A prominent former Pentagon official and advocate of the Iraq War has launched a Web site to rebut the waves of criticism leveled against him for several years.
Douglas Feith, who was under secretary of defense for policy until July 2005, is offering a spirited defense against allegations that, during the buildup to the American invasion of Iraq, he played a central role in hyping intelligence about a link between Al Qaeda and the regime of Saddam Hussein.
The issue was thrust back into the national spotlight last month, after the release of a government report asserting that the handling of intelligence by a special office under Feith’s authority was authorized and legal, but “inappropriate.”
Several of Feith’s conservative allies have hailed sections of the report for clearing him of any illegal activity. But Feith, who is now teaching at Georgetown University and is writing a book about his Pentagon stint, is using his Web site, as well as opinion articles and media interviews, to refute the report’s findings. He contends that both the report and the ensuing media coverage provided a biased image of his role by depicting him as a mischievous operative who distorted intelligence in order to further his ideological beliefs, instead of as a demanding policy official.
But several senior State Department and CIA officials who were dealing with Iraq intelligence in government at the time starkly disagree with the notion that Feith was merely engaged in legitimate policy review.
“If this was not so deadly serious, and the consequences of the policy that Feith’s shop was selling so tragic, it would be comical,” said Paul Pillar, who was the CIA’s chief analyst for the Middle East until a year ago. “Of course vigorous questioning and challenging from consumers is a valuable part of a healthy intelligence-policy relationship, but what the shop under Feith was doing had nothing to do with that. It was striving not to improve intelligence but instead to discredit it and reduce its influence as much as possible when the intelligence community did not arrive at the preferred conclusion that there was an ‘alliance’ and deep, longstanding operational relationship between the Saddam regime and Al Qaeda. And the reason that was the preference was, of course, that a big part of selling the war was to link it as much as possible in the public mind with 9/11.”
The February 9 report by Pentagon Inspector General Thomas Gimble focused on the work of the “office of special plans,” which operated under Feith, regarding any relations between Al Qaeda and the Saddam regime. The report asserted that the office of special plans disseminated “alternative intelligence assessments about links between Hussein and Al Qaeda that made the case for going to war.”
“While such actions were not illegal or unauthorized, the actions were, in our opinion, inappropriate given that the products did not clearly show the variance with the consensus of the intelligence community and were, in some cases, shown as intelligence products,” the report concluded.
Feith, who was the Pentagon’s number-three man, below Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, counters that his office was not providing alternate intelligence but merely a critique of the CIA’s assessments.
But Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief of staff for former secretary of state Colin Powell at the time, and has forcefully attacked Feith, contends that Feith and his office did produce alternative intelligence and used it to build talking points for key decision-makers, including Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, then-national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and even President Bush. “Feith and his people were well aware of what they were doing,” Wilkerson said, deeming such activity legal but “highly inappropriate.”
Feith has argued that the two-man special plans office was a reaction to the CIA’s attempts to downplay intelligence on links between Saddam and Al Qaeda.
Pillar said that such a notion was “hogwash.”
“If anything, I think the intelligence community can be criticized for spending too much time and attention on this issue, given that it consumed resources that could have been used for coverage of other important issues that involve real threats to U.S. security,” he said.
Most controversially, Pentagon officials presented a briefing in September 2002 to the White House that contained a slide mentioning “fundamental problems” with the assessments of the intelligence community. The slide, however, was omitted from a similar briefing given a month earlier to then-CIA director George Tenet.
Feith argues that the decision to take out the slide was a way of soothing the sensitivity of the CIA on the issue rather than a nefarious end-run around the agency.
The PowerPoint briefing, titled “Iraq and Al Qaeda Making the Case,” argues that “intelligence indicates cooperation in all categories, mature symbiotic relationship” between the two, adding that there were “some indications of possible Iraq coordination with Al Qaeda specifically related to 9/11.” Furthermore, it claims that an alleged April 2001 meeting between 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague was a “known contact.”
Those assertions were quickly discarded by the intelligence community, as well as the bipartisan 9-11 Commission, but nonetheless held up by some administration officials, including Cheney. Feith has claimed that the briefing conveyed the views of the intelligence community at the time, and that the CIA changed its position at a later date.
Feith points to a 2004 Senate Intelligence Committee analysis on the briefing, which claimed that policy officials acted professionally and played by the intelligence community rules, and that the officials’ questions actually improved the CIA’s products. However, the report also stated that members of Feith’s policy shop interviewed by committee staff “each noted that at some point, and often predominantly, their work involved intelligence analysis,” with several indicating that “they reviewed both raw and finished intelligence and did undertake their own intelligence analysis after looking at (intelligence community) products and discovering that what they needed had not been produced by the (intelligence community).”
Wayne White, who was in charge of Iraq at the State Department’s intelligence and research bureau until early 2005, claims that large segments of the intelligence community saw Feith’s shop as “sort of a stealth intelligence operation “because it generally did not consult with the intelligence community. “We were usually not aware of what he and his people were up to, which is not usually the case with other parts of the intelligence community because analytic products are distributed rather widely,” he said. “One wonders whether Feith and his office chose not to consult more broadly and openly with the intelligence community writ large out of considerable fear that their analytic conclusions would not pass muster.”
He added that the intelligence community failed to grasp the impact that Feith’s office was having on the Bush administration.
Eric Edelman, who succeeded Feith as under secretary of defense for policy, sent a memo to the Pentagon’s inspector general in January, attacking his draft report as having “numerous factual inaccuracies, omissions and mischaracterizations.” The memo prompted the inspector general to drop recommendations to put in place tighter rules on such activities, according to Newsweek.
Mario Loyola, who worked as a consultant for the Office of Special Plans, denounced the “cheap shots” by “people who don’t understand” the complexity of the national security issues with which Feith was dealing. He blasted Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, a senator who is the most prominent critic of Feith and the driving force behind the investigations into his prewar work, for his repeated “fishing expeditions.”
“We did not produce alternative intelligence,” said Loyola, who is now a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based outfit widely seen as a bastion of neoconservatives and support for the Iraq War. “We only used the CIA product as a basis, but at some point intelligence analysis becomes policy work, which is what we were doing.”
As for the controversial White House briefing, Loyola said that Wolfowitz ordered it. “So if we say it’s inappropriate,” Loyola added, “Wolfowitz is the one to blame.”