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The war on terrorism finally explained in detail by Douglas Feith

Wednesday, April 23, 2008
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HH: Douglas Feith is the author of War And Decision: Inside The Pentagon At The Dawn Of The War On Terrorism. He was number three at the Pentagon for the four crucial years that began the Bush administration, saw the beginning of the war. He joins me now to talk about this controversial and compelling account of what went on in the Pentagon and the Bush administration from 9/11 forward. Douglas Feith, welcome, it’s good to have you today.

DF: Thanks, good to be with you.

HH: Let’s start by explaining to people what the undersecretary of defense for policy did. That was your job, and just generally, even before the war, what’s the scope of that office’s duties?

DF: Well, the undersecretary is the main advisor, I was the main advisor to Secretary Rumsfeld on defense policy, and the international affairs of the department. So I ran the office that was sometimes referred to as the little State Department within the Pentagon. And also, I supported Secretary Rumsfeld for the work that he did in National Security Council meetings. So the briefing papers for him, for the meetings when he would meet with the President, the Vice President, Secretary of State, and others, those briefing papers were the responsibility of my office. And when he would go to those meetings, I usually accompanied him.

HH: And I’m going to get into chain of command at the Pentagon later. But in the book, you’re very careful to lay out the chain of command. By the way, it’s a very good book. It’s a very compelling read. I’ve been with it for the last week, and it’s fascinating on many levels. But give some folks a sense of who Douglas Feith was before he arrived at the Pentagon.

DF: Well, I had served before in the Reagan administration. I started off, I was trained as a lawyer, but then went into the Reagan administration as a Middle East specialist on the National Security Council staff, and then moved over to the Pentagon, and was deputy assistant secretary of defense, and I worked on arms control negotiations, U.S.-Soviet issues, in the Reagan administration. And then I left and I started my own law firm, and practiced law for a number of years, and was part of the former Reagan national security officials network, and worked with my former colleagues on a whole range of national security issues throughout the 90’s. And then came back to the government in 2001 as the undersecretary of defense for policy.

HH: Now you are widely understood to be one of the deep, dark circle of neocons. Do you wear that badge as an honor or as something that’s a misjudgment of who you are?

DF: Well, the term neocon has gone through a lot of changes. There was a time when I think it was a very useful term, and that was in particular during the Reagan administration. There were two main groups that it was useful to distinguish between. There were the people who had been the lifelong conservative Republicans, and who supported and loved Ronald Reagan, and then there was a group of people, including myself, who started their political lives as liberal Democrats, and mostly throughout the 1970’s, had found that the Democratic Party had drifted substantially to the left, leaving us behind, and we became strong supporters of Ronald Regan and his policies of peace through strength, and his emphasis on the importance of ideas in international affairs. We had the view, for example, that the Cold War was not a clash of great powers the way some people referred to it, but was in fact, in an important way, an ideological war between totalitarian communism and liberal democracy. And so those people who had started off left of center, started off as Democrats, and who supported Ronald Reagan, and who viewed Ronald Reagan, by the way, as a neocon, because he himself had started off in life as a liberal Democrat, we were distinguished from the lifelong conservative Republicans by the terms new conservatives, or neocons.

HH: And I think the left today uses that term primarily to attach to people who are staunch supporters of Israel, and people who are open to the use of American military power to achieve important objectives. Do you think that’s a fairly safe assertion as to when neocon gets thrown around?

DF: Yeah, I think the term neocon went through a change, and I talk about this a bit in the book…

HH: Yeah.

DF: …that originally, it meant what I said. It was this, basically, people who had been liberal Democrats, and who became Reagan supporters. In recent years, it’s been cheapened and distorted, and some people use it just as a bigoted reference to Jews or Israel supporters, and some people use it just to mean, you know, people who they consider to be too hard-line, or too pro-military. And I mean now, you hear people describing Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld as neocons. And you know, if they’re neocons, then the term has no meaning anymore.

HH: Because they’ve always been Republicans.

DF: Sure.

HH: And they’ve always been sort of mainstream, orthodox Republicans, but that’s always meant different things at different times. I just wanted to put that out there early, because I’m often called a neocon, but I’ve never been other than a Republican. And so I just wonder what utility it has, and I guess we agree that it doesn’t have much. But I do think there’s a category, and there are a lot of them in the book, of professional Beltway savvy operators, and they would include George Tenet and Richard Armitage, maybe even Colin Powell, about whom it’s impossible to assign an ideological assessment, Doug Feith. Is that fair?

DF: Yeah, there are people who tend to be, they tend to be, I would say, crisis managers rather than strategic thinkers, people who don’t think systematically about world affairs or about government policy, and who are actually, who don’t have a lot of patience for people who do think more philosophically or systematically. And they tend to view a philosophical outlook as just ideology. I mean, there were a lot of people who were very uncomfortable with Ronald Reagan, for example, because Ronald Reagan always talked about ideas. And that makes some people very uncomfortable. They don’t like people who approach public policy or world affairs with an emphasis on the importance of ideas. They think it’s rigid and ideological. And I happen to think, by the way, that I mean, it is possible to be rigid and ideological, and that’s not good, but I don’t think that everybody who thinks systematically about these things, and who takes the kind of philosophical approach that Reagan took, is an ideologue.

HH: I’m so struck by the deep division in the Bush administration first term, between those who think ideologically, and those who are often called realists, pragmatists, whatever. It’s a deep, deep division. That’s the revelation of War And Decision, that the media’s been sniffing around this for a long time, Doug Feith. But it was profound, it had enormous consequences for the war thus far.

DF: It did, and I mean, one of the points that I make throughout the book is that almost everything that…almost all the key elements of the conventional wisdom that people get from the mainstream media are…almost all those elements are inaccurate. And part of the reason that they are so widespread and have become the conventional wisdom is that they came from people within the administration who did not support the President.

HH: Right, right, and that’s very important. And the distortions in the public record, which we’re going to go through, are many and important. But I want to start with a more global question, that War And Decision answers in a sort of backwards way. Six and a half years after 9/11, five years after the invasion of Iraq, does the American public, Doug Feith, have a good grasp on the network of jihadists, and the threat they pose?

DF: Well, we have some grasp of it, and I think in some respects, we have knowledge, and we’ve had some accomplishments. But as Secretary Rumsfeld used to emphasize all the time, we’ve got a thinking enemy. And so as we get on top of issues, the enemy adapts.

HH: Well, I think…my question was the American public, not our decision makers, but generally speaking, the average man or woman in the street.

DF: Oh, no. There, I would agree with you. There is, I think, I think that there is not, in general, an appreciation of the nature of this problem. And partly, it’s because the administration decided, and that this is I think one of the things that is most to the President’s credit, the President decided immediately after 9/11 that our main goal was not retaliation, but preventing the next attack.

HH: Yup.

DF: And he developed an entire strategy, with multiple aspects that I’m sure we could talk about at some length if you want to.

HH: We will be, yeah.

DF: And the goal was to prevent the next attack. It is interesting, as you pointed out in your question, that here we are six and a half years later, and we have not had another 9/11-scale attack. And one of the consequences, which is you know, ironic but important, is that because we have been able to prevent the next attacks, there are many people who think that the whole problem of jihadist terrorism was overblown.

– – – –

HH: Doug Feith, there are a lot of personalities in this book which I have to cover, because personalities drive policy. But before we get there, a couple more sort of overarching questions, why is it so long after the fall of Baghdad that so much in the material from Saddam’s regime and years is untranslated and unpublished?

DF: I’m amazed, and I think it’s a terrible failing on the part of the government. We should be knowing what’s in that material. And I take your question, it’s an important question, and I don’t know why the administration has not devoted the resources necessary to making sure that we can read through the enormously important material that was found in Iraq. There’s a lot of stuff that hasn’t been translated yet, or studied yet, and I think it’s partly the result of something that I talk about in the book, which is the administration made a decision somewhere along the way, some months after we went into Baghdad, and we failed to find the WMD stockpiles that the CIA had said we would find. It appears that people at the White House made the decision that the President is going to focus his attention and his comments on the future and on democracy promotion rather than on the past and the actual rationale for the war, the focus on the threats that came from the regime. And that knocked the priority down for examining things like the historical record. And I think the administration did itself and its whole war effort enormous harm by making that decision to kind of turn its back on the past, and try to focus only on the future.

HH: I’ll jump ahead in my question sequence, because the Duelfer Report is a great part of the book, War And Decision. And in fact, as you point out, he discovered that Saddam had the capacity to reinitiate massive weapons of mass destruction programs, but the administration abandoned the effort. They didn’t even try to make a case that that mattered almost as much as stockpiles. Strategic error on their part, Doug Feith?

DF: Yes, I think it was. And what the Duelfer Report, the so-called Iraq Survey Group Report found was that Saddam had purposefully put himself in a position where he could manufacture chemical and biological weapon stockpiles in three to five weeks. And I mean, this was an enormously important finding, but the Iraq Survey Group report was done under the control of the CIA. And when the report was issued, it was three volumes. It was almost like three inches of paper. And the CIA put it out to the press without so much as a one page sheet of bullets saying here are the key findings. So what did the journalists do when they were all of a sudden handed three inches of paper? Many of the key reports, the first reports came from the wire services, who have to write about something within an hour or two, they got a three inch report, and all they wrote was no WMD found. And so the whole world got the impression that the only thing that was of significance that was found by the Iraq Survey Group was no WMD. Now the fact is what the report actually found, and I quote it at length in my book, is they found that Saddam had facilities, they found that he had personnel, they found that he had material for chemical and biological weapons. The found that he had the intention to have it, they found that he had purposefully built dual-use facilities that could produce military and civilian items, so that nobody could pin it down as specifically military, even though it could be used for military purposes. And as I said, they found that he had purposefully structured his programs so that he could have chemical and biological weapons production within three to five weeks. And these were the things that if the CIA had put those in a fact sheet, a one page fact sheet, the whole world’s perception of the Iraq WMD threat would be different.

HH: I’m going to get to the CIA a little bit later. But this is a good jumping off spot for a broader point you make repeatedly. You’re critical throughout of the information efforts of the administration, the Pentagon, the CIA, State Department, all of it. Who’s responsibility, Doug Feith, is it? Is it the President’s fault that this communication strategy has been so badly, terribly managed?

DF: Well, it’s been very sad to see, because I think that a lot of very good and important work that was done for the country in good faith, with careful analysis, was misunderstood by the American public, is not supported by the American public, because these efforts have been so bad. I mean, ultimately, of course, I mean, the President is the, as the saying goes, the captain of the ship, and he has responsibility for the fact that his administration hasn’t done a professional, proper job in explaining what the administrations is doing in the national security field and why. I mean, what I do in the book is, it’s hard for me to know exactly who within the administration is actually responsible for that, which office…I mean, it was not what was done within the National Security Council. I mean, there were various people who were doing strategic communications and political kinds of things in the administration, and I don’t know where some of these key decisions were made that turned out to be so harmful. But I do know in the broadest sense that they were enormously harmful, because the public does not understand what the administration was aiming to do, or why it was doing it, what kind of activities are going on around the world. And as you pointed out in your earlier question, there’s a widespread lack of understanding of the nature of the threats that we face.

HH: You know, the communication effort with the American people has been so random, halting, almost feckless, Douglas Feith. It’s as though the people in the administration are the only ones in America who don’t know how to sell anything. People who have to sell things go on radio and television…you know, if you’ve got a book to sell like War And Decision, and someone says hey, come spend three hours with me, they’re there. But they were trying to sell an idea, a strategic concept, and no one…I mean, Rumsfeld’s been on this show twice in his tenure, Dick Cheney maybe four or five times. But it’s always ten, fifteen minutes. Did anyone ever sit down with the Secretary of Defense and say you’ve got to take this seriously?

DF: Well, yeah, I know that…when I was reviewing my notes, and this is one of the comments that I make in the book, when I was reviewing my notes from the years that I was at the Pentagon, I mean, I found literally hundreds of references by Rumsfeld, by Cheney, by General Myers, and others, saying our strategic communications are terrible. We have got to get on top of this. And this was not for political reasons.

HH: Right.

DF: This was because the administration had difficult, expensive, costly in lives and blood efforts underway, in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere, and there was an appreciation that the American public has to understand these things if it’s going to support the effort. And there’s also this extremely important point that in fighting the jihadist extremist problem, a major part of the fight has to be at the level of ideological warfare.

– – – –

HH: Doug Feith, I want to go back to the strategic communications collapse, because there’s one very interesting story in War And Decision. There are many, actually. But on Page 463 or thereabouts, you’re talking about Paul Bremer, who is running the Coalition Provisional Authority, and he’s off the Pentagon reservation, never was on it, really, and Rumsfeld makes a decision to try and sort of bring him around to the idea that the CPA’s got to be dissolved. And so Rumsfeld, as you point out, invests enormous time in doing so. He has him to his home on Sunday night, then two full days and a dozen meetings with senior staff. And Bremer is finally persuaded of the right position in the view of the Pentagon, as to the Coalition Provisional Authority’s sunset date. But you know…so he realized he had to persuade him, and it took time to persuade him. But no one’s ever taken the time to persuade the American public in the way that they try and persuade individuals. It’s like they don’t understand it’s a country of individuals, each one of whom has to be approached like Paul Bremer was approached, and made to see the reason. I just don’t think that perception exists within the Bush administration.

DF: Well, I agree with you, and I think it’s been one of the major shortcomings of an administration that I generally support. And it was a great source of sadness and frustration for me, and a major motive for me in writing this book. I mean, I think, and I’ve had this reaction from a number of people who’ve read the book, I think that this book explains in detail, for the kind of people who want a more serious and detailed explanation than you can get from just a presidential speech that lasts for a few minutes and is generally fairly general. This book, in detail and in a specific way, walks people through the actual strategic analyses that motivated Rumsfeld, Cheney and the President, and the administration in general in deciding how to fight the global war on terrorism, how to fight the Afghanistan campaign, and how to fight the Iraq campaign. And I really wish that the administration in general had been devoting as much attention to presenting the case, and presenting it at multiple levels of detail. I mean, some people don’t want detail. Some people want the five minute version, or the version that you get in a presidential speech. But then there are other people like you that are willing to spend hours probing an issue. And those people deserve a proper answer. And I wrote the book to try to provide a proper answer to people who actually want to know more than you can get in a one paragraph summary in a daily newspaper.

HH: And that’s why it’s on what I call the necessary shelf. I’ve got what I call the necessary shelf of books. It’s got The Looming Tower on it, it’s got The Crisis Of Islam by Bernard Lewis on it, it’s got The Nuclear Jihadist by Doug Frantz on it. It’s got Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism by George Weigel on it. Now, War And Decision’s on it. But there are a couple of things I wish you had spent a little bit more time on. One, for example, how big of a threat, how many jihadists are there? I remember Rumsfeld, and you cover this in War And Decision, sent the famous snowflake saying what are our metrics? Are we winning or losing? And you talk about the madrassas, et cetera, but Doug Feith, I ask any number of administration officials how many are there who are willing to die for the cause of jihad, and nobody has an answer. What do you think that number is?

DF: Well, I don’t have an answer, either. I mean, we have intelligence services that are supposed to come up with estimates, and the one thing we know for sure is that those estimates get revised all the time, and they seem to be wrong. I mean, you remember at the beginning of the war in Iraq, the CIA was talking about the number of jihadists we were facing in Iraq, and they were saying it’s 5,000 at most. And then our military kept reporting that they were killing more people than that, and yet the insurgency was growing. So it was clear that our intelligence community just didn’t have a handle on that problem.

HH: It’s clear…Tim Weiner’s been a guest on this program, his Legacy Of Ashes book, combines with War And Decision. It’s clear the CIA is just no damn good at this. And I mean, they’re great people, I know a lot of agents, both covert and overt, at the Agency for many, many years. They’re highly dedicated and selfless. But my gosh, they told you the Iraqi police, this comes through in War And Decision again and again, would be a force for order and a respected institution in post-war Iraq. They were thugs and killers.

DF: That’s right. And I mean, there were…and I also want to add the same kind of observation that you made. A lot of people at the CIA are very dedicated people, and they have a very hard job to do. But the fact is, especially when it came to Iraq, on issue after issue, they revealed that they knew very little. And one of my main frustrations, which I highlight in the book, is that not simply that they knew very little, but that when they talked about Iraq, they pretended to know a lot more than they knew. And they pretended it to policy makers.

HH: Oh, that’s right. We are going to come back to that, because they also tried to make policy. That’s one of the lessons of War And Decision.

– – – –

HH: I’m in so much trouble, Doug. I’ve got five pages of notes to ask you, and it’s a 528 page book, and it’s got another hundred pages of detailed notes and appendices, and source notes, et cetera. And I’m one half of one page through my five page outline, and I’m almost at the end of the first hour. So I’m going to have to giddy up a little bit. But I want us to go back to the CIA. You quote Wolfowitz as leaning over to you in the course of one of your very early meetings on the war, and saying to you, “What’s going on here? The CIA is making policy recommendations.” And you know, that struck me like a brick. That’s not their job.

DF: No, it’s not. And it’s…to do national security policy, you need people who have a clear understanding of the line between intelligence and policy. And one of the points that I make, there was a lot of controversy about politicization of intelligence. And one of the points I make in the book is you don’t want intelligence politicized, and you don’t want it politicized from the policy side of the line, and you don’t want it politicized from the intelligence side of the line.

HH: The CIA, I think, was engaged at some level, many people in the CIA, in a war against the war. Part of that war against the war turned into leaks against you and the offices underneath you, having to do with assessment of intelligence. And I want to just make sure in the first hour we put out there, that’s just hooey. That’s not what you folks were doing. And you were questioning intelligence, but you were not producing it.

DF: That’s correct. And we were challenged by…people in my office challenged the quality of the work of the CIA. And it was a perfectly proper thing to do. We challenged their methodology. And the people at the CIA we criticized resented that challenge, and attacked us in the newspapers, and said that we were trying to get them to change their position for political reasons. That’s absolutely untrue, and I explain that story in the book.

HH: And that’s a very important, it’s something of a sideshow to the strategic war that we’re involved in, and to the tactical decisions that you made. But it’s very important, because the war against the war is part of the war. And we’ll come back to that. I also wanted to get your reaction on this past Sunday. The New York Times put out this long avalanche of an article. They call it a reporter’s dump, really, of everything in his notebook onto the table. And it’s about the Pentagon’s hidden hand, influencing the talking heads. I had to laugh, given how badly the Pentagon has been at influencing the talking heads. Did you have a chance to read that, Douglas Feith?

DF: I saw it, I was out of town, I didn’t have a chance to read the whole article. But I was struck by the irony that for an administration that’s done such a poor job of informing the public, to be accused of Svengali-like manipulation of the public debate is really too ironic to bear.

HH: That’s exactly my reaction, so we’ll just leave it there. Now I want to go to the first of the portraits, Rumsfeld. I want to quote from Page 509 that you write, “Rumsfeld wielded a courageous and skeptical intellect. He challenged preconceptions and assumptions, including his own, and drove colleagues as well as subordinates to take a long view, and to evaluate honestly whether their work was actually producing results. His ideas and ambitions for the Defense Department and the U.S. were high-minded, his contributions extensive and influential. But his style of leadership did not always serve his own purposes. He bruised people. He made personal enemies who were eager to strike back at him and try and discredit his work. Losses and disappointments in Iraq gave an opening to those who wanted Rumsfeld out, which led to his resignation in November, 2006. At his early remove,” you write, “from the events in question, it would be feckless to venture an overall judgment of his role. But I never cease to admire him, even when he did not handle matters as I thought best.” Now it’s no secret to this audience I am a huge fan of Rumsfeld. And so the question to me is not did he make mistakes. Everyone would. The question is, could anyone have done better, given the difficulties of war, the intrigues inside of the government, the nature of the enemy, the terribly flawed intelligence, would a Robert Gates who followed him, or a Bill Cohen who preceded him have run up a pretty similar record in your view, Douglas Feith?

DF: I think that he did an extraordinary number of things that his predecessors and his successors wouldn’t have even tried to do, things that were actually very beneficial to the Defense Department and to the country. He, Rumsfeld was willing to break from the ordinary, and was willing to consider things that were brand new and innovative and imaginative. And I think that contributed in an important way to the success that we talked about of reaching the point six and a half years after 9/11 when we haven’t had another 9/11-style attack. Now at the same time, and I think that’s an important credit to Rumsfeld, at the same time, as much of an admirer of him as I am, and I say so openly as you quoted, I try to be a critical admirer. And so throughout the book, I make observations of things that where he handled them differently from the way I would have handled them. And you know, he’s a complex person. And he gave openings to people who didn’t like what he was doing at all, and they were eventually able to take advantage of those openings and get rid of him.

HH: But the question I’m trying to get at is really one that looks to the future and tries to inform the future by asking who makes the best secretary of defense? Is it a Rumsfeld? Or is it a Robert Gates, who’s sort of a technical and very quiet guy? Or a Bill Cohen, who’s a political figure? What are you looking for in that job?

DF: Well, one of the things I think that one should be looking for is somebody who can at least to some extent get the bureaucracy work for him, as opposed to what a lot of so-called leaders do, which is they come into a bureaucracy and they follow their subordinates. And if you follow your subordinates, you can become highly popular. But if you try to lead your subordinates, then you can grate on a lot of people. And one of the things that’s essential to our democracy, I mean, we elect only two people in the whole Executive Branch, the President and the Vice President. And if we’re really going to have a democratic country, then the President and the Vice President have to be able to guide and steer the Executive Branch. But the Executive Branch is a bunch of enormous bureaucracies that don’t want to be guided or steered. And so it takes somebody with the kind of drive and intellect and personality of Rumsfeld to try to give some direction in support of the President’s policies to an enormous bureaucracy.

HH: That’s a very, actually, profound observation.

– – – –

HH: Doug Feith, this is a short segment. Why did you leave when you left?

DF: Well, I had been in my job for a little over four years. And I mean, we were really working around the clock. It was exhausting, and I have four children, and I just decided after four years that it was time to go.

HH: Did you regret leaving when you left?

DF: Well, no, I didn’t regret leaving when I left. I mean, I left under my own steam. Nobody asked me to leave. On the contrary, I was asked to stay. But I just was really exhausted. And I mean, what I regret is there were a number of very important projects that I had launched that I would have liked to have carried farther forward in the government. For example, the creation of a civilian reserve corps, to do stabilization and reconstruction operations abroad, and reform of our foreign and security assistance, and some other major projects that I launched and started in my office. But you can’t do everything, and I thought that the summer of 2005 was a good time for me to leave.

HH: Do you think that the Pentagon has been transformed by Rumsfeld and his team? They came in talking defense transformation. Was it?

DF: Well, I think there were some things that Rumsfeld was successful in getting changed. It’s a lot harder than anybody can imagine to move an enormous bureaucracy. A lot of people in a bureaucracy look at the political appointees, they know that they’re only going to be around for a while, they know that if they delay things, they can wait them out. And a lot of people, all they want is they want the inertia to continue. They want to continue doing things the way they’ve always done them, and how they’re comfortable doing them. And so there’s a lot of resistance to adapting the government for future problems instead of just keeping it on autopilot, dealing with things that we’ve been dealing with for the last fifty years.

HH: The successors, an interest to the Rumsfeld team, are they on basically the same course that Rumsfeld set?

DF: On some things, but there also have been…I mean, there have been efforts made to undo some of Rumsfeld’s transformational initiatives and reforms, and some of them have gotten undone, and some of them are continuing. So it’s a mixed bag.

HH: More detail on that when we come back.

– – – –

HH: Doug Feith, I want to begin this hour by going back to something I asked you earlier, because it’s really one of the missions of this program, is to make sure people understand the nature of the jihadist threat. And you said the government doesn’t have a number, and the numbers keep changing about the number of jihadists in the world. And by that, I mean either Shia or Sunni fundamentalists willing to use violence up to the point including suicide, and whose purposes, as you point out in War And Decision, massive destruction. They’re not political theory people. They’re intent on killing as many non-ideological brothers as they can. How do you put as an order of magnitude the number of people in that camp in the world?

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