Hersh: Cheney ‘Left A Stay Behind’ In Obama’s Government, Can ‘Still Control Policy Up To A Point’


By Matt Corley

Image of Vice President Dick Cheney

In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air yesterday, host Terry Gross asked investigative journalist Seymour Hersh if, as he continues to investigate the Bush administration, “more people” were “coming forward” to talk to him now that “the president and vice president are no longer in power.” Hersh replied that though “a lot of people that had told me in the last year of Bush, ‘call me next, next February,’ not many people had talked to him. He implied that they were still scared of Cheney.

Editor’s Note:
In two interviews with Seymour Hersh on March 31st — Fresh Air with Terry Gross and Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman — he shared a little bit on what he perceives is going on within the new White House … and how much influence Cheney still has.

“Are you saying that you think Vice President Cheney is still having a chilling effect on people who might otherwise be coming forward,” asked Gross. “I’ll make it worse,” answered Hersh, adding that he believes Cheney “put people back” in government to “stay behind” in order to “tell him what’s going on” and perhaps even “do sabotage”:

HERSH: I’ll make it worse. I think he’s put people left. He’s put people back. They call it a stay behind. It’s sort of an intelligence term of art. When you leave a country and, you know, you’ve driven out the, you know, you’ve lost the war. You leave people behind. It’s a stay behind that you can continue to contacts with, to do sabotage, whatever you want to do. Cheney’s left a stay behind. He’s got people in a lot of agencies that still tell him what’s going on. Particularly in defense, obviously. Also in the NSA, there’s still people that talk to him. He still knows what’s going on. Can he still control policy up to a point? Probably up to a point, a minor point. But he’s still there. He’s still a presence.

Listen here:

The idea that Cheney would seed the government with trusted contacts is not surprising. As Hersh noted in his talk with Gross, Cheney has “been around forever” and “understands bureaucracy much better” than almost anyone in government. In 2006, Robert Dreyfuss reported for The American Prospect that when Cheney helped staff the Bush administration in 2001, he put together a “corps of hard-line acolytes” that served “as his eyes and ears” in the federal bureaucracy. Former officials called them “Dick Cheney’s spies.”

Additionally, before leaving office, the Bush administration aggressively placed political appointees into permanent civil service positions as part of a process known as “burrowing.” Some of the burrowed former political appointees have close ties to Cheney, such as Jeffrey T. Salmon, who was a speechwriter for Cheney when he served as defense secretary. In July, he was named deputy director for resource management in the Energy Department’s Office of Science


GROSS: You investigated the Bush administration throughout the Bush administration. Always looking for ways that they may, might have been going beyond executive authority in taking on new powers. And now that the Bush administration is over, you’re still investigating what they did and where they might have violated the law. Is investigating that any different for you as a journalist post-Bush administration than it was during the Bush administration? Are more people coming forward now, now that the president and vice president are no longer in power?

HERSH: You know, that’s a great question because I did think, I had a lot of people that had told me in the last year of Bush, “call me next, next February.” And, so far, even people who are out are still cherry because, you know, not so much Bush, but Cheney really is…he’s really smart. In the article this week, in the New Yorker, that’s coming out this week, I mention that at one point last fall, Mr. Miliband, the young foreign secretary of Britain, unilaterally, without telling the White House made a trip to Syria to see the president, Assad, and his intelligence chief, his MI6 chief went before him. And Bush-Cheney didn’t know about it until actually was, they were actually there. And Cheney at a meeting — and I do have, I can tell you I do have access and have had and I’ve been careful of how I use it, to a lot of stuff from meetings in the White House — and at a he railed on about perfidious Albion, you know, the old Shakespeare term for England and that was used during the Revolutionary war as a pejorative term for England. Perfidious Albion he said. He is, Cheney is really underestimated. It’s easy to make a caricature of him. He’s very very bright. And he’s also in person, a much more open-minded in the sense, I’m talking about not politically. You could go and the most despaired people in the world go and have social evenings with him and his wife and talking about current, as long as you don’t get into politics, movies and stuff like that. It’s, he’s easy to make a caricature, but he’s much more formidable than people think. Got a rap clap memory. Understands bureaucracy much better, he’s been around forever, has had every job.

GROSS: Are you saying that you think Vice President Cheney is still having a chilling effect on people who might otherwise be coming forward and revealing things to you about what happened in the Bush administration?

HERSH: I’ll make it worse. I think he’s put people left. He’s put people back. They call it a stay behind. It’s sort of an intelligence term of art. When you leave a country and, you know, you’ve driven out the, you know, you’ve lost the war. You leave people behind. It’s a stay behind that you can continue to contacts with, to do sabotage, whatever you want to do. Cheney’s left a stay behind. He’s got people in a lot of agencies that still tell him what’s going on. Particularly in defense, obviously. Also in the NSA, there’s still people that talk to him. He still knows what’s going on. Can he still control policy up to a point? Probably up to a point, a minor point. But he’s still there. He’s still a presence. And again, because of the problems this administration’s having filling jobs, a lot of people who served in the Bush Cheney government, particularly even in the White House people on most sophisticated staffs are still there. You simply can’t get rid of everybody, you may not even want to. Some are professional people. But Cheney is, I would never call it admiration, but, you know, formidable, yeah, this guy. This guy is the real McCoy.

Hersh also granted an interview to Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! on March 31st:

AMY GOODMAN: Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh created a stir last month when he said the Bush administration ran an executive assassination ring that reported directly to Vice President Dick Cheney. Hersh made the comment during a speech at the University of Minnesota on March 10th.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Congress has no oversight of it. It’s an executive assassination wing, essentially. And it’s been going on and on and on. And just today in the Times there was a story saying that its leader, a three-star admiral named McRaven, ordered a stop to certain activities because there were so many collateral deaths. It’s been going in–under President Bush’s authority, they’ve been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or to the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving.

AMY GOODMAN: Yesterday, CNN interviewed Dick Cheney’s former national security adviser, John Hannah. Wolf Blitzer asked Hannah about Sy Hersh’s claim.

WOLF BLITZER: Is there a list of terrorists, suspected terrorists out there who can be assassinated?

JOHN HANNAH: There is clearly a group of people that go through a very extremely well-vetted process, inter-agency process, as I think was explained in your piece, that have committed acts of war against the United States, who are at war with the United States, or are suspected of planning operations of war against the United States, who authority is given to the troops in the field and in certain war theaters to capture or kill those individuals. That is certainly true.

WOLF BLITZER: And so, this would be, and from your perspective–and you worked in the Bush administration for many years–it would be totally constitutional, totally legal, to go out and find these guys and to whack ’em.

JOHN HANNAH: There’s no question that in a theater of war, when we are at war, and we know–there’s no doubt, we are still at war against al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and on that Pakistani border, that our troops have the authority to go after and capture and kill the enemy, including the leadership of the enemy.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s John Hannah, Dick Cheney’s former national security adviser. Seymour Hersh joins me now here in Washington, D.C., staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. His latest article appears in the current issue, called “Syria Calling: The Obama Administration’s Chance to Engage in a Middle East Peace.”

OK, welcome to Democracy Now!, Sy Hersh. It was good to see you last night at Georgetown. Talk about, first, these comments you made at the University of Minnesota.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, it was sort of stupid of me to start talking about stuff I haven’t written. I always kick myself when I do it. But I was with Walter Mondale, the former vice president, who was being amazingly open and sort of, for him–he had come a long way in–since I knew him as a senator who was reluctant to oppose the Vietnam War. And so, I was asked about future things, and I just–I am looking into stuff. I’ve done–there’s really nothing I said at Minnesota I haven’t written in the New York Times. Last summer, I wrote a long article about the Joint Special Operations Command.

And just to go back to what John Hannah, who is–was–I think ended up being the senior national security adviser, almost–if not the chief of staff, deputy chief of staff for Dick Cheney in the last three or four years, what he said is simply that, yes, we go after people suspected–that was the word he used–of crimes against America. And I have to tell you that there’s an executive order, signed by Jerry Ford, President Ford, in the ’70s, forbidding such action. It’s not only contrary–it’s illegal, it’s immoral, it’s counterproductive.

The evidence–the problem with having military go kill people when they’re not directly in combat, these are asking American troops to go out and find people and, as you said earlier, in one of the statements I made that you played, they go into countries without telling any of the authorities, the American ambassador, the CIA chief, certainly nobody in the government that we’re going into, and it’s far more than just in combat areas. There’s more–at least a dozen countries and perhaps more. The President has authorized these kinds of actions in the Middle East and also in Latin America, I will tell you, Central America, some countries. They’ve been–our boys have been told they can go and take the kind of executive action they need, and that’s simply–there’s no legal basis for it.

And not only that, if you look at Guantánamo, the American government knew by–well, let’s see, Guantánamo opened in early 2002. “Gitmo,” they call it, the base down in Cuba for alleged al-Qaeda terrorists. An internal report that I wrote about in a book I did years ago, an internal report made by the summer of 2002, estimated that at least half and possibly more of those people had nothing to do with actions against America. The intelligence we have is often very fragmentary, not very good. And the idea that the American president would think he has the constitutional power or the legal right to tell soldiers not engaged in immediate combat to go out and find people based on lists and execute them is just amazing to me. It’s amazing to me.

And not only that, Amy, the thing about George Bush is, everything’s sort of done in plain sight. In his State of the Union address, I think January the 28th, 2003, about a month and a half before we went into Iraq, Bush was describing the progress in the war, and he said–I’m paraphrasing, but this is pretty close–he said that we’ve captured more than 3,000 members of al-Qaeda and suspected members, people suspected of operations against us. And then he added with that little smile he has, “And let me tell you, some of those people will not be able to ever operate again. I can assure you that. They will not be in a position.” He’s clearly talking about killing people, and to applause.

So, there we are. I don’t back off what I said. I wish I hadn’t said it ad hoc, because, like I hope we’re going to talk about in a minute, I spend a lot of time writing stories for The New Yorker, and they’re very carefully vetted, and sometimes when you speak off the top, you’re not as precise.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what the Joint Special Operations Command is and what oversight Congress has of it.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, it’s a special unit. We have something called the Special Operations Command that operates out of Florida, and it involves a lot of wings. And one of the units that work under the umbrella of the Special Operations Command is known as Joint Special Op–JSOC. It’s a special unit. What makes it so special, it’s a group of elite people that include Navy Seals, some Navy Seals, Delta Force, our–what we call our black units, the commando units. “Commando” is a word they don’t like, but that’s what we, most of us, refer to them as. And they promote from within. It’s a unit that has its own promotion structure. And one of the elements, I must tell you, about getting ahead in promotion is the number of kills you have. Of course. Because it’s basically devised–it’s been transmogrified, if you will, into this unit that goes after high-value targets.

And where Cheney comes in and the idea of an assassination ring–I actually said “wing,” but of an assassination wing–that reports to Cheney was simply that they clear lists through the Vice President’s office. He’s not sitting around picking targets. They clear the lists. And he’s certainly deeply involved, less and less as time went on, of course, but in the beginning very closely involved. And this is the elite unit. I think they do three-month tours. And last summer, I wrote a long article in The New Yorker, last July, about how the JSOC operation is simply not available, and there’s no information provided by the executive to Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: What countries, Sy Hersh–what countries are they operating in?

SEYMOUR HERSH: A lot of countries.

AMY GOODMAN: Name some.

SEYMOUR HERSH: No, because I haven’t written about it, Amy. And I will tell you, as I say, in Central America, it’s far more than just the areas that Mr. Hannah talked about–Afghanistan, Iraq. You can understand an operation like this in the heat of battle in Iraq, killing–I mean, taking out enemy. That’s war. But when you go into other countries–let’s say Yemen, let’s say Peru, let’s say Colombia, let’s say Eritrea, let’s say Madagascar, let’s say Kenya, countries like that–and kill people who are believed on a list to be al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda-linked or anti-American, you’re violating most of the tenets.

We’re a country that believes very much in due process. That’s what it’s all about. We don’t give the President of United States the right to tell military people, even in a war–and it’s a war against an idea, war against terrorism. It’s not as if we’re at war against a committed uniformed enemy. It’s a very complicated war we’re in. And with each of those actions, of course, there’s always collateral deaths, and there’s always more people ending up becoming our enemies. That’s the tragedy of Guantánamo. By the time people, whether they were with us or against us when they got there, by the time they’ve been there three or four months, they’re dangerous to us, because of the way they’ve been treated. But I’d love to move on to what I wrote about in The New Yorker.

AMY GOODMAN: One question: Is the assassination wing continuing under President Obama?

SEYMOUR HERSH: How do I know? I hope not.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Sy Hersh. His piece in The New Yorker is called “Syria Calling: The Obama Administration’s Chance to Engage in a Middle East Peace.” “Syria Calling” (The New Yorker)

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh. His piece in the latest issue of The New Yorker magazine is called “Syria Calling: The Obama Administration’s Chance to Engage in a Middle East Peace.”

Sy, you begin, “When the Israelis’ controversial twenty-two-day military campaign in Gaza ended, on January 18th, it also seemed to end the promising [peace] talks between Israel and Syria.” What were those talks?

SEYMOUR HERSH: There was a series of more or less secret talks. They initially were secret, but they became known. The Turkish government intervened. And Turkey and Syria have not always been good friends, but there’s a great relationship between the leadership of Turkey and President Bashar Assad of Syria now. And they began talks about–the Turks have also great relationships, very close relationships–or did, until Gaza–with the Israelis. So it was a natural sort of mix.

The Turks mediated or brokered a series of–I think there were four long meetings about getting the Golan Heights, which was an area, a large area, seized by the Israelis after the ’67 war and, contrary to international law, not returned to the Syrians. The Syrians have always wanted it back, as any country would. You know, it’s native soil. And so, the talks were very–what I was writing about, I started doing this last fall, because I was told how far along the talks were. They had resolved a lot of questions. There were always going to be complicated questions of water, because the Golan Heights is a mountainous region, and there’s a great deal of water that pours into the Jordan Valley and into Israel. But once the riparian rights–even those rights were discussed and worked out. And they were on a track to begin almost direct negotiations, when Gaza broke out. So the story I had worked on for months at The New Yorker was sort of scrapped, obviously, because of Gaza.

And then, to my surprise, a few weeks after the war, after both the Turkish president, Erdogan, and Bashar Assad both were incredibly harshly critical of Israel for the overzealous bombing, etc., etc., we all know about at Gaza and the collateral deaths–they were so critical. I had sent an email message to Assad, President Assad, who I’ve seen three or four times in the past six or so years. And to my surprise, he responded with an email, saying essentially, “Look, I want to go ahead with talks.” And he is still talking that way. And his goal is–it’s not just some sort of quixotic thing. The Israelis want to go ahead with talks, despite Gaza.

And the Syrian goal is simply, I think–as I write, the Syrian goal was to get President Obama, who is the great hope of everybody in the Middle East and, I think, everybody in the world–we’re all worried about Afghanistan, for sure, but nonetheless, the Syrians want Obama and the Americans to broker talks, and the idea being, if you can get this administration, our White House, into a possible settlement of the Golan Heights dispute, land for peace, we can get a regional peace process going.

And then the United States would have to–in Bashar Assad’s view, it would be not–very logical for the Americans to also accept the idea that Iran should participate. And we just heard in your news broadcast today Richard Holbrooke talking about the inevitability of using–having Iran involved, because for the United States, you have to look at the idea of having Syria, Turkey and Iran all together, all border countries playing an enormous role in making sure that the Iraqi–as we walk out of Iraq, and making sure that that happens safely–they have a lot to say about what’s going to happen inside Iraq. They can be moderating influences. And so, you see the potential for an enormous sort of a change in the paradigm.

AMY GOODMAN: Sy Hersh, can you talk about Vice President Cheney’s comments about Obama to Israeli officials after he was elected but before he was inaugurated?

SEYMOUR HERSH: What I wrote about, in doing my reporting, I did discover that Cheney, of course, to no one’s surprise, if you certainly read what I wrote about Cheney and the White House’s involvement in the Israeli attack on Lebanon three years ago–Cheney was deeply involved with the Israelis in the planning for Gaza, resupplying them with weapons and also providing intelligence through our–the offices we have in Egypt, our intelligence offices there. So we were deeply involved in helping the Israelis do the attack on Gaza, with intelligence, etc., and weaponry.

And he was, not surprisingly, very hostile to the election of Obama. And he called him a lot of pejorative names, but one of them that we published that dealt with–I think he said, “He will never make it in the major leagues,” and that kind of language.

And more specifically, what I wrote about that actually is, I think, far more interesting is that Obama–and when he was in transition, his transition team let the Israelis know that–if you remember, the bombing of Gaza began in late December of ’08 and ended around the 18th of January, 18th. That wasn’t an accident. Obama told the Israelis, “I do not want bombing in Gaza or Israeli troops in Gaza at the time of my inauguration.” And that was–it’s not clear whether the Israelis were going to stay there. But the hunch is, they planned to go another week. They stopped short.

And as I write, they complained bitterly to Cheney, who communicated that distress to General Jones, who is the new head of the National Security–former Marine General Jim Jones, who’s head of now the National–as I said, national security adviser. And Jones was the national security adviser in waiting, and he worked out a deal, which was that the Israelis would stop short, as Obama wanted; in return, the Obama administration, once in office, would not interfere with a prearranged flow of arms that was going to Israel. In other words, we were going to keep the supply of smart bombs and other weaponry going past the inauguration. And so, the message to Israel, perhaps, was, “Well, we’re still your friends, but not a blank check.” And so, that was a very interesting–it’s just a couple of graphs in my piece, but a very interesting couple of graphs.

AMY GOODMAN: Yeah. I wanted to play for you, Sy Hersh, the comments of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He was in Doha Monday attending a summit of the Arab League. Arab leaders are reportedly set to warn Israel time is running out to accept a longstanding peace offer. Syrian President Assad endorsed future peace talks with Israel but said the incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not a serious partner.

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD: [translated] Since we released the Arab Peace Initiative, we do not have a real partner in the peace process. Israel has killed the Arab initiative and not the Doha summit, as some people are trying to suggest.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Sy Hersh?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, that’s not inconsistent. His argument all along has been that the only way you can really get a systematic peace process going now is bringing in America to broker it. And the American role would be important. It’s a tremendous challenge for the Obama administration diplomatically, which is to nurse an agreement over the Golan Heights, which everybody seems to want, and use that to start talking about regional peace.

And that would mean bringing in Iran, countries like Iran, into the process, at the same time trying to hold off the Israelis, who–I think the main reason Israel would be interested in the Golan Heights settlement is they see a settlement with Syria over the Golan Heights as an issue that would isolate the Iranians from the Syrians and, therefore, give the Israelis more leverage to go after Iran, if they choose to do so, if, this year or next year, the Israelis view Iran as a strategic threat. They don’t view–this is, I would say, certainly Ehud Barak, the defense minister, he does–who’s into the government now. He does not view the Palestinian issue, whether Hamas or Fatah, as strategic. That’s a tactical issue.

The main goal for this government in Israel now is going to be to try and do something to take care of the Iranians. And if they have to deal with Israel–I mean, with Syria and seal that part of the border off and protect themselves and get a settlement there to put more pressure on Iran, that’s the way they view it. The problem is that the Syrians have a different motive for dealing with Israel. They’re not interested in walking away from the Iranian agreement.

So Bush–or, the Obama administration has to somehow walk its way through all of these issues and keep the Israelis happy and also go forward, because, as I said, it’s almost impossible to consider you could–you’re going to be able to extract ourselves from Iraq as peacefully as we want to. We’ve got a lot of boys to get out of there and a lot of damage to repair there. And the idea of having all three of the countries–as I said, Turkey, Syria and Iran–supporting us in that operation is overwhelmingly attractive.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me play a clip for you of President Carter. I wanted to ask you about the emerging positions of the Hamas leadership on accepting a long-term agreement with Israel. Carter has met with Hamas officials and relayed their willingness to accept a peace deal with Israel. This is President Carter speaking last April.

JIMMY CARTER: They said that they would accept a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, if approved by Palestinians, and that they would accept the right of Israel to live as a neighbor next door in peace, provided the agreements negotiated by Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas were submitted to the Palestinians for their overall approval.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what President Carter is saying and also President Carter’s relationship with President Obama, Sy?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Yeah, sure. That’s one of the most amazing things. You know, Jimmy Carter has been a pariah for the American Jewish community and for Israel ever–in recent years because of just the kind of conversations you’ve heard. He’s gone and made visits to the Hamas leadership, and he’s gone to see Bashar Assad of Syria.

It turns out he has a pretty profound relationship with Obama. He met with him privately about ten, twelve days before the inauguration. I wrote about that meeting. It was just the–Carter and his wife and the President, Obama, and his aide David Axelrod. And since then, I think there’s even been more–perhaps even more private meetings. And so, I do understand that it seems inevitable, of course, they would discuss Hamas.

And the fact of the matter is that what Mr. Carter said, Khaled Meshaal, the head who runs the Hamas office in Damascus–I actually interviewed in this piece in The New Yorker–he says literally the same thing. In a sense, he said he would be–Hamas leadership would be willing to leave Syria, as Bush always wanted, if there was an agreement on the Golan Heights. He said he would not stand in the way of Bashar Assad. And he also said, Khaled Meshaal, who said that Iran would be against this kind of an agreement, they would be isolated, as the Israelis think. It was pretty straightforward stuff. What we may–and Meshaal has said to me, in that visit and previous visits, “The Israelis keep on wanting me to talk about Israel publicly and say I recognize Israel. For a man of the resistance, that would be suicidal. But what I do say is–and I’ve said this, too, publicly”–and he said it to Carter–“I understand there’s a state called Israel.” And he’s not–he just won’t say what the Israelis want him to say.

The whole question of how Bush presented things and how Obama presents things, I really–it’s quite amazing. Obama talks about mutual respect. And again, in this article, I mention that instead of going to the Syrians and demanding that they kick Hamas out of Syria–the Hamas has had an office there for years in Syria, much to our anger, the Bush administration’s anger–Hillary Clinton, to her everlasting credit, sent two of her aides to see the Syrians a few weeks ago, and their message was so different. They said, “Look, we know you won’t kick out Hamas. That’s an act you won’t do. We won’t shame you and ask you to shame yourself. What we want you to do, instead of kicking them out, is to try and help us be–help us to get Hamas to be more moderate.” Similarly, about Hezbollah, instead of demanding that Syria, as part of any agreement, disavow Hezbollah, disavow Hamas or disavow Iran, what the Obama people, the message they passed in Syria was, “Look, we think that perhaps the Bush administration was wrong or overzealous in thinking how much control Syria has over Hezbollah. We’re reevaluating that. There may not be as much direct control.”

So you have a new government in place that, I must tell you, for all of the caviling and for all of the concerns I have about Afghanistan and other actions of Mr. Obama, what he’s doing in this part with Syria and Hamas is pretty interesting. He seems to be more willing to accept the reality than the Bush administration was. They saw a world that I don’t think existed.

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, I want to thank you very much for being with us. I do want to ask, you never got to talk to David Axelrod about this article? We have ten seconds.

SEYMOUR HERSH: I talked to him about Carter. He was very open. But once I started talking about what Obama wanted to do with the–in terms of getting the Israelis to stop the war short of the inauguration, the war on Gaza, I was treated exactly as Bush would treat me, you know, which is, “Are you kidding?” No response, no response, make appointments, don’t do it. But that’s normal for White Houses. They like the press only–every White House wants the press exactly the way they want it, which is, they want to feed you and take care of you. If you raise questions, they don’t like you. Big deal.

AMY GOODMAN: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh, joining us today. His latest article in The New Yorker magazine is called “Syria Calling: The Obama Administration’s Chance to Engage in a Middle East Peace.”

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