Former undersecretary of defense Douglas Feith on pre-war intelligence, and the damage done by media and the IG’s report.
HH: Pleased to welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show now Douglas Feith, formerly the undersecretary of defense for policy. He is now a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Affairs, the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. Mr. Feith, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
DF: Nice to be with you.
HH: I was reading with great interest the various, I guess I can call them accounts, of the Inspector General’s report. They were fundamentally flawed and very unfair. Has the media caught up with the reality of this report yet, Mr. Feith?
DF: Not really. The main media screw-up, which was really extraordinary and very damaging, was the Washington Post on February 9th, ran a story where they had in their headline, and in their opening paragraphs, they had quotes attacking me and the work that my office did, and they said that those quotes came from the Inspector General report, when in fact, they came from office releases of Senator Levin. And it created a terrible impression, because it was purple language used to attack me, and it was attributed to the Inspector General, but it was really just from Senator Levin, and it was a terrible error. The Washington Post ran a big correction to it, but in the meantime, newspapers all over the world, and television all over the world, picked up on those false quotations, and said that I was being attacked by the Inspector General for things that the Inspector General in fact didn’t say that I did.
HH: I assume you’re familiar with Mark Twain’s a lie is halfway around the world before truth gets its boots on.
DF: I know it very well.
HH: Now, you’ve lived it. Has the truth caught up with the lie?
DF: No, it hasn’t even come close, because there’s no way in the world that the correction can get anything like the attention that the original quotations got. I mean, when people, when journalists around the world see in the Washington Post quotation marks around phrases that are attributed to an Inspector General report, they assume the Washington Post got it right. And they picked up on that and ran with it, and made all kinds of accusations, and I’m not sure that we’ll ever be able to quite clean up the mess that was created, even though the Washington Post did correct it, and referred to the correction on the front page. There’s still no catching up.
HH: I want to get to the substance of the IG report in just a moment, Professor Feith, but first, is the media disposed to be ill-informed about the administration and its alumni when it comes to this war? Do they want the news to reflect poorly on the administration and its members and the war?
DF: Well, it’s an interesting question. The…it’s ironic that precisely one of the quotations that was falsely attributed to the Inspector General was that my office was predisposed to finding a significant relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda. And the question that you’re asking is, was that error of attributing that quotation wrongly a reflection of the fact that the journalists were predisposed to thinking ill of our office. The answer may be yes. My sense is that the journalists involved couldn’t have done it on purpose, because they would have to have known that it would be exposed, and when it got exposed, it would be embarrassing.
HH: Now I want to get to the substance, because I do think errors are often committed by people eager to hear what they want to hear, and that’s clearly what the Washington Post reporters did, and many others. But I want to get to the substance of the IG’s report. First of all, on Fox News Sunday, when you were being interviewed by Chris Wallace, you said that part of the motivation for the people who undertook this report, including your staff, was a sense on their part, “that the CIA was filtering its own intelligence to suit its own theory that the Baathists would not cooperate with al Qaeda, because they were secularists with the religious extremists of al Qaeda, and that they were not doing proper intelligence work, and that our people were criticizing them, for not putting forward an alternative intelligence analysis.” 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. Our objection, by the way, was not the fact that CIA people have a theory. There’s nothing wrong…it’s inevitable that people who work in an area develop their own theories of how things work in their areas of expertise. Our point was simply don’t exclude relevant information that is inconsistent with your theory. If you don’t credit the information, if you don’t think it’s very weighty because you theory tells you that it’s probably not the case, present the information, and explain we’re not giving this a lot of weight because, according to our theory, it’s probably not very significant. And that way, people can look at it, they can see the information, if they don’t share your theory, they can say well, we’ll give that information a little more weight than you do, because we don’t share you theory. And that’s fine. I mean, people have to understand that intelligence is not generally about objective truth. Intelligence is very sketchy, it’s speculative, it’s open to interpretation. It’s a very healthy thing when policy people challenge the intelligence people on this point. Intelligence, as we know historically, has often been wrong. The consensus of the intelligence community has often been wrong. And it’s very valuable when policy people challenge that.
HH: Now I wrote a piece for ABC News yesterday, arguing that this was an analogous effort, your office’s effort, to the Team B effort run in the 70’s concerning the Soviets’ capabilities and intentions. Do you believe that’s a valid comparison?
DF: Well, it’s…it wasn’t quite a Team B effort, but it reflected some of the same ideas, I think, that led to the Team B effort. And the idea is that intelligence improves, and policy improves, if there is vigorous challenge, vigorous debate among policy and intelligence people. And that was, I think, the idea that gave rise to the Team B effort, as you rightly point out. And that was the idea here. This wasn’t exactly a Team B, because the people in my office were not actually producing an alternative intelligence assessment. We’ve been accused of that, it just isn’t true. What they were producing was a critique of the CIA’s work.
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: Let me ask you as well, do you think this problem of information distortion has been fixed inside the CIA?
DF: I’m not…when you’re dealing with a large bureaucracy, there are going to be…I mean, the performance is always going to be uneven, and there are going to be people who do things better or worse at different times. I would not say that a problem like this, that in some ways inheres in human nature is ever completely fixed. I mean, people…what we’re really talking about here is we wanted people to take a truly scholarly or professional approach to information, and that is it’s perfectly okay to have a theory or a hypothesis, but don’t filter the evidence, don’t filter the data to suit your theory. You can have your theory, you can present your theory, but also present all the relevant data, and then let the policy makers make their decisions based on the data that you’ve presented, and the theory that you’ve presented. And this business of people discounting information that doesn’t fit their theory, which by the way, is exactly what Carl Levin has accused my office of, we were not only not guilty of that, we’re in trouble now with Carl Levin because we were opposing that practice on the part of the CIA.
HH: And I’m worried about going forward, Professor, that this distortion continues, and that the CIA unofficially, and members within it, continue to distort not only the information flows by discounting some things, and upcounting others, but by then waging a war through leaks and absurd tactics like the Wilson trip. And so the question from where you sit now at Georgetown, do you think that’s ended, or does it go on?
DF: Well, the business about leaks, and political warfare, I think is an extremely serious problem. And the…I mean, that is flatly unprofessional, and it happened a lot over the last several years, and I mean, you could see it, and it was revealed…the fellow who wrote the book Imperial Hubris…
DF: …using the title anonymous, he was an active CIA official when that book came out. It was extremely critical of the President. It came out in the summer before the presidential election. It was widely used to attack the President, and later, when the guy left the CIA, his name is Scheuer, when he left the CIA, he gave an interview, and he said, I think it was to the Washington Post, he said as long as the people at the Agency thought I was attacking the President, they were perfectly happy to have me give anonymous interviews. He said but when I started criticizing the CIA itself, while I was still at the CIA, they clamped down on me, and that’s a remarkable statement, and it’s very unprofessional for people to function that way, and I think that’s a matter of good leadership. And if the CIA has leadership that recognizes that that’s unprofessional and cracks down on it, that’s important.
HH: Does it have that leadership today, in your opinion?
DF: I don’t know. I just don’t know the facts well enough, but I certainly hope it does, because it’s harmful to the country, it’s harmful to the functioning of the government.
HH: Let me go on to two other quick questions with you, Mr. Feith. One is in the interview with Chris Wallace, you made a statement which I had never seen before, which was that your shop did in fact, “make the case against the war, yes, and we explained what we thought all the problems would be in going to war, because we wanted the President to know that.” By that you mean…explain to me what that means, because that’s a stunner to me.
DF: Yeah, what happened was, and this story is at least partly recounted in Woodward’s latest book, and I’m going to be discussing it at some length in the book that I’m writing. Secretary Rumsfeld put together a memo, and he worked on it over several months, that listed everything that he could think of that could go wrong in the event of war. And he gathered his top Pentagon leadership, military and civilian, and we sat down and worked through a list of all the things that we could think of that would be arguments against going to war, and things that could go wrong in the event that we go to war, and put that together, and then Secretary Rumsfeld took it, and took it to the President and the National Security Council, and walked everybody through it. And he did that because he wanted to make sure before the decision was actually taken to go to war, that the government at its highest levels had given truly serious consideration to the best thinking that we could bring to the subject. And it was actually quite an impressive memo. And interestingly enough, while there were other agencies of the government that also did some pieces speculating about the problems that could occur in the event of war, I think Secretary Rumsfeld’s list was probably more serious, more comprehensive, graver, grimmer than anything produced by anybody else around the government.
HH: Has that memo been made public yet?
HH: Has it been widely reported as being in existence?
DF: There have been…yes, there’ve been quite a few stories that have referred to it.
HH: And did the Secretary of Defense’s memo underestimate what has actually transpired in Iraq, Mr. Feith?
DF: Well, some of the problems it hit on…I mean, he didn’t have a perfect crystal ball, but he definitely hit some of the problems, and then of course there were other problems that have arisen that he didn’t hit. But the point is not whether…to my mind, the point is not whether he had perfect seer capabilities. The point is that the notion that people in the Pentagon were pushing for war, and were trying to cherry pick information to persuade the President to go to war, and suppress any thought that might make the President reluctant to go to war, is complete nonsense, and is refuted by the written record, because in fact, we wanted the President and the whole National Security Council to take very seriously the full range of considerations, what would be the problems if we go to war, and what would be the problems if we don’t go to war.
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. And…
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: I agree. I mean, that is to me the most obvious necessity of second-guessing everything, is when you make a bad call like that one, if in fact it was a bad call, as I agree we need to know a lot more. I want to conclude, and I know I’m pushing your time on this, but intelligence is back in the headlines this week with briefings in Baghdad about Iran providing weapons lethal to Americans, and sniper rifles lethal to Americans, to the Iraqi insurgency. Can we in fact trust that intelligence, Douglas Feith?
DF: Well, I’m not in the government now, and I don’t know the quality of the intelligence. The point that I would make in general is people sometimes want to be, want to be persuaded based on standards of proof that intelligence can never meet. I mean, the world is a place that is full of risks, and our intelligence does not always provide us with full pictures on things that are very risky. And the fact that you don’t have full information on a subject does not mean that you can then take comfort that well, because we can’t absolutely prove that somebody’s doing something bad, therefore we can relax. I mean, you can make errors in thinking that things are too grave, you can make errors in thinking that things are not as grave as they really are. Intelligence is sketchy, and what the President does, I mean, the main job that he has in the national security area, is he’s evaluating risk. And one of the major risks is that your information, your intelligence, is not good enough to tell you what people who mean you ill are up to.
HH: Do you think our methods and sources concerning Iran are better than our methods and sources concerning Iraq under Saddam?
DF: I don’t want to comment on that.
HH: All right.
DF: I mean, that’s a sensitive question.
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.
HH: And on that note, I do…I don’t have any more questions. I do want to give you the opportunity to add anything that you would like to, given that I think just the miserable treatment of this report that has been heaped on you and your staff, and anything else?
DF: Well, I appreciate that. I think that the…what I would say is the key issue in this whole debate about the Inspector General report is whether policy people should be free to challenge the intelligence community consensus on various issues. And I think that what the people in the Pentagon did, the people from my office, and from Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz’ office, in challenging the CIA, was not only not inappropriate, that was the word that the Inspector General used, but it was praiseworthy. It was right. The government needs more vigorous challenging of intelligence by policy people. And I think that if this whole situation leads to a greater understanding of that fact, then there may be some good that comes out of it.
HH: Professor Feith, thanks for your time, thanks for your service in the war, and I hope to have another opportunity to talk to you in the future.
DF: Good to talk to you.
HH: Thank you.
End of interview.