Or read the transcript below:
(Transcription by J. C. Hendershot)
Interview with Ken Timmerman by Roger Aronoff
The “Take AIM” show on BlogTalkRadio, Thursday, November 18, 2010
ROGER ARONOFF: Our guest today is Ken Timmerman, a journalist, author, and contributing editor for Newsmax, whose articles about Iran and national security can be read in publications such as The Washington Times. His recent books include Shadow Warriors: The Untold Story of Traitors, Saboteurs, and the Party of Surrender, and Countdown to Crisis: The Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran. Ken is also President and Chief Executive of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran. Good morning, Ken! We’re pleased to have you here on Take AIM.
KEN TIMMERMAN: Roger, thanks for having me on. It’s a pleasure.
ARONOFF: Great. Before we dig into the issues that we want to discuss with you today, I want to tell our listeners a little bit more about your background. In 1998, Ken Timmerman tracked Osama bin Laden and his international terrorist network for Reader’s Digest, and his exposé was published just weeks before the bombings of the two U.S. embassies in Africa. In recent years, Ken has revealed how failed U.S. policies have helped to create new threats to the U.S. from Russia, China, and Iran. In April 1983, Ken was the first U.S. correspondent on the scene when the U.S. embassy in Lebanon was blown up by Islamic militants. In welcoming you back to Take AIM—we’ve had you on here before—and before we get into today’s topics, since you had some great knowledge of the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, yesterday we had the verdicts on Ahmed Ghailani, the Tanzanian-born terrorist who was found “Not Guilty” on well over 200 of the charges against him, “Guilty” on only one count for his role in those bombings. What is the message about trying these terrorists in civilian court, as opposed to military commissions?
TIMMERMAN: Well, Roger, I think the message is very clear: The civilian courts are not adapted to dealing with some of these kinds of terrorist cases, where the perpetrators have been captured on the battlefield or in CIA operations overseas, and held in detention at CIA centers. The civilian courts do very well when we’ve got somebody that law enforcement has captured here in the United States—the World Trade Center bombing case in 1993, and the subsequent case of the “Blind Sheikh” that Andy McCarthy tried, from 1994—those worked very well, because it was all handled by law enforcement. But when you have intelligence content, and intelligence information—such as you did in the Ghailani case—that cannot be shared with a civilian court because of sources and methods, clearly, the prosecution could fall down, and it did fall down in this particular case.
ARONOFF: So what do you think this is going to mean when it comes to making a decision on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and others that are being held in Gitmo? What does this do to the dynamics of this issue that the Obama administration has been wrestling with so much?
TIMMERMAN: Roger, rationally, and logically, it should put an end to any discussion of trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 bombing, in a civilian court. But remember—we’re dealing with the Obama administration. I don’t think they’ve been wrestling with this at all, if you may—I think that they have been committed, from the very beginning, to closing down Gitmo—as the President said he was going to do—ending the Bush-era military commissions, and trying all of the terrorists there in civilian courts, and it’s only the push-back from Mayor Bloomberg in New York, elected officials in New York, New Yorkers in general, to holding those trials in New York City, that has forced them to reconsider. Logically, rationally, they ought to abandon any effort to try these terrorists in civilian courts, but, given their political orientation, I think they’re going to keep on trying.
ARONOFF: Yesterday you were the co-sponsor of an event I attended at the National Press Club. Your organization, Foundation for Democracy in Iran, along with Larry Klayman’s group, Freedom Watch, brought together a fascinating panel of speakers to call attention to the growing threat posed by Iran, and the failure of the West to effectively confront this challenge. The panel included former CIA Director Jim Woolsey, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, former U.N. Ambassador Alan Keyes, and others. It was, also, for the purpose of discussing and formulating “policy on how the U.S. and the West can liberate the Iranian people and the world from the ongoing and brutal repression of the Persian freedom movement” going on in Iran today, and to “eliminate the threat of atomic weapons and a potential nuclear holocaust.” Tell us about, first, the work of your Foundation, the Foundation for Democracy in Iran.
TIMMERMAN: We’ve been working, for about fifteen years, with the pro-democracy movement in Iran. We began with some modest grants from the National Endowment for Democracy, but, really, for more than ten years we’ve been doing this on a pro bono basis. I don’t get any money from the Foundation. Neither do any of the officers or board members. We essentially donate our time to help the pro-freedom movement in Iran. One of the things that I spend a lot of time doing is interviewing and debriefing defectors from Iranian intelligence organizations—people who have, for one reason or another, come out of Iran, generally in very difficult circumstances, and have, in some cases, very troubled personalities. I’ve spent months and months—in some cases, years—debriefing these individuals, corroborating their information, trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not real. It’s a very delicate—it’s an art form, really, and it’s something our intelligence community used to do very, very well, during the Cold War, but it’s been lost. Persians are difficult, people who work in Iranian intelligence organizations are particularly difficult, so that expertise has been very important, I think. We’ve seen, for example, defectors bringing out information on Iran’s nuclear weapons programs, also on Iran’s direct material involvement in the 9/11 case. So defectors come out with valuable information. It’s not always used well by the intelligence community, but we, as a private Foundation, have been able to develop that expertise to deal with those people.
ARONOFF: Where do we stand today vis à vis Iran? How close are they to having a nuclear weapon? How will the world change when they do?
TIMMERMAN The short answer is, nobody knows how close they are. If I said I knew, I’d be lying. The second part of that short answer is, we’ll know when they blow one off. Now that sounds flip, and I don’t mean it to be flip, but it is the unfortunate truth. The U.S. government, and the West in general, has little access to the secrets of the Iranian nuclear weapons program. We probably do not have agents in place inside those programs. We know a lot of information from the International Atomic Energy Agency and their inspections in Iran—we know, for example, how much enriched uranium they’re producing in a declared facility in Natanz, but we don’t know what we don’t know. For example, we don’t know if they have other facilities. Everybody expects that they have other uranium enrichment facilities, but we don’t know where they are. Everyone suspects they have a secret bomb plant, but we don’t know where it is. It’s not been declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency, so it’s intelligence information, if you will. So there’s a lot we know, on the public record, about the Iranian nuclear weapons program, and that is extremely troubling, in and of itself, and then there’s a lot that we don’t know that is extremely disturbing.
ARONOFF: I want to explore that further in a minute, but you also mentioned their involvement with 9/11. Tell us a little more about that, please.
TIMMERMAN: I’ve written a number of articles at newsmax.com—I’m also a contributing editor at Newsmax, and I’m very proud of that association—about Iran’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks. We know, from defectors—and, again, I’m able to use some of this information that I get through the Foundation as a reporter as well, because I get access to people that are difficult to get access to. We know, for example, that there were a number of top al-Qaeda officials, including Ayman Zawahiri, who traveled to Iran before the 9/11 attacks, met with very senior officials in the Iranian government and in the Revolutionary Guards, talked about joint terrorist operations—and, specifically, talked about the 9/11 operation. We know that about five months, four months before the attacks, Saad bin Laden the oldest son and heir apparent of Osama bin Laden, went to Iran with a significant entourage, and stayed there. He was, essentially, kept in safekeeping in Iran in the event that bin Laden himself was killed in what everybody expected to be a massive counterstrike after the 9/11 attacks. We know, from the 9/11 Commission, that the Iranian government provided extensive travel facilitation services, passports, money, safe conduits to the 9/11 hijackers. Specifically, the 9/11 Commission says that eight of the ten “muscle” hijackers were traveling through Iran to Afghanistan. They were escorted by a senior Hezbollah operative which I have been able to determine, through my own investigations and discussions with people on the 9/11 Commission, was none other than Imad Mughniyah, who, until 9/11, was the world’s most infamous terrorist. He was the man who blew up the U.S. embassy in Beirut in ’83, murdered 241 U.S. Marines in Beirut in October ’83, kidnapped U.S. hostages—including the CIA station chief in Beirut, William Buckley—in ’84. He was responsible for more American blood shed by terrorists than any other individual—up until the 9/11 attacks. He was the one accompanying the 9/11 hijackers in and out of Iran. Pretty significant tie-in, wouldn’t you think?
ARONOFF: Absolutely. How effective are the sanctions that have been imposed on Iran? Jim Woolsey, the former CIA Director, yesterday called this, quote, “one bright spot,” and said we’ve gotten a lot more serious about sanctions in the last few weeks. But he also said—again, his words—that “if this theocratic, totalitarian regime,” as he called it, is allowed to continue on its path, then we face really tough decisions, and that their getting the bomb really changes the world. So how are the sanctions doing?
TIMMERMAN: I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the impact of this latest series of U.N. sanctions, and U.S. unilateral sanctions, on the regime. It seems to have gotten their attention, whereas our earlier sanctions have not gotten their attention. It would have been extremely helpful if President Obama had not stalled the imposition of sanctions for over fifteen months. The Congress—the Democrats in Congress were then in control—introduced the sanctions legislation in April of 2009, and the White House put them on the back burner and insisted that they not get passed because they wanted to negotiate with the Iranian regime. I think that was a huge mistake. It allowed the regime to buy time, and allowed them to craft workarounds to the sanctions in advance. Nevertheless, those sanctions have had some impact. I’ll give you one specific thing: Iran Air, the national airline, when they go to Europe, they no longer are able to buy gasoline, jet fuel, for the planes. So either they’ve got to go gas up with enough to make the round trip back to Iran, or they stay there. That was a real big surprise for the Iranian regime. They hadn’t expected the gasoline manufacturers to go to that extent in enforcing the U.S. ban on gasoline sales to Iran. So they have had some impact, but I’ll tell you this: They’re not going to stop the nuclear weapons program, and they’re not going to overthrow the regime.
ARONOFF: Speaking of overthrowing the regime, how do you think President Obama views this challenge? Is he interested in toppling the regime?
TIMMERMAN: I’ve seen nothing to indicate an interest in this White House in overthrowing this regime. On the contrary, the President has sent two letters to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. He’s repeatedly indicated that even the sanctions are only temporary measures aimed at getting the regime’s cooperation. He would like to “engage” the regime, and you heard former CIA Director Jim Woolsey rip that notion apart yesterday at our press conference.
TIMMERMAN: “Engage? Like a gear? Like a motor that gets in gear? You engage?” Let’s hope that’s not what the Obama White House has in mind. But no—I’ve seen no serious interest at all in overthrowing the regime. Just the contrary: They want to do business with this regime.
ARONOFF: What role is Iran playing in terms of our current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan?
TIMMERMAN: Again, you’ve heard the former CIA Director, Jim Woolsey, talk briefly about the Quds Force, the overseas expeditionary arm of the Revolutionary Guards, working in Afghanistan, and in Iraq, to kill our troops. I write about that in my book, Shadow Warriors, and I write about that as well at newsmax.com. The U.S. military has told us a great deal about Iran’s involvement with terrorist groups in both Afghanistan and Iraq—the insurgents. They are supplying IEDs and what they call “explosively formed penetrators.” These are, essentially, shaped charges that are able to penetrate tank armor. They’ve been very effective against some of our Humvees, the up-armored Humvees. The Iranians are training the Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, at special camps inside Iran. We learned that a couple of months ago from the United States Treasury. That I wrote about at newsmax.com as well. So we know an awful lot about Iran’s involvement on the side of the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, and yet they pretend to be playing a positive role in both countries! It’s really quite extraordinary that we let them get away with it.
ARONOFF: What about their role in the conflict with Israel, with regards to both Hezbollah and Hamas?
TIMMERMAN: I was in Israel in the summer of 2006, reporting for Newsmax on the war there. I was up right along the Lebanese border. The Iranians essentially pulled the trigger on that war July 14, 2006, gave the orders to Hezbollah to attack Israel. Ultimately, the Hezbollah group launched something like 4,000 rockets into Israeli population centers in an effort to kill as many civilians as they possibly could. They hit schools, they hit apartment buildings. I remember, at one point, in Haifa, we went rushing down to the hospital in the center of the city because a rocket had just hit right next to the emergency room. When we got there, it was like the wings of angels had been beating the air, because that rocket could have hit the emergency room. It landed 100 yards away from the emergency room, 50 yards away from a retirement center, and it blew out a palm tree in a traffic circle. It was an act of God, if you wish—the protection of God!
ARONOFF: Right. Michelle Bachmann spoke yesterday at the conference about House Resolution 1431, which calls for “an end to the violence, unlawful arrests, torture, and ill treatment perpetrated against Iranian citizens, as well as the unconditional release of all political prisoners in Iran.” Can something like this, a House Resolution, make a difference? If so, why does the Obama administration oppose it, as she said?
TIMMERMAN: It makes a difference because it’s part of an effort to name and shame. You name the culprits, you name the perpetrators, you name the individuals and corporations and entities who are doing evil things—in this case, the massive violations of human rights and political freedoms—and then you shame them publicly. You make it more difficult for those groups and individuals to do business around the world. I think it is important, and I think the fact that the administration is opposing it gives you a good indication of what their true agenda is with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
ARONOFF: You also called, during your talk, for an Iran Security Commission, and the need for greater funding for the democracy movement in Iran. What exactly do you have in mind?
TIMMERMAN: After the Clinton administration’s catastrophic sell-off of U.S. military technology to Communist China, Congress set up the U.S.-China Strategic Commission. It’s got a very long and unwieldy title, but their goal, their brief, was to investigate, on an ongoing basis—it’s a standing commission that still exists today—China’s strategic developments in the military, in information technology, Chinese espionage efforts against us, their efforts to penetrate Western defenses through the Internet and cyber-attacks, their attempts to procure military-sensitive technology on the open market or through trade, their unfair trading practices, etcetera—a whole gamut of security challenges posed by Communist China. It’s been a very effective commission. They have released regular reports which, I can tell you, are read in detail in Congress, and those reports have been one of the factors that have made it more difficult for the Bush administration and for the Obama administration to cozy up too much with Communist China. I would like to see a similar kind of investigative arm of Congress take an ongoing look at the Iranian regime, their penetration of the United States, their agents of influence operating here in the United States both at the Voice of America and elsewhere, setting up these so-called “public interest” groups or lobbying organizations that claim to be independent but in fact are representing the interests of the government of Tehran. I’d like to see that investigated on a regular basis. I’d like to see those people named and shamed in public, and I think it would have a salutary effect, and, perhaps, reduce some of that hostile activity by the Iranian regime right here in our country.
ARONOFF: You also recently wrote an article about the use of cyber-war, which you just mentioned. The introduction of a computer virus is a way to slow down the Iranian development of a nuclear bomb. Is that a realistic solution to this problem?
TIMMERMAN: I was writing at newsmax.com about the Stuxnet worm, a very interesting worm. It’s not a virus, it’s a worm—that crawls through—hey, you know, I’m not a computer technician, don’t ask me to give you the technical explanation of the difference between a virus and a worm. [Laughs.] But, at any rate, it crawls through those computer networks and attacks specific code in the software that runs big systems. Now, in this particular case, the worm attacked a Siemens control system used at the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran. Okay? We don’t know exactly what it shut down or what it affected, because the Iranians, obviously, aren’t telling us. They are admitting, however, that this worm did significant damage, and they were investigating other control systems around the country to see what else might have been affected. After the announcement of the Stuxnet worm, there were also a number of unexplained incidents at gas pipelines around Iran. They started blowing up mysteriously. There was a missile site that blew up mysteriously. We don’t know if that was another kind of computer worm or virus or some kind of cyber-attack, and we certainly don’t know who was behind these attacks. Some people are pointing their fingers at Israel. I don’t know if that’s true or not true. If it is true, it would certainly be a novel way for a state such as Israel, which has been singled out by Iran—the Iranian leadership has said they want to “wipe Israel off the map,” they want to carry out a “new Holocaust” against the state of Israel, the Jewish state in the Middle East—it would be a novel way for Israel to respond without using their air force, without dropping bombs, without killing people. They would disable, essentially, pieces of Iran’s nuclear archipelago through peaceful means. I think it’s absolutely brilliant—if it’s true.
ARONOFF: Let me combine a couple of questions here, because the scenarios for military action against Iran are so complicated by the fact that Iran—unlike Iraq nearly 30 years ago, when the Israelis took out their nuclear reactor in Osirak—has now scattered these all over the country and, in many cases, buried them deep underground. The U.S. and Israel clearly aren’t on the same page regarding what needs to be done at this time. So why should anyone have any confidence that Iran is going to be stopped? What about the idea of deterrence stopping them, like it presumably did the Soviet Union for many years?
TIMMERMAN: That has been broached, and you have a lot of people at the Pentagon and various think tanks who think we can, indeed, deter the Islamic Republic of Iran. I don’t think so. When you have an ideological regime—a regime that believes that it wins when it sets off a nuclear war because the Twelfth Imam will return and save mankind for Islam—I don’t think you deter a regime that is based on that ideology. Ayatollah Khamenei believes in the Twelfth Imam. Ahmadinejad starts every single speech that he gives with a prayer, a hymn of praise, to the Twelfth Imam. This is something that is very deep. We don’t understand it very well in the United States. Those leaders in Iran do not think the same way that we think. They do not have a cost-benefit analysis, as the Soviet leaders had. We could deter the Soviet Union with a nuclear standoff, mutually assured destruction, because they would make the rational decision that any launch of nuclear weapons against the United States would be immediately met with an equal and opposite—if not more devastating—counterattack, and that they would, essentially, lose more than they could possibly gain. But that’s not the way the Iranian regime thinks. They believe that if they start a nuclear war—regardless of what happens afterwards—if they can destroy Israel, start a nuclear war, the Twelfth Imam will return, and then Islam rules the entire world, or at least the ruins that are left of the world as we know it today. I don’t think you deter that kind of ideology.
ARONOFF: We’re starting to run out of time here. I have a few more things I want to touch on. One is a column that you had yesterday in The Washington Times, primarily about how the Persian News Network, part of the Voice of America, has become more of a voice for the Iranian regime rather than a voice for American values, encouraging the democracy, the so-called “Green Movement.” Then I notice that the Director of Voice for America wrote a letter that was placed online at the end of your column challenging some of the things. I wanted to ask you about the column, but one of the points was that you say that the father of the Director of the Persian News Network is a cleric in Iran who is close to Ayatollah Khamenei and, basically, the Director of VOA denied that, I would say, in the letter. What is your reaction to that?
TIMMERMAN: All I can say is that, according to my sources, which are multiple and have personal knowledge of Seyed Ali Sajjadi, who is this Managing Editor at the Persian News Network, and his family, our sources disagree. I find it quite astonishing that Dan Austin, the Director of VOA, would be taken in by this kind of stuff. I think he’s just dead wrong, and I think it’s a shame.
ARONOFF: And what is the larger point of your article there?
TIMMERMAN: The point’s very simple. Number One: We’re spending huge amounts of money on Voice of America to expand our Persian broadcasting into Iran. I think that’s a good thing. The problem is, it’s been horribly mismanaged, and the more money we spend, the worst the broadcasts themselves have actually become. They are a laughingstock inside Iran. Iranians do not watch the Voice of America’s Persian service—in fact, if you want a metric of that, when President Obama wanted to address the Iranian people directly, he did not go on Voice of America, he went on the BBC. He knew that the BBC’s Persian service did have a broad audience, which VOA’s Persian service does not. This is a waste of taxpayer dollars. The service is also being run by an individual whose father, according to my sources, is still, today, an official in the Office of the Supreme Leader, he teaches Islamic studies at Tehran University, and he is still an active figure in the regime. He’s not 89 years old—or 87, as Dan Austin says. This individual, Seyed Ali Sajjadi, has a consistent pattern of horrible editorial decisions that, essentially, have cut off any free and fair reporting on the pro-freedom movement and the protests inside Iran. He’s gone out of his way to put the regime in a good light, show the regime in a good light, and to undercut the protests or to diminish their impact. I think that’s a real shame, and it’s shown to the Iranian people that America is not serious about any help for the pro-freedom movement.
ARONOFF: Putting on your media watchdog hat for a minute: How has our media, in this country, the mainstream media—New York Times, CNN, CBS News—covered this challenge, this threat from Iran that we’re facing? How would you rate the media coverage of this issue that we’ve been talking about today?
TIMMERMAN: To tell you the truth, Roger, I don’t read a lot of what you call the “mainstream media,” on Iran or on anything else, because they’re lying fools. I will say there are a couple of good correspondents—I notice Thomas Erdbrink, at The Washington Post, has done some good reporting from Tehran. I respect his reporting. When he’s allowed to report the facts, I think he’s done a good job. But in general, I don’t get my news from those media. I read the Iranian papers. I read the Iranian blogs. I have other people who are reading them for me in Persian. I talk to people directly. I don’t rely on the media for my information on Iran.
ARONOFF: Final question: One of the speakers yesterday at this conference that we talked about, very moving, was this Vincent Forras, I think it’s pronounced—F-O-R-R-A-S—he’s a firefighter, and was a first responder at the World Trade Center on 9/11. He was buried beneath the rubble for a couple of hours, he said, and witnessed a great deal of death and destruction. He talked about the Ground Zero Mosque. We really haven’t heard much about this now in a couple of months or so, and it was interesting to hear that Klayman’s group, Freedom Watch, has filed a lawsuit with Vincent Forras as one of the plaintiffs to try to stop this. Do you know the status of the lawsuit? What is your take on this whole Ground Zero Mosque?
TIMMERMAN: It’s an active lawsuit, I can tell you that, and they are proceeding. They’re very serious. They haven’t gotten to discovery yet. They want to—and this is one of the things that Vinnie Forras said yesterday—“unmask the mosque.” They want to find out what the real sources of funding are for the Ground Zero Mosque. Is there foreign money here? Is there money coming from Saudi Arabia, or money coming from Iran? Are they using cutouts here in the United States? Vinnie Forras pointed out, yesterday, that Mayor Bloomberg and the Justice Department have both impeded any kind of disclosure by Imam Rauf and his association of their sources of funding. This is something that’s un-American. Americans have a right to know who is funding this mosque at Ground Zero. As he says, it’s sacred ground—and, from a Muslim point of view, they consider this a victory mosque: If they can plant a mosque in the heart of Ground Zero, on sacred ground, this will be, in effect, declaring victory over America.
ARONOFF: I wish we had more time. Our guest today has been Ken Timmerman, journalist, author, contributing editor for Newsmax. Go to amazon.com and put in “Ken Timmerman,” and you’ll see a tremendous body of work. Great books—I recommend, for instance, Countdown to Crisis: The Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran, and Shadow Warriors, as he mentioned. Newsmax—read his articles! Ken, it’s been great having you on today. There’s also kentimmerman.com, correct?
TIMMERMAN: That’s right. Thank you so much, Roger. It’s my pleasure to be with you. I love the work that you’re doing. It’s important to take a look, to keep the media honest—boy, that’s a hard thing to do, isn’t it? But you’re doing a great job. I appreciate it. Thank you for having me on!
ARONOFF: Thank you so much. We’ll be in touch. Take care!
TIMMERMAN: Okay. Bye.