Our Men in Iran?



Seymour Hersh

From the air, the terrain of the Department of Energy’s Nevada National  Security Site, with its arid high plains and remote mountain peaks, has the look  of northwest Iran. The site, some sixty-five miles northwest of Las Vegas, was  once used for nuclear testing, and now includes a counterintelligence training  facility and a private airport capable of handling Boeing 737 aircraft.

It’s a  restricted area, and inhospitable—in certain sections, the curious are warned  that the site’s security personnel are authorized to use deadly force, if  necessary, against intruders. It was here that the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)  conducted training, beginning in 2005, for members of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, a  dissident Iranian opposition group known in the West as the M.E.K.

The M.E.K.  had its beginnings as a Marxist-Islamist student-led group and, in the  nineteen-seventies, it was linked to the assassination of six American citizens.  It was initially part of the broad-based revolution that led to the 1979  overthrow of the Shah of Iran. But, within a few years, the group was waging a  bloody internal war with the ruling clerics, and, in 1997, it was listed as a  foreign terrorist organization by the State Department. In 2002, the M.E.K.  earned some international credibility by publicly revealing—accurately—that Iran  had begun enriching uranium at a secret underground location. Mohamed ElBaradei,  who at the time was the director general of the International Atomic Energy  Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear monitoring agency, told me later that he had  been informed that the information was supplied by the Mossad.

The M.E.K.’s ties  with Western intelligence deepened after the fall of the Iraqi regime in 2003,  and JSOC began operating inside Iran in an effort to substantiate  the Bush Administration’s fears that Iran was building the bomb at one or more  secret underground locations. Funds were covertly passed to a number of  dissident organizations, for intelligence collection and, ultimately, for  anti-regime terrorist activities. Directly, or indirectly, the M.E.K. ended up  with resources like arms and intelligence. Some American-supported covert  operations continue in Iran today, according to past and present intelligence  officials and military consultants.

Despite the growing ties, and a much-intensified lobbying effort organized by  its advocates, M.E.K. has remained on the State Department’s list of foreign  terrorist organizations—which meant that secrecy was essential in the Nevada  training. “We did train them here, and washed them through the Energy Department  because the D.O.E. owns all this land in southern Nevada,” a former senior  American intelligence official told me. “We were deploying them over long  distances in the desert and mountains, and building their capacity in  communications—coördinating commo is a big deal.” (A spokesman for J.S.O.C. said  that “U.S. Special Operations Forces were neither aware of nor involved in the  training of M.E.K. members.”)

The training ended sometime before President Obama took office, the former  official said. In a separate interview, a retired four-star general, who has  advised the Bush and Obama Administrations on national-security issues, said  that he had been privately briefed in 2005 about the training of Iranians  associated with the M.E.K. in Nevada by an American involved in the program.  They got “the standard training,” he said, “in commo, crypto [cryptography],  small-unit tactics, and weaponry—that went on for six months,” the retired  general said. “They were kept in little pods.” He also was told, he said, that  the men doing the training were from JSOC, which, by 2005, had  become a major instrument in the Bush Administration’s global war on terror. “The JSOC trainers were not front-line guys who had been in the  field, but second- and third-tier guys—trainers and the like—and they started  going off the reservation. ‘If we’re going to teach you tactics, let me show you  some really sexy stuff…’ ”

It was the ad-hoc training that provoked the worried telephone calls to him,  the former general said. “I told one of the guys who called me that they were  all in over their heads, and all of them could end up trouble unless they got  something in writing. The Iranians are very, very good at counterintelligence,  and stuff like this is just too hard to contain.” The site in Nevada was being  utilized at the same time, he said, for advanced training of élite Iraqi combat  units. (The retired general said he only knew of the one M.E.K.-affiliated group  that went though the training course; the former senior intelligence official  said that he was aware of training that went on through 2007.)

Allan Gerson, a Washington attorney for the M.E.K., notes that the M.E.K. has  publicly and repeatedly renounced terror. Gerson said he would not comment on  the alleged training in Nevada. But such training, if true, he said, would be “especially incongruent with the State Department’s decision to continue to  maintain the M.E.K. on the terrorist list. How can the U.S. train those on  State’s foreign terrorist list, when others face criminal penalties for  providing a nickel to the same organization?”

Robert Baer, a retired C.I.A. agent who is fluent in Arabic and had worked  under cover in Kurdistan and throughout the Middle East in his career, initially  had told me in early 2004 of being recruited by a private American  company—working, so he believed, on behalf of the Bush Administration—to return  to Iraq. “They wanted me to help the M.E.K. collect intelligence on Iran’s  nuclear program,” Baer recalled. “They thought I knew Farsi, which I did not. I  said I’d get back to them, but never did.” Baer, now living in California,  recalled that it was made clear to him at the time that the operation was “a  long-term thing—not just a one-shot deal.”

Massoud Khodabandeh, an I.T. expert now living in England who consults for  the Iraqi government, was an official with the M.E.K. before defecting in 1996.  In a telephone interview, he acknowledged that he is an avowed enemy of the  M.E.K., and has advocated against the group. Khodabandeh said that he had been  with the group since before the fall of the Shah and, as a computer expert, was  deeply involved in intelligence activities as well as providing security for the  M.E.K. leadership. For the past decade, he and his English wife have run a  support program for other defectors. Khodabandeh told me that he had heard from  more recent defectors about the training in Nevada.

He was told that the  communications training in Nevada involved more than teaching how to keep in  contact during attacks—it also involved communication intercepts. The United  States, he said, at one point found a way to penetrate some major Iranian  communications systems. At the time, he said, the U.S. provided M.E.K.  operatives with the ability to intercept telephone calls and text messages  inside Iran—which M.E.K. operatives translated and shared with American signals  intelligence experts. He does not know whether this activity is ongoing.

Five Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated since 2007. M.E.K.  spokesmen have denied any involvement in the killings, but early last month NBC  News quoted two senior Obama Administration officials as confirming that the  attacks were carried out by M.E.K. units that were financed and trained by  Mossad, the Israeli secret service. NBC further quoted the Administration  officials as denying any American involvement in the M.E.K. activities. The  former senior intelligence official I spoke with seconded the NBC report that  the Israelis were working with the M.E.K., adding that the operations benefitted  from American intelligence.

He said that the targets were not “Einsteins”; “The  goal is to affect Iranian psychology and morale,” he said, and to “demoralize  the whole system—nuclear delivery vehicles, nuclear enrichment facilities, power  plants.” Attacks have also been carried out on pipelines. He added that the  operations are “primarily being done by M.E.K. through liaison with the  Israelis, but the United States is now providing the intelligence.” An adviser  to the special-operations community told me that the links between the United  States and M.E.K. activities inside Iran had been long-standing. “Everything  being done inside Iran now is being done with surrogates,” he said.

The sources I spoke to were unable to say whether the people trained in  Nevada were now involved in operations in Iran or elsewhere. But they pointed to  the general benefit of American support. “The M.E.K. was a total joke,” the  senior Pentagon consultant said, “and now it’s a real network inside Iran. How  did the M.E.K. get so much more efficient?” he asked rhetorically. “Part of it  is the training in Nevada. Part of it is logistical support in Kurdistan, and  part of it is inside Iran. M.E.K. now has a capacity for efficient operations  that it never had before.”

In mid-January, a few days after an assassination by car bomb of an Iranian  nuclear scientist in Tehran, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, at a town-hall  meeting of soldiers at Fort Bliss, Texas, acknowledged that the U.S. government  has “some ideas as to who might be involved, but we don’t know exactly who was  involved.” He added, “But 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.”

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