The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg joined me this morning. Last week we discussed the controversy surrounding the hiring and firing of Kevin Williamson at the magazine. I had one question left unasked from that topic, and a bunch of new questions about the new story Mossad raid in Tehran:
HH: Joined inside the Beltway by Jeffrey Goldberg, editor of The Atlantic. Jeffrey was on a week ago talking about the controversy over the hiring and firing of Kevin Williamson, and I will, I’ve got one question about that, but mostly, I want to talk about Mossad’s dine and dash in Tehran, Jeffrey. But let me go back to that. The Kevin Williamson, we invited, Kevin, by the way, to appear on the radio show. He has declined. He prefers to write his responses, and I get that completely. Did you ever offer him the chance before he was let go to write about the controversy which his abortion comments had sparked?
JG: Yeah, oh, sure, probably ten or fifteen times. I asked him even before he came on board, I said do you want to apologize for what you wrote, and he said no. And I said okay, forget the word apology. Do you want to explain your position, like sort of a heartfelt explanation? I mean, he has a very interesting backstory on this. It’s been written about publicly. It’s not secret in other places that he was the child of a single mother, a teenage mother, and thought that you know, if Roe V. Wade had been in the law of the land at the time, that he might not exist. And I thought that was a very compelling story. But, and I understand this, by the way, in one sense. You don’t want to be a conservative jumping across a barrier to the “mainstream media” and have as your first act a kind of explanation/apology/that’s not really who I am or whatever. So I get the dilemma here, but of course, I offered him. You know, I even wrote a lede at one point…for, and he just said no.
HH: He just was not interested in doing it?
JG: I don’t want to do that. He said I don’t want to do that, and I respect that decision. I just don’t want to do that is what he said.
HH: All right, that was my unanswered question. Now I want to move on to what Mossad did in Tehran, what I’m calling the dash and dine operation.
JG: I’d like to see you make a transition between these two controversies. Let’s see if you can do it.
HH: They’re very hard to do, but the transition is that you were once a long time ago member of the IDF. And I’m sure you followed this. The big controversy on Twitter yesterday between two camps, one of them mostly the echo chamber people, the Ben Rhodes and the Tommy Vietor saying nothing new here, move along and just we knew all this stuff. And then in the Jerusalem Post today, a story, well, we found out they have five undisclosed nuclear test sites that we didn’t know before. What is your assessment, Jeffrey Goldberg, of what Israelis walked away with?
JG: So first of all, it was, I’m going to make this frustrating for you and sort of split the difference between the people you term derisively as the echo chamber and between sort of the ones who might be more doing a little bit of cheerleading. First of all, it’s too early to tell. Second, this is the wilderness of mirrors, as people say. We don’t know what everyone knows, and so we’re just basing it on who we trust as sources. But I would say this. It’s a hell of a raid. I mean, to sort of waltz in to Tehran, have this facility under surveillance. I mean, remember, Tehran is the most hostile capital in the world for Mossad agent, for obvious reasons, right?
JG: And it could be proxies of Mossad. It could be people who are agents, not actually officers of the Mossad who were doing this. But it’s a hell of a thing. I would say that both sides probably have interesting points to make. The first point is this, these documents, if they’re accurate documents, do reflect a reality that Iran does have, or did have nuclear ambitions for years. And of course, Iranian leaders were lying serially about what they wanted or not wanted, you know, the whole peaceful nuclear program nonsense. We know, I mean, you have to be, whether you support the Iran deal or not, you have to be clear-eyed about the Iranian goal. The Iranian goal is to destroy Israel. The Iranian goal is to have the means to do so. The Iranian goal is, moreover, regional domination. We’ve heard that from the Saudis, from the Egyptians, the Jordanians and so on. And so everybody knows that the ticket, the golden ticket is a nuclear weapon, right? So, and so these documents apparently buttress the idea that they’ve been engaged in the secret pursuit of nuclear weapons for years, but the argument that people associated with the Obama argument would make is that fine, fine. The whole idea of the deal was to keep the Iranians. The whole idea of the deal was predicated on the notion that Iran did want nuclear weapons, and the deal was going to keep them from getting them. So in other words, there’s nothing new in this seizure from this warehouse, nothing that undermines the, nothing that undermines the deal except, if this Jerusalem Post report is true, then we are finding out that the Iranians are hiding additional facilities and additional test sites. And that’s troublesome. And the Israelis have always argued that, and a lot of people in American intelligence have always argued that, that you know, there’s what we, there’s stuff that we know we know. There’s stuff, to borrow from Rumsfeld, there’s stuff that we know we know. There’s stuff we know we don’t know. And then there’s a whole other category of we don’t even know what the questions are.
HH: Now let me ask you about my premise as well. There’s a great book out there called Vanguard of the Imam by Afshon Ostovar. Have you ever had a chance to read that about the IRGC?
JG: No, I haven’t seen that. I know it, but I haven’t read it. Yeah.
HH: It’s a terrific book. Okay, the IRGC is an enormously important, influential and competent organization. What we learned yesterday, or two days ago, is that the Mossad can go in and out of Tehran and take a warehouse worth of files, and from that I extrapolate that we can trust Israeli intelligence more than French and German sources telling us we need to stay in the deal. In other words, this was a credibility-enhancing mission for claims by Israel regarding the Iranian program.
HH: And that to deny that is to simply deny the reality of an intelligence service that seems better at this than anyone else in the world.
JG: No, there’s two, you have to separate two issues. One is the Netanyahu presentation and the whole sort of PowerPoint, weird 90s-looking presentation and his analytical overreach in cases, right? And you have to separate that out from A) a core understanding of what Iran wants, maybe they can’t do it right now, but what they want, and a core understanding that the Israelis have some fairly unique capabilities in the intelligence universe, and that remember, for Israel, this is not, this is not a hobby. I mean, this is, Iran is a member state of the United Nations, and it’s openly called for the destruction of another member state of the United Nations. That would be Israel, so for the Israelis, whether or not you support Bibi or not, for the Israelis, this is life or death. This is it. So they’re going to put maximum, they’re going to put maximum effort into understand what Iran is doing. And I would say this also. If we head, as we seem to be heading, towards some kind of confrontation between Iran and its proxies in Syria and Lebanon, and Israel later this year, you know, Iran is moving all these rockets in, etc. You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if Israel in a conflict like that took the opportunity to actually attack some of those facilities that are now sort of frozen, some of those nuclear facilities in Iran that are frozen. It wouldn’t, I wouldn’t put it past them on that. I’m not predicting that. I’m not saying it. And it’s, you know, two steps down the road. But I think if Iran launches rockets at Israel, I think all bets are off in terms of how wide this war could go. I mean, it’s going to be a very, very tough situation, a very bad situation.
HH: And you mentioned it could come later this year. It could come later this day, actually, from what I’ve been talking with people about. They’ve had three Israeli on Iranian target strikes in three weeks, one before our use of cruise missiles against…
JG: Yeah, our own strike, yeah.
HH: And the two afterwards. And so it is at the breaking point there, but I want to go back to the issue for the audience of weighing assessments. There’s a lot we don’t know about what these documents…
HH: Like they’re not going to tell us how they got in. They’re not going to tell us their methods and sources. They might drop, oh by the way, Soleimani helped us, you might want to put him on trial. They might do something like that, you know? There are all sorts of games you could play in the wilderness of mirrors. But those who are defending the deal were quick to defend the deal yesterday, including Mr. Rhodes and Mr. Vietor, I really think it’s better served if they were silent, because they obviously did not know about these five sites. And Ben Rhodes admitted to manipulating the echo chamber. Why would we believe them?
JG: Oh, I know, I don’t know about the five sites, yet, so I just don’t want to get ahead of myself analytically here. But I would say that both sides have an argument. You know, the argument for the deal is of course the Iranians were engaged in subterfuge. That’s why we have them locked into this deal. You could argue about whether the deal is too weak and the deal sunsets too quickly. That’s a whole separate case.
JG: But I think it’s, first of all, I just think it’s too complicated and we don’t know enough to make easy sort of, this is the Democratic position, this is the Republican position, this is the Bibi position, this is the whatever position. You know what I mean? I am just, I would love to, I’d love to find out more and more about what they stole. And of course, I think just like you, I’m getting a sense, I would love to know how they did it.
HH: Yeah. I guess I’ll have to read a Daniel Silva novel.
JG: I mean, they seem to have just waltzed into the enemy capital and walk out with like a, basically drive a truck out with all of their documents. It’s just, it seems unlikely. Of course, the Mossad has pulled off some pretty intense capers in the past, so we know that they have these capabilities.
HH: Well, this is mind-boggling. Let me play for you former Secretary of State Rice yesterday on the CBS Early Show with Norah O’Donnell, cut number 1:
CR: Well, let me say, Norah, I wouldn’t have signed this agreement to begin with. I’ve said that before. I think it was a weak agreement, particularly on verification. It allows Iran to break out after a specific period of time. I probably would have stayed in for alliance management reasons more than anything else. But I don’t think that it’s the end of the world if the administration leaves the agreement. Now I’m hoping that the conversations the President has had, for instance, with President Macron of France would suggest that we could improve the agreement. And perhaps that could be done. But the administration has been worried about this agreement from the very beginning, and there’s reason to be worried about this agreement.
HH: So there’s not, that’s just a pretty much a restatement of the Goldberg position. I want to hear what the Jerusalem Post reported this morning. Senior Israeli intelligence officials said the importance of the documents was in the definitive proof they provided of Iran having had a nuclear weapons program, and that the country had not destroyed essential documents related to those efforts. It was significant that Israel could obtain so many documents from Tehran, and now has a wealth of new information about Iran’s nuclear program, the official added. Among the critical documents is a map of five secret nuclear test sites. One official quipped that any test Iran might do at those sites would no longer remain secret. That’s sort of the core claim of the people saying mutatis mutandis.
JG: Why didn’t Bibi say that a couple of days ago? I don’t understand.
HH: I don’t know.
JG: Well, maybe they wanted, and maybe they don’t want the Iranians to know what they know. That is plausible. It’s also plausible that this is a manufactured thing. Anything is plausible. But I think the first idea that maybe they didn’t want the Iranians to know all that they know, that’s classic, right?
JG: It’s a classic move. I don’t know, but it’s interesting, I’ll tell you that. And Condi’s, Condi Rice’s position there is very interesting and nuanced. I think she’s right. I think it’s not the end of the world if the deal, if the U.S. pulls out of the deal. I think for alliance management reasons, among other things, it’s good to stay in there. And, by the way, if President Trump manages through, you know, his usual type of discourse and bluster to get the Europeans to strengthen aspects of this, or crack down on Iranian support for terrorism, then at the end of the day, that’s great, right?
HH: All right, third topic, and one minute to do it in. Mueller made a casual suggestion he might subpoena the president to a grand jury. A number of legal scholars are out there saying oh, that’s fine because of the Nixon documents and because of the Ken Starr precedent. I go back to Jefferson telling Justice Marshall pound sand in the Burr trial. I do not believe Article II officials can force the president to a grand jury, because they work for him. Do you have an opinion on this, Jeffrey Goldberg?
JG: As one of the people on your show who is not a legal scholar, I probably should, I probably should punt on this one. It just does seem generally, I mean, it’s been the position of people I respect that you know, ultimately that these are issues that have to go to Congress. Congress is the representative of the people. Mueller should present what evidence he has to Congress and the public, and then Congress should decide whether it’s time to remove a president or not. I do, I don’t know why, I get dispositionally nervous when we start talking about subpoenaing the president in these circumstances, but I don’t know enough to have a definitive answer.
HH: Well, that’s the Federalist Paper position. Impeachment is the sole, you can’t indict him, you can’t try him, so it seems to me you can’t subpoena him. Jeffrey Goldberg, always a pleasure, from The Atlantic. Thank you, Jeffrey.
End of interview.