WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is criticizing an article by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh that says the United States has been carrying out reconnaissance missions in Iran to identify nuclear, chemical and missile sites for possible airstrikes as soon as this summer.
But the Pentagon’s response Monday did not specifically address Hersh’s contention that the United States has been “conducting secret reconnaissance missions inside Iran since at least last summer” to identify and isolate at least three dozen targets in Iran “that could be destroyed by precision strikes and short-term commando raids.”
In a written statement, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita said Iran’s “apparent nuclear ambitions and its demonstrated support for terrorist organizations is a global challenge that deserves much more serious treatment than Seymour Hersh provides in The New Yorker article titled ‘The Coming Wars.’ “
“Mr. Hersh’s article is so riddled with errors of fundamental fact that the credibility of his entire piece is destroyed.”
The statement cited Hersh’s description of a post-election meeting between Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and said it “did not happen.”
In the article, Hersh said the meeting was described to him by “a former high-level intelligence official.”
The statement also disputed Hersh’s assertion that “Rumsfeld and two of his key deputies, Stephen Cambone, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, and Army Lt. Gen. William G. [Jerry] Boykin, will be part of the chain of command for the new commando operations.”
“The only civilians in the chain of command are the president and the secretary of defense, despite Mr. Hersh’s confident assertion that the chain of command now includes two department policy officials. His assertion is outrageous, and constitutionally specious.”
Hersh also said Doug Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, oversaw Defense Department civilians who “have been working with Israeli planners and consultants to develop and refine potential nuclear, chemical-weapons and missile targets inside Iran.”
But DiRita said ties between Feith and Israel “do not exist.”
The Defense spokesman added, “Mr. Hersh is building on links created by the soft bigotry of some conspiracy theorists. This reflects poorly on Mr. Hersh and the ‘New Yorker.’ “
Hersh described DiRita’s criticisms as “quibbling.”
Hersh said his information came from “very, very senior” sources.
“There are serious people on the inside who don’t like what’s going on and don’t have a way to communicate that,” he said. “The real issue is: What are we doing? Who’s in control here? The Pentagon? The White House? That’s the real issue.”
Senior officials told CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr that there is currently no immediate planning for a strike against Iran.
Iran has refused to dismantle its nuclear program, which it insists is legal and intended solely for peaceful purposes. Hersh said U.S. officials were involved in “extensive planning” for a possible attack — “much more than we know.”
He said his information came from “inside” sources who divulged it in hopes that publicity about the alleged plans would force the administration to reconsider them.
“I think that’s one of the reasons some of the people on the inside talk to me,” he said Sunday on CNN’s “Late Edition.”
In an interview on the same program, White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett said the story was “riddled with inaccuracies.”
“I don’t believe that some of the conclusions he’s drawing are based on fact,” Bartlett said.
The United States is working with its European allies to help persuade Iran not to pursue nuclear weapons, Bartlett said.
Asked if military action is an option should diplomacy fail, Bartlett said, “No president at any juncture in history has ever taken military options off the table.”
That the Pentagon would have contingency plans for an attack on Iran is “not unusual,” former Secretary of Defense William Cohen told CNN Monday.
“The issue really is whether or not this information being gathered is to help put pressure on the Europeans to bring more pressure on Iran to cease and desist from its nuclear ambitions,” Cohen said. “Or whether or not that decision’s already been made and they’re actually planning a military operation.”
Cohen noted that Hersh’s article has not been “categorically denied” by the Bush administration.
“So there seems to be some confirmation that there is a fairly serious effort under way to gather this kind of information for potential military operations,” he said.
Iran, meanwhile, on Tuesday said it has the power to deter any attacks.
“We are able to say that we have strength such that no country can attack us because they do not have precise information about our military capabilities due to our ability to implement flexible strategies,” the semi-official Mehr news agency quoted Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani as saying.