Frustrated with CIA, Trump administration turned to Pentagon for shadow war with Iran

In the final month of his presidency, Donald Trump signed off on key parts of an extensive secret Pentagon campaign to conduct sabotage, propaganda and other psychological and information operations in Iran, according to former senior officials who served in his administration.

According to those former officials, the campaign was designed to undermine the Iranian people's faith in their government as well as shake the regime's sense of competence and stability.

A former senior defense official said that the plan involved things that would cause the Iranians to doubt their control over the country or their ability to fight a war.

Donald Trump was at the White House in September 2020. Alex Wong is the photographer.

The former official said that Trump acknowledged that it would have to be carried out by the Biden administration.

It's not clear if the Biden administration has continued to pursue the Trump-approved operations. With the White House set to resume indirect nuclear talks with Iran later this month, officials may have to decide whether the Pentagon campaign could jeopardize the negotiations.

The dilemma that was faced by President Biden's predecessors was how hard to prosecute the shadow war against Iran while also trying to negotiate with Tehran.

The Department of Defense and the CIA did not want to comment. The Pentagon was referred to by the White House.

According to former officials, the Pentagon needed the approval of the president to move forward, because the plan did not include targeted killings and because Iran was not considered a war zone.

The campaign did not require presidential permission, and could have been approved by the secretary of defense and other top Pentagon officials, according to former officials.

According to former officials, some in the Pentagon, especially within the Joint Staff, impeded the execution of these plans for years.

A former senior administration official said that explicit direction went to the Pentagon on some elements of the campaign. It was understood thatExplicit direction was given. The discretion was exercised not to do it.

On Austin's first day in his new role, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, escorted him to the Pentagon. Sarah Silbiger is a photographer.

The former official said that the Pentagon didn't want to take any action on it. At a point of exasperation, it felt it had no choice but to present some of the components of it, as a broad plan to be approved in response to a task, so they wouldn't look like they were completely resistant or incompetent.

The last-minute push was the culmination of years of frustration by Trump administration officials over how to wage the shadow conflict with Iran. The former senior defense official said that the Joint Staff and CIA were obstructing everything.

The plan was designed to weaken the Iranian government and not cause a war with Tehran, according to the ex- official.

The former official said it was a very detailed ladder. It isn't like you suddenly go from zero to 60.

The source said that some of the actions would not be executed until the U.S. and Iran were at war.

According to Trump-era officials, the campaign was intensely scrutinized by Pentagon legal personnel. The legality of the campaign was one of the sticking points within the Department of Defense. It all came down to the definition of sabotage. The former senior defense official said that Pentagon lawyers were focused on actions that might increase the likelihood of provoking war.

The proposal was developed and supported by top uniformed officials within the military's Special Operations Command and Central Command, as well as senior civilians within the Defense Department overseeing special operations and intelligence matters, according to former officials.

The head of the U.S. Central Command was an ardent supporter of the Iran-focused actions, according to former officials.

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified in September. Rod Lamkey-Pool

The heads of Central Command and Special Operations Command were angry at the Joint Staff. They felt that Milley was tying their hands and putting American forces at risk. They weren't able to build up the capabilities to deter Iran before a conflict.

A spokesman for Milley said the allegations were not true. Gen. Milley is the chairman and he gives military advice to our civilian decision makers. He gives advice based on the assessed risk and benefits of military action. He did this in the Trump administration.

The plan, which officials said had been under development for years, involved operations that would take at least six months to get up and running once they were approved by the president. The former senior defense official said that Trump was told that none of these things would happen in his time in office.

The former senior administration official said that President Trump was disappointed that the options were only being presented to him.

The process on Iran was rife with incompetence. The CIA and Defense Department felt they had to control the president because they didn't have good options for him.

Some top officials in the Pentagon tried to steer the administration away from an attack on Iran by pushing for deniable options, which they believed would give the Iranians more room to save face.

Donald Trump watches as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks at a White House reception. Nicholas Kamm is a photographer.

Mick Mulroy, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, said that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis had ordered him not to war with Iran. I wanted to take the steam out of the White House by doing things like irregular-warfare-type stuff.

Mulroy said that the CIA was a natural ally.

A second former senior said that the CIA's Iran chief understood the White House-Pentagon dynamic and wanted to start "internal-strife-type things" and propaganda-oriented covert operations against Iran at National Security Council meetings.

It is not clear how many of the agency's proposals came to fruition.

The former senior administration official said that the CIA was not doing anything on Iran. When I say nothing, I am being very, very charitable.

The agency was frustrated. The deputy national security adviser for Middle East and North African Affairs said that they would get briefed on all the plans that never happened.

The relationship between top Trump national security officials and their CIA briefers was skeptical. According to former officials, the administration questioned the agency's assessment that Iran was not capable of developing nuclear weapons.

Though the CIA may have been obstructing their directives on Iran, the agency probably did not have the ability to carry out the types of covert action demanded by administration policymakers.

The administration asked the CIA what they could do tonight. What can we do next week? The former senior Pentagon official said it would be six months from now. It was the "come to Jesus" moment, when you were like, "That's it, that's all you've got?" The agency's capabilities were not up to par.

Gina Haspel was on Capitol Hill in 2020. Brendan Smialowski is a photographer.

The Israelis were wondering why the CIA would talk a good game and then not produce anything, after the CIA engaged in a constant list of why they couldn't do anything.

Trump told the Israelis to go forth. Go, do. A second former senior administration official said that they would do the maximum pressure campaign if you were the kinetic arm.

The former senior defense official said that Gina Haspel was trying to convince Milley that the CIA should be in charge of the secret operations against Iran.

The former official said that Haspel tricked him into believing that the CIA was responsible for this. The CIA wasn't doing anything.

The CIA and other officials disagree. According to a former agency and national security, the CIA continued to focus on counter-Iran's nuclear program, sowing dissent within the regime, and deluding it in the eyes of the Iranian public, among other things, under the Trump administration.

The former senior agency official said that they were allowed to run wild because they didn't want to get involved in the disruption part. The Iran center of the CIA was so focused on covert action that it hurt the agency's ability to develop Iranian source networks.

A new presidential finding allowed the CIA to conduct more aggressive covert action in cyberspace. The agency conducted covert hack-and-dump operations against Iran and Russia, according to former officials. The agency was freed up to conduct these operations with less White House oversight because of the secret authorization.

The CIA headquarters is in Langley, Va. Saul Loeb of the Agence France-Presse is pictured.

The issues went deeper than neglect, according to another former CIA official. The former official said that the administration had ideas for covert action against Iran, but they were either too aggressive or unrealistic. Human life wasn't that much of a concern.

According to former officials, the agency may have had difficulties in maintaining sources in Iran. The former senior CIA official said that the stable had been decimated and there was no incentive to rebuild it.

In the summer of 2021, the top CIA official abroad responsible for Iran operations sent a cable to agency headquarters warning that its recruiting efforts had all been compromised, according to former CIA officials. The New York Times reported on the Iran-related cable.

The Iran Mission Center was dissolved by the CIA in October. Some former officials think the agency will focus on more traditional activities.

A second former senior CIA official said that they needed to understand what was happening. What amounts to an operational disaster on the Iranian target has been caused by the lack of source.