Leaked Intelligence Reports Reveal The Vast Power Iran Wields In Iraq

Jan 16, 2020
Originally published on January 21, 2020 11:16 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to talk about a trove of secret Iranian intelligence reports and cables that were leaked to the news organization The Intercept. They reveal the unique military and political role played by General Qassem Soleimani, who led Iran's elite Quds Force and oversaw Iran's proxy wars in Iraq and Syria. Soleimani is the general the U.S. killed earlier this month in a drone strike. The leaked documents also reveal how Iran has embedded itself in the politics of its neighbor Iraq by co-opting Iraqi leaders and buying off Iraqi agents who had worked for the Americans, getting them to cross over to the Iranian side and reveal American intelligence secrets. Last year, the U.S. Army released its official history of the Iraq War, which concluded that the only victor appeared to be an emboldened and expansionist Iran. These leaked documents help explain why.

My guest is James Risen, senior national security correspondent for The Intercept. He's part of the team of reporters examining these documents. The Intercept shared the documents with The New York Times, and they published the first story simultaneously last November. Risen used to cover intelligence and national security for the Times and won two Pulitzers. He's also the author of the book "State Of War: The Secret History Of The CIA And The Bush Administration."

James Risen, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

JAMES RISEN: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Can you explain what the documents are that you acquired?

RISEN: Yeah. The Intercept received from an anonymous source a large file - about 700 pages - which amounts to several hundred reports and cables of the Iranian intelligence service, known as MOIS or Ministry of Intelligence and Security, of the Iranian government. It's the first time that a Western news organization has ever received a leak like this from the Iranian national security apparatus. And it's a phenomenal archive of documents that date primarily from 2013 through 2015, and they are essentially almost all cables between MOIS intelligence officers - in other words, Iranian spies working in Iraq. And they are filing cables back to headquarters in Tehran about their operations in Iraq.

And the - this provides an amazing picture of the degree to which Iran has gained dominance over Iraq, and it shows that Iran's spies kind of had the run of Iraq. And the really interesting aspect of this is that the documents reveal by name many of the top officials in Iraq, top Iraqi government officials who are secretly working for the Iranians and have secret intelligence relationships with Iran. And many of the reports are about private meetings between Iranian MOIS officers, what we - what the CIA would call a case officer, someone who goes out and meets a source. And they're reports back to headquarters about meeting all kinds of Iraqi officials at the highest levels and then down into the lower levels, as well as reports about things going on in Iraq at the time.

GROSS: One of the things of note in these documents is that General Soleimani, who the U.S. recently killed - you say he just, like, leaps off the pages.

RISEN: Yeah.

GROSS: And I was surprised to read you consider him, like, the - you consider him Iran's political fixer in the whole Middle East. I thought he was just more of a military leader, but he was both?

RISEN: Yes. I mean, that's one of the things that jumps off the page in these documents is - Qassem Soleimani was the commander of what's called the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran. It is the interesting thing from these documents is it's - the IRGC is a parallel organization to the MOIS. The MOIS are the - is the professional spy service. The IRGC is more of a paramilitary ideologically driven intelligence and military organization. The Quds Force, which Soleimani was the head of, was the foreign entity, the foreign unit of the IRGC, the most - kind of the Special Forces of the Special Forces. So he had a military leadership role, but after the invasion - the U.S. invasion of Iraq where we kind of threw out Saddam Hussein and there was chaos that developed, Soleimani and the Quds Force became a very dominant political player in Iraq. He did transform himself over the last 15 years or so from just being a kind of a military figure into also being the political godfather of Iraq, where Iran had enormous power. He was the representative of Iran in Iraq in virtually all ways, and he was the man you went to see in Iraq if you had a problem.

And there's one great document I can read briefly from where he - the Iraqi - top Iraqi officials are so intimidated by him and his power that there was one document where he - where the Iraqi transportation minister describes Soleimani coming to see him because Soleimani wanted clearance from the Iraqi Transportation Ministry to have flights - Iranian flights go through Iraqi airspace to Syria to help in the Iranian involvement in Syria. And he - this one - this Iraqi official is telling an MOIS officer about his meeting with Soleimani, and he's - it's just - it reads like something out of "The Godfather." It says, Soleimani came to me and requested that we let Iranian airplanes use the Iraqi airspace to pass on to Syria, the Iraqi Transportation Ministry official said. Then the official tells the MOIS, I put my hands on my eyes and said, absolutely - as you wish. Then he stood up and came close and kissed my forehead.

And that's Soleimani, the power he had. He could walk into any room in Baghdad and in the government and get what he wanted.

GROSS: But then the transportation minister basically rats out Soleimani...

RISEN: Yeah.

GROSS: Right? - by reporting him..

RISEN: Yeah, and that's the...

GROSS: ...To the rival group in Iran.

RISEN: That's the fascinating thing about these documents - is that it reveals that the MOIS, the professional spy service, hated Soleimani and they hated the IRGC. They saw them as the - you know, the roughneck paramilitary militia types. And there's a lot of reports in this where they are criticizing Soleimani and criticizing the IRGC for the atrocities that they committed in the war against ISIS.

GROSS: Soleimani's critics in Iran saw him as a showboat.

RISEN: Yes, and that becomes clear in these documents. There's one document where an MOIS officer is reporting back to Tehran, and at the top of the document, it says, do not share with the IRGC. And he's attacking Soleimani for going to every battlefield in the ISIS war and having his picture taken and making it clear that Iran is behind these Shiite militias that are attacking ISIS. And he says, he's clearly running for president of Iran.

GROSS: While we're on the subject of Soleimani, this isn't from the documents, but you've reported on what Soleimani did in Iraq to try to stop the protests against the Iraqi government and tried to protect the Iraq - the then-Iraqi prime minister.

RISEN: Right. The really interesting thing is that as the protest built in the fall of last year in Baghdad and other cities in Iraq, it became clear that the protesters in the streets were anti-Iranian. One of the goals of the protests has been to get rid of Iranian influence in Iraq, and Soleimani was backing the Iraqi government against these protesters.

GROSS: How was he backing them?

RISEN: The prime minister Abdul-Mahdi was being pressured to resign in the face of these protests because he was seen as being too close to Iran. And Soleimani came to Baghdad, met with him and met with a lot of other top Iraqi officials in October of 2019 and negotiated among the top Iraqi officials to keep Abdul-Mahdi in power. The interesting thing about that is that in the documents that we do have, there is one document that describes Abdul-Mahdi as having a, quote, "special relationship" with Iran. And so that really provides the context for why Soleimani felt so determined to keep Abdul-Mahdi in power - was he had a special relationship with Iran. And they didn't want somebody else who didn't have that kind of relationship in power.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist James Risen. He's the senior national security correspondent for The Intercept, formerly reported on national security and intelligence for The New York Times. We're talking about a trove of secret Iranian intelligence cables that were obtained by The Intercept and shared with The New York Times. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is James Risen, a senior national security correspondent for The Intercept and a former reporter for The New York Times on national security and intelligence. He won two Pulitzers at The New York Times. He's part of a team of reporters who reported on documents and an archive of secret Iranian intelligence cables that were obtained by The Intercept. This is hundreds of reports and cables written mainly between 2013 and 2015 by officers of Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security who were serving in the field in Iraq. Their reporting on this was published simultaneously by both The Intercept and The New York Times.

So what did you learn about Soleimani's role in driving ISIS out of Iraq? And that's a goal that Iran and the U.S. shared, although...

RISEN: Right.

GROSS: ...We're on opposite sides of so many other issues.

RISEN: Yeah. I mean, that's the fascinating thing to me - is that, you know, the United States just killed a guy who, in many ways, was as responsible as anyone else for the defeat of ISIS in Iraq. The Shia militias of Iraq were organized largely by the IRGC and by the Quds Force, and they were - they really were run and directed by Qassem Soleimani. The...

GROSS: Wait. So you're saying that Soleimani really was responsible for overseeing the Iraqi forces that were trying to drive ISIS out of Iraq.

RISEN: Yes, to a great degree. The Shiite militias, which, in many of the early - especially the early battles, took a real lead role in fighting ISIS on the ground, along with, you know, some Iraqi military units, were really responsible to Soleimani. Soleimani helped develop and create them, and he ran them and paid for them, and he directed them. And he was, through the Quds force, basically running the ground - you know, a large chunk of the ground war against ISIS at the same time the United States was conducting the air war. Now, there's no evidence in these documents of cooperation between American forces and Iranian forces in the ISIS war, but it's clear that we were fighting the same war in parallel. And we were going along with a campaign by Soleimani that was filled with awful atrocities against Sunni villages in their campaign against ISIS.

GROSS: The U.S. strike that killed Soleimani was in Baghdad. How much time did Soleimani actually spend in Iraq when he was overseeing the ground war in Iraq against ISIS?

RISEN: A lot. I mean, I don't know exactly, but he was - he was a constant presence in Iraq, in Baghdad. He was completely out in the open. He was never - he wasn't trying to hide. You know, he was a top government official of Iran, and he was constantly welcome at the highest levels of the Iraqi government. I talked to a State Department official for a project, and one of them said, you know, one of the things that the U.S. was irked about was that Abdul-Mahdi, the prime minister - when Donald Trump came to Iraq, I think, in - for Christmas 2018, Abdul-Mahdi refused to meet him. And then when Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo went to Iraq, I think in November, Abdul-Mahdi refused to meet them.

But Abdul-Mahdi was constantly traveling between Tehran and Baghdad meeting with Soleimani and other Iranian officials. And so the - it's fair to say the Iranians, and Soleimani in particular, had a better relationship with the prime minister of Iraq than President Trump did.

GROSS: You mentioned that Soleimani was responsible for some atrocities while fighting ISIS in Iraq. An example that you learned about from these leaked documents was in a place called Jurf al-Sakhar, and this was in late 2014. You described it as the first major victory over ISIS in Iraq. What did he do, and what were the consequences?

RISEN: Well, that was a classic example of the use of the Shia militias backed by the Quds Force to basically launch a campaign of ethnic - I think you have to call it ethnic cleansing, almost genocidal cleansing. Jurf al-Sakhar was basically on the - in the way of the road between Baghdad and the holy cities of the Shiite world. And there were a lot of pilgrims from Iran going down those roads, and they were afraid of Sunni extremists attacking Iranian pilgrims. And so it was this brutal campaign to wipe out the entire village. And they - after they killed any male who they thought was part of ISIS, they forced all of the Sunnis out of the city, and it turned into a ghost town. I think it's still a ghost town today. And they changed the name of the town.

And it was just an example of the level of atrocity that has never been - no one has been held to account for it. And I think, to me, this is one of the cases where we as an - the United States allowed this kind of atrocity to happen as part of the larger anti-ISIS campaign.

GROSS: You're saying no one was held to account for it, but the U.S. did kill Soleimani.

RISEN: Well, yeah. That's true, although it wasn't because of that. Anyway, it's - there was a document in the files where the Iranian ambassador to Iraq goes to Jurf al-Sakhar, and an MOIS officer accompanies him. And the document is just one of the most heart-wrenching things I've ever read from - you know, that you will find in these files where they - he talks about how they've even slaughtered the cattle and the - and torn - you know, cut down all the trees and the orchards. And it's just a phenomenal description of what the anti-ISIS campaign was like.

GROSS: And you write that tens of thousands of people were displaced...

RISEN: Right.

GROSS: ...From this town. You say that Iran's Intelligence Ministry was afraid that Iran's gains in Iraq were being squandered because Iraqis resented the Shia militias like the Quds Force...

RISEN: Right.

GROSS: ...That sponsored these kinds of massacres.

RISEN: Right. Yeah. I mean, at first, it led to, you know, a lot of resentment among Sunnis. But now I think what you've seen is - in these protests in Iraq in the fall was a more general uprising by all Iraqis against Iranian influence in the country. And I think that was one of the key drivers of these protests - was that you saw Shia Iraqis for the first time really protest Iranian influence. It's not just Sunnis anymore.

GROSS: And what are they protesting against?

RISEN: Well, you know, the - there's a lot of complaints they have against the government about corruption and the lack of services, but overall, behind that is a sense that they are angry at continued Iranian influence in the country and that Iran runs their - they're angry that Iran runs their government.

GROSS: And what was Soleimani's role in running the Iraqi government?

RISEN: He was the No. 1 guy. He was the top Iranian official in the country.

GROSS: The top Iranian official in Iraq?

RISEN: In Iraq. What I didn't realize until we got into this was that the Iranian ambassador to Iraq was a former Quds Force officer who worked for Soleimani. You know, so the top Iranian diplomat worked for Soleimani or had previously worked for Soleimani. And so the Quds Force not only ran the militia, the Shiite militias. They also ran the Iranian embassy.

GROSS: So since Iran helped drive ISIS out of Iraq, why are Shia in Iraq protesting against Iran or Iranian influence now?

RISEN: They believe that the government, the Iraqi government, is deeply corrupt, that they're not getting public services that they should be getting based on the level of oil that they - wealth that they should have. And they believe that a big part of that is because Iran has a de facto occupation of the country through its control of the government and top government officials. And they believe that there needs to be basic reform in the political system, and a big part of that is to get Iranian influence out.

GROSS: My guest is James Risen, senior national security correspondent for The Intercept who has been reporting on secret Iranian intelligence documents that were leaked to The Intercept. We'll talk more after a break, and David Bianculli will review the new BBC nature documentary, "Seven Worlds, One Planet," which explores the land and creatures of each continent, starting with Australia. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "FACE ME")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with James Risen, senior national security correspondent for The Intercept. We're talking about his reporting on secret Iranian intelligence documents that were leaked to The Intercept. The Intercept shared the documents with The New York Times, where Risen formerly reported on national security and intelligence and won two Pulitzer Prizes. The Intercept and The Times worked together and simultaneously published their first story on the documents in November.

Those documents have become even more relevant in the aftermath of the U.S. drone strike that targeted and killed General Qassem Soleimani, who headed Iran's elite Quds Force and oversaw Iran's proxy wars in Iraq and Syria. The leaked documents reveal how Iran has embedded itself in the politics economy and military of its neighbor Iraq and reveals unintended consequences of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

So among the many things you learned from these leaked documents is that after the U.S. pulled out our troops in 2011, that a lot of the people who were working with the U.S., often secretly, felt abandoned by the U.S. and switched sides and told the Iranians secrets about American intelligence in Iraq.

RISEN: Right. Yeah, I mean, there's a great story about an Iraqi who worked for a secret CIA program called AMAX (ph), which was a counterterrorism program. And basically, as you said, in 2011, he was left unemployed by the CIA. The CIA was pulling out or reducing its presence in Iraq as U.S. troops were pulled out, and he was left without a job. And so he applied to the MOIS to become their sources - paid sources.

And it's really interesting that - the way the Iranians deal with these Iraqis is fascinating because they tell them, look. If you want to work for us, you're going to have to tell us everything you did for the CIA. And we want a written report from you. Before we agree to bring you on and make you a source - a paid source - we want a written report describing everybody you worked with at the CIA and everything you did for them. And this guy says, oh, sure, here. And he tells them all the things that he did.

And then there's other people. One of the really interesting characters is a guy who had worked for Saddam Hussein's intelligence service. And then when Saddam was overthrown, he went to work for the CIA. And then when the CIA left, he goes to apply to the Iranians. And the Iranians say, even though he's a Sunni, and he hates us, he wants to work for us because he needs the money.

GROSS: So what are some of the things that you learn from these people who used to work with the U.S. and then felt abandoned when we pulled out and they had no more income from the U.S. so they switched sides and went to the Iranians? What did they tell the Iranians?

RISEN: Well, they told them everything about every individual from the CIA that they had worked with, every kind of program they'd done, every kind of technical secret that they knew. They gave them basically chapter and verse on every operation they'd ever run.

GROSS: Did they leak, like, where the safe houses were?

RISEN: Oh, sure. Yeah, they told them exactly everything, and they...

GROSS: Did they name names of people who...

RISEN: Yes. Yeah. And then they - at the end, they say I swear - basically, I swear to God that I've told you everything I know and I will never again work for the Americans. And it's like a formal vow.

What these documents also show is that Iran was using Iraq as a espionage platform against the United States. In at least one case we know of where they had a - they were developing or trying to develop a spy inside the State Department, someone who had been working in Iraq. We don't have the name of that person.

And also, there's a really fascinating case of a top Iraqi military intelligence official going to the Iranians and telling them, I want to - he basically just shows up one day at one of their consulates and says, I want to give you everything I know about what we do and what the Americans have done here. And he then shocks the Iranians by telling them, you know, before I came here, I went and told my boss that I'm coming to spy for you and they go what? And he says, yes, and my boss said, oh, greet the brothers, and tell them that we're - we are at your service.

So it just shows you, like, the Iraqi intelligence service that the United States helped create after the fall of Saddam - you know, we tried to create a new service - is completely it open and accessible to the Iranians.

GROSS: Let me quote what this guy says his boss said to tell the Iranians. "Tell them we are at your service. Whatever you need is at their disposal. We are Shia and have a common enemy. We are now in conflict with ISIS, and we must cooperate to eliminate it. All of the Iraqi Army's intelligence - consider it yours. If you have a new laptop, give it to me so I can upload the program onto it." What program?

RISEN: Yeah. I think that was a targeting program. It's fascinating. And I remember when we went to the U.S. government to get responses, they just kind of shook their heads. But this is something...

GROSS: Wait. Shook their heads indicating, wow, that's crazy, or, no, we didn't do it, or, we don't know about it?

RISEN: Yeah. I mean, I'm not sure. I mean, I think it was like this sense that, well, you know, what are you going to do? It's - I think the American government kind of knows they've been had in Iraq by the Iranians, and there's a deep anger and resentment over that but also a sense of resignation that they now know, you know, the U.S. invaded Iraq and Iran won the war.

GROSS: Yeah. I mean, in one article of yours, you quote a recent two-volume history of the Iraq War published by the U.S. Army that details our campaign's missteps and its staggering cost in lives and money. And this report says - this report from the U.S. Army says that "an emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor..."

RISEN: Yeah.

GROSS: "...In the Iraq War."

RISEN: Yeah, that's the official U.S. Army history of the war in Iraq that was - its publication was delayed for a long time because it was kind of considered controversial within the army. And they finally published it when they, you know, realized, well, we've got to just tell the truth.

GROSS: Do you think we're any closer now to a military conflict with Iran or do you think that Iraq is any closer now to a military conflict with Iran?

RISEN: I think - well, one of the things that's interesting to me is that Abdul-Mahdi, the prime minister of Iraq, who said he was going to resign in November, is still prime minister. The Parliament and the Iraqi government still hasn't figured out what they want to do, the leadership situation there is still kind of paralyzed.

GROSS: So the prime minister is still aligned with Iran?

RISEN: Yeah. So where things go in Iraq is going to be fascinating. I think one of the things that a lot of people explain to me, which I think is fascinating, is that one reason why Soleimani had gained so much power in Iraq, and why being essentially the viceroy of - Iran's viceroy in Iraq was such a powerful position for an Iranian leader, was that Iraq is the outlet for the way Iran gets around Western sanctions. They go through - Iraq provides the money laundering, the oil smuggling, the currency manipulation, and all kinds of other economic benefits for the Iranian regime. And it's the primary outlet for Iran to get out from under American sanctions.

And so to Iran, Iraq is a critical part of its survival, you know, its control over Iraq is very important. And I think that's why Soleimani was so adamant on keeping Abdul-Mahdi in power, and it's why he played such a central role and why I think he saw himself as - that his success in Iraq was something that could elevate him to president of Iran because Iraq had become so important to Iran's survival. And that'll be interesting to see if Iraq gets a government that's willing to shut down some of Iran's access to Iraq, what that will mean for Iran and what - how Iran will respond.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us my guest is journalist James Risen. He is the senior national security correspondent for The Intercept, formerly reported on national security and intelligence for The New York Times, where he won two Pulitzer Prizes. He's part of a team of reporters who reported on documents in an archive of secret Iranian intelligence cables that were obtained by The Intercept. Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is James Risen. He's a senior national security correspondent for The Intercept and formerly reported on national security and intelligence for The New York Times, where he won two Pulitzers. He's part of a team of reporters who's reported on documents in an archive of secret Iranian intelligence cables obtained by The Intercept and then shared with The New York Times. These are hundreds of reports and cables written mainly between 2013 and '15 by officers of Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security who were serving in the field in Iraq. And this reporting was published simultaneously in The Intercept and The New York Times.

So the U.S. killed General Soleimani, and the word that one uses to describe what they did to Soleimani is very loaded. If you say assassination, that we assassinated him, assassination is illegal. If you say it was a targeted killing, that's a different story. So the language is very charged.

RISEN: Right.

GROSS: Assassination has been illegal since when? Assassinating a foreign leader.

RISEN: Well, the United States, in the wake of the Church Committee in the mid-1970s, created a ban on assassinations. It's an executive order, 12333 I think it's the name of it. And it's never been taken off the books since the days of the Church Committee, so it's still in place.

GROSS: And this was the committee that was formed after the discoveries of how the U.S. tried to assassinate Castro and had their eyes on other political leaders in Latin America.

RISEN: Right. The Church Committee was basically the first congressional investigation into CIA and FBI abuses in the post-war world. There was virtually no congressional oversight of the CIA before the Church Committee. And they uncovered all of these assassination plots that had taken place years earlier by the CIA against Castro and other leaders. And their investigation led to this executive order being passed banning assassinations, and that is still on the books.

The problem is that since Sept. 11 in particular, the U.S. has engaged in countless targeted killings of terrorists. And they have - the U.S. has used the - with the authorization for the use of military force, the AUMF, the congressional resolution that was passed right after Sept. 11 for - to allow for the war on terror and the war in Afghanistan. That's the legal justification, the legal legislation that allows for targeted killings in - against terrorists. But the AUMF was never envisioned as something that would allow the assassination of foreign government leaders like Soleimani. That's the clear red line between the targeted killings of terrorists in the war on terror and what Trump did in the case of Soleimani.

GROSS: This is what made you suspicious when the Trump administration declared the Quds Force, which was led by Soleimani, and the Revolutionary Guard, which oversaw the Quds Force, when the Trump administration declared them terrorists groups. So by declaring them terrorist groups, do you think that kind of opened the door to killing Soleimani and legally justifying it?

RISEN: I believe that's probably part of the legal - the secret legal justification. I - you know, the, you know, in all these kind of cases what happens usually is that the Justice Department in the White House and the Pentagon or the CIA. The lawyers for all of those organizations get together and they create a legal opinion that approves whatever action the president wants to take.

And we've seen time and time again what we call now Office of Legal Counsel legal opinions. The Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel is the final drafter of these legal opinions after they consult with the lawyers throughout the national security apparatus. And these legal opinions have very rarely been made public, only occasionally. The whole point of those things is to find loopholes in the law, of all the various laws that govern the way war is supposed to be conducted.

And I believe that there was probably a legal opinion of some kind or a memo of some kind that claimed that the designation of the Quds Force as a terrorist organization last April meant that it was legal to kill Soleimani under the auspices of the AUMF, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force in the war on terror. I can't prove that. But, to me, that's the most logical legal justification that they have.

GROSS: So you've described Soleimani as having been Iran's political representative in Iraq and in other parts of the Middle East in that he had a lot of political control in the Middle East, as well as military because he ran the Quds Force, the elite force from Iran. Hard guy to replace. Who is his replacement? What do you know about him?

RISEN: I think that's the biggest question, is why do they think that getting rid of one guy is going to make a real significant difference, when it's not a terrorist organization? It's a state. It'll be - you know, the Quds Force isn't going away. The Iranians are not going away. They're right next to Iraq. So that, to me, was - I mean, you could argue that Soleimani had a real force of personality and that he built his power base largely on that force of personality, in addition to his ability to intimidate people with - through the Quds Force. But it's something that, you know, other officials could do as well, I would think.

GROSS: It's not like it was a cult group, and you killed the leader...

RISEN: Right.

GROSS: ...And the cult has no leader anymore.

RISEN: Right.

GROSS: He's a leader in a very large country and a very large government.

RISEN: Yeah. I think one of the closest - I mean, there's no person in the U.S. government who has the same kind of role that he did because he was - had such a hybrid role. But it's as if you're saying, you know, you're going to assassinate the commander of CENTCOM, Central Command, who is the military representative of the United States in the Middle East. But, you know, CENTCOM also has other - you know, it's - has semi - quasi-diplomatic and political roles, too, where they, you know, meet with leaders. But, you know, the United States could replace the CENTCOM leader in a couple days.

GROSS: Do you think the killing of Soleimani was a big setback for Iran?

RISEN: I think it's a - I don't know. And I think that's, to me, what's so dangerous about the decision to do it, is I don't think the U.S. knows, either. I don't think they know what the consequences are going to be. And that, to me, was why this was so reckless, was that they made this decision without, I don't think, any real knowledge of what the long-term effect is going to be.

GROSS: Getting back to the secret documents that you got from Iran, secret intelligence documents, my understanding is you don't really know who leaked it or why they leaked it. Is that correct?

RISEN: Right. We got it leaked to us, and then we were able to communicate - I was able to communicate with the source every once in a while. And we attempted to get together and meet, but he or she refused.

GROSS: How do you ensure that the documents are real before reporting on them?

RISEN: Well, that took a long time. We did a lot of verification of the documents. First, as you know, we translated them with different translators, who then checked each other's work. Then we did a lot of reporting in various ways to verify the documents. Both we and The New York Times were confident that they were real.

GROSS: What is it like for you when you get your hands on something like this?

RISEN: It's pretty amazing. I mean, it's - to me, this was phenomenal because it's the first leak of this kind from Iran or from a country like Iran. You know, we've had a lot of mass leaks over the last few years, but they mostly have been, you know, from the U.S. government. But these really opened a window onto a whole - very secretive government that I thought was - it was fascinating.

GROSS: Well, James Risen, thank you so much for talking with us. It's a pleasure to talk with you again.

RISEN: Sure. Thank you for having me.

GROSS: James Risen is senior national security correspondent for The Intercept. After we take a short break, David Bianculli will review the new BBC nature documentary series "Seven Worlds, One Planet," exploring the land and creatures of each continent, starting with Australia. This is FRESH AIR.

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