Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Keeping The Feith

Discussing the release of the 9/11 Commission's report for the Washington Post's opinion page, David Ignatius unearths a detail that went largely unreported in the major media outlets:

Even after 9/11, some senior Bush officials didn't seem to get it. Another of those little-noticed footnotes describes a Sept. 20, 2001, memo prepared by Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith, apparently for his boss, Donald H. Rumsfeld. According to the commission, "the author expressed disappointment at the limited options immediately available in Afghanistan and the lack of ground options. The author suggested instead hitting terrorists outside the Middle East in the initial offensive, perhaps deliberately selecting a non-al Qaeda target like Iraq. Since U.S. attacks were expected in Afghanistan, an American attack in South America or Southeast Asia might be a surprise to the terrorists." If Feith really wrote such a memo, how is it possible that he is still in his job? [emphasis added]
Of course, the evidence of Feith's gross incompetence preceded the release of the 9/11 Commission's report. In a way, Feith has been a ubiquitous presence in the administration, with an uncanny ability to find himself with a hand in every major scandal and policy fiasco to date. Chris Suellentrop of wrote an incisive expose of the number 3 civilian post in the Pentagon, behind Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, which I discusses in a prior post. While Feith, the Defense Department's undersecretary for policy, might be number 3 in the Pentagon, he is number 1 in terms of mistakes, scandals and blunders, or as Chris Suellentrop puts it, a sort of "Michael Dukakis in reverse: ideology without competence."

Here is a glance at Feith's impressive resume of achievements during his tenure in the Pentagon, as compiled by Suellentrop:

Feith oversaw the two offices that have since been criticized for politicizing intelligence and for inadequately planning for the occupation [of Iraq]. The first group was known as the Counter Terrorism Evaluation Unit, and it was established to find links between terrorist organizations and their state sponsors. The group issued a report about connections between Iraq and al-Qaida that Rumsfeld had Feith deliver to CIA Director George Tenet in August 2002. This was reportedly the same report that Vice President Cheney recently called "your best source of information" on the links between Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

But the report has been widely discredited. Tenet told a congressional committee in March that Cheney was mistaken about its reliability. And Daniel Benjamin, former director of counterterrorism at the National Security Council, wrote in Slate that, far from proving Saddam-Osama ties, "the document lends substance to the frequently voiced criticism that some in the Bush administration have misused intelligence to advance their policy goals."

The other office Feith oversees, the Office of Special Plans, probably wrought even worse damage that the Counter Terrorism Evaluation Unit: Its job was postwar planning, which even many conservatives now admit has been a disaster. As USA Today's Walter Shapiro put it this month when he summed up a one-year anniversary panel discussion on Iraq at the American Enterprise Institute (hardly a bastion of the antiwar left): "An easy summary of the overall impression fostered by the panel would be: Right war, wrong postwar plan."
Not to mention the role that the Office of Special Plans played in hyping up intelligence about WMDs in Iraq, and alleged ties to al-Qaeda, in an effort to circumvent the CIA and provide the administration with the backing for its claim of the necessity for war.

Given this impressive track record, it should come as no surprise that Feith's office is in charge of Iraq's military prisons, including Abu Ghraib. In fact, as Suellentrop points out:

It was Feith who devised the legal solution for getting around the Geneva Conventions' prohibition on physically or psychologically coercing prisoners of war into talking. As a Pentagon official in the 1980s, Feith had laid out the argument that terrorists didn't deserve protection under the Geneva Conventions. Once the war on terrorism started, all he had to do was implement it. And even more damning than his legal rule-making is Feith's reported reaction to complaints by military Judge Advocate General lawyers about the new, looser interrogation rules. "They said he had a dismissive, if not derisive, attitude toward the Geneva Conventions," Scott Horton, a lawyer who was approached by six outraged JAG officers last year, told the Chicago Tribune. "One of them said he calls it 'law in the service of terror.'"
Still despite the numerous incidents of poor judgment, lack of foresight and fundamental lapses in reason, Feith remains at his post, along with his superiors, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld, who share at least part of the blame for Feith's mistakes. In the Bush administration, which displays a curious aversion to the notion of being held accountable for error, I'm sure Bush or Cheney, if asked, might say, "He's the best undersecretary for policy this country has ever had."

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