based in the Western Mountains region southwest of the capital made their biggest breakthrough in weeks on Sunday to reach the town of Birr al-Ghanam, where they are now fighting pro- Gaddafi forces for control, their spokesman said.

The move took them 30 km (18 miles) north of their previous position and closer to Tripoli, Gaddafi’s main power base.

A rebel spokesman said there had been further fighting on Monday. “Fighting broke out yesterday evening in Birr Ay and Birr al-Ghanem. The (government) brigades used Grad rockets. The fighting stopped later after strikes by NATO,” he said.

A Reuters photographer said rebels tried to salvage weapons from a pro- Gaddafi arms depot some 20 km (13 miles) southeast of the nearby town of Zintan after it had been bombed by NATO, but they were prevented as fire broke out across the entire depot.

Elsewhere, rebels in Misrata said Gaddafi’s forces struck at the Mediterranean coastal city some 200 km (125 miles) east of Tripoli overnight. Rebels said they blew up a vehicle laden with arms belonging to Gaddafi’s forces in nearby Zlitan on Tuesday but were downbeat on the prospect of any imminent advances.

“Given our limited means, I don’t see how we are going to make major gains,” a rebel spokesman called Abdelsalam said.

The revolt has turned into the bloodiest of the Arab Spring uprisings against autocratic rulers across the Middle East, becoming a full-blown civil war with control of the country divided between the rebels and Gaddafi’s government.

In London, a British minister told reporters a team planning for a post-conflict Libya had recommended Gaddafi’s security forces be left largely intact after any rebel victory, avoiding an error made after the Iraq war.

“One of the first things that should happen once Tripoli falls is that someone should get on the phone to the former Tripoli chief of police and tell him he’s got a job and he needs to ensure the safety and security of the people of Tripoli,” said International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell.

The report of the UK-led team is to be presented at the next meeting of an international contact group on Libya on July 15.

“NATO Fig Leaf”

Reporters were taken on Tuesday by Libyan government minders to the town of Bain Wailed, a tribal stronghold about 150 km (90 miles) southeast of Tripoli to attend a pro- Gaddafi rally.

“We are here to show that all Libyan people love Gaddafi,” said schoolteacher Halo Aimed, 20, one of 200 mostly female supporters, some of whom fired machine guns in the air, while two carried unloaded rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

Bain Wailed is home to the Walhalla, Libya’s biggest tribe, which originally announced its opposition to Gaddafi when the uprising began in February. The tribe’s revolt was quickly suppressed by forces loyal to Gaddafi.

The launch of a third war in a Muslim country has divided U. s. public opinion while tens of thousands of troops are still deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. U. s. forces took the lead in the air campaign’s initial days, but quickly turned command over to NATO, with most bombing carried out by Britain and France.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee backed a resolution formally authorizing U. s. participation in the operation but banning the introduction of U.S. troops on the ground.

Senators said Obama should have sought approval in Congress earlier. U. s. State Department legal adviser Harold Kohl said no authorization was needed because the U. s. role was too limited to be considered “hostilities” under the War Powers Resolution, which requires presidents to seek approval for military action.

Senator Jim Webb, a Democrat and former U. s. Navy secretary, said any operation that lasts for months and costs billions could be defined as hostilities “even under the NATO fig leaf.”

(Additional reporting by Maria Gorgonian in Benghazi, Michael Martian in Beijing, Susan Cornell in Washington, John Irish in Paris, Joseph Nash in Berlin, David Brainstorm in Brussels and Hasid Auld Aimed in Algiers; Writing by Mark John; Editing by Peter Graff)

13-27