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Bush Authorizes New Covert Action Against Iran

Bush Authorizes New Covert Action Against Iran

Brian Ross / Richard Esposito, ABC News

The CIA has received secret presidential approval to mount a covert
“black” operation to destabilize the Iranian government, current and
former officials in the intelligence community tell the Blotter on

The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the
sensitive nature of the subject, say President Bush has signed a
“nonlethal presidential finding” that puts into motion a CIA plan
that reportedly includes a coordinated campaign of propaganda,
disinformation and manipulation of Iran’s currency and international
financial transactions.
“I can’t confirm or deny whether such a program exists or whether the
president signed it, but it would be consistent with an overall
American approach trying to find ways to put pressure on the regime,”
said Bruce Riedel, a recently retired CIA senior official who dealt
with Iran and other countries in the region.

A National Security Council spokesperson, Gordon Johndroe, said, “The
White House does not comment on intelligence matters.” A CIA
spokesperson said, “As a matter of course, we do not comment on
allegations of covert activity.”

The sources say the CIA developed the covert plan over the last year
and received approval from White House officials and other officials
in the intelligence community.

Officials say the covert plan is designed to pressure Iran to stop
its nuclear enrichment program and end aid to insurgents in Iraq.

“There are some channels where the United States government may want
to do things without its hand showing, and legally, therefore, the
administration would, if it’s doing that, need an intelligence
finding and would need to tell the Congress,” said ABC News
consultant Richard Clarke, a former White House counterterrorism

Current and former intelligence officials say the approval of the
covert action means the Bush administration, for the time being, has
decided not to pursue a military option against Iran.

“Vice President Cheney helped to lead the side favoring a military
strike,” said former CIA official Riedel, “but I think they have come
to the conclusion that a military strike has more downsides than

The covert action plan comes as U.S. officials have confirmed Iran
had dramatically increased its ability to produce nuclear weapons
material, at a pace that experts said would give them the ability to
build a nuclear bomb in two years.

Riedel says economic pressure on Iran may be the most effective tool
available to the CIA, particularly in going after secret accounts
used to fund the nuclear program.

“The kind of dealings that the Iranian Revolution Guards are going to
do, in terms of purchasing nuclear and missile components, are likely
to be extremely secret, and you’re going to have to work very, very
hard to find them, and that’s exactly the kind of thing the CIA’s
nonproliferation center and others would be expert at trying to look
into,” Riedel said.

Under the law, the CIA needs an official presidential finding to
carry out such covert actions. The CIA is permitted to mount covert
“collection” operations without a presidential finding.

“Presidential findings” are kept secret but reported to the Senate
Select Committee on Intelligence, the House Permanent Select
Committee on Intelligence and other key congressional leaders.

The “nonlethal” aspect of the presidential finding means CIA officers
may not use deadly force in carrying out the secret operations
against Iran.

Still, some fear that even a nonlethal covert CIA program carries
great risks.

“I think everybody in the region knows that there is a proxy war
already afoot with the United States supporting anti-Iranian elements
in the region as well as opposition groups within Iran,” said Vali
Nasr, adjunct senior fellow for Mideast studies at the Council on
Foreign Relations.

“And this covert action is now being escalated by the new U.S.
directive, and that can very quickly lead to Iranian retaliation and
a cycle of escalation can follow,” Nasr said.

Other “lethal” findings have authorized CIA covert actions against al
Qaeda, terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

Also briefed on the CIA proposal, according to intelligence sources,
were National Security Advisor Steve Hadley and Deputy National
Security Advisor Elliott Abrams.

“The entire plan has been blessed by Abrams, in particular,” said one
intelligence source familiar with the plan. “And Hadley had to put
his chop on it.”

Abrams’ last involvement with attempting to destabilize a foreign
government led to criminal charges.

He pleaded guilty in October 1991 to two misdemeanor counts of
withholding information from Congress about the Reagan
administration’s ill-fated efforts to destabilize the Nicaraguan
Sandinista government in Central America, known as the Iran-Contra
affair. Abrams was later pardoned by President George H. W. Bush in
December 1992.

In June 2001, Abrams was named by then National Security Advisor
Condoleezza Rice to head the National Security Council’s office for
democracy, human rights and international operations. On Feb. 2,
2005, National Security Advisor Hadley appointed Abrams deputy
assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor for
global democracy strategy, one of the nation’s most senior national
security positions.

As earlier reported on the Blotter on ABCNews.com, the United States
has supported and encouraged an Iranian militant group, Jundullah,
that has conducted deadly raids inside Iran from bases on the rugged
Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan “tri-border region.”

U.S. officials deny any “direct funding” of Jundullah groups but say
the leader of Jundullah was in regular contact with U.S. officials.

American intelligence sources say Jundullah has received money and
weapons through the Afghanistan and Pakistan military and Pakistan’s
intelligence service. Pakistan has officially denied any connection.

A report broadcast on Iranian TV last Sunday said Iranian authorities
had captured 10 men crossing the border with $500,000 in cash along
with “maps of sensitive areas” and “modern spy equipment.”

A senior Pakistani official told ABCNews.com the 10 men were members
of Jundullah.

The leader of the Jundullah group, according to the Pakistani
official, has been recruiting and training “hundreds of men” for
“unspecified missions” across the border in Iran.