A small Pentagon planning office under fire for its alleged manipulation of intelligence on Iraq is also dealing with other countries in the Persian Gulf, including Iran, raising concerns among critics about the shaping of Bush administration policy in this sensitive region.
Defense Department spokesmen acknowledge that a small, four-member team is working on Iran policy within the Pentagon’s so-called Office of Special Plans. Critics contend that the office has been distorting intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda in order to strengthen the case for war.
A senior Pentagon official told the Forward that the office is “a pure policy-planning shop” and was not engaged in reviewing — much less distorting — intelligence.
The furor over the office and its role has emerged as a flashpoint in the larger administration debate over Iran policy, which pits moderates in the State Department against hawks in the Pentagon.
The administration is currently reviewing its policy toward Iran amid a flurry of accusations that Tehran is aggressively pursuing a military nuclear program, meddling in neighboring Iraq and harboring Al Qaeda operatives.
Neoconservatives inside and outside the administration have been urging an active effort to promote regime change in Tehran. Reports of possible covert operations have surfaced in recent weeks.
Several intelligence sources and Iran policy watchers told the Forward that the Office of Special Plans was a key factor in the push for a policy of Iranian regime change.
“They are running their own intelligence operation, including covert action, and are using contractors outside the government to do some of the leg work,” said a former top CIA official. “Their area of work has been concentrated on Iraq, which is why the intelligence on WMD was so bad, but they have a much broader portfolio. The office is undergoing some scrutiny from inside the government given its poor track record and the lack of ‘sanity checking’ their products with the intelligence community. A lot of material they produce is not shared with CIA, not coordinated, and finds its way into public policy statements by the likes of Rumsfeld and Cheney.”
A senior Pentagon official strongly denied the allegations, however.
“The Office of Special Plans is a pure policy planning shop and it is not dealing with intelligence,” the official told the Forward, stressing that the office was not pushing a hard line on Iran, nor was it conducting any covert operations.
In a news briefing on Wednesday, Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy and a prominent neoconservative, rejected allegations that the Pentagon had in any way distorted intelligence information about Iraq.
The Office of Special Plans was first described by journalist Seymour Hersh in a recent New Yorker article. Hersh claimed that it had emerged as a rival to both the CIA and the Pentagon’s own Defense Intelligence Agency as a main source providing intelligence on Iraq to President Bush.
The senior Pentagon official said such press reports were “utterly false and a complete fabrication.”
The Defense Department has three distinct policy-planning divisions, the official said: one on South Asia, one on the Middle East and one dealing with the Northern Gulf. The latter was renamed “special plans” in October 2002 and had its personnel expanded because it had to deal with an upcoming war against Iraq as well as other issues like terrorism, the official said.
The three policy planning divisions are supervised by the deputy undersecretary of defense for special plans and Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, William Luti.
The senior official argued that the press was confusing the office with a now-disbanded two-person team set up 18 months ago by Feith to review intelligence on terrorist networks and Iraq.
One member of the Iran team, several sources said, is Michael Rubin, an expert who is on the record as favoring regime change in Iran. The other three members are veteran Pentagon Iran hands, some of whom do not share Rubin’s views, said a source with close ties to the administration’s Iran policymakers.
The source said the office was very active in seeking out advice on Iran and was much more up-to-date on issues than the State Department’s Iran desk officers.
“They are interviewing a lot of people, they are gathering intelligence and willing to support pro-democracy people,” the source said. “They want simple stuff like funding satellite TV and radio into Iran and want the U.S. government to send a signal to Iranians that if there is an uprising the U.S. will support them. That is all at the moment.”
Several sources said the State Department was seeking to improve contacts with Tehran and was skeptical of the neoconservative assessment that the regime was on the verge of collapse.
Gregg Sullivan, a spokesman for the State Department’s Near East bureau, declined to comment on the issue.
A clear illustration of the debate is the shifting attitude of the government toward the Mujaheddin el Khalk, or MEK, an opposition group based in Iraq and supported for years by Saddam Hussein that is listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department. After initially bombing MEK bases in Iraq, the American military proceeded to negotiate a cease-fire, before eventually deciding to disarm the group.
Even now, however, some hawks are pressing the administration to engage the group and possibly use it as a proxy against the Tehran regime.
“The Office of Special Plans has been willing to reach out to the MEK and use them as a surrogate to pressure Iran,” said Larry Johnson, a former CIA and State Department official who has been among those alleging pressure on analysts by Pentagon hawks to skew intelligence on Iraq.
The senior Defense Department official strongly denied the allegations, contending that the Office of Special Plans had in fact advocated cracking down on the MEK. He said the ensuing policy confusion was due to other government agencies.
State officials also question the clout and democratic credentials of exiled opposition figures like Reza Pahlavi, the son of the late shah who has emerged as an advocate of Iranian secular democracy and a darling of neoconservatives.
The source close to Iran policymakers added that the Pentagon was very much in favor of regime change in Iran and enjoyed the support of the vice president’s office. He said advocates were hoping to convince the president over the objections of the State Department.
Perhaps reflecting the fierceness of the debate, a major White House policy meeting on Iran was postponed last week and will only be held after the president returns from his trip to Europe and the Middle East.