By David Swanson
An interview of Allison Hantschel.
AUDIO 30 Minutes:
David: This is David Swanson with Allison Hantschel, the blogger of the blog site, First Draft http://www.first-draft.com , and the author of the book “Special Plans, the blogs on Douglas Feith and the faulty intelligence that led us to war.” Allison, it is good to talk to you. How are you doing?
Allison: I’m doing good, thank you so much for having me.
David: And how did you get involved in the topic of Douglas Feith and the intelligence that took us into this war?
Allison: Well, essentially what happened was almost two years ago now, I was working as a newspaper reporter, and I was in my spare time writing a blog at First Draft, and I had gotten an e-mail one day from the editor of the series of books, of which “Special Plans” is a part, the “Informed Citizen” series, and the editor of this series had asked me are you interested in doing it book for us, and what might you be interested in writing about, and at the time, some of the information about just how bad the prewar planning and intelligence had been was just starting to come out, and I thought it was a really fascinating topic, that here is a person who had his hand in almost every major important mistake that took place before the war, and I really wanted to delve into that further and as I explored more and more material from the bloggers mentioned in the book, I just found so many things that now I think people are only becoming aware of, that a lot of the people who write for these blogs have known all along.
David: So who is this guy briefly, Doug Feith, I mean, he looks like a nice enough guy on TV, you see him on their all the time. I saw him within the past couple of weeks chatting away with Charlie Rose, and he seemed like a very friendly guy with a lot of integrity who was trying to protect our political process from those who would harm it and so forth, and I did not hear any views to the contrary. Who is he?
Allison: He was during the second Bush administration, I should specify, he was the Undersecretary of Defense for policy, and in that position, he was in charge of setting up essentially his own intelligence office. Essentially, he was running an operation, and the reason that you see him on television, just to backtrack little bit, recently, is an inspector general’s report from the Pentagon came out on 02/11/07 that essentially stated that Feith was running a separate intelligence operation within the Pentagon to make the case that Iraq was collaborating with Al-Qaeda, and that Feith himself issued analyses of intelligence that were at odds with numerous intelligence agencies, and that he bypassed those agencies and other officials to present his own version of the facts to the executive branch, and that he dismissed, downplayed or ignored evidence contrary to the story that he wanted to tell, and that story really is one that kind of has its roots in Feith’s own sort of ideological upbringing, and he was mentored by Richard Perle, who is an adviser to the administration, and he and Perle and most other prominent members of the administration were at one time either ideological allies or actually members of the Project For a New American Century, which is a think tank that formed in the late 1990s in response to President Clinton’s foreign policy. A bunch of conservatives who were out of power, who took a look at what Clinton was doing and decided this is not the way to go, and the policy that they pushed was one of remaking the Middle East in an American democratic model, whether those countries wanted it or not, and that this would be vital to American national security, so out of that whole sort of ideological background, Feith came into the administration and after September 11, began making the case that Iraq and Al-Qaeda were collaborators and that as such, Iraq presented a threat to the United States.
David: Now, is it true that just after September 11, Feith is the guy who wrote a memo to try to propose surprising places around the world to attack, possibly South America, possibly “a non-Al-Qaeda target like Iraq.” Was this a memo that came from him?
Allison: This is something that you hear quite often, and yes, essentially what you’re hearing, and it wasn’t just Feith, from people as far up as Donald Rumsfeld, who said so famously after September 11, why are we attacking Afghanistan, there are not any good targets over there? There are plenty of good targets in Iraq. Taking out Iraq and taking out Hussein was a goal of people in this administration long before September 11 started, and after that, they seized on this opportunity that they had to say, all right, this is a longtime enemy of ours; let’s see what we can do here.
David: Yeah it just seems like such a contradiction to what you have; Powell and Rice on record saying Iraq had no weapons programs not too long before they began announcing all the weapons programs that they had, and you have Feith saying that Iraq would make a good non-Al-Qaeda target not too long before leading the charge in portraying Iraq as tied to Al Qaeda; that seems to be what he’s most famous for is pushing the fictional relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda. To what extent was he behind the WMD claims is well?
Allison: What he was essentially doing, his office was basically, Seymour Hersh called it the stove pipe. It basically was a funnel of information that rather than being evaluated by intelligence agencies in the normal way, what Feith was doing was taking any scrap of information from anywhere that had anything to do with supporting a case that Iraq was a grave threat and basically pushing that information directly to the higher-ups in the administration; Vice President Cheney and the president himself, and famously, one of the things that people remember is all of the prewar claims that Saddam Hussein had biological weapons laboratories, that he could drive these trucks around wherever he wanted to and attack people and then drive the trucks the way it you would never know. It was a very scary prospect, and that piece of information actually came from a defector.
Allison: Yeah, Curveball, that was this code name, what should have been a clue to somebody…
David: (laughing) You would think…
Allison: …and when you have a source whose friends describe him as a congenital liar, that’s something, that’s a person whose reports you might not want to send directly to the president, and yet that’s exactly what happened.
David: It seems as the years go by and we get sort of halfway investigations into some of these things that every time somebody appears under Iraq, as with Patrick Fitzgerald recently and the Libby trial, you spot Dick Cheney under there giving the orders. Is your impression that Doug Feith was really pushing this stuff of the White House, or on the contrary that he was getting direction from Rumsfeld or Cheney, or who was really guiding this?
Allison: My impression was that he was telling them a story they wanted to hear and Feith himself has actually said this in a roundabout way. His defense of his actions after the Pentagon inspector general’s report was that this was not intelligence that he was developing. He was developing what he called a policy product, and thus it didn’t need to be up to the same standards as, say, and intelligence analysis, and leaving aside for a moment the whole thing about how apparently we are not expecting policy to be factual anymore, you’ve also got him admitting that he was helping them make a case they wanted to make; in other words, go get a something on Iraq and Al-Qaeda.
David: Now, he’s making that claim that he was doing policy rather than intelligence, which seems a laughable claim, I think, not just in order to lower the standards for what he came up with, but in order to claim that what he was doing was legal, I mean,…
David: Is it not correct that the military is not supposed to produce intelligence, and that you’re not supposed to produce intelligence without telling Congress what you’re doing? Aren’t there some violations of the law here, the inspector general’s claim that everything was legal but inappropriate notwithstanding?
Allison: What the inspector general actually said was that it was not illegal or unauthorized, which to me kind of begged the question, you know, all right, if they’re saying that it wasn’t unauthorized, then it would seem to logically lead to the question of all right, who authorized him and when are we going to get the Pentagon inspector general’s report on that person?
David: Good question.
Allison: Because what you have here is people who really vaulted over, I mean as you say all the safeguards that are meant to prevent this sort of saying, and if all we can come up with is the general idea that this really wasn’t proper, that really doesn’t seem like it’s going to be enough to stop it from happening again.
David: I assume you saw the hearing that Senator Levin held with the inspector general.
Allison: I did.
David: Well I guess I’d like to ask what you thought of that. The reports I got were disturbing in the way that there were more Republican members of the committee who showed up than Democrats, and they sort of pushed their agenda and their spin, and while it’s nice to have the Democrats in power and in the majority, if they don’t show up and they put themselves in the minority, you get a different result, but what was interesting to me was that apparently there were Republicans denouncing the inspector general’s report because he hadn’t interviewed certain people, including Stephen Hadley and Condoleezza Rice and Scooter Libby, and I would have added Dick Cheney to the list, and Senator Levin responding, “don’t worry, we will interview them.” Does this indicate any willingness by the Senator to issue subpoenas, and do you know anything about any followup from him or Senator Rockefeller?
Allison: I don’t know what Senator Levin is going to do in terms of subpoenas, but it certainly doesn’t seem as though, having gotten this response out of the inspector general, that this is a good place to stop, that you know OK, we have already pretty much taken care of this whole prewar intelligence thing now. The impression that I got was this is the first of many, and actually the inspector general’s report was requested back in September of 2005, so this is coming from a long time ago and giving people fuel to go on, and the one thing that really should show is that for any Democrat who is afraid to push for this sort of thing that clearly there was something there, and clearly there is something here worth investigating.
David: Apparently Senator Rockefeller is going to eventually publish phase two of the report on what was done to get us into this war, but what do you make of the general lack of hearings and in the House, apparently Congressman Reyes, chairing the House intelligence committee, has no interest in investigating how we got into this war at all, so the little crumbs we are getting from the Senate may be it. Are you pleased with the first month and a half of the Democrat’s rule on this, or frustrated?
Allison: Obviously, I would have liked to have seen a lot more, I mean clearly, this is a target-rich environment. It’s not like you’re going to run out of material for investigation, and obviously, there is quite a lot more I would like to see investigated. I think part of it is, and this is just my opinion, of course, part of it is that the story of how this war was sold is not a tale that reflects particularly well on Democrats either. There were plenty of Democrats who fell for everything that Feith was pushing that ended up coming from the administration. There were plenty of Democrats who didn’t question it hard enough, and who didn’t stand up and who are now, as John Edwards just recently did, are being forced to stand up and apologize for essentially failing in their duty to oppose the rush to war when they had ample material to do so.
David: Yeah and as is evident from your book and from a glance at the Internet, there were a lot of bloggers who had things right even before the war, much less in the early years of the war and even what’s been produced finally within the past few weeks in the inspector general’s report from the Pentagon. You knew most of that stuff, right?
Allison: Yeah, yeah.
David: How much faster were the blogs than the Pentagon, and how do they compare to the corporate media. I know the blogs are funnier, they are better to read, but did they actually do a better job?
Allison: What I think the blogs were good at it was following the sort of threat that Feith is, and that was why I was interested in him particularly as a subject for the kind of book that the Informed Citizens series is made up of; here’s a small thread in a larger story that people were following that was not about your 12-inch AP story that’s going on the front page of the Beaver County Tidbit, which is going to give you the broad strokes; here’s actually the details of how this works all along, and what I think the bloggers really did is to kind of keep their eyes on what was really important here and say all right, they really took a skeptical role and kind of did something that when I was a newspaper reporter, my editor had a really good suggestion for me once. He said he know, if you’re at a press conference and everyone is standing and staring at the guy who’s talking, find a moment and physically turn around, look at what everybody isn’t looking at it may be the something here, nothing behind you, but maybe there’s something that nobody else is seeing, that you can see if you just look at it a different way, and that’s what I really think a lot of the bloggers were doing. They were actually turning around and seeing what was going on away from lights and the cameras, and that’s how I think we ended up with the pieces that we ended up with in this book.
David: So, I’m inclined to think you’re right. What is discouraging is the extent to which the polls, and admittedly the polls are all done by the corporate media, but the polls suggest that the American public is often largely unaware of what many blogs are aware of and writing eloquently about, and I know there was a poll last year that showed the majority of US troops serving in Iraq believed that they were there because Iraq was behind 9/11, which is a piece of fiction put out by Douglas Feith. Where does the public stand now on this and what role are the blogs playing, and how many books have you sold?
Allison: (laughing) I can’t give you sales figures because I honestly don’t know. I can say that obviously this book and what I’m doing here right now with you is an attempt to bring those kinds of messages out to the public that maybe doesn’t have time to follow or simply hasn’t had the opportunity to follow all of this online, and as far as getting around the broad strokes of what is painted on CNN every day and the thing that you kind of overhear from somebody who knew somebody’s cousin who heard something at a bridge game and repeated it to somebody at the barbershop, which is to tell you the truth, how more people get their news and gather from an actual news organization; the only thing we can really do as writers is keep putting information out there and to be persistent. This is a very young medium and even when political blogs really kind of started making a marked on the media landscape, I mean we’re talking not even 10 years ago in most cases, and that’s very, very young. I think it is going to take a while before we can say whether or not this is an antidote to the problems of, as you say, the corporate media or the corporate press.
David: Yeah, it just seems like there’s such a gap between what one half to two thirds of the country think and what one quarter or a third of the country still thinks. We have the ties to 9/11 that were made up by Douglas Feith and his informants were half of the basis for going into the war and the WMDs the other half, and you now have generals saying they don’t care about capturing bin Laden. They are not worried about that, and you have Seymour Hersh reporting this week that Bush and Chaney are apparently funding groups, Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda-related groups in the Middle East in their efforts to stir up trouble in additional countries, and you have all the intelligence reports saying that Al-Qaeda was small and crumbling in 2002 and was reborn out of the Iraq war and has an interest in continuing the Iraq war, and everything I’ve just said it sounds like utter lunacy to people who get their news from Fox and CNN, and I’m constantly wondering whether we have more of a gap of information or a gap of principles between Americans who support the president’s policies and those who oppose. If people knew the truth, would they think like I do or what they still want to kill more Iraqis. I don’t know.
Allison: Yeah, I forget who it was, was it Bill Maher or John Stewart who said that the Iraq war proved that we are country who can’t tell Arabs apart. Not to defend the American people here (laughing)
David: (laughing) feel free…
Allison: Yeah, maybe I should… But two thirds of them do it now support an end to the war, which is really a sentiment, and actually I think it might be a little bit more than that at this point, but the last poll I really sat down and looked through, it was more than 63% that said were done with this war, we want it finished, we want our troops home, and they came to that conclusion largely without the influence of Fox and CNN telling them that it was time for the war to be over, so I think they are capable of coming to a conclusion without having it spoonfed to them, but I do agree with you that you learn enough about this and you start to feel a little bit like, is everyone else living in this reality or is it just me.
David: Yeah. Let me ask you a question about the bloggers because, you know, these political blogs that have spent years getting this stuff right and nailing down the details, there is a strange relationship between these kind of blogs and more activist web sites, and I don’t know why it is that more of the political bloggers are not for the activist solutions, such as immediately ending the war or impeaching the people who began it than are. It seems that there are endless, you know, some of the bigger blogs that are growing are putting out the information but then dropping the ball when you get to what needs to be done about it. Is there an idea of being a journalist as opposed to an activist, or is there a following of the Democratic Party so that if Pelosi says don’t touch impeachment, the blogs don’t touch impeachment? What forces are at play here?
Allison: There again, I can’t speak for all political blogs; oh, if only I could…
David: (laughing) yes, that might not be bad…
Allison: But what I can say is they think you’ve got a lot of people who are trying to figure out. As I said, this is a really young medium and you’ve got a lot of people who are trying to figure out what this toy can do, basically what do we intend to do here. Are we a unified movement in support of one particular goal, are we a bunch of people talking to each other, are some of us journalists, are some of us not, and you’ve got a lot of different voices, not all of them agree, and the question is whether they’re going to fragment further or whether something will happen that really is going to unite them and to be honest I don’t know what’s behind it and why that might be.
David: What are some of your favorite blogs if people want to be well-informed, that they should check out every once in a while?
Allison: I would say probably Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall’s blog; I read that a lot. I read Daily Kos obviously and Eschaton, I’m on it all the time, and that’s mainly for links to other good, interesting stuff. Those are probably the big three. I read Steve Gilliard’s news blogs religiously twice a day because on military matters he is very good and well-informed, so I would say those are the ones primarily that I read.
David: And are they doing as good a job on Iran as was done on Iraq or better this time?
Allison: Well, I think what’s going on is you have people have recognizing a pattern now, and you have people saying it, and this is really why this stuff about Feith is important again, not just because of the Inspector General’s report, but because we are now taking a very hard line against Iran with regard to its nuclear program, and the same people who characterized Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program as so dangerous to us are now working on intelligence-gathering about Iran, and in this administration with as little accountability as you have, there’s really no guarantee against a new Douglas Feith doing exactly what his predecessor did.
David: He is such a character. To what extent was Feith behind disbanding the Iraqi army and all the wonderful consequences we’ve seen from that move?
Allison: That was actually one of the ideas that came out of his office of Special Plans, which actually refers not to the intelligence gathering but to prewar planning for Iraq, which you can see what a bangup job that was. Disbanding the Iraqi army, the numbers of troops that would be needed for the invasion and for keeping the peace afterwards, putting Ahmed Chalabi in charge of the country after Saddam fell, these are all ideas that came out of that office, so it’s just been one small disaster contributing to the larger disaster after another.
David: There was another scandal with him where he allegedly was giving information to AIPAC, to a lobby group pushing a right-wing Israeli agenda.
Allison: One of his aides actually pled guilty to charges, a man named Larry Franklin, who pled guilty to, I’m looking at the exact charges right now. He was charged with passing classified information about potential attacks against US forces in Iraq to an Israeli advocacy group and when the FBI raided his house, they found more than 80 classified documents in his home, and this guy with an aide to Feith, and it was after that, that was what finally put enough pressure on Feith that he had to resign.
David: So he resigns over that, but what accountability has he faced or might he ever face for the entirety of what he’s done? There seems to be a string of indisputably catastrophic decisions and behavior that’s almost certainly illegal in terms of the intelligence gathering in the Pentagon. What accountability can there be for him and what can citizens and bloggers do about it?
Allison: Well, there’s no statute of limitations on war crimes, and that’s really the hope that you kind of hold out, because after the Pentagon’s Inspector General’s report came out, Feith did the rounds of the talk shows essentially claiming that he had been vindicated because he was not actually charged with a crime, and I guess that’s an accomplishment in this administration when you’re not literally a criminal. He certainly seemed happy enough about it, as if we should bake him a cake, but he essentially has not face any real accountability, and that’s really was infuriating about the whole thing is that he gets to walk away. He’s not going to miss a meal. He gets to walk away, go teach at Georgetown, write a book and he does not have to worry about what’s going to happen to his family when he comes back from the war without an arm or leg. He doesn’t have to worry about what’s going to happen after the latest suicide bombing. These are consequences he’s not going to have the face, and as far as what people can do, the only thing I can suggest is the same thing I’m always suggesting to people on First Draft is put some pressure on people in power and let them know that if they do go forward with investigations that you have their back and that if they don’t that you’ll be there in the primaries to challenge them, because that’s the only way that anything like this gets moving.
David: That seems like a good message to Senators Levin and Rockefeller among others. Allison, I want to thank you for talking to me. I don’t want to keep you here all night, but the book is “Special Plans, the blogs on Douglas Feith and the faulty intelligence that led us to war”, and I recommend reading it. Thanks Allison.
Allison: Thank you very much.
AUDIO 30 Minutes:
Here is an excerpt from Allison Hantschel’s introductory essay to “Special Plans, the blogs on Douglas Feith and the faulty intelligence that led us to war.”
America’s military was committed to more than 10,000 troops in Afghanistan in the summer of 2002, when Douglas Feith and other Pentagon officials created what the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee later described as “an unofficial ‘Iraqi intelligence cell’ … to circumvent the CIA and secretly brief the White House on links between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.”
The Counter Terrorism Evaluation Unit was set up to link terrorism to its nation-state sponsors, a key element of Bush’s war on terror, in which those who funded or sheltered terrorists were pursued just as vigorously as those who actually carried out attacks. Under Feith, the office became a factory for reports about purported ties between Hussein and Osama bin Laden. A relationship between the two was seen as key in per-suading not only the American people but citizens of other nations of the necessity of the war.
Attacking Iraq had long been a goal of Bush’s subordinates: In the hours after the September 11, 2001 attacks, Donald Rumsfeld declared that despite bin Laden’s presence in Afghanistan, plans should be drawn up to attack Iraq instead. Former Bush Administration counterterrorism head Richard Clarke later told CBS’s 60 Minutes that Rumsfeld had fumed “There aren’t any good targets in Afghanistan. And there are lots of good targets in Iraq.”
The Taliban, pursued first despite their lack of pleasing destinations for US artillery, quickly fell, emboldening the administration’s hawks. They moved quickly to identify what they saw as the next appropriate target of the American military. Feith’s mentor, Perle, made the administration’s case, asserting in a 2001 speech described by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker: “Richard Perle … articulated what would become the Bush Administration’s most compelling argument for going to war with Iraq: the possibility that, with enough time, Saddam Hussein would be capable of attacking the United States with a nuclear weapon.”
Feith’s office relied in its campaign to prove that nuclear capability, as well as the Hussein-bin Laden relationship, on reports from Iraqi exiles and defectors, most of whom were provided by Chalabi. His office also relied on accounts from other foreign agents, almost none of whom had been vetted by US intelligence agencies.
In 2002, the Defense Department established the Office of Special Plans to plot what a post-war Iraq would look like, the possibility of avoiding war growing slimmer by the day. Feith was appointed head of the office, overseeing all post-war planning.
Feith’s operation relied heavily on the assurances of Chalabi, a longtime foe of Hussein, that US troops would be welcomed as liberators. Complicated post-war scenarios such as those developed by the US State Department and its Future of Iraq project, which drew on dozens of experts and Iraqi expatriots for advice, were deemed unnecessary and were in fact seen by Feith and others in the Pentagon as “pessimistic” and “antiwar.”
State’s concerns about post-war Iraq’s security and the possibility of anti-American sentiment in the Arab world took a backseat to the admittedly attractive idea of a free and democratic nation taking shape where once an enemy had flourished.
It is, perhaps, a human tendency to seize upon “facts” which seem to support a thesis in which you invest personally. Feith was described by former colleague Karen Kwiatkowski as “very arrogant. He doesn’t utilize a wide variety of inputs. He seeks information that confirms what he already thinks.” And there was much in Chalabi’s and Iraqi defectors’ reports, if one did not look too deeply, to confirm exactly what Feith, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and Cheney wanted to believe.
Much of the American public, frightened by September 11, largely ignorant of Middle East politics and feeling no small (nor unjustified) revulsion towards Hussein left over from the first Gulf War, was not a tough sell.
The administration, basing its claims on information Feith and company passed along, impressed upon war opponents the burden to disprove its claims and played on the public’s fears. What if there really were nuclear weapons? What if Hussein could attack the US, or sell the weapons he purportedly possessed to someone who could?
In final sweeps through Iraq before being forced to leave under threat of US invasion, UN inspectors found nothing. But their reports came too late to slow the buildup of troops in the region and war fervor at home. Administration officials, including the widely respected Secretary of State Colin Powell, ridiculed the UN and its inspections as being unreliable and incomplete, and suggested only US military intervention would counter threats of terrorism.
Democrats in Congress, afraid of being characterized as unpatriotic in the midterm elections and the presidential primaries, voted to give President Bush the authority to use military force. Anti-war protests that shut down city streets and drew marchers by the millions around the world were dismissed in press reports, and characterized as quaint relics of a time that had passed rather than as the outpouring of anger and opposition that they were.
Pro-war Republicans like Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Norm Coleman of Minnesota won seats in the Senate in November 2002. The following March, the United States went to war.
Elation after the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003, capped by President Bush’s triumphant landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln and announcement that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended,” quickly turned to consternation. The Iraqi Army was disbanded immediately (another of Feith’s ideas), because its Saddam loyalist officers were regarded as threats.
Within days of Baghdad’s fall, without government agents to stop it or a police force to control it, looting began.
Vandals tore through the Iraqi National Library and Archives, which held records dating back to the Ottoman Empire. Fires consumed copies of Arabic newspapers from the turn of the century; books more than five hundred years old were stolen. Cuneiform tablets containing some of the earliest records of civilization were smashed in the National Museum; countless artifacts were stolen. Stores and homes were stripped of valuable goods, and some set on fire.
General Eric Shinseki, chief of staff of the United States Army, had warned war planners prior to the invasion that it would take more than the 200,000 troops the Pentagon had in the region if the US was to keep the country occupied and under control. Shinseki’s estimate of 400,000 troops was derided by Wolfowitz as “wildly off the mark.” Pentagon officials would later say they could not prevent the looting because troops were spread too thin.
The looting subsided, but less than four months later, the first suicide bomber struck.
Iraq, while subjected to terror and torture by Hussein’s regime, had never experienced the random violence that plagues some Middle Eastern cities. Its people, subjugated by Hussein, had never adopted the tactic of destroying innocents on such a vast scale to achieve some political goal. Suicide attacks by Iraqi citizens were new, and, coinciding as they did with America’s arrival in Iraq, were seen by the citizens as emblematic of America’s occupation of their country.
While violence began to engulf the country, the rationale for war, based on evidence assembled by Feith’s office, started falling apart. The search for weapons of mass destruction was turning up nothing but empty buildings and spent shells. Stockpiles of biological and chemical agents were simply not there.
A supposedly nascent nuclear program was nonexistent.
At first those who questioned the pre-war intelligence produced by Feith’s office met with swift retribution, as Ambassador Joseph Wilson found out.
Wilson served as deputy ambassador in Baghdad during the first Gulf War and later was posted in Niger. In 2002 the administration dispatched Wilson to Niger to verify claims that
Saddam Hussein sought weapons-grade uranium there.
Wilson returned to report that no such scenario ever took place. A year later, Bush proclaimed in the 2003 State of the Union that “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
After the war, enraged by what he saw as a cynical and incorrect interpretation of his findings, Wilson went public. On July 6, 2003, he published an op-ed in the New York Times called “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.”
Before I left Niger, I briefed the ambassador on my findings, which were consistent with her own.
I also shared my conclusions with members of her staff. In early March, I arrived in Washington
and promptly provided a detailed briefing to the C.I.A. I later shared my conclusions with the State
Department African Affairs Bureau. There was nothing secret or earth-shattering in my report,
just as there was nothing secret about my trip. Though I did not file a written report, there
should be at least four documents in United States government archives confirming my mission. The
documents should include the ambassador’s report of my debriefing in Niamey, a separate report
written by the embassy staff, a C.I.A. report summing up my trip, and a specific answer from
the agency to the office of the vice president (this may have been delivered orally). While I have not
seen any of these reports, I have spent enough time in government to know that this is standard
Wilson did not state outright that Bush knowingly communicated a lie to the American people. He demanded an investigation to determine on what basis Bush had made his claim, and why Wilson’s own report had apparently been ignored. That kind of dispassionate review never occurred. On July 14, 2003, right-wing columnist Robert Novak published the name of Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, a covert CIA operative, destroying her cover. Novak later said Plame’s identity had been leaked by two “senior administration officials.”
As Iraq’s violence worsened and the insurgency took on the vicious conduct of a guerilla war against an occupying force, finger-pointing began in earnest as people sought to avoid blame for a war gone wrong.
And Feith was one of the first targets.
Officials at the State Department accused the Pentagon, and Feith’s office in particular, of poor planning for the postwar period. More troops, they told the Washington Post in the summer of 2003, might have prevented the looting and violence that so turned Iraq into turmoil in the days after Saddam fell.
Feith, who like many Pentagon civilians in the Bush administration never served in the US armed forces, defended his pre-war work in a 2003 interview with reporters for the Miami Herald. He said waiting for more troops to be readied before the invasion would have lost US military commanders the element of “tactical surprise,” a curious assertion from an administration that all but advertised when the war would begin, and how.
“War, like life in general, always involves trade-offs,” Feith told the Herald. “It is not right to assume that any current problems in Iraq can be attributed to poor planning.”
By the time he spoke those words, more than 350 US servicemen and women had died in Iraq. Iraqi civilian deaths, not tracked by US government agencies, were estimated in the tens of thousands.
As criticism of the war was heating up during the Democratic presidential primaries in November 2003, the Weekly Standard published the Feith Memo, which claimed “new evidence” of a working arrangement between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden prior to the US invasion.
The memo was trumpeted by war supporters, but quickly played down by members of US intelligence agencies, who told the Washington Post the memo was “mostly based on unverified claims” that had been brought up a year ago within the administration and discounted.
By spring 2004 there was an exit wound in the exit strategy. The “shadow government” Chalabi alleged he could provide was not to be. US intelligence officials had warned the administration that Chalabi, a London banker convicted of fraud in Jordan who had not set foot in Iraq in at least four
decades, was not to be entirely trusted, but Bush backed the exile, singling him out as an honored guest at the January 2004 State of the Union. By this time the United States had paid Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress more than $30 million in aid for defectors and other programs, according to the
General Accounting Office.
A month later, the New York Times alleged that Chalabi had given Iran sensitive intelligence information. The Times claimed Chalabi told the Iranians that the US had broken Iran’s
intelligence service’s communications code. Iraqi police and American soldiers raided Chalabi’s home and offices in Baghdad, accusing him of embezzlement and theft.
The man whose speeches Feith admired and once dubbed “quite moving” was turning out to be the greatest con in a cohort of cons involved in selling the war. And Feith had bought everything Chalabi was peddling.
The search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction ended in late 2004, a report issued shortly after Bush’s re-election.
No stockpiles of biological or chemical weapons were found. No active nuclear-weapons program existed. However, none of these facts led to Feith’s resignation in January 2005.
Undoubtedly Feith would have remained in his position as long as he wished to stay, facing as few consequences for his mistakes as his elected supervisor, if not for explosive accusations that Feith was using his Pentagon office to help the Israeli government directly.
In August 2004 CBS News reported that an analyst “with ties to top Pentagon officials Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz” had been working in a Pentagon office developing Iraq policy. That analyst was alleged to have passed on classified documents to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which in turn sent the information to the Israeli embassy in Washington. The FBI and the Senate Intelligence Committee launched investigations into Feith’s involvement.
News of the investigation fueled long-standing accusations that PNAC members, most of whom now occupied the highest levels of government under President Bush, were more interested in supporting Israel than the United States. The administration’s defenders had long charged that tying everything back to PNAC smacked of anti-Semitism and harkened back to allegations of “Jewish conspiracies.”
“The full-mooners fixated on a think tank called the Project for the New American Century, which has a staff of five and issues memos on foreign policy,” wrote “moderate” columnist David Brooks in the New York Times.
To hear these people describe it, PNAC is sort of a Yiddish Trilateral Commission, the nexus of the sprawling neocon tentacles…In truth, the people labeled neocons (con is short for “conservative” and neo is short for “Jewish”) travel in widely different circles and don’t actually have much contact with one another…
And if you can give your foes a collective name—liberals, fundamentalists or neocons—you can rob them of their individual humanity. All inhibitions are removed. You can say anything about them. You get to feed off their villainy and luxuriate in your own contrasting virtue. You will find books, blowhards and candidates playing to your delusions, and you can emigrate to your own version of Planet Chomsky. You can live there unburdened by ambiguity. Improvements in information technology have not made public debate more realistic. On the contrary, anti-Semitism is resurgent.8
However, nearly all criticism of PNAC and its influence in government was based not on bigotry but on the evidence that most of its signatories did indeed hold high positions in the administration, that they had been successful in influencing the course of United States policy, and that US security and standing in the world suffered for the realization of PNAC’s principles.
When Feith announced he was going to spend more time with his children, Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan and an expert in the politics of the Middle East, wrote in his blog Informed Comment:
It is important to note that what is objectionable about Feith is a) his playing fast and loose with the truth, producing poor intelligence analysis that has been shown to be completely false and b) his doing so on behalf of not only American nationalist aspirations but also on behalf of a non-American political party, the Likud coalition of Israel, which desired to destroy the Oslo peace process initiated by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin … There is no objection to Americans having multiple identities or love for more than one country. Someone of Serbian heritage would make a perfectly good Pentagon administrator. But you wouldn’t want a vehement supporter of Slobodan Milosevic as the number three man in the Pentagon. It is ideological double loyalty that is dangerous.9
That danger did not end with Feith’s departure. Feith’s policies and politics live on in rhetoric about the regional and international “threats” posed by Iran and Syria. The Bush administration alleges that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program, and calls for US action are heard in conservative media outlets that often test administration talking points.
UN Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter, a vocal critic of the Iraq war, told a crowd during a speech in Olympia, Washington, in February 2005 that Bush planned air strikes to destroy alleged nuclear development sites in Iran, and that Syria had been mentioned as a possible target of the US as well.
Bush himself minimized the possibility of military action on Iran, but his rhetoric on the topic of Iran’s weapons during interviews February 22, 2005, struck a markedly familiar tone: “The Iranians don’t need any excuses,” he told the White House press. “They just need to do what the free world has asked them to do. And it’s pretty clear: Give up your weapons program.”
The final government report examining pre-war intelligence on Iraq, released in late March 2005, was not kind to the assertions Feith and others had made in the run-up to war. Its official conclusion, that no administration officials pressured intelligence officers to invent or distort information, masked the revelation that, according to the UK Observer, “An alcoholic cousin of an aide to Ahmed Chalabi has emerged as the key source in the US rationale for going to war in Iraq.
According to a US presidential commission looking into pre-war intelligence failures, the basis for pivotal intelligence on Iraq’s alleged biological weapons programmes and fleet of mobile labs was a spy described as “crazy” by his intelligence handlers and a “congenital liar” by his friends. The defector, given the code name Curveball by the CIA, has emerged as the central figure in the corruption of US intelligence estimates on Iraq.”10
As the blog Channeling the Zeitgeist said, “Next thing you know, we’ll be sourcing intelligence from the homeless guys on the steam vents in DC. I can see the presentation now. ‘Well, Mr. President, if ‘Slimeball’ is correct then you and Dick Cheney are lizards from the Planet Nukyouler and you have been using satellites to alter the fabric of space-time. He’d really appreciate it if you stopped talking through the lamppost to him.’”11
Feith, once a rising star in the conservative Bush White House and the lucrative right-wing speaking circuit, now is reviled even by those audiences which he might reasonably expect to be friendly; during a March 2005 speech to Harvard University students, one stood and shouted at him, “Fifteen hundred dead because of what you did!” according to the Harvard Crimson.
But Feith did not by himself create the situation in which we now find ourselves. Feith was not empowered by Congress to declare war, nor did he issue the orders to do so. Feith was a symptom, and the freedom he was given to pass on incorrect information and rely on rosy-hued best-case scenarios for a war in the oldest civilization on Earth speaks volumes about what exactly was the larger disease.
Slate columnist Chris Suellentrop called Feith “a leading indicator, like a falling Dow—something that correlates with but does not cause disaster.” His reappearances in the spring of
2005 seemed to lend truth to Cole’s January 2005 prediction that Feith now will be seen “forever on cable news channels as one of those dreary neocon talking heads flogged by the American Enterprise Institute, a far rightwing ‘think tank’ funded by cranky rich people to obscure the truth. Another [potential downside to Feith’s resignation] is that his departure now may help keep Bush from being blamed for his shady dealings in intelligence ‘analysis.’”
No president comes to the office expertly qualified in every aspect of his new office. All presidents, whether former Congressmen or senators or governors, rely to a great extent on the advice of those they hire to fill in the gaps in their knowledge.
When George W. Bush was elected president in 2000, those who were skeptical of his intelligence and intellectual curiosity pointed to the advisors with whom he would surely surround himself and said these people, experienced in foreign policy under his father as well as other previous presidents, would keep him from venturing too far off America’s beaten track.
Few considered what might happen if those advisors were simply incorrect, blinded by ambition or, in the worst possible scenario, acting in service to a cause that trumped their ability to recognize fundamental facts about the region in which they were advocating America begin meddling. Fundamental facts which many people, including officials of the United Nations and the US State Department, attempted to point out, to no avail.
Few took seriously enough the necessity of having a president able or willing to say, “I don’t think that sounds right.” Or, “I don’t think that will work. Show me another way.”
A commenter to Suellentrop’s column about Feith noted the firing of officials and generals who contradicted the administration line on Iraq, and made another presidential comparison:
So Douglas Feith has been wrong about everything, and an incompetent administrator to boot. Well, that’s not particularly surprising. Pick any war, and you’ll find your share of lousy officials. Lincoln went through half the officer corps before he found Grant.
But the point is, Lincoln kept firing his generals until he found the right guy. That’s what Chief Executives in any sphere are supposed to do when subordinates screw up. What’s amazing about the Bush administration is that the only people who get canned are the ones who offer accurate assessments, whether it’s [former national economic adviser] Lawrence Lindsey on the cost of the war or [former Army Chief of Staff ] General [Eric] Shinseki on the number of troops needed to occupy the country … Whether it’s George Tenet in intelligence or Douglas Feith in postwar planning, the sheer magnitude of their incompetence makes them untouchable. That’s why after Donald Rumsfeld presided over what is arguable the worst foreign policy scandal in 200 years at Abu Ghraib… President Bush didn’t fire him, but rather praised him as the best Defense Secretary this country ever had. If Lincoln were that tolerant of failure, it would have been Winfield Scott, not Ulysses Grant, across the table from Lee at Appomattox, except it would have been the Union Army that was surrendering.
The above is an excerpt from Allison Hantschel’s introductory essay to “Special Plans, the blogs on Douglas Feith and the faulty intelligence that led us to war.”
Listen to another interview of Allison Hantschel on a radio show:
Watch a video of Hantschel at Camp Democracy, September 2006: