Washington - A controversy over the Bush administration’s censorship of an article on Iran has helped trigger a public spat between two leading Middle East scholars.
Flynt Leverett, a former employee of the CIA and the National Security Council who is a harsh critic of President Bush’s foreign policy, has been accusing the White House of manufacturing concerns about classified information in order to prevent publication of a recent opinion article he wrote for The New York Times urging engagement with Tehran.
According to Leverett, the White House approved material similar to the information removed from his article for use by fellow former CIA and NSC staffer Kenneth Pollack, an initial supporter of the Iraq War. In the process of slamming the White House, Leverett also has attempted to discredit Pollack by citing his initial support for the war.
White House critics paint scrutiny of Leverett’s article — co-written with his wife, former Foreign Service officer Hilary Mann — as part of a White House effort to restrict the flow of information to the public.
“It coincides with the White House efforts to reclassify information that was previously declassified,” said Steve Clemons, director of the American strategy program at the New America Foundation — a liberal leaning think tank based in Washington. Clemons argues that by censoring an op-ed article that is based on information previously published, the Bush administration is taking another step in the direction of politicizing the intelligence services. “This reflects something I’d think would happen in the Soviet Union, not here,” Clemons said.
Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York is the only lawmaker, so far, to publicly take on the issue. In a letter to Bush written on December 19, 2006, the congresswoman argued that the administration’s handling of the Leverett-Mann article indicates either a failure by the CIA, which initially approved the text, or an attempt to involve politics in the clearance process. “Then I am left to believe that your Administration redacted information for political purposes,” Slaughter wrote to Bush, demanding that he explain the decision to censor the article.
According to sources following the case, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee also intend to ask the CIA and the NSC to provide them with information on the reasons for redacting the article.
Leverett and Mann sought to write about a letter that the Iranian foreign ministry sent to the United States, a missive that reportedly had received the endorsement of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In the 2003 letter, which was transferred through the Swiss Embassy, Iran offered to open negotiations with the United States on all bilateral issues, including Tehran’s nuclear program. The Bush administration rejected the offer and did not respond to the letter.
At the time, representatives of the Swiss Embassy contacted pro-Israel activists in Washington and tried to interest them in the Iranian offer. But according to one of the pro-Israel activists, there was not sufficient evidence indicating that the offer actually reflected the thinking of the Iranian leadership.
Clemons said last week that he and his colleagues at the New America Foundation plan to submit a Freedom of Information Act request to allow the declassification of the Iranian letter. Leverett, meanwhile, said that he is seeking clarifications on the pre-publication clearance process, arguing that he never agreed to have the White House review his work. “Now I’m told the White House has to see my articles,” Leverett said. “This is not part of the process, and it is an issue that should be worked out.”
In Pollack’s December 8, 2006, op-ed in The New York Times, he mentioned talks between the United States and Iran regarding Afghanistan — similar to a reference deleted from Leverett’s article. “It would seem,” Leverett wrote, “that if one is expounding views congenial to the White House, it does not intervene in prepublication censorship, but if one is a critic, White House officials will use fraudulent charges of revealing classified information to keep critical views from being heard.”
Leverett and Pollack took their burgeoning dispute to the airways December 20 when they met in the studio of Diane Rehm’s National Public Radio program.
Pollack asserted that while the government employed Leverett at the time of the events, he himself was not an employee and this is the reason that he was allowed to publish his article. Government regulations require that any article relating to material obtained while in office must be submitted for prepublication approval. Pollack has argued that his article was based on “old-fashioned research,” not on information to which he was exposed during his work in government.
“I’m hardly a supporter of the administration,” Pollack added, during the joint appearance on Rehm’s program. “Most of my work has been quite critical of the administration.”
Leverett rejected Pollack’s effort to distance himself from the administration. “I am not really prepared to recognize [Pollack] as a stalwart critic of the Bush administration,” Leverett said, pointing to Pollack’s book “Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq,” which claimed that the regime of Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Pollack, who has since made a public mea culpa for his support of the war, said during the recent radio exchange that he did not write the book to make the administration happy. “I drank the Kool-Aid,” Pollack said. “I bought the intelligence community assessments about the Iraq WMD threat, hook, line and sinker.”
In the radio interview, Pollack said he did not know why Leverett was dragging him into the controversy. According to Leverett, the reason he chose to point out Pollack’s article was because both scholars signed on to the same secrecy agreement with the CIA and both wrote on the same issue.
Pollack and Leverett were both fellows at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center until several months ago, when Leverett left to join the more liberal New America Foundation. Leverett told the Forward that during his time at the Saban Center, where Pollack is director of research, “Pollack tried to limit the topics I could work on and what I could say about them.” Leverett said that he was not allowed to work on the issue of democratic reform in Arab countries or to take a critical approach regarding America’s push to drive Syria out of Lebanon.
Saban Center sources countered that Leverett was not banned from working on Arab reform, but he was told that he was brought to the think tank to work on Syria and Lebanon. The sources also stressed that though not all agreed with Leverett’s view that driving Syria out of Lebanon would destabilize the country, he was never censored and that Brookings published Leverett’s book on Syria.
The administration denied claims that the Leverett-Mann article received special treatment.
“We don’t falsely silence critics on national security claims,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said when asked about the controversy during a daily briefing last month. Officials at the CIA and the NSC said that there was no political motivation in dealing with the article and that the redactions were made by professional staff members of the NSC, not at the political level.
During the term of Porter Goss as director of the CIA, former employees put new and more stringent regulations in place regarding publications. The new regulations were meant to block disclosure of information as was done in the case of former employee Michael Scheuer, who published his reflections under the name “Anonymous.”
The existing rules also require that an employee who worked for several agencies submit his material to each one of them for a separate review.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman