Psywar in Iran

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“This is it. The big one. This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media,” says Clay Shirky, professor at New York University and author of the book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. And what’s had the greatest impact? “It’s Twitter,” says Shirky.

So starts my piece in Crikey yesterday, We’re all wearing green for Iran now, apparently.

The article covers two main points.

One, this isn’t really the first time demonstrations have been organised or teargas reported via Twitter. Try Bangkok in October 2008. Try Chişinău in April 2009. And as Business Week pointed out, A Twitter revolution? Hardly.

Two, people are changing their avatars green to “support democracy in Iran” based on very little information. And as commenter Rena Zurawel claimed:

Whether it is a Rose Revolution in Georgia, or Orange Revolution in the Ukraine or a Green revolution in Iran — the source and inspiration is exactly the same: $70 million decided by the Congress to spend on so called “democratic changes in Iran”.

That last point intrigued me, so I poked around a bit.

I found this 2008 report from STRATFOR Global Intelligence: Geopolitical Diary: Iran, Psywar and the Hersh Article which is reproduced in full over the jump.

US President George W Bush issued a highly classified presidential finding in late 2007 approving the initiation of covert operations focused on “undermining Iran’s nuclear ambitions and trying to undermine the government through regime change,” according to a July 7 article in The New Yorker by Seymour Hersh. Congressional leaders reportedly have been informed of the finding, and approved up to $400 million dollars to fund the operation.

This is, of course, explosive news. What is explosive is not that the United States is spending money on covert operations in Iran, but that someone has leaked a highly classified document to a reporter. The secret is now out; indeed, it was released before the article’s publication date. Hersh said only that the person who gave him the information was familiar with the document’s contents. This means his source is a person with extraordinarily high, code-named clearance — not to mention a criminal.

We would expect the Bush administration to be launching multiple investigations to find the leaker. If he is a Republican or a member of the administration or the intelligence community, then massive damage control is essential. If he is a Democrat who leaked (or an official of an agency deemed unfriendly to the administration), the incident represents a political opportunity. Everyone who had access to that document should be attached to a polygraph right now. Washington should have been in turmoil all weekend.

It wasn’t. Aside from some desultory comments, no one seems terribly upset that a major covert operation has been uncovered in the press and thereby crippled.

We are certain that a journalist of Hersh’s stature, writing for a respected publication like The New Yorker, did not make his story up. Since arrests are not pending, we can only conclude that the information was deliberately leaked to Hersh by the administration. This would not be the first time Hersh has been used as a channel by administration leakers. In 2006, he reported that the administration was carrying out covert operations in Iran for roughly the same end. Hersh is not friendly to the administration to say the least. A story by him carries great credibility because it appears to be an authentic scoop by a major journalist revealing things the administration doesn’t want revealed. Such a story therefore increases the sense of uncertainty in Iran substantially more than if a minor, pro-administration journalist published it. As we have pointed out in the case of the Mediterranean air exercises by Israel, the United States and Israel are intent on increasing the psychological pressure on Iran. This story fits into that pattern.

The only thing interesting in the story is the idea that until late 2007 there had been no presidential finding and the United States was not engaged in covert operations in Iran to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program and foment regime change. Given the administration’s stance on Iran, it is unthinkable that the intelligence community would not have been running operations in Iran for years focused on just these things. STRATFOR has regularly reported on various bombings in the southwestern Arab regions of Iran as well as in Sistan-Balochistan, noting that these would be likely areas to foment unrest.

The latest finding could be an intensification in operations, but the authorization to spend up to $400 million to mess with the Iranians is really not all that much money — especially since that is the cap, and the time frame for expenditures isn’t authorized. But as Hersh made clear in 2006, operations already were under way, meaning a finding had to have been in place.

With all due respect to Mr Hersh and The New Yorker, this is a report on the obvious. The United States regards Iran as a major target for covert operations, urgently wants to know everything it can about Iran’s nuclear facilities and would love to overthrow the Iranian government. A few hundred million, even on a long shot, is the least the United States would throw at this. As for a finding in late 2007, we do not know where the bureaucratic process is right now, but there have been presidential findings on covert operations in Iran for almost thirty years. Still, the details the administration has decided to make available to The New Yorker via Hersh should make worthwhile reading.

The important point is that unless there has been a massive breach of security, the administration has again acted to increase tensions with Iran — and this just a week after floating the idea of increased diplomatic ties with Iran and about ten days since leaking the report on the Israeli exercises. Since this article has been in preparation for weeks or months, and its publication date has not been under administration control, it remains unclear where in the sequence this leak was intended. But psychological warfare with Iran seems the order of the day, and this article is clearly part of it.

Our read of course might be wrong. Grand juries might be convening as we write and the FBI could be ranging all over DC taking statements from everyone with access to covert US plans in Iran. But until that happens, we look at this as another attempt to make the Iranians feel insecure.

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Meanwhile, I rounded out my Crikey piece with some words from Meg Pickard, community manager at The Guardian. Amongst other things.

It’s easy to get caught up in the moment, feel the infectious nature of rumour and the thrill of disseminating third(/fourth/fifth/sixth…)-hand experience, and want to feel part of a global movement.

I’m not a big fan of bandwagons.

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