Going 15 Rounds with Seymour Hersh


“I‘m having a horrible day,” grumbled Seymour Hersh, the 70 year-old Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist, arguably the most revered of his time, and reporter for the prestigious New Yorker magazine.

Almost a week before, I called Seymour Hersh on a lark trying to score an interview regarding his New Yorker article “Shifting Targets: The Administration’s plan for Iran,” an explosive piece outlining the Bush Administration’s strategic and aggressive preparation for a potential attack on Iran. When Hersh writes, everyone reads, and the world pays attention.

Even The White House, through press secretary Dana Perino, was forced to respond to his article, publicly stating, “[The White House] is not going to comment on any possible scenario that an anonymous source continues to feed into Sy Hersh. We don’t discuss such things. We are pursuing a diplomatic solution in Iran.”

During our first phone call, Hersh sounded hurried and rushed, a habitual trait I noticed, preparing for an international phone interview. “Listen, I got a call coming in from overseas, it’s gonna’ come in any moment. Just give me a call at the office,” he informed me.

I persisted, “How about next week? We can do the interview over the phone. I can call-“

“No, no. I’m traveling to the West Coast next week. I’m busy, but give me a call the week after, all right? Let’s do this later. Call my office. Ok?”

“Great,” I replied and hung up the phone, ecstatic after scoring potential interview time with the Pulitzer winning journalist.

Fast forward one week, I’m casually sitting behind my desk with my laptop in front of me, calling Hersh’s office number to leave a message on his machine reminding him of the interview upon his return from the publicity trip.

The phone rings. It rings again. Instead of a soothing, feminine, robotic automated voice message, a surly and flustered voice answers, “Hello?”

“Um, uh, hey, Seymour? This is Wajahat ­”


“Uh, Wajahat Ali? Anyway, I wasn’t expecting you. I called to leave a message on your voice mail, and you pick up. Great! How was your trip? I thought you’d be back next week ­”

“Ugh, it was terrible. A terrible trip. I’m having a horrible day. That trip was just ­ whowho are you, again? Why are you calling?” questioned an obviously irritated and surly Hersh.

“I’m calling to schedule an interview we talked about last week, remember?” I answered oblivious to his current temperament.

Little did I know this simple question would unleash the notoriously intense feistiness and doggedness of Hersh, a man whose words and attitude cut straight to the point, fast and furious, shooting off half a dozen questions in a row without pause. His aggressive style reminded me of an ethnic, immigrant uncle: blunt, honest, gruff, but oddly endearing.

“Why do you want an interview? Who are you again? Islamic ­ what? Islamic? Listen, you know I did Jazeera right? Al Jazeera? They’re Muslim (pauses). Oh, God. I mean, so, so what? What, you want an interview or something? Is that what you want? I – I usually do the pimping for my pieces for 2-3 days after they’re published, but once it’s done I move on. I move on, ya’ know? That was last week. This is this week. I got a lot of reporting to do (Sigh, sounds overwhelmed). I got a lot of reporting to do.”

I’ve been hit with a freight train, and I’m just trying re-attach my jaw let alone talk. My brain fires off an intelligent and lucid response, but before my lips can move, Hersh is on the loose again.

“What do you want from me? I mean, I really don’t like doing this. You know ­ these interviews. Once it’s done, I move on. I ­ I mean ­ you shoulda’ called last week. Why didn’t you call last week?” he asked.

Um, I actually did call last week, but you said call back in 2 weeks,” I answered calmly and logically.

“Oh,” replied Hersh, and for a second I sensed a silence, and thus an opportunity.

“Mr. Hersh, it won’t take long. I just wanted your thoughts on the recent ­”

“I hate it when people ask what I think. Who am I? I mean who cares what I think? Who cares about my thoughts? I just hate that. I hate answering that. I’m a reporter. I report the facts. I’m just a reporter. I’m just being up front with you.”

I am momentarily stunned. However, the ethnic, South Asian salesman in me comes alive and, like a snake charmer, I’m prepared to cajole, console, placate, and adulate in order to convince my reluctant client. But before I can utter a word, Hersh retaliates with a blow.

“Ok, a sample question. Suppose we did this interview, what would a sample question sound like? Hit me with a sample question. Go!” commanded Hersh.

The bell rings. The Heavyweight advances, and now you’re on your toes for Round 1.

ALI: (Slightly flustered and caught off guard) Ok, I have one. Here’s a sample. Recently at the Democratic debate, Senator Mike Gravel called out Hillary Clinton for voting on Senator Lieberman’s aggressive resolution against Iran that condemned Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group. What I want to ask is, should we expect anything different from the Democrats if they are elected in regards to U.S. foreign policy, specifically in regards to Iraq? Iran?

HERSH: I have no idea. I would certainly hope so. How would I possible know? I don’t see them doing anything different with Iraq, despite concede it. Just concede it ­ I don’t know what else they can do that is different. And who says they’re going to win? I don’t see that they are going to win. I’m not sure they are, and I don’t know why people think that. They haven’t done anything different. They haven’t brought anything new to the table that hasn’t already been said by the Republicans. They just talk the talk. They talk the talk. If I knew this ­ I mean, who would win (the presidential race), I’d be at the race track everyday. Not reporting. You just don’t know. No one knows. Listen, this is politics, and I’m just a guy who writes ­ who writes stories about the war. When people ask me about politics it drives me crazy! I’m not a fan of politics. I don’t like discussing politics. You can’t make me something I’m not.

ALI: I understand. Trust me, trust me, I’m not trying to. But, there you go, that would be an example of a sample question if we did an interview ­

HERSH: What!? We are doing an interview! What the fuck were you doing?! This is the interview! Get out your recorder, let’s go. Let’s go.”

ALI: Ok, great, let’s do it. Private contractors in Iraq, specifically Blackwater, have been on the news nonstop for the past few months regarding numerous allegations of reckless shooting and violence. What’s your take on this?

HERSH: Oh, there’s been a lot of wrongdoing by them. A lot of arrogance. [Blackwater] drive around like they own the world over there. They increase a lot of resentment amongst the Iraqi civilian population against us [The U.S.] by behaving like this. Listen, if you’re an occupier then you act like an occupier. Occupiers act like occupiers. There is no way that Iraqi people will ever respond in any positive way to what Blackwater does.

ALI: How will the Iraqis respond to this? You highlighted the Abu Ghraib scandal in your book, Chain of Command. You know private contractors CACI and Titan were responsible for much of those abusive interrogations and you described the blowback resulting from [Abu Ghraib]. What’s the blowback on this one?

HERSH: There is no way Iraqi people will respond to will ­ they have never responded to will. It’s exactly the same problem we encountered in Afghanistan. I mean, a lot of people who normally would have been or should have been supportive of us, I mean, they should have supported us initially, those people have come to realize they don’t like us since we became an “occupier.”

You know being an “occupier” is risky business. It is really hard to be “occupier.” Occupiers never win. They never have. They’ve always ended up getting squeezed out. Anyone, I mean anyone, who has been following this war closely knows Blackwater is doing just what they’ve been doing all along. They only reason it’s in the news is because of the absolutely egregious way they behaved, and the fact Iraq decided to go public against them. Listen, Blackwater is operating they way they’ve always operated. They only take care of their clients and their client’s needs. That’s what matters. Anyone else who isn’t the client doesn’t matter.

ALI: Recently, a maelstrom has been raised over the new Mearsheimer/Walt book “The Israel Lobby” describing the influence of ­

HERSH: I don’t know ­ Israeli Lobby? I don’t know if I’d call them an Israeli Lobby.

ALI: Well, do you buy it? The influence and pressure of certain pro ­Israeli lobbies on the U.S. government? What’s the level of influence, if any, or is it overblown?

HERSH: There’s AIPAC (American Israeli Political Action Committee). You have AIPAC. It is a powerful lobby, you know, it’s an interest group. But Israel – Israel doesn’t need a lobby. It has direct connections right here, right here in town (Washington D.C.). I mean, of course, it’s a monumental force. But that’s the reality. It’s been a reality forever – in my life at least. Money talks is the old cliché, and B.S. walks. But you know, it’s just interest groups. That’s the way they are, and everyone does it. Everyone. ­

ALI: Right. ­

HERSH: For example, the Muslims ­ that’s a good example. They solidly voted for Bush (2000 election).

ALI: The Muslims came out en masse and voted for him. ­

HERSH: Right, I mean the Muslims, the interest group, it’s not nearly as organized, or powerful or well funded as others, but you know, there was enough money and enough percentage of votes that made a real effort in the Muslim community. [The Muslims] are conservative. Conservative in how they follow their religion, you know, very conservative. They (Muslim Americans) keep their heads down, out of trouble, just keep your head down they believe, and they say, “just mind your own business.” And the Muslims are successful in business; they have a high degree of talent in making money in areas of big business. In the business world ­ for example in Lebanon ­ you can see it with the Shia there. So, it is inevitable. Anyway, that’s how interests group work, always. But, I can’t calibrate the numbers for you to determine their influence.

ALI: Over the past couple of years, it’s become fashionable and clichéd amongst certain circles to compare our involvement in Iraq to the Vietnam War. Now, you’ve been there, you were there reporting on Vietnam, breaking the My Lai massacre story back then. And here you are now with Iraq. As a person who has actually lived through it and reported on both, are there any similarities, or is it premature to compare?

HERSH: One thing is similar. We are out there fighting in a country with uneducated, 18 year old boys with weapons. They’re frightened – frightened. They’re frightened because they don’t know the country, they don’t know the culture. They’re not even interested in knowing about the culture. Fear is there. [The U.S. soldiers] never see an enemy sometimes, and weeks go by. And they continue to lose fellow soldiers, they lose them to snipers, they lose them to mines, and eventually and inevitably, they take the war to the people they can see. And in Iraq, that’s the local population. Happens in all wars. All of ’em. Civilians are the ones treated differently.

Vietnam was always a tactical mistake. We lose the war, we are driven off in ’75, and in four to five years we are back in that country playing Monopoly with Vietnam’s economy. You know, making investments, several investments in that country. That is not ‘gonna happen here. We are in a strategic debate with about 1.3, what, 1.5 billion Muslims –

ALI: Around 1.5 –

HERSH: Yeah, so 1.5 billion Muslims. We are in a real strategic war here, and we really misplayed it. We did more for Osama than he could do for himself. We played a part in recruiting for him. This is a part of the world where America is not going to be wanted. Same thing in Afghanistan, especially in the Southern part of Afghanistan.

ALI: You make a good point. You know I’m Pakistani-American, son of Pakistani immigrants, but I have family there still. And we talk to them often and I used to visit all the time, but the level of Anti-Americanism in that country is amazing, which it didn’t have 10 years ago, but now, it’s just overwhelming.

HERSH: Well, I specifically was discussing the southern region of Afghanistan.

ALI: But the border between the two ­

HERSH: Yes, right, you’re right. Like Afghanistan, Pakistan is the same issue, the exact same issue as with Afghanistan in terms of a tremendous lack of popularity for our government amongst the people there. This will increase particularly as we pit Sunni against Shia.

ALI: So there’s this rise of Anti-Americanism unfortunately around that region. In your research, have you found the main cause of hatred against America?

HERSH: American violence. It’s the violence. Do we know ­ I mean, how many bombs are dropped? How many shells are fired? Who knows what the accurate number is? I know I don’t. There was, last year I think, I believe there was a number reported in the “The Lancet” that said the Iraqi causalities numbered in 600,000 killed [The Lancet medical journal reporting published in October ’06 estimated 654,965 excess deaths related to the war, or 2.5% of the population]. That number is breathtakingit’s breathtaking. I believe, however, the numbers and causalities are actually much greater than have been reported.

Every family in Iraq knows someone who has been killed. Americans are invariably blamed. We are going to have serious situations resulting from that. This is a society [Iraq] that does deal with revenge. We probably created a lot of new jihadists and martyrs and anger, anger with how we behaved and the resulting casualties that are innocent Iraqis.

ALI: On the ground in Iraq, what specifically causes the blowback against our troops, what causes the violence?

HERSH: Americans are frightened. They are frightened in Iraq. Not frightened in, you know, a cowardly way. But frightened like anyone ­ I mean, it’s natural to be like that, anyone would. You’re a solider in Iraq, you’re now manning a checkpoint there. You don’t know the language, you don’t know Arabic. You don’t know their culture. Now, [the Iraqis] arrive at the checkpoints. They miss the checkpoints. You yell at them to stop, but they don’t understand you, they don’t speak the language, so they keep driving. They don’t stop. You open fire. And now you’ve made enemies. We are occupiers right now.

ALI: I want to get back to the Sunni-Shia comment you made. As you know, America has history in that region, specifically the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980’s. We know that the U.S., through then Vice President Bush, was heavily involved, trying to bleed both sides against the middle, weakening the Shia theocracy of Iran and hedging bets for the Sunni regime of Saddam. So, now, is it going to be good ‘ol “divide and conquer” with the sectarian situation? How will U.S. forces and policy play with the Sunni-Shia dynamic in the Muslim world?

HERSH: Brother versus brother. It’s going to be brother versus brother. Sunni versus Shia. There’s an incredible sectarian war happening right now in Iraq. Things are always tense between both groups there. We know Saddam mistreated the Shia when he was in power. But, it was nothing then like it is now. The killing now is unbelievable.

The new policy of America is that we are going to work with Israelis and moderate Sunnis, those include Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia. We’re going to join forces with Western forces in Europe. Then, America and Israel are going to go after people we don’t like. People like Iran, Hamas, Hizbollah. There is a coalition forming, a coalition that forms and pits brother against brother, a fitnah. You know that’s not an exact meaning of the word, it’s an Arabic word. But it’s fitnah [dissention, disunity]. And we have strange bedfellows working with us ­ Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia – all are going to be used to put pressure on Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. It’s a unique notion. It’s “the Re-direction” ­ you are seeing it right now. I wrote about in the New Yorker. It’s called “the Re-direction.”

[“The Re-direction,” according to Hersh in his March piece, is the Bush Administration’s new policy towards the Middle East. In order to undermine Iran, which is Shiite, the administration has decided to cooperate with Saudi’s Sunni government in Lebanon to engage in “clandestine operations that intend to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria.”]

You are seeing tremendous pressure now. For example, now, right now in Lebanon, America’s position, the Bush Administration’s position is to support the Siniora government as an example of their belief in democracy. We are not interested in hearing the complaints of the Shias [Hezbollah] and other groups.

[Hersh elaborates on this point in the same article, where he quotes an official who states, “We are in a program to enhance the Sunni capability to resist Shiite influence, and we’re spreading the money around as much as we canIn this process, we’re financing a lot of bad guys with some serious potential unintended consequencesIt’s a very high-risk venture.”]

ALI: Let’s talk of Iran. Based on what you’ve said and written, and what we’ve heard countless times by the Administration regarding Iran’s potential nuclear capability, their hostility towards America, and so forth, is there real, credible evidence to suggest that, indeed, Iran poses a threat?

HERSH: Oh, the White House believes it. They believe that, no question. They believe Iran’s Revolutionary guard, the Government, it’s all part of one unified group that is dedicated to help kill Americans. [The White House] describes the Revolutionary Guard as an active, radical commando unit. Of course our intelligence community is bitterly, bitterly divided over this. And the Administration has not even come close to making its case on this. We have to remember, when it was 1992, Saddam fell after the war, and for a brief time, you know, for a brief time there was a rebellion against Saddam’s regime by the Shia. We did nothing. We knew about it, and we did not nothing. We let Saddam fly helicopters to kill these Shias. Since then there has been a lot of bitterness against America. So, there is always two sides, right? Two sides to a story? Well, this has six, seven sides.

ALI: But what does the White House say, or believe, that Iran concretely does to help the insurgency in Iraq?

HERSH: America says that Iran supplies arms. They supply arms, weapons, I.E.D’s ­ which – do you know about them? They are these improvised explosive devices, these explosive devises that are incredibly effective. They think Iran is supplying intelligence on several issues, and they see Iran as being directly responsible for what’s happening in Iraq.

Ok, one more. That should be enough right? You should have enough for a piece, right?

ALI: Should be enough, yeah. So, according to your sources and research, in your opinion, has Iran actually done anything to warrant this belief that it is a legitimate threat to America?

HERSH: Well, Some believe, like I do, some people believe that Iran is doing nothing different than what it has done for the past two to three decades in supporting the Shia. I mean, that’s what they are in interested in ­ to support the Shia. But there is no notion that this government, our government has proven its case yet. They U.S. may do what they want to do against Iran. I mean, who is going to stop this president? Who is going to stop him? I don’t know. (Pause) Ok, so are we good?

ALI: We are good.

HERSH: Ok, no more right? Promise no more phone calls?

ALI: Promise no more phone calls.

HERSH: Great. Thanks. Bye

Ding. Ding. Ding. End of Round 15. And with that, Hersh hangs up the phone off and returns to do what he does best ­ reporting. He doesn’t believe that people care about his opinions or his thoughts. I mean, he’s not a politician, so why should they, right? He’s just a reporter. That’s all. So, please folks, let’s not go and try to make him something he’s not.

Wajahat Ali is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and recent J.D. whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” is the first major play about Muslim Pakistani Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at He can be reached at

DECEPTION: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade of Nuclear Arms

“We have to honor the wishes of the Pakistani people”
Is Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal really able to fall into the hands of al-Qaida? To find out, we speak to Adrian Levy, author of “Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons.”
In the wake of Bhutto’s tragic assassination, renewed international attention focuses itself on Pakistan’s political instability and nuclear capabilities. The United States and President Musharraf adamantly state that the Pakistani military represents the only stable safeguard against potential radical extremists and al-Qaida sympathizers taking over Islamabad and controlling Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and technology. Playwright and altmuslim correspondent Wajahat Ali received an exclusive interview with Guardian journalist Adrian Levy, author of the explosive new book, “Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons,” to discuss Pakistan’s political past, present, and future regarding nuclear proliferation and its volatile relationship with the United States.
All around the world, Benazir Bhutto’s assassination tops the headlines. You’ve done extensive and exhaustive research on Pakistan’s international and domestic policies. What are the repercussions of this tragedy in relation to Pakistan’s current political stability?
Levy: It will have an enormous impact on Pakistan by engendering more instability. The reasons for that are that the Pakistan Political Party [Bhutto’s political party], although very feudal and by no means perfect and by no means transparent and open, is still a tremendous political operation with a lot of grassroots support. That support is not solely based in her home state of Sindh, but there is consolidated support from most progressives for her that has emerged merely due to the frustration with 9 years of Musharraf’s military rule. Lot of people who are not sympathetic to Bhutto, personally or her party, see the chance to vote as a vote against Musharraf and against his party, the PML-Q, the “King’s” party as it is called in Pakistan. That party represents only the wishes and needs of the military and certain pragmatic politicians whose interests are only in survival and not in progressing any kind of liberal, progressive, secular movements in Pakistan.The feelings, generally, from numerous people I’ve talked to in Pakistan is that although Bhutto was an imperfect electoral card and although an imperfect candidate – who has been beset by corruption allegations and like all parties she had tremendous problems with her two terms mainly in her weakness in standing up to the military – nevertheless, people saw [her] as the beginning of something. The start of something: the commencing of a new dialogue with the military. She was seen as the foil, and once this began – if support was strong enough – the PML-Q vote [Musharraf’s party] would’ve been minute. Musharraf would’ve been weakened even with tremendous vote rigging involved.

The result would be a National Assembly that would not be answerable to the military but to a democratic system. This is only the very, very, very beginnings of something, but it is better than the option of Musharraf retaining all political power according to the frustrated voices of Pakistanis wishing to see a democratic Pakistani system. Their voices are not being listened to. The worst possible situation of all is for there to be no election, or the candidates are simply the military’s chosen candidates or the military’s sympathetic coalition, the MMA, the religious coalition, which as we know only polled 12% of the vote in the last election.

Another reason her death is significant is that, in essence, it is a blow to a buoyant progressive movement. A lot of people will feel downtrodden, very pessimistic. It strengthens the military’s hand in Pakistan. Fear, chaos, and anarchy in Pakistan strengthen the military’s hand. It also plays very much in the military argument that democracy is young, incapable and juvenile even, and that only the military is the professional, solid entity that can hold together a fractured Pakistan. They create a false equation that goes like this: “Without the military, there would be chaos. Without the military, there would be an Islamic coup. Without the military, the nuclear assets of Pakistan may well fall into the hands of Jihadists – or parties and goals – antithetic to the West.” This is completely crass and a complete un-writing of the real situation in Pakistan.

The reality is that the military have, throughout, manipulated the Islamist vote. They have given succor, money, training, arms and political power to the Islamists and religious conservatives. They’ve brought them into the military coalition; they’ve used them against the military’s moderate, liberal opponents. In fact, if we look at Musharraf through hard objective facts, since 1999 virtually all facets of Pakistani life have gotten worse. The only facets that have not gone worse are due to the swamping of Pakistan by US money. When they talk of the Pakistani economy and economic growth being more buoyant, these are simply figures that are bent around the artificial situation of billions of dollars being pumped into Pakistan by America. [The US has given Pakistan more than 10 billion dollars of aid in the past 5 years.]

In effect, society has become far more radicalized, far less democratic, the institutions of democracy have been undone by the military. The military has become tremendously wealthy, tremendously unreliable even. The personal wealth of the top tier generals, I mean, each general has assets of more than 10 to 15 million dollars. If you look at the military businesses, they turned in a 10 billion dollar profit, which is the same size profit last year as the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank. They’re a political class of their own, and their interests aren’t the same as the democratic movement of Pakistan.

Let’s talk in depth about Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies, the ISI. First, from your research, how powerful are these agencies? If indeed they are powerful and pervasive, how could they not have known of A.Q. Khan’s nuclear proliferation activities [Abdul Qadeer Khan is known as the “Father of Pakistan’s Nuclear Bomb,” a Pakistani scientist and engineer who confessed to operating a nuclear proliferation program]? How can students who besieged Pakistan’s Red Mosque in July – which is sitting right in front of ISI agencies – be fully loaded with guns and ammunition? Are the ISI and military incompetent, or are they highly involved in the daily political happenings of Pakistan?

All the research shows, and all of my objective sources that include external agencies and former members of Pakistan’s military, that the nuclear proliferation activities of A.Q. Khan were effectively a state run policy. They evolved out of the desk of General Zia [Zia al Haq ruled Pakistan as a military dictator for 11 years] in August 1988, and they evolved in the knowledge that in 1988 the US made it clear as soon as the Soviets had left Afghanistan, all US aid would be cut off to Pakistan since Pakistan would not be needed anymore.

So, Pakistan was looking at two things: 1) The need to get hold of hard cash outside the monies they would now lose from the US, and 2) To generate a political presence of power that could stand up to US, since it could no longer be counted as a continuous, consistent, solid ally. The leadership of both the ISI and the military, after the death of General Zia, thought the best way to do this was to woo political allies through use and deployment of the country’s nuclear assets and to make hard cash by selling those assets. This is critical in understanding the motivation behind what happened to A.Q. Khan.

The ISI and military leaders sat down and had a meeting during the last 3 months of Zia’s life, and then after his death, the leader of the military, General Baig, and the leader of the ISI, Hamid Gul, sat down and discussed a term of defiance. Would it be a nuclear defiance, or an economic defiance? What was the best way of creating an Islamic movement that could stand up to US interference?

One thing to keep in mind is that the US very much created the grounds for this to happen. The US relationship in Pakistan has been feeble, a roller coaster, a feast and famine existence. America either loved Pakistan when it needed it politically, or it abandoned it when it didn’t. I want to throw forward one critical point to understanding this idea. If we can just look at the hard figures of US aid to Pakistan during every period of dictatorship in Pakistan, we see that US aid has been enormous, absolutely enormous. It has been bountiful: both “black” aid by the CIA and overt aid by Congress. And during the weak period of democracy in the 90’s when fledgling political parties in Pakistan tried to stand on their own feet, US aid only amounted to $1 million a year. America never tried to build a civil society, instead they’ve only supported dictatorships [in Pakistan.]

In your book you name names and state that at least 5 US presidents had knowledge of Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions and could have taken a more proactive and competent approach in curbing what is now a volatile and potentially explosive situation. Let’s talk about America’s love- hate relationship with Pakistan. Originally, in the 70’s you mentioned US was loathe to have a nuclear Pakistan, however the State Department, especially in the 80’s, engaged in highly dubious, if not illegal, leaks of information and support to Pakistan to help them build nuclear technology. How complicit has the United States been in this deception? Who has been deceiving whom? How has US, if at all, helped Pakistan go nuclear and if so how does it benefit US foreign policy interests?

The critical time is 1979: the world changed. We have the Soviets invading Afghanistan, the Shah fleeing Iran, and Khomeini returning to lead the Islamic Revolution from Paris to Tehran. When that happened, American began to feel insecure suspecting a front against it that could expand to Asia. The feeling of Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski – and he lobbied for this in memos he wrote in 1979 – was that the gold standard of US should be shifted. No longer should emphasis be placed on human rights and non-proliferation, but these should be moved down the political agenda in order to court Pakistan anew and win it under our umbrella. Carter’s administration ran out of steam, but we see as soon as Reagan’s administration came in the White House, a huge number of moves from the State Department to the Pentagon were made to Pakistan to attract them to the table. Those offers were very clear: the information that has been released through the Freedom of Information shows meetings between Haig, the Secretary of State and other US officials saying, “We will not mind Pakistan having a bomb. That is not an issue for us now. We need to use them as a springboard for our support of the mujaheddin in Afghanistan. We are prepared to set aside, or, not look at issues of the Pakistan bomb.”

In other meetings they were more overt and actually said, “just take it off our radar. Get the bomb program off our radar. Don’t embarrass us with it.” So, in terms of deception, it is a deception of the American people. The American people are being told that non-proliferation was the gold standard of the government, in fact, it wasn’t. Non-proliferation was sold down the river to woo Pakistan in this temporary relationship of 8 or 9 years. And Pakistan, of course then, having been armed and enabled by America that not just turned a blind eye but actively gave assistance to the program, having done that, America then turned its back on Pakistan in 1989-1990. Pakistan warned three US officials, “if you turn our back on us, we will sell our technology and Iran will be our first client.”

Now, that message was given to Norman Schwarzkopff at Central Command, it was given to Bob Oakley, the US Ambassador in Islamabad, and it was given to the Assistant Secretary of State in the Pentagon. All three were told and all three reported back. And, the decision was that Pakistan wasn’t needed now. The attention was on Gulf War 1, the attention was on the Middle East, so Pakistan was abandoned, and it did what it said it would do and began to sell its nuclear technology. We know through several interviews given by many people in the CIA and working in the Pentagon as analysts that active operations to prevent Pakistan from selling and procuring nuclear program were sabotaged from within the White House. It’s actually a question of enabling the program. Reagan’s administration enabled it, and Bush Sr.’s administration then basically turned their back on Pakistan in 1990 when the country was unstable, when democracy was weak, when the [Pakistani] civil society needed support from the US. So, it was an inevitable consequence that Pakistan would sell. Any claims that American had a progressive view towards nuclear technology wasn’t true. It was duplicitous. Pakistan was very much a victim of this, in essence. It was looking for consistency from US and never received it.

First, please explain the relationship of Musharraf and Bush post 9-11 and specifically how it relates to Pakistan’s nuclear capability and ambitions? Second, one argument is that Musharraf’s military dictatorship, although it is hardly labeled as such by the White House, must be supported out of necessity to ensure nuclear technology does not fall in the hands of extremists and al-Qaida. Basically, the line goes: if no Musharraf, then al-Qaida has a nuclear bomb. How legitimate is this threat and assertion?

It’s completely false, a completely false assertion put forward by two groups of people: a circle of neo-conservatives from the Vice President’s office and the Pentagon. They didn’t want to get involved in the messy business of building a democracy, and they did want to get involved with dealing with a dictatorship, because it is easier to talk down on the phone to a General than it was to talk about a messy democratic system. They were on the verge, before 9-11, in proclaiming Pakistan a terrorist state for supporting Al-Qaeda, for nuclear proliferation. In fact, if we look at all the facts, we had a military regime that was suppressing human rights, that was proliferating, that was supporting terrorism, that had a threatening link to 9-11. That was not Iraq. It wasn’t Iraq. There was only one country that ticked all of those boxes: Pakistan. And yet, a group of neo-cons around the President had an agenda that went back to 1992 and that agenda was Iraq. They thought Saddam should be the next suitable target. Consequently, all information on Pakistan were downscaled. Quite honestly, the greatest threat was instability in Pakistan, and yet that’s something American didn’t want to get involved with.

So, how legitimate is that claim that Pakistan’s nuclear program will allow itself to fall in the hands of Al-Qaeda or –

Absolutely impossible. It’s impossible for a weapon to be released. That just cannot happen. The Pakistani military have their own command and control structure, their own methods of dealing with it. It’s a fear story that is put forward to justify the support of the dictatorship. It’s a ludicrous argument.

The modern fear is that the “Axis of Evil” or rogue nations are stealthily obtaining nuclear technology. This charged is leveled against Iraq under Saddam, Iran’s new government, and al-Qaida sympathizers and Taliban. How credible is this allegation? Also, what is Pakistan’s role in helping these countries and agents achieve their goals?

The Pakistan military and intelligence agencies were selling to these countries, and they didn’t allow it to slip into the hands of the jihadists. The Pakistani military set up country to country deals They first offered all of their technology to Iraq, but Iraq didn’t believe the offer was genuine and thought it was entrapment, so they turned them down. Pakistan then went back to Iran and set up a relationship with Iran. Then, in 1993-1994, they did the same in their deals with North Korea. Those deals came from within the military and A.Q. Khan’s network was simply the proxy by which it happened. By 2002, we reached a situation where Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria, and Saudi Arabia were all either in the position to be negotiating for or possessing nuclear technology. This was a government enterprise. Government carriers were used. Government transporter planes, ships, the Navy, and air force were used to transport. And A.Q. Khan was tracked at every stage by American intelligence until the end of the 90’s and beginning of the millennium. So, they began to know what he was doing. The picture that was portrayed in the intelligence was that this was a government enterprise and not simply A.Q. Khan.

A.Q. Khan is routinely painted as the “father of the Islamic bomb.” In fact, in 2004, he appeared live on television and claimed personal responsibility for nuclear proliferation and selling of information to “rogue governments.” Subsequently, he was pardoned but placed under house arrest by Musharraf, who feigned ignorance regarding nuclear black market deals happening under his nose. If what you just said is true, then how can one man, an elderly scientist no less, escape the scrutiny of his nation and international policing forces and freely deal nuclear technology? Why was he used as scapegoat?

A deal was done in 2003, because Pakistan had signed up on the “War on Terror” and was now a consolidated partner – the military was seen as a partner without whom the war could not be fought. So, they decided to absolve the reputation of the Pakistani military by finding a scapegoat: A.Q. Khan. If Khan would agree to stand up for this [nuclear proliferation], then no one else would interrogate him, no one else would be given access to him. And the whole deal would be dealt with within Pakistan. The military will be absolved, their military’s reputation protected and preserved, and they would continue to be an ally. So, Khan appeared on T.V. in 2004 in January and he gives his great speech, a mea culpa of “I, alone, along with a small band supporters did this grand enterprise,” and sure enough the next day he is pardoned. And the investigation is done later, 18 months later, written up by Musharraf. And a line was drawn under the affair.

Why do some people in Pakistan or “the Muslim world” consider A.Q. Khan to be a hero, whereas the rest of the world paints him as a criminal and nuclear proliferator? What explains this marked discrepancy in characterization?

In one sense, he is a hero: a man with relatively paltry means took a country that was, at that stage, under-equipped and created for it through his brilliant organization a sophisticated nuclear program. For which, you can have nothing but the highest respect in that he put together a massive enterprise run very efficiently. We can see quite reasonably why certain people would see him as a remarkable individual. He was betrayed very much by the military he worked for; he was sacrificed by them for very cynical political reasons.

In that sense, the military of Pakistan has been the enemy of the wider “Islamic” community. And Khan was seen as simply a dutiful assistant of Pakistan who loved his country and serviced that program with remarkable efficiency. A lot of people over-emphasized the money that Khan made, his individuals assets and etc., this is just part of a smear against Khan. He was mostly motivated by patriotism. He was mostly motivated by his desire to see Pakistan stand up to India. Mostly motivated by what he saw as a bigotry with the non proliferation act and bigotry with its enforcement which allowed Israel, for example, to develop a covert bomb with no word about it, and yet Pakistan couldn’t have one. The un-level playing field where countries like Israel, South Africa, Argentina and others could secretly acquire technology, and yet Pakistan was forbidden. So, one can understand why Khan was lionized and treated as a hero.

Pakistani patriots and supporters say India is nuclear and has fought several wars against Pakistan. Israel is an ally of India and it’s nuclear. Major Western countries are nuclear. Why should Pakistan be denied this same right? Isn’t it merely protecting its borders and sovereignty? What gives Western countries the right to have it and not Pakistan? Is this a legitimate question?

It’s a very, very good question. It’s a really good question. It’s the hardest question to answer. I think the problems have been created by the proliferation mainly with the situation with India. India did obtain a nuclear problem and it was de facto accepted. And when one reads the report from the State Department and Pentagon regarding this, they accepted that Pakistan is going to take this badly and it is an inequality that India will be accepted and the Pakistan program wouldn’t. That’s absolutely right.

But the major problem stepped in, because as we discussed before, America was slow to respond with any consistent regard to Pakistan, so Pakistan then went on and developed a proliferation system. This is brand new within nuclear history. Which other countries proliferated on the scale that Pakistan did, with the contempt that Pakistan showed both to organizations and to nation states? The [Pakistani nuclear] program may well have been accepted if it was not for the proliferation that created a situation in the international intelligence community; that just enraged them. When the deals were exposed, the extent, depth, and breadth of it, that basically created the movement to go after the Pakistan program. But, you’re right, there is a huge inequality in a way that system is administrated by the protectionist powers – that’s absolutely right.

The last question. We often see movies of the 50’s and 60’s depicting the Cold War hysteria – mushroom clouds, the Cuban Missile Crisis, children hiding under desks preparing for potential nuclear annihilation, MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) situations and what not. Is this the vision of the world’s future? What can be done now via foreign policy or international organizations that can curb the dangerous proliferation of nuclear weaponry? Is it hopeless?

I think the most important thing of all, and it this comes back to your initial question, for most people who have the money, who have an interest, have the influence and interests to work towards creating a stable Pakistan. I think that really, really matters. I think a nuclear-free Middle East is desirable. Disarming Israel, assuming all the powers around it are disarmed, that idea will simply not be realizable. I don’t think Israel will be persuaded to do it. I think creating a progressive movement in Pakistan that itself will fight against terrorism, al-Qaida, and create a liberal, more secular consensus might be the answer. In order to do that, we have to support democracy over there. We have to honor the wishes of the majority of the Pakistani people who don’t want to live under military dictatorship. So, in America’s policy sense, it has to shift from the easy path of propping up generals and to the messy path of assisting countries in nation building. It needs to be consistent towards countries like Pakistan.

Wajahat Ali is a Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, law school graduate, and regular contributor to whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” is the first major play about Muslim Pakistani Americans living in a post 9-11 America. He can be reached at