Pentagon Inspector General Thomas Gimble’s narrow report on the activities of Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith’s Office of Special Plans was not quite a whitewash, but neither was it an indictment. The report, presented to Congress on Feb. 9, rightly condemned Feith’s attempt to create what it charitably called “an alternative intelligence assessment process,” lacking the checks and balances observed by the CIA, DIA, and INR. But no punishment was recommended for anyone involved in the relentless advocacy that enabled the slide to war. Nor did the investigation seek to determine possible involvement of the Office of Special Plans in the Niger uranium forgeries and cover-up, or in the generation and dissemination of false intelligence derived from foreign sources.
Per Gimble’s careful parsing, Feith’s activities were deemed “inappropriate” but “not illegal or unauthorized.” And his investigation’s scope was curiously limited: the year-long inquiry only examined one of the many questionable activities carried out by the Office of Special Plans, the purported link between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The role of Feith’s office in hatching the imaginary meeting between Mohammad Atta and Iraqi intelligence officials in Prague was significant, but it was only a single element in the much broader pattern of deception that provided the “evidence” President Bush used to persuade the American people that Saddam’s Iraq was an existential threat akin to Hitler’s Germany.
At best, any investigation conducted in-house, as this one was, will be more collegial than adversarial, and Gimble took pains not to speculate about motive. But Feith didn’t come to the Pentagon without an agenda. The IG report found that his OSP “was predisposed to finding a significant relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda,” and those who know Feith’s history understand why.
Since the first Bush administration, Feith had been advising the Israeli government to pressure Washington to remove Saddam Hussein. So it was unsurprising when he joined Richard Perle, David Wurmser, and others in July 1996 to develop a position paper that had Iraqi regime change as its centerpiece. Intended for incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the document, entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” pushed the new government to launch pre-emptive war against Israel’s Arab neighbors. “Israel has the opportunity to make a clean break,” the paper said, “to engage every possible energy on rebuilding Zionism.” Baghdad was first on the hit list—“Whoever inherits Iraq dominates the entire Levant strategically,” they wrote—followed by attacks on Syria and Lebanon. To secure American support for “rolling back” Arab regimes, the group recommended phony motives for the invasions—in Syria’s case counterfeiting, drug running, and WMD development.
Netanyahu rejected their advice, but with the election of George W. Bush, Perle assumed chairmanship of the Defense Policy Board and Feith took the number-three post at the Pentagon, where Wurmser would oversee his Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group. The Clean Break authors were positioned for an audacious play—“reestablishing the principle of preemption” not by Israeli initiative but by American action—and Sept. 11 provided a moment of opportunity. Where cause did not exist, Feith manufactured pretext, just as the 1996 document advised, and the Israelis were key to making the case.
It has been reported that during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, Israeli military officers and diplomats had virtual carte-blanche access to Feith’s offices and those of his boss Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. (Both were investigated earlier in their careers on suspicion of passing secrets to Israel—Feith in 1982, Wolfowitz in 1978.) Former Office of Special Plans employees report that analysts working for Feith who were not uncritically supportive of the U.S.-Israel relationship were weeded out. A Feith associate, analyst Lawrence Franklin, is now serving a 13-year prison term for passing classified information to Israeli Embassy officials.
Feith’s sympathies were scarcely secret. In 2003, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice commented after a Feith presentation, “Thanks Doug, but when we want the Israeli position we’ll invite the ambassador,” while Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson described Feith “as a card-carrying member of Likud.” But his cozy relationship with the foreign source of much of his alternative information seemed not to concern the inspector general.
Though the report accuses Feith of “reporting of dubious quality or reliability,” he proclaims himself vindicated because it alleges nothing illegal. All along, he defended his role by claiming that he was not purveying intelligence but providing balance as a “policy making” official “challenging” the prevailing intelligence. He describes his PowerPoint presentation on the non-existent Saddam-al-Qaeda connection—which he called a “mature symbiotic relationship”—as a “policy briefing” not intended to be regarded as intelligence. Even Gimble agrees that this is nonsense, describing Feith’s briefing as an “intelligence product.” The IG report also notes somewhat laconically that there were several different versions of the briefing, suggesting that whatever factual or fictional information it contained was itself being tailored, like a sales pitch, to suit the audience.
Then there is the issue—which has never been completely investigated despite a request from the CIA’s former Director George Tenet—of how Feith’s presentation, based on over 50 documents, most of which were classified, was fortuitously leaked to Stephen Hayes at the always receptive Weekly Standard. At that time, several of the Standard’s regular contributors actually worked in Feith’s Office of Special Plans, a possible conflict of interest that has never been explained or examined. In November 2003, Hayes wrote an article called “Case Closed,” relying on information that was subsequently cited by Vice President Dick Cheney as proof positive of the al-Qaeda-Saddam connection. Cheney has continued to make that claim until quite recently, and as a result of that elaborately concocted piece of disinformation, most Americans still believe that there was a connection. False “intelligence” introduced into the policy-making process by Feith and his acolytes and fed to an accomplice in the media was then cited by a senior government official to close the circle and successfully make the case for war.
Deliberate evasion of the intelligence community’s vetting process and illegal exposure of classified information aside, the Office of Special Plans was scheming in ways the IG report didn’t even attempt to address. OSP refined cherry picking, permitting the consumer to select information that supports a case while rejecting that which does not. Feith’s office also perfected the stovepipe: if they had a rumor or some tidbit of questionable information that might be dismissed by the limp-wristed defeatists over at State or CIA, they could type it up on nice letterhead and send it directly up to their friends at the National Security Council or in the vice president’s office, where Stephen Hadley or Scooter Libby would ensure that it would be seen by their bosses. Much of the information sent out of the Office of Special Plans directly to its friends in the White House came from the Pentagon’s favorite fantasist Ahmad Chalabi, who was happy to provide sources describing Iraqi drones that could spray chemical weapons on New York City, as well vast dumps of chemical and biological weapons together with their associated labs. He also produced on demand sources detailing how Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. Back-channel intelligence from Israeli sources was frequently used to bolster the case being made by Chalabi’s informants and was scarcely more credible. But it was earmarked “reliable” and sent on to the White House, circumventing the intelligence agencies.
Finally, there is the question of war crimes, the likely reason that Feith and company are so sensitive about challenges to their ostensible roles as upstanding civil servants sworn to defend the American Republic. The Nuremburg tribunals established the now universally accepted principle that anyone who falsely makes a case for aggressive war should be considered a war criminal and held accountable. And there is much in the lead-up to the war against Iraq that suggests such a conclusion. Beyond the collection and stovepiping of dubious intelligence, the provenance of the Niger uranium forgeries has never been resolved to anyone’s satisfaction, and the possible role of the Office of Special Plans in their exploitation cannot be ruled out. If part of the government deliberately lied to another part to justify a war, the urgent need for a cover-up would explain the recently revealed intensity of the White House’s reaction to whistleblower Joseph Wilson, who exposed the forgeries.
Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee promises further hearings. But Gimble hasn’t given him much to work with. If the inspector general had only looked a little wider and deeper, he might have discerned a persistent pattern of questionable information being deliberately manipulated, then landing on the desks of White House officials to make a case for war. That would have made for an interesting report.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA Officer, is a partner in Cannistraro Associates, an international security consultancy.