Former Undersecretary of Defense Doug Feith fights back bogus stories on him on his new website.
HH: Douglas Feith served as the undersecretary of defense for policy from July, 2001 until August of 2005. He is currently a professor and distinguished practitioner in national security policy at Georgetown University. He’s also a Belfer Center visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford. Welcome back, Doug Feith. I also want to add to this resume now that you are an innovator in the use of the internet to preserve, defend and extend reputation when you’re the subject of a partisan witch hunt. Congratulations.
DF: Thank you, good to be back with you.
HH: Now www.dougfeith.com is up on the web, and I want to send everyone there. It’s www.dougfeith.com. Why did you start it? It’s comprehensive, and I think it’s actually going to be a trend setter for these sorts of fights. But explain why it came about.
DF: Well, the story of this Inspector General report was rather remarkably misreported in the Washington Post in particular. I mean, they ran a front page story about the report, and I mean, they botched it really terribly, in a very harmful way. They ran a whole bunch of quotations from Senator Levin from press releases from Senator Levin’s office, and misreported them as quotations from the Inspector General. And that spawned an enormous amount of other bad reports, inaccurate reports. And there was so much misinformation out there on the subject, that I decided that it would be useful to create a website that would have some accurate information.
HH: And having done this, did any of your colleagues say don’t push back, let it go, it’ll pass? Because I don’t think it ever does, but I’m curious. No one’s ever done this before, to my knowledge.
DF: Well, I know that the internet has really changed the way one needs to think about these kinds of problems. You know, once upon a time, if you got a bad article on a subject in a newspaper, it was very common for media advisors to say things like well, you don’t have to respond, the newspaper isn’t widely read, or it’s just a one day story, you can forget about it, and if you respond, you extend the story and draw more attention to it, that kind of thing. That may have been valid advice once upon a time, but in the age of the internet, nothing goes away. And if people put inaccurate stories out there, and tie it to your name, for example, then in the future, when anybody Googles your name, up those stories come. And so I think it’s enormously important to try to correct the record, and not to take that old advice that fighting back is going to extend the story. If you fail to fight back, what you wind up doing is in a lot of people’s minds, confirming the bad charge, and the bad charge doesn’t go away, because basically, the internet and Google preserve it forever.
HH: Agreed, agreed, and I think that it’s important as well to put the documents there, readily accessible, for the research challenged. And so you have this comprehensive set of documents, including the IG report, but also the current undersecretary’s response, your letters, different things like that. How has the traffic been? Or is the story now gone away, because Levin et al have figured out you’re not going to get played on this one?
DF: Well, the story hasn’t completely gone away, and I think that it’s useful to have the record up there. Senator Levin and Senator Rockefeller have both said that they want to pursue the matter. I mean, for some of the Democratic members of Congress, there’s enormous importance in pushing the argument that the President lied the country into war. And this particular dispute about this report is for them, just an opportunity to try to make the argument, which I think is completely false, that the President lied the country into war. And so because they have an enormous stake in that argument, I don’t think they’re going to drop that argument, or this part of it.
HH: Now there’s also an analysis I found pretty persuasive by Jonathan Toobin, that makes the argument that what they’re really doing isn’t about Doug Feith at all, it’s really about discrediting the ability of intelligence to be used to pursue an aggressive agenda of containment with Iran, even perhaps military conflict. Do you think that’s what’s going on here?
DF: Well, I wouldn’t put it only narrowly, specifically on the Iran case. There is a broader point of how to deal with the problem of intelligence, and intelligence failures. And there is a view, that as you can imagine, is popular with intelligence people, that the only people who really are authorized to criticize intelligence are other intelligence professionals. I think that’s a wrong view, I think it would lead, if it were followed, it would lead to worse intelligence, and worse policy. And I think that the key to better intelligence, and better policy, is having policy makers intelligently, critically and professionally criticize intelligence.
HH: Now Doug Feith, you’ve also been out of the administration for a year and a half now. And in that time, negotiations have advanced with North Korea, and there is a tentative framework for a deal. And now we’re sitting down with the Iranians and the Syrians. How do you react to those two developments?
DF: Well, I think that in both cases, those are regimes that are going to change their dangerous policies only if we can bring effective pressure to bear on them. I don’t think that the fundamental question is one of morality, whether it’s inherently bad to be talking to bad regimes. The key question is a pragmatic question. Are you most likely to bring effective pressure to bear on them by talking to them or not talking to them?
HH: And generally speaking, what is the answer to that?
DF: Well, I mean, I think that what we have seen in the past, in cases relating to those countries and other countries, is that very often, the most effective pressure comes from making those countries feel isolated, rather than essentially rewarding them with a prestigious embrace in these negotiations.
HH: Are you worried about these talks, especially the North Korean framework agreement?
DF: Well, I think everybody in the administration who has supported it has also expressed worry. I mean, the North Korean regime has a bad track record with regard to these agreements. They’ve promised things that they violated. They are not a truthful government.
HH: Has the administration gone soft, Doug Feith?
DF: Oh, I think I wouldn’t say that. I think that its…that’s not a conclusion that I would come to, yet, and I know that there are people who worry about that. I generally…I would give the President the benefit of the doubt on that.
HH: I appreciate hearing that. I also appreciate very much that you put the time together to do www.dougfeith.com. It helps us in the journalism world stay abreast of what we need to know. www.dougfeith.com, America. Thank you.
End of interview.