Newt Gingrich's "outsider" act

As he eyes the White House, the former speaker tries to distance himself from the Bush administration, but he helped the president make his biggest mistake.

Published December 22, 2006 1:55PM (EST)

Newt Gingrich still denies that he has made up his mind about whether or not to seek the presidency -- and if he does, it will only be because America demands it. "I am not 'running' for president," he told Fortune magazine in November. "I am seeking to create a movement to win the future by offering a series of solutions so compelling that if the American people say I have to be president, it will happen."

Gingrich is, however, running away from his former friends. As the former speaker of the House unsubtly positions himself for a shot at the nomination, his latest tactic seems to be distancing himself from the political polonium that is the Bush administration. A recent article in Insight magazine, a publication affiliated with the conservative Washington Times newspaper, describes unnamed sources "close to Gingrich" as saying the former speaker was breaking with the administration: "Newt bit his tongue for months and now feels he has to tell his base the truth: the White House does not have the will or the power to promote any agenda."

In an interview with Salon - during which he said he will make his decision about a White House bid after Labor Day -- he struck the same maverick pose. "I'm an outsider," he claimed. "I have no interest in propping up whatever the current slogans [are] of whatever establishment you want to describe."

"I cue off of facts, and I cue off of the American people, and I don't particularly cue off the power structure in this city or the patterns of Georgetown cocktail parties."

But when it comes to the "establishment" or "power structure," Gingrich has been anything but an outsider. He may now be trying to put some distance between himself and the Bush administration, but his fingerprints are all over the very debacle that has made the president politically toxic. As a close advisor to the administration over the past six years, as an intimate of both Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Gingrich was a powerful advocate both for the idea of invading Iraq and for the botched way in which it was done.

Gingrich wasn't merely a booster of the war and the manner in which it was conducted, said Kenneth Adelman, who like Gingrich was a member of the influential Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee, which advises the Secretary of Defense. He was involved in the hands-on planning.

"Rumsfeld thought very highly of [Gingrich]," Adelman said. "There were times quite apart from the Defense Policy Board that he was called in to meet with Rumsfeld." Adelman added that the Defense Secretary told him that Gingrich had gone down to the Central Command in Tampa, Fla., where the U.S. military directs its operations in the Middle East and "worked on war plans and proved very valuable." (Asked for confirmation of the visit, Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler said, "All I can say is that he's made many trips to CentCom ... My guess is that's right.")

Gingrich used to like to talk about his influence at the Bush White House. In the beginning of the current administration, and especially after 9/11, when the president's popularity was at a peak, Gingrich felt no compunction in freely discussing his new role back in the seat of power three years after leaving Congress. In November 2001, the New Yorker reported that Gingrich had been scheduled to meet with Cheney on Sept. 11 to discuss what Gingrich perceived as the president's failure to properly communicate his message. Gingrich told the New Yorker at the time that he had "pretty remarkable access to all the senior leadership," including Karen Hughes, Karl Rove and then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, a former colleague whom Gingrich says he spoke with "routinely" in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

Most important, Gingrich met regularly with one old friend, Cheney, and advised another, Rumsfeld. But his influence was also felt in the former employees who had taken jobs throughout the administration. Notably, Bill Luti and William Bruner, who had served Gingrich as military affairs advisors during his days as speaker, were central figures in the Bush team's politicization of intelligence. They worked for the infamous Office of Special Plans, the Department of Defense's "stovepiping" operation that was responsible for much of the questionable intelligence on Iraq. Bruner himself was the handler for Ahmad Chalabi, the exiled Iraqi who provided much of the OSP's most dubious data. Bruner and Luti worked with Elliott Abrams, the disgraced Iran-Contra figure whose redemption Gingrich had kick-started.

As war approached, Gingrich wasn't just helping the Pentagon to plan the conflict. He often acted as a proxy for Iraq hawks. Media reports place Gingrich at the CIA, where, England's Guardian newspaper reported, he was engaged in pressuring analysts on Iraq intelligence. Gingrich, who says he did go to Langley to discuss other intelligence matters at the request of then-CIA director George Tenet, denies the allegation.

"I never went down to Langley, before the war, on Iraq intelligence. I went down on other topics," he said. "I thought, frankly, the argument for replacing Saddam was so overwhelming that it was silly to base it on weapons of mass destruction. And it never occurred to me that [intelligence on weapons of mass destruction] would be such a total mess."

But as the administration geared up for war, Gingrich was striking a different note. In a paper written late in 2001 for the American Enterprise Institute, where he is a senior fellow, he asserted, "We are a serious nation, and the message should be simple if this is to be a serious war: Saddam will stop his efforts and close down all programs to create weapons of mass destruction." On Oct. 31, 2002, he wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Times opposing proposed U.N. inspections of Iraq's supposed WMD facilities; in it, he said, "President Bush and his administration have been abundantly clear why they believe Saddam must be replaced. They have convincingly argued that time is on the side of the Iraqi dictator, and that every day spent waiting is another day for him to expand his biological, chemical and nuclear weapons of mass destruction program." In a piece for USA Today on Oct. 16, 2002, he wrote, "The question is not, 'Should we replace Saddam?' The question is, 'Should we wait until Saddam gives biological, chemical and nuclear weapons to terrorists?' We should not wait until Saddam has the full capacity to create terror around the planet and is able to blackmail with nuclear weapons. Waiting is not an option."

In fact, Gingrich's seat on the Defense Policy Board put him at the heart of the administration faction that was pushing to wage war on Iraq. During two meetings little more than a week after 9/11, according to the New York Times, board members became convinced that Iraq should be the next target after the invasion of Afghanistan. Gingrich was quoted in that Times report, on Oct. 12, 2001, as saying, "If we don't use this as the moment to replace Saddam after we replace the Taliban, we are setting the stage for disaster."

Beyond advocating for the war, Gingrich was also advocating for the specific way it was fought: the Rumsfeldian strategy calling for a smaller invasion force and "footprint." Gingrich has long been a proponent of this kind of change in the military. In 1981 he, along with Al Gore and others, began the Military Reform Caucus to explore those types of changes. In a speech to the Hoover Institution in the summer of 2002, he praised Rumsfeld's tactical decisions in Afghanistan, saying, "The standard plan in Afghanistan was either Tomahawks or five divisions, and that's why Rumsfeld was so important. 'Cause Rumsfeld sat down and said, "Well, what if we do this other thing? You know, three guys on horseback, a B-2 overhead." And it was a huge shock to the army ... because it worked."

In December 2002, speaking to the Washington Post, he criticized senior military officials for wanting to fight a bigger, more conventional war and praised Gen. Tommy Franks for having a "more integrated, more aggressive and more risk-taking plan." And after the war began, he praised the administration for sticking by its decision to go with a light, fast invasion, telling the Post that there was a "'moment when the old Army was pounding away, saying that we were out there and facing the Republican Guard with too small of a force ... That was the moment of optimum danger. A less confident administration might have paused and waited for another division to come up."

Gingrich also took part in the Bush administration's Iraq-inspired intramural policy battles. He chose the side of the popular kids, the hawks and neocons. At the beginning of the war, in 2003, as a fight brewed between the skeptics at the State Department and the Rumsfeld-Cheney faction, Gingrich struck out at Secretary of State Colin Powell. In a series of speeches, interviews and articles in the spring and early summer of 2003, Gingrich denounced the State Department as "pathetic," a "broken institution" whose "pattern of diplomatic failure is beginning once again and threatens to undo the effects of military victory."

Because of the timing, many observers interpreted this as Gingrich's taking the part of his allies in the administration, noting also that Gingrich, who usually speaks extemporaneously, carried notes for the speeches. Gingrich denies to Salon that there was any coordination; he said he "suspect[s] if they'd known I was going to be that blunt and direct, they might have asked me not to make it, because it was a very tough speech." That statement seems to be contradicted by prior remarks from Tyler, his spokesman. According to an April 30, 2003, article in the Hill newspaper, Tyler said about a dozen people, including members of Gingrich's staff and "unnamed government officials," saw one of the speeches before Gingrich gave it.

After the attacks, says Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to Powell, Gingrich sent a letter to Powell offering his help in fixing the problems he saw.

"That's Newt's audacity," Wilkerson said. "That was either intended to be a finger in the eye of the secretary, or it showed that sometimes this man who thinks he's ready to be president just has no grasp as to what his actions mean. Take your pick as to which it is."

When the war in Iraq started to go bad, when the predictions made by doubters like Powell started to come true, Gingrich jumped ship. He was one of the earliest conservative critics of the war, coming out in December 2003 to say that Iraq policy was going off a cliff," and that " we need to ... put the Iraqis at the center of this equation and recognize that most Iraqis do not want to go back to a brutal, murdering, raping dictatorship. Most Iraqis want to have an organized way of governing themselves, but they want to be in charge of their own country."

Did the war go wrong because the powers that be weren't really listening to Newt? Gingrich says today that his advice on how to conduct the war, which was unheeded, "was to go in and get out. I've been pretty clear about that ... I was extremely public and clear about it, so it was not secret advice. I thought it was a major mistake for us to try to be a governing, occupying power. I thought Bremer did exactly the wrong things."

But if they didn't take his advice, it's not because they're weren't getting it. There is documentation that he had access. He maintained regular e-mail communication with Rumsfeld. One way Gingrich used that channel was to advocate against the Stryker, an armed combat vehicle that is the first new military vehicle since the M2 Bradley tank. Wilkerson says Gingrich, a military historian who has a Ph.D. in history and teaches at the National Defense University, sent frequent e-mails, one 12 pages long, to Rumsfeld about his misgivings about the Stryker. Those e-mails, perhaps unbeknownst to Gingrich, were shared throughout the military community.

"You send e-mails to the secretary of defense, I don't care how good you think you are, or how encrypted you think you are, general officers are going to get a hold of them," Wilkerson said. "So here's Newt weighing in with the secretary of defense, via e-mail, to kill the Stryker program, indeed holding his own demonstrations at Andrews Air Force Base to prove the Stryker couldn't be loaded on a C-130, and here's General Shinseki, chief of staff of the Army, who's advocating the Stryker and trying to get it sold within the Army, reading this crap. I mean, this is typical Newt."

Gingrich, for his part, says he lost that fight, that it was a case in which an individual could not win against the institutional power of the Army.

"The institutional momentum of the Army was overwhelmingly committed to making it happen, and they have a good story to tell," he said. He also conceded, while saying that his criticisms of the program remain valid, that "if you go out and ... talk to guys who were in Iraq, they'll tell you it's turned out to be a pretty good system that offers them a level of mobility that's very interesting and has great capabilities."

That Gingrich lost on the Stryker might be emblematic of what Wilkerson and others have described as an essential element of Gingrich's personality and operating tactics - something that, ironically, gives him plausible deniability when it comes to the Iraq mess. Gingrich is a man of many ideas, not all of them sound, more than a few ignored. A source who, in 2003, leaked to the Washington Post the existence of the Gingrich-Rumsfeld e-mail channel, said Rumsfeld knew there was a "ratchet factor with Newt. You've got to ratchet down what Newt tells you ... You've got to modify [it]."

Wilkerson agrees. "He'll have 10 ideas a day, nine of which will be preposterous, one of which will be good," he said. "Your job, usually, was to find that one good one ... Don't get me wrong -- in some respects, I have a great deal of respect for Newt's ability to do that ... [But] with all these brilliant ideas, there was never any granularity."

"Gingrich is what he is," Wilkerson said. "Disingenuous as hell, never held to accountability for the nine ideas out of ten that don't work ... but I don't think he runs around operating secret cabals in order to effect major changes in policy. He just does it upfront and in your face. Now, I may be wrong, but that's not my appreciation of him. Luti, Feith [Douglas Feith, former under-secretary of defense for policy] and that crew, they're the backroom gang. They're Nazis. They're Gestapo."

But Gingrich's ideas do sometimes translate into policy. Perhaps the best example is the Department of Homeland Security, for years a pet project of Gingrich's -- former Sen. Warren Rudman, whose Hart-Rudman Commission was one of the driving forces behind DHS's creation, once called Gingrich the father of the idea.

"I argued for it very passionately," Gingrich said, but he criticizes what it has become. "The current Department of Homeland Security is a thin, weak façade of the system we will someday need, and Katrina was absolute proof that we are not very far down the road towards having a serious Department of Homeland Security."

But Wilkerson says that, as in his criticism of the State Department, which Wilkerson believes was severely damaged by legislation passed under Gingrich, the former speaker is attacking a problem largely of his own making.

"He will take part in 100 things, 90 of which will ultimately be wrecks, and then there'll be no accountability ... I would contend one of the train wrecks that he's left in his wake is the Homeland Security Department ... I think it's a disaster. I doubt that we'll ever reverse it, because once you've created something that behemoth-like in our federal bureaucracy, oh God help the person who tries to take it down."

Asked whether he worried that his connections to failed projects like DHS and to the war, not to mention an administration many perceive to have failed generally, would damage his political prospects, Gingrich was dismissive.

"No more than the connections I have to looking at health or the connections I have to being on Fox News," he said. "Given the recent Virginia campaign, should I take encouragement at having written, helping coauthor, four novels, which I'm sure could be taken out of context by some consultant? ... I don't worry about it ... I let guys like you do that."

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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2008 Elections Dick Cheney Donald Rumsfeld George W. Bush Newt Gingrich