Driving half-blind in Washington
The Pentagon policy unit that helped steer America into war in Iraq has changed its name. The infamous Office of Special Plans (OSP) is now known as the Northern Gulf Affairs office, its title before it embarked on a covert buildup to the conflict.
But old habits die hard. Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, who oversaw the OSPs work gathering useful intelligence on former Iraqi President Saddam Husseins supposed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, has shifted his attention to Iran. Despite State Department protests, his office has continued to promote as potential freedom fighters the Mujahideen Khalq organization, the bizarre cult-like movement dedicated to overthrowing the Tehran government. The MKO, as the group is known in Washington, has been designated a terrorist group by the State Department.
It has also emerged that two of Feiths close aides, Harold Rhode and Larry Franklin, held a series of meetings with Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian exile arms dealer notorious for acting as a middleman in the covert arms-for-hostages deal with Iran during the Reagan administration. After that scandal broke, the CIA put out a burn notice on Ghorbanifar, and the agencys official inquiry into the Iran-Contra affair reported: The CIA had concluded, after past interaction with Ghorbanifar, that he could not be trusted to act in anyones interest but his own.
However, the administration of President George W. Bush is filled with Iran-Contra veterans, and subscribes to the revisionist view that the operation was a flawed effort to achieve noble ends. Ghorbanifar is back in favor, and this time he appears to be selling himself as a liaison to anti-clerical groups inside Iran.
The purpose of the meetings between Ghorbanifar and Feiths aides appears to have been to initiate a long-term effort to destabilize Iran, as a potential next target on the Axis of Evil list. There is no contemplation of a US invasion, but administration neoconservatives hope a bit of prodding here and there might tip the scales against Irans conservative clerics.
Under questioning, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld admitted that there had been contacts with Ghorbanifar, but claimed they had taken place over a year ago. However, according to an intelligence source in Washington, Pentagon consultants (mostly people from the think tank world ideologically close to the Defense Department, who put out feelers at its behest and expense) had meetings with Ghorbanifar as recently as two months ago. This was a systematic pattern of clandestine meetings, the source said. The CIA spotted them. Thats how they found out about it. Neither CIA nor State knew about this.
What all this suggests is that the neoconservative appetite for pre-emptive engagement against Americas enemies emerged undimmed from the Iraqi fiasco. In April, the OSP even came up with a plan to turn left at Baghdad and pursue Baathists and supposed weapons convoys into Syria. The White House quashed the plan. Despite the rising death toll inflicted on the US-led occupation force in Iraq (the occupation has now cost more American lives than the war), and despite the fact that weapons of mass destruction have not been found, no one from the OSP has been fired or disciplined. Feith is still at his desk. Yet it was the OSP, acting as a channel for anti-Saddam intelligence from the Iraqi National Congress and an Israeli intelligence shop set up within Ariel Sharons office, that was the loudest proponent of action against Iraq.
This appears to be the way Bush prefers to operate. He has Rumsfeld on hand as a foil to Secretary of State Colin Powell and the rest of the traditional moderates at the State Department. And he has Feiths informal intelligence operation at the former OSP as an alternative to the CIA. This makes sense in the eyes of Americas first MBA president. Make the intelligence agencies compete like everyone else. But the consequence has been to erode the intelligence gold standard, namely CIA estimates. These used to serve as the arbiter of policy debates, but are now seen as no more than one opinion in an internecine feud.
The national security consequences of politicizing intelligence could be devastating. The CIAs credibility has suffered a serious blow, not only due to constant sniping from the neoconservatives, but also to the agencys own efforts to satisfy the demand for a certain sort of intelligence from the White House. In order to help make the case for war in Iraq, CIA analysts approved unsubstantiated reports on Saddam Husseins weapons of mass destruction and links with Al-Qaeda, which they would have normally deleted.
The Bush doctrine of pre-emptive action was always an ambitious policy, even when intelligence was crystal clear. But the administration has muddied those waters and it can no longer be sure of what it is hearing and seeing. With the accuracy of intelligence in doubt, the worlds sole superpower risks stumbling onward, half-blind, unable to distinguish real threats from phantoms.
Julian Borger is Washington correspondent of Londons The Guardian. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR