Transcript: Greg Thielmann Interview
HARRY SHEARER INTERVIEWS GREG THIELMANN
LE SHOW, JANUARY 27, 2013
Listen to the podcast here.
Here it is! From deep inside your radio.
HARRY SHEARER: This is Le Show, and we’re coming up on the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the invasion of Iraq, of shock and awe. I know, kids, look it up. And so it seemed to me that before we can look forward to what may or may not happen with regard to Iran this year, it might be time to spend a few minutes looking backward. And my guest today is Greg Thielmann, who is a senior fellow at the Arms Control Institute in Washington, D.C., and during the period in question leading up to the Iraq war was a member of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, which is an intelligence agency inside the State Department. Do I have it right? Welcome, Greg, and do I have it right so far?
GREG THIELMANN: That’s pretty good. The Arms Control Association –
HARRY SHEARER: Ah.
GREG THIELMANN: – in Washington, D.C. is my current employer, and I was indeed in 2002, until the fall of 2002 I was in the State Department’s intelligence bureau. I retired then at the beginning of October, and exactly 10 years ago I was listening to, with some incredulity, at what the Bush administration was saying about the Iraq WMD threat.
HARRY SHEARER: Well, your name became known to me, and I think most people who were paying attention to the English and Australian news media at the time, along with two other people, Dr. Brian Jones in Britain and Andrew Wilkie in Australia, as three people inside the intelligence world who were saying publicly that what we were being told the intelligence said, the intelligence wasn’t saying. Did you see Colin Powell on his recent appearance on Meet the Press?
GREG THIELMANN: I did not see the interview, no.
HARRY SHEARER: All right. Let me just review something he said. This is on Meet the Press, January 13th of this year.
COLIN POWELL: We were basing all of our actions on a National Intelligence Estimate that the Congress asked for. It was provided to the Congress by the CIA. And all of us in the Bush administration at that time accepted the judgment of our 16 intelligence communities. I presented it to the UN. We subsequently found out that a lot of that information was not accurate, and that is very unfortunate, but that’s the way it unfolded… The president had more than sufficient basis to believe that there were weapons of mass destruction that were a danger to the world, and the possibility of those weapons going to terrorists, and so he undertook military action. I think that was the correct thing to do and it was well supported by the intelligence.
HARRY SHEARER: Is that an accurate statement?
GREG THIELMANN: I’m very sorry to hear him put it that way, because I had a lot of respect for Colin Powell as Secretary of State. I felt honored working for him as Secretary of State.
One of the things that I particularly dislike about what he just said was, in the fall of 2002 there was a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraqi WMD. On the most important assessment in that estimate concerning the Iraqi nuclear weapons program – and there was a nuclear weapons program prior to the first Gulf war, but 15 agencies in that estimate said that Iraq had reconstituted the nuclear program, which had been dormant and had ended after the first Gulf war. One agency, Colin Powell’s own agency, the intelligence bureau of the State Department, said that the evidence did not support that conclusion. That is, that the evidence showed that Iraq had not reconstituted its nuclear weapons program.
And of all the various assessments about chemical weapons, about biological weapons, about missiles, that was the most critical assessment. And the State Department not only dissented, as the State Department would sometimes do, with an asterisk and a one-liner, it was basically a dissent with the entire judgment requiring a lot of words and was on the front page of the executive summary of the estimate. It was on the one-pager that went to the president of the United States. And that should raise alarm bells, not because the State Department intelligence bureau is always right, although I would argue that INR, which is its acronym, INR was more often right than not when we dissented from the majority, but that Colin Powell in particular, who knew or should have known from our memoranda and from his conversations with the head of our bureau the reasons, the detailed reasons why the evidence was not sound behind that conclusion.
It’s very disappointing that he would put it this way, and I have a little bit of sympathy for his political position at the time. Colin Powell had been arguing that we had to take this to the United Nations if we were going to have international support for something as risky and dangerous as invading Iraq, and the rest of the Bush administration was very reluctant to do that but Powell prevailed. And then we got UN support for returning the UN inspectors to Iraq. They had just hit the ground when one week later the Bush administration said that these feckless inspectors are not going to be able to find anything. In fact, the inspectors found out a great deal of information when they were on the ground. They found out that the claim that there was a mobile biological weapons lab was untrue, they found out that what the president had said, almost exactly 10 years ago, about the Iraqis obtaining uranium from Africa, that that was also untrue based on a forged document, they succeeded in getting Saddam Hussein to destroy the short-range ballistic missiles that had gone over the range that they were permitted, and on the nuclear front the inspectors found out that the aluminum tubes that the intelligence community had said were being used to spin and enrich uranium so that it could be made into weapons-grade material, these aluminum tubes were, as we in the intelligence bureau assessed at the time, were being used for artillery rockets, having nothing at all to do with nuclear weapons.
Why is the nuclear part of it so important? Because in the fall of 2002 Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Advisor; Dick Cheney, the vice president of the United States; and various others of the administration were conjuring up images of mushroom clouds. George Bush was saying that we cannot wait five years until the first indication of a nuclear capability is a mushroom cloud. So they were very much using this kind of scare tactic to win support for an invasion of Iraq when the evidence, particularly on the nuclear side of the question, was very weak, and it was very frustrating for me as a recently retired intelligence analyst who had seen all the information, who knew that there were differences of opinion on this, to not only hear the administration try to sell this line but for it to be received with such credulity by the Congress and by much of the press, even though members of the Congress, some members of the Congress on the intelligence committees, had access to the details. In fact, very few people read the detailed intelligence assessment that got into some of these details and got into some discussion of what the evidence was.
HARRY SHEARER: You read the intelligence assessment. You said a moment ago, I think, that the front page contained a reference to the State Department bureau’s dissent. Was that – how would you characterize their reference to your bureau’s dissent?
GREG THIELMANN: The way it appears in the estimate is that the Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence disagrees with the judgment rendered. So it’s not, as Condoleezza Rice said on Meet the Press in the fall of 2002 when – or perhaps it was 2003 – when she was read a statement that I had made about the administration ignoring the dissent on this issue, she said, “I cannot be responsible for what everyone in the bowels of the bureaucracy –
HARRY SHEARER: (laughs)
GREG THIELMANN: – thought about this issue.” Well, this wasn’t the bowels of the bureaucracy (laughs), this was the head of one of the 16 intelligence bureaus, and in fact one of the very few bureaus who renders analytical judgments on all sources of intelligence. I mean, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Bureau of Intelligence and Research are the three principal agencies that look at all the intelligence and render these kind of judgments. Condoleezza Rice I think said at the time that she didn’t even read the INR dissent from the majority opinion, which is rather odd as the president’s National Security Advisor as the nation is getting ready to go to war.
HARRY SHEARER: Even odder if you consider that a couple years later she was going to be Secretary of State.
GREG THIELMANN: Indeed.
HARRY SHEARER: What can one, from the outside – how can one from the outside assess the Secretary of State’s relationship to this intelligence agency? Does the head of INR meet with the Secretary of State on a regular basis? Does he get briefed on a regular basis by the head of INR, or does INR just work away in the bowels of the bureaucracy and hope that their stuff gets read?
GREG THIELMANN: There are two ways that the product of the State Department’s intelligence bureau reaches the Secretary of State. The head of the bureau does meet on a daily basis with either the Secretary or the Deputy Secretary of State, and other senior officials in the building meet on a daily basis with the intelligence bureau. The reason for that is not so much that there is such a keen respect for the brilliant minds in the bureau, although there certainly are brilliant minds in the bureau, but rather much of the intelligence that all of the intelligence agencies of the U.S. government collect is, in the vernacular, top-secret code word. And there are special handling instructions for that intelligence. And when I was in the State Department the only bureau that could carry that intelligence and store it overnight was the intelligence bureau. So it was a very necessary connection between the senior officials and the intelligence bureau to make sure that on a daily basis they got the intelligence, not just the headlines and the raw data but some analytical content. Those of us in the bureau who were familiar with the subjects would both explain what the raw intelligence coming in said and also what it meant.
And Colin Powell was in general receptive, interested in the intelligence product. He actually even gave instructions to the State Department that he would like it to be organized a little bit more like a military command, so in the military you have a G2 function, the intelligence function, and every commander has a G2 officer to turn to, and he wanted the intelligence bureau of the State Department to be very much on this model. Now I had personal problems with that when under Powell’s instructions I would appear each day to Undersecretary John Bolton –
HARRY SHEARER: (laughs)
GREG THIELMANN: – who was Undersecretary for International Security Affairs.
HARRY SHEARER: I can’t imagine, I can’t imagine what those problems might have been. (laughing)
GREG THIELMANN: Well, on the fourth day, Bolton’s staffer informed me that the undersecretary had decided that he wanted to keep these briefings inside the family. To which I responded something like, “Well I thought I was in the family.” (laughs) “Moreover, the Secretary of State has asked that we do this.” But that was the end of our daily personal contact. It was not the end of the intelligence flow. I mean, every day John Bolton received a very thick collection of intelligence reports, some of them direct from the agencies, some of them with some value added by the State Department intelligence bureau. There was no cutoff to the intelligence, but let’s say there was a certain disinterest in certain quarters in what the State Department was trying to share with the senior officials.
HARRY SHEARER: This, I guess, calls upon you to speculate a hair, but why do you think – and correct me if I’m wrong – the INR was correct about the aluminum tubes in advance of the inspectors, I think you just said that, the INR – I don’t recall whether they had weighed in correctly on the yellowcake issue of Saddam trying to buy uranium, supposedly trying to buy uranium –
GREG THIELMANN: INR had sent a memorandum in the winter of 2002 to the Secretary of State basically warning him off that piece of intelligence. We suspected a forgery or something that didn’t ring right and we expressed great skepticism about it. And frankly, as the supervisor of the analyst who was rendering that judgment, I really almost forgot about the issue because I thought everyone in the intelligence community accepted that as a not very credible report. And so I was personally shocked months later, after I had retired, and the president included a line in his State of the Union address referring to the uranium from Africa. And my first reaction was, well there must be some new intelligence received since I left. And then I slowly realized that he was talking about the same discredited intelligence that we had told Secretary Powell about that I thought had been already thoroughly discounted at the time.
But I’m afraid that there were many in the Bush administration who wanted to go to war and saw intelligence not as a way to objectively understand what was happening, but to cherry pick the intelligence, and any time there was something, whether it was of high credibility or not, if it was something that would make the case that Saddam had to be stopped through military action, that would be used, and the ears were plugged if we explained about something that seemed not to be very credible like the Curveball source that the West Germans had used on the biological weapons laboratories.
HARRY SHEARER: So you, I guess, have partly answered my question. The question was going to be, why among all the intelligence agencies did the INR not get the memo?
GREG THIELMANN: (laughs) Well, I sometimes joke to my friends that we would rather be feckless and ignored than wrong and unobjective. And it was a very, a very bright line in the tradition of INR written between the policy bureaus of the State Department, the Americans, the foreign service officers and civil servants who would try to carry out the policies of the president of the United States in various regions of the world and the analysts in the intelligence bureau whose job was to try to do their best to objectively describe what was happening in the world and how that impacted U.S. interests. And there were certainly a lot of times when the policy bureaus of the State Department disagreed strenuously with our analysis and they didn’t want to hear it and they would become less interested in hearing any more of it. But that was okay. I mean, obviously intelligence analysts want their products read, but we tried very hard when I was at the State Department intelligence bureau not to let policy reactions affect analytical content.
And I would even argue that we were more successful in doing that than the Central Intelligence Agency, who I think it’s pretty clear now, George Tenet very much valued his daily meetings with President Bush and knew that telling the president, reminding the president repeatedly that he was not really accurately conveying the intelligence as the CIA understood it, was not something that Tenet seemed particularly interested in doing.
HARRY SHEARER: Okay, let’s widen the scope a little bit, because we get into the nutty coincidence area here, and then shortly we’ll move to the future. But at around the same time, Dr. Brian Jones, who was head of the WMD analysis branch of the Defence Intelligence services in Great Britain, says that the intelligence advice received by the government that Iraq possessed significant stocks of WMD was wrong; “real intelligence analysts did their best to ensure a balanced assessment reflecting the uncertainty about this, to ensure that that emerged to the public, but they were overruled at the most senior level by those without the appropriate experience and expertise.” That’s a quote from Dr. Brian Jones, who passed away last year, about the process of preparing the so-called “dodgy dossier” that was the British government’s chief public defense for the war in September of 2002.
And then Andrew Wilkie, who was in the Australian Office of National Assessments and is now a member of Parliament, said, quote – and he said this in May of 2003: “Some in the Australian intelligence community had latched onto the dodgy American intelligence, resulting in partial contamination of assessments with an overestimation of Iraq’s WMD capability. But Australian intelligence agencies made it clear to the government” – the Australian government – “all along that Iraq – did – not – have a massive WMD program.” So, this seems to be almost an echoing in America’s two major English-speaking allies of the same thing that was going on in Washington. Is it just a nutty coincidence?
GREG THIELMANN: It’s certainly more than a coincidence. It’s a fascinating subject, because the U.S., the British and the Australians have a very deep and intimate intelligence-sharing relationship. The intelligence seen by British analysts or Australian analysts is virtually identical to that seen by American analysts. We obviously have a much larger intelligence establishment and can, particularly on a technical level, produce a lot more into the system.
But I know Wilkie personally, have great respect for him, have dealt obviously with the British and Australian counterparts, and there was a very similar thing happening in all three countries. There was some bad intelligence tradecraft, I would certainly be free to admit, on the U.S. side. Much of that has been I think successfully addressed after the Iraq WMD fiasco, but more troubling than the bad tradecraft was the way that the political leadership, in all three countries really, spun the information that they had. The already flawed information made it far worse in terms of jumping to conclusions or exaggerating what the intelligence actually said, and I very much see a parallel story going on in the three countries at the time.
And one of the wonderful things that historians have to try to sort out this whole episode is the results of British contacts with the Americans in the summer of 2002 when very senior British agency heads, intelligence officials, Foreign and Defence Ministry officials, came to the United States, met with their counterparts, and then prepared a report for the British prime minister on what was going on in the United States with respect to Iraq. It’s now called the Downing Street Memo, and it is uncanny in its accuracy and the vividness of the picture that it portrays, and it has a very descriptive sentence in it about the American administration is fixing the intelligence around the policy. This is a devastating indictment by one of our closest friends about what was actually going on here, and the worst part is of course that the British were later complicit in that fixing, in a sense, but that only came out of course after the invasion. And even when it came out a couple of years later, it took one week after the story broke in Britain for it even to get into the American press, and it was treated in the American press as some sort of a British domestic issue when in fact it was one of the most damning pieces of evidence against what was going on inside the U.S. administration about the use of intelligence and the determination to attack Iraq no matter what the intelligence said.
HARRY SHEARER: One more question about the workings inside the State Department. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who was the I guess chief aide to Colin Powell, said publicly within a couple years after the event that he “participated in a hoax” – those were his words – in the preparation of Colin Powell’s remarks before the United Nations, the mobile bio weapons van and other wonderful demonstrations. What was your assessment of Col. Wilkerson at the time, and why do you think that Secretary Powell continues to act as if Col. Wilkerson never said that?
GREG THIELMANN: (laughs) Well, it’s kind of a damning comment. I have respect for Col. Wilkerson. I didn’t have a lot of contact with him inside the State Department. I’ve actually seen him up close and personal more since that time.
One of the oddest things at the time was that Colin Powell, Col. Wilkerson disappeared for like four days into the CIA and relied exclusively at that point on CIA analysts for packaging this intelligence, and they’re the ones who really prepared the remarks that Powell would give.
There are two things to say about this, and both of them really come from one of the little-known things that happened at the time, and that is that Powell provided drafts of his remarks to the analysts who had been working for me. This was several months after I had retired, but those analysts wrote back to him some warnings about what to use, where things were not faithfully rendered on the basis of the intelligence. And anyone in the public can now read this. It was part of the unclassified Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the whole Iraq WMD fiasco, and it’s an annex to one of these reports. You can actually see the memoranda written by these mid-level INR intelligence analysts warning the Secretary of State not to say this, not to say that, not to put it this way because that would be misleading, and so to Powell’s credit he didn’t just seclude himself with the CIA, he actually did get a text back for comment. One only wishes that he would have taken the head of his bureau along for this experience and that could have saved him a lot of grief.
The speech that he gave in February of 2003 was a lot better than the speech that he was given, but it was certainly not purged of the exaggerations and the unfortunate characterizations of the intelligence. And there’s no way but to hold Secretary Powell partly guilty for doing that, even though one has to be very sympathetic about the position that he was put in.
It’s easy for me to say, but I dearly wish that Powell would have gone to the president at that point and said that “You are asking me to do something that I cannot in good conscience do. I will either have to resign or you will have to change the way we put this.” That is not really what I think Colin Powell understood his job to be. His job was to be to argue forcefully behind closed doors for what he thought was right and then if the president makes a decision he saluted smartly and carried out his orders. That is pretty much what he did, and I think it’s kind of a model now of what not to do. There is a time when you have to be able to say, “I cannot in good conscience do this. I’ve got to go.”
HARRY SHEARER: You came out publicly and said some of what you’ve been saying on this program, at the time. Did you experience – but you’d already retired I believe by that point, although maybe you said something publicly before you retired, I’m not sure – but did you experience any personal splashback from that?
GREG THIELMANN: To my relief, I did not. Frankly, there was concern at the time – I mean the oaths one takes to protect secrets are pretty explicit, and the consequences of betraying those oaths are also explicit. The way I looked at it in the fall of 2002 and during the next year was that I did not release top-secret classified information other than commenting on the top-secret information that had been very highly classified until the president of the United States started talking about it publicly and mischaracterizing it. And I publicly disagreed with that version of the facts. Now I think a lawyer could probably argue that it’s not up to me to decide when and when I cannot publicly engage in discussion; only the president of the United States can decide to declassify certain sensitive information.
So I guess there was some level of risk there, but frankly the thing that worried me more than anything else was that in making public comments about this I might lose the respect of the people with whom I worked and had spent a 25-year career in the foreign service with, that they would think that I had not characterized things accurately or I was somehow betraying what my own job had been, and fortunately I heard some people who were not happy but for the most part a lot of people seemed to think that I had said, as a retired former foreign service officer, what many of them were thinking at the time but did not say because they were constrained by their official duties.
HARRY SHEARER: More with Greg Thielmann here on Le Show coming up.
* * * * *
HARRY SHEARER: This is Le Show. We’re talking with Greg Thielmann of the Arms Control Association. Let’s turn now to the present and possibly the future. Are we seeing today an echo, in regards to the nuclear possibilities of Iran, an echo of what we saw with regard to the nuclear possibilities of Iraq a decade ago?
GREG THIELMANN: I like the word you used, “echo.” It does remind me of that saying that history doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes, and whether it’s an echo or whether it’s a rhyme, I’m hearing a lot of that now in discussions about Iran and its future weapons of mass destruction capabilities. There are a lot of similarities, but I want to mention some of the critical differences, I think.
And one of the critical differences is that the intelligence community itself is I think performing in a much more professional manner than it did in 2002, and a lot of it is because of some soul searching by the leadership of the intelligence community, by congressional oversight and investigation of what went wrong, and as a result of all that there were a lot of reforms undertaken. There were reforms in terms of strengthening the intelligence committees of the House and the Senate. There were reforms in terms of methodology used by analysts, more specific assignment of analysts to do red teaming analysis, to have as their jobs either out-of-the-box contrary thinking to the majority opinion or intensive thinking of how things look from the antagonist’s perspective.
And one of the shocking things about Iraq was that the idea that Iraq could be thinking about bluffing both his own people, in terms of how advanced Iraqi WMD capabilities were, or convincing potential enemies, like Iran or the United States, that he was more capable than he actually was, that he was actually too clever by half. He did convince the U.S. and many people in the U.S. that he had more than he actually had, but that’s not necessarily an excuse for the intelligence community. The intelligence community should have been on to his potential motivation of exaggerating his capabilities. He was at the same time, of course, trying to convince most of the world that he was following the strictures that had been placed on him by the United Nations.
So that was one thing that I would note happily that the intelligence community has gotten better at its trade. And you can see that in subsequent National Intelligence Estimates. They are now more transparent. You can understand more about some human being or some agent’s account of things, where it came from, what the circumstances were, that the people reading the estimates have a lot more information about where the information is coming from than previously. So that’s one thing that has changed.
The other thing, frankly, that has changed is, in 2002 – (laughs) and you clearly had a president who wanted a chance to go to war and get back at Saddam Hussein – in this case I think few people would say that President Obama is eager to engage the Iranians militarily. This is clearly a president who is very reluctant to use massive military force against Iran. So those are two critical changes in the situation that make things different.
The unfortunate similarity that keeps haunting me is the way members of Congress talk about Iran, the way the press often characterizes Iran, is so much like what happened with Iraq. Most people would get the impression that Iran is moving out smartly to develop and build nuclear weapons.
It is still the official position of the U.S. intelligence community that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, that the Iranian leaders have not decided to actually go that final step to build a nuclear weapon and deploy a nuclear weapon. So that’s the official position of the intelligence community today, and this mostly came out in the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, the bottom line of which has been repeated in yearly fashion since that time, so that discrepancy between the way the issue is handled politically, by the political class, and what we think that we know from what the intelligence shows is very important.
You also have other important differences, of course. You have a clerical government in Iran, which I actually find quite odious in most ways, but that government does say that nuclear weapons are immoral, that they are un-Islamic, that the country will not develop nuclear weapons, that all nuclear weapons should be destroyed. This is not what Saddam Hussein said about nuclear weapons. It’s certainly not what North Korea says about nuclear weapons, or Pakistan or other states of proliferation concern. So whether it’s true or not, this is another thing that makes it a little bit easier for us to engage the Iranians, because as Secretary Clinton once said, if the Iranian fatwa or religious declaration says that nuclear weapons are immoral and that Iran will not develop them, then let’s operationalize that. Let’s make it very clear through the International Atomic Agency inspections that Iran is living up to that religious mandate.
So there are a lot of things that we can play with now that we didn’t have earlier.
HARRY SHEARER: One other difference, perhaps, that I want to get your view on, we seem to be told a lot that U.S. intelligence capabilities in Iran, specifically human intelligence capabilities in Iran, are pretty thin, which compares with – I mean, we had penetrated Iraq following the first Gulf war and certainly had reason to know more about what was going on in Iraq than maybe we have capability to know about what’s going on in Iran. Is that understanding accurate?
GREG THIELMANN: I have to be careful about my answer here for two reasons. Some of what I know I shouldn’t talk about and there’s much that I don’t know, in order to give a good answer to your question, but I’ll say a couple of things.
One is, those of us on the inside often said at the time of the Iraq WMD affair that we thought the U.S. had very poor human intelligence from inside the country, and while I think there’s a lot of truth in that assessment even today, I was shocked to realize after I had retired and after some revelations that the clandestine services of the United States had actually penetrated Iraq with relatives of family members who were working on Iraq’s WMD programs prior to the first Gulf war, and there were almost three dozen contacts of this nature, people going back to Iraq, talking to their relatives, finding out a little bit about what they were doing, and all of the reports came back and reported that they weren’t engaged any longer in these programs.
The only problem was, the CIA didn’t find that very interesting, and they didn’t even share it with all the other intelligence agencies, this incredible intelligence coup and penetration into Iraq. So I would say now that our human intelligence on Iraq was actually better than I had understood at the time.
As for our success today, I won’t talk about what is or may be going on inside Iran, I would only say that there have been more than one public stories about Iranian defectors or high-level scientists or generals who knew something about what Iran was doing who left Iran, and obviously that kind of thing gives us a window, although a partial one, it at least gives us a window into what was going on inside, so you can at least say that we have scored some coups in that way. And the other thing that one has to note is that in discovering the Fordo deep underground mountain facility that the Iranians seem to want to keep secret, that showed that Iran does have difficulty keeping the big secrets from the United States. So I have some reasonable confidence that we’re not going to have a Pearl Harbor type situation.
HARRY SHEARER: And you just mentioned a word that sparks in my thinking a similarity to the Iraq situation, the word being “defectors.” Curveball was a defector. Ahmed Chalabi proffered a number of defectors in the pre-Iraq-war period whose accounts later were found to be wanting in accuracy, and there are similar groups active in and outside of Iran today who are, although we are not as aware of it as we were of the Chalabi operation, apparently offering defectors with who knows what level of accuracy about the information that they’re spreading. Is that really what’s going on now? Is it at a Chalabi level, both numbers and accuracy wise?
GREG THIELMANN: I think there are some very significant differences on that front as well between the two situations, Iraq and then Iran. In the case of Iraq, you had the Iraqi National Congress which produced – this was Chalabi’s organization – which produced a lot of very unreliable information. I mean, they tailored their stories very much to play to what the Bush administration wanted to hear, to a number of congressmen who were very gullible about whatever they told them, and they basically told them whatever they needed to say to convince them that Saddam Hussein was moving forward on WMD programs.
There’s really, the closest equivalent to the Iraqi National Congress at the time is a strange group called the MEK that was, you know, a socialist group that actually went in league with the Iraqis to fight against the Iranians, and they’re ironically at least the apparent source of information about the large facility in Natanz where the Iranians first started enriching uranium, and they’ve been the source of some other tips. Whether they were the original source or just the flow-through from other countries in the region is another issue, but much of the information they’ve provided is very unreliable.
You do have a group of Iranian-Americans, the National Iranian-American Council, NIAC, that I find to be a very professional and responsible organization in terms of how it characterizes what’s going on in Iran. So I think we’re better off, in terms of Americans who have an ethnic tie to Iran and some knowledge of the political context of what’s going on, we’re much better off than we were in the case of Iraq on that front too. So for those who want to work at it, I think there are a lot more sources and more reliable information on what’s actually happening in Iran than there seemed to be at the time on Iraq.
HARRY SHEARER: On the other hand, should it have set off alarm bells when MEK succeeded in getting, in paying large sums to members in both political parties to speak on their behalf and to lobby for the removal of the State Department’s designation of them as a terrorist organization which was successful last year?
GREG THIELMANN: It certainly set off alarm bells for me. I’m still shocked at seeing the list of some of the Americans who received money from the MEK for making its case. And it’s very odd to have so many politicians lined up in support of a terrorist organization that at least some years ago was involved in activities that resulted in the death of American citizens. It’s very odd.
And I have some sympathy for Secretary Clinton’s ultimate removal of the group from the terrorist list partly because, you know, there’s a very delicate negotiation going on with the Iraqis. These people have been kept in a camp in Iran for years after the end of the war against Iraq, and there was a lot of concern that they would be massacred by the Iraqi government and, you know, there was an humanitarian impulse here and there were clearly some changes in the organization’s orientation. There was at least a lawyer’s case to make that they were no longer a terrorist organization.
But the enthusiasm with which they were represented and the advocacy for their removal from the list I thought was very unfortunate because there’s hardly anything that the U.S could have done that would more convince the Iranian government that the U.S. government wants regime change in Tehran and wants to destroy the regime than doing anything favorable to the MEK. And I don’t – that’s just not the Iranian regime, by the way, it’s virtually the entire population of Iran hates the MEK, so we did not do ourselves any favors with the Iranian people with our handling of this matter.
HARRY SHEARER: I’ve taken more of your time than I promised, and it’s been incredibly informative. Greg Thielmann of the Arms Control Association, thank you very much for joining us today on Le Show.
GREG THIELMANN: You’re welcome, Harry.
HARRY SHEARER: Well, ladies and gentlemen, that’s going to conclude this week’s edition of Le Show. The program returns next week at the same time over these same stations, over NPR Worldwide throughout Europe, the USEN 440 cable system in Japan, around the world through the facilities of the American Forces Network, up and down the East Coast of North America – think of it – at WBCQ The Planet 7.490 MHz shortwave – think of that!on the Mighty 104 in Berlin, around the world via the Internet – it’s already been thought of – at two different locations, live and archived whenever you want it, harryshearer.com and kcrw.com. Available for your smartphone – or your dumbphone – through stitcher.com, and available as a free podcast or schmodcast at kcrw.com. And it would be just like Colin Powell were coming clean – heh! – if you’d agree to join with us then, or me then! There’s only one of me. Would you? All righty, thank you very much, uh huh.
A tip of the Le Show chapeau to the San Diego, Pittsburgh, Chicago in exile, and Hawaii desks. Thanks as always to Pam Halstead. Thanks also to Brian Forman at Studio 14DC in Washington and Jeffrey Talbot at Audio Works Level 3 here in New Orleans for engineering help with today’s broadcast.
Just about 80,000 people follow the Twitter emanation of this broadcast @theharryshearer. Shouldn’t you?
Le Show comes to you from Century of Progress Productions and originates from the facilities of KCRW Santa Monica, the community recognized around the world as The Home of the Homeless. So long from New Orleans!