Hostile Intent

President Bush's Wednesday address to the nation on his new Iraq strategy delved heavily into an alleged uptick in Iranian support for terrorism and attacks on coalition forces in Iraq, and his plans for confronting it. The speech was followed the next day by the dramatic U.S. raid on an Iranian office in the Iraqi city of Irbil. Speculation is now intensifying: Has Bush signed a finding authorizing covert action on Iran? If so, what specifically does it say? Alternatively, has he authorized a more aggressive Iran strategy through a presidential directive that doesn't explicitly require informing Congress -- or the public -- of action?

A finding is a formal notification to Congress of a presidentially authorized and signed covert action. They're congressionally mandated, but there is a lot of wiggle room, depending on who interprets the law and particularly if the action is to be taken not by the CIA but by the U.S. military. (The law governing covert action and reporting requirements to Congress is covered by section 503 of the National Security Act.)

U.S. officials interviewed by the Prospect would not reveal whether they had been briefed on such a finding, or if one even exists. But there is evidence that, while Bush probably has not signed such a finding regarding Iran, he has recently done so regarding Iranian-supported Hezbollah in Lebanon; further, there is evidence that he may have signed an executive order or national security presidential directive regarding a new, more aggressive policy on Iran. Such directives are not required to be reported to Congress -- they are more in the realm of the president communicating to authorized people inside the administration his expectations for a policy.

“A finding has to contain certain things, what the covert action is intended to accomplish,” says one official familiar with the process. “A directive is more an internal document, like an executive order.”

“I can't imagine [Bush] would sign a finding on Iran,” this official continued. “There's a shooting war just over the border. There are a million ways to skin this cat [without signing a finding], and he's doing it. A directive could take any sort of internal form. It could be a Pentagon directive. A directive is not weighted. A finding gets into a category which draws formal congressional oversight. That is the scene everyone keeps talking about, covert action and what the Pentagon is up to and whether it legally constitutes covert action.”

Some Congressional officials are concerned that the Pentagon might, for instance, send Special Operations troops into Iran, perhaps for intelligence collection purposes, without reporting it to Congress. The administration could conceivably justify this by defining such action as falling under the category of “preparing the battlefield for global war.” The involvement of the military rather than the CIA might be decisive. “I am worried that the administration could take a different view of what constitutes a covert action when it involves the U.S. military,” one Hill staff source commented.

Even without a finding, evidence that Bush has signed off on a new policy for Iran is growing. “The policy is to confront Iran in every way but direct armed conflict, using all means short of war,” says one person familiar with evolving administration Iran policy. “But it's not war. It's war by other means.”

What does that mean? The United States is going to more aggressively confront Iranian agents and proxies in places such as Iraq and Lebanon, using primarily non-lethal means, and not (yet) to the point of getting into a direct shooting war with Iran itself. The administration seemingly intends to counter Iran using more aggressive intelligence and diplomatic, economic, legal and military means, including the sort of raid we saw in Irbil Thursday. Such actions will be taken in places where Iran itself allegedly trains, funds, and supplies militants in Iraq as well as Lebanon.

“If you were to ask me about the seizure of the Iran office in Irbil, I could say some things to you,” one State Department official said. “I had information that the building [raided in Irbil] was housing individuals believed to be closely associated to activities targeting Iraqi and coalition security forces and contributing to sectarian violence. Senior Iraqi government leaders have told U.S. officials that the building was an office for use by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, [and its hardline] Qods Force. Five individuals are currently being held by our coalition forces. Their nationality is being confirmed."

“We believe that many of the activities taking place in this facility were not consistent with normal diplomatic or consular functions,” he continued, adding that the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not believe that those in the building had diplomatic accreditation or immunity.

Meanwhile, there is at least some hint that Bush has signed a finding authorizing covert action against Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph, dated January 10 and deemed credible by U.S. government sources and regional experts interviewed by the Prospect:

The Central Intelligence Agency has been authorised to take covert action against Hizbollah as part of a secret plan by President George W. Bush to help the Lebanese government prevent the spread of Iranian influence. Senators and congressmen have been briefed on the classified "non-lethal presidential finding" that allows the CIA to provide financial and logistical support to the prime minister, Fouad Siniora.

The finding was signed by Mr Bush before Christmas after discussions between his aides and Saudi Arabian officials. Details of its existence, known only to a small circle of White House officials, intelligence officials and members of Congress, have been passed to The Daily Telegraph.

It's worth recalling that more than two years ago, Iran hawks in the Pentagon prepared a draft national security directive on Iran that reportedly would have had the president authorize all efforts short of direct war to destabilize Iran. Under pressure from the CIA and State Department and the nascent insurgency emerging in Iraq, the White House reportedly postponed signing off on any such directive at the time. But current language used in describing the emerging Bush administration policy to Iran echoes that old directive.

With Democrats in charge of Congress and members of both parties newly emboldened to challenge the administration on foreign policy, there is likely to be more pressure for the Bush administration to be forthcoming on its Iran policy. Whether or not it will be, of course, remains to be seen.

Laura Rozen is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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