"Weapons of Mass Deception"


Think Again: 'Misplaced Feith'

by Eric Alterman and Paul McLeary
September 2, 2004

The cognitive dissonance produced by convention week spin often has the effect of lowering the bar on reporting in general, elevating the mundane in favor of the substantive. While the media busy themselves parsing the Bush twins' screening of "Sex in the City," and ponder the president's prospective bounce, the primary function of the media is mere repetition: to repeat the rhetoric the politicians on the podium produce.

While New York City hosts the Republicans this week, Washington has – somewhat quietly – launched a series of three different investigations (run by the FBI, the Senate Select Intelligence Committee and the House Judiciary Committee) into practices and leaks at Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith's office at the Pentagon. The FBI probe is the most well known, and involves charges that a Pentagon Iran analyst, Larry Franklin, passed secret government documents concerning the administration's Iran policy to an Israeli lobbying group, AIPAC.
At the same time, an investigation conducted by the Senate Select Intelligence Committee is looking into "back channel" meetings between officials from Feith's office and the former Iran contra arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar and other Iranian exiles, dissidents and government officials.

Finally, according to the Boston Globe, a third investigation is currently underway, this time by the House Judiciary committee, concerning yet more goings on at Feith's office. This one also focuses on the Ghorbanifar/Iran back channel meetings, with the key players attempting to destabilize the government of Syria. Specifically, the Globe says that "The investigators are also looking into a more serious concern: whether the office engaged in illegal activity by holding unauthorized meetings with foreign nationals to destabilize Syria and Iran without the presidential approval required for covert operations, said one senior congressional investigator who has longtime experience in intelligence oversight."

While the FBI is interested in a criminal probe, reporters might wish to consider the disturbing pattern of administration actions involving a combination of ideology, secrecy and incompetence. As the Washington Monthly recently reported, this behavior "typifies the out-of-control bureaucratic turf wars which have characterized and often hobbled Bush administration policy-making."

While all this would appear to cast serious doubt on Feith's continued job security, he has been in hot water before, but keeps bouncing back. Feith, whom Bob Woodward quotes former Army Gen. Tommy Franks as calling "the fu**ing stupidest guy on the face of the earth," is creator of the Office of Special Plans, a secretive intelligence unit that was conned by Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi and his cronies concerning the existence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and connections between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.

Feith first made headlines in October 2003, when a letter he wrote to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence pointing to the supposedly definitive proof of a relationship between al Qaeda and Hussein was leaked to the press, leading The Weekly Standard to proclaim, "Case Closed." While the Standard ran with it, the rest of the press corps essentially ignored the story. As former Clinton national security official Daniel Benjamin pointed out in a piece that ran in Slate, "the Feith memo does not prove what it sets out to, and a fuller airing of the issues would bring clarity to a topic that desperately needs it. Second, and more important, the document lends substance to the frequently voiced criticism that some in the Bush administration have misused intelligence to advance their policy goals." Still, the discredited information lingers in the popular imagination of many conservatives, who point to it as proof of an apparently imaginary partnership.

In fact, even the Pentagon thought it was nonsense. Rumsfeld's press officers issued a release insisting, "News reports that the Defense Department recently confirmed new information with respect to contacts between al Qaeda and Iraq in a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee are inaccurate...The classified annex was not an analysis of the substantive issue of the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda, and it drew no conclusions. Individuals who leak or purport to leak classified information are doing serious harm to national security; such activity is deplorable and may be illegal." Yet, despite some noise about charges being filed against Feith or someone in his office, no action was taken. Media follow-up was lacking and Feith and company were off the hook.

It turns out any number of the problems facing U.S. forces in Iraq exhibit Feith's fingerprints. Chris Suellentrop laid out the case nicely back in May when he said, "It's not that the 50-year-old Feith is at fault for everything that's gone wrong in Iraq. He's only tangentially related to the mystery of the missing weapons of mass destruction, for example. (Though it's a significant tangent: An anonymous "Pentagon insider" told the Washington Times last year that Feith was the person who urged the Bush administration to make Saddam's WMD the chief public rationale for going to war immediately.) Nor was it Feith who made the decision to commit fewer troops than the generals requested. (Though Feith did give the most honest explanation for the decision, saying last year that it "makes our military less usable" if hundreds of thousands of troops are needed to fight wars.) But if he isn't fully culpable for all these fiascos, he's still implicated in them somehow. He's a leading indicator, like a falling Dow—something that correlates with but does not cause disaster."

Media lethargy notwithstanding, we may still see some answers. In response to the latest charges that Feith's office gave policy information to an Israeli lobby group, and the older (largely ignored) assertion that Pentagon officials illegally gave classified information to members of the Iraqi National Congress or to Ahmed Chalabi, House Judiciary Committee member John Conyers sent a letter on August 31 to F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary, demanding a full investigation. The letter said, "based on media accounts, it now appears that these allegations may be only the tip of the iceberg of a broader effort of Pentagon employees working in the office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Douglas Feith, to conduct unauthorized covert activities, without the knowledge of the CIA. According to press accounts, it also appears that these activities may have involved other disclosures of classified information to foreign governments and the falsification of documents. In addition, these activities may well constitute criminal misappropriation of federal funds."
Or maybe not. After all, Feith works for a president who still can't think of any mistakes he's made, save perhaps being too successful. Perhaps it's too much to ask of the president to recognize the catastrophe that Feith and his fellow neocons have wrought and demand some form of professional accountability, even in the case of illegal spying. After all, he doesn't seem too upset about the outing of Valery Plame, either. But what's the media's excuse?

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including the just-published When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.

Paul McLeary is a New York writer.

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