In July of last year, after just over 20 years of service, I retired as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force. I had served as a communications officer in the field and in acquisition programs, as a speechwriter for the National Security Agency director, and on the Headquarters Air Force and the office of the secretary of defense staffs covering African affairs. I had completed Air Command and Staff College and Navy War College seminar programs, two master’s degrees, and everything but my Ph.D. dissertation in world politics at Catholic University. I regarded my military vocation as interesting, rewarding and apolitical. My career started in 1978 with the smooth seduction of a full four-year ROTC scholarship. It ended with 10 months of duty in a strange new country, observing up close and personal a process of decision making for war not sanctioned by the Constitution we had all sworn to uphold. Ben Franklin’s comment that the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia had delivered “a republic, madam, if you can keep it” would come to have special meaning.
In the spring of 2002, I was a cynical but willing staff officer, almost two years into my three-year tour at the office of the secretary of defense, undersecretary for policy, sub-Saharan Africa. In April, a call for volunteers went out for the Near East South Asia directorate (NESA). None materialized. By May, the call transmogrified into a posthaste demand for any staff officer, and I was “volunteered” to enter what would be a well-appointed den of iniquity.
From May 2002 until February 2003, I observed firsthand the formation of the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans and watched the latter stages of the neoconservative capture of the policy-intelligence nexus in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. This seizure of the reins of U.S. Middle East policy was directly visible to many of us working in the Near East South Asia policy office, and yet there seemed to be little any of us could do about it.
I saw a narrow and deeply flawed policy favored by some executive appointees in the Pentagon used to manipulate and pressurize the traditional relationship between policymakers in the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies.
I witnessed neoconservative agenda bearers within OSP usurp measured and carefully considered assessments, and through suppression and distortion of intelligence analysis promulgate what were in fact falsehoods to both Congress and the executive office of the president.
While this commandeering of a narrow segment of both intelligence production and American foreign policy matched closely with the well-published desires of the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party, many of us in the Pentagon, conservatives and liberals alike, felt that this agenda, whatever its flaws or merits, had never been openly presented to the American people. Instead, the public story line was a fear-peddling and confusing set of messages, designed to take Congress and the country into a war of executive choice, a war based on false pretenses, and a war one year later Americans do not really understand. That is why I have gone public with my account.
To begin with, I was introduced to Bill Luti, assistant secretary of defense for NESA. A tall, thin, nervously intelligent man, he welcomed me into the fold. I knew little about him. Because he was a recently retired naval captain and now high-level Bush appointee, the common assumption was that he had connections, if not capability. I would later find out that when Dick Cheney was secretary of defense over a decade earlier, Luti was his aide. He had also been a military aide to Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich during the Clinton years and had completed his Ph.D. at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. While his Navy career had not granted him flag rank, he had it now and was not shy about comparing his place in the pecking order with various three- and four-star generals and admirals in and out of the Pentagon. Name dropping included references to getting this or that document over to Scooter, or responding to one of Scooter’s requests right away. Scooter, I would find out later, was I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the vice president’s chief of staff.
Co-workers who had watched the transition from Clintonista to Bushite shared conversations and stories indicating that something deliberate and manipulative was happening to NESA. Key professional personnel, longtime civilian professionals holding the important billets in NESA, were replaced early on during the transition. Longtime officer director Joe McMillan was reassigned to the National Defense University. The director’s job in the time of transition was to help bring the newly appointed deputy assistant secretary up to speed, ensure office continuity, act as a resource relating to regional histories and policies, and help identify the best ways to maintain course or to implement change. Removing such a critical continuity factor was not only unusual but also seemed like willful handicapping. It was the first signal of radical change.
At the time, I didn’t realize that the expertise on Middle East policy was not only being removed, but was also being exchanged for that from various agenda-bearing think tanks, including the Middle East Media Research Institute, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. Interestingly, the office director billet stayed vacant the whole time I was there. That vacancy and the long-term absence of real regional understanding to inform defense policymakers in the Pentagon explains a great deal about the neoconservative approach on the Middle East and the disastrous mistakes made in Washington and in Iraq in the past two years.
I soon saw the modus operandi of “instant policy” unhampered by debate or experience with the early Bush administration replacement of the civilian head of the Israel, Lebanon and Syria desk office with a young political appointee from the Washington Institute, David Schenker. Word was that the former experienced civilian desk officer tended to be evenhanded toward the policies of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, but there were complaints and he was gone. I met David and chatted with him frequently. He was a smart, serious, hardworking guy, and the proud author of a book on the chances for Palestinian democracy. Country desk officers were rarely political appointees. In my years at the Pentagon, this was the only “political” I knew doing that type of high-stress and low-recognition duty. So eager was the office to have Schenker at the Israel desk, he served for many months as a defense contractor of sorts and only received his “Schedule C” political appointee status months after I arrived.
I learned that there was indeed a preferred ideology for NESA. My first day in the office, a GS-15 career civil servant rather unhappily advised me that if I wanted to be successful here, I’d better remember not to say anything positive about the Palestinians. This belied official U.S. policy of serving as an honest broker for resolution of Israeli and Palestinian security concerns. At that time, there was a great deal of talk about Bush’s possible support for a Palestinian state. That the Pentagon could have implemented and, worse, was implementing its own foreign policy had not yet occurred to me.
Throughout the summer, the NESA spaces in one long office on the fourth floor, between the 7th and 8th corridors of D Ring, became more and more crowded. With war talk and planning about Iraq, all kinds of new people were brought in. A politically savvy civilian-clothes-wearing lieutenant colonel named Bill Bruner served as the Iraq desk officer, and he had apparently joined NESA about the time Bill Luti did. I discovered that Bruner, like Luti, had served as a military aide to Speaker Gingrich. Gingrich himself was now conveniently an active member of Bush’s Defense Policy Board, which had space immediately below ours on the third floor.
I asked why Bruner wore civilian attire, and was told by others, “He’s Chalabi’s handler.” Chalabi, of course, was Ahmad Chalabi, the president of the Iraqi National Congress, who was the favored exile of the neoconservatives and the source of much of their “intelligence.” Bruner himself said he had to attend a lot of meetings downtown in hotels and that explained his suits. Soon, in July, he was joined by another Air Force pilot, a colonel with no discernible political connections, Kevin Jones. I thought of it as a military-civilian partnership, although both were commissioned officers.
Among the other people arriving over the summer of 2002 was Michael Makovsky, a recent MIT graduate who had written his dissertation on Winston Churchill and was going to work on “Iraqi oil issues.” He was David Makovsky’s younger brother. David was at the time a senior fellow at the Washington Institute and had formerly been an editor of the Jerusalem Post, a pro-Likud newspaper. Mike was quiet and seemed a bit uncomfortable sharing space with us. He soon disappeared into some other part of the operation and I rarely saw him after that.
In late summer, new space was found upstairs on the fifth floor, and the “expanded Iraq desk,” now dubbed the “Office of Special Plans,” began moving there. And OSP kept expanding.
Another person I observed to appear suddenly was Michael Rubin, another Washington Institute fellow working on Iraq policy. He and Chris Straub, a retired Army officer who had been a Republican staffer for the Senate Intelligence Committee, were eventually assigned to OSP.
John Trigilio, a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, was assigned to handle Iraq intelligence for Luti. Trigilio had been on a one-year career-enhancement tour with the office of the secretary of defense that was to end in August 2002. DIA had offered him routine intelligence positions upon his return from his OSD sabbatical, but none was as interesting as working in August 2002 for Luti. John asked Luti for help in gaining an extension for another year, effectively removing him from the DIA bureaucracy and its professional constraints.
Trigilio and I had hallway debates, as friends. The one I remember most clearly was shortly after President Bush gave his famous “mushroom cloud” speech in Cincinnati in October 2002, asserting that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction as well as ties to “international terrorists,” and was working feverishly to develop nuclear weapons with “nuclear holy warriors.” I asked John who was feeding the president all the bull about Saddam and the threat he posed us in terms of WMD delivery and his links to terrorists, as none of this was in secret intelligence I had seen in the past years. John insisted that it wasn’t an exaggeration, but when pressed to say which actual intelligence reports made these claims, he would only say, “Karen, we have sources that you don’t have access to.” It was widely felt by those of us in the office not in the neoconservatives’ inner circle that these “sources” related to the chummy relationship that Ahmad Chalabi had with both the Office of Special Plans and the office of the vice president.
The newly named director of the OSP, Abram Shulsky, was one of the most senior people sharing our space that summer. Abe, a kindly and gentle man, who would say hello to me in the hallways, seemed to be someone I, as a political science grad student, would have loved to sit with over coffee and discuss the world’s problems. I had a clear sense that Abe ranked high in the organization, although ostensibly he was under Luti. Luti was known at times to treat his staff, even senior staff, with disrespect, contempt and derision. He also didn’t take kindly to staff officers who had an opinion or viewpoint that was off the neoconservative reservation. But with Shulsky, who didn’t speak much at the staff meetings, he was always respectful and deferential. It seemed like Shulsky’s real boss was somebody like Douglas Feith or higher.
Doug Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, was a case study in how not to run a large organization. In late 2001, he held the first all-hands policy meeting at which he discussed for over 15 minutes how many bullets and sub-bullets should be in papers for Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. A year later, in August of 2002, he held another all-hands meeting in the auditorium where he embarrassed everyone with an emotional performance about what it was like to serve Rumsfeld. He blithely informed us that for months he didn’t realize Rumsfeld had a daily stand-up meeting with his four undersecretaries. He shared with us the fact that, after he started to attend these meetings, he knew better what Rumsfeld wanted of him. Most military staffers and professional civilians hearing this were incredulous, as was I, to hear of such organizational ignorance lasting so long and shared so openly. Feith’s inattention to most policy detail, except that relating to Israel and Iraq, earned him a reputation most foul throughout Policy, with rampant stories of routine signatures that took months to achieve and lost documents. His poor reputation as a manager was not helped by his arrogance. One thing I kept hearing from those defending Feith was that he was “just brilliant.” It was curiously like the brainwashed refrain in “The Manchurian Candidate” about the programmed sleeper agent Raymond Shaw, as the “kindest, warmest, bravest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known.”
I spent time that summer exploring the neoconservative worldview and trying to grasp what was happening inside the Pentagon. I wondered what could explain this rush to war and disregard for real intelligence. Neoconservatives are fairly easy to study, mainly because they are few in number, and they show up at all the same parties. Examining them as individuals, it became clear that almost all have worked together, in and out of government, on national security issues for several decades. The Project for the New American Century and its now famous 1998 manifesto to President Clinton on Iraq is a recent example. But this statement was preceded by one written for Benyamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party campaign in Israel in 1996 by neoconservatives Richard Perle, David Wurmser and Douglas Feith titled “A Clean Break: Strategy for Securing the Realm.”
David Wurmser is the least known of that trio and an interesting example of the tangled neoconservative web. In 2001, the research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute was assigned to the Pentagon, then moved to the Department of State to work as deputy for the hard-line conservative undersecretary John Bolton, then to the National Security Council, and now is lodged in the office of the vice president. His wife, the prolific Meyrav Wurmser, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute, is also a neoconservative team player.
Before the Iraq invasion, many of these same players labored together for literally decades to push a defense strategy that favored military intervention and confrontation with enemies, secret and unconstitutional if need be. Some former officials, such as Richard Perle (an assistant secretary of defense under Reagan) and James Woolsey (CIA director under Clinton), were granted a new lease on life, a renewed gravitas, with positions on President Bush’s Defense Policy Board. Others, like Elliott Abrams and Paul Wolfowitz, had apparently overcome previous negative associations from an Iran-Contra conviction for lying to the Congress and for utterly miscalculating the strength of the Soviet Union in a politically driven report to the CIA.
Neoconservatives march as one phalanx in parallel opposition to those they hate. In the early winter of 2002, a co-worker U.S. Navy captain and I were discussing the service being rendered by Colin Powell at the time, and we were told by the neoconservative political appointee David Schenker that “the best service Powell could offer would be to quit right now.” I was present at a staff meeting when Bill Luti called Marine Gen. and former Chief of Central Command Anthony Zinni a “traitor,” because Zinni had publicly expressed reservations about the rush to war.
After August 2002, the Office of Special Plans established its own rhythm and cadence separate from the non-politically minded professionals covering the rest of the region. While often accused of creating intelligence, I saw only two apparent products of this office: war planning guidance for Rumsfeld, presumably impacting Central Command, and talking points on Iraq, WMD and terrorism. These internal talking points seemed to be a mélange crafted from obvious past observation and intelligence bits and pieces of dubious origin. They were propagandistic in style, and all desk officers were ordered to use them verbatim in the preparation of any material prepared for higher-ups and people outside the Pentagon. The talking points included statements about Saddam Hussein’s proclivity for using chemical weapons against his own citizens and neighbors, his existing relations with terrorists based on a member of al-Qaida reportedly receiving medical care in Baghdad, his widely publicized aid to the Palestinians, and general indications of an aggressive viability in Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program and his ongoing efforts to use them against his neighbors or give them to al-Qaida style groups. The talking points said he was threatening his neighbors and was a serious threat to the U.S., too.
I suspected, from reading Charles Krauthammer, a neoconservative columnist for the Washington Post, and the Weekly Standard, and hearing a Cheney speech or two, that these talking points left the building on occasion. Both OSP functions duplicated other parts of the Pentagon. The facts we should have used to base our papers on were already being produced by the intelligence agencies, and the war planning was already done by the combatant command staff with some help from the Joint Staff. Instead of developing defense policy alternatives and advice, OSP was used to manufacture propaganda for internal and external use, and pseudo war planning.
As a result of my duties as the North Africa desk officer, I became acquainted with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) support staff for NESA. Every policy regional director was served by a senior executive intelligence professional from DIA, along with a professional intelligence staff. This staff channeled DIA products, accepted tasks for DIA, and in the past had been seen as a valued member of the regional teams. However, as the war approached, this type of relationship with the Defense Intelligence Agency crumbled.
Even the most casual observer could note the tension and even animosity between “Wild Bill” Luti (as we came to refer to our boss) and Bruce Hardcastle, our defense intelligence officer (DIO). Certainly, there were stylistic and personality differences. Hardcastle, like most senior intelligence officers I knew, was serious, reserved, deliberate, and went to great lengths to achieve precision and accuracy in his speech and writing. Luti was the kind of guy who, in staff meetings and in conversations, would jump from grand theory to administrative minutiae with nary a blink or a fleeting shadow of self-awareness.
I discovered that Luti and possibly others within OSP were dissatisfied with Hardcastle’s briefings, in particular with the aspects relating to WMD and terrorism. I was not clear exactly what those concerns were, but I came to understand that the DIA briefing did not match what OSP was claiming about Iraq’s WMD capabilities and terrorist activities. I learned that shortly before I arrived there had been an incident in NESA where Hardcastle’s presence and briefing at a bilateral meeting had been nixed abruptly by Luti. The story circulating among the desk officers was “a last-minute cancellation” of the DIO presentation. Hardcastle’s intelligence briefing was replaced with one prepared by another Policy office that worked nonproliferation issues. While this alternative briefing relied on intelligence produced by DIO and elsewhere, it was not a product of the DIA or CIA community, but instead was an OSD Policy “branded” product — and so were its conclusions. The message sent by Policy appointees and well understood by staff officers and the defense intelligence community was that senior appointed civilians were willing to exclude or marginalize intelligence products that did not fit the agenda.
Staff officers would always request OSP’s most current Iraq, WMD and terrorism talking points. On occasion, these weren’t available in an approved form and awaited Shulsky’s approval. The talking points were a series of bulleted statements, written persuasively and in a convincing way, and superficially they seemed reasonable and rational. Saddam Hussein had gassed his neighbors, abused his people, and was continuing in that mode, becoming an imminently dangerous threat to his neighbors and to us — except that none of his neighbors or Israel felt this was the case. Saddam Hussein had harbored al-Qaida operatives and offered and probably provided them with training facilities — without mentioning that the suspected facilities were in the U.S./Kurdish-controlled part of Iraq. Saddam Hussein was pursuing and had WMD of the type that could be used by him, in conjunction with al-Qaida and other terrorists, to attack and damage American interests, Americans and America — except the intelligence didn’t really say that. Saddam Hussein had not been seriously weakened by war and sanctions and weekly bombings over the past 12 years, and in fact was plotting to hurt America and support anti-American activities, in part through his carrying on with terrorists — although here the intelligence said the opposite. His support for the Palestinians and Arafat proved his terrorist connections, and basically, the time to act was now. This was the gist of the talking points, and it remained on message throughout the time I watched the points evolve.
But evolve they did, and the subtle changes I saw from September to late January revealed what the Office of Special Plans was contributing to national security. Two key types of modifications were directed or approved by Shulsky and his team of politicos. First was the deletion of entire references or bullets. The one I remember most specifically is when they dropped the bullet that said one of Saddam’s intelligence operatives had met with Mohammad Atta in Prague, supposedly salient proof that Saddam was in part responsible for the 9/11 attack. That claim had lasted through a number of revisions, but after the media reported the claim as unsubstantiated by U.S. intelligence, denied by the Czech government, and that Atta’s location had been confirmed by the FBI to be elsewhere, that particular bullet was dropped entirely from our “advice on things to say” to senior Pentagon officials when they met with guests or outsiders.
The other change made to the talking points was along the line of fine-tuning and generalizing. Much of what was there was already so general as to be less than accurate.
Some bullets were softened, particularly statements of Saddam’s readiness and capability in the chemical, biological or nuclear arena. Others were altered over time to match more exactly something Bush and Cheney said in recent speeches. One item I never saw in our talking points was a reference to Saddam’s purported attempt to buy yellowcake uranium in Niger. The OSP list of crime and evil had included Saddam’s attempts to seek fissionable materials or uranium in Africa. This point was written mostly in the present tense and conveniently left off the dates of the last known attempt, sometime in the late 1980s. I was surprised to hear the president’s mention of the yellowcake in Niger in his 2003 State of the Union address because that indeed was new and in theory might have represented new intelligence, something that seemed remarkably absent in any of the products provided us by the OSP (although not for lack of trying). After hearing of it, I checked with my old office of Sub-Saharan African Affairs — and it was news to them, too. It also turned out to be false.
It is interesting today that the “defense” for those who lied or prevaricated about Iraq is to point the finger at the intelligence. But the National Intelligence Estimate, published in September 2002, as remarked upon recently by former CIA Middle East chief Ray McGovern, was an afterthought. It was provoked only after Sens. Bob Graham and Dick Durban noted in August 2002, as Congress was being asked to support a resolution for preemptive war, that no NIE elaborating real threats to the United States had been provided. In fact, it had not been written, but a suitable NIE was dutifully prepared and submitted the very next month. Naturally, this document largely supported most of the outrageous statements already made publicly by Bush, Cheney, Rice and Rumsfeld about the threat Iraq posed to the United States. All the caveats, reservations and dissents made by intelligence were relegated to footnotes and kept from the public. Funny how that worked.
Starting in the fall of 2002 I found a way to vent my frustrations with the neoconservative hijacking of our defense policy. The safe outlet was provided by retired Col. David Hackworth, who agreed to publish my short stories anonymously on his Web site Soldiers for the Truth, under the moniker of “Deep Throat: Insider Notes From the Pentagon.” The “deep throat” part was his idea, but I was happy to have a sense that there were folks out there, mostly military, who would be interested in the secretary of defense-sponsored insanity I was witnessing on almost a daily basis. When I was particularly upset, like when I heard Zinni called a “traitor,” I wrote about it in articles like this one.
In November, my Insider articles discussed the artificial worlds created by the Pentagon and the stupid naiveté of neocon assumptions about what would happen when we invaded Iraq. I discussed the price of public service, distinguishing between public servants who told the truth and then saw their careers flame out and those “public servants” who did not tell the truth and saw their careers ignite. My December articles became more depressing, discussing the history of the 100 Years’ War and “combat lobotomies.” There was a painful one titled “Minority Reports” about the necessity but unlikelihood of a Philip Dick sci-fi style “minority report” on Feith-Wolfowitz-Rumsfeld-Cheney’s insanely grandiose vision of some future Middle East, with peace, love and democracy brought on through preemptive war and military occupation.
I shared some of my concerns with a civilian who had been remotely acquainted with the Luti-Feith-Perle political clan in his previous work for one of the senior Pentagon witnesses during the Iran-Contra hearings. He told me these guys were engaged in something worse than Iran-Contra. I was curious but he wouldn’t tell me anything more. I figured he knew what he was talking about. I thought of him when I read much later about the 2002 and 2003 meetings between Michael Ledeen, Reuel Marc Gerecht and Iranian arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar — all Iran-Contra figures.
In December 2002, I requested an acceleration of my retirement to the following July. By now, the military was anxiously waiting under the bed for the other shoe to drop amid concerns over troop availability, readiness for an ill-defined mission, and lack of day-after clarity. The neocons were anxiously struggling to get that damn shoe off. That other shoe fell with a thump, as did the regard many of us had held for Colin Powell, on Feb. 5 as the secretary of state capitulated to the neoconservative line in his speech at the United Nations — a speech not only filled with falsehoods pushed by the neoconservatives but also containing many statements already debunked by intelligence.
War is generally crafted and pursued for political reasons, but the reasons given to the Congress and to the American people for this one were inaccurate and so misleading as to be false. Moreover, they were false by design. Certainly, the neoconservatives never bothered to sell the rest of the country on the real reasons for occupation of Iraq — more bases from which to flex U.S. muscle with Syria and Iran, and better positioning for the inevitable fall of the regional ruling sheikdoms. Maintaining OPEC on a dollar track and not a euro and fulfilling a half-baked imperial vision also played a role. These more accurate reasons for invading and occupying could have been argued on their merits — an angry and aggressive U.S. population might indeed have supported the war and occupation for those reasons. But Americans didn’t get the chance for an honest debate.
President Bush has now appointed a commission to look at American intelligence capabilities and will report after the election. It will “examine intelligence on weapons of mass destruction and related 21st century threats … [and] compare what the Iraq Survey Group learns with the information we had prior…” The commission, aside from being modeled on failed rubber stamp commissions of the past and consisting entirely of those selected by the executive branch, specifically excludes an examination of the role of the Office of Special Plans and other executive advisory bodies. If the president or vice president were seriously interested in “getting the truth,” they might consider asking for evidence on how intelligence was politicized, misused and manipulated, and whether information from the intelligence community was distorted in order to sway Congress and public opinion in a narrowly conceived neoconservative push for war. Bush says he wants the truth, but it is clear he is no more interested in it today than he was two years ago.
Proving that the truth is indeed the first casualty in war, neoconservative member of the Defense Policy Board Richard Perle called this February for “heads to roll.” Perle, agenda setter par excellence, named George Tenet and Defense Intelligence Agency head Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby as guilty of failing to properly inform the president on Iraq and WMD. No doubt, the intelligence community, susceptible to politicization and outdated paradigms, needs reform. The swiftness of the neoconservative casting of blame on the intelligence community and away from themselves should have been fully expected. Perhaps Perle and others sense the grave and growing danger of political storms unleashed by the exposure of neoconservative lies. Meanwhile, Ahmad Chalabi, extravagantly funded by the neocons in the Pentagon to the tune of millions to provide the disinformation, has boasted with remarkable frankness, “We are heroes in error,” and, “What was said before is not important.”
Now we are told by our president and neoconservative mouthpieces that our sons and daughters, husbands and wives are in Iraq fighting for freedom, for liberty, for justice and American values. This cost is not borne by the children of Wolfowitz, Perle, Rumsfeld and Cheney. Bush’s daughters do not pay this price. We are told that intelligence has failed America, and that President Bush is determined to get to the bottom of it. Yet not a single neoconservative appointee has lost his job, and no high official of principle in the administration has formally resigned because of this ill-planned and ill-conceived war and poorly implemented occupation of Iraq.
Will Americans hold U.S. policymakers accountable? Will we return to our roots as a republic, constrained and deliberate, respectful of others? My experience in the Pentagon leading up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq tells me, as Ben Franklin warned, we may have already failed. But if Americans at home are willing to fight — tenaciously and courageously — to preserve our republic, we might be able to keep it.