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Douglas Feith On The CIA, The WMD, And The Information War

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Here is the transcript of my interview with former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith.  The audio will be posted here later. Some key excerpts:

HH: Do you believe, as opposed to your staff, that the CIA was filtering its own intelligence, Mr. Feith?

DF: Yes, I think that there were people, there were people in the CIA who had a theory that the Baathist secularists would not cooperate with the religious extremists in al Qaeda. And because they had that theory, when they looked at information that was, that showed, or that suggested that there was cooperation, they were inclined not to believe that information. And so what they were doing is they were preparing reports about the Iraq-al Qaeda relationship in the year 2002, that were either excluding altogether, or downplaying older intelligence reports that suggested that there were contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda.

HH: Are those people still in the CIA?

DF: One of the main people who was propounding that theory about…that the Baathists wouldn’t deal with the jihadists is now out in the private sector, and he’s actually been quite vocal, and has written articles, and his name is Paul Pillar. He’s also at Georgetown with me, in fact. But there are other people, I assume, I don’t know all the personnel at the CIA, but I’m sure there are other people who retained that view.


HH: Now there has been for some time speculation that there is a war against the war inside of the CIA. Is that fair?

DF: Well, we know now quite clearly from people who were in the CIA at the time, and who have since left, and have written books and articles, and given interviews, that there were a substantial number of people, including some analysts at very high levels, who were fundamentally at odds with the President’s policy. And that’s…I mean, that’s okay in principle, as long as they are doing professional work. The problem is that some of these people, I think very unprofessionally, were leaking stories, making allegations, one of the standard techniques is using former intelligence officials as a vehicle for leaking stories about what’s going on within the administration, and a lot of those stories that came out were very harmful, very false, and have had a lasting effect in hurting the President.

HH: Is Joseph Wilson’s trip to Niger one of those instances of the CIA using off the chart tactics to undermine the case for the war and the case for seriousness concerning Saddam?

DF: I’m not an expert on all the facts of that, but it sounds right.


HH: And Mr. Feith, looking back, knowing what we know now, do you still believe the decision to invade Iraq was a good one?

DF: Well, I think that the President made a completely responsible decision when he evaluated the dangers that Saddam posed to the United States. And the whole history of Iraq’s hostility and aggression and working with various terrorist groups, and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and use of weapons of mass destruction over the years, and he looked at all the risks of leaving Saddam in power, I think he made the right decision that while it was obviously, and as Secretary Rumsfeld helped point out, very risky to remove Saddam from power, it was enormously risky to leave him in power. And I think the President made a sound judgment in deciding to remove him.

HH: And knowing what we know now, would you still recommend that he make that same decision looking back?

DF: Yes, I would. I think that, you know, you’re always wiser in retrospect. There are things in the process that could have been done better, and we’ve learned a lot, one always learns a lot when one has a major activity of this kind.


HH: Professor Feith, do you believe he had WMD and got rid of them?

DF: Well, we know he had WMD, because he used WMD.

HH: No, I mean prior to the invasion, say 2001-2003.

DF: I don’t know, I don’t know precisely what he did, or when…nobody’s ever ascertained that. What we do know is he had the WMD at one point. We know that we didn’t find it. We don’t know how we got from the one place to the other. I think nobody knows that yet. It’s never been ascertained. Nobody has ever established that he destroyed it. Nobody has ever established whether he transferred it or hid it. All we know is that we couldn’t find the stockpiles that the CIA thought he had. By the way, the fact that the CIA got that wrong is a sign of why it makes sense for policy officials to do the kind of challenging of intelligence that my office did, for which the Inspector General, I think completely wrong-headedly, criticized us.


HH: All right. I understand that completely. In conclusion, Mr. Feith, when I had the Secretary on, Secretary Rumsfeld, I asked him, oh, a year ago, how come the American government is so flat-footed in the information war, in using new media. A) do you share my assessment that we are flat-footed, and B) why is that? Did you ever sit around with Dr. Wolfowitz and Secretary Rumsfeld, and say we’ve got to figure out how to teach the world and our people about what this war’s about, because I didn’t see that happening.

DF: Well, the answer is yes, we did sit around on many occasions, raising that question almost in the very same words that you just raised it in. And it is, it is…it’s a mystery to me, to tell you the truth, that this administration has been as ineffective as it has been in its so-called strategic communications, or public diplomacy. It’s…I can’t quite figure it out, because it has a lot of very talented people who managed to run an extremely successful presidential reelection campaign, and yet when it comes to, as you say, getting the story out, explaining its strategy, explaining what it’s doing and why, it’s been, I think, far inferior to its critics.

HH: My last question, really last question. Is there, in your opinion, do the American people understand the level of threat posed to us by our double enemy, Shia radicalism and Sunni radicalism? Do they really get the threat?

DF: I think that the answer is no, and I think that there’s a paradox working here, and that is after the 9/11 attack, I think there was a very…an obviously heightened sense of risk throughout the country. And at that point, I think a lot of people were focused on the threats that you’re talking about of jihadist violence, Sunni and Shia. And what happened was the administration responded very vigorously, in a completely new way, saying that we’re going to fight this not as a law enforcement matter but as a war. And I think at least in part because of that, I think the administration deserves some credit here. There has not been another 9/11 scale attack in the United States for the last five and a half years. Now I think most serious people believe we’re going to get hit again at some point, but I think it is to the credit of the administration’s strategy that we’ve managed to get five and a half years after 9/11 without another major attack of that kind. And the paradox is that the success that the administration has had in helping prevent the additional attack has led a lot of people to say maybe the whole threat isn’t that serious. And I mean, it’s kind of just in the nature of things that if you succeed in fighting the threat, you’ll have people who deny that it existed to begin with.





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